Saturday, January 31, 2009


I have been very fortunate to have received criticism from some excellent writers who have improved my technique exponentially. A repeated comment from them to my expressions of gratitude is that I always listen to their suggestions and try to grasp how they can raise my skills. This has always struck me as an odd remark. I go to the doctor for medical advice. The final decision is always mine but I would be a fool to ignore his observations. Yet I have it on good authority that most wannabe writers flatly refuse to listen to professional advice. They explain why the professional is wrong in his opinion, why their masterpiece is perfect in every way and is unalterable and incapable of improvement. In short, they do not want criticism but praise.

To improve as a writer, one must be able to accept and digest constructive criticism. By that, I do not mean the drivel pumped out by critics. Most critics are not writers and simply promote their own prejudices. They would be writers if they were any good.

I mean criticism by people with a proven track record. People who have been there, done that, and have the holiday snaps to prove it. I guess one reason that I am open to advice is because I have spent most of my life as a professional academic. A science research paper is circulated to colleagues for criticism before it even leaves the Department. Only after it is edited in the light of their comments is it sent to a Journal. There an editor reads it and may bounce it straight back with an instruction to rewrite. Once it passes the editorial filter it is sent out to at least two referees who have track records in the field. They criticise the paper and make recommendation, which can include ‘Reject’. The Journal editor digests these and returns the whole lot to the author with an instruction to make changes, assuming it is not rejected. This loop may be repeated two or even three times.

All being well, publication follows.

So my advice to new writers is try to get professional criticism of your work, read the comments carefully, and then rewrite. Repeat as many times as is necessary.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Technical trauma

I attend the RWA National Conference every year, and every year I buy the mp3 CD set that contains all 250-odd hours of recorded program sessions.

This leaves me with a technical problem. My car is too old to have one of those little jack-holes you stick your iPod or your mp3 player jack into.

My car has a CD player, but again it’s too old to play mp3 discs. Just audio.

My car also has a tape deck, and for years I had one of those round mp3 players and a little plastic cassette tape that jacks between the car’s tape deck and the mp3 player. However, the mp3 players were nasty cheap things, and the interface even cheaper, so I had to keep replacing them. Then one day they stopped working at all, no matter how many new bits I bought.

So I bought an iPod, but then I had the same problem. How to get sound out of that little silver deely and into the car speakers? I became acquainted with the doohickey that plugs into your iPod, then magically broadcasts what’s on the iPod to your car radio via an FM frequency that nobody is using.

Well, I live in Chicago. We have almost no FM frequencies nobody is using. Plus, reception is wonky even when I find a “blank” station, so I have to keep moving the transmitter around on my dashboard, which should qualify as DUI of recalcitrant technology. Picture many bad words coming out of my mouth and floating in a balloon over my car.

So I’m asking for help here. Isn’t there something simple, a little boom-box or something, that I can plug my iPod into, that has its own speakers, and you plug it into the cigarette lighter? I’m getting gray hairs trying to interface this penguin.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Vanity press

The New York Times has an extensive article about self-publishing here:

The most deceptive paragraph in the entire article is this one: Louise Burke, publisher of Pocket Books, said publishers now trawl for new material by looking at reader comments about self-published books sold online. Self-publishing, she said, is “no longer a dirty word.”

The most honest line is this: “For every thousand titles that get self-published, maybe there’s two that should have been published,” said Cathy Langer, lead buyer for the Tattered Cover bookstores in Denver, who said she had been inundated by requests from self-published authors to sell their books. “People think that just because they’ve written something, there’s a market for it. It’s not true.”

It all makes me very, very cranky. Not because self-publishing exists, but because the premise by which vanity presses draw their customers in is faulty at its core. Self-publishing a family memoir, a recipe book to raise money for your football team, or a book to share with friends is great. Expecting that, as some companies claim, they will "circulate" your book to film agents is simply a lie.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that some people don't see the difference between vanity press and small press. The difference is enormous: small presses have editors. They have a filter in place.

It all comes down to quality, of course. It's the same issue I have with the school that teaches "Write a lot, send it out, never revise." My beloved son said it best: "Mom, do you want to write a lot of books, or books people remember?"

I will take a deep breath now, and try once again to explain to some of my students why a title with PublishAmerica will not count as a writing credit when they try to sell a book to an agent.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Under the Weather

Sarah is under the weather today. She'll return to posting next week.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Aurealis Awards

Jack Dann and myself at the Awards.

Jack had just been given the Peter McNamara award for his contribution to the the speculative fiction genre. That's why he looks a little stunned. Jack can talk under water and this is the first time I've seen him reaching for words.

Brisbane turned on the heat and humidity for the awards so all the people from down south (in Australia that's closer to the Antarctic) were fanning themselves saying How can you bear this?

It was a great evening. The nice thing was that no one was told if they'd won so everyone was genuinely surprised. Richard Harland told me he was 99% sure his book wouldn't win the Picture Book section, but just in case he and Laura Peterson (the illustrator) sent me a speech. I was concentrating on my bit as the presenter of the fantasy awards, when I heard Richard's name. I madly scrambled to find the speech in my bag, in the dark and darted out there to accept the award for them. Honestly, the whole event is so glitzy and professional with the big screen up the back, that if I hadn't grown up with the awards, I'd feel intimidated getting up to speak.

Here's Trent Jamieson and I. His story 'Crack' won the YA short story section. It's a real buzz to see Trent win. This is the second time he's won an Aurealis for a short story. Trent's been part of the VISION writing group almost since it started and part of the ROR writing group. I've read his latest manuscript and it's so inventive, it's sure to sell. So he'll be making the jump from published in short stories to published in novels, soon. My fingers are crossed for Trent.

As you can see, I had my hair straightened for the night, not counting on nearly 100% humidity. It's very hard to be glamorous with blonde ringlets, let alone taken seriously!

Well, the Aurealis Awards are all over for another year. Back to the real world of meeting deadlines and trying to steal time to write in between driving children to school and part time jobs.

Cheers, Rowena

Monday, January 26, 2009

A crisis of conference

Some writers (call them group one) follow the normal reader-to-fan-to-writer pathway and have probably been inoculated in Sf/fantasy conferences at the local con, met some authors, been to how to write panels and workshops, got some shorts into various low/non-paying mags and worked their way up. Then there are the ones (call them group 2) whose careers blossomed from nothing to celeb instantly -- the incredibly rare, lucky or well-connected few that most people seem to imagine we all are. And then there are all the rest (group 3) -- who have blundered into the field without a clue-bat along the way, and now find themselves with a book (or even six) coming out and no idea what a SMOF is or just what they need to do. Often we (because I was one) have deluded ideas about your publisher will do about guiding you through the life of a professional author.
The answer: unless you happen to be one of the rare group of blessed individuals (Let’s be real here, a few of those few are far more brilliant and valuable than you are. And the rest are indistinguishable or worse. Life is just deals unequal hands, and you have to make the best of them.) your publisher is going to do exactly what mine did: Publish your book. Let sink or swim.
Now I was brought up on staunchly egalitarian meritocratic principles. The above would have sounded absolutely fair and right to me. Of course it isn’t. Sales are a lottery of cover, blurb and distribution, even before you get to publicity, not measure of the skill of the writer. And sales are what will determine whether you have a career or not. We all know of authors who’ve written dream books... who vanished. And we all know bloody awful rubbish, that we all wonder how got published let alone onto best-seller lists, and keeps on being published.
Which leaves the average group 3 author wishing he had a better hand for the gamble. It is very hard to fail when your publisher has you sent on a meet the booksellers tour of the English speaking world, and spends a lot of money on getting your book onto displays on the counters or ends of sf/fantasy racks. That’s called push and if you can get it, you’re made. If not, that leaves you with nothing... or the alternative: Pull. It’s maybe 1/20 as effective as push, but it can make that key difference - You see for that first book the line between average and success (to be bought) is.... about 3000 books. And there are various ways of making quite a dent in that. Group 1 authors already have some ideas on this and therefore are the most likely to succeed. Therefore if you’re still at that stage, become a group 1 author.
If it is too late for that... (it was for me) here is what you need to start doing, today. NETWORK. Yes it is going to chew 2 hours out of your writing time every day. You need to join forums (Baen’s Bar for eg) and manage not to be the person everyone regards as a PITA troll. And yes it will chew up most of your advance, because you’re off to conferences, and you’re going to be a nice guy -- not a salesman pushing your book, but a name people remember. And you will do your best to get involved and to make and maintain contacts.
Because if you can’t do this -- you probably don’t relate to people well enough to write anyway. If you can scare up 1000 pre-orders from people who know your name - and that is enough to push your book up the ordering hierarchy at retail book-chains. Nothing like push would have done, but enough to give you another 500 sales. And if your book was any good those extra 1500 will tell enough friends to get you another 300... and next thing you know - you may be negotiating a contract.
Or at least have a lot of extra friends.
See you at Lunacon 2009.

