Where I am, what I’m doing

1. Writing new stories
2. Writing new book
3. Revising previous stories
4. Revising previous book
5. Reading and critiquing for writer friends
6. Dealing with health stuff (especially in aftermath of travel, uff da)
7. Dealing with household stuff (especially at end of harvest season, uff da)
8. Writing long, detailed blog posts

It turns out that this week I am only managing seven out of eight of these.

Ideally some of them will get a bit more manageable by the end of the week. But in the meantime, I will wave and move along.

Produce trio: beets

1. Roasted beets with walnuts and goat cheese. Heat oven to 400 F. Wash beets and cut the ends off. Make a little packet with foil and put the beets and a little drizzle of olive oil in. Throw on a cookie sheet or other baking dish (or bare in the oven if you trust your foil-packet-sealing abilities). Bake for 40 minutes or until the beets are fork tender. Peel when cool enough to peel. Toss with crumbles of mild sweet goat cheese (Celebrity Goat with honey is awfully good for this purpose) and toasted walnuts or pecans.

2. Beet yogurt with herbs. There is a restaurant called Byblos in Montreal, and it is a Persian restaurant with very little overlap in foods with most Persian restaurants I’ve been to. They serve a trio of veg-yogurts, beet and spinach and eggplant. It is very colorful as well as delicious. In this recipe I used rice vinegar instead of the recommended red wine vinegar because my family is fairly particular about vinegars. And it was lovely, just perfect. (My attempt at the spinach version: less perfect. Stay tuned.) You can eat it with a spoon, or with pieces of pita, or you can use it as a condiment on a sandwich with shredded chicken or whatever other things you like. It is so pink. Also, as I noted on other social media earlier, very handy for demonstrating that you have a crack in your tupperware.

3. Sesame beets. This was my dinner, along with a peanut butter apple. (My food gets a little eccentric when I’m only feeding myself.) I substituted lemon juice in for the lime juice listed, because my lime betrayed me, and I used a sesame oil that was infused with chilis. I also didn’t boil the beets on the stove, because I’m using the limited stove as little as possible until we get it fixed next week, so instead I cooked them as above, but for slightly less time because I didn’t want them to be completely soft. It’s important to toss them thoroughly, or you’ll just get the taste of mild roasted beets with a little aftertaste of the sesame seeds (which is fine but not, y’know, notable) and not the happy tangy dressing.

Dealing with the potential wrongness

I was out with a few writer friends having tea yesterday afternoon, and I mentioned my unexpected pirate story from years back. And one of my friends, who is pretty new at writing, said, “See, that would scare me, because I would think, what if someone who knows a lot more about pirates than I do read it and said I got it wrong?”

And the more I thought about it, the more I had some responses to that question.

1. Yep, that’ll happen. Let’s say that you’re one of the very very most knowledgeable people in the world about something. Pine forest ecology. The role of George of Denmark in the reign of Queen Anne. Pirates. Whatever. If there is knowledge, you know it. And you sit down to write a story that prominently features your area of Rully Great Knowledge. What happens?

Kate happens. (Unless you’re Kate. Then That Other Kate happens.) Who is Kate? Kate is one of the other Rully Greatly Knowledgeable people in your field of expertise. And Kate disagrees with you. She thinks that you’re weighting various factors a little off, or that you trust a source that is not quite trustworthy or don’t trust one that is quite trustworthy, or something. Or Kate is your closest colleague and you trust her opinion on work–but when it comes to translating this field into fiction, she thinks you’ve changed something important, where you think it’s something trivial. Or that you haven’t explained enough for the layperson.

Kate is not wrong. She’s not always right. But she’s not wholly wrong, either, because this is not arithmetic. You can both be wrong and both right.

And then there are the people who know less than you do about whatever you’re putting into your fiction, but they think they know more, or it just doesn’t feel right (see the Tiffany Problem), or another thing.

