Wednesday, February 27, 2013

On the Too-Well-Made Story


Just a short post today.  Last night I went to see Jamaica Kincaid at the Free Library of Philadelphia.  She read from her new novel See Now Then and, to no one's surprise, she was quite wonderful.

During the Q&A afterward, she addressed the question of narrative.  Specifically that what we think of as a well-made narrative is actually quite a recent invention.  For most of human history, we got along without it.  Speaking of Moses, who died without seeing the promised land, she said:

"You could never get away with that today. What?! After all he's been through? There's no clooosure, you don't get any sense of clooosure."

 Which brought to mind something I've been meaning to say here for some time:  All you new writers should stop writing formulaic stories!  You know the ones I mean.  The main character's name is dropped in the first paragraph, the plot builds gracefully to a moral climax, there is an apotheosis in which the protagonist achieves closure.  Or else dies tragically.  Which is to say that you're giving the reader exactly the story he or she is expecting.

I know that this is what you were taught to do in your writing classes, workshops, and retreats.  But that's only meant to be a jumping-off spot not a final destination.  Once Picasso was capable of drawing a recognizable dog, he moved on.  So should you.

Because a hundred years from now, nobody is going to be reading that predictably well-made story of yours.

I'm only this cruel to you because I want you to be great.


Monday, February 25, 2013

Acolytes of the Wolf(e)


Pleasant news today.

But first, a definition.  A festschrift is a book created in honor of a respected person, usually an academic but often enough a poet or writer, and presented during his or her lifetime.  Oftentimes, they're kinda lame . . . reminiscences on old days, essays on how this or that peer met the Great Man, appreciations of the work that simply restate the obvious.  Sometimes, however, the book comes through and is something splendid in and of its own right.

I'm betting that's the case with Shadows of the New Sun:  Stories in Honor of Gene Wolfe.   I can't say for sure because the Advance Uncorrected Proof just arrived and I rushed to get out the news.  But check out the table of contents:

J.E. Mooney
Gene Wolfe
A Lunar Labyrinth
Neil Gaiman
The Island of the Death Doctor
Joe Haldeman
A Touch of Rosemary
Timothy Zahn
Steven Savile
David Drake
… And Other Stories
Nancy Kress
The Island of Time
Jack Dann
The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin
Michael Swanwick
Michael A. Stackpole
Tourist Trap
Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg
Aaron Allston
Rhubarb and Beets
Todd McCaffrey
Tales From Limbo, But I Digress
Judi Rohrig
In the Shadow of the Gate
William C. Dietz
Soldier of Mercy
Marc Aramini
The Dreams of the Sea
Jody Lynn Nye
The Logs
David Brin
Sea of Memory
Gene Wolfe

I'm hopeful not just because there are a lot of first-rate writers here, but because those of them I know (most, actually) would very dearly want to contribute a story worthy of Gene.  I know that when I was given the opportunity to write something in one of his worlds, that's how I felt anyway.

Here's the opening of my contribution, "The She-Wolf's Hidden Grin":

When I was a girl my sister Susanna and I had to get up early whether we were rested or not.  In winter particularly, our day often began before sunrise; and because our dormitory was in the south wing of the house, with narrow windows facing the central courtyard and thus facing north, the lurid, pinkish light sometimes was hours late in arriving and we would wash and dress while we were still uncertain whether we were awake or not.  Groggy and only half coherent, we would tell each other our dreams.
One particular dream I narrated to Susanna several times before she demanded I stop.  In it, I stood before the main doorway to our house staring up at the marble bas-relief of a she-wolf suckling two infant girls (though in waking life the babies similarly feeding had wee chubby penises my sister and I had often joked about), with a puzzled sense that something was fundamentally wrong. “You are anxious for me to come out of hiding,” a rasping whispery voice said in my ear.  “Aren’t you, daughter?”
I turned and was not surprised to find the she-wolf standing behind me, her tremendous head on the same level as my own.  She was far larger than any wolf from ancestral Earth.  Her fur was greasy and reeked of sweat.  Her breath stank of carrion.  Her eyes said that she was perfectly capable of ripping open my chest and eating my heart without the slightest remorse.  Yet, in the way of dreams, I was not afraid of her.  She seemed to be as familiar as my own self.
“Is it time?” I said, hardly knowing what I was asking.
“No,” the mother-wolf said, fading.
And I awoke.