posted by Dave Freer

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Random Musings

The most successful authors that I know tend to sit down and write a book from start to finish, writing every day. This is undoubtedly a winning strategy but sits uneasily on the shoulders of people with personalities like mine. I am mildly maniac depressive. When I am up, I am flying and capable of enormous energy. But when I’m down I find it impossible to concentrate. OK, I admit it; I am a binge worker.

Creative people are notoriously prone to depression, maniac depressive cycles right up to extreme bipolarism, and even outright paranoia. Paranoid schizophrenia could be seen as a form of extreme creativity. The sufferer hears ‘voices’ in his head. Well, we all do that, writers more than most, but we normally retain the ability to distinguish reality from the worlds inside our heads.

I reckon I have got off mostly pretty lightly with my mild depression cycles. There seems to be a strong correlation between creativity and various levels of mental instability, and it ‘runs’ in families. All this suggests a strong genetic component and the correlation would explain why these genes have not been eliminated by natural selection. Having a small percentage of creatives in a human population is beneficial but don’t expect them to be easy going, reliable team players.

The problem with binge working is that it takes time to get back up to speed after you have put a work down for more than a day or two. I compromise by switching from writing to editing. I find that a useful mechanical activity to do when I am convinced that my work is worthless, my life is worthless and that we are all doomed in a general sort of way. It does keep me in touch with the work for when the next upswing starts and I start feverishly hammering the keyboard.

However, I try to put a story to one side for a while when I think that it is finished. A month is about right. When I return to the file, I can see that the story is full of typos, clumsy phrasing and passive sentences, the latter being the curse of a scientific education.

Talking of typos, I was particularly amused by the critique of one of my stories published in Baen’s Universe by an American reviewer who dislikes the Baen style, whatever that is. I doubt that anyone confuses my style with David Weber . Sigh! I should be so lucky. Anyway, I digress. This reviewer damned me with faint praise and then drew attention to the many small errors in my writing. Did I not have a spellchecker on my word processor? Well of course I do and it’s set to British English (what Microsoft likes to quaintly call ‘International English’) because I am, um, English, a citizen of the United Kingdom and a subject of her Britannic Majesty. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to pop out to the pavement and retrieve my trainer’s from my motor’s boot – Oh all right, go out to the sidewalk and get my sneakers from my automobile's trunk.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Promo Comes in Unexpectedly Handy

Recently I had one of those rare and glorious days when a check comes in from the publisher. After enjoying the glow, I dashed off to the bank to deposit it.

Since writers receive checks rarely, and in my case the checks are usually (alas) larger than the bank account balance, bankers look askance at such deposits. They like to place holds on the funds, just in case you were making it up or something. What, you getting a big check from Major Publisher, Inc.? A likely story!

Therefore I wasn't surprised when the teller started yakking at me about the check. Since I couldn't hear her over the drive-up speaker, I went inside, and in the spirit of self-promotion (and because I still have some to give away), I took a couple of my Ælven calendars in with me.

As I'd suspected, she was concerned about the check from Major Publisher. Had I written a book for them or something?

"Why, yes!" quoth I, and handed her the calendars. "This book."

Suddenly all was well, my check was deposited, my funds unrestrained. My investment in promotional materials justified.

Maybe she'll even think about buying the book.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The writer's environment, or, Confessions of a neatnik

This weekend I'm flying to San Francisco, in my Toby Bishop guise, to visit Borderlands Books and sign copies of this book and the earlier ones in the trilogy. I'll be on two airplanes and spend two nights in a hotel . . . which means I'll get lots of writing done.
I'm a compulsive person. A compulsive writer, exerciser, reader, golfer . . . everything that's important to me compels me. This includes, unfortunately, a neat and orderly environment.

You probably think that's a good thing. Who doesn't want someone around who constantly cleans, dusts, picks up, organizes? I'd love to have someone like that around. Unfortunately, that someone is me. And it's the ultimate distraction!

I envy those writers who can work amid clutter. They can have music playing, piles of laundry waiting, dust bunnies piffling in corners. But me, no. I just can't think if there are chores waiting to be done, or if my desk is piled with unpaid bills or messages I need to answer. It's one reason I love writing in airplanes and hotel rooms and coffee shops, and why I sometimes hie myself to Tully's Coffee, where any mess is not my responsibility, to write. I can put my feet up beside the fireplace and let the white noise swirl around me. (White noise is featureless to me. I know it seems contradictory, but if music is playing, I have to listen to it. The better the music, the more distracting it is.)

My house is really, really tidy. Not always clean, of course, but painfully neat. Beloved husband and beloved son have learned, the hard way, not to drop anything where I might "clean" it, which often means "disappear" it. I've had to make a disciplined effort to leave them their own messy spaces, but those spaces do nag at me. Does this sound like fun to you?

In early March I'll be attending the Rainforest Village Writers' Retreat on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. It's expanded from three days to five, which means my output should be prodigious (well, for me, the slow writer). I'll be in a rustic inn overlooking a lake, with no housework and only a small amount of cooking. It's the perfect writer's environment.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Family That Writes Together