Point is, yes, it’s important to get stuff right. But it will not save you from people looking at your story and saying, “You did that wrong!” Because nothing will save you from that except putting it in a drawer and never letting anybody see it. So you have to come to terms. Comforting, I know. But seriously: come to terms with people thinking you did stuff wrong. Learn to listen and occasionally say, “Oh gosh, you’re right, I screwed that up, I’m sorry,” or else, if you don’t feel that you screwed that up, provide a discreet bibliography on your webpage for your story, then go write something else.

2. Kind of story matters. My friend has not read my pirate story, or she would know that it is not the kind of story that leans heavily on accuracy. (Heh. Heh heh.) It is…a bit gonzo. But also it leans on what kinds of things have been legends of piracy over the ages rather than actual piracy, and it’s structured so that that’s clear.

Obviously not every story can be like that. Or should. You want to leave your comfort zone sometimes. But sometimes–especially if you’re just starting out and crazy amounts of busy–using the stuff you know really really well as a springboard into the unknown is fine, actually. Or using one of the styles that does not invite biographical criticism. Daniel Pinkwater, for example: I expect Daniel Pinkwater gets letters from time to time trying to correct his books, monkeys being what they are, but most people know that they are wacky, zany, and not attempting to provide a road map to reality. So if somebody says to him, “You know, there isn’t actually any poultry themed restaurant in Weehawken,” well, was that his point? It was so not his point. So onwards, Daniel Pinkwater.

3. Steep yourself like a fine tea. To tell the truth, I read a lot of nonfiction because I like reading a lot of nonfiction, and also because I like reading a lot, and leaving out nonfiction cuts my potential reading list significantly. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s good for me. Blueberries are incredibly healthy stuff. They still taste like blueberries, which is to say: awesome. You don’t get negative health points because they taste good.

Recently a young friend told me that she was trying to increase her vocabulary to impress people with (I paraphrase here) her erudition. And I did not tell her, “Honey, nobody will be impressed by you knowing big words,” even though that’s true in my experience–the people who don’t have large vocabularies themselves do not tend to value it, and the people who do often take it for granted and cannot always identify which words they use are the “big hard” words–because I couldn’t really conceive that she would look back and say, “Darn it, I wish I had a smaller vocabulary! Knowing a broader range of ways to express myself is such a waste of time.” She’s not doing anything crazy like spending hours a day drilling herself on it. She’s just trying to pay a bit more attention.

And if you do that on the larger scale with fiction, there’s more stuff that will be in the comfort zone I mentioned in #2. The novel I’m working on* has a setting I’ve been getting background on since I was, oh, six. Or possibly since I was born, depending on what you want to count as background. So even though this is the first time I’ve written something in this particular setting, when I have to describe a detail of what someone is wearing, it feels a lot more like, “Please tell me how your grandparents dressed when you were a child” than like “Please make up a thing completely from scratch and then keep track of the thing you made up,” just in terms of how I process it. Not everything is going to be like that. But eventually you’ll get comfortable because you’ll have added a particular area to your wheelhouse. The details will just be there when you reach for them. Then when you do get an idea that works with the setting or concepts, you won’t have to be looking up every last little thing and worrying about it, because you’ll have at least some of a knowledge base to work from. A knowledge base is a very, very nice security blanket.

*Not the same as the novel I wrote in September. You gotta move with the times; it’s not September any more.

Books read, early October

John Joseph Adams, Other Worlds Than These. I understand that people split things up differently, but the combination of portal fantasies and alternate timeline worlds was a combination of one of my favorite things with a thing I can totally take or leave, so that was a bit disappointing. Still, my favorite stories did not actually split along those lines, so it worked out all right. I felt that the standouts in this collection were Alastair Reynolds’s “Signal to Noise,” David Barr Kirtley’s “The Ontological Factor,” and Carrie Vaughn’s “Of Swords and Horses.”

Joan Aiken, Dido and Pa (Kindle) and The Teeth of the Gale. This is not actually the last in the Dido Twite series of slangy children’s alternate history fun, but it’s the last I can easily get my hands on at the moment. Hanoverian villains amuse me. Not sure how I would feel if I was British. The Teeth of the Gale is the last of the early-19th-century Spanish adventure series, and while the outcomes are all fairly predictable, they’re a fun kind of predictable, and a swashbuckly kind I don’t have enough of in my current life.