Those who know Wolfe's work well will recognize the first paragraph as being a close copy, with reversals, of "The Fifth Head of Cerberus."  That was an extremely important story for me, one that opened up the literary possibilities of science fiction to the young Michael Swanwick in a way he'd never seen before.  So I was anxious to do it justice.

Did I?  That's not my judgment to make.  You can decide for yourself this coming August.


Friday, February 22, 2013

Nebula Nominees: Unto The Third Literary Generation...


The Nebula Award Nominees have been announced, and I'm feeling rather paternal for a reason I'll divulge after you look over them.

  • Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed (DAW; Gollancz ’13)
  • Ironskin, Tina Connolly (Tor)
  • The Killing Moon, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
  • The Drowning Girl, CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan (Roc)
  • Glamour in Glass, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
  • 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
  • On a Red Station, Drifting, Aliette de Bodard (Immersion Press)
  • After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, Nancy Kress (Tachyon)
  • “The Stars Do Not Lie”, Jay Lake (Asimov’s 10-11/12)
  • “All the Flavors”, Ken Liu (GigaNotoSaurus 2/1/12)
  • “Katabasis”, Robert Reed (F&SF 11-12/12)
  • “Barry’s Tale”, Lawrence M. Schoen (Buffalito Buffet)
  • The Pyre of New Day”, Catherine Asaro (The Mammoth Books of SF Wars)
  • “Close Encounters”, Andy Duncan (The Pottawatomie Giant & Other Stories)
  • “The Waves”, Ken Liu (Asimov’s 12/12)
  • “The Finite Canvas”, Brit Mandelo ( 12/5/12)
  • “Swift, Brutal Retaliation”, Meghan McCarron ( 1/4/12)
  • “Portrait of Lisane da Patagnia”, Rachel Swirsky ( 8/22/12)
  • “Fade to White”, Catherynne M. Valente (Clarkesworld 8/12)
Short Story
  • “Robot”, Helena Bell (Clarkesworld 9/12)
  • “Immersion”, Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld 6/12)
  • “Fragmentation, or Ten Thousand Goodbyes”, Tom Crosshill (Clarkesworld 4/12)
  • “Nanny’s Day”, Leah Cypess (Asimov’s 3/12)
  • “Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream”, Maria Dahvana Headley (Lightspeed7/12)
  • “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species”, Ken Liu (Lightspeed 8/12)
  • “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain”, Cat Rambo (Near + Far)
Congratulations to everyone, incidentally.  That's not an easy list to make your way onto.

Now.  As to my paternal feelings.  Three of the above nominees and of the Andre Norton Award nominees are former students of mine: Andy Duncan in 1994 and Cat Rambo, Rachel Swirsky, and Eugene Myers in 2005.  I taught Week Four, known informally as "Suicide Week" when Andy attended and taught Week Six when Cat, Rachel, and Eugene (up for the Andre Norton) were there.  Each week requires a different style.  For the Suicide Week, I burned fierce and intense, while for the sixth and final week, I was warm and supportive, gently urging everyone to keep writing when they got home, rather than take the dreaded post-workshop year off.  So Andy and the other three saw very different Michael Swanwicks.  But both of me wanted very intensely for them, and everyone else, to succeed.  My definition of success consisting not of money or awards but of writing the best work they were capable of.

You feel very good when a former student makes a first sale or is nominated for an award.  It's living proof that you haven't destroyed their talent.  It's even possible that you were of some utility to them.  That's extremely cool.

I feel particularly good this year because Cat was not only one of my students but one of Andy Duncan's students.  Which means that she's a grand-student.

So congratulations, Cat, Rachel, and Eugene!  And congratulations, Andy -- who not only made it onto the Nebula ballot, but failed to destroy the third literary generation writer's talent.  It's even possible that he was of some utility to them.

