Sunday, May 27, 2007

Writing Speculative Fiction

For those of you outside the geek loop, speculative fiction is fantasy or science fiction.

I'm a great fan of speculative fiction. Dune, Altered Carbon, Snow Crash, Never Let Me Go (shelved as literary fiction, but a great, subtle story that examines what it means to be human - which is at the heart of a lot of great speculative fiction), Caves of Steel, Illium, Pattern Recognition, Left Hand of Darkness, the Liaden Universe novels, Kiln People, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Vorkosigan novels... the list of books I treasure goes on. Of course, whenever I'm at a science fiction convention, I'm surrounded by people who have read much more in the genre and I always feel as if I'm missing a lot of great stuff, but who has time to read it all?

I've been kicking around the idea for a speculative fiction story for a while. It came to me just days after the close of submissions for a GLBT science fiction
anthology edited by Greg Herren. I hate it when that happens. But it's given me a lot of time to kick around the idea and see if I truly had something. I'd probably still be pondering that if two new submission deadlines weren't looming. So I sat down today and started to work on it.

Speculative fiction is an interesting challenge. Faced with the task of showing a created world, beginning writers often resort to "the dreaded info dump." It usually happens in the first chapter. The writer steps outside the immediate story and explains the technology or the civilization, sometimes at length. Even some well known writers sneka in diary entries or other such contrivances that come off
something like, "Well, Jim, even though we both live in this world and completely understand it, I'm going to take this moment to describe it to you in excruciating
detail as if you're a complete moron and I'm your remedial breathing coach. Hell, I'll even throw in political commentary on the trade wars that happened 300 years ago that have little or no bearing on what's going to happen to us over the course of this adventure, just because I like to hear myself talk." This doesn't only happen in
speculative fiction, by the way. I've read scenes in murder mysteries where two detectives are standing over a body, and one of them (in effect) says, "Well, Jim, as we both know, but I'm going to tell you again anyway, we've both lived in this podunk town our entire lives, and were inseparable childhood friends until we both fell in love with the same girl, but let's set that rivalry aside for a moment while I describe main street for you. And while I'm at it, let me give you a brief character sketch of all the colorful people who live here in our town." It happens in
erotica too. "Well, Jim, presumably I know what I look like, but before I leave the house, I will stand in front of a mirror and describe me to myself as if I have amnesia. I have sparkling emerald green eyes (of course) and thick, wavy raven hair that falls to the center of my back. Red lipstick accentuates my generous mouth, which was made for sin. My magnificent breasts jut tightly against my maroon sweater, and my gray skirt only accentuates my long legs and mighty fine ass."

If the universe is different just to be different, and the story could just as well take place in the here and now on earth, then it isn't true speculative fiction. The setting has to have some bearing on how the characters behave. It almost has to act as a protagonist or antagonist. A great example of this is Frank Herbert's lesser known but brilliant Dosadi Experiment. The planet is so hostile to human life that it shapes the characters. Actually - it malforms them, twisting their bodies and minds in grotesque shapes. The characters are so believable that they provoke empathy even when they do terrible things (by the standards of people not of that world).

So how does a writer bring the reader into this world and convey the necessary information without the dread info dump? It's a challenge. It helps to have only one POV character who is an outsider, or is deeply questioning why things are the way they are. That gives the writer an excuse for the main character to observe, reflect, and comment on things that affect the character and important differences between the reader's world and the setting of the story. But that can't happen all at once. The information should be brought into the story when it means something. A little foreshadowing is good, but why stop and explain what a lightsaber is while Darth Vader is boarding your ship? Wait until the creepy old desert rat pulls one out of his memory box and hands it to your MC. At that moment, briefly describe it. If the the creepy old dude must explain what it is, make him do it as briefly as possible rather than giving the whole history of his religion and a technical diagram for the weapon. It's good for a writer to understand the complete back story behind everything, but only the most pertinent information should be on the page. And don't tell the reader that Darth Vader is the Emperor's henchman. Show it. Sure, it takes longer, but after seeing big, bad, Darth crush a man's windpipe with his mind, watching him bow down to someone has a lot more impact than simply saying that he's the hired muscle.

