SFWA’s new look

There are some cool folks at the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) who have been working hard to make the organization more relevant and visible.  Up until recently, SFWA’s website looked a bit like a time-traveling refugee from the early 1990s.  But now they’ve upgraded by a couple of decades with an attractive, professional look, and lots of cool features: a blog with regular updates, a “featured author” and “featured book” providing a rolling spotlight for SFWA members right on the homepage, and an online “suggestion box” for the Nebula Awards.

I signed up yesterday as an associate member and immediately received an automated reply.  In less than 12 hours, SFWA had finished processing my membership and my username, password, etc. were all set up. So it looks like they have an impressive and speedy service model on top of the revamped look.  Very cool.

On a more personal note, I’m trying to imagine what my teenage self would say if I went back in time and told him, “Some day you will be a card-carrying member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.”  Largely excited, I think, though he might have the sense to not tell the other kids in school.

Learning Mystery from Miss Marple

murder at the vicarageOne of my current reading projects is to explore more mysteries.  Every good story has a bit of mystery in it, after all, and the murder whodunnit is sort of the ultimate, pure unadulterated form of the mystery.  So I started by checking out Agatha Christie, who many tell me is the master, and read Murder at the Vicarage, the first of her Miss Marple novels.  The basic plot is:  dude gets murdered at the vicarage in a small village full of gossips.  Almost everyone had a motive for killing him, and two people even confess to the crime right away.  Miss Marple, an “old maid” and a gossip who’s an exceptionally observant student of human nature, shows up local law enforcement by being a better detective than any of the detectives.

Christie’s title of the Queen of Crime is well-earned, and she’s one of those writers you can learn a lot from reading, just to see how she does what she does.  Here are just a few of the tidbits I learned from my first audience with the Queen:

  • Make it clear lots of people have a motive to commit the crime right away.  For bonus points, do this before the murder even happens.
  • There doesn’t necessarilly need to be lots of “action” (e.g., shoot-outs, fist fights, etc.) to create suspense.  A series of conversations (or interrogations) can create quite a bit of suspense, so long as each conversation builds the tension and adds some new layer of complexity to the story.
  • The villain needs to have a fairly complicated plan for the mystery to be interesting.
  • It is *really* appealing when the crime is solved by a nontraditional hero, such as the “gossipy old maid.”  For bonus points:  Have the “official” authorities look down on the hero even as they bungle everything, up until the very end.

In other news, my writing-cation continues to go well.  Up to 14,000 words or so, and just might hit the 20k mark by Monday, if I can get past a stumbling block or two…

Thoughts on District 9

Saw District 9 the other day and I think I liked it. It’s one of those movies that takes a while to sink in, that requires some marinating before you can really be sure how it tastes.  The clearly-cool thing about it is that it’s totally different from any SF movie ever made.  It has a certain gritty realism to it that makes it compelling and, at times, appropriately horrifying.  I love the central premise of aliens being refugees on earth, facing all the prejudices that humans tend to have, even when it comes to things that are much less alien than, well, aliens. 

The movie combines a gritty documentary realism with a more standard Hollywood narrative – which is understandable, since it is a Hollywood movie after all. But as the movie progressed it shifted more and more toward the Hollywood end of the spectrum, which was less interesting to me and also felt a bit clunky at times. I also generally liked the choice of South Africa as a setting, but the depiction of the Nigerians felt like it strayed into a colonialist view at times.  E.g., do we really need subtitles for Nigerians when they’re speaking English?  Despite those disappointments, overall it’s an engaging movie charting new territory for scifi on the screen.

The novel is progressing very well – I’ve written a total of about 4,700 words since I started the marathon four days ago, which puts me only a few hundred words behind schedule.  I’m skipping around quite a bit, jumping ahead to the parts that are clearer in my mind or that come to me with a burst of enthusiasm.  Which has been working well, because then it’s fairly easy to go back and fill in the gaps.


Wrote another 700 words today, bringing the mini-writing marathon total up to 1,400 on Day 2.  I had to spend a bunch of the day taking care of medical appointments and other errands, which slowed me down quite a bit.  At some point I’ll need to make up a day’s worth of words, but that feels very do-able since so far I’ve only been able to actually do a couple of hours worth of actual writing each day.  But I can feel my momentum gaining. I’ve started to enter that mode where my critical brain is okay with just writing, getting the words down on paper, willing to save the finessing for another day.

