Friday, February 26, 2010

"Science Fiction", the "Bad" Word of Academia

I'm still trying to recover from a cold, although I have been getting better each day. I had a couple of relapses last night though, and so I mostly took it easy today and stayed in doors.

Because of that I'm going to keep this week's blog entry kind of short but I hope it will be inspirational enough for anybody who reads it.

I was reading an online article from USA Today the other day about how science fiction movies have been viewed by the mainstream more respectfully and seriously than they had several decades ago. Particularly this has been reflected in the Oscar nominations. According to Marco R. della Cava of USA Today, Avatar and District 9 have been chosen to run for best-picture Oscar.

The article goes on to talk about how "science fiction" has been looked at as a scary word by many serious movie viewers and critics who probably lean more towards the academic/scholarly side of film. To the majority of academics and scholars, "science fiction" is either a mere literary marketing genre term, a term for mere unintelligent escape fiction with a scientific backdrop or both. But the good science fiction, as opposed to pulpish science fiction, will not only be character driven but will, through its narration and the drama within, comment on society by showing us where society is headed based on where it is at now. More typically science fiction does this with technology's impact on society, but it can also deal with the non-technological social changes as well. After all, sociology is a science. A very few high quality science fiction works have been placed in the literary cannon over the last couple of centuries, Orwell's 1984 and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 are two examples.

and District 9 also in their own ways comment on society of today and where it's headed, according to Cava's article, "Otherwordly and Oscar-worthy: Science fiction's profile soars". If more people can just see this in the well-made science fiction films and literary works, the word "science fiction" may not be merely looked at as nothing more as a mass marketing term or a term for escapist entertainment.

I'd like to leave more with you, but as I said, I haven't been my best this week and so the whole week as been in silent chaotic limbo as far as schedules go. But please let me know what you think of all this and leave your comments!

Until next week . . . !



On Character

There was an interesting post I read on Nathan Bransford's blog that ended with "How do you balance story while being true to a character?"

I think this is a question worthy of discussion. The context was a post concerning where characters take you over the course of the writing process. Sometimes we writers plunge into a story certain that we know where it is going. We have the outline either physically laid out or firmly fixed in our minds. We set pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard and suddenly...

The characters take on a life of their own. This is a good thing, in part. When characters steal the story, they come alive. When the writer surrenders control to the creative, we learn more about the character than we could otherwise and they shed the the labels confining their personality. Complex characters can make a story.

That said, when the characters hijack the plot, they take the writer through terrain --internal to their world or psyche--we-the-writers haven't yet mapped. The need for description of things and places and of reactions to things and places, as well as to people and situations, is one big yarn ball that begins to unravel. Then, suddenly, you have a different story. Maybe, there is more than one story wound in the piece you were writing. So balancing the two can become a lot more difficult, because "the real story" (or stories) have to be discerned. Then, they need to be separated, embellished, and the "junk" from the original story needs to be purged. or, perhaps, altered to fit the current plot.

The tweaking can go on and on. When you have a stubborn character and a stubborn writer... well, I think that could make balance more elusive.

It is getting easier for me, the closer I stick to characters' perspective. I can't derail from where "they" need to take me if I can't step out of their head. But sometimes, interspersed in the changes are characters who are more hesitant to let me in. Then I stall, begin again at the start, and revise my way through hoping that the character i need to pop out, does so. Balance of characters, description, etc lets me balance plot and character. However, I feel that the true balance of the two is something I am currently working on.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Labels (again)

Despite a previous post taking a somewhat positive view of labels I am now going to take a somewhat negative view. Just to prove that I can't make my mind up about anything. Though really the two posts have very little to do with each other at all.

As I think I have mentioned, this year I am attempting to write at least one short story a month. This has brought to mind a short story I briefly toyed with but ultimately abandoned because it strayed into Science Fiction territory and I have been a strictly Fantasy writer.

