January 31, 2014

Getting A Move On

Early in January, I admitted to having a little trouble restarting my brain after a long period of time off. I did manage to remember some things about writing, though, and I started making notes on a new project.

I dove enthusiastically into story planning for a little while, and then I found that thinking up good ideas was hard work. It was a lot easier and more fun to sit around reading all day, and that's how I actually ended up spending most of the month. Since the start of the year, I've read five complete books, plus the majority of the long and dense GRAVITY'S RAINBOW and a third of GREAT EXPECTATIONS. I'm sure that's the most I've read in a month since childhood, and it's probably a record I'll never surpass.

This was a lovely, lazy way to spend January, and now it's really time for me to get back to real work. I've had a chance to do some background mulling on the ideas for the new novel, and I'm ready to bring the story into the foreground again and face the fact that it will require actual effort to turn it into a draft.

Meanwhile, the query process continues, also mostly in the background. I'd love to get a move on with that, but I'm already doing everything I can at my end, and the majority of my role right now is to wait and be patient. I'll admit to that being another thing I'm having a little trouble with...

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At the New Yorker's Page-Turner, Thomas E. Kennedy recounts a tale of Aggravated Bibliophilism: "You return to the shelf of dictionaries, where it should be, and run your finger along the twenty-something multicolored spines, but there is no royal-blue one. You feel along the back of the shelf to be certain that the book has not slipped behind the other books. It has not."

January 29, 2014

Warm Worlds and Otherwise

James Tiptree, Jr. will be the honored ghost at this year's FOGcon (March 7-9 in Walnut Creek, CA). The theme of the convention is Secrets, so Tiptree is an apt honoree. The writer published acclaimed science fiction stories throughout the late 60s and 70s but remained a mysterious figure, so "Tiptree" was widely recognized as a pseudonym, perhaps of someone working for an intelligence agency. A decade into Tiptree's career, the author's true identity was revealed. Tiptree did indeed have a background in military intelligence, and her real name was Alice Sheldon. The Tiptree Award, which recognizes "science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender," celebrates Sheldon's contributions to the field.

I'd been aware of the Tiptree mythology for years but never read any of her work. WARM WORLDS AND OTHERWISE, her second story collection, blew me away. These are really well thought-out stories, with unusual premises, surprising characters, and fascinating narrative voices. The plots develop in unexpected ways and end in satisfying resolutions. Many of the stories contain humor, many are quite dark, and some fit both these descriptions.

What really makes these stories outstanding is the way they unfold without explanation, requiring the reader to figure out what's going on. This is a quality I love and admire in fiction when it's done artfully, as it is here. Robert Silverberg describes this well in his introduction to the collection: "He likes to create a sense of disorientation and alienation, gradually and never completely resolved as the story reaches his climax." (The introduction is worth reading, and not only for the fact that Silverberg weighs in on speculation that Tiptree is a woman, declaring "there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree's writing.")

Alice Sheldon was used to being an outlier, not only as a woman writing science fiction, but as a woman in the military and in academia. "The Women Men Don't See" addresses this situation most directly, but the theme of outsider status runs throughout the collection. The longest story, "The Girl Who Was Plugged In", takes a character who doesn't belong and gives her the chance to fit in by assuming a secret identity. It's a beautiful, horrible tale, and was recognized with the Hugo Award for Best Novella in 1974.

Another award winner, "Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death", (Nebula Best Short Story, 1973) might be my favorite from the collection, though it's hard to choose. This is a love story from the viewpoint of an insect-like creature, and it mixes the alien and the familiar in a masterful way.

If you are a science fiction fan and haven't read any Tiptree, you owe it to yourself to check out the work of this amazing writer.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Kevin Baker presents his awkward tale of crashing a book club meeting: "I was embarrassed not only for myself but for the members of the club. How would they feel once they discovered the author they had just dissed was sitting right there?" (Thanks, Lynn!)

