Friday, April 30, 2010

Post on Writer Beware!

I think this is going to be a record for me: three posts in one day! But I thought it was important to share this link with you. It's a guest post on the Writer Beware Blogs!, and the topic is the downside of self-promoting too soon. If you're pressed for time (and who isn't?), then blogging, tweeting, etc., can eat up much of the time you should be spending writing. That's not the only drawback, however. Head over there to learn more. The guest blogger, Alyx Dellamonica, has written a fantastic book called Indigo Springs. It's a beautifully written book about what happens when three friends discover magic welling up in an old house. Go check it out too!

The English Language

I can't resist passing this quote on to you. I think it explains a lot:

"The English language was carefully, carefully cobbled together by three blind dudes and a German dictionary."

Dave Kellett

The Science of Science Fiction--From Sugar to Gas

Since I just discussed fusion energy in my last post, it seems natural to continue talking about possible future sources of energy. Here's an article from Scientific American about turning plant sugars into gasoline. Biofuels are becoming more popular, but by turning corn into ethanol, you reduce the portion of the crop that becomes food. This Madison scientist has found a way to use a variety of plant sugars, including polysaccharides we can't digest. He doesn't produce ethanol, but actual gasoline. (What's really ironic is that he was trying to find a source of hydrogen for hydrogen cells. Sometimes science makes more progress when you obtain an unexpected result.) His process is faster than ethanol production, is carbon-neutral, and can produce other types of fuels, like diesel and jet fuel. It does require certain rare elements as catalysts, and the reaction requires heat and pressure. But once the process starts, the heat it gives off helps to drive the process.

How a society powers itself can play a role in world-building. I think fuel production like this would work well on young planets that can sustain life but haven't done so long enough to build coal and oil reserves. If the planet happens to have an abundance of the catalytic elements, all the better; maybe it could even export them to other worlds. A planet could have high tech like this yet still have a major agricultural component. (And if a society has access to "easy" energy sources like this, it may affect how fast they grow and what their technology is like.) If humans find inedible plants on other worlds, they could possibly harvest them for fuel instead. Or they may find microbes that have evolved to produce gasoline as an energy source or waste product. What would energy do for your world?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Science of Science Fiction--Fusion Power!

Fusion power, in which energy is released by combining particles instead of smashing them apart, is going to be the energy source of the future. At least, it will be in Across Two Universes. Fusion power, if it ever becomes available, would help solve our energy problems. You can find the readily available ingredients in seawater to obtain power levels found in the sun with effectively little radioactive products. (The neutrons that do carry some radioactivity can easily be stopped by a thick concrete wall.) But to get it started requires the energy of 192 laser beams. Some people say fusion won't work as an energy source, but labs all over the world are still working on it. Here's an article from CNN about Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's fusion project.

I don't think I need to say much here about the implications for science fiction. I use fusion power to drive the starship Sagan in Across Two Universes, but you could also use it to power cities, planets, artificial habitats, you name it. Can fusion power serve as a point of conflict in a story instead of part of the backdrop? I personally don't like showing technology gone wrong, though of course it can and does happen. But by studying fusion on Earth, we can learn more about our sun and other stars.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Carbon-Neutral Blog

While I doubt a blog actually emits carbon, I thought this program sounded interesting. If you add a button to the sidebar of your blog (mine is at the bottom, under the post labels) and send a link to your blog to this address, they will plant a tree on your behalf in Plumas National Forest in Northern California. A fire destroyed many trees in this area in 2007, so it would be great to reforest it again!

We'll return soon to your regularly scheduled science/science fiction/writing blogging...

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Antepenultimate Draft

I haven't blogged for a few days because I've been busy with the last chapter of Across Two Universes. (I did start a Science of Science Fiction post, but I didn't finish it. Now that the news item is a few days old, I wonder if it's still worth posting.) Anyway, late last night, I finished what I hope will be the antepenultimate, or next-to-next-to-last, draft. It weighs in at 280 pages and 88,000 words. Considering most of my previous novels have been well over 100,000, I'm pleased this one is relatively short--and hopefully, much stronger than previous drafts of this novel.

I'm relieved it's done, especially since I completed it a few days ahead of my birthday (which was one of my New Year's goals), but it's still not ready for submission. I'm going to set it aside for about a month, then print it out and read it through. I'm sure I'll have to tweak some things for consistency before I send it out to reviewers. Then I'll need to revise it at least one more time before it goes out to agents. But at least there's an end in sight. In the meantime, I'm sure I'll come up with plenty of other things to do on my lunch hour. Hopefully I can start planning a new story too.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Talking About My G-G-Generation

A week from today I reach a milestone birthday, my 40th. Between being very busy at work and trying to finish this current draft of Across Two Universes (I have two more scenes to go!), I haven't had much time to dwell on it. (There will be no midlife crisis this week; my schedule is already full.) Still, the milestone has made me think about my generation, Generation X.

We seem to be a forgotten middle generation, neglected in favor of our more popular siblings, the Boomers and the Millennials. In terms of size, Gen X was a baby bust, and my year, 1970, had the lowest birth rate. I like to think that makes me a rare specimen. I think my generation was most discussed in the news back in the 90s (and dismissed as slackers), though Time ran an article on us two years ago. We may be ignored, but we aren't slackers any longer; we do the quiet, practical work that, as Jeff Gordinier, Gen Xer and author of a book on Gen X, puts it, "keeps the world from sucking."

