Thursday, October 31, 2013

Read Beata Beatrix at Bourbon Penn

Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
A picture really is worth a thousand words, or in this case, a little over four thousand.

My story Beata Beatrix is up at Bourbon Penn (Issue 8). I am especially excited to be a part of this publication, because Bourbon Penn is one of those magazines that occupies the space between genre and literary that I so love! You can read the stories free online, buy a copy for your Kindle, or go whole hog and get a truly lovely print edition for your bookshelf.

When I started this story I was thinking not so much about unrequited love as the nature of crushes. Even in the throes of a relatively benign obsession, I am fascinated by the way our desires create a doppelgänger of the object of our interest.

I don't know how I got onto the Pre-Raphaelites other than the fact that I remembered Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting from my days as an art major. The woman in the painting, Elizabeth Siddal, was a popular model among the Pre-Raphaelite painters. And I think it's fair to say, she became an obsession of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who painted her, fell in love with her, married her, and continued to paint her over and over after she died of an overdose of laudanum. 

The painting references another obsessive infatuation, the original Dante and his Beatrice whom he practically deified in The Divine Comedy. In real life, Dante knew Beatrice only passingly, she married another man and died at 24. Dante stands in the background of Rossetti's painting opposite an angel holding a flaming heart. Of the Angel, Dante writes:
"He seemed like one who is full of joy, and had my heart within his hand."
When we desire someone we cannot have (for whatever reason) or ever truly know (i.e. everyone), our idea of them will always miss the mark. If we are unwilling or unable to reach outside ourselves and truly try to know another, we render the very object of our desire into an unwitting stand-in for our own warped idea of who they might be.

Anywho, I hope you enjoy the story. Here's a poem by Christina Rossetti (DGR's sister) about the woman in the picture:
One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel -- every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.
Dante and Beatrice by Henry Holiday, 1884

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Plague of Cliches, and How to Avoid Them - or Not

Gil J Wolman
Last week I talked about originality and authenticity, but just because writers don't have to worry about coming up with an original idea, doesn't mean that we are immune to cliche.

Of course, you can go to TV Tropes and see just how popular a particular idea or trope is by how many entries are listed. While this will give you some idea, it's not always a good indicator of what ideas are tired and which ones are vastly popular because they are tapping today's  zeitgeist. 

As Stephen King (and many others) said, to be a good writer you have to be a reader. Reading around the genre you're writing in will really help you know what's trending and what's beginning to feel played. Of course, everything that you'll find in the bookstore and the library has been published, so on some level it's passed minimum requirement for originality (yes, even zombies and vampires - see zeitgeist). If you want to take your reading to the next level:

Reach out to the editors of your favorite independent genre zines. (you are reading them already, right?) They always need slush readers. There is no better way to become familiar with what's being done, and what's being done to death. If you don't have the time for that kind of unpaid extracurricular activity, there are a couple excellent resources out there. 

Things We've Seen Too Often

Here are just the first four items on Strange Horizons' excellent list:

  1. Person is (metaphorically) at point A, wants to be at point B. Looks at point B, says "I want to be at point B." Walks to point B, encountering no meaningful obstacles or difficulties. The end. (A.k.a. the linear plot.)
  2. Creative person is having trouble creating.
    1. Writer has writer's block.
    2. Painter can't seem to paint anything good.
    3. Sculptor can't seem to sculpt anything good.
    4. Creative person's work is reviled by critics who don't understand how brilliant it is.
    5. Creative person meets a muse (either one of the nine classical Muses or a more individual muse) and interacts with them, usually by keeping them captive.
  3. Visitor to alien planet ignores information about local rules, inadvertently violates them, is punished.
    1. New diplomat arrives on alien planet, ignores anthropologist's attempts to explain local rules, is punished.
  4. Weird things happen, but it turns out they're not real.
    1. In the end, it turns out it was all a dream.
    2. In the end, it turns out it was all in virtual reality.
    3. In the end, it turns out the protagonist is insane.
There are 51 items on this list. Read them all. It's a class in itself. In the end, this list isn't so much about overused thematic tropes as it is about the multitude of pitfalls that a newbie writer can fall into. 

The Lexicon grew out of the Turkey City Workshop to give attendees a common language for critique.  Learning how to talk about writing techniques is an important developmental step. The items on this list illustrate the kinds of missteps that, when embedded in your prose, will give your story a hackneyed feel no matter how brilliant the other elements might be. Entries include:

Call a Rabbit a Smeerp: A cheap technique for false exoticism, in which common elements of the real world are re-named for a fantastic milieu without any real alteration in their basic nature or behavior. “Smeerps” are especially common in fantasy worlds, where people often ride exotic steeds that look and act just like horses.

Dischism: The unwitting intrusion of the author’s physical surroundings, or the author’s own mental state, into the text of the story. Authors who smoke or drink while writing often drown or choke their characters with an endless supply of booze and cigs. In subtler forms of the Dischism, the characters complain of their confusion and indecision — when this is actually the author’s condition at the moment of writing, not theirs within the story. “Dischism” is named after the critic who diagnosed this syndrome.