Tim Akers, Memory Analog. Kindle. Short story that was more or less all premise; fine within those limitations but not outstanding. Akers is better at longer work, I feel.

Boris Akunin, The Death of Achilles. Next in the Erast Fandorin mystery series. Not deep or mind-blowing, but well-set, well-set-up, continues to be reasonably fun, within the context and its prejudices. The people who say “Russian James Bond” are not spot-on, but they’re not as far off as one might think sometimes.

Samit Basu, Turbulence. Indian superhero novel. Quite well done, and a great deal of fun to have a different view on priorities and human tendencies. More cross-cultural publication like this please.

John Calvin Batchelor, “Ain’t You Glad You Joined the Republicans?”. Grandpa’s. This was a history of the Republican Party, and I was afraid it would be intolerably yay-rah-rah about a group towards which I have no allegiance. No, the title was a quote from a mid-19th-century song. The book’s flaws were otherwise: basically it attempted to tell a history of a major political party with almost no reference to the legislative branch. No, really. No, really. It was bizarre. And of course the executive branch is not entirely separable from the legislative branch historically, so there were all sorts of weird gaps and things that appeared to come out of nowhere but did not. Also the important party political players from the executive branch were neglected if they did not get a presidential nomination, so…yeah, not so good. Also it was published in 1996, which…put a weird spin on things.

Anthony Blunt, Borromini. This was interesting about the architecture, but mostly I wanted it for a window into Anthony Blunt, you know, that Anthony Blunt, the spy. You can watch him being a bit plaintive about how Borromini was following rules, quite explicable and even rigid rules, just not the same rules as everyone around him expected. That’s…rather a thing, actually. Also the diagrams are lovely.

John Boyko, Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation. This is not fantastically written, but it’s entirely readable if you’re already interested in the interrelation of the American Civil War and the formation of the Canadian Confederation. And it’s got John A. MacDonald in it, and he’s always…vivid.

Barbara Hamilton, Sup With the Devil. The third of the Abigail Adams mysteries. I think Hamilton does a particularly good job here of having good people on both sides of the major question at hand (that being the Revolutionary War) and of having Adams reflect attitudes of her time, not of ours.

Alaya Dawn Johnson, The Summer Prince. A Brazilian-inspired future with nanotech and artists–despite the title, not a fantasy. Teen/parent relationships, teen friendships, politics, entirely appropriate crazy teen behavior. Recommended.

Suzanne Joinson, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar. I picked this up on a whim in Chapters in Montreal. It looked lovely. It was lovely. It was one of those two-timeline novels, one contemporary and the other interwar Kashgar (which, for those not in the know, is very far western China, or at least has been for awhile–central Asia). And it was the rare example of a bifurcated perspective novel where I actually liked and was interested in both timelines equally. I will be keeping an eye out for more Joinson; recommended.

Natsuo Kirino, The Goddess Chronicles. Japanese novel in translation. Felt a bit like early LeGuin, but with different cultural expectations about structure and timing, and of course different baseline myths.

Martin Luther, A Treatise on Good Works. Kindle. Wanted to see what it actually said, not paraphrases of paraphrases. Some of the stuff fit its premises entirely, and then…oh dear. Spices. Spices are not our enemy. I promise. Dear dear oh dear.

D. Peter MacLeod, The Canadian Iroquois and the Seven Years’ War. Does what it says on the tin. Does not do a great deal with Iroquois culture leading up to or after; ah well, war histories, what can one do. I really did like how MacLeod started to behave as though siege warfare really didn’t make sense, because, y’know, it didn’t, and the Iroquois were pretty clear on that.

William Manchester, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Visions of Glory 1874-1932. Manchester walks a fine line between fondness for his subject and excuse of his faults. He is clearly charmed by Churchill, but by no means finds him perfect or even free of totally exasperating moments. I think it works reasonably well, but particularly well with immediately topical contrast like….