So, does the generation you're from have an impact on your writing? The changes in technology I've lived through have made writing a book much easier. When I started high school, I had to use a typewriter (and I learned how to type on an actual typewriter too). I went off to college with a cheap computer with attached printer my parents bought from a home shopping network; I never did figure out how to create a paper longer than 5-6 pages on it, and I had to search all over for special printer ribbons and thermal paper. My laptop today doesn't come with its own printer, but it does so much more. Plus, of course, the Internet makes research, networking, and promotion possible on a new level. I think attitudes also play a key role. I grew up during the second wave of feminism, when we were all supposed to be "Free to Be You and Me." I'm a feminist, I enjoy attending WisCon, the world's first feminist science fiction convention, and I try to convey feminist attitudes in my work, even if I'm writing about men.

I know of a few speculative fiction authors from my generation, such as Jay Lake, Naomi Novik, and Mary Anne Mohanraj. Can anyone name some others? Perhaps someday my name will be mentioned too. Guess I'd better finish Across Two Universes to increase the chances of that happening!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Back on the Blog Chain: Writing the Other

Welcome back to the Blog Chain! It's my turn to choose the topic. Last December, I reviewed a book called Writing the Other: A Practical Approach. I'd like to extend that topic to the Blog Chain by posing the following questions:

Have you ever created a character different from yourself in some significant way, such as (but not limited to) different gender, race, ethnic group, religion, or sexual orientation? If so, what, if any, research did you do to portray these differences? Was this character a main character, secondary character, or walk-on? Did these differences have an impact on the story?

In case anyone is uncomfortable with this topic, I have an alternate one:

Have you ever written writing exercises? If so, did you find the experience useful? What type of writing exercises were they, and did you do them on your own or as part of a writing class or workshop?

Since I'm proposing two topics, it's only fair for me to answer both of them. I'll address them in order.

I've written characters who are different from me in all of the ways I've listed--sometimes different from me in several areas. I do this more in my science fiction than my fantasy. Based on current trends, I think it's reasonable to say that the U.S. will look more diverse in the future than it does now. I think it's important to show this, though I know I can't depict someone from another group as accurately as a writer from that group could. All I can do is try to write the characters as honestly as I can and try to avoid stereotypes. (This site is an interesting resource to look at commonly used character tropes.)

Although the main character of Across Two Universes, Paul, is a white male, he's surrounded by women in positions of authority and people of different racial/ethnic backgrounds. (Even his sister has some Filipino and Native American ancestry). Paul's best friend, Scott, is both black (he has European ancestry as well, but he identifies himself as black) and bisexual. In earlier drafts, Yvonne, Paul's girlfriend, was a typical blue-eyed blonde, but in this draft, she's also of mixed African and European heritage. I have to admit I don't do much with their racial background in the story, though they do encounter some prejudice when they travel back in time to 1980. (The spaceship where they live is a pretty tolerant setting.) I have done some basic Internet research on bisexuality, such as looking at official websites on the subject. Scott's bisexuality does play a role in the story, as he admits to Paul at a critical moment that he has a crush on him, and that affects how Paul and his friends interact. As far as writing from the other gender's perspective, yes, Paul is a typical teenage male interested in sex, and he can be impulsive at times. I look for feedback from my reviewers to help me write a solid male character.

I haven't done writing exercises for a long time, if ever. Most of the time I simply work on stories. But after I finish this current draft of Across Two Universes, I'm going to put it away for a month or so before revising it again. I'm still trying to decide how to spend my writing time during that month, but I'm considering trying some writing exercises to help me with description. I feel I really need to incorporate more description into my stories, but I'm not always comfortable with it. I haven't made a final decision yet, but if I do try some exercises in description, I may post them here.

That's all I have for now. Head on over to Eric's blog to see what he has to say!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

What Would It Take?

I came across this article in the New York Times about people who choose to live by themselves in remote spots.It's not an easy choice; one of the men interviewed for the article ate (among other things) nettles and rats. It also takes lots of labor and planning, and even the men who are used to living like this can get lonely. A couple of the men said that women generally don't like such an isolated lifestyle, especially if there's a child involved. Child-rearing is hard enough in civilization; I don't blame other women for not wanting to do it in isolation. (Of course, one of the men said women don't like the lifestyle because of the lack of shopping. I wonder what he would say about the men who prefer civilization?)

The reason I mention this article is because it makes me think about colonizing a new planet, which is something I have in mind for a future project. What kind of motivation would drive people to leave their home planet and start from scratch somewhere else? Would the motivations be different for each gender? I think things would have to be pretty bad on this planet to make another one look appealing. I do intend my future Earth to have some serious problems, though my characters would be less affected than most people due to their position in society. The main reason I plan to have them leave the planet is to search for something (I won't say what so as not to spoil anything); the question is if it is possible for them to return to Earth, why stay on the other planet? I think they may choose to stay when they discover something else--but I can't say what exactly here.

How far would you be willing to move, and why? What parts of your current lifestyle could you give up?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Quote of the Day

From Carl Sagan:

"I maintain there is much more wonder in science than in pseudoscience. And in addition, to whatever measure this term has any meaning, science has the additional virtue, and it is not an inconsiderable one, of being true."

(Note: the spaceship Paul and his friends live on is named after Sagan.)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Monday, April 12, 2010

Discussion: Writing, Passion, and Revision

Many of the previous posters on the current Blog Chain (discussing whether you write for yourself or for the market) say that they need to write stories they feel passionate about. In particular, Eric's post has given me something to ponder today. To paraphrase, he says that when he writes what others want him to write, the writing is forced. But when he writes for himself, the words flow. While I do love the times when the words flow, there are spots in my projects, even the ones I love, when I have to push myself through them. I'm having this issue now with a scene near the end of Across Two Universes. Perhaps the words aren't coming because I'm not really sure this scene is needed; the reason I added it to begin with is to place a character my hero loves in potential jeopardy. For now, I'll write it and decide later if it's necessary. 

Passion seems to play a role in the writing of the first draft, but what happens later, when you're going through endless rounds of revision? How do you keep the feelings and the voice of your story then? This is especially crