Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Anxiety of Self-Influence


Long ago, in a galaxy far away, William Gibson told Eileen Gunn that he had discovered the secret of writing:  “You must learn to overcome your very natural, and appropriate, revulsion for your own work.”

This is an extremely useful observation.  But it will only take you so far.  I'm working on the third and final novel of what will inevitably be seen as the Iron Dragon Trilogy and so I did a fast skim of the first two novels.

I didn't have to do this when I was writing The Dragons of Babel because it was not intended to be a sequel to The Iron Dragon's Daughter.  I didn't even decide that the two books were set in the same world until it was halfway written.  (In retrospect, this seems naive.  But it's true.)

So it was a new experience for me, comparing my half-formed notions of what I wanted to write to the finished products of my own imagination and a whole hell of a lot of work.

The result?  I was intimidated.  There were passages that were as good as I could make them.  Rereading them, it seemed like I couldn't hope to do as well.

This sounds like a fancy, a notion, but it's not.  I know at least one writer who gave up on fiction because he believed -- incorrectly, I'm convinced -- that he couldn't write as well as himself anymore.  He read his previous books and was too intimidated to go on.

The lesson to be learned from this was explained to me a third of a century ago by my pal Jack Dann.  "You have to learn to turn off your inner critic while you're writing," he said.

True words.  A story or novel is literally unpublishable until you finish writing it.  For one thing, it has no ending.  You must simply write as well and as honestly as you are capable of.  When it's done, you can turn on the critic and judge whether it's ready for the big time.  But while you're writing, just write.

End of sermon.  Go in peace.

Above:  Detail from the British cover by Geoff Taylor.  One of my favorite covers ever.


Monday, July 28, 2014

An Unintentional Trilogy


Here's a rule of thumb for authors' lives:  When we're at our most interesting, we're at our least productive, and when we're at our most productive we're at our least interesting.  When I'm sitting in a teahouse in Chengdu, talking with fellow writers from around the world, or staying in a small room just inside the Silver Gate of Diocletian's Palace in Split, I can guarantee you I'm not getting much writing done.  Conversely, when I'm pounding out five pages a day, I don't have much in way of interesting anecdotes to report.

Before Marianne retired, she used to come home from a long and busy day at the Bureau of Labs and say, "How was your day?"  To which I'd reply by lifting both hands and wriggling the fingers as if typing.

A writer's life can be glamorous and even exciting at times.  But not when he's writing.

All of which is my roundabout way of saying that I'm beginning to hit stride on the new novel.  I began it at the same time I began Chasing the Phoenix (now forthcoming from Tor Books) and set it aside when that novel (in which Darger & Surplus, with perfectly innocent intentions, wind up conquering Post-Utopian China) caught fire and demanded all my thought and attention.

On finishing Phoenix, I took a few months off to work on short fiction.  There's no real money in short fiction, alas, but I learned long ago that I was not put on this planet in order to become rich.  So I might as well do what I love.  Which includes not only novels but the short form as well.

But now the novel I set aside has caught fire and is demanding more and more of my time and attention and even love.  So I may or may not have interesting tales to share with you here in the coming months.  It all depends on how much time I can steal from my chief duty.

Up above is the cloth notebook dedicated to the novel, resting atop a rather large volume I'm reading for research.  Both resting, appropriately enough, on the dragon rug in my living room.

And because some of you will want to know . . .

This book will be my third and last dragon novel.  The working title was originally Mother of Dragons before a certain Old Pal of Mine decided to apply that title to a claimant to the throne of Westeros in his rather successful series of fantasy novels.  So I'll have to come up with something else.

Will the three books together comprise a trilogy?

Well...  I never intended them to.  But let's be honest.  That's how most readers will receive them.

Here's the brief history:

Twenty-some years ago I was driving to Pittsburgh and talking with Marianne about fantasy and locomotives.  I made a quip about the Baldwin Steam Dragon Works and she laughed.  We drove a mile or so down the Interstate and I said, "Write that down for me, please."