Today some friends called my attention to a blog review for my husband’s anthology, which mistakenly assumed Robert was my husband and wasn’t quite sure what Dan’s relationship to both of us was. An understandable mistake, of course.
(The review is here and it’s really a very good one, not because it’s complimentary but because it is very perceptive.)
This combined with something we’ve gone through recently in semi-social circumstances, where someone expressed surprise at the fact that we don’t have much of a local social life; and with a recent ill-healed remark by someone who used to be a member of our long-dissolved local writers’ group, who said I didn’t have much time for anyone who didn’t help my career.
The later is ill-healed because it hurt. Not because it’s true, but because I still care enough for that person’s opinion to feel bad I gave her that impression. The very unfortunate truth is that I also don’t have a lot of time for people who CAN help my career and have probably alienated any number of friends who are ahead of me on the road by seeming to snub them.
At any rate the three comments taken together did cause me think. The first thing was to wonder if we are really that unusual – or at least unusual for writers in this day and age. After all, we are a dual-career couple with teenage children. That each of us has – at least – dual careers all by ourselves – Dan having a day job and writing and me, I think, living at least three writing lives at once – is another, unexpected complication. It seems to me that those other writers I know – unless they are very secure bestsellers – have about as much time as I have. Even those whose children have moved out.
And our life has been unusually busy as far as the "teen sons" too. For one, homeschooling a kid for a year not only ate my life for that time, but set me back on a bunch of routine tasks which are now, slowly, getting caught up and, in turn, affecting writing. (Though for those of you who know what the last school year was like for me, I’m nowhere near at that level of tiredness. I’ve got ill this year, too, granted, but not those complete "flattening" illnesses. And there have been periods of health between illnesses.) But that, as I said, is slowly returning to "normal hassled" not "insane running around." I can see eventually, maybe, if we’re lucky having time for a social life again.
The other side of this, of course, is that I have a rich social life, just not in town. In some ways – and my friend Kevin J. Anderson, whom we see about twice a year when both of us can make time tells me it is exactly so – I feel that writers gravitate to other writers because, to quote Kevin, "Only other writers understand our crazy obsessions and the way this insane business works."
This is not so much a matter of who "can help of my career" – some of my writer friends are unpublished. Some, in fact, are just starting out. Others are far more successful than I am, but that doesn’t mean they can "help" or at least not materially, but only to the extent of advice – but who understands what I’m going through.
Like people in other arcane and difficult professions, ruled by gods of uncertain chance, we tend to cling to one another. In the age of the internet, this is very easy. My best writing friends are strewn across the US and across the globe. Being writers we keep weird hours, anyway. We meet on Skype at the middle of the night for one or the other of us. We groan about covers, contracts and whatever the newest marketing fad is. We exchange heartfelt condolences over the behavior of certain characters who refuse to shut up and follow the plot at all. And we’re not so alone anymore.
The thing is, I don’t think that’s all that unusual for writers, even historically. I’ve read enough bios of our people to find out that they tended to have world-girding friendships even when they had to depend on the good offices of international mails.
How is this related to my family having three – or to be honest, once the youngest one stops denying it – four writers in it?
Well, the truth is that we probably make less time for our local writing friends than we would if we had no writers in the family. Online friendships are wonderful and have kept me sane for years, but sometimes you just need to watch someone’s face as you tell them your brand spanking new idea for a novel.
It’s just that in this house, that means wandering downstairs, with a vaguely glazed look, getting a cup of coffee, then turning to your son and your husband who are sitting at the kitchen table and saying, "You know, I had this idea for an apocalyptic-feeling novel that..."
Dan and I have plotted entire novels while driving to Denver (actually, long-distance driving is very good for this.) We have written anthology proposals on airplane trips. We have shocked waitresses by discussing where one could hide a body so that only fragments would ever surface, if that. We have gone out for a romantic dinner and forgotten all about romance when one of us leans across the table and goes, "You know the Samson story? It’s very powerful. I wonder how to do that in space. And how he could survive to make it a series."
Robert plotted his novel aloud, while talking to me, all the way from concept to chapter-by-chapter while we built a porch together. The other day over dinner, with no warning, Eric started day dreaming about the Odyssey as a space opera with a female "Ulysses" including whether Circe should still be female.
In many ways it is like having your very own writers workshop right at home. And it makes it easy not to reach beyond home for that writer face-to-face socialization.
Should it be different? Perhaps. But then our time is short and the kids – such is life – will be leaving the house soon enough. We have maybe two, three years more of a resident writers’ workshop. After that, I suppose we’ll start attending more cons or organize a critique group again or something. But until then, we’ll enjoy our good fortune.
And if people think we're strange... well, we're writers. I guess we can live with that.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Stories Save Society

In the Jan 17, 2009, edition of New Scientist (yes, I am a Nerd), there's an article titled, 'Novels help uphold social order'. The author, Priya Shetty, asks 'Why does storytelling endure across time and cultures?'

A study of the way people relate to Victorian literature drew the conclusion that 'Literature could continually condition society so that we fight against our base impulses and work in a co-operative way', meaning stories are templates for socially acceptable behaviour. Greedy, ambitious book character who act in antisocial ways are villains who get their comeuppance in the end. Supportive, conscientious characters are the heroes whose good behaviour is rewarded, while characters like Heathcliff display aspects of both good and evil.

If you look the epic fantasies you see the same theme played out on a grand scale. The villains are powerful and totally evil, tending towards one-dimensional eg. Sauron (LOTR). Conversely the heroes are often the little people who seem to have no chance, but find greatness in themselves like good old Frodo. Just as romances have their 'happily ever after' endings, quest fantasies enter into a contract with the reader who knows good will ultimately triumph over evil.

If people didn't have a need to repeat this scenario with the pay-off the underlying message -- you can make a difference, no matter how small and unimportant you are -- then they would not seek out the traditional fantasy.

The underlying theme of classic science fiction is similar. Instead of using magic to battle evil, the SF protagonist uses intellect and logic to make sense of the world/universe/aliens, ie. to battle ignorance. The underlying message is -- Yes, you can make sense of the world. Intellect will triumph over ignorance, the rational over religious fundamentalism -- Something I would like to believe.

The genres we choose to read reflect our world view and the way we interpret the world.

Story tellers serve a purpose!

Cheers, Rowena.

Monday, January 19, 2009

So now what...

Dave Freer posting:
I am running late with this. Call it delayed reaction if you like. Hey call it anything (I don't care that deeply :-) a sort of balance between a thick skin about personal insults and a deep sensitivity about your work are baseline requirements for a writer. I just turned in the next book DRAGON'S RING and that is always a moment of profound mental cock-up for me. I hate letting go. But I can't wait to. I'm in love with it. But I hate it...

If I was a parent and it was my baby, social services would be checking on me every ten seconds and considering foster care... and talking to me about adoption.

Which is appropriate as a comparison in some ways. It's one of the hardest things for an author (or this one anyway). You've obsessed, sweated blood and cursed and swore, and torn your hair in dispair and slogged and wrestled and fought for the right words and linkages, and cried on the keyboard... and then it is gone. You've turned it out into the world. And your publisher might be much much better at editing and the rest off the process... but it is not their precious book. It's just another.

Passing that parcel is a profoundly depressing thing to do (ameliorated if they pay A LOT - then you know they'll take care).

But they can give it what you can't...

Still won't stop me worrying about the cover, the editing, the distribution and if other people also love it. Letting go is hard, as is the fear that someone will reject or even not utterly love your creation. (I've known some authors to keep revising for years rather than face this.)

Good luck, little book.

And now... to something completely different.

Oh, BTW, it would appear that SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS won the sf novel P&E poll. Thank you very much to all who voted for it!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Writer Swims Upstream

Marianne de Pierres

If writing is like swimming upstream -- first there is the battle to write something good enough to get published, then to get it published, then to stay published -- then Marianne de Pierres is a successful salmon!

With the Parrish Plessis series under her belt and a new cross-genre series signed, Marianne joins us to talk about writing, her new paranormal series and the release of the second book in her Sentients of Orion series.

Q. The Parrish Plessis series was typecast as Cyber Punk and your Sentients of Orion series could be described as intelligent Space Opera, both are definitely science fiction. This is the twenty-first century, women have had the vote for 100 years and equal pay for equal work for 40 years but females are still discriminated against across the world, especially in third world countries. Science Fiction is traditionally a male field, as a female writer of SF have you encountered any resistance from readers, editors or male SF writers?

M. Certainly not from editors or male SF writers in the world and its impossible for me to know what the majority of male readers are thinking. Having said that however, I recently read am amazon review (as you do, and really shouldn’t!) of Dark Space where the outraged male reader complained how the first forty pages was about clothing – and where was the space opera? In fact the first forty pages are about building a vivid picture of a world where women are still repressed. The idea was to make this

world tangible and then utterly destroy it in a way that would have far reaching ramifications. The reader didn’t stay with it that far. If the author name on the book had been male I wonder whether he may have been prepared to find out what was going on.

Q. The Parrish Plessis series is very different in tone and content from Sentients of Orion. Did you set out to write something completely different and how did your editor and readers react to this change of pace?

M. Yes. I definitely wanted to write something different. It would have been so easy to keep writing Parrish (or something similar) but I didn’t want to fall into the trap of repeating the same character in everything I wrote. My editor at Orbit (Darren Nash) was keen that I broaden my writing horizons as well. Reader-wise there was different reaction. I talked about this over at Walker of the Worlds

blogspot recently. Parrish inspired a large fan base, and a lot of people didn’t want me to let her go.

Q. Several of your books have been finalists in the Aurealis Award and ‘Chaos Space’, book two in the Sentients of Orion series, is a finalist this year. In what ways does having books shortlisted for awards helps your career?

M. I’m not sure really. It makes me feel good. Hopefully it makes my publisher happy. I guess what it does is give extra exposure to the book. Exposure is the single biggest battle for authors. There is so much competition for consumer attention, and awards mentions and competition wins all help to raise the profile of your work.

