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What if science was presented with the same dramatic flair as a thriller movie trailer? I'll be following this one closely!

Brexit thoughts

Dear friends in the U.K., I send you condolences and hugs. Prompted by Cliff Winnig, here is a quote from one of your many great writers:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.

"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”


Orlando Heavy on My Heart

“Where were you when you heard?” In my life, that question has referred to so many terrible events. The earliest one I remember was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I was in high school and was old enough to have vivid memories of walking down the corridor, not yet knowing what had happened but knowing it was something dreadful, the hushed voices, and most of all, the expression on the face of my favorite teacher as he told us the news. I recalled this while driving my younger daughter to her own high school and turning on the radio to hear, “The second tower is down!” To each generation, I thought. Columbine, Charleston, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, the Oklahoma City bombing, the list goes on.

My older daughter and I were returning from our college reunion when we stopped for lunch and I glanced at the newspaper rack and saw the news about the Orlando shooting. That same sense of surreal horror swept over me. Both of us had the thought that the world, our world anyway, would never be the same. In trying to grapple with events like this one or the others mentioned above, I find myself looking for events in my own life. That’s a thing we primates do, we put things into personal context.

I am intimately familiar with my own journey through the brutal murder of my mother, but that is not a good analogy. Her death, as devastating as it was, was an individual, one-on-one act of violence. Nobody blamed her or in any way implied she was somehow responsible for what happened to her. Closer emotionally are the stories my father used to tell of his boyhood in a small village in the Ukraine just after the Russian Revolution, when Cossacks would ride into town, line up all the Jewish boys, and shoot them. Today we find such acts heinous; nobody says the Jews deserved what they got at Auschwitz.

Yet that is exactly what some public figures have been saying about the young men and women who were having a night of dancing off the stress of their lives at Pulse. That is one of the ways in which this shooting stands apart from the others.

I found that as the days roll past, my distress at the Orlando shooting increases rather than diminishing. I keep having the thought, Except for not knowing many folks who go to night clubs, that could have been someone I love. That same daughter I was traveling with is part of the LGBT community. So are my other daughter and her wife. So is my sister and her partner. So are so many people I love.

That could have been my child or my sister or my brother or my best friend. That could have been me.

During this time I had been reading David Gerrold’s gritty, powerful thirteen fourteen fifteen o’clock. I take it in nibbles because it’s dense and emotionally intense. The following passage stuck with me, bringing to mind a poignant image of the people enjoying an evening dancing at Pulse:

“-- in that frozen moment, in that separate space, there was room to take my life out, hold it in my hands, hold I up to the light and examine it, look for secret meanings, and try to see the soul inside, I discovered, I’m not gay, I’m not straight either, not bi and not tri, not anything, just human, quietly desperate and alone in my head, not caring about the form or shape or position, not worrying about top or bottom, simply starving for that rare moment of completion, that brief bright flash of connection that tells me that I’m not the only hurting hungry thing in this universe, even if it’s just a splash of illusion in the night”

A friend who identifies as bisexual talked to me with great earnestness and trouble in her voice about how the Orlando shooting isn’t only about homophobia or gun control or Islamophobia or mental illness. I respect her point that what happened is a complex issue with no simple answers. To focus on only one is to engage in the same sort of single-issue black and white simplification that underlies all these issues.

At the same time, I am leery of straight-washing what happened. Of skimming over how hard it is every day for some of our loved ones to get through their lives, struggling to figure out who they are and live their lives with that integrity, without daily risking those lives. As Christina Cauterucci wrote in Slate.com:

“There’s also another set of consequences that are specific to this crime, which targeted Latinos and Latinas in a bar that catered to LGBTQ patrons. When a man with an assault rifle mows down dozens of people in a school or movie theater, there is little reason for public accounts to speculate about the victims’ sexual or gender identities. The victims and survivors at Pulse, whether they identified as queer or not, have been seemingly outed to their families and communities. Many of the people Mateen killed were so, so young—some in their early 20s, barely old enough to drink; one just 18 years old. Maybe they hadn’t had the chance to come out to their families and friends yet. Maybe they hadn’t even processed it for themselves.”