From that seed came The Iron Dragon's Daughter, the tale of a girl who'd been stolen by the elves and forced to work in a Dickensian factory, building dragons.  It was always intended as a stand-alone novel.  Sometimes a fan would ask for a sequel -- but I thought it would be too cruel to take Jane, who had escaped Faerie at last, and throw her back into the hopper of plot.

Then, roughly a decade ago, Marvin Kaye told me at a convention he was putting together an anthology of dragons stories and would like to have one with the same kind of dragon (mechanical, implacable, evil) as in my novel.  I didn't have any ideas for such a story and told him so, but promised that if I came up with one by his deadline, I would send it to him.

The day after I got home, as sometimes happens, the opening scene for exactly such a story came to me.  I wrote it down.  One thing led to another, and I had a novella.  So I sent it to Marvin, and it became part of The Dragon Quintet.  And I had the beginning of another novel.

In TIDD, Jane Alderberry's essential problem is that she's trapped in a world where she doesn't belong.  No matter what she tries, she cannot find a place for herself.   In what became The Dragons of Babel, however, Will le Fey does belong in his world and his task is to find a proper role for him to fill.  This novel too was written as a stand-alone.  But by merely existing, the first novel created a dialogue with the second.  In many ways, the two novels were the opposites of each other.

So now I had Thesis and Antithesis.  Synthesis -- the final volume of a (cough!) trilogy -- hung over the entire enterprise like a third shoe waiting to drop.  But I had no ideas for such a volume.  None at all.

More years passed.  At last, an idea came to me, a way of opening up the rich, self-contradictory world of Faerie in a direction orthogonal to the other two, one which raised the possibility of answering all the questions raised by the first two books, and achieving other goals as well.  So I began writing.  This one is going to be a stand-alone novel as well.  But it's inevitable that readers are going to think of it as the last third of a trilogy.

Now all that's needed is lots and lots of hard work.  And a new title.  I'm thinking of calling this book The Iron Dragon's Mother.  But maybe that would confuse readers?  I don't know.

If anybody out there has a brilliant suggestion, I'd be glad to hear it.

Above:  Top, my novel notebook atop a research book; bottom, notes.


Friday, July 25, 2014

The Adventures of Mr. Chesterton and Yaa Asantewaa in China


I'm in print again.  In China!  The story in question is "The Trains That Climb the Winter Tree," which I co-wrote with the brilliant Eileen Gunn, and which features murderous elves, a talking dog named Mr. Chesterton who is more than he appears, sibling loyalty, a toy train that carries the plot to the stars for a confrontation with a murderous avatar of Entropy, and the comic book adventures of Yaa Asantewaa Warrior Queen.  Among other things.  It's an odd story, if a warm-hearted one.  And the publication is Science Fiction World.

I could joke and say that Science Fiction World is my favorite Chinese SF magazine, given that so far as I know it's the only magazine in China dedicated entirely to science fiction.  But in fact, it's one of my favorite SF magazines, period.  I've had several stories published there, and it always elates me when it happens again.  I've even visited their offices in Chengdu.  Somewhere, I've got the photographs to prove it.

I was also, for a time, a monthly columnist for SFW, explaining the world of science fiction to young readers who were going to be taking an increasingly active part in that world.  So I feel that I'm a part of the magazine's extended family.  The strange uncle who shows up once a year and nobody is exactly sure how he's related, perhaps.

So, um, that's all I had to say, really:  That I'm happy and I hope you're happy for me too.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Millennium Actress


I had a post ready for today, but it required a scan and unfortunately today was the day for switching printers, with all the usual dislocations.

So, rather than miss today's post entirely, I'll pose a question.

I'm rererewatching Millennium Actress by the great anime director Satoshi Kon. The central conceit is that two fanboys are interviewing a great actress in her old age.  As she reflects back on her past, the fans are there, passively filming.  Then, as excerpts of her movies are shown, they are swept in as extras.

In practice, this works brilliantly.  The fans -- naive, sincere -- stand in for the viewer and comment on the events.

Here's my question.  Has any live action movie ever done this?  And if not, why not?


Monday, July 21, 2014

For New and Developing Writers Only


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.


Friday, July 18, 2014

It's Just A Zoo


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.  