I've written several thousand words of my current story and I'm already seeing how difficult it is to write speculative fiction well. There has to be balance between showing the world and showing the characters. Neither aspect can stop for the other. There's no place for long explanations, but everything that's strange must be made clear - quickly. When I'm done writing this, but before I start my second draft, I think I'm going to pick up some of my favorite books and read them with a writer's eye. I will certainly view the craft of that genre with new appreciation.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

How to Have An Incredibly Popular Blog (Without Even Trying)

Hits on my blog have risen to quite pleasing numbers, until I look at the search links that bring readers.

There's the usual Teenage Enema Nurses, Her First Bra, Spanking Daddy, She tied me up and used a dildo on me, and other amusing search strings (usually from mid-Western states early Sunday morning. Hmmm.) but lately about a third of my hits come from people wanting to see the artsy nude picture of Fabio Cannavaro I posted during World Cup. I agree that Fabio is worth a look, but I feel a little guilty that all these, um, sports fans, are coming to my blog and finding only a few posts about football (soccer for you Americans) and a lot of musing about writing. I also get at least one hit a week from some poor soul searching for Ossicats. I must be the number one hit on that search. Breeders of Ossicats are probably furious - mostly because my Cat Tyrant story mentions how expensive Ossicats are, and how I settled for an $18 kitty from a rescue group. (Settled isn't the right word. More like liberated)

Sometimes, I think I ought to delete my World Cup posts so that these football fans don't end up at my blog. Other times, I don't feel so guilty.

So here's my hint on how to get blog traffic - post nude pix of footballers. But not Fabio, please. He's mine.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Once A Band Geek, Always A Band Geek

The SO and I spent tonight at a band concert. Never mind how Rhapsody In Blue was neutered - okay, we did mind. How can you even think of playing that piece without the clarinet solo at the beginning? But anyway... Our personal bete noires were out in force. Hard mallets on a marimba. Untuned tympani that was struck in the middle instead of the side. Don't even get the SO started on the proper way to hold a cowbell, tambourine, or the claves. And oh - the hand positions on drum rolls! Out of tune flutes and squeaking saxophones we can deal with, but percussion sins are like nails on a chalkboard.

We are such geeks, and the geekiness will always be with us, I suppose.

Now I have to go find a decent version of Rhapsody, close my eyes, and soak it in to erase what I've heard.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Are You On Fire? No? Then Go Away.

Yes, I'm a little grumpy this morning.

Yesterday, my Internet was down until 9PM. The good side of this is that I had no more excuses to avoid writing. The bad news is - and I hear this complaint from other writers all the time, so I know it's not just me - no one takes writing seriously. They seem to think you can just pick it up and set it down like building a model ship. So they have no problem interrupting me.

When I get into a good writer's groove, and everything is clicking along, and the scene is playing out just perfectly, the last thing I want is an interruption. All I got yesterday was interruptions. Arrrgh!

I inherited my father's dark temper. Normally, I keep it under tight control. Sometimes though, it bubbles up like black crude from the ground and spills out and it takes everything I have to stop from leaving scorched earth around me. So I gritted my teeth and made non-committal replies, hoping people would take the hint and just leave me alone. But they kept on talking. And chatering. I can't do much about Skitters, my cat, who has decided that me at the computer = prime cat petting time, but for every human that thinks a small interruption or two, or even mindless chit-chat about what to have for dinner, doesn't bother me, I have this to say:

Are you on fire? Are you dying? If not, it can be arranged. *menacing glare*

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Why Oh Why Oh Why

If you read my blog, you know I don't watch much TV. Soccer games are about my only viewing vice. Last night, my internet was down (I know - the horror!). Instead of writing, I paced the hovel for a bit, and then collapsed onto the couch in a full funk. No one was in the room, but the TV was on. (I have yet to convince the SO that TVs have an Off switch.) After the ad, they promised to return to the movie The Count Of Monte Cristo.

Dumas is one of my favorite writers. You can tell that he was a soldier. While any other writer of his era would have lavished page upon page describing every last second that Edmund Dantes spent in prison, Dumas cuts to the chase. I think it's chapter three that begins something like, "Eleven years passed." Oh, how I loved that man at that moment.