She calls out “…the climate of hate, exclusion, and indifference to queer suffering fomented by political and religious leaders who champion anti-gay language, anti-trans legislation, and rigid gender boundaries...”

Maybe the crime is not just the shooting and the loss of precious, irreplaceable human lives. Maybe it’s bigger than that, the way we allow anyone to target them beforehand or afterward, and how it is in any way permissible to pry into their private lives and then condemn them. Maybe the Orlando tragedy will keep going on until each and every one of us says,

That could have been my child or my sister or my brother or my best friend. That could have been me.

THUNDERLORD cover reveal

Here's the cover for Thunderlord, to be released from DAW in August. The art is by the wonderful Matt Stawicki, who did the paintings for The Children of Kings and The Seven-Petaled Shield trilogy. (And yes, the resonances with Stormqueen! are deliberate -- this is a sequel.)

You can pre-order it from Amazon or Barnes & Noble in ebook and hardcover formats.

Story in The Shadow Conspiracy III

My novelette, "Among Friends," (featuring Quakers, the Underground Railroad, and a slave-catching automaton) will appear in The Shadow Conspiracy III (edited by Phyllis Irene Radford and Brenda W. Clough, with this gorgeous cover by Dave Smeds). ("Among Friends" previously appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March 2013). The book will be available June 28 in print and various ebook formats.

Here's the back cover copy:

In the world of the Shadow Conspiracy where the human soul has proven to be measurable and transferable to an automaton, the question arises: is the robot a person? The Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863 freed all the slaves in the states in rebellion against the Federal Government. What if that same document freed ensouled automata as well?

This third volume of the Shadow Conspiracy has seven stories that examine the question of humanity. We take you from an observation hot air balloon above the siege of Vicksburg to the soul-grinding Battle of the Crater, from simple farm folk who call themselves Friends, to the mysticism of Marie Laveau and Voudon. Our award winning authors ask the age-old question of what makes us human, what is the nature of slavery, and who deserves freedom? Only you can provide the answers.

The Return of the Walkabout Cat

When last we left our story, our indoor-only cat Shakir had escaped and was so freaked out, he no longer recognized us. After spotting him several times in our yard, we decided to try to trap him. To this end, we borrowed a raccoon-sized humane trap and set it out with a dish of extra-palatable food nearby. Each night, the food was eaten. We braced the trap open and placed the food halfway inside. Finally we set the trap with the food all the way inside, so that the cat would trigger the trap.

And the next morning the food was untouched. The most likely reason was that earlier in the day, I had been sitting on the porch, enjoying the beautiful weather and view of our garden as I wrote. In the process, I also moved several cardboard boxes at the far end of the porch. Apparently, Shakir found these changes intolerably threatening.

The next night, we set the food outside the trap, thinking that by backtracking and making the setup less threatening we could tempt him. For the second night in a row, the meal was not eaten. At this point, we began to wonder if Shakir had somehow gotten out of the yard. Our chain-link fence is 6 feet high and there aren't many gaps underneath. It would be possible for a determined mountain lion to scale the fence, and also for a determined dog (or cat) to dig underneath it, although we saw no evidence either had happened.

I watched myself begin to grieve again., only this time with more acceptance. It had been two weeks since we lost our cat, and that is a long time, especially in these mountains.

Read more...Collapse )My husband, however, did not give up. The next night, he set the food down by the place we thought the cat was hiding. And presto! the next morning, the plate was licked clean. We had no way of knowing who had eaten it, whether it was our cat, a raccoon or skunk, or a neighbor’s cat that had somehow gotten into the yard. We continued to leave out food and to move it closer to the porch and the trap. Again we reached the point leaving food halfway inside the trap and having it gone the next morning. Our patience seemed to be in a contest with our sense of urgency, because the longer a cat is missing, the lesser the chances of ever finding it.

Now came the test: we set the trap and left the food at the back. I went to bed thinking, This is it -- either there will be a miracle and our cat will be in the trap tomorrow morning, or we will be back to square one, perhaps without any hope of seeing him again. If we did catch him, would he be completely feral, not to mention covered with fleas and ticks?