And it is, alas, possible . . .

It's entirely possible that Andy, Cat, Rachel, and Eugene are not my only former students on the ballot.  If you studied under me at Clarion, Clarion West, or Clarion South, let me remind you of something I told your assembled class when first we met:

There are some people who are good with names and some people who are good with faces.  I'm not one of either of them.  I get my sisters mixed up.  So a year from now when you approach me at a convention and I look blank, that doesn't mean you were the one without talent.  That's just me.  Stick out your hand and say, "Hi, you don't remember me but I was your student and my name is..."  And I'll lie and say, "Of course I remember you."

Andy and Cat I remember because they kept coming up to me, convention after convention, and introducing themselves until it stuck.

Above:  That's my Nebula, guarded by a bust of Surplus and temporarily placed on a relatively uncluttered surface in my office. 


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Reader Feedback: LSD


I received the following email via my wegsite, Michael Swanwick Online, the other day.  I've withheld the correspondent's name in case he/she is displeased with my response and doesn't want to be associated with it.

 I am a drug educator and harm reduction specialist, so I would like to correct Michael Swanwick in one thing: in one of his stories (Covenant of Souls) he states that LSD contains strychnine as a 'byproduct of its manufacture'.

Not only is this not true, it's just staggeringly unlikely, given that LSD is dosed in 50-100 microgram amounts, that enough could be present in an LSD dose to affect one at all noticeably. Particularly not when the dose is in a glue backing on a piece of paper one licks (as the story has it) versus some sort of tablet formation.

This may seem like a very small thing, but children read his books and stories, and the last thing our kids need is more bad drug information.

My first reaction, of course, was, So what caused those pangs that I felt, back in the day?  Then, with a little help from a friend (thanks, Vlatko!) I looked to see what the connection between LSD and strychnine actually is.  Here's what I found at a site called Drug Safety

Strychnine in LSD simply doesn't happen. There are probably under 25 people in this country at any given time, across all ages and spectrums of existence, who have had any hand in ruly producing real LSD. The people that know how, and this is a paraphrase of a report BY the DEA on the difference in busting LSD manufacturers versus the rest of the illicit drug spectrum: "LSD manufacturers are different from every other sort of drug criminal we have profiled through past dealings with. The chemists who make it, and the high level distributors who deal it do not do it for the money, but rather because they feel they are doing what they were destined to do, what they were *supposed* to do with their lives, regardless of consequence. They don't slip up and get sloppy because they are too high, nor do they cut deals for themselves to bring down others/chemists, as that would be a direct slap in the face of everything they stand for...."

Link here and scroll down for more info.

So, kids:  There are three lessons to be drawn from this:

1.  LSD is as safe as mother's milk.

2.  Provided only that you know its manufacturer by name and reputation, so you can be sure that that's what you're getting.

3.  People who get their drug information from science fiction stories are going to be seriously disappointed when a large enough dose doesn't transport them physically into a far better world.

Oh, and . . .

I wouldn't normally mention a t-shirt that combines the magic of Middle Earth with the convenience of the London Metro.  But you have to admit that it's clever.  Click here to see.


Monday, February 18, 2013

"Maturity" and Science Fiction


I was in Boston for Boskone this weekend and among a number of well-received panels I sat in on was one titled "Stories That Changed Everything" -- about stories and novels that altered the genre of science fiction forever.  The other panelists were Fred Lerner, David Hartwell, Paul Di Filippo and and moderator James Patrick Kelly.

We of course did a bang-up job.  There wasn't much disagreement about the merits of any particular story mentioned, though some of us of course ranked the importance of one story higher or lower than others.  But for me, there was only one real surprise.  That was Theodore Sturgeon's "Maturity."

"Maturity" is a great story.  To encapsulate shamelessly:  A young man is discovered to be extremely brilliant but unable to achieve much of anything because he is chronically immature.  (This, incidentally, would have been a shot to the heart of its readership.)  He is given an experimental drug which matures him and for several years astonishes the world with his accomplishments.  Then -- silence.  Finally, he reappears incognitu and sits in on a barroom discussion with an old friend who knew him when and several strangers, on the question of what exactly maturity is.  It's a good conversation and a serious attempt to grapple with its topic.  And finally an answer is given, which I will not provide here, because that would spoil the story for you.  But it's a good one.