Despite the fact that in both libraries and book stores SciFi and Fantasy are combined into one section there are many hard core fans who will tell you, in no uncertain terms, that they are two distinct genres. Of course there are others who will tell you that's all a bunch of crap. Indeed, the recent film, Avatar has brought this debate into the fore once more. The majority of my acquaintance are of the opinion that it is Fantasy, with aliens.
This has made me rethink my story. It deals, at least a bit, with space travel (which I know nothing about) but it will probably have nothing to do with aliens. I feel that I know far too little about the technical/scientific aspect of space and space travel to write Science Fiction.

But what if I were writing Fantasy, with space travel?


Monday, February 22, 2010


In honor of a recent holiday, (or as a sigh of relief that it has once again passed by for happier days of the year), my post this week will be about a couple of the different types of romance commonly found in stories.

In the world of modern love stories, there seem to be two main archetypes: the Cinderella and the Beauty and the Beast. Both arising from classic stories that are several centuries old, these each follow a basic path to get to the happy ending. In Cinderella, it’s Unhappy Female is rescued from dire fate by Godlike Man. In Beauty and the Beast, Female is doing all right on her own, but is compelled to rescue Brooding Man from whatever spell/deformity/dark secret he is plagued with.

Each type of story has gone through waves of popularity. In the nineteenth century, Victorian romances featuring Edward Rochester and Heathcliff led many young women to conclude that saving your lover’s tormented soul is the highest of callings. Somewhat alarmed at this trend, the youngest Bronte sister, Anne, wrote The Tennant of Wildfell Hall to show the dark side of marrying the bad boy and trying to change him. Today, through the popularity of a series of books that shall not be named, I think that this trend is repeating itself. Men with dark pasts/realities/secrets/fill-in-most-anything-that-will-make-him-suitably-broody are much more exciting than your average boy next door. And Prince Charmings don’t exist anyway, right?

Cinderella stories always seem to be most popular during times of crisis. Walt Disney’s famous movie version was made in the years immediately following World War Two, a time when many women wanted nothing more than to hope that “No matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true.” These days, we see Cinderella stories as chauvinistic anachronisms, and I don’t see them very frequently anymore (excluding the realm of fanfiction, but that’s another post for another time).

In writing, I think that there is a tendency for authors to veer to either extreme. We either write untouchably wonderful characters or characters so abhorrent that it’s hard to believe when someone falls in love with them. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. My stories, though, have a definite Beauty and the Beast tilt to them. Scars, crushing past tragedies, hidden identities, and unspoken love abound.

There is something to be said for a happy ending, though. So why is it that I have such a hard time writing them? Come back next week for a discussion on killing characters. Be sure to bring your axes!


Friday, February 19, 2010

Two Recommended Books About Writing

I'm so glad that I've been given this opportunity to write my own weekly blog for Sylvanopolis Writers Society. I've been sick for most of the week with a cold so unfortunately I haven't gotten as much done as I've wanted to as far as writing goes. I think I spent most of my energy finishing up and submitting my article to the Website that I've been writing for payment for. That's where most of my writing has gone for the week. Everything else has been bits and pieces here and there, now and then. But I remembered earlier on this Friday that it is the day that I had agreed with one of Sylvanopolis's coordinators that I would post my blog and so, since I've been recovering more each day, I would at least dedicate some time to this first of my blog entries for Sylvanopolis.

I had been thinking that a great thing to write about for a first blog entry would be a book on style that I've been reading. It's called The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. (You've probably heard of it; it's one of the most popular, while oldest, books on writing style around.) I had heard from other writers groups and have read professional writers' opinions about how much this book improves your writing no matter what level of the art and craft you're at. One of those authors who recommends it is Stephen King, who makes reference to it in his own book On Writing. I had also read his book a while back and so that's another book about writing that I recommend.

Strunk and White's book gets down to the bare rules of writing, particularly style and grammar, whereas King discusses his own experience with his writing career, from its beginning all the way to the present, telling much of it in autobiographical form as well as discussing the rules of writing. However, because it's autobiographical, he discusses the subject of writing in story form and so it's more motivating to the reader who wants to improve his/her writing.