I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of OW! OW! OWWW!! I dashed into the living room. My husband had brought the trap inside and there was our cat, fur all puffed up, expressing his extreme displeasure. My husband opened the trap and, just as we had expected, the cat dashed out, belly low to the floor, and headed for the nearest hiding place, underneath the sofa.

Our fears about Shakir forgetting all about us and his life as a house cat turned out to be unfounded. Within five minutes he had come out from underneath the sofa and was exploring his old home. He showed no fear when I approached him, and he allowed me to stroke him. He had lost weight but he was not starving. He had been mildly obese to begin with, and he’d had some food, although not in the quantities he was accustomed to. His coat was rough, although that might have been partially because he was still puffed up with excitement. Later we discovered that although he did not seem to have picked up any fleas, he had several ticks in one ear. These fell off within a couple of days after we applied a topical prevention for fleas, ticks, and heartworm.

Thinking that the best thing for Shakir was to let him settle on his own, undisturbed, we went back to bed. Almost immediately, he jumped on the bed, curled up between me and my husband, and began purring ferociously. It had been almost three weeks, and our sweet boy kitty was clearly beside himself with delight to be home again.

Over the next few days, the cat followed us around wherever we went, begging for attention. He not only remembered where the food and litter box were, he remembered the other animals in the household, especially the dog. Purring, he rubbed up against her and cuddled with her, even more than he had before his adventure. He even remembered the tricks that I taught him: standing on his hind legs to touch his nose to mine when I bent over, and turning around in circles.

It has now been a little over a week since Shakir's return. His coat, which was dull and rough, has resumed its previous glossy smoothness. As I write this, he and the dog are playing tag. To say that we are thrilled to have him back is an understatement, although now we remember all the ways he is annoying. That is life!

BayCon 2016 Schedule

I'll be at Baycon 2016, Friday May 27- Monday May 30, 2016, at the San Mateo Marriott. Please stop by and say hello.

Evil to the Core: Villains in Sci fi and Fantasy (Saturday 11:30 - 13:00, Synergy 5)
Sure, the hero gets the gal (or guy) and all the glory, but it's the villain that does all the hard work. Where would Batman be without the Joker? Nowhere! A good villain can drive a story, but it's exhausting and thankless work. Come pay homage to your favorite villains and join in as authors discuss treasured villains in their own work and others to reveal what makes those villains engage or repulse us¦or what fails to. Find out if your antagonist is as villainous as he or she should be.

Autograph Session (Sunday 11:00 - 12:00, Convene Lobby) (I will have copies of Collaborators, Lambda Literary Award Finalist, and other books to sell).

Wonder Woman After 50 (Sunday 14:30 - 16:00, Connect 4)
Ageism in fandom, or, Mom aren't you too old to dress up in silly costumes?

The Adult In Young Adult (Monday 11:30 - 13:00, Synergy 5)
YA: no swearing, sex, violence, or drugs. So your hero is a young boy who's just been thrown in among a bunch of space marines; can you really write a plausible story without swearing and violence? Our panelists discuss finding the appropriate without sacrificing the authentic.

The Adventure of the Walkabout Cat

One of the challenges of owning indoor-only cats is that they don’t always get with the program. They dart out of open doors, find ways to squirm through gates and partly-opened windows, and so forth. We humans have yet to find the means to explain to them why they must stay on one side of the door when there are so many intoxicating smells and things to chase on the other side.

In our neighborhood, there are all the usual reasons for keeping cats indoors, plus a few local ones. Predators (mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats, plus critters who can take on a cat and come out on top, like raccoons), diseases, ticks, fleas, cars. Things that cats are predators for: songbirds and helpful garden reptiles, to mention a few.

In our household, the situation is complicated by having a retired seeing eye dog who has been trained to open doors. She can’t managed round knobs, but latches are no problem, nor are sliding screens.

The icon depicts our two cats, Shakir and Gayatri. Despite having one eye, Gayatri is a fearsome hunter. If we acceded to her wishes, she would present us with a snake or lizard every single day. Since this would mean disaster for our garden ecology, we keep her in jail. She gets out occasionally, which is why we use flea/tick/heartworm prevention on her, and she always comes back a few hours later, irate that we have not let her in right now.
Shakir, on the other hand, would sniff at a screen door and then slink away to a cozy basket. We always believed that of the two cats, he was the stay-at-home. Until one day, we discovered that Tajji, our afore-mentioned door artiste, had managed to open the sliding screen door. We did not realize this until some hours after the fact.