It was, David Hartwell said, also an important story.  Because Sturgeon was unhappy with its original published form and so, when it was reprinted, he rewrote it.

This had never happened before in the nascent genre.  News went through the field in a flash:  He rewrote a published story?  Why did he do that?  What does such a thing look like?  Is it even possible?

And so, in one simple act, literary ambition was introduced to science fiction.

You can read a longer account by Jason Sanford here.


Friday, February 15, 2013

How Does a Writer Make a Living Today?


I just today received the Winter 2012/13 issue of Focus:  The British Science Fiction Association's Magazine for Writers, guest-edited by Keith Brooke.  In it is Keith's article "This Writing Business," an examination of the current business environment as it pertains to writers.  How does one make a living today?

In brief synopsis:  It's complicated.

Keith Brooke created the article by sending questionnaires to Kim Lakin-Smith, Steven Savile, Linda Nagata, Lisa Tuttle, Jeff Noon and, well, myself, and then assembling all our answers into a sensible and comprehensive state-of-the-situation overview.

This is nothing that I'd feel myself qualified to write.  But as one voice among many, and trusting Keith to make sense of the whole, I was happy to to do my little bit.

Here's my share of the raw material, from which Keith crafted the whole:

Is it easier or harder for writers to make a living from their work these days?

Much harder.  When I made my first sale, a third of a century ago, everybody knew the rules.  You made a name for yourself writing short fiction for the magazines, learned how to write novels at a regular rate, built up a backlist which would bring in enough money to support you between sales, and so on.  Today the backlist is gone, publishers’ advances for successful writers are much smaller than a few years ago, and the amount of promotion they’re willing to do is down radically.  The rules have changed and it’s not clear if anybody knows what the new ones are.

Many new writers think that self-publishing ebooks is the road to wealth and fame – or at least to being self-supporting.  But in most cases, that’s wishful thinking.  I’ve talked with people who have self-published themselves into a comfortable income so, yes, it can be done.  But they all emphasized that they went into self-publishing with a detailed business plan and spent just as much time cannily and knowledgeably promoting their work as they did writing.  Nobody should go that route without a lot of prior research and planning.

Every now and then, I meet a writer who’s just published a first novel as an ebook and wants me to tell them how they can get readers to find it.  That’s just heartbreaking.

Not so long ago, SF authors had their work published in magazines, books from trade publishers, or books from smaller presses. Now we have all those, plus all kinds of self-publishing options, we have print on demand, web publishing, ebooks, audio books, and a far greater diversity of smaller independent presses (and larger ones!). So, where is your work getting published these days?

The easiest and most sensible approach is to go with whoever offers the most money.  This sounds crass, but in my experience the more money you’re paid, the better you’re treated.  Omni and Penthouse always treated me swell.  It was the small, virtuous, shoestring operations I had to keep an eye on.

For short fiction, I like the big three magazines – Asimov’s, F&SF, and Analog – because they’re still at the heart of the field and they get noticed, and if I lived in Britain, Interzone would probably go at the top of that list.  But more and more of late I’ve been sending work to  They pay well and their website is both consistently entertaining and convincingly professional.  Plus they commission terrific artwork.  When your story is illustrated by the likes of John Jude Palencar or Gregory Manchess, you’re happy for the rest of the week.

My last two novels were published by Night Shade Books (Dancing With Bears) and Tor (The Dragons of Babel).  They both created lovely books.

With this diversity of publishing approaches, is the business a better place for SF authors nowadays, or a worse one?

It’s easier to get published, and that’s always good for a new writer.  When your work first appears in a genuine magazine or book or a webzine you respect, you see it in a way you didn’t before.  Its virtues are more obvious than they were in typescript, and this gives you confidence, which a writer can always use.  Being in proximity with writers you admire promotes ambition, which is also essential.  Your story’s weaknesses are, alas, more obvious – to you, though not necessarily to the reader – but this only encourages you to become better.