Q. You’ve just signed to write a new series, Tara Tasse, the paranormal detective under the pseudonym, Marianne Delacourt. This is contemporary and set in Australia. Was it fun to plunge into this genre?

M. On the new series website I describe Marianne Delacourt as the lighter, funnier side of Marianne de Pierres. It’s quite liberating to be writing comedy and a beautiful balance to the darkness of some of my science fiction. I’ve dabbled in crime noir with other books, and there is a mild paranormal element, so it really all the things I love but in different proportions.

Q. Writing is a tough business, you’ve maintained a high level of creativity while coping with a son with Crohn’s disease. How do you juggle family and career, and what do you see in the two Mariannes’ futures?

M. Firstly, thank you for saying so.

Most writers have things going on in their personal lives that impinge on their professional time and energy. Writing is, and always will be a calm place for me to go, a refuge where I can focus. A meditation.

I don’t think my creativity has ever been hampered, more my output. 2008 was a much better year for me personally so my output increased – hence the new series and my screenplay option.

The two Marianne’s are keen to keep stay happy and healthy (and keep her family that way) and let the rest happen.

Q. If you could go back to when you first decided to write seriously, what advice would you give yourself?

M. Stop checking my email and write. Seriously!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Stories are all around

The thing about stories is that they are all around you. OK, I live in an ancient city that has seen a lot of life but I believe that this maxim is true almost anywhere.

I recently read a wonderful book by Kate Summerscale that won BBC Four’s Samuel Johnson Prize last year. It is called The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House.

I have a personal interest in this story. I was the “Marine Nematode Man” at the British Museum for many years. I had an office next door to “Coral Man”. We were designated in London’s Natural History Museum by the taxa that we studied: there really was a Bat man.

The most important Coral Man to the BM was William Saville-Kent, Who donated sixty cases of specimens from the Great Barrier Reef to the Museum. The BM holds more type specimens from the Reef than in the whole of Australia.

William Kent was almost certainly a murderer who, with his sister, killed his young half brother, Saville. The sister eventually confessed but refused to implicate her brother, allowing him to have a career.

This story, of a middle class infant murdered in a middle class home by someone who had to be from the family, throws a window onto what to us is a fantasy world – the class-ridden world of 19th Century Southern England. It illuminates a foreign place torn by rapid social change, betwixt one world order and another.

The Mr Whicher of the story was one of the original detectives of Scotland Yard. He solved the murder using evidence gathering and logic. Unfortunately, no one believed him as he was just an oik who had got above himself. How dare he accuse middle class children of murder? A middle class home was a castle and detectives foul informers of a police state. Let them stick to policing the proles. Mr Whicher’s reputation never recovered despite, perhaps because, he was eventually shown to be correct.

Summerscale has written a great book that has started all sorts of idea trains and whirlpools in my mind. Stories are all around us.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Brain food for writers

One of the goofy things I have done to fill the creative well is attend the Kalamazoo Medieval Congress. This is takes place at Western Michigan University during the first week in May, when the daffodils are in bloom and the swans are nesting. Top scholars from all over the world attend and speak. There are forty sessions, an average of three papers per session, every ninety minutes, for five days. Some three thousand medievalists attend. That’s a whole lotta cool stuff.

It’s also amazingly inexpensive. For about $350 you get food and lodging for five nights and admission to the Congress, including special events, banquets, wine parties, concerts, the whole megilleh.

Anecdote. I was serving as secretary-treasurer for the Societas Magica, an academic group founded for the study of the scholarly history of magic, and had driven over from the Chicago area on zero sleep. I had forty minutes to kill before our business meeting. I needed a nap. I chose to slide into a session where the lights were out; they were showing slides; hey, I could put my head down on a table in back and nobody would notice. Hah. The session was about giant medieval wooden machines. The presenter of the moment was showing slides of a 500-year-old mill, pointing out how they used elm for the shafts, alder for the cogs, etc. etc. In French. Now, I do not read or speak French, but I couldn’t sleep through this. It was too interesting. By the end of forty minutes my brain hurt, trying to hack the language, but it was a good hurt.

There are drawbacks. The food is dorm food, almost comically terrible. The dorms are like white collar prisons—bring an extra light bulb or two, and your own blankets, pillows, and towels. WMU is a classic Midwestern college campus, set among hills with creeks at the bottom and heavily wooded, but that means it’s also excruciatingly hilly for the non-athletic, and your 8:30am session may be on one side of the great divide and your 10am session on the other. Jogging shoes.

But the biggest drawback is that there is just so darned much to do. In between the boggling chunks of paper presentations, you can attend meetings of societies who study Richard the Third, or Cistercian Monks, or gay and lesbian matters of the medieval era, or music, art, metalworking, shipbuilding. There are wine parties, hoo boy, look out for those bibulous medievalists! There are concerts and performances. Once I saw a Fresian gelding, supposedly descended from the great black medieval war horses, all dressed up in bright-colored finery, demonstrating war-horse moves. I saw a small hand-made replica of a Norse boat launched on the swan pond. I ate medieval-style food at a special banquet. And at every single meal for five days, I sat with fascinating strangers and learned stuff.

And I bought books. Danger, Will Robinson. Leave your credit card at home. The book room is a menace. It’s most dangerous on the last day of the Congress, because that’s when the university presses are trying to unload their stock cheap so they won’t have to ship it home. Awesome antique book dealers, too.

A final goody is that once you’ve attended the Congress, you get on their mailing list and, forever afterward, every year before the Congress, they send you this thick schedule book of all the papers that will be presented. Seriously droolworthy. Click here to be terribly, terribly tempted.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A few of my favorite things

I've been away in the San Juan Islands of Washington State for a week, to start a new book, contemplate a story-in-progress, and just enjoy being out of the usual rush and ructions. It's made me realize how habituated I've become, as a writer, to things I could barely contemplate fifteen years ago. How did we manage without the internet, for example? I'm trying to work on a historical, and my manuscript is littered with asterisks for things I have to look up when I have wireless internet access again. When did dial-up become intolerable? I think it was about five minutes after it was invented!

So here's a list of things I apparently can no longer live without:

1) Wireless internet

2) Backlit keyboard

3) Cell phone

4) Cell phone reception

5) Amazon

6) Google search

7) Listservs

8) Starbucks

So much for thinking I would write more and better in a remote log cabin.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

When Life Comes Marching In

This is another of those blog posts where I explain I’m not doing a blog post. In this case it is because life has been far too much with me.
That life takes the form of a little 21 year old cat who developed diabetes is a mere coincidence. What matters is that my time suddenly disappeared down a circling vortex of cleaning – she completley broke litterbox habit for two weeks – testing cat blood sugar and administering insulin.
Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal. But because I was in the final phase of assembling/polishing a novel when this struck, I got pulled out of the novel. (For some reason the final phase needs tremendous concentration and "being there") I’ve been working very hard, for two days, to get "back in." At this point a blog post article can be enough to pull me out of the novel and the mood.
So, with due apologies....
I’ll be back ;)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Why Fantasy?

This Maxfield Parrish painting hung on the wall of my grandparent's living room. The walls must have been twelve feet high and they were covered in paintings and photos but this was the one that captured my imagination. As a small child I would stand under it, trying to see it clearly because a window was reflected in the covering glass. It was this emphemeral thing just out of reach, beautiful and mysterious.

Fantasy offers us a way into a world, without fast food outlets and petrol stations. Even if the fantasy world is gritty and realistic, the narrative will raise high moral questions and the characters will battle great odds for the greater good.

Every day, we're surrounded by grey moral questions and wrongs that a single person can't alleviate as much as they might wish to. In fantasy an average hobbit can make a difference.

There are days when we all need a little fantasy.

Cheers, R.

Monday, January 12, 2009

just another manic Monday

Hey, I am the first person to tell everyone I meet -- who, on hearing my profession, often say: "Oh I've thought about writing a book" always says "so why don't you?"