Martin Pugh, The Pankhursts: The History of One Radical Family. The beginning of this book was much stronger than the ending. While it was clearly not intended to be a biography of Emmeline Pankhurst exclusively, the parts when she was still alive were much stronger; Pugh did not seem interested in exploring the old age of the Pankhurst daughters in any detail, and the grandchildren barely got a cursory glance. Not staggeringly well-written, but certainly well enough written that it won’t be painful if you’re interested in the topic.

V. E. Schwab, Vicious. Discussed elsewhere.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Sea Watch and Heirs of the Blade. These both had what I read Tchaikovsky for, which is: a) different cultures than the usual fantasy furniture and b) politicking. By which I mostly mean backstabbing. Structurally I’m wondering whether he’s going to end threads separately or bring them back together–it’s a very weird structure, with the result that Heirs had some of the most disturbing stuff in the series to date and Sea Watch…was fine. But that’s a question that’s in no way interfering with my enjoyment of them, particularly as airplane reads.

Toh EnJoe, The Self-Reference Engine. Mosaic hard SF novel. It’s a bit like Greg Egan and a bit like Alan Lightman and a bit like Stanislaw Lem and then a lot more Japanese than any of those. There is a lot of nature-of-the-universe level stuff going on here, so if you’re expecting that hard SF means rayguns, recalibrate, this is not that. Dimensionality is a major issue here. Get comfortable with it.

P. G. Wodehouse, The Head of Kay’s. Kindle. If you are feeling sick and dizzy and have run out of paper books on an airplane, this is a diverting enough thing, with its cricket and its house rules and all that. It is one of Wodehouse’s school stories. It is probably not the best of them, but it may also not be the worst, and it passes the time as a Wodehouse thing will do.

Vicious, by V. E. Schwab

Review copy provided by Tor.

Rarely have I read a book with such an apposite epigraph. It’s Joseph Brodsky: “Life–the way it really is–is a battle not between Bad and Good, but between Bad and Worse.” And if you read that and think, gosh, that’s a darkish view of human nature, well, possibly this is not the book for you, because the book does follow through on the epigraph. And also if you run into people claiming that women don’t write gritty dark fantasy, you may pelt them with copies of this book and run away laughing. (Try to hit with the corners rather than the spine or the pages. They’re pointier.)

Other than dark: this is a mad science story. This is a mad science superhero story, and also it’s one of the sorts of stories that often ends up at the center of superhero tales: the brother-against-brother story. (In this case, college roommates rather than literal brothers.) There was also an important sister pair whose relationship was more complicated than the word “against” would really sum up, although I wanted a bit more of that than I got.

For me, the science was not mad enough and also not functional enough to really suspend my disbelief. But given the flaw in the premise in that regard, Schwab came about as close to distracting me from it with characters and violence as you could expect, so people who are less science nerd-ish may find it to be an entirely surmountable problem.

One for sorrow, two for…holy crud, that’s a lot of crows.

I know at least two rhymes for counting crows, off the top of my head (“One for sorrow, two for joy,” they both start out), but I just looked out in my backyard, and there were dozens of crows. Scores of crows. There were not more crows than I could shake a stick at, because I would just stand at the back door and shake it broadly. But I don’t really want to go shake a stick at the crows, because it has a sort of Hitchcockian vibe at the moment. Say what you will in favor of Lovecraft, pulsing horrors mostly don’t show up in my backyard without notice. And giant flocks of birds…apparently do.

So what I want to know is: where does the crow counting rhyme go after seven or, in some extreme cases, ten? It’s really looking to me like the fortune-telling aspect will start to wear thin with a flock like this. “Forty-seven for a hangnail…forty-eight for your library books came in…forty-nine for, uh, a sale on the kind of cheese you don’t want to buy….”

The last Farthing Party con report post: Rothfuss and uphill

Patrick Rothfuss. Panelists noted that he will be the GoH at Vericon, March 21-23 of 2014, so for those of you who are interested, there’s a Rothfuss-spotting event. There was division amongst the panelists as to whether the second book made the first retroactively better or worse. The panelists all found Rothfuss compulsively readable but varied about whether his extensive use of negative capability at this point was a good thing. There was also division as to whether Kvothe’s horrible dooooom mitigated or enhanced his Mary Sue (Gary Stu, if you prefer) status.