As far as thematic cliches, sometimes they can feel like a gauntlet thrown down, and I'm all for bucking the system. If you're going to try to spin gold out of a leaden trope, you'll have a better chance if you'r familiar with what you're up against. And, if you bring your most original, un-cliched writing to bear on your story, you might be able to write something that is the exception to the rule. 

Joshua Kemble via Threadless. Get this, or his League of Cliche Super-Villains as a tee-shirt for a wearable reminder!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

No Such Thing as an Original Idea

The Six Neighborhoods of Tropes *
Science Fiction is a genre that puts a premium the Original Idea, but I think its worth clarifying what exactly that is, especially for writers.

Often, after I get a kernel of an idea, I go over to TV Tropes to see how it's been handled in other places. If you don't know, TV Tropes is a massive wiki that catalogs storytelling conventions and devices across all sorts of creative and popular media. But be careful! It's dangerous territory. Every article links to several others, creating a maze more labyrinthine than anything Daedalus could have imagined. Seriously, that picture on the top is a map of TV Tropes links. According to Uther Dean,
TV Tropes will Ruin Your Life. So, consider yourself warned.

I don't shy away from this kind of thematic research, because, as Solomon said:  

That which has been is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 1:9 NKJV

And I find this comforting.

When I'm working up a new idea I find it useful to see the dozens, sometimes hundreds, of approaches to an idea (trope) that I'm working with. I'm not there to steal, though there is nothing wrong with stealing if you do it right. Austin Kleon has written a whole book about how to Steal Like an Artist.
by Austin Kleon

And filmmaker, Jim Jarmusch explains it much better than I can:
"Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to.”"
No matter what you're creating, it's not about coming up with an Original Idea, because it's not really about the idea at all. It's about the idea + you.

Take any old idea that's been expressed a million times over and dig deep inside yourself, find and reveal your own personal, human experience of it, and people will call it "original."

Jean-Luc Godard
* In the information is beautiful, but the subject tangential to this post category: check out this multi-part study about the nature of information on the Internet, using TV Tropes as its model. Here's the opening quote:
"HP Lovecraft popularized a certain type of malevolent force, something so massive and powerful and unconcerned and out-of-scale with humanity that we could not even understand the whole of it.  Instead, his characters would–before inevitably going mad–only experience a small portion of these beings, typically some kind of horrid extrusion into our reality.  There is much that these Eldritch Abominations have in common with the kind of massively peer-produced content that floats like icebergs in the Internet."  

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Managing Research in General: Researching Exoplanets and Interstellar Travel in Particular

Check out Icarus Interstellar
Ah, research! necessary and dangerous territory. In general I try to keep research to a minimum, so that I can keep my fiction writing at a maximum. My motto is "Just enough and no more," but it can be hard to stick to when the world, the universe, the galaxy, and beyond is so fascinating.

After I get an idea that sticks around -a little zygote of a story- I'll do just a smidge of preliminary research, something to help me set the story in a particular time and place and nail down the main characters. This week I'm writing a story about people traveling to an exoplanet at sub-lightspeed on a generation ship. There is enough basic information just within the genre tropes to get me started, so I didn't do any research until I hit the halfway mark.
From xkcd!

Since this is a science fiction story, I need to make it plausible. I've now come to the point in the story where certain elements of the plot are constrained by the the reality of space travel as we know it. I'm researching while I draft. Whenever I come to a detail that I don't know, I put in a place holder (like [XXX]) until I can come back and plug in the details.

Now, I'm not an astrophysicist or an astronomer. My background is in English lit, so I'm never going to write stories with hard science as the centerpiece. For me, it's  about learning enough to make the world of the story plausible. But I do love science and reading about it, so the trick is to not get sucked in. Really. It's hard. Below are some of the goodies that I came across in my cursory research about what it would take to actually travel outside our solar system to an exoplanet. There is so much fascinating stuff. I could so go down this rabbit hole for weeks, but I'm just going to leave it here and get back to writing.

Exoplanets are any planet that orbits a star outside our solar system. We're discovering new ones every day. Most of them are larger than earth, sometimes they're called "super-earths."

Tragically, I don't have an iPad, but if you do and have ten bucks burning a hole in your virtual pocket, you might want to consider  Journey to the Exoplanets, a "book app" by Scientific American and Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Drool. Drool.

There's a fair amount written about what it would take to travel to one of these planets. Universe Today has a piece about traveling to our nearest star in the Alpha Centauri system, and Kurzweil's  website has an article about traveling to Tau Ceti. I don't know if the intrepid characters in my story will be going to either of these systems, but after reading these articles I decided that wherever they're going they'll be going via a nuclear pulse propulsion ship.

This method of space travel is still theoretical, but there is a wealth of information about it out there. Icarus Interstellar has all the information I'll need for this little story (and plenty more to fuel dozens of other story worlds). I'll be building my ship using Project Icarus' handy "Colonized Interstellar Vessel: Conceptual Master Planning" document.