But don't get me wrong about Strunk and White's book. Although their book may come across to many as dry because it gets right down to the topic itself rather than builds a story around it (according to what I've read so far; I haven't finished reading it) it points out rules of grammar and style that most of us probably have never thought existed.

Both of these books are not necessarily just for beginning writers. They make great references for experienced and professional writers as well. I majored in English while attending Sacramento State University and graduated with my B.A. in the subject. Needless to say, writing covered a big portion of the curriculum. I've also been published both electronically and in print several times. Even so, I have learned from these to books numerous ways to improve my own writing both at the stylistic and grammatical levels. So I recommend these two to anyone who wants to write as a profession as well as those who are already doing so.

I know a lot of people say that Steven King is not the best writer. If that is true, maybe he just doesn't always practice what he preaches, because the majority of what he says in his On Writing makes perfect sense and appears to be perfectly valid. I'm not a big fan of King's fiction myself, but I've read some of his shorter works and I'm reading his novel The Shining right now. I've seen some flaws in his fiction but I do have to admit that he puts a story together really well and knows how to raise the suspense in it as the plot develops. His description is also very vivid and his characters well developed. For me, he's at least worth reading if you want to escape everyday reality and therefore be scared out of your boring, everyday life for a while.

William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White's Elements of Style and Stephen King's On Writing--two books to think about if you really want to improve your writing whether you're a beginning or an experienced writer. After all, all art can always be improved!

Until next week . . . !


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Random House :D

So I know it's probably old news, but Random House said "no" to the iPad and agency model. For those of us reading and writing SFF this means Del Rey will not be a part of this arrangement. Now, all publishers have their place in the genre, and those of us who read prolifically own books by all of them. But likewise, wide reading can teach what some publishers publish and what others publish. DAW and TOR like their epics. Thanks to Marion Zimmer Bradley and Mercedes Lackey, DAW published what I call "feminist fantasy" for the longest time, but which is slowly leading into "fluff fantasy" as Luna encroaches on their audience. (And Mercedes Lackey is also writing for that publisher as well). And fluff certainly has it's place, as Erica detailed in an early post. TOR is like DAW but rather than emphasizing social injustice I tend to see more morally ambiguous characters. (Mind, this might be changing lately, Rothfuss is published by DAW). But, anyway, DAW and TOR are "mainstream" for the genre. I think of them (and Del Rey) as the largest publishers we have.

Ace I read when I have (usually) a more artistic craving: McKillip, Lynn, and McKinley. Though with Dawn Cook, they certainly have had some fluff, too (and those are enjoyable books.) Patricia Briggs' success has been well earned, and she is published by Ace. The Mercy Thompson series is my favorite of the Urban Fantasies currently gracing bookstore shelves.

Baen has a more negative reputation, and I think a glance at a Baen cover explains the "why."

But Del Rey. Del Rey has Lord of the Rings, Hitchhikers's Guide, Star Wars, Manga... the staples, as far as I'm concerned. They publish new authors, yes, In branching out to include manga and sending e-newsletters to keep readers posted about new releases I think they're right on track. They have set standards in the past. I hope the fact that Random House has opted out of the agency model means that they have a greater understanding of our needs as the audience. But we have yet to see what the fallout of these decisions will be.

Monday, February 15, 2010

To sum it up...

Today's been pretty busy so I'm keeping this post short, but I discovered the following quote and had one of those "oh wow, it's not just me" moments. This is why I write. It's always comforting to know you're not alone.

"If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." ~Toni Morrison


Thursday, February 11, 2010

My Favorite Topic: Culture Change

I think writing, anthropology and my research into the world of publishing intersected when I realized the importance technology was having on the industry. But my interests aren't necessarily in line with the blogs and articles I've been reading. For that matter, while I enjoyed Frontline's Digital Nation, I found some of the MIT professors' perspectives to be completely ignorant of the teen-and-twenty-somethings' reality. The fact is the world is different than even a decade ago. There isn't any going back, there is just a need to adapt to What Is. And the reality of the present affects the buying patterns of the future.