On the negative side, there are many more intangibles that an unpublished writer can be convinced to spend a fortune on– editing, copyediting, promotion, all of which are properly the job of a publisher.  I sat in on a discussion of book trailers recently.  All the writers who had made them agreed that they didn’t appreciably increase sales – and then swapped tips on how to get them made.  It was just something one does nowadays, apparently.

If you’re a professional writer, money flows to you.  If money flows from you, you’re just another market.

If your work is appearing electronically, how is this done? (Self-publishing where you write, self-edit, design, do the covers, do the marketing, and do all the other publishing jobs; do you bring in collaborators to work on some of these specialist roles; or do you leave all that to the indie or large publishers you work with?)

All of that is done by my publishers.  I do have plans to create an ebook of Hope-in-the-Mist, my critical biography of Hope Mirrlees, when I can find the time, just so it will be easily available to scholars.  Because there’s no serious money in the project, I’ll have to do all the production work myself to keep costs down.  But my critical writing is a labor of love, almost but not quite a hobby, so my fiction writing takes precedence.

Do you write differently for different media? For example, if you believe that people read ebooks differently, have you adapted your writing style accordingly?

Writing is writing is writing.  I write as well as I possibly can and then I sell the results to the best available market.  That’s it.

The only real change I’ve made in recent years is consciously dividing my writing into serious work and what Graham Green called “entertainments.”   The Mongolian Wizard stories appearing on are a good example of the latter.   They’re very much in the tradition of Poul Anderson’s Operation Chaos and Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy tales.  There’s an underlying seriousness, but their purpose is primarily to entertain. 

In today’s interconnected, social media-rich world, do you find that contact with readers is easier and more prevalent than in the past? How do you feel about this contact? Does it influence or feed your writing in any way?

I’ll admit to being surprised that my readers are pretty much the way the way I imagined them – smart, open-minded, willing to be challenged, happy to be entertained.  What were the odds?

Do you actively promote your work, and if so, how? How much of your time does it take up? Do you enjoy it, or is it a necessary evil?

The consensus of my editors is that I should promote myself, and so I do.  I have no idea whether it actually any good, so I try to make the promotions worth doing for their own sakes.  To promote Dancing With Bears, for example, I wrote a series of podcasts for Starship Sofa, in which the protagonists explain the ins and outs of running a confidence game.  Gregory Frost was magnificent as the British master con artist Darger and I got to play the bluff American dog-man Surplus.  That was enormous fun.

I put in about twenty minutes a weekday on my blog, which has turned out to serve well as the diary I never had the discipline to maintain.  Facebook is more of an indulgence than a promotional device; its chief result has been to build a rabid following for my wife’s breakfasts.

Any other comments on the state of publishing and how it affects writers?

The history of publishing has been one continual series of disasters spelling doom for writers:  Samuel Johnson destroyed the patronage system, and writers couldn’t make a living anymore.  Newspapers stopped serializing novels, and writers couldn’t make a living anymore.  Rental libraries went under, and writers couldn’t . . . The pulp magazines folded and writers . . .  Ebooks and internet piracy came along and . . .

And yet here we are.  Writers are as tough as rats.  We’ve always found a way to survive and we always will. 


And as always . . .

I'm on the road again.  This weekend, I'll be in Boston for Boskone.  If you're going to be there, be sure to say hi.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Winter's Tale


I went to see The Winter's Tale at People's Light & Theatre last weekend.  Believe it or not, this was a first for me.  Over the years, I've seen most of Shakespeare's plays, including some (like Troilus and Cressida) which aren't performed very often.  Somehow, this one had evaded me.

People's Light & Theatre did as good a job as they could with it.  They started with free hot cider and singing and dancing and various mummery outside, culminating in a mock-burning of a winter witch effigy which led the audience into the theater.  They gussied up the play with slapstick, face paint, and even an accordion.  So, all credit to them for doing what they could.

But, oh God, is that play a mess!

