May 23, 2014

News Is No News

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about writing a new short story. The other day I finished revising it, and then I submitted it to a literary magazine. This is my first time trying to get a story published. It will be pretty cool if it's accepted, but it's also been neat just going through the process. If the story isn't picked up by the first magazine, I'll try some others, and maybe I'll start submitting stories more often.

In novel news, there isn't any. I've been continuing to research the next novel, but I'm getting sort of bored with that stage and feel like it's time to move on to writing soon. There are still some major story details that I need to figure out, but idly pondering them hasn't been productive, so I'm ready for a more aggressive tactic like writing things out in a format other than Post-Its.

That's about all there is to report at the moment. Of course I've been reading a lot, too, but that goes without saying.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In the New York Times Bookends column, ZoĆ« Heller and Mohsin Hamid consider the adage Write What You Know: "The first mistake I made as a schoolgirl was to assume I was being asked to write exclusively about things that had happened to me. In fact, the injunction is only to know; the business of how you come by your knowledge is left quite open. You can mine your own life, yes. But you can also sympathetically observe other people's experiences. You can read and research. And you can use your imagination."

May 20, 2014

Sleepless in New Releases

This spring saw the release of two unrelated books in which a plague of terminal insomnia wreaks havoc on America. The two take very different approaches to this scenario, and based on the descriptions and early reviews, I was eager to read them both. Each book has some admirable features, but ultimately both of them disappointed me.

In BLACK MOON by Kenneth Calhoun, almost nobody can sleep anymore, and the prolonged insomnia results in madness. Within a few months, this leads to your standard breakdown of society: telecommunications and other utilities no longer function, cities are full of abandoned cars and looted buildings, and chances of survival aren't good for the small minority who are still able to sleep. What makes continued existence especially dangerous is that insomniacs are driven into a lethal rage by the sight of somebody sleeping.

The story switches between several protagonists who hold on to the ability to sleep while those around them become afflicted. This lets us watch the effects of the epidemic from several angles: an urban dweller goes searching for his missing insomniac wife, a suburban child is left on her own after her parents succumb, and scientists at a sleep lab desperately work on a cure. These plotlines also begin at different points in the crisis, including beforehand, which gives us a wider view on the situation.

It all seems like a strong concept for a novel, but I was never particularly engaged. I like post-apocalyptic settings, but this one felt generic. Some of the characters and storylines interested me, but I found others sort of annoying. So while I really expected to enjoy this book, it turned out to be merely so-so.

SLEEP DONATION, a novella by Karen Russell, starts out promising, with a lot of clever worldbuilding and the makings of an intricate plot. In Russell's version of the insomnia epidemic, a large portion of the population is affected, but enough people are left untouched that it's been possible to develop treatments for this ultimately fatal condition. Donations of sleep collected from healthy sleepers, in a system much like a blood drive, are used to prolong the lives of insomnia sufferers and in some cases cure them.

The main character is a recruiter for the Slumber Corps. She's great at appealing to donors with the heartbreaking story of her sister, one of the first victims of the insomnia. One of her recent recruits is an infant known as Baby A, whose sleep is so pure that it can be distributed unfiltered. Baby A is the only discovered universal donor, which means there's a desperate need for her sleep, and her parents are starting to have misgivings.

I enjoyed most of this novella. The idea of sleep donation is a neat one, and the concept was explored pretty well. Several good complications arise early in the story, and I was looking forward to watching the plot come together in what would surely be a mind-blowing way. Then the story just ended, with nothing really explained or concluded. I don't demand to have all stories neatly tied up, but this ending was so unsatisfying that it made what came before it feel pointless.

It's unfortunate that neither of these books really worked for me, but it was interesting to be aware of their serendipitous publication and to compare different ideas of how an insomnia epidemic could play out.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In The Atlantic, Chris Beckett champions The Underrated, Universal Appeal of Science Fiction: "Modern realist novels--the kind that would most often be categorized as 'non-genre'--make up characters and situations, but set them against a backdrop that purports to be the world we actually live in. This allows writers to explore the psychology of different characters and allows us to look out of eyes other than our own. I like to make up situations and characters, too, and for the same kinds of reasons, but I also like to go an extra step and make up the world as well. This allows me to reflect on the way we relate to the world, and on society." (Thanks, Lauren!)

May 8, 2014

A Few Words

For the early months of this year, my writing activities consisted mostly of composing blog posts and query letters. I was thinking a lot about fiction (specifically my next novel, which I've been planning and researching), but I wasn't writing any.

Recently I became fed up with this situation and decided that it was time to produce some fiction. I'm not ready to begin writing the novel, so I started thinking about short stories, as I do from time to time.

I wrote two short stories last year (and read a great many). I haven't done anything with either of them, but since I've received feedback on both (one during my workshop at Squaw Valley), I could potentially turn my attention to revising them. That idea wasn't very appealing, though, and I was more interested in writing something new.

So I set out to write another short story, but this time, I gave myself a challenge to go even shorter. (Actually, the biggest challenge was to focus enough to create anything at all, since I'm out of practice.) After some brainstorming and playing around with a bunch of half-formed ideas, I found myself with an odd little story that's only five paragraphs long. And I liked it quite a bit.

There's certainly something refreshing about writing such a bite-sized piece of fiction. The last story I wrote took weeks of thinking before the idea gelled enough for me to write a rough draft. With this story, I typed a first line with no plan for what would come next, and about twenty minutes later, the whole piece was done. It still needed work after that, but I figured out all the details during another productive swim and then rewrote in an hour or two.

I sent the story off to some critique partners, and getting comments on a work this short was also pleasantly straightforward compared to the novel feedback I'm usually asking for. So little to read meant my critiquers were able to mention all their thoughts, down to the word level, without an unreasonable investment of time. (Thanks, guys!)

Now that I've collected their clever insights, I'm ready to revise. And for once I can feel confident in predicting that I'll be done with revision any day now.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Guardian, Alison Flood tries to identify the earliest ebook: "One journalist even took his computer on a wheelbarrow to the beach, along with a generator, to read Host in his deckchair."

May 2, 2014

More on Novel Research

On Wednesday, I wrote about the different stages of novel research. Today I have a few more research tips to pass on, based on what I've figured out through many drafts of many manuscripts.

The single most important thing I've learned about research is to record every piece of information the first time I discover it. While revising THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, I wasted untold hours looking up facts that I almost certainly verified two drafts ago but couldn't be sure of. Now everything I research, I immediately type or copy into a file, along with a reference to where the information came from, whether it's a URL or a page in a book. Treat your research as though you're going to have to provide footnotes to your story, and you'll be ready when you doubt yourself later or you get questions from a critique partner or editor.

Be organized with all these research notes you're diligently keeping. For DAMAGE, my computer has one folder of files divided up by major topic, including "earthquakes", "aerospace industry", and "babies". Additionally, in my SuperNotecard story notes, each chapter has a card with references for specific facts in that chapter. This slightly obsessive method of documentation is what works for me, but you'll have your own personal record-keeping strategy.

As with any research, when you're acquiring information for a novel, you need to consider all the types of sources that are available to you. Primary sources from within a time, place, or culture are extremely valuable but sometimes easy to forget about. A cool but tricky thing about fiction research is that other fiction can often be used as a source. A novel by an author with firsthand experience may be even more revealing than a work of nonfiction if you're looking for everyday details of an experience you can't have yourself. Novels, movies, and TV shows that are about a certain era, location, or industry but were written from outside may also be useful, but tread carefully and consider the work's reputation and biases.

In general, be thoughtful about sources. Not everything on the internet is true, and the same goes for books. If a fact seems questionable to me, I try to verify it against a second, independent source. Because part of DAMAGE takes place in the 1960s, I'm always eager to watch movies made during that time to notice details like a washing machine in a family's kitchen or people smoking, well, everywhere. But movies aren't a pure reflection of reality, and I have to keep that in mind. Similarly, while the television series MAD MEN has a reputation for extreme accuracy in its 60s-era period details, I recognize that it's a work of fiction by writers with a twenty-first century perspective, and I only trust it up to a point.

Finally, remember that the research you invest in a novel is to improve your story, not to insert directly into your story. When you become intimately familiar with the world of your novel, that will show in how well and seamlessly you bring it to life. Rarely is this accomplished with paragraphs of dry explanation or awkward dialogue in which characters tell each other facts about their setting. Resist any urges in that direction, and keep your meticulously organized research notes to yourself. (Or maybe you can share them online as background information or bonus material for your readers.)

That's the end of my novel research advice, at least for now. I still have a whole stack of library books to get through.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At io9, Charlie Jane Anders offers 10 Can't Miss, Surefire Secrets Of Torturing Fictional People: "Suffering that happens because of your characters' decisions is way more interesting -- and often more painful, because of remorse. A lot of the most powerful fictional torment comes as a result of people's terrible decisions, but it's also really poignant to see someone stick his or her neck out for justice, and get dinged."