Jumping on the Wordcount Wagon

I have two weeks off from work – hoorah! – and for my summer vacation I will be travelling to other planets via my trusty little laptop.  Specifically, the other planets of my young adult scifi novel.  I’m going to try for something really ambitious, like writing 20,000 words of the novel in 15 days.  That’s like 1,350 words a day.  This is pretty ambitious for me… At Clarion and Taos and other times when I was writing full time, I wrote maybe 6,000 words max on a good week, or well under 1,000 words a day.  But that was with lots of time devoted to classes and critiquing other people’s stuff, not to mention the mounds of time I spend re-writing my own stuff.  Right now I’m going to focus mainly on generating new material, just getting it on the page, so I think I should be able to keep up the pace.

Today was Day 1 and I hit 700 words.  Half the daily benchmark, but this was really just a warm-up day.

Unicorn Noir: Burgeoning New Sub-Genre?

hornYesterday I got my copy of Peter M. Ball’s novella Horn direct from Australia, and of course it was immediately bumped to the top of the reading list.  The book daringly seeks to establish a new sub-genre with a hard-boiled noir story rooted in a world of unicorns and faeries.  One of those ideas that would be disastrous in the hands of a weaker writer, but in Peter Ball’s hands it’s like sitting in a hot sun drying up your clothes after they’ve been soaked by a downpour of rain.  (That was me, trying to do a noir simile.  Clearly I don’t have Peter’s talent for it.)

Miriam Aster is an ex-cop and an ex-lover of the ex-Queen of Faery. Now she’s a PI, taking on cases with a bit too much magic and complexity for the guys at the precinct.  When a dead girl shows up in a dumpster and a unicorn’s on the loose, only Aster realizes just how bad things can get.  She has to crack the case before the unicorn in heat finds its next victim, if she can wind her way through the tricky magicks of the fae, the bureaucracy of the precinct, and the complexities of her relationship with a woman she swears she’s not in love with anymore.

OK, clearly I loved this novella.  The noir voice keeps you reading and has just the right amount of irony and humor.  And any time things start to slow down, Ball adds another layer of complexity to keep things interesting.  Here’s one of my favorite passages:

I was looking for Heath Morrow, a morgue institution. … He preferred working the late shift and had a fetish for the odd cases, which meant he called me in every chance he got.  I should have hated Heath, but we got on okay.  For all his ambient creepiness, he never assumed I was crazy and he’d become more bearable since I’d come back to life on his autopsy table.  His tendency to talk to my chest vanished after he’d cut me open.  Apparently it’s hard to objectify someone once you’ve had a scalpel poking around their innards.

I had the privilege of seeing this one in its larval phase, so it’s a pleasure seeing it out in the world, a full-grown gorgeous butterfly (or moth – would moth be more appropriate for noir?).  Twelfth Planet Press also did a great job with the packaging, with a knockout cover and a nice design overall.  The quality of the book made me want to go out and check out more of their stuff.

Coming to a Bookstore Near You

ROF Oct 2009It looks like my short story, “Tio Gilberto and the Twenty-Seven Ghosts,” will be appearing in the next issue of Realms of Fantasy.  You can go ahead and subscribe now to make sure you don’t miss it.

This is a story that’s close to my heart, so I’m especially excited to see it in print.  And I can’t wait to see John Kaiine’s illustration for it!  I think it should be out by early September.

Young Adult Reading List

Having dallied long enough in the wondrous Land of Short Fiction, I am finally giving in to peer pressure and embarking for Novel-landia.  More precisely, Young Adult Novel-landia.  If short stories are the gateway drug of writing, then YA novels are undoubtedly its crack/cocaine.  Not that I am encouraging young people to do drugs.  Or to mix metaphors, for that matter.

As part of my “research” (aka fun things made to sound like work), I’ve been reading a whole bunch of young adult novels.  Here are some of the ones I’ve read recently (in no particular order):

  1. Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series (the stuff of awesome; one of the few times I actually went out and picked up a sequel immediately after finishing book 1 of a series)
  2. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
  3. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
  4. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  5. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
  6. Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan
  7. Changeling by Delia Sherman
  8. Working my way through the Harry Potter series
  9. A whole bunch of classic Heinlein science fiction YA, including Have Spacesuit, Will Travel and Double Star
  10. Black Juice by Margo Lanagan (yes, technically this is a short story collection, but so good I had to include it, plus I wanted the list to make it well into the teens)
  11. Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link (see the note for Lanagan above, a typical Kelly Link rock-out)
  12. Thirsty by M.T. Anderson
  13. Tithe by Holly Black
  14. The Phanthom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Mmmm, there are probaby some others but those are the ones that come to mind after glancing at my shelf.  Most of these were very good to excellent, and I have a feeling I’ve been managing to read the cream of the crop.

