March 30, 2015

Items of Note

1. The stack of manuscript pages on the left is slightly taller than the stack on the right, which means I'm halfway through this revision. The novel is becoming shorter and the story tighter, so all is going according to plan.

2. The stacks of unrelated papers and magazines on my desk are growing, and I'm having spring cleaning urges that are in part a desire to goof off from writing. Must resist procrasticleaning.

3. As I continue plotting out the future novel, I keep thinking, "Oh well, I can always take that part out later." Maybe this explains how I arrived at item 1.

4. Probably the best thing I could do for my writing career would be to swim laps daily and then harvest all the brilliant ideas that occur to me in the water.

5. There already aren't enough hours in the day for me to write all the things I want to write. That's a pretty good position to be in.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Hannah Gersen of The Millions asked fellow writers to share their notebook pages, diagrams, and timelines: "I had a list of scenes and an outline of what I had written but the only way I could really get my bearings was to Google old lunar calendars. Finally, I took a big piece of paper from my son's easel and drew a three-month calendar that I could look at as I worked. In the calendar squares I wrote the events of the story, like a diary. After I did that, it was much easier to write. It was as if my brain could finally relax once the events of the story were organized in a familiar way."

March 18, 2015

Youthful Science Fiction, or Something

The study of my childhood writing lingered on the prolific fourth grade period for a while, but now it's time to move ahead to fifth grade. In some respects, my writing style remained unchanged throughout the late-elementary era. For example, this paragraph from a story entitled "Pie Problems" will sound familiar to those who've been following along:

Like Susie, I have short, straight, brown hair. Our mother's hair is the same, but hers is long, almost to her waist, while Susie's and mine is only shoulder length. Dan and Dad both have curly, black hair. Everyone in our family, excluding Susie, has green eyes. Oh, by the way, my name's Johanna.

(In case you were worried about Susie's eye color, I assure you that an earlier sentence more cleverly reveals this detail: "I looked into her blue eyes and found tears in them.")

Also included in the fifth grade collection is yet another story with some trappings of the mystery genre but little actual mystery and less logic. We'll get to that next time.

In this post, I want to present a story that takes my early writing in a new direction. I would loosely classify it as science fiction in that it concerns a made-up planet and is written in an obsessively scientific style. The genre marks a departure from the rest of my stories up to this point, which are either set in the real(-ish) world or involve magic and fantastical creatures. Mostly, though, the story is notable for being just plain weird.

Records indicate that this was a timed writing exercise, with the first sentence provided as a prompt. For unknown reasons, the text begins on the back of an assignment about THE HOBBIT.

Here's the odd little story, which provoked my teacher to comment, "This was fun!":

I didn't believe this story when I first heard it, but now I do. Many, many thousands of seconds ago, on February 2, 1986, at 1:03:56, a glub popped out of its glirb.

Now, I must explain that a glub is a gigantically small creature. Glubs are clear spheres that live on the bottom of the Murumphian Sea, on the planet Ork, in the galaxy Streez. Glubs are one millimeter in diameter at birth and one centimeter in diameter when they are full grown.

A glirb looks like a white rock. Instead of hatching out of eggs, glubs pop out of glirbs. Every quid, a glub pops out of a glirb. A quid is equal to two microseconds.

But the glub this story is about was orange and ten feet in diameter! And no wonder, for its glirb was a black boulder known as "The King Stone."

All the glubs were very excited, and they appointed the orange glub ruler of Ork, and everyone lived happily in the rafter.

I am unable to follow that with any worthwhile commentary. Please feel free to share your own thoughts.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Malinda Lo, long experienced in seeking out young adult books with diverse characters, takes a fascinating look at Perceptions of Diversity in Book Reviews: "I can't help but get the sense that there's an invisible ceiling on the number and type of issues deemed suitable for inclusion in a realistic YA novel, and typically sexuality is such a huge one that adding additional issues such as race, disability, or class sets up a book for a 'too many issues' critique."

March 10, 2015

FOGcon 2015 Report

I've attended FOGcon, the Bay Area convention celebrating speculative fiction, for the five years of its existence, and this year was one of the most fun for me.

The theme this time was The Traveler, and one of the honored guests was Kim Stanley Robinson, whose fiction takes readers on explorations of the solar system, as well as parts of our planet that are remote in space or time. I am a huge fan of Robinson's Mars trilogy, and I'd been excited about the prospect of hearing him speak and perhaps meeting him. As a panelist, he turned out to be fantastic and knowledgeable, to nobody's surprise. And when he took some time to sign books, I was able to chat with him for several minutes about the latest Mars research, which made my day/weekend/life. I'm eager to read all the other intriguing, ambitious works by my buddy Stan, a project that may take the rest of my life.

This year's selection of panels was great. The discussion of languages and linguistics in science fiction and fantasy was especially excellent, with expert panelists who had all studied and/or written in this area. Another of my favorites, which included Kim Stanley Robinson, explored how science can best be incorporated into fiction. The panel on The SF/F Of Suburbia considered a range of fascinating topics and provided audience members with many possibilities for new stories.

My friend Andrea Blythe blogged more thoroughly about her favorite panels, many of which I also enjoyed, so check out her post for a better idea of what these discussions covered.

