Thursday, April 29, 2010

A call to science

There was a time in American history--say, the 1940s & 50s--when Americans looked at science with love. We had the best engineering schools in the world. We took pride in our nuclear program and space race. And we consumed science fiction like a hungry man devours a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos.

Times have changed.

You practically can not teach science in our public schools (at least in some states) and the numbers of math, science and engineering students falls a little every year. Science went from cool to the stuff of horror movies to something beneath the cultural radar. Science fiction, while still a popular genre, was first swallowed by the horror craze of the 80s and is now playing second fiddle to fantasy. When was the last time you looked in the YA department of your favorite bookstore and saw teenage girls snapping up SF novels? (As an aside, I feel certain this has a lot to do with the unsexiness of space suits. We need scantier space apparel, NASA, and we need it ASAP.)

We, as genre writers, have got step things up. We aren't to blame for Creationists running amok over the curriculum of the nation's schools--but we have obviously been slacking. Guys like Robert Heinlein made outer space cool. Even the extremely old school Jules Verne showed kids that science was the shit. We can do just as well. We can say "no" to sparkly vampires and evil wizards and give a little back to the genre that nurtured our culture to a new cultural era. We can write incredibly amazing, sexy SF novels.

The good news is that we've got a little help finding inspiration in our friend the blogosphere. If you haven't checked out the new Science in My Fiction blog, you're missing out. It's a great resource for real science you can use, digested by real writers who rock. So click on over and geek out. It's the least you can do.

I mean, if you're not too busy designing sexy new togs for NASA.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Epic spring just keeps rocking

Wow. I've found the greatest group of writing buddies; I've sold my first book--and now my Sweetie-Pie of the last five years has finally popped the question. Have pigs started flying or are the stars just aligning in some new and bizarre constellations? I don't know.

I do know, however, that I respond to good news with pure confusion. And then I don't believe it for another 24-hours or so. And then I get goosebumps and think I'm going to throw up. Maybe it's a good thing that all my short fiction submissions are coming back rejections--I'd be non-stop queasy!

The only bad thing about all this new progress is the uncertainty of certain details. I am a planning freak. That probably deserves italics: I am a planning freak. Since I don't know exactly when Virtual Tales is planning to put out my book, I've got no plans. And since Sweetie-Pie just wants to "enjoy the magic" of being engaged for a little while, I've got no plans there. (Of course, after 4 years of cohabitation and serious commitment and the occasional matrimonial daydream, I've got a pretty great plan and just waiting until I feel like I've got the green light for implementation!) My planning skills are feeling a little neglected.

On the plus side, I've still got another book to distract me. So off I go, bringing my head down out of the clouds and into the realm of monsters and mayhem.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Putting my money where my heart is

Every year I sign up with some charity or other and give out $10 a month via automated billpay. It's not a huge chunk of money, but it lets me feel a tiny bit better about myself and the role I play in the world. Sometimes I dig deep for individual projects, but I always rest easier knowing that every month, without even thinking about it, I'm doing something good.

Well, no longer.

From May thru the end of 2010, I want to give my $10 a month consciously to the markets that nourish spec fiction writers. Half of them are legally nonprofits, and the other half ... well, they're not exactly making a profit. And these people are the advocates of my corner of the universe. They stir up the new ideas, they promote fresh thinking. They give writers like me a few extra bucks to pad the grocery budget.

I want to pay them back. And I'm taking suggestions. Clarkesworld & Crossed Genres have gotten a little dose of love--who's next? And why?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Ode to geekerie

I have never been friends with anyone cool.

That's not to say that I've never been friends with anyone awesome or that my friends are uncool. Obviously, I have amazing friends. They're just geeks.

Geeks are willing to be enthusiastic about things. They get excited about something and they bubble over with it. Geeks try to learn more about their passions and make everyone they know into mini-experts on the topic. Geeks are passionate people.

I like being friends with geeks because they are always teaching me new stuff. Also, they don't look at me funny when I start talking supernaturally fast. They just listen harder.

I love being a part of the spec fic community because everybody involved is a super-mega-geek. Even the most important editor at the biggest publishing company is incredibly geeky. Actually, once you know how publishing works, you realize that an editor's job is to be a professional geek. That's right--they get paid to be full-time book geek. They just have to remember to talk more slowly than I usually manage during a full-on geekgasm. It gives them the illusion of cool.

Nothing makes me happier than giving in to my geekiest instincts and falling in love with a new subject. Nothing makes me happier than meeting another geek and riffing off their geek loves.

Nothing makes me happier than meeting kids that are growing up geeks. (And I'm thinking of my young friends Amberly and Kayla when I say that. Thank goodness for girls like you, who already rock so hard! We WILL hang out at Orycon. Just wait.)