So, thinking that I was going to see the Count of Monte Cristo, I decided to watch TV.

Oh sure, the movie was titled The Count of Monte Cristo, but half an hour into it, I turned to my cat and asked, "Who the hell are these people?" (I did the same thing half an hour into Last of the Mohicans. Then I realized that they were ripping off the original movie of that title, not the book, and that the original movie actually stole more material from Drums Along the Mohawk than Last of the Mohicans, but I was probably one of two people in the state who have actually read both of those books, so no one else was as outraged as I was. BTW - should you ever be tempted to pick up Drums Along the Mohawk, just remember that it makes a Thomas Hardy plot look like a light comedy.)

So I have to ask - why oh why oh why do script writers think they can improve on a classic? I won't argue the quality of Dumas' stories. I know they aren't great, but they're good, and they resonate with readers enough that they're still in print. I suppose that movie execs think (rightly) that few people would know the difference. But I do. And since my opinion matters very much to me, I have some advice for the screenwriters of this world:

If you're going to rewrite an entire story, don't use the title. Call it something else, like "Monte Cristo Sandwich - all the cheese, twice the ham." That way, I don't lose an hour of my life.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Here's The Quick Summary

I'm still wiped out, but I can always manage a little gossip.

Got into New Orleans Thursday night on the same flight as Ian Philips and Greg Wharton of Suspect Thoughts and James Buchanan, fellow Torquere Press author. Read Origami Striptease on the flight. I'm reviewing it July or August for Erotica Revealed. (Here's a hint - It was fantastic.) Ran into Laura Baumbach of Manlover Romance at the baggage claim. Shared a cab with James Buchanan to the French Quarter. My B&B was Creole House. Not bad, but I was on the third floor (no elevator, narrow steps - no fun with a suitcase). Washed up and went to the reading at the Pelican Club. Met up with Greg Herren, Amie Evan, and Toni Amato. Drank. Smoked. Amie and Toni graciously allowed me to tag along for the evening. They went swimming; I sat there and tried to remember how to make conversation.

Friday morning, hiked over to Cafe du Monde for the big GLBT Promo breakfast. Got to talk to Skian McGuire's lovely friend Julia, Laura Baumbach, and Deanna (I think is her name). We went en mass to check in to the conference and headed for our master classes. Amie and Toni taught a great class about readings (I was very glad the class was packed and they didn't have time to drag all of us up front to read. I was NOT prepared for that.) Went to the characters as plot class and met a few friends I hadn't seen at breakfast. I was ordered to bring pralines home (or else), so I went to my usual shop and got a box, as well as buying a couple t-shirts. Went back to the conference for my last class with Jim Grimsley. And who sat next to me but Timothy State. I got to tell him how much I enjoyed his stories in Love, Bourbon Street. For me, that's one of the best parts of being at Saints and Sinners - the fan part. And sitting in front of us was Aaron Hamburger whose short story collection The View From Stalin's Head I picked up two years ago at SNS, and his novel Faith For Beginners is next in my reading stack (I meant to read it on the plane ride back, but dozed off.) Went to the Ambush Magazine welcome party, which is always fun. Talked more to Ian, Greg H, Greg W, and Timothy. Went to dinner with Timothy.

Next morning, walked around a bit. Caught breakfast (double espresso). It was still early, so I went into the Cabildo Museum. Had the place to myself. Loved the peace. Their orrery was worth the price of admission alone (for a geek girl like me.) Went over to the sister museum to catch the Mardi Gras exhibit. Realized I was late for panels. Rushed over to host hotel. Caught interesting panels. Met up with group for lunch (note to self - if not in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, or LA, don't trust anything billing itself as Mexican food. You are spoiled by the real thing and know the difference.) Went to more panels. Was very sad to see that Parade took out their Arabian couches. Walked around city a bit more, took some pix, went to get ready for the play. Went to the play. Returned to French Quarter around midnight. Went in search of dinner. Ate at Yo Mama's (this is beginning to be a tradition with me). Drank a bit. Walked Jean back to her hotel then walked to mine. 1:30 AM and the air smells like jasmine and Rawhide, across the street from my B&B, is hopping. I'm not. Try to go to sleep, but mind will not shut off until about 4AM. (this is also a SNS tradition for me. I get so many ideas that sleep is impossible)

Sunday morning, in serious search for espresso, end up at same cafe. Go to a few more panels. Run into Justin Chin. Go to Lambda Literary finalists readings, make note to read Justin Chin and Jeff Mann's latest work. Talk some more to Ian and Greg W, and Greg H. Decide they must be seriously sick of me by then. Rush back to hotel to claim luggage, jump in cab, go to airport.