“Where’s Gayatri? Oh, thank goodness, she’s here, napping.”

And we did not think to look for Shakir until the next morning, when he failed to demand his breakfast. Panic ensued, followed by a search of the property, unprintable words about all the hiding places, visits to the neighbors, calls to the vet, postings on Nextdoor, and putting up flyers and posters within a several block radius. Read more...Collapse )
“What's new?” I asked my friend, a young(er) writer.

“I finished my book!” she said radiating both relief and excitement.

“Finished, how? Finished, as in rough draft? Revision? Ready to send to your critique group?”

“This is like the eighth revision,” she said. “My group has seen it, in whole or part, many times.” She rolled her eyes. “I was at the point where the only thing to fix were nits, so it was clear that I needed to send it out.”

Although my friend has yet to sell a novel, she has several quite respectable short fiction sales to her credit. More than that, she has acquired an understanding of when revision is helpful and when it is detrimental. In our subsequent discussion, she pointed out that she is a “pantser” (“writing by the seat of your pants”) rather than a planner. With time, she has become better at planning out a writing project, but she still likes the spontaneity of letting the story unfold in unexpected and delightful directions. Hence the need for multiple revisions.

I was like this when I began writing. I had no idea that people outlined stories. When a fellow writer told me that she outlined each scene on a 3 x 5 card before she actually started writing the story, I didn't know what to think. I would just start writing with no idea where the story was going to take me. As a consequence, my stories were riddled with plot holes, inconsistencies, and dead ends.

I had to learn to revise as a matter of survival. I don’t mean tidying up grammar and punctuation. I mean taking apart large portions of the story, writing new text, rearranging other portions, and so forth, until the final version bore little resemblance to my rough draft. Computers have made this much easier than having to retype the whole thing! Read more...Collapse )

Because I often have difficulty discerning the proper point at which to begin a story, in my early years I often had to either add one or more chapters or throw them out. Once I had to discard the first 150 pages of text. It was a good thing that I took to heart the advice to kill my darlings, or I would never have been able to do that and the story might have ended up in a trunk instead of a bookstore shelf.

As I wrote, and later sold, short story after short story and then several novels, my revision process became abbreviated. I learned the literary equivalent of looking before I leaped. I developed my own methods of writing down the structure of a work, either in progress or yet to be started. I say writing down rather than outlining because many of my early techniques involved sketches, maps, diagrams, and flow charts. Later I used text as well, although writing down the contents of each chapter before I have written it has never appealed to me. It takes the fun out of discovering what happens next.

Outlining, in whatever form, reduced the number of drafts, but did not eliminate the need for revision. I often joke that whatever I think a story is about before I start writing it, I'm wrong. No matter how fully developed an idea seems while it is still in my mind, I always find new aspects and connections that I did not know existed. Over time, my process of revision has changed from major reconstruction to deepening connections. Sometimes it feels as if I am Michelangelo, chipping away at that block of marble to reveal the statue that is already inside.

Revision, as indicated in the title of this piece, can also be an excuse not send a story out into the world, where it may be rejected. It is all too easy for a fearful or insecure writer to keep polishing until there is no life left in the story. As long as he can say, “I'm still working on it,” he doesn't risk the possibility of being told by an agent, editor, or critique group that this story does not work. We have all heard of novice writers who spend years, sometimes decades, on a single book. While it is true that some stories take a long time to coalesce, that's not what I'm talking about. I had to write about a dozen books (depending on how you count them) before one was finally solid enough to be to make a publishable novel. And that one, I revised four times before I submitted it to an editor. While previous attempts contained many intriguing concepts and even some respectable prose, I was not yet sufficiently experienced to bring them together in a cohesive way. This is why I almost never tried to revise them many years later. The central core of these attempt unsuccessful novels reflected who I was as a writer at that time. As I matured, I was able to tackle more ambitious themes, more complex characters, more challenging points of view, and so forth.