My best guess is that Shakespeare threw it together in a week.  It has all the signs.

To begin, Shakespeare stole the plot from a prose romance by Robert Greene (best known for his posthumous pamphlet, A Groat's-Worth of Wit, containing a thinly-disguised slap at Will Himself:

"...for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum  is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey."  
and, uncharacteristically, made only minor changes in the plot.  The result doesn't make one want to rush out and read Greene's Pandosto.  The engine for the plot, King Leontes's conviction that his virtuous wife Hermione is unfaithful, comes out of nowhere.  There is no Iago to feed his jealous fantasies, no evidence worth considering, no reason for it to exist.  After a great deal of angst, the queen is (apparently) killed, her infant daughter abandoned in a foreign country, and a beloved son abruptly dead, never to be mentioned again.

Arbitrary as the set-up is, the resolution is downright sloppy.  Leontes's confrontation with the now-grown daughter he instantly recognizes as the spitting image of his wife (there is no similarity between the actresses, but let that go) and the reconciliation between her fiance, Prince Florizel, and his father who was understandably annoyed at his son planning to secretly marry a seeming peasant is related by servants gossiping to each other.  Thus sparing Shakespeare the trouble of writing a scene which he may have felt would be difficult to render convincingly.  Then the queen's friend Paulina takes the king and his daughter Perdita to see a statue of Queen Hermione.  For no particular reason this causes Leontes to regret his murderous and irrational actions and so -- surprise! -- the statue comes to life, because apparently she wasn't murdered after all but has been hanging around for sixteen years, waiting for a good opportunity to get back together with her husband.  Why she would want to and how Paulina arranged this are left unexplained as Shakespeare hurriedly sweeps the players off the state.

I'm guessing it was slung together in a week.  It's also possible that Will drank heavily while writing it.  If he didn't, the result certainly gave him something to drink about afterwards.

This is, incidentally, the play with the single most famous stage direction in the history of theater:  Exeunt, pursued by a bear.  That alone made it worthwhile for me.

And as always . . .

I'm going to be on the road again.  This time, I'm off to Boskone.  If you're there, say hello.  I'm always happy to chat.

Above:  There I am with a couple of mummers.  Lovely ladies.  Apparently, I've forgotten how to mug for the camera, though.  I'll have to work on that.


Monday, February 11, 2013

A Song Within A Story WIthin A Song


Remember Friday's post, where I was rooting for Janis Ian, who was up for the Best Spoken Word Grammy for the audiobook version of her autobiography, Society's Child?  Well, she won!

That's just cool.

While she was in Las Angeles, incidentally, Janis recorded some stories for the audiobook of the anthology she and Mike Resnick edited several years ago, Stars: Stories Inspired by Janis Ian Songs.  Among which is one that I wrote.  This is of particular note because my story wasn't in the anthology.

Let me explain.

Back when, Janis and Mike invited me to contribute a story.  Only rarely do I write stories for specific markets.  But I really wanted to write something for a song called "Mary's Eyes."   Janis has written somewhere that she wrote it after being greatly moved by a concert by Mary Black and that she was surprised when people thought she was writing about Ireland itself.  But if you have a drop of Irish blood in you, it's hard not to read that song as being about Deirdre of the Sorrows.

There aren't many songs that can make me cry, but they're all about Ireland.  This is one of them.

So I set out to write a story about what it means to be Irish-American, and all the tangled emotions that entails.  I put in the Easter Sunday when I was standing on O'Connell Street and Gerry Adams walked past me, accompanied by a single bodyguard and a local politico.  I put in my grandfather Michael O'Brien, dying in a railroad flat in New York City, his hair as white as a dandelion that's about to be exploded by a passing breeze.  I even put in the Fresca bottle of potcheen that the tour driver bought for my mother in a cinder-block bar he wouldn't let any of his fares set foot inside.  I put in a lot more personal material than normally goes into a story.

And by the time “For I Have Lain Me Down on the Stone of Loneliness and I’ll Not Be Back Again” was finished, the anthology had been out for years.

