Friday, August 30, 2013

WorldCon: Thursday

OK, I’m terrible at taking pictures. I don’t mean I’m a terrible photographer, just not so good at actually taking my camera out of my purse. I promise to be better over the next couple days.


Took the MegaBus from Austin to San Antonio and chatted with Patrice Sarath while NOT dealing with traffic, which I have to say was awesome! We hiked from the bus stop to the hotel, checked in, freshened up, and got registered. Then we checked out the vast dealers room filled with books, T-shirts, art, displays of astronaut suits, a TARDIS, and one lonely electric bull in an inflatable ring. He was decommissioned after a few hours. It seems the SFF crowd and bull riding aren’t a thing. The thought just makes me want to write a short SF story featuring a bull – Oh wait, I’ve done that with Cattle Futures, which Stupefying Stories will be publishing soon. I guess it will have to be a story featuring an animatronic bull… I know I’m talking nonsense but the poor guy just looked so lonely rolled in the corner of the dealer’s room like that.

I signed up for a “Beerklatch” with Gary K. Wolfe, which is a kind of informal roundtable with writers and editors. The ones held in the afternoon actually called “Literary Beers,” but I think Beerklatch has a much better ring. I was jazzed to let Mr. Wolfe know that I’m a fan of The CoodeStreet Podcast, which he hosts with Jonathan Strahan. Everyone at the table had something interesting to say, we talked about his American Library project, Neil Gaiman’s celebrity, and the state of the novella today.

I sat in on a talk by Sam Scheiner of the National Science Foundation titled All of Biology in One Hour or Less. He went over a kind of Grand Unified Theory of Biology, along with the major principles with the added ingredient of  “SFF Implications.” It was a fun talk and he nimbly handled all the questions the audience could throw at him.

“Why does life manage to persist?” 
                               -- biology’s core question.

One of his principles is that life requires a system to store, use and transmit info (for us it’s DNA). He noted that, yes, computers can be alive by this definition – although right now systems don’t self-replicate on their own, which is another way we define life.

He wound up with the deliciously contradictory set:
All living systems come from other living systems (SFF implication: make sure all life on a planet is related to each other in some way). And conversely, life originated from non-life. And from that a million stories were launched.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Inbound from Big Bend, Outbound to WorldCon!

I'm recovering from our family vacation to Big Bend National Park. 
On the way out, we stayed outside of Ft Davis, so that we could go to the McDonald Observatory's Star Party (definitely worth a stop if you're in West Texas). Our cabin was right next to one of the dish antennas that are part of the Very Long Baseline Array. The VLBA is a single radio telescope made up of ten separate antennas spread across the United States from St. Croix to Mauna Kea. It was huge and moved around a lot.

We saw three bear cubs and their mama. The cubs ran out of a tree that was ahead of us on the trail, then ran back up into the tree, then out again. All I could think was, where's mama? (First rule of bear country, don't get in between a bear cub and its mama.) Eventually the mama bear came out of the tree too! It was not a large tree, and we were all surprised that she was up in it. I didn't think to get my camera out until we were sure there wasn't going to be any kind of confrontation, so here is my picture of mama bear's butt as she ambles away from us.

We went for a horseback ride in the desert and saw some Comanche  pictographs.

A fox came by our cabin every night. He looks a little sad because all we did was take pictures of him and didn't give him any treats. 

I'm heading to WorldCon on Thursday morning. It will be my first big con, and it's wonderful that it's right in my back yard. I'm going for the whole weekend and am looking forward to all the festivities. I will also be attending a writer's workshop on Saturday. I'll post some short, newsy blogs whenever I get a chance over the con weekend.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Reading, Listening, and the Art of Reading Aloud

