Thursday, July 31, 2014

ArmadilloCon 36

Now that my local Science Fiction and Fantasy convention has become an annual tradition, it's becoming harder and harder to divide my time between all the interesting panels and readings, and visiting with writerly friends old and new. ArmadilloCon has become something between a con and a reunion.

I am naturally pretty outgoing, and writing is a very solitary endeavor so a good con can be a real inspiration. I invariably end the weekend exhausted, but also energized -- ready to write ALL the things!

This year was an embarrassment of riches with two guests: Guest of Honor, Ted Chiang, a fascinating writer of deep and thoughtful stories; and Special Guest of Honor, Ian McDonald, who writes expansive novels set all over the world (India, Turkey, Brazil) and beyond (Mars).

Mario Acevedo came down from Denver to be the toastmaster. Funny and full of interesting stories, he was the right man for the job. He writes books about an ex solder who is now a vampire and a private detective. Here's his character's tagline: Felix Gomez went to Iraq a soldier. He came back a vampire. Nice! I don't usually read books with vampires in them, but his take has me interested.

The editor Guest of Honor was Jacob Weisman from Tachyon Publications. Of the books he had in the dealers' room, I already own quite a few (Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by Triptree, Feeling Very Strange: The Slipsream Anthology, The Dog Said Bow Wow by Swanwick). Still, I managed to find a couple to add to add to my library (a copy of Wonders of the Invisible World by Patricia McKillip and The Madonna and the Starship by James Morrow).

This year I volunteered for the Writer's Workshop. It was fascinating to have a peek behind the curtain and see how Marshall Ryan Maresca and Stina Leicht pull this great workshop together. I'll definitely be back to help again next year.

I got to hang out with my local author buddies Patrice Sarath, K. G. Jewell, Nicky Drayden, and D. L. Young. I also met Cassandra Rose Clarke and picked up her YA book The Wizard's Promise. By the time I met Skyler White, my book buying budget was running low, so I decided to put The Incrementalists, which she co wrote with Stephen Brust, on my short list to acquire and read soon.

I heard Michelle Muenzler read a couple wonderful stories and Rachel Acks read her excellent They Tell Me There Will Be No Pain, soon to be available in Lightspeed's Women Destroy Science Fiction anthology.

This year's con was just the right mix of good friends and new faces. 

I'm inspired and ready to tackle my very own novel!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Dream Ursula K. LeGuin Dispenses Inspiration in a Red Swamp Thing Diving Suit

I had a vivid and wonderful dream last night.

I am visiting beautiful, but empty country home. Like Town & Country beautiful, Martha Stewart beautiful.

I walk through the house admiring the impeccable if completely predictable interior design. Outside the windows, I glimpse the beautifully kept grounds that surround the house. Immaculate, bright green lawns lead to copses of young trees then to shaded woodland beyond. There are also ponds and rustic outbuildings.

Standing at the back door, a wood-framed screen door, naturally. I see a large shed, perhaps some kind of workshop. A sign by the screen door says, “The dog and pail are to remain on the property in memory of Lou Reed.” * I look again and a tri-color hunting dog sits next to a metal pail by the shed. The dog trots toward me, and I walk out to greet him. He was smaller than I thought he would be – as if he’d stayed the size he was when I’d spotted him in the middle distance. He leads me back to the shed, which is now mostly submerged in one of the lovely clear ponds – as if it had always been so. Only the roof and the tops of the windows are above the surface of the water, still as glass. The dog sits back down next to the pail, which is now in the grass at the edge of the water.  

Next, I’m swimming under the water, following the bright red legs and fins of a diver that leading me deeper into the cool darkness. The diver disappears through a black basement entrance and I follow. Together we swim up alongside cellar stairs to emerge at the first floor. Inside the shed is dry, watertight. Through the windows the bright sunshine and beautiful green lawns are impossibly lovely, jewel-like when seen through the prismatic lens of the crystal clear water.
Ursula K. Le Guin
I turn back to the diver. Her bright red diving suit is designed to look like the Swamp Thing with delicate scales stamped into the material. There are no air tanks or hoses. Decorative fins sprout from the sides of her helmet, and opaque eyeshapes are worked into the visor. ** She takes the helmet off and it’s Ursula K. Le Guin! This is her house and her shed (but I knew that already). We sit on tatty ottomans facing each other, both looking around at the fascinating clutter of knickknacks and curios that fill the bare-floored room.