Not long ago, Janis had the sort of whim that genuinely creative have, and suggested that my story be included in the audiobook as a kind of extra for those who bought.  Since I'd originally intended the story for her book, I naturally said I thought it was a great idea.

That's the story, but it doesn't end then.  Inside the story, I needed a song for Mary to sing -- not in its entirety, just a couple of stanzas -- at a key moment in the plot.  So I went looking for a poem, something in the public domain, which  I could excerpt.  And I found "Deirdre's Lament," by Samuel Ferguson.  Ferguson was the child of Scottish parents who had moved to Belfast.  His father was a spendthrift and his mother was a noted conversationalist.  So it was nothing short of a miracle that he became a barrister and nothing less than inevitable that he also became a poet.

Janis tells me that that she made up a tune for the song, so that when she reaches the part where Mary sings, you can hear Janis sing the lyrics.

In the heart of the story that was written about Janis Ian's song is a song that was composed for the story.  I don't suppose anybody can be happier about this than me.  But I hope those who buy the audiobook when it's published come close.


Friday, February 8, 2013

Rooting For Janis


Get your popcorn maker in working order!  The 55th Annual Grammy Awards is this Sunday.  And even though it's not one of the categories that makes it onto prime time television, I know who I'm rooting for in the Spoken Word category.

Singer, songwriter, and friend of science fiction Janis Ian is on the short list for the audiobook of her autobiography, Society's Child.  I bought the book when it first came out and ripped through it with enormous pleasure.  She really can write.  Also, she's had a thronged life.  As she herself has observed, she was recording at age 14, famous at age 15, and washed up at age 18 -- and then more and more and more things happened.  It's gripping stuff.  And the audiobook has the advantage of being able to include samples of the music.

That's the good news.  The bad news is that her competition consists of: 

Michelle Obama
Bill Clinton
Ellen Degeneres
and Rachel Madow

That's one big-name cluster of fame.

But if there's one thing I've learned from watching the Nebula and Hugo ballots over all these years, it's that though you can make some shrewd guesses as to what will make it onto the ballot, once the voting begins it all goes chaotic.  There was a period long ago when I was on the Nebula Jury, which for reasons complicated to explain was charged with adding up to one work per category to the final ballot, and so had read everything that was up as well as most of what was not.  So every year I made my best guess as to what would win.  Sometimes I went by pure merit.  Other times by pure cynicism.  I analyzed the literary politics of the voters.  I consulted with others who were doing the same things.

And never once were my correct calls better than I would have gotten by random chance.

So I've got my fingers crossed for Janis.

Not that she needs a Grammy.  She already has one for "At Seventeen," and "Society's Child" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which honors recordings considered important to the history of music.  Also, she has the satisfaction of knowing that she's written music that deserves the award, whether it was received or not.  Which any serious artist can tell you is far more important than any number of awards.

Still, awards are pleasant things.  Janis's audiobook deserves one, and I'm hoping it wins.


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Truth About Fans


I'm about to say something you've never heard a science fiction writer say about fans before.

Relations between science fiction pros and fans have always been conflicted.  There's no denying that fans are useful, what with all the conventions and awards and such they organize and arrange entirely at their own expense.  But there's also no denying that they're not very subservient.  Just talk to one!  They clearly think that their opinions are as good as yours.  Worse, because they've read so many books that often they have an array of facts to back them up.

Muddying matters, many SF writers -- possibly most -- started out as fans.  Whence the venerable fannish term "filthy pro" derives -- as in, "I hear you're a filthy pro now."  It's affectionately meant, and always has been.

Further muddying matters, fans have never been reluctant to let us writers know when they think our work sucks.  Repeatedly.  Over and over again.  As if we hadn't heard the first time.

So my take?  It's this.  A typical science fiction fan will subscribe to at least one science fiction magazine and possibly more, will read several SF novels during their year of publication, will purchase at least one of the Year's Best volumes and read through it, and will follow several online fiction zines.

Which is to say that she or he is as informed and literate a reader as any writer could hope to have.

But you didn't hear that from me, okay?