January 16, 2014

Book Binge

Last week, I said that I've started the plotting phase of a new novel, and that's true, and I've been working on it, but what I mostly appear to be doing this month is seeing how many words I can stuff into my eyeballs.

I'm in the middle of four books right now, all very different from each other. Next to me is a board charting out the impossible number of books that I imagine I'm going to read in the next couple of months. Today I was reading samples of still other books to decide if I'm going to read them, too. Oh, and of course I've been continuing to read the many blogs I follow to keep up with book news and good stuff to link to.

A bit of this reading has specific writing-related purposes, but most of the current binge is just because I have the time. Normally the time I put into writing keeps me from reading as much as I want to (i.e., constantly). So I'm taking advantage of this between-projects period to consume as many books as possible.

And, yeah, okay, maybe this gluttony of reading means I didn't give quite as much attention to the new story idea as I was intending to this week. It's all still churning around in the background, stewing in all these other words I've been shoveling in.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jennifer R. Hubbard offers a great analysis of what causes readers to sympathize with a character: "I'm reading one of those books where, character-wise, my sympathies do not seem to be aligned with the author's. That is, I like the character I'm not supposed to like a heck of a lot more than I like the two characters I am supposed to like."

January 10, 2014

Something New

I have sort of begun a new novel. So far all I've written is a lot of notes on Post-Its, but it's a start.

I'm not ready to describe what the novel is about, because the aboutness hasn't yet gelled into a concise explanation, but the pieces have been knocking around inside my head for more than a year. I hadn't written down any of the ideas until this point, so what I've been doing this week is simply getting everything from my head onto paper. I find it very helpful to work with pen and paper at this part of the process, though I can't explain why (and my handwriting is atrocious).

I know quite a bit about the characters, but they're still lacking names, which means that in the notes they're all referred to by letter designators. I have many components of a plot, but not yet enough that all sticks together properly. I want to make sure I can construct a whole plot out of this idea before I start the first draft. There's also research that I'm going to need to do before beginning. So I may be in this pre-writing stage of writing for a while, in order to be confident I can get the writing part right.

Venturing into an unknown story is a little intimidating, but mostly exciting. It's a nice change to be at the starting end of the novel process after so much revision. It's been a long time since I was here, and I was a much less experienced writer the last time around.

I don't have a real title, but for the purposes of being able to refer this novel as something, I'm calling it INCONCLUSIVE. That's more fun than "Untitled", and it has some relevance to the story. I'll let you muse on that while I get back to scribbling on sticky notes.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Karen Bender writes at the New York Times' Opinionator about The Emotional Power of Verbs: "Form your characters in terms of actions that will reveal their interior lives. If you want to describe a dress your character is wearing, think about how she is moving out the door in that dress. Is the woman walking, hurrying, sauntering, floating?"

January 7, 2014

Remembering How This Works

I've had more than a month away from noveling, since I gave myself some time off after finishing revision at the end of November. And for the past two weeks, I've been in complete vacation mode, rarely typing up more than a few sentences at a time for any reason. It was a wonderful break, full of reading and family and friends and a week on the Mendocino coast. I'm grateful that I was able to take the time, and I definitely succeeded in relaxing and clearing my mind.

Now the issue is that I might be a bit too relaxed. A couple of weeks after I stopped revising, I reported how weird it was not to be working on a novel. Well, I'm quite used to it now. I think I could be perfectly untroubled by spending a few more weeks simply going through my to-read list.

However, I believe it's time to boot up my writing brain and get back to work. This little blog post was a start. Then of course I'll have to review the books I read during vacation. And maybe write some email or something. After that, once I'm really sure I still know how to compose a paragraph, I'm sure I'll make my way back to fiction.

I don't want to rush into it, though. I could strain something. I'm almost certain that's how it works.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Toni Jordan considers the question of where writers get their ideas: "I think 'write what you know' is the single worst piece of writing advice. Instead, write what you're really interested in. Write what is going to keep you awake at night; write what you don't understand; write to figure something out. Good novels are journeys into the unknown, for their authors as well as their readers."