I moderated a panel on apocalyptic fiction, and it went quite well. The panelists had some great thoughts and recommendations to share, and the audience contributed good questions and comments. We discussed the appeal of this genre, why it might be growing in popularity, and the distinction between apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories. One of the topics we touched on is how the speculated causes of apocalypse change over time, and one attendee was inspired to do some awesome data analysis and present statistics and graphs. Fans of the end of the world should also take a look at The Apocalypse Garden, a blog by another FOGcon participant.

As always, the very best part of the con was the time spent sharing meals, drinks, and conversation with a whole bunch of cool people, including old friends, those I only get to see once a year at FOGcon, and brand new connections. And of course, the karaoke tradition continued, with singing going late into the night.

I came away from FOGcon with a huge list of book and author recommendations that's likely to influence my upcoming reading. Plus a serious case of sleep deprivation, which I think I'm finally recovered from. Can't wait for next year!

(I also wrote about my FOGcon experiences in 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011.)

Good Stuff Out There:

→ N. K. Jemisin analyzes reviews to investigate whether readers are harder on female characters than male characters: "I see Oree taking a lot of flak for being a victim of fate, but no commentary about Ehiru having a very similar story-role. I see snark about Oree being desirable to others, but none about Ehiru being the same."

March 3, 2015

February Reading Recap

I finished four books last month:

BEL CANTO by Ann Patchett: Somewhere in South America, an international group of dignitaries assemble at a private birthday party. A world-famous soprano has been hired to sing, and as her performance ends, terrorists invade the house and take the party hostage. The story charts the ordeal that follows, deftly portraying what happens when disparate people are forced together by unusual circumstances.

This is an absorbing, beautifully written novel. Patchett uses a well-deployed omniscient narration to get inside the heads of the many characters. Some are major players we return to often, others are less prominent, but no matter who takes focus, the depiction is insightful and specific. The novel is character-driven, but with a situation that presents constant tension and drama. And despite the tension, there is a surprising amount of humor in the ways characters react and events unfold.

I was impressed by both the story and the writing style. I particularly liked the handling of communication and translation among the international cast of characters, who are limited in their interactions by the different languages they speak. Opera fans will also find the story of special interest, though the musical references were lost on me. I'll definitely be seeking out more of Patchett's work.

THE FEMALE MAN is a 1975 classic from the feminist science fiction writer Joanna Russ, who has been selected as the honored ghost at this year's FOGcon.

In the story, characters from multiple timelines meet up and learn about each other's worlds. Joanna comes from the familiar version of the 1970s and declares herself a "female man" because being a man is the only path she sees to earning equality and respect. Jeannine lives the same time period, but in a less progressive alternate history where World War II never took place to bring the U.S. out of the Great Depression and eventually lead to advances in women's rights. Janet arrives from a far future in which men no longer exist.

The format of the novel is unconventional, with frequent narrative shifts that are often deliberately disorienting and occasionally surreal. This makes for a challenging read, and I was left feeling that there was much about the story I didn't understand. My overall experience was mixed: Many of the ideas and sections of the book appealed to me, while others bored or confused me.

I'm eager to discuss this book at FOGcon, because I've heard from many readers that they love it, and I'm interested in those perspectives. And personal reactions aside, this novel and author both made an impact on science fiction, and I'm glad for the introduction to Russ and her work.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins: As Rachel rides the train into London each morning and returns to the suburbs in the evening, she looks out the window and into the houses beside the track. One house, at a place where the train stops at a signal, is a particular favorite. She admires the happy couple often visible on their terrace and imagines the details of their perfect marriage. One day, she spots something alarming at their house, and this sets off a chain of disturbing events.

Information is carefully dispensed at the beginning of the novel to change the reader's perspective on what's unfolding. One thing we learn early on is that Rachel is an alcoholic who often forgets what she's done while drunk. That makes her an intriguing unreliable narrator for this well-plotted mystery. The book is a compelling, twisty read that kept me guessing.

THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS by Cristina HenrĂ­quez takes place in an apartment building in Delaware occupied by immigrants from throughout Latin America. Alma arrives from Mexico with her husband and teenage daughter, Maribel. The family has left behind a comfortable life to come to the United States with few possessions and little English because they hope for a better life for Maribel, who needs special care as the result of an accident. Among their new neighbors is Mayor, a teenage boy who's lived in the building since he was small, when his family moved from Panama. Mayor is bullied at school and unpopular with girls, so when he meets the beautiful Maribel, he's eager to get to know her. She appreciates that he doesn't treat her like she's different, and a deep friendship begins. But Alma's biggest fear is that more harm will befall her daughter, and she applies severe restrictions that result in unexpected damage.

I was initially drawn in to the story and enjoyed getting to know the various characters. However, the novel didn't live up to its potential. I found that just as the story was really getting interesting, the developing plots were brought to an abrupt end. While this had a certain dramatic point, it left me unsatisfied. At other points as well, I thought there were missed opportunities and plot events that could have been further explored.

Alma and Mayor serve as the novel's main narrators, a choice that offers interesting contrasts but also creates some limitations. Short intervening chapters are from the perspective of other building residents, who each relate their life story and their reasons for immigrating. While it's great to see underrepresented groups given a voice in fiction, I found these sections often too didactic, and I wanted to see these characters play more of a role in the main plot.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Nathan Bransford offers 4 tips for handling multiple perspectives in a third person narrative: "If you're going to break perspective within a scene, think of it as keeping a 'camera' in place.... Remove the main character, but keep the narrative going with the other characters who remain. Don't suddenly shift deeply into someone else's thoughts and feelings, but it's okay to linger a bit and show something the anchoring character shouldn't be able to see."