Technology is changing behavior. Behavior, especially those habits taking root because of the digital environment, influences priorities and the ways in which we relate to the world, each other, etc. What has this to do with writing?

The video game. Who's seen the demo for Heavy Rain? Played & or watched the two Drake adventures? The newest Metal Gear? Assassin's Creed 1 & 2? Sorry people-but here is the true challenge to the book. I can't play these, but the intimacy of the characters and the detail of the plot line is clearly covering the same scope and intensity of a book. It's certainly the closest I've ever seen to the same experience I get when reading--and I just watch, I don't play.

Does this mean that books will be gone? I don't think so. But the mass market idea has to be abandoned. I really believe that all products will find niche markets in the future. That includes books.

"But don't we already have that?" one might ask.
"No," I would reply. We don't.

Book marketing and production operate by the same tact other traditional marketing efforts follow: the more eyes we find, the greater percentage buy. But this is not a model for the discerning shopper. This is not a technique which will work for the individual questing after books they "already know that they like." While that range can be wide, indeed, it is likely informed by a community of readers--check out the Visual Bookshelf of Facebook. Check out video games where characters are named after book characters, or mods for PC Games include making one's Dragon Age look like George R.R. Martin's series. (And they said on Digital Nation that this generation doesn't read. Bah.) Through these methods books are advertised (Consumer to Consumer marketing, but not selling?). I think one has to look to find out, but on the other hand, I think if a "friend" or someone with a similar interest as you suggests something, you're more likely to buy it.

It's all viral, word-of-mouth, niche marketing. We're inundated with messages otherwise. Yes, younger people are more "Wired," and there is more information at our fingertips which makes us more easily distracted--but we must also be discerning. The *shiny* that catches one's eye does so because it is inline with one's interests/identity/community/etc. But it is often one button on the side of the screen, not all five that might appear. Distracted? Yes. But picky nonetheless.

Book buyers will be functioning in such a world. If we want to encourage the reading of fiction, we need to learn how to reach readers where they are. Do people who read books follow the same online habits as the majority of society? Or are we, somehow, distinct? How do you spot a reader in a digital space? What do readers, shopping online, like? is there a higher proportion of e-book sales in one genre as opposed to another? Is gadget awareness or rejection in line with community identity forged in other ways? What readers Tweet? What readers blog? Where, when, how.... do we measure the tendencies of our audiences?

We expect the big publishers to do this, but are they? Effectively? When they toss in their lot with a tablet beloved of the Gen Xers (a relatively small population segment) and the Baby boomers (who are not representative of the industry's future) how can we trust their ability to foster loyalty in the up-and-coming Millenials?

I don't know much, but I know that the audience for my novel will be people within ten to twenty years my own age. I think it most likely that I am writing for readers younger than me. If this is true, then I want to know the publishers can reach that age group as successfully as they have others groups. So all I feel I can do right now is watch and see if the industry can really come to understand what this all means.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Out of My Head

Here’s a kind of stupid confession: I used to write out conversations between myself and my characters. For some reason I thought that this was the best way to get to know them, so I would write a literal encounter, like the character suddenly sat down beside me and said hello.

These usually occurred when I was stuck on some aspect of motivation and needed to know why someone did what they did. “I need help on this,” I would write, and the character would inevitably be more than happy to explain it to me. (Side note: If my characters were real, I don’t think that any of them would be quite so pleasant as they managed to be in these instances.)

I think I stopped using this technique around the time I read somewhere that Anne Rice claims she wrote the Lestat novels with the title character whispering the story to her over her shoulder.

But for my purposes, these character conversations often revealed unexpected things. People would spill their deepest secrets. Stoic, unemotional characters would suddenly burst into tears. Weak characters would draw on hidden strengths. Like good therapy, everyone came out feeling better.