It sounded like a great deal relied on whether or not the reader trusted Rothfuss to pull it all together, and if so, in what areas and to what degree the distrust kicked in. However, at least some of Rothfuss’s readers are having an experience gossiping and speculating about the characters that they compared to media fandoms wherein people are waiting for the next episode, so it sounds like these can be a very social read with the help of the internet.

Writing Uphill. This was the “that’s another panel” for the year, and I was on it. It’s about writing against the currents of story, against the expectations of both the reader and the writers him/herself–that is, both in communication with the audience and in sticking to one’s own internal guns. It’s about telling the stories you want to tell for personal, ideological, or narratively surprising reasons, rather than the stories that are standard. The undermining of the standard story does not in any way have to be unhappy, although that’s some people’s association/preconception of deconstructive narrative.

The common expectations and preconceptions about story have a lot of genre specificity, so one of the ways out from under the weight of expectations–if you are a person who experiences the weight of expectations at all–is to hybridize genres/modes. We also talked about writers who don’t seem to have gotten issued the expectations and preconceptions in the first place, which gives them less of a wall to bounce things off of but also less of a wall to surmount. Some of the cross-cultural differences in non-Anglophone movies and fiction can be helpful here also.

There was also some disagreement among panelists as to whether having had a factual, personal experience with the counter-narrative thing you wanted to depict was particularly helpful or not. I think it’s probably never un-helpful, but may not reach the levels of helpful depending on the individual writer.

We also talked about a cultural suspicion of reassurance, and how books earn their own endings (their wyrds!) regardless of emotional tenor. And then I got up on my hobbyhorse about the good hard work of writing books for which a hopeful ending feels earned, and one or two other people may have petted and possibly ridden similar hobbyhorses as well, I could not possibly comment.

Towards a Farthing Party con report: Worldbuilding and Writing Funny

Building Fantasy Worlds. Cuvier was quoted as saying that he could deduce an animal from a single bone. This, the panelist noted, was not guaranteed to get you the right animal, but the deductions Cuvier made were fascinating and detailed–which can be a lot more important in worldbuilding. Other panelists agreed with the “single bone” theory of worldbuilding, starting with something so small as a single word, or with an image or a cool concept. Start with fun! Sometimes things get unfun later, but starting with the unfun guarantees you unfun. For most of the people on the panel, the emotional expression in worldbuilding was a target rather than a starting point or the only point. Unintended consequences are awesome but also inconvenient.

In worldbuilding as opposed to mimetic fiction, small error can have unintended ramifications–if someone says that Napoleon is still ruling France in 1817, in mimetic fiction they’re just wrong, but in speculative fiction they’re giving you information about an alternate world–so get good fact-checkers so that you’re not misleading readers who know more about various things than you do. Or write such fun stuff that the more knowledgeable readers are willing to go on with it; this is less reliable than good fact-checkers. However, the willing suspension of disbelief can in some outstanding cases move into the willing construction of a lattice to hold up disbelief.

No one on the panel did all their worldbuilding explicitly before starting to write, but more than one person felt that the details were implied in what they knew before they started, if not spelled out. Broad intersections were encouraged, as were leaning on history and knowing the metaphysics of the world you’re building. No one used all of Patricia Wrede’s worldbuilding questions, but they can be useful individual jumping-off points rather than exhaustive complete surveys. One of the hardest parts of worldbuilding was agreed to be getting really into really foreign mindsets, such as the idea that Plato had literally no notion of progress, or even of things being different over a thousand years. Shifting one’s brain around to apt characterization of that sort is hard and fun.

You Write Funny: The Process Panel. I am going to use first initials since I don’t know who is all right with being quoted, and it was a very personal-context panel. I do think it’s important for people to be exposed to different styles of work, though, because I have run into any number of people who have said that I introduced them to something like writing out of order and in some sense gave them “permission”–this is of course a nine-and-sixty ways sort of thing. If you are one of these writers and do not want to identify yourself in comments but feel that I have mistaken something you said, please let me know on e-mail, and I will correct it.