She says, “You see? This is where all the best story material is.”


Of course.

My subconscious recruited one of my literary heroes to remind me, in its own lovely and bizarre way, that the best things are waiting to be discovered – just below the surface. ***

* I have no idea how the dog, the pail, and Lou Reed figure into this, but they were a lovely detail.

** Last night, I finished reading All You Need is Kill, where the female protagonist wears a bright red armored suit, and over dinner we had a lively discussion with the girls about the Swamp Thing!

*** As captivating as all the curious objects inside were, I was also fascinated by how strange the world above appeared when viewed through that limpid water.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Am I Writing a Novel?

New words in the new binder.
I’ll be honest, as much as I love writing; the idea of writing a novel has always intimidated me. There are a myriad of reasons, mostly the stock ones, that have kept me from embarking on a novel (the time commitment, the complexity, it’ll suck and all that work will be wasted, I won't have time to write short stories). Yeah, they’re all lame, and I do want to write a novel – hell, I’d like to write a novel a year if I could just work out how to tackle this first one.

I have notes, ideas, and nascent plans for a couple novels in my journals, but I keep finding ways to put off actually starting a novel. The top reason that I haven’t started this year is because I have a couple unfinished stories that I’m struggling to complete. I wanted to clear the decks before attempting a novel, even though in the back of my mind I have a suspicion that this is just another way to punt this new challenge down the road yet again.

I don’t know why I am so cagey about settling down to write a novel. Yes I love short stories, yes they are their own distinct form, and yes will always want to write them too, but novels offer a much greater canvas and I think I’m more than ready to explore the unique challenges that long form story telling has to offer.

But wait, it appears I am writing a novel.

At my last two in-person critique sessions, I’ve brought sections of one of my troublesome “novellas.” Both times, more than one Slugtriber said they felt the material they were reading feels like it is meant to be a novel. Both times, I heard a chorus of we want to spend more time in this world and with these characters (among other constructive critiques).

Considering this novella’s obstinate problems in light of expanding it to novel length makes a host of issues suddenly look manageable. Like my crit group, I also want to spend more time in this world and get to know these characters better. So, I’ve decided to go with it and just let this story be the novel that it is (hopefully) meant to be.

It appears I’ve subverted my reluctance to start a novel by inadvertently starting one. Hey, whatever works.

The time commitment still seems intimidating, but I suspect (again) that might be the panicked part of my brain trying to set up a last line of resistance. I’ve already written about 16,000 words, which just leaves 74,000 words for a 90,000 word first draft. If I set everything else aside and write 1,000 new words a day (excluding weekends) I’ll have my draft complete by October 24th.

The only real sacrifice will be setting aside my other open projects for that time. I always want to write everything all at once… 

Leaving weekends out of my plan is a kind of safety valve. I’ll have weekends for catching up or downtime, or if I get lonely for the short story form I can write a quick piece of flash fiction.

Well, that’s the plan anyway. Here we go!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Free Writing Redux

It's been another hectic week. I've managed to fit in some writing, just not any blog writing. So here's an encore post polished up for your reading pleasure. I picked this one because I'm currently expanding the project, and I wanted to remind myself of the importance of writing freely while I restructure and reoutline.

A couple weeks ago I was thinking about process and how shape an idea without ruining it. One way of not holding on too tight to an idea is to write a LOT of words around it.  It's like flying multiple recon sorties over the foreign geography of the idea until the target -- or targets reveal themselves.

Short stories have to hit an emotional and thematic bull's eye, but they have to be free too. It's important not to be too frugal with world, especially when developing a story.

So I've decided to be even more spendthrift with words. My motto: More is more! The more I write the more material emerges from the dim recesses of my subconscious were all the interesting stuff hides.