Alfred Munnings Reading Aloud Outside on the Grass, Circa 1911, by Harold Knight
Reading and listening
Great writers are great readers. And today there are so many ways to do it: read a soggy dog-eared novel at the pool, scroll through the news on a tablet at the breakfast table, page through a glossy art book at the library. Lately, I read as much with my ears as with my eyes, listening to podcasts and recorded books in the car as I schlep through traffic on errands. A good story can take the sting out of all that time logged behind the wheel. A certain stoplight occasionally reminds me of the end of Never Let Me Go, and the day I sat at it, tears streaming down my face, as the last lines unspooled. I remember the looks I got from my fellow commuters at a different stoplight one spring day, as I listened to a particularly stentorian reading of Beowulf
"If Grendel wins, it will be a gruesome day;
he will glut himself on the Geats in the war-hall,
swoop without fear on that flower of manhood
as on the other before. Then my face won't be there
to be covered in death: he will carry me away
as he goes to ground, gorged and bloodied;
he will run gloating with my raw corpse
and feed on it alone, in a cruel frenzy,
fouling his moor-nest."
(Beowulf, 442-450)
Not your usual morning drive-time chatter, but I have to say, no one cut me off in traffic that day. 

Reading is foundational, and I think we shouldn't limit ourselves in form or format. It is good to read, but it is also important to nurture the special concentration it takes to listen. To follow a voice through a story with our ears, instead of only ever chasing lines of text with our eyes. 

But there's a third leg to that stool, and that's reading aloud. Like most people, I never really did it until I had kids, which is a good way to ease into the whole thing.

Reading to the kids
After kids, I started going to the library again to get books for them. You really can't go wrong, babies and kids drink up any kind of interaction, and the earliest books start with one word per page. It's not like you're reading aloud, more like you're messing around pointing at stuff. And, reading to kids is one of the best things you can do for their own reading development, which totally pays off when their growing reading abilities mean that THEY want YOU to leave them alone so they can just read Goosebumps or whatever. (Hello writing time!)

For more about reading to kids, 
consider this classic on the topic.
The more books I read, the more confident I got. I found there were certain books that I wanted to read over and over, often the same ones my girls wanted to hear again and again (My Truck is Stuck, Green Eggs and Ham, Little Rooster's Diamond Button). The books with real staying power don't just have a good story, the words and sentences had cadence and flow.

Our library has tons of recorded books in the Children's section, but we rarely get them. I think it's because our time reading together is still so awesome. On the porch or the couch, our heads together over a book, reading aloud is a physical act and an act of physical closeness like nothing else. The stories we experience out loud together, binds us to each other.

Verlyn Klinkenborg in her Op Ed piece gets at what reading aloud is all about:
"Reading aloud recaptures the physicality of words. To read with your lungs and diaphragm, with your tongue and lips, is very different than reading with your eyes alone. The language becomes a part of the body, which is why there is always a curious tenderness, almost an erotic quality, in those 18th- and 19th-century literary scenes where a book is being read aloud in mixed company. The words are not mere words. They are the breath and mind, perhaps even the soul, of the person who is reading."

It's a pleasure to read aloud, and an entirely worthwhile activity with or without children. Of course, we used to do it all the time.

The Cotter's Saturday Night, by Sir David Wilkie*
Reading aloud and revising
Reading aloud has taught me not only how language works on the page but also in the air between mouth and ear. It is a necessary part of my revision process. After I've made all my big changes, reshaping the story, cutting and inserting scenes, reworked paragraphs, when I'm down to polishing sentences,  I do a pass where I read it aloud. It's more work than pleasure. I read a sentence, stop, tinker with it, read it again before moving on. I try to save this work for the hour before school lets out when it's just me and the dog in the dining room. He doesn't seem to mind. He'll listen to anything. 

"Telling stories" is more than just a colloquial way to refer to the art of writing. There is nothing better for polishing up your sentences, for finding the rhythm in the words, the breath of the story. Because telling is something you do out loud.


* Sarah L. Dowhower, Painted Literacy: Reading Aloud Rituals, n.d. (PDF)

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Write-a-Thon Storytime

The Clarion write-a-thon is over. I enjoyed the challenge and made some real progress toward my personal goals. As part of my write-a-thon commitment I promised to write a story for anyone who donated on my page. I was inspired to do this by the brilliant Robert Shearman and his One Hundred Stories project (never mind that he's on break, there are plenty of stories to read). It's a little intimidating to follow in his footsteps, but I promised to feature any donors by name in a hand crafted, artisinal story of my own concoction. One Karen G. Anderson donated on my page, so here you go!