Geeks rock. I love them. And I am so proud to be one that I'm even typing freakishly fast!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Critters are a blessing

There comes a point in the creation process where it can be difficult to look at your own piece and see it with any kind of perspective. I can look at all the words and layers and promise and feel certain there's something I need to fix--and have no clue what it is. And that's where I've gotten insanely lucky lately. I have stumbled into a group of talented readers who are devoted problem solvers with strong analytical skills.

What? Problem solvers? Strong analytical skills? Don't those come second to an amazing way with words and a degree in grammar or literature?


My posse is at a point where we've accepted that words are our tools and that each of us has our own unique set of them. Once in a while, someone wouldn't mind a nudge suggesting that a tool didn't work quite the way we wanted it to (a little like a house painter might realize that the mini-paint roller wasn't the perfect tool for finishing a doorframe), but we wouldn't appreciate anyone trying to get in the way our own particular voice or methodology.

What we want is someone to look at the way problems are set up in the piece and how they are resolved. Someone who can eyeball the structure of a story and see if its plumb. If the characters ring true. And more than anything else, we need somebody else to see if there is actual tension stretching through the piece.

You see, the difference between an okay story and a good one is the sensation of a thread of tension pulling the protagonist through the story. In a good story, there's conflict. In a great story, there is conflict that the protagonist MUST live through--that for some internal reason, he must pass through the god-awful conflicts to release an inner sense of tightness.

And we, the readers, have to feel that tension, even if we don't understand it. We must be pulled through the story as if we have been hooked on a fishing line, and as we are wriggling on the hook, we're swallowed up by a giant fish. We feel every rib squeezing pump of the monster's peristaltic movements. We feel the burning sting of the stomach acid. And we constantly feel the yank of the fish hook in our mouths, dragging us toward shore so hard that we're jerked through the last few feet of guts and fecal matter to shoot up out of the water. Sore. Bloodied. Anguished. But exhilarated.

Remember, we can't see the fisherman on the shore, dragging us along. We only see the fish guts. That's how it is in a great story: there's something invisible moving the story along, and all that is clearly depicted is the dangerous inner world of conflict. Only at the ending can we really see what's been happening.

As a writer, it's damn hard to tell if you've gotten the hook set right. If while the hero is fighting some big fight (maybe it's with his mother-in-law, maybe it's with a zombie, it doesn't matter), there's no sense that there's something pulling his character through that moment for some reason, then the story is failing. It's letting down the reader. And only a reader can tell you if you've succeeded in that moment.

After all the work I put into the piece I'm able to plug in an imaginary sense of tension because I know what's supposed to happen. There's been a time or two when I've been able to go back to a piece and read it like a fresh-eyed reader. But those times are very rare. The rest of the time, I depend on my critters. Basically every story I've written and liked, I owe it to them. Thanks, guys. You're the best.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Pitch Perfect

I can't vouch for anyone else, but there's nothing like taking a minute to create a one-paragraph pitch or half-page synopsis to help me muddle through the middle of a project. Here I am in that middle portion of my novel--you know, that crazy, action-packed "throw rocks at the hero" part of the story--and it's getting incredibly messy. There's blood and sex and tiny monsters, and it's a little hard to make out why this is all so important in a story about a desperate housewife.

Time to pull over to consult our map.

Yes, I have a great outline on this project (although I never project quite enough scenes when I'm first visualizing a book--I thought I had this one nailed, but probably only detailed about 25,000 words worth of scenes), and it's pulling me along in an orderly fashion. But when you're down in the trenches, a scribbled set of directions is only so useful. Sometimes you need perspective.

That's when I bust out the one-paragraph pitch. A one-sentence hook is too easy, too Hollywood. But the one-paragraph pitch, where you try to lay out Donald Maass's 6 critical points, can really help restore your vision in the piece. Here they are, as presented in an interview in Making the Perfect Pitch (by Katharine Sands, who is interviewing Maass in this section):
  • Title
  • Category/genre
  • Setting
  • Name of protagonist
  • Problem
  • One colorful detail that makes this project unique
It really is okay to push aside the manuscript for five minutes to work it out--even if you've done it before for your project. As you're muddling, you get new notions about the problems and details of the story, giving you a reason to create a new paragraph. And when you're done, you'll sit there blinking to yourself. For one, the story will sound freaking awesome. There's nothing like seeing your brilliant basis for a novel laid out in streamlined glory to get you excited about the project all over again. And second of all, you'll see the bones of the piece, the things that need to protected and projected throughout the story.

I did this over my afternoon coffee, and it refreshed a lot of my ideas about my project. I remembered just why this poor woman was heading into a dragon's cave armed only with her fists and a rocks, and why it was crucial to the development of her character. And then I got really excited about it.

In fact, I think I'm going to dash off and deal with that dragon!