Putting the Free Back in Free Writing

I picked up Writing With Power by Peter Elbow at Half Price Books a couple weeks ago and got a lot out of it. Much of this book is about writing nonfiction, which is probably why it wasn't on my radar. And fair warning, this book is verbose and a bit padded out. He does not include a chapter about brevity, so I guess he's being true to himself. I got the most out of the first third of the book, which deals with getting words out of your head and onto the paper (if revision is your bugaboo he addresses that along with audience and feedback).

Writing With Power made me realize that I've been screwing with my practice of free writing. Due to my own impatience (writing time is always hard to come by), I have this urge to make every word count. To write always to a purpose. What I've come to realize is that I can't skimp on true free writing.  It's OK to write garbage, to allow all that flotsam and jetsam fall out of my brain and onto the paper. Overall, I need to be more free with my words in all the stages of my writing, to expect to write more words than I will keep. It's okay to throw away, to not finish, to try things out and abandon the ones that don't work.
Speed Writing

This leads me to directed freewriting or speed writing (Elbow calls it "The Direct Writing Process"). Once I've free written my "throw away" pages, I start writing around my story idea, just writing freely and attentively, trying to let the structure and the soul of the thing emerge.

Another important point Elbow makes is not to be afraid of writing the wrong thing, because when you’re figuring something out, grasping for meaning, one of the best ways to get there is to blurt out the wrong thing and then adjust what your saying, circling until you zero in. Because it's much harder to hit a bull's eye without first taking some sloppy shots to warm up.

Free writing and speed writing means throwing away a lot while knowing that there are more words inside me, an infinite number of words. And most importantly, that among those words are the RIGHT words, the ones that will show me the way forward.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The World and How We See It

As a writer, I am constantly trying to create stories with characters that are complex and full of emotion, to describe worlds with concrete details, to infuse every story with a weight and reality that will make it live on the page. While I do this, I try to always remember just how limited my perceptions are. 
“Even though we accept the reality that's presented to us, we're really only seeing a little window of what's happening.”
~ David Eagleman
Just like when we tell stories to each other, we humans, when we look at the world around us, are in the business of making meaning. The more we learn about the brain, the more it becomes clear that there is no way for us to perceive the world in a neutral way, unbiased by our own prejudices and instincts. If this is true of our understanding of the physical world, I think it's doubly so for our interactions with  other people (and, I would posit,  animals).

Lifehacker has a great post about perception, and why it’s good to disrupt our usual ways of seeing things. Anyone can benefit from shaking up their routines and challenging their assumptions. It's refreshing to see things a little differently.

For a writer, it's a critical skill. If I'm going to create unique characters – real characters, not just straw men and women mouthing some opinion I personally don’t agree with – then I must empathize even with the very people who vex me the most. If I am to describe the places these characters inhabit in ways that are fresh and real, I must try to see the world afresh through my same old eyes.

The first step is to acknowledge that your own reality and Reality are not one and the same.
“David Eagleman describes this as the umwelt: the assumption that our reality is the only reality out there.”
~ Lifehacker “Recalibrate Your Reality
Here are two great books that helped me wrap my head around the limits of my own perceptions.

Incognito by David Eagleman (His book, Sum, is excellent too!)

Here’s a quote:  
“The deep secret of the brain is that not only the spinal cord but the entire central nervous system works this way: internally generated activity is modulated by sensory input. In this view, the difference between being awake and being asleep is merely that the data coming in from the eyes anchors the perception. Asleep vision (dreaming) is perception that is not tied down to anything in the real world; waking perception is something like dreaming with a little more commitment to what´s in front of you. Other examples of unanchored perception are found in prisoners in pitch-park solitary confinement, or in people in sensory deprivation chambers. Both of these situations quickly lead to hallucinations.”

And, Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz
“To err is to wander, and wandering is the way we discover the world; and, lost in thought, it is also the way we discover ourselves. Being right might be gratifying, but in the end it is static, a mere statement. Being wrong is hard and humbling, and sometimes even dangerous, but in the end it is a journey, and a story.”