T needs silence to work. She thinks in freewriting. Her freewrites go into narrative gradually, changing tense and acquiring dialog and other narrative characteristics from previously being “talking” to herself in writing about the characters. She has a target last scene but works at a deliberate pace up to the end. She does not conceive of her characters as interactive and uses the “talking to herself” mode to bounce things off–any resistance is intrapersonal, not character dialog.

A also needs silence to work. She describes her method as organic and composting, going into notebooks and talking to herself therein also. She shoots down her own ideas and builds up better ones, although this behavior is more pronounced at the beginning. She almost always finds that when she gets to the end, the beginning is misaligned and must be rewritten. A’s characters stick around rattling around her head until the next lot take over.

L writes in coffeeshops to do the emotionally wrenching bits: the noise and distraction of people can be useful. L is a kinesthetic writer who uses a blown glass metaphor. L translates those blown glass shapes into a prose rhythm, which gives what’s needed for going forward, but then must go back and see what was foreshadowed earlier. This makes the prose style intrinsic to the substance of the book. The endings become more polished, more formal, and more informed thereby. L finds revising the fun bit and does not do outlines. L rarely writes short stories and does them in one draft. L’s characters’ known lives end with the book.

J gets a pointless feel from outlining, as though she’s already told the story at that point and does not feel any additional urge to do it more. She gets much faster towards the end of a book and often has to rewrite, which she said she enjoyed, but she does that on the go rather than in separate drafts. Her least favorite part about finishing books is not spending more time with these people. She knows what her characters are like at all ages up to their death, and they will sometimes argue or volunteer for books they are not already in.

D feels like the last 50-100 pages are like packing a suitcase for a trip while the cabbie honks outside–she works with a writing partner and gets him to do the outlines, and then strings cool/interesting things along them, knowing the gestalt in advance but not the details of the story. She does, however, know worldbuilding details, often with footnotes. She used to use 3×5 cards but has switched to Scrivener. She feels that short stories are more linear and have only room for one thing.

“And who played 99 on ‘Get Smart’? And how do you feel about that?”

This afternoon I made short story sale #99. “Unsolved Logistical Problems in Time Travel (Spring Semester)” is going to Nature Futures. Hurrah! I love selling to Nature, not least because I feel like I’m talking a bit to my old profs.

This is one of the stories that I’ve finished in this hyperproductive period, so I’m feeling a bit vindicated on that front. But mostly just pleased, pleased, pleased.

Towards a Farthing Party con report: Mad Art

Mad Art. So this panel was somewhat about outsider art, somewhat about art by the literally mentally ill, and somewhat about the cool things we would not expect from art but get anyway because we live in a very weird future. (Example of the last: Balinese bluegrass. Really.) There was a lot of discussion about obsessive art, the people who build and build without particular permission or reinforcement from external factors, often with tiny fractal details. Henry Darger, Leaf By Niggle, Mary Lamb, Elizabeth Hand’s Mortal Love, The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke, and Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain all came up on this panel. One panelist talked about Burning Man experiences, another about photography and another about pottery.

There was significant annoyance from the panel at the fact that children are mostly taught that they don’t know how to draw, that we’re taught a left brain/right brain dichotomy that actual neuropsychological research has more or less completely overturned, and that there is cultural support for the idea of an art vs. technology gulf which doesn’t exist. One panelist proposed that art is a normal property of being human, including horrible situations like the Haitian kids since the earthquake. This position was particularly opposed to the idea that art was entirely inborn/magical as opposed to substantially the result of work and practice.

I was a little uncomfortable with the discussion of autistic artists as though they were a separate category from persons present in the room, a “them” rather than part of an “us,” but the person doing so did not in any way seem to think that “they” were a bad, wrong, or inexplicable “them.” Also at least one autistic artist present was comfortable adding to this part of the discussion, relating to autism, hyperfocus, and art, noting that not all hyperfocus is monofocus, so the us/them was not maintained; good.

I didn’t go to the Cordwainer Smith panel due to having some time to help entertain a certain really great baby. So that’s up through Sunday morning.