Occasionally, a story would present itself in those early years before I was skillful enough to do it justice.These drafts and fragments have become a treasure trove into which I dip from time to time. I am able to view my earlier attempts with a more critical eye and to extract what can be salvaged and reworked, often in a new framework, to the standards of my current ability. I should add that these older nuggets face fierce competition from the new ideas that present themselves to me on a daily basis. Like most writers I know, I am not lacking in ideas. To the contrary, I have so many that I must pick and choose which ones will yield the most rewarding results. I doubt I will ever come to the end of my queue of ideas story ideas. The challenge is, as it has always been, to prioritize.

Revision has taught me how to take a story, prune and discard elements that don't work, and flesh out elements the take the work in a deeper, richer direction. At the same time, it has given me a better sense of what stories are worth the energy and time. When I was a beginning writer, every story was the greatest thing I had ever written. This was absolutely true. I was improving all the time, so each story was indeed the best I had written to date. Decades later, however, I have written my share of flops, experiments that did not pan out, and just plain awful writing, not to mention ideas that seemed brilliant at the time but which history has proved wrong. So now when I consider potential projects, I keep in mind that some will succeed better than others. I never want to stay completely in the realm of safe, proven writing strategies, and I’m much more likely to dig into a story that challenges me.

My current process is that once I finish a first draft, I take another pass through it while the way the story has come together at the end is still fresh in my mind. Then I set it aside and distract myself by working on something else. Early in my career, I wrapped the typed manuscript in plastic and put it in the freezer “to cool off.” Computers and experience have eliminated the necessity, but not the humor. Then I’ll do another pass, usually a fairly substantial one. At this point, the story is ready for someone else to see it, usually a trusted reader and then my editor.

Everyone has a different way of revising. Just as it is a joy to some (me) and agony to others, so we approach this re-envisioning as individuals. We have different “signals” that tell us we are about to outrun our inner guides, or our workshop mates are reduced to pointing out typos instead of errors of substance. I find it endlessly fascinating to “talk shop” with other writers, even if I come away grateful that I get to do things my way...and they get to do things theirs. As long as it works, the details don’t matter.

As a dear friend who is also a fantastic writer said, “The only draft that matters is the one on the editor’s desk.”
Being discouraged is part and parcel of a working writer's life. Negative reviews, ditto. Some of us are naturally more thick-skinned about them than others, and most of us develop coping strategies over the years. This is where networking with other writers can be very helpful. We say things like:

  • If you're not accumulating rejection slips, you're not doing your job (taking risks, "pushing the envelope").

  • Just file the slip (or email) and send the story out

  • Remember how many times A Wrinkle in Time was rejected.

  • Editors are human, too; they have bad days, and it's no one's fault if your hero has the same name as their ex.

  • Hey, I'm making progress from a form rejection to a personal note and invitation to submit again!

Even after many professional sales, a rejection can sting. The sting doesn't last as long as it might when we were first starting out, and we have tools (see above) and lots of writerly commiseration to help us. We know from experience that the sting will pass; we have acquired the habit of immediately diving back into the next project, so that we always have something fresh and exciting in the pipeline.

Then there are the situations when a story or book is sold and the publisher goes out of business. The editor gets fired. I know authors this has happened to more than once. We find ourselves wondering if we killed the magazine. We didn't, but that laughter overlays the secret and utterly illogical fear that our writing careers are somehow jinxed. Then we sell something else and there are no thunderbolts from above. We carry on.

Reviews, ah reviews, and in this category I include feedback from critique groups and beta readers. So much has already been said about the power of a caustic review or harsh feedback of a work in progress that I won't belabor the point here. Suffice it to say that the natural human desire for praise (for our creative "children") leaves us vulnerable to interpreting criticism of the work with condemnation of ourselves. Or, having torn off our emotional armor to write from the heart, we've also ripped off any defenses against sarcasm, etc. I'm among those who, having received scathing feedback, went home, and cried. I never considered giving up (although on more than one occasion, I contemplated getting even and thankfully resisted the temptation). But some writers have. Read more...Collapse )