As I said, I don’t use this method anymore. My cast of characters in Novel #2 feels more separate from me. I don’t draw on my own neuroses so much in their creation, nor do I understand their every thought or action. Interestingly, I reread a few chapters of Novel #1 last week (after about four months of refusing to let myself open the files) and found that distance has positive effects. I was able to read more objectively, no longer anticipating every word. I caught the stupid typos or redundancies that I had always glossed over before. And, strangest of all, I no longer recognized the characters as pieces of me, but as pieces of who I used to be. My protagonist, who I used to think was myself on paper, actually annoyed me in places.

Becoming enmeshed in a novel is like having your nose to a large painting. You can only work on a few inches at a time and you lose sight of what the entire canvas really looks like. For all you know, you might be working on the Mona Lisa or one of its parodies. Taking a step back, giving yourself time to detach, is both a difficult thing to accomplish and a necessary one. Every time I have imposed breaks on myself, I come out with something positive or learn about some integral piece of the canvas that I had been overlooking.

To return to my original topic, I think that my teenage-self might have had the right idea when trying to get into the characters’ heads, but it’s important to also know when to stop and let them work out their own problems, with the author merely holding onto the reigns. Distance is often crucial to see your creation.


Thursday, February 4, 2010

Digital Madness: What does it Mean?

Last weekend Amazon stopped selling Macmillan books. For SFF readers, this means TOR. The issue was that the publisher (Macmillan) was determined to enforce the Agency Model (Which Apple agreed to for the iPad) on Amazon.

What is the Agency Model? Publishers set price of e-books as Mike Shatzkin describes at length. The dilemma is clear, with a corporation come maintenance costs of all their departments. All of the departments are necessary in order to get one book on the bookstore shelves. Publishers are scared that the buying patterns are not going to sustain their current model. Well, it can't sustain their current model, and that's the truth. The Agency Model is their attempt to get what they need and meet consumer needs.

But it is the consumer who will decide the price in the end. Right now, we'll get to start as Amazon capitulated to Macmillan's request. Amazon's prices may not go up, however. Amazon sells all their books at a loss, including e-books and makes money in other ways.

(An aside: Welcome to the digital society where wealth = information and wealth is unequal to resource/commodity, in the conventional sense. You'd think it still was, but decades of overpriced Banana Republic and Gap clothing have taught us perception = value, and marketing requires an understanding of how perception translates into behavior).

So this leaves the publishers nervous because books (and what their made out of) still cost them money. Then the salaries of employees. The iPad will sell e-books for no more than $15... but when all my paperbacks cost $8-$10 I'm not enthusiastic about investing in an e-reader. Just saying...

But internet buying is sticking. Even if it's print books. Selection is everything, then value, then cost. The consumer will decide. I just get nervous when I fear that if e-books get to pricey (too much over their percieved value) that piracy will become an ever-growing concern. I don't want the average reader to be ok with piracy. I want reading, in all forms, to be encouraged.

Part of me starts to wonder if smaller publishers would be more successful with e-books and print publishing in this digital era. Fewer employees, less profit required. A focus on electronic publications, with the same 70/30 ratio could be structured at a cheaper cost per item, provided the same quantity could be delivered. The marketing strategy, however, would have to be markedly different than the current means. Not that things aren't already emerging to fill this need (Google Book Trailers and sit back for some amusing times).

It just seems to me that authors are driving more of these changes than the publishers. Publishers will spend a lot on Hollywood-esque trailers, but that prioritizes some books over others, rather than laying it all on the table and permitting the consumer to decide (at least, if the trailer is selling the book). So authors pice together cheaper, more rudimentary trailers, but these still get the point out there.

And soon, so soon... HTML 5 is going to change the world, and allow video to be coded in the website (replacing Flash, where you click and it runs, often slowly). This will make for much smoother presentation of a Book Trailer. So you can put it on your website! Put it on YouTube! Post links on Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail like crazy. More options, more diversity, better visibility, no?