The Other Karen Anderson *
By Rebecca Schwarz

Karen marched up the driveway, her dead phone slick in her hand, convinced despite all evidence, that it might light up with an incoming call or allow her, even now, to call a tow truck. They’d given up the landline last year. Thank God the car quit only a couple miles out on the frontage road that bordered their neighborhood. She walked through the foyer to the kitchen. Everything looked just as she’d left it this morning, tidier even, but what she really noticed was the cool puff air conditioning.

Lucky for her, the car had rolled to a stop in front of a gaggle of college kids (the girls in crocheted tank tops the boys in tee-shirts that referenced completely unfamiliar bands or memes or something). They pushed the old Oldsmobile off the road and into the empty yard of an abandoned house that she’d driven by every day for years without ever noticing. Their good deed done, the kids moved off before she realized that her phone had died.

She turned back to the house. A tiny sign hung on the porch. Apparently, this had been the law office of Dickerson and Poole, LLC. The door once painted an optimistic blue, was now grimed to a cloudy twilight shade. Sunlight shone through the lone window, its small panes dull with accreted dust and exhaust. For a moment, she thought she saw motion inside and considered knocking on the door, imagining a desiccated little lawyer inside, hoping for a client. Would he even have a phone? How had she never seen this house? The motion was probably a curtain shifting, or the effect of the shadows cast from the cars roaring by on the highway behind her. She started home on foot across the uneven pavement of the neighborhood streets. Everything looked different in the bright afternoon heat. The satin lining under her seersucker suit clung to her arms.

She stopped and looked back. She hadn’t locked it. She slipped her hand into her pocket and closed her fingers around the key ring. Well, if she’d been smart, she would have left the keys in it. Then maybe someone would steal it and she’d be free of the thing at least for a while. The car was old, but of course Mike had kept it in tip-top shape. She used to tease him, calling him Mr. Parker, because he was like the Old Man in The Christmas Story. Ralphie was really talking about Mike when he said: “Some men are Baptists, others Catholics; my father was an Oldsmobile man.” In every other way he was a regular husband. She believed everyone should be allowed their obsessions, but enough was enough. He knew she wanted to drive something different; a nice, modern compact. She sure as hell was going to bring it up again tonight.

The kitchen was the coolest room at this time of day. She couldn’t recall everyone’s schedule, and checked her phone reflexively, even though she knew it was Wednesday. Her face glared up at her from the black screen, dripping sweat and pissed. She peeled her jacket off, threw it over the back of a kitchen chair and went to the bathroom to splash some water over her face. Someone moved around the kitchen. She toweled off and took a deep breath. She felt better, a little cooler and she was home. They’d get the car towed and she’d pour herself a glass of wine.

Mike gave a little start when she stepped out of the bathroom and into the kitchen. He stood there on the other side of the island holding the meat tenderizer, and stared at her for a moment before putting it down on the counter behind him. Finally, he said, “Hello?”

“Hello yourself.” If he was planning to make dinner that only meant that he hadn’t been out to see that one of his precious Oldsmobiles wasn’t in the stable. “The car quit. My phone, too, though I know I charged it last night.”

“Oh, I see.” He sounded relieved. She’d expected something closer to panic. “You want to call a tow truck from our phone?” He pointed to a phone mounted on the wall next to the fridge.

Karen stared at the thing. It was the same shade of green as the leaves on the wallpaper that she’d picked out three years ago when they’d redone the kitchen. She’d never seen this phone before in her life. Their old phone had been some ubiquitous cordless from BestBuy. Mike backed away so that she could step around the counter to make her call. But she couldn’t move. She had to concentrate to breathe.

“We don’t have a phone.” Her voice disappeared into a whisper. She cleared her throat.

“Why don’t you sit down for a bit?” he said. “It’s awfully hot out there.”


He took a glass down from the cupboard. A glass from the set she’d bought at Ikea. And turned back to her. “Who’s Mike?”

Karen slid onto one of the chairs and took up her phone again in her now shaking hands. This man, who was not Mike, filled the glass with ice and then water and slid it across the counter to her. She drank it down.

“I’m sorry – ” She looked at him.

“Phil,” the man provided.

“ – Phil, it’s just. This house looks a lot like my house. I guess I got confused.”

“Like I said, it’s hot out there.”