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

One Thing I Learned From Joyce Carol Oates


Captains of industry are almost never mentioned in Locus and, similarly, I did not expect ever to make even the briefest appearance on  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.


Monday, July 14, 2014

And Only She Escaped To Tell The Tale...


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 ( – 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.


Friday, July 11, 2014

Opening the Marquis de Carabas's Coat


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.


Thursday, July 10, 2014

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

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.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Listen To This!


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.


Monday, July 7, 2014

The National Science Fiction Light Bulb Joke

I forget which convention it was -- maybe Boskone? -- where I was the toastmaster or emcee or such for the banquet and began by saying, "Please rise for the national science fiction light bulb joke."  But it went over well, and though I doubt you'll laugh at it here -- blogs are a terrible context for jokes -- if you've got a good delivery, you ought to be able to use it to wring a chuckle out of the unsuspecting.

Here's how it goes:

"How many science fiction characters does it take to change a light bulb?"
"I don't know.  How many?"
"Two.  One to change the bulb and the other to say, 'As you know, Fred, the light bulb was invented by Thomas Edison and operates under the principle of...'"

This joke was invented by the late Sarah Purdom, wife of science fiction writer Tom Purdom.  I've known a lot of clever people, but this is the only formal joke whose creator I've ever known.  Prior to hearing it for the first time, I always wondered where jokes came from.  Now I know.

They're made up by elegant, witty women.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

She-Wolves and Dragonstairs


I long ago arrived at that happy state where I don't bother keeping track of what stories I have coming up in the year's best anthologies.  I usually have at least one, so that's good enough for me.

It also means that when such a volume arrives in the mail, it comes as a pleasant surprise.

Pleasant and surprising in yesterday's mailbox was The Year's Best Science Fiction: Thirty-First Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois and containing my story, "The She-Wof's Hidden Grin."

This story was written for Shadows of the New Sun, a festschrift (great word, innit?) honoring Gene Wolfe.  For it, I took the opening paragraphs of his very great "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" and reversed everything.  I turned evening to morning, summer to winter, the north wing of the house into the south wing . . . and, most significantly, the two brothers to two sisters.  Then I wrote a story that I imagined in some alternate reality the great female writer, Jean Wolfe might have.

It would be pompous of me to expand on all that I learned about writing in my close study of the original story and arrogant to expand on all I learned about Gene's story.  Suffice it to say, Wolfe's work is thronged with hidden virtues.  I learned much from it, and had I had the time to write a novella-length work, I would have learned even more.

But because I should say something about my story, I'll give you the following short paragraph from it:

That was the summer when Susanna conceived a passion for theater.  She went to see Riders to the Sea and Madame Butterfly and Anthony and Cleopatra and The Women and Mrs. Warren’s Profession and Lysistrata and Hedda Gabler and The Rover and I forget what else.  She even got a small part in The Children’s Hour.  I attended one rehearsal, was not made to feel welcome, and never showed up again.

I'll bet most readers breezed right past that without giving a thought to what those particular plays had in common.  But writers almost never craft such lists without purpose.  It's one way of keeping ourselves amused in what can be at times a long and dreary task.

And since the book is already open . . .

One of Gardner Dozois' many innovations over the year is his honorable mentions list of stories he found particularly worthy over the previous year but could not include in his  volume.  This was born, I'm sure, from the long handwritten list he keeps on a lined yellow legal pad.

Not to sound immodest, but I usually have a couple of stories listed there.  (Seriously, I'm not braggingt; I have nowhere near the number that Robert Reed has listed every year; and this year Ken Liu has nine stories listed, Nancy Kress has eight, and Lavie Tidhar has eleven.)

This year, however, I'm particularly pleased that one of my two listed stories is Tumbling, which was published as a small, cunningly cut-and-folded booklet by Dragonstairs Press. in an edition of 50 signed and numbered copies.

The founder, publisher, editor, and sole proprietor of Dragonstairs is Marianne Porter.  Who commissioned the story from me.  And who is my one true love and my wife to boot.

You can visit the Dragonstairs Press website here.