As far as where my characters will end up, I'm still shopping for planets from the dozens of exoplanets listed on the Planetary Habitability Laboratory's Habitable Exoplanets Catalog. It's an embarrassment of riches.

The key for me, is knowing enough about my characters and story, so that I can do focused research. Even though I've gathered just enough information to create a plausible world for the characters in my story, the biggest challenge some days, is to step away from the research and back into the story. So, I'll just leave this here for you. Check out the links, explore. It's back to the word mines for me.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Canon Making and the ABC's of Science Fiction

Dante, Homer and Virgil from Raphael's fresco visualizing the Western Canon
While the word canon brings to mind a pile of dusty old books deemed classics that no one reads unless a college professor assigns them, I think of it more as a fancy word for a "Best Of" list. We've always loved lists. Just try surfing the web for ten minutes without hitting a listicle. I think list making might be one of our defining qualities as human beings: self aware, tool users, list makers. Even that's a tiny list. See? I can't help myself!

James Tiptree Jr.
The biggest problem with canon in literature is that it reflects the views and prejudices of the canon-makers, who so far have been predominantly Western and white and male. At best it reflects a cultural and religious homogeneity that never actually existed, at worst it is a tool for suppressing or erasing voices that fall outside the dominant culture or outside the ivory towers of the institutions of higher learning.

The real use of canon is in the conversation it engenders. It's in the debate that is part of the creation of any "Best Of" list where we as a community can begin to assess great piece of writing. This is how, together, we reach for an understanding of great art. The more voices that join in that debate, the more books and authors that get on the list, the better the canon becomes. I'm inclusionary when it comes to canon, because time is the ultimate arbiter. Only the works that can cross the ever widening gulf of time to continue to touch our hearts with the universal truth of human experience will remain. So, used well, establishing a canon can be good way to find and to define great writing.

For a deeper discussion regarding canon and what it means in regards to genre literature, check out the Coode Street Podcast's excellent episode: On the Toxicity of Literary Canon. Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe discuss the ways that canon can benefit the genre, but also how the exclusionary nature of canon-making can inhibit the broader discussion. What I liked best about this talk was the idea that everyone is free to create their own canon. While that in some ways defies the very definition of canon, I think it is a useful idea - especially for writers. 

I see thinking about my own personal canon is a way to better understand myself as a writer. Making the case for a particular book I think worthy of inclusion, helps define what is exemplary both in terms of writing in general and the genre in particular. So, even if true literary canon is created through consensus and winnowed over time, don't let that stop you from creating your own a list. I've dubbed my own personal list Canon Fodder!

When people talk canon in science fiction, they often start with the ABC's: Asimov, Bradbury, and Clark (and of course Heinlein a little further down the line). Good writers all, foundational to the genre and deservedly so. That said, just like the great Western canon, the SciFi/Fantasy canon is a little plain vanilla culturally, and frankly, neither of them offer enough meat and potatoes for me as a woman. Some of the writers below have already established themselves on "Best Of" lists and claimed a spot in the accepted canon, others are younger writers, but for me, everyone on this list has done or is doing work that is worth being discussed in terms of canon.


A - Margaret Atwood
B - Octavia Butler, J.G. Ballard, Leigh Brackett
C - Angelica Carter, Ted Chiang
D - Samuel Delany, Philip K. Dick
G - Neil Gaiman, William Gibson
H - Nalo Hopkinson, M. John Harrison
J - N. K. Jemisin, Kij Johnson, Shirley Jackson
K - Caitlan Kiernan, Nancy Kress
L - Ursula K. LeGuin, Stanislaw Lem, Kelly Link
M - David Mitchell, Haruki Murakami
N - Andre Norton
O - Nnedi Okorafor, Flann O'Brien
R - Joanna Russ, J.K. Rowling
S - Michael Swanwick, Mary Shelly
T - James Tiptree, Karen Tidbeck
V - Jack Vance, Genevieve Valentine
W - Gene Wolfe, Peter Watts
Y - Jane Yolen

The list is ideosynchratic and personal and no more than my favorites, but it's my own ever-evolving canon. If you don't like it, as they say in Texas:

Let the conversation begin!

Science Fiction and fantasy is all about exploration. A million worlds await you, throw that door open and find the ones you want to plant your flag on and claim for your own personal canon!

  • Brit publishers Gollancz have been publishing SF Masterworks for a while now. If you're looking for a less idiosyncratic, more comprehensive - more canon-like - list, this is an excellent place to start.
  • Check out the James Tiptree Jr. Award site for books, written by both men and women, that fearlessly explore gender issues.
  • Open Culture has a list of 100 Great Sci-Fi Stories by Women Writers, complete with links to free stories!
  • Worlds Without End is a great genre site and community where you can explore and discuss science fiction, fantasy and horror books and their authors. 
  • For more general genre information about authors and their books check out the Internet Speculative Database.