Wait...isn't all that easily done by a small press or an author? Even an agent? Agent and author team? Geesh. The models got to change. That's all I know.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


I've been thinking of late, about labels. Or, more specifically, the human tendency to label not only what we come in contact with in the world around us but our very selves. It seems basic to us. In fact, I cannot think of a single tradition of thought that does not label to one degree or another. (I may very well be wrong about this so feel free to point it out ^_^)

I'm not one to knock the habit. If some part of us feels the need to identify and label then I'm all for it. Though of course getting to caught up in that aspect of life definitely has it's downsides, as we have seen proven time and time again.

It occurred to me that I have neglected this urge within my characters. Not every novel needs to have characters agonizing over who they are and what the greater meaning of their existence is but I think it would behoove (yes I just used that word) every author to at least consider the question.

How do my characters see themselves?

It seems so obvious I can hardly believe I've over looked it. I know my characters, I know why they do what they do and I further know why they think they do what they do ( the two are not always compatible). But how would the character define themselves if asked? What words would they use? And, furthermore, why?

We label ourselves by what we consider important: our beliefs, our goals, our tastes, our looks, our heritage. We define ourselves by what we hold as valuable, by what is of Ultimate Concern to us.

What is of Ultimate Concern to my characters?

In pondering this, I've discovered another theme within my writing that I had been previously unaware of. The majority of my characters find themselves living in a circumstance that directly opposes their Ultimate Concern.

I don't mean to say they find themselves in the enemy's camp while their families are being torn apart or anything quite so blatant but that their situation in life is opposite to what they want, what they value. For example: A man who's nature desires freedom and variety but has, by one circumstance our another, been made to live a life of stability, order, and changelessness. He is not a slave by any means but the label he would place on himself (in this case an itinerant wanderer) is in conflict with his life situation.

I'm not sure that I'm explaining this correctly or that I'm entirely making sense. Either way, let me know what you think


Monday, February 1, 2010


In middle school, I used to regale (or bore, depending on how kind you’re being) my carpool with stories of my dreams from the night before. I used to dream a lot more when I was a child than I do now; probably because I used to sleep a lot more than I do now. And despite the fact that I was as squeaky clean as they come, my childhood dreams seemed to always resemble drug trips. “I dreamed that my teacher boiled my tennis shoes,” one scrawled entry in my journal goes, “and they turned into neon green liquid.” Then there was the one where I was floating in a world of purple television static, scrambling for something to hold on to. Another about giant chess pieces suspended in space. On and on.

As I grew up, though, my dreams became less chaotic and more like stories. I met fascinating casts of characters – dark-haired, soft-whispering lovers; people who told me they were my long-deceased relatives; shadowy pursuers with their snarling hounds. I journeyed to both familiar places and new locales created by my mind. Often, these new places and the people I found there wormed their way into stories. Strangely enough, a common motif in my dreams is that of opening a book and then switching between reading the pages and experiencing the action as the protagonist.

I’ve only managed to dream about my novels a handful of times. No matter how much time I’ve spent deliberating about them during waking hours, somehow the characters shy away from my unconscious. When I do dream about them, they’re never doing anything relevant to the plotline. The one I remember with most clarity was a brief snippet of Arylle, Cor, and Tevian (from my first novel) sneaking away from a kitchen with their arms full of food. Tevian and Arylle, sure, but why would Cor be helping?

I’m envious of my boyfriend who dreams about the same cast of characters going on continuing adventures night after night. Where he leaves off in the morning, he’ll pick up later on. I’ve cursed the alarm clock time and again for interrupting dreams right as they’re getting to the good part – five more minutes and I would have known how it all turned out. And once I’m awake, it’s gone for good.

Interestingly enough, I tend to write less when I’ve been dreaming more. This may be a flimsy correlation; perhaps dreaming more means that I’m more stressed and therefore less interested in or capable of writing. Also, I tend to record more emotional dreams and sometimes when I’m finished writing it all out, I feel like I’ve gone through the wringer enough for one day and get up to find something else to do. Or perhaps writing is a substitute for dreaming.

Does anyone else experience this or does the relationship between dreams and writing go the opposite way for you?


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