Because, seriously, it is something anyone can do. If you're determined enough anybody can...

Write a book that is.
Get it published and make a living (let alone a jazillion dollars) is a little more complicated. But that is not as far out of reach as some people might make it out to be. It's not (unless you happen to be very lucky or sleeping with the editor) easy. Someone has to win the lottery, so some people do get lucky. Others slog there by varying percentages of raw talent and hard work.

But so many of these people who tell me they've thought about writing a book have one thing in common: they really don't know much about it, and most of the time what they think they do know is a little distance off the truth. 1)An ordinary novel is the same length as many a masters thesis. 2)A lot of them take about as much research :-). 3)Very few authors get shedloads of money for this. In fact most of them work more hours than is remotely legal and for rates a long way below 'minimum wage' 4)It isn't all a moment of artistic genius. In fact art and music usually aren't either. It's -- depending on the writer -- anything from weeks to years of work. 5) Actually, like damn near any other job, there are times when you'd rather play free-cell than do it. A huge part is painstaking and mundane... and pressured. And that's what gets me to my post theme.

Today is just another manic Monday. It even feel like it deserves Abba. I finished my last book at about 9.00 pm - on Saturday having worked on it from 5.30 AM and stopped to walk for milk . I normally also take some swimming excercise time too, and cook supper. I just worked right through. Sunday was spent on catching up on post and spell checking, and working on first draft. And here I am on Monday, tired and battered and editing frantically. And suddenly realising I have a blog due.

You too can write. But don't think it gets you out of manic Monday. (or the rest of the week.) If that's what you saw in the dream of writing don't do it. Stick to dreaming.

But if you want to write because you really want to write... welcome aboard. Can we help you along?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

One more

Looking back at Chartwell House.


I am sorry but life caught up with me this week and I have not prepared a blog.
I promise to work extra hard next week.
As an apology, I leave you with a picture of Sir Winston Churchill's garden at Chartwell, looking out over the weald of Kent. I took this picture last autumn.

Sunday snippet- SLOW TRAIN

Dave Freer Posting:
Well, I just finished the next book, and thought I'd sunday snippet of it... but SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS has been nominated as for best sf/f novel in thePreditors & Editors reader's poll (as has the THE POET GNAWREATE AND THE TAXMAN in sf shorts) Sarah has been nominated in the romance category for SOUL OF FIRE and in Mysteries (as Sarah D'Almeida) A DEATH IN GASCONY (if you want to vote: ) I should post the first chapter.