Monday, February 4, 2013

Why Intellectual Theft Is Wrong


Over on Facebook, somebody posted links to three writers who gave detailed information on their finances.  Short take:  They work very hard for a lot less money than that same amount of creative effort would net them in, say, advertising.  Where they'd also get health insurance.

I'm not going to spill my economic guts like they did.  But I will say this:  Back in the 1990s, I had a conversation with David Hartwell, who told that that in 1950, there were only six people who made a living exclusively from writing science fiction.  The rest were supplementing their income with editorial work, a day job, a position in academia, or the financial support of a spouse.  At the time I talked with him, David estimated that the number had gone up to one hundred, if you counted fantasy and horror writers.  This included Stephen King, the guy who was living in a cardboard box and eating cat food but at least had not descended to grading undergraduate term papers -- and me.

I was one percent of all self-supporting genre writers.

The last time I talked with David he told me that, largely because so many readers are now getting their science fiction free, that number is down significantly.  I forget the exact figure but it can't possibly have been higher than eighty.

I am now 1.25% of all self-supporting genre writers.

So after decades of pious lectures by midnight-downloaders on how all the free publicity was going to make writers richer, one fifth of those were were making it have been shoved into the low-paying intellectual labor market.

When this happens, a writer has two options:  Write fewer books, or write shoddier books.

So if you've ever wondered why the current literary scene sometimes seems like cable TV, "a thousand channels and nothing on" . . . well, there's your answer.

Oh, and before you lecture me again . . .

Yes, yes, yes, I could self-publish.  I've met people who have done that successfully and I admire them without reservation.  But those people work hard at the business end.  Being a publisher-editor-publicist is a full-time job.  Taking on a full-time job means having less time to write.

I'm in a position where I'm free to devote all my time to writing the best books I possibly can.  So that's what I'm going to do.

I only wish more writers had that freedom.

Above:  To the best of my imagination, that's what the sort of people who feel free to steal from working writers look like.


Friday, February 1, 2013

How To Win A Hugo


So you want to win a Hugo Award?  Well . . .  I've explained all this before, but it bears repeating.  New writers appear all the time and they need to hear the basics.

The simplest way to win a Hugo Award for fiction has three steps, two of them easy and one difficult.

The difficult one comes first:  1.  Make yourself into a good writer.

Nuff said.

Taken care of that one?  Okay.  Here's the second step:  2.  Write a hard science fiction story.  With space ships. 

 Scientifically valid outer space fiction is at the core of science fiction -- and it's in high demand not only with readers but with editors.  Years ago, when Gardner Dozois and Ellen Datlow edited the two most prestigious magazines in the field (Asimov's and Omni, respectively), I dropped in on Ellen's office in NYC.  Ellen asked me what I was working on and I said I'd just finished a really good zombie story.  (It was, too, so good that I gave it the title of James Joyce's best short story, "The Dead.")

"That's nice," Ellen said, sounding disappointed.  "But what I need is hard science fiction.  With rocket ships."

Three days later, I visited Gardner at his Philadelphia apartment.  As I left, he bellowed after me from the stoop, "Write me some hard science fiction, Michael!  None of this fantasy!  None of this magic realism crap!  Hard Science Fiction!  With rockets!"

Some years later, I decided to put this to the test.  So I started downloading and reading NASA papers on Io, day after day, week after week.  By the time I had a couple of cartons full, the data gave me a story.  I wrote it up in a clean, open prose style -- and "The Very Pulse of the Machine" won me my first Hugo.

3.  Publish your story in one of the major magazines or ezines, where it will be seen by a large number of the sort of people who who recommend and vote for the Hugos.

Why do I specify a story, rather than a novel?  Because there are three short fiction categories and only one novel category.    Also because in the time it takes to write a novel, you can write and publish many short stories, thus increasing your chances.

And that's all.  It's just that simple.

If I had to sum this all up in a single sentence, it would be this:  If you want to win a science fiction award, it helps to write science fiction.

Nothing is guaranteed, of course.  But you wanted to know, so I told you.

Above:  I've got five of the things.  How hard can it be?