Monday, April 12, 2010

A new style

A new style of waiting, that is! I know I'm pretty new at the submissions game, but so far I've handled them like this: send out submission. Check email every twenty seconds. Panic. Feel depressed when the anticipated rejection arrives. Repeat. But I'm doing things differently now!

That's right. Now, I send out my submission. And then I dread checking my email and put it off as long as I dare (which, since it's my primary mode of communication, is not as long as I'd like). Because NO news is GOOD news. The longer there's nothing in my inbox, the longer that story has stayed out in the world, and the longer I get to wait before reading the dreaded four words: "Thank you, Ms. Wagner."

Yep. Hate those four words. They're always followed by something along the lines of "but we can not use your story at this time." And then despair.

Well, unfortunately, it's time to check my email. Keep your fingers crossed that it's empty!

Friday, April 09, 2010

Tipping on my tightrope

Creating a work-life balance is never easy, and when you're also trying to work in a creative life, it's like adding a flaming sword to the juggling mix. The last two weeks were all about career/creating. I went to the con; I sent out submissions; I worked on my blog & Horror-web. I was behind and I had to work hard to get caught up.

Then, picking my way across this tightrope of life/work/art, I tipped too far the other way. This week, all the guilt that piled up about leaving my family for a week sent me spiraling into a no-art-making mode, exacerbated by a grumpy kid and over-worked partner. I've struggled to make new words and sat at the computer in a sad, empty huddle. In the middle of it all, it's all excitement or misery, but looking back on the last three weeks, I can see myself like a newly trained acrobat, wobbling along the tightrope, overbalancing here and there, thrown off by events that just don't fit in my routine.

Today, I feel good. I've had a pretty normal day. It reminds me that I am a creature of habit, working most effectively when I'm working within the bounds of a pretty set schedule. I don't know what that implies for my future, but it does make me glad that I've limited my convention attendance to one big con and Orycon every year (at least for now). It's tempting to throw myself into outings and classes to try to become a better writer, but when it comes down to actually making words, the best thing seems to be a quiet kitchen table at the same time every day.

Now, if you're struggling in your own balance, here's a little tune to pick you up. It's from a new artist I'm finding as exciting as Lady Gaga (gosh, my dream show would be the two of them together!), and is a smart young lady tapping in to some awesome SF inspiration! Without further ado, here's Janelle Monae, rocking out "Tightrope":

Monday, April 05, 2010

Back in the saddle again!

Super quick note, all!

Today's been a great day, even if I do feel a bit guilty about skipping my usual volunteering session at The Midget's school. Sometimes, you just have to get some work done. And now I'm finally making headway on the novel!

Taking such a long break from the book made it hard to get back to work. In fact, it was a little bit scary. I really like my project and I'm still really drawn to the characters and ideological framework, which really raises the nerve-wrack level. Every time I write something that doesn't work, I'm a little panicky. I know it's dumb. I know the book will get revised. That doesn't mean I'm not scared of ruining it now. And the most space I give myself, the more I get freaked out.

So last week, I was tired and too dang stupid to write anything. Sitting here staring at the computer, working on other projects, I had every little nasty thought about how badly this book was going to crumble. It was like I was trying to convince myself to give up. But now that I've sat down and kicked out a few more scenes, I feel much better. It might not be great literature, but it's a first draft, and that's all that matters.

Remember: she might be an ugly nag at first, but once you tame her down and shine her hooves, your WIP might turn out to be perfectly good racehorse!

Friday, April 02, 2010

Atheist in paradise

A major highlight of my trip was my visit to the Natural History Museum of London. I hadn't intended to visit this museum--I thought I would go to the Victoria & Albert--but when I passed this amazing building, where each bit of architectural detail celebrated animal life, I had to go in.

A close-up of detailing between two windows:

I'm very glad I did. Every inch of this museum celebrates evolution and its first champion, and every inch was designed to astonish visitors with the grandeur and majesty of the natural world. Here's a view of the main lobby, shot from above:

And a close-up of the beautiful statue of Charles Darwin:

I did not feel simply as if I was inside a place of learning, but a place of celebration, of devotion, of inspiration. (I got pretty teary-eyed.) And on top of it all, the place was filled with remarkable specimens. The jaw-bone of the first t-rex ever discovered! Fossils discovered by the remarkable Mary Anning herself! Taxidermied passenger pigeons and dodos! I just sort of stumbled around, babbling to myself.

When I got done with my tour (cut short because of the need to meet some great people), I felt uplifted and full of joy. I have to imagine it's how religious folks will feel tomorrow, when they celebrate the biggest day of their calendar. I'm just glad I can get that feeling from the beauty and wonder of science, and the minds and creatures that fill the world around me. And I thank places like the Natural History Museum for helping me tap into that wonderful emotion.