Slow Train to Arcturus
Eric Flint & Dave Freer
From Remote probe report 36e, returned to Sol; beamback 2793 AD
...appear to be a bi-pedal hominid spacetravelling species, occupying the second planet of G09 - 034T..._____
One of the biggest faults with the concept of a one-shot slower-than-light colony mission was the proportion of the time spent accelerating and slowing down. Take Barnard's star for example. At 5.9 light years away, with a ship capable of 0.3 lights, a plausible speed for a ramscoop... you'd be there in 19.7 years, right? Wrong. It all depends on acceleration. High-speed acceleration is expensive and creates engineering stresses, to say nothing of the stresses on the biological matter. A slow steady push is best. You accelerate slowly for at least a third of your trip. And then you have to slow down again. If you're going to visit a number of systems, this adds HUGELY to travel time. What's more, the momentum you've lost has to be built again. Momentum is expensive. It is energy. Energy, whether taken from solar-pumped lasers or a-bombs is a consumable. Even if it is 'free' solar power, it still costs to get it into a usable form, and once it has been used, it is gone. A metal Space habitat has finite lifespan - but it is an enormous one. The depreciating cost, amortized over its space-life, divided by its carrying capacity, makes it the cheapest vehicle humanity ever built. However: Building the momentum needed to travel between the stars is too expensive to waste on 'one stop' journeys, or even on leapfroging between stars. Once the colony ship accelerates it must never slow down again. Never. It will drop space habitat modules at each sun. But it must just keeps cruising slowly along, a slow train to the stars.
From SLOWTRAIN: THE STARS WITHIN OUR GRASP, Conquist, A., Mordaunt Scientific Press, NY. 2090. ____
"Do you want to colonize planets? Or do you want to colonize space? The former is much less practical."
Author unknown________________________________________________________________
They looked like a string of tiny jewels. Jewels racing across the heavens. The astronomer waited, hardly daring to breathe. Precisely at the predicted time there was a brief flare of light. He hastily got up from his seat behind the hi-res screen. They had to get a move on to be ready in time! It was only fifteen years away. That was a short time by interstellar travel standards. A bit long for him though... Weight would be a problem in the interception ship. He'd be changing sex about then, with all the weight-gain that implied. Oh well, there were hormones you could use. They did shorten your life expectancy -- but that wasn't going to be a problem. The people going on this trip didn't have much of a one. He'd have to start recruiting. The crew would need to be specialists in fields each, and more if possible. And they would have to be at least technically insane.
...More than any other space-used technique, the blowing of nickel-iron bubbles changed engineering. From ship hulls to habitats, it was the death of the 'plate-and-rivet' technology that had dominated since the 19th century. Bubbles blown from space-melted m-type asteroids altered nearly all the dynamics, both economically and in engineering terms.
From: An introduction to Space Engineering, Vol. 1. 2202, Braun, W.J and Casern, D. (ed.) SoCalTech Press (pub.)____________________________________________________________
In a place once called Space Habitat Unit 36, now many light years from Earth, the Goebs SS moved silently through the burned out corridor section. They were more cautious than usual, weapons at the ready. Blue eyes stared warily from the camo stripes. The air reeked of smoke, and plant nutrients dripped from a rusted, long severed pipe. The wolf-pack did not even notice. They did spot the faint print of the fugitive in the ash though. With feral smiles the Goebs moved forward. The bitch would never reach the Himmla turf. She was theirs. And after they had their fun with her, there would be meat. They were all hungry enough for that to be almost more important to them.*** In the Miran spacecraft now rapidly approaching Space Habitat Unit 36, Meth swam up from the drug induced trance-hibernation. He opened his eyes and looked at the cramped room, and up at Selna, the ship-physician, leaning over him. "We're on the final intercept approach," said Selna, beaming down at him. From the transit-massage couch, Meth smiled back, a little wary, a little confused. Well, that was to be expected. It would take his livers time to clear the drugs out of his system. Selna was much closer to sexual changeover than he was, and was therefore bigger and had more body, and more liver, available to deal with the trance-drugs. It was a reason to be wary with him. Moods were even less stable than sexuality, at this stage. Selna would only get worse until he became fully female, and settled down. Well, thought Meth, eventually he'd get there himself. It was odd to think of being sedentary and child-rearing. Selna had better watch his hormone-supplements. There was no space on the intercept ship for a nesting territory, let alone a creche. Anyway, it would all smell wrong. Meth sat up. He was still giddy, but the excitement was beginning to push aside the drugs that had allowed them to make the six year journey. Selna lent him a hand, helping him to his feet. The physician-communications specialist's eyes were alive with excitement. "And have I got news for you, my xenobiologist-engineering friend! It looks like both of your specialities may just be needed." Incredulously Meth turned on him. "There is something alive on the alien craft? It is not just a probe?" Selna laughed. "To hear Leader Zawn you'd think it will be full of Aliens." Meth had to laugh too. "Probably fluffy and pink with tentacles." "Well, he has detected beamed laser signals coming from one of spheres. The sixth. I've started computer analysis of the signal." "It's just an automated signal system. Look, when they started checking the back-record from Astronomy, they found signs of the alien ship as far back as two hundred years ago. It'll be a treasure trove, all right, but Zawn's archaeology will have more of a role to play than my xeno-biology. By this time they'd walked forward down the narrow passage to the science deck. Meth was glad to flop into a chair. Leader Zawn was peering intently at some instruments, so absorbed that he didn't even look up. He just waved a hand in greeting. His mouth was stretched into a beam of pure delight. Meth stared at the forward viewscreens as Selna handed him a high-energy drink, designed stimulate the mind, flush the body of trance-drug metabolites and, naturally, taste vile. The alien ship filled the entire viewscreen, although they must be at least seven light-seconds away from it. It looked even more like string of white beads - beads moving at nearly a third of the speed of light, but beads none-the-less. Of course there was not much light out here to reflect, but the infrared view confirmed that the thing was, by comparison to space, quite warm. The machinery inside must still function, somehow. No matter how well you insulated anything it would -- eventually -- leak heat. "Behind the ramscoop is a fusion plant," said Zawn looking up from his instruments, not bothering with any niceties like small-talk about how his Xeno-biologist felt after trance-sleep. The answer was always the same anyway: awful. "And behind that the spectroscope confirms the next object is water-ice. Probably a whole comet. Now what do you think they'd want that for, Meth?" Meth hid his smile. "Fuel?" he said just for the sheer joy of watching Zawn's face. The poor fellow almost showed his teeth before realizing that he was being teased. "Someone will kill you in a mating fight, Meth. Don't be more obstructive than you have to be. Replenishment, that's what. Replenishment of lost materials. There will be some leakage, but this gives the lie to Melka's ideas. Of course there could still be life, even if his calculation of the effectiveness of seals is correct. They just brought replenishments along. A lot of replenishements. The third object is Nitrogen ice and carbon dioxide." "Well, their transporting water, nitrogen and CO2 along does suggest that they're not the sort of alien life-forms Melka and Ferni proposed," said Meth. Zawn had a habit of leaping to conclusions. Archeologists had to, he supposed. Often there wasn't that much to go on. But the combination was indeed promising for life as they knew it on Miran. Perhaps the theories of what the basic conditions for the formation of life were, were about to be proved. The theories of evolutionary convergence were another matter entirely. Yes, they worked withing a planetary sphere, but out here... Why should two legs and two eyes be a norm? He already knew the answer: because function shapes form. But even if there was a remanent of life on the aliens ship, it was going to be VERY different. Excitingly different, beyond his wildest dreams. Zawn leaned in, beamed, and came up with his clincher. "And it is very plain that they're using energy. Quite a lot of energy for a ship full of machinery or even sleepers. Each of those beads is rotating. There are small ion-jets on the equatorial ridge of each bead to keep them spinning." Spin. Centripetal force would provide the effect of gravity. And why should gravity matter to machinery, or, as had been postulated by the excitable fringe media on Miran, to a spacecaft full of frozen aliens? There might be a huge cargo of trance-state aliens on that ship... where were they heading for? The ship showed no signs of slowing. The initial theory had been that the vessel's purpose was to deploy of probes, and that that had caused the flash which had originally caught astronomers attention. Objects moving at considerably higher fractions of C had been detected relatively soon after that. But this was a different prospect altogether. A vastly different prospect. There could even be live 'minders' on the alien string of pearl-like beads. The idea frightened and excited Meth, as the rest of the Miran expedition crew were brought out of trance and the distance to the alien ship closed, hour after hour. Laser streams of data hurtled back toward Miran. Meth could imagine the newscasts getting it all wrong, and a whole generation of young males wishing that they were on this grand adventure themselves, and the nest-mothers being terribly glad that the males weren't out here. The amount of information going back now was nothing to what they'd send when they actually made physical contact. That would take the greater proportion of their reaction mass... and was giving both the steersman and navigator sleepless rest-periods, and relentless computing. "It'll have to be the distal pole of the last bead," said Steersman Kastr firmly. "I'm sorry, Leader Zawn. The spin means we have to land on a pole -- and the link between the beads means only the last pole is an option. Besides deep-radar suggests that the surface at the pole is exposed metal - whereas we think most of the rest is covered by some form of film - possibly a coating on an inner regolith layer. The sixth from last bead may be transmitting laser signal, but we can't land the the intercept there." "The lifecraft?" said Zawn desperately. "Possibly. Once we've matched velocity... well, all things are relative," said Kastr, in his 'this is another one of your stupid ideas, archeologist' voice. Meth knew Zawn well enough to suspect that, stupid idea or not, the lifecraft, intended to provide their final stage home, would be attempting the journey to the sixth bead. It had been a possibility in the design phase, Meth knew. There was a crawler in the hold too. It had seemed like a waste of space to Meth, but then it had been difficult to guess what they'd need to explore an alien artifact moving at 0.3 lights. The only obvious answer seemed to be: You need whatever you haven't thought of. Meth was cynically sure that that was as certain to be true as Selna suggesting a little recreational sex next rest period. It was one of those thing about approaching change. Selna's hormones were in a riot, just like his moods and his temper. And the ship had three of its crew heading that way... full of hormone supplements to avoid sex-change. Contact with aliens was less uncertain. But none of them had even begun to guess what contact would bring, thought Meth, huddling away from the alien murderers that now hunted him.*** "It's an airlock," Meth said, looking at the shape of the the alien structure that Zawn had projected up onto the screen. "That much is obvious, Leader Zawn. Engineering convergence is as inevitable as biological convergeance. A bridge looks like and works like a bridge -- within certain limits -- no matter where on our world it was built, by whatever linguistic group or culture, after all." Zawn looked thoughtful. "And tetrahedronous religious building and tomb-structure are more of a sign of structural and material dictates than historical contact. True. But the question remains. Do we attempt to open this airlock?" "It's what we came for," said Selna, caressing Meth's back. "Not strictly speaking," said Meth. "We came to investigate an alien artifact, assumed long dead, or to be probe. Yes, I'd love to see an alien lifeform. But it is also true that whatever is in there may not care to be disturbed. And we are the interlopers." Selna snorted, stopping his distracting activity. "Look," he said, "what are we going to do? Come nearly 1.8 light years and then go home wringing our hands and grimacing, just in case the occupant might be showing their teeth, and not welcoming visitors to their nest? We are males. Some of you are even quite attractive," his hand trailing down Meth's back again. The physician didn't see things quite the way a behavioral biologist did. "They might not have two sexes," said Meth. "Maybe three. Or only one." Selna laughed. "No. Convergent evolution dictates that they'll have at least two. Females to tell the males what to do, Males to ignore them." "And get killed," said Meth. Selna laughed again. "Well, we'd have overpopulation problems if males were as nest-minded as females." "I think they're going to be very small and very different, or else in cyronic preservation," Meth had said firmly. "Look at the size of the each of those beads. They're not really big enough to be bio-viable." "I thought that the consensus was that they'd have to be at least of roughly equal cranial capacity to us to allow for the evolution of sentience," said Selna, betraying that he'd read far more than he admitted to. Well, after the existence of the alien artifact had been confirmed, theories had