The End.

Now you know why I'm wiped out.


The runner up and winner of the playwrite contest.

Houses across the street from the Maringy Theater where we saw the play.

The New Orleans Noir panel.

Terrible picture of the wonderful Justin Chin. Every time I hear his work, I'm reminded of how brilliant and funny he is.

Where To Begin

The Thursday Night reading.

Breakfast with GLBT PROMO at Cafe du Monde

The Identity envy reading at Parade. Jim, Jeff, JD, and Max.

The Ambush Magazine welcome party. Amie and JD center, and the back of the fabulous Timothy State (in green).

Monday, May 14, 2007

Is It Possible

to have a literary hangover? I'm back from Saints and Sinners. Had an incredible time, as always. Am totally wiped out, as always. Will post pix and gossip tomorrow.

Monday, May 07, 2007

V for Vendetta

It's rare that I watch movies, but I watched V for Vendetta tonight.

Gotta love someone with stacks of forbidden books around the house.

What I liked most about this movie was the message that ideas can't be killed. I'm all for revolution against unjust laws and governments, although I prefer peaceful means. After all, if killing a person can't kill an idea, blowing up a symbol of oppression can't stop the oppression.

While I was watching this movie, I thought of something I hadn't for a very long time - the picture of the lone man standing in front of the tanks in Tiananman Square. Was there ever a finer human moment?

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Why Am I So Exhaused?

I finally broke down and did the most Hollywood of Hollywood things - I had head shots taken. DL King wanted a picture of me for Erotica Revealed (I'm the only reviewer without a picture) and I figured that at some point (hopefully not in the too distant future) I'll need one on the back cover of one of my novels.

I'm not against having my picture taken. It's just that I'm usually the one behind the camera. Not today. A makeup artist named Bonnie did wonders making me look like my best self and not like someone else. I really appreciated that. I was a bit concerned I'd have that over-produced glamour-shots look with tons of makeup - which I rarely wear because I'm allergic to so much of it - but she did an amazing job. We chatted a bit about how her art is changing with all the high definition photography. Interesting stuff. And then she set to work taming my hair.

The photographer is a friend. Otherwise, I would have never been able to afford her. She slipped me into her studio between two shoots. A long day for her - no doubt. We went through the five outfits I brought, picked two, and then set to work.

Oh my god. Keep the shoulders relaxed, stretch the neck, tilt the head, keep your eyes open while you smile. I guess I should have been watching America's Next Top Model for tips. It's not so easy getting into the right pose and it's even harder to do it while appearing natural and relaxed. Every time I moved, the make-up artist rushed in and fixed my hair - usually applying yet more hair gel to keep it under control. I've decided that this it the way to go through life - have someoneconstantly making sure your clothes are just right, your hair is perfect, and your makeup is flawless. On second thought - it would drive me crazy. But I'd look damn good.

I drove home, ate lunch, and promptly fell asleep on the couch. Who knew a three hour photo shoot could be so exhausting. And I didn't even flip my hair or pout! On Monday, I get the proofs. Maybe I'll post one here.

Friday, May 04, 2007

A Bit of Fun

Office Twister!

Right hand - blue
Left hand - yellow
Right foot - red
Left foot - green

My right hand is on a book. My left hand is barely touching a CD that I have to stretch fo. My right foot is touching the surge protector, and my left leg is cross over my right, touching a notebook.

What position would you be in?

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

It's May! It's May! The Month of Yes You May

Have a wonderful Beltane.

I swear I can feel it in my blood. I want to get out into the woods and smell the earth and see night sky without light pollution ruining the view. Naked dancing is optional.