Up on deck are the ubiquitous Book Thief, Alex Sanchez’s gay-themed YA books, Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials series, Julia Alvarez’s YA-oriented stuff, some Garth Nix stuff (any specific recs?), and some stuff by Justine Larbalestier, which I have heard tell is very good.  I’m also thinking about going back and re-reading some of the books I loved when I was a wee Y. myself, like Madeleine L’engle, Narnia, Lloyd Alexander, and The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. I also feel the need to read more of the trashy stuff to truly immerse myself.  I don’t know, maybe I’ll read a Gossip Girls book or some-such.

Questions?  Disagreements? Recommendations? Anything I simply must read in order to comprehend the essence of the YA genre?

Joan Aiken and Joe Abercrombie

best served cold coverCurrently alternating between reading Joe  Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold and Joan Aiken’s Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Tales

Abercrombie is one of the hot new names when it comes to fat fantasy epics (so I’ve been told), and a quarter of the way through the book he’s living up to the buzz.   Our heroine is Monza Murcatto, a bad-ass mercenary whose employer betrays her and murders her brother.  (He tries to kill her, too, but it doesn’t take.)  That’s just the prologue: the real story is Murcatto seeking vengeance by killing the seven people responsible for her brother’s death.  As you may have noticed, it’s much grittier than most fantasy, and moral ambiguities abound, making it quite a bit more interesting than your standard epic quest.

Actually, the cool part of it is that Abercrombie has taken a lot of those tropes and turned them inside-out like a used pair of underwear.  Murcatto is indeed on a quest, it’s just that it’s a quest for vengeance, not some Enchanted MacGuffin.  And she has to run around the kingdom collecting plot coupons, but they’re not gems or sacred weapons, or pieces of the parchment; the plot coupons are the dead bodies of the seven dudes she’s determined to kill.  She even has a little band of heroes, but instead of the swordsman-dwarf-wizard standard, her merry men are a poisoner, an ex-con, and a poor immigrant.  And though it’s dark, it’s all done with a light touch and a sense of humor.

On the other end of the spectrum, The Serial Garden is a collection of children’s stories from Big Mouth House, the children’s book imprint from Small Beer Press.  Best Served Cold is a bit heavy for my poor old-and-achey-before-its-time  body to be lugging around, so Aiken’s book hasserial garden made for perfect subway reading.  (Actually, most of the stories last exactly one 20-minute subway ride into Manhattan, which is lovely since it’s always nice to have a sense of closure before moving onto the Next Thing.)  Mark and Harriet are the Armitage kids, who encounter strange and magical things every week – usually on Mondays.  A unicorn appears on the front lawn, the board of incantation commandeers their house, their father is transformed into a cuckoo, etc.  The characters waste no time at all being shocked at the impossible, although, occasionally, when strange things happen on Tuesday instead of Monday, it is very disconcerting for everyone, especially Mr. Armitage.  The stories have great telling details and are just plain fun – I only wish I’d discovered them when I was seven years old so I could fully appreciate them.

Clarion Nostalgia Reading and Two Types of Writers

storyteller coverJust finished reading Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, by Kate Wilhelm, half-writing-tips-book and half-autobiography-of-a-writing-workshop.  A lot of the writing advice is familiar, the stuff that was drilled into us at Clarion (e.g., “No deus ex machina!”), which made for a nice refresher as well as a nice trip down nostalgia lane.  Other parts were less familiar, which made for some thought-provoking reading.

One of the most interesting things that was new to me was the idea that there are two types of writers: visualizers and constructionists.  Visualizers often start with a strong visual image, then work backward to figure out the world and characters where the image came from – sort of inductive writing.  Constructionists are more deductive – they need to know where it’s taking place, what the historical background is, the characters’ birthdays and favorite colors, etc., and then all of that leads naturally to images , scenes, dialogue.  Oddly enough, I lean slightly more toward the visualizer camp, even though my stories aren’t very cinematic. Though lately, I’ve been learning to do a bit more of the constructionist approach and have been enjoying it.

Definitely worth a read for any writer, especially Clarion grads or would-be Clarionites.