proliferated like bacteria. The cranial capacity one had quite caught the public eye. Of course it assumed that aliens would have a cranium... "Only assuming that their biology is close to ours, I mean, if the brain is not convoluted for example, they'd need about three times the cranial capacity - assuming their nervous system works even remotely like ours," said Zawn, showing that he'd read the same speculation. "I personally hope that they're are going to be dead sexy," said Selna, getting up and walking off in search of new prey, with one of his sudden mood-swings. "You're all too boring." It did make rational conversation easier. "So," said Meth to Leader Zawn. "I suppose what you are really trying to ask me is how many people we should send in, and what dangers they can expect to face? I know you well enough to know you are not not going to go yourself." Zawn smiled. "Yes," he said. "So long as you accept that the number will include me." "Both of us," said Zawn. "We're relatively expendable." Zawn was amused. "What a shocking thing to say to your leader." "True enough, though. And as for the dangers... well, it is relatively unlikely that we're going to find any life in there, or that any contamination that will survive contact with hard vacuum," said Meth. Zawn's lips stretched and narrowed in a smile. "And that pink furry tentacled aliens will come out and run off with Selna." "He's being exhausting right now," admitted Meth. The attention was flattering, but still... "We'll all get there," said Zawn, tolerantly. "If we live that long. I'm quite looking forward to him changing and settling down in a nest-territory and never moving again," said Meth. "At the moment his promiscuity is a little tiring," said Zawn, "But spare me a territorial female to deal with as well. So: You and me, and maybe Abret. There is not much call for a deep-space radiation scientist. We have a spare pilot, beside him. And Selna can do his life support work in a pinch." There was more to Leader Zawn, thought Meth, than mere boundless enthusiasm and a capacity to think the best of everyone. More than an encyclopedic knowledge of the historical artifacts of seventeen cultures too. It must have been difficult for the expedition committee to chose a male to lead, but he was as good a candidate as you were likely to find this side of changeover. "My choice, exactly," he admitted. "So when do we go?" "Now," said Zawn, calmly. "Abret is just off getting some adjustments done to his suit. His growth has been slower than predicted while he was under the trance drugs." "In other words, you'd already made up your mind before you asked me," Meth said, incredulously. "Well, not quite," admitted Zawn. "I wanted your opinion, and I wanted you along, of course. But I wasn't sure how expendable to engineering you considered yourself." Zawn showed the tact that had led to him being chosen to lead the alien artifact interception mission, over the heads of the obvious candidates in Navigation or Steering. He took Meth by the arm and the two of them walked toward the passage to the outer airlock. "The decisions on risk profiles were actually taken back on Miran, before we left, you see. But a willing participant is always best." He looked mischievously at Meth. "And if we go now, well, what Selna doesn't know he can't fuss over. He is not to be considered for any high-risk operations." "A very good point," admitted Meth.*** The team had set up the laser-video links, before retreating on the Miran spacecraft. Meth had had the frission of knowing they would forever be the first Miran males who had finally penetrated an alien spacecraft. That laser relays would have those pictures on datafiles back home. He'd also had the fear of walking into an Alien airlock, and the knowledge that Selna was furious with him. Abret painstakingly checked the atmosphere being pumped into the airlock. "We'd breathe this and live, you know," he said, looking at the readouts again. "More Nitrogen and less carbon dioxide than we're used to. Traces of methane. And Sulphur compounds... But the oxygen level is tolerable." "Sorpon's prediction on the environmental requirement for intelligent life comes true," Meth said regretfully, pausing in the setup of the radio repeater. "I'd have preferred you to prove him wrong, as I always thought his premises for the evolution of intelligence were simply too narrow. What's the temperature like?" "Chilly," said the scientist. "Enough to make you sprout cilia, but not to kill you." The inner airlock door beckoned. Aside from bridges and religious tetrahedrons... function demanded that a door look like a door. It was lower and wider than Miran would made it, but it was still a door. "Well?" asked Meth. "Do we open it? Or do we examine this area carefully first?" "Caution and good archeology suggests the latter," said Leader Zawn. "But I am still a young enough male to be foolish and reckless," he said, smiling. "Besides, our time is limited. If we follow good archeological principles we'll still be looking at the edge of the launch-pad when the artifact heads on for the next star, and we've had leave or go along for a one-way ride. I suggest we have lasers pistols at the ready, but don't hold them obtrusively." He began pulling on the wheel-device on the door. It responded. External sound pick-ups on the suit recorded a faint creak. But Meth had not even had time to draw the laser pistol, when the door slid open. Inside... Inside the alien ship was not, as some had suggested, a huge hollow space. They were in a large open area, true, but it was not high-roofed. An elderly female Miran would have had to duck her head. Before them open entryways gaped. One passage was wide enough to take a lander, and had, Meth noticed, a roof-rail. But most of them were narrow. Some were lit -- as was this area was, with a light that seemed a little too yellow and too bright. And they could see spindly green things there. The truth dawned on Meth then. "It's not a probe. Or a spaceship. It's a habitat. A space habitat. They've got away from the space-constraint issue with layering." His engineering side was doing some hasty recalculation as to the surface area in the habitat. This would increase area by several thousand percent. True, it would be more than a little claustrophobic in the passages -- walking closer they could see the walls were covered in growing things. "I think it is both a habitat and a spaceship. Those inside have a small world to live in," said Zawn, slowly. "They must be a species far more adapted to life in space than us. Better able to tolerate enclosed spaces, for starters." "But why?" asked Abret peering around. "I mean, why build a ship that appears to do nothing but transport their habitat across maybe a hundred light-years. The ship isn't slowing. It hasn't slowed -- according to examination of back data -- for at least a hundred years. And yet... a species content to dwell in space habitats could make their home around any star. And there is more room around any one star than they could ever use." It was quite a question, thought Meth. "Maybe they like to travel or to explore, and this is just to provide them with a home while they do?" "Could be, I suppose," said Zawn, staring around. "We make the arctic observatories as home-like as possible. Or maybe this is a failed colony ship. Do you think anything is still alive in here? Besides the plant-life that you're peering at, Meth?" "Could be too," said Meth peering at the divided leaves. The convergeance was amazing! He clipped a tiny piece off with a monomolecular-edged sampling blade and dropped it into a sample holder on his belt. Of course it would have to be examined under the strictest quarantine conditions, even if the risks of bio-contamination were minuscule. But he could hardly wait to get a microscope to it, and to begin investigating its chemical makeup. "Then why aren't they here?" asked Abret, moving back nervously from the leafy passage-mouth. "Maybe they're not expecting visitors in deep space," said Zawn, flippantly. "I don't think you should be damaging the flora, Meth. It's their property. They might take offence..." And then something moved, darting forward towards them. Abret must have been nearer to the thin edge of panic than he'd let on, because he'd fired. A piece of alien greenery was cut and fell, and something exploded and burst into flames briefly. A stripe-faced creature clad in green and brown mottling that had made it difficult to see, dropped something, and raised its hands. So did two others that had been so perfectly hidden that none of the Miranese explorers had seen them. Three Miran had faced three aliens for a long moment before Zawn said "Raise your hands too. It must be a greeting. See, empty palms, a gesture of friendship and peace." The aliens stood like statues as Zawn and Meth echoed the two handed greeting, while Abret, obviously almost paralyzed with fear, stood with his laser pistol at the ready. "Abret. Greet them," said Zawn, firmly. The frightened deep-space physicist responded slowly, raising just the one hand above his head, keeping his laser pointed at the Aliens. They all stood like that for a very long time, looking at each other. They were disturbingly Miran-shaped, and yet alien. Wrong. Yes, they were bipeds, and had the normal arrangement of arms and a head. Two eyes, a mouth and a nose. But the hands were wrong. Five digits instead of the normal three and opposable. It looked as if one of their digits -- the inner one -- might be opposable. And the head and face were even more wrong. The heads had filaments on them, as if the aliens were suffering from extreme cold. And the face pigments-stripes were all different. The position of the eyes, the shape of the nares, the angle of the mouth were all slightly different, and the external part of what was probably an ear was too low. At least they were not showing their teeth. Eventually, Meth said in whisper -- ridiculous, because the aliens couldn't hear their radio transmissions and certainly couldn't understand them: "Can we stop greeting now? My arms are getting very tired." Zawn slowly lowered his arms. The Aliens looked at each other and slowly did the same. And the external mikes picked up the sound of alien speech. Transcomp cut in. "Unknown but sequential pattern," the computer supplied. "Analyzing." "So what do we do now?" asked Abret. "Hope like hell that they're not too mad at the damage you did shooting at them. Apologize," said Zawn. "How do we do that?" asked Meth. "We repeat their words back them from Transcomp. And then we do some miming," said Zawn. "It appears as if we have similar meanings in our hand-gestures, anyway." What the expedition leader lacked in animal-behavior knowledge he made up for in decisiveness. Personally, Meth thought that the miming could have meant nearly anything from 'sorry' to 'if you move we'll shoot at you'. But the repeat-back of the Transcomp recorded words had produced a flurry more alienese. When this was repeated back to them, one of the aliens had grasped the situation and began pointing to objects and naming them. They plainly were quick on the uptake. But that was what you'd expect from the builders of such a magnificent artifact. It had been the most exhausting and thrilling time period of Meth's life. Transcomp got the names of objects quickly enough. Once they got the idea the aliens had even contrived to show actions and provide words. Meth wasn't sure how much of the translation was getting through the other way. The aliens called all of them 'Zawn'. And they appeared willing to help, even if Abret had kept his distance, nervously, most of the time. Another thing had been noting the appearance of small 'bots of alien design which had eventually appeared and begun repairing the damage from Abret's shot. Obviously the alien ship's internal machinery still functioned well, if slowly. It had been a triumphant and excited group that had returned to the ship. The Aliens were... Alien. And yet, less so than some of the scientists and the general public had expected. If they'd been blobs of slime they might have been more wary. If Transcomp, designed to provide interface between nests from any island or culture on Miran had proved less adaptable and successful, things might have been different too, admitted Meth.*** Everyone had wanted to be part of the next group, but Leader Zawn had taken that cautiously too. "We'll take four people next time. They seem friendly. I'm afraid, Meth and Abret, I won't be able to take you two, this time." Abret, in the nervous-moody stage before change, certainly didn't mind. Meth too hadn't regretted it in the slightest. The systematic examination of the plant sample he'd taken took up most of that time. The others would merely have been part of the second contact. He'd been part of the first, and his monograph on the alien plants would ensure that his fame continued long after he'd mothered his sons and become a vast matriarch, too big to move without help. The structure of the plant had been like looking at a young student's first badly understood research of Miran vegetation. It was... similar in function, but obviously had arrived there from a different direction. The chemists would have fun with some of the long-chain organic molecules too, but they were carbon compounds. Evolution had a myriad possible paths to follow in theory, but perhaps in practice there were certain constraints. Meth found himself intensely curious as to how these alien plants would taste. He resisted the crazy urge. Miran digestion was robust, but who knew what alien toxins would do one's livers? The second expedition came back bubbling with excitement at the friendliness of the aliens. "They want to meet all of us. It... seems they are rather vague on 'outside'," said Zawn. "We're making huge strides with the language. I've decided: Except for Abret and Derfel, who will be taking the lander to the source of the laser pulses, and Leter and Guun, who will remain onboard the ship, we're all going in after next rest period. It's a veritable treasure house of alien life-forms and equipment, Meth. And... you know what? We think it was supposed to be a colony ship. A whole series of them, rather. They say their bead was suppose to take them to a new sun. Obviously their astronomy must be far ahead of ours, to predict what suns would have habitable planets." Meth had been just as excited about the idea of more material to add to his biological firsts and keen on engineering discovery. He'd quietly taken along the better part of an engineering repairman toolkit. He was expecting great things. Just not quite what they got.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Dreams vs. Goals