“I know.” Karen couldn’t keep the irritation out of her voice. Sweat trickled down her back soaking her blouse. She stood and snatched her jacket off the chair, dropping her dead phone into the pocket. “Thank you for the water. I think I’m fine now.” This was her house, but somehow not her world. Had the abandoned law office really been there all these years? It looked like something from some creepy fairytale. She should get back to the Oldsmobile.

“Are you sure? I can call a tow for you.” Phil picked the receiver off the cradle and held it up, its faint dial tone reaching across the space between them.

“No, I’ll be okay.” She turned and strode to the door that led to the garage. The handle wobbled in her grip. Fixing that doorknob was an item on Mike’s honey-do list. Apparently neither Mike nor Phil had gotten around to it.

She opened the door and froze. There in her spot (she always parked on the right), was a silver Mazda Miata. All these years, she’d imagined driving something sporty but sensible, never imagining something like this. Behind her, Phil put the phone back in its cradle. That green phone was some other Karen Anderson’s phone. This was some other Karen Anderson’s garage. She tore her eyes from the car and looked back at Phil standing awkwardly in the kitchen.

“You’re right. It would be lovely if you could you call a tow for me?”

“Of course.” Phil picked up the phone again with relief.

“I’m going to wait with my car. It’s just off the frontage road a couple miles south of here.”

Phil pulled the phone book out of the drawer where, in her world, she kept all the take out menus. He opened it and glanced up at her. She mouthed, “Thank you,” then stepped into the garage, closing the door behind her.

She pulled the Mazda’s keys off the key board, took the old Oldsmobile’s keys out of her pocket and replaced them on the hook. Quietly, she opened the driver door and slid in. The seat fit her body like a glove. She started the car, threw it in reverse, backed out, and headed for the highway. She hoped the other Karen Anderson would like her new Oldsmobile, it really was in mint condition.

* In Karen's bio on her write-a-thon page she claims she is "The other Karen Anderson." I used that as a jumping off point for the story.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Finding My Voice

The Lovers by Rene Magritte, 1928
Thinking about voice, more like. To be clear, I'm still actively working out this whole voice thing, so with that disclaimer out of the way, let's dive in.

There are two kinds of voice -- there's the voice you give your characters as you create them. They can be built from the outside in or the inside out depending on your writing process, but every character must have his or her own voice, which emerges from their individual histories, needs and goals. I call this "character voice." Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, is a tour de force of character voice.

What I'm talking about today is Authorial Voice. What is it? And, what is a writer's relationship to this mysterious idea of "voice"? Wikipedia has an interesting if quirky definition, which will serve. If you want more, I don't think there's a writing book out there that doesn't talk about voice. Now that I'm in the writing trenches, I have some thoughts of my own.

There's a lot of talk about developing your voice, but I'm not even sure what that's supposed to mean. while a writer's voice does indeed develop, I think that stating it this way leads to an artificial separation. There is no way to "develop your voice" outside of the work. And by work, I mean writing. 

Your voice is not a caged bird, it is not your pet. It's not a thing that you can manipulate. To do good work you have to drill down through your conscious mind in search of the ore hidden in the dark and slippery subconscious. If you're lucky, work hard, and take risks, you might even touch the vast and inarticulate unconscious. Strange and shocking things will flow through your fingers onto the page. That's your voice. That feral half-understood thing. 

You don't develop your voice or even find it, so much as realize it. Your voice is YOU, and for your voice to develop you must put yourself on the page fearlessly. This is why critiques sting even when they're right. The thick skin you develop isn't about the rightness or wrongness of what's on the page, it's to protect your voice, so that you can keep going.

Your voice will change. You are a moving target after all (and always should be) evolving and developing as a writer and as a human being.Your voice accretes across time and over your entire body of work. This is why you keep writing. We find our voices by simply writing story after story, just like we find ourselves by walking out into the world day after day.

The authority in your voice is born of the risks you take on the page, how deep you dig, how far out on the limb you are willing to go. But, I don't believe you can achieve authority without acceptance. You must accept your voice as you accept yourself, as you accept your failures and your successes.

Every story I create is a frozen artifact of my voice at that moment, like a fleeting glimpse of myself in the mirror. I am in my pajamas, mouth frothing with toothpaste. I am putting on makeup for a date. One day I look smug, another, tired. Still, it's me every time.