One of my mentors, Dean Wesley Smith, made a series of excellent posts about goals to his blog in December. The one thing that it crystallized for me was the difference between goals and dreams.

Dreams are important. They're the gold rings that keep us galloping. An example of what Dean calls a Big Dream is: "I want to be a New York Times #1 bestseller." A great dream to have, but a crummy goal. Why? It's out of my control.

Goals should be based on things we can control. If I want to be a Times bestseller, the best way—the only way—to get there is to write and submit books. So a goal that I can set in order to work toward my dream might be to write and submit two novels this year.

Simple distinction, but I hadn't made it before and so was setting "goals" that were actually dreams and then being disappointed when they didn't come through.

Hats off to Dean for setting me straight.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A writer makes a cranky reader

I've just read another bestselling book, by a bestselling author (who has the cutest author photo in the back!) I can name this book--Keeping Faith, by Jodi Picoult--because I enjoyed it immensely and can recommend it as a compelling read. Here's the sticker, though: I'm a writer, and there are two big flaws in this otherwise delightful novel.

My problems with this novel are 1) there's a dramatic scene, an injury at a circus, that seems to have no bearing on the rest of the plot; and 2) after four hundred pages dealing with a fascinating situation, the situation just evaporates. Done. Over. No explanation, not even, really, a speculation about what it all meant. It's just--gone.

I haven't read Picoult before, although now I will. She writes smoothly, and her plot kicks along at an amazing pace. It was a relief to find a book from the bestseller lists which I really enjoyed. But I don't think our genre audience would ever settle for this story as told. They might not care about the circus scene that seems to mean nothing, but they would sure as heck care about an unresolved plot point, especially one on which the entire book hinges. I know my editors would never let me get away with such an evasion.

I want to meet the charming Jodi (it really is a darling photograph) and ask her just what SHE thought it all meant?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Being Terry Pratchett

I was recently drawn in to a discussion on a Livejournal conference for writers about what writers should read. Because it ties in – somewhat – with what I wrote about the week before last, I thought I would pursue that thought.

Of course for me the answer to what I should read is "everything." At least, it’s not so much like I’ve been given a choice. As Heinlein put it – if I recall correctly in Glory Road – I have an addiction. It’s more expensive than cocaine and just as debilitating.
I have read every genre of fiction and known fiction known to man, and some that are probably not known even to women, I’ve read in the rain, I have read in the train, I’ve never read with a goat in a moat, but I’m sure it will eventually happen. By preference I read SF/F, unless I’m fried when I read mystery, or want to cheer myself up, when I read romance. When I’m stressed I become unable to read fiction – something about the emotions is too much for me – so I read history books or books on biology and paleontology. If I’m stressed AND sick (a disgusting combination) even those books become too exciting for me, and I read the sort of classification manuals and books that are so dry they could suck the moisture of the world’s oceans. When I had pneumonia I got hold of early twentieth century biology manuals and read them serially. In a pinch I read instructions for tools I don’t own and never plant to use, or the copy in the back of paint sample cards.

So to me the question of whether I should read great literature or genre or "trashy" fiction – a definition that changes with the person speaking – is meaningless. If I’m not writing, you’ll find me with something printed in my hand or, if the activity precludes it (do you know how many books I’ve ruined with floor wax?) with a book on tape going in the back.

However in this discussion people were talking about whether it was possible – or worth it – to imitate another author’s style. And whether one would write what one read.

This to me is not a null program. I mean, I think one can, and I probably could do it for a short story, as an homage. To some extent I stole "markers" of Dumas’ style for my musketeer’s series because – duh – it seemed needed. However it never occurred to me I could write like Dumas or even that this would be – at any level – desirable.

But over time? No. Even my Musketeer Mysteries are not Dumas. Nor did I make any attempt to make them so, beyond some funny touches and some general character descriptions. The world has changed and Dumas is simply not appropriate now. The characters that you can get lost in even with a trail of breadcrumbs are very much mine. As are a lot of the turns of decision that Dumas would probably be sickened by.

Bradbury was mentioned – though not Pratchett – and the mention of him made me think of Pratchett because I think those two are the writers more people have tried to imitate and failed than any other writers in fantastic fiction. And they are two writers that are impossible to imitate, which means that the literary field is strewn with the "corpses" of would be imitators.
And what is it about these two men that is so hard to imitate? Well... it’s not the style so much. Or the plots. Or even the characters. It’s their own personality that they infuse the words and the characters and the plot with. The two men – very different – are successful because they have mastered the art of creating worlds that are, in some essential way part of themselves. Take apart that link, cut that umbilical cord and all you have is an excess of words or some empty jokes.

So what does this all mean? I don’t know. With two notable exceptions – done as favors, and neither to see the light of day – I never wrote anything that didn’t have a very deep spring inside myself. Even works that started as something-to-do when nothing else was in the horizon – the mystery I just finished, done to fulfill a contract, Plain Jane done so I could do Kathryn Howard eventually – before I could finish them I made them mine.

Does this mean I’ll be as successful as Pratchett or Bradbury? Well... I lack one’s broad and generous knowledge of the world and humanity and other’s poetic grace. And for now the answer seems to be "no." However, as I said, I’m reading everything and I’m working very hard, and someday, perhaps I can learn hot to translate the shining internal vision to words in a way that doesn’t make it dead and colorless. It will of course involve conquering the fear of that living thing beating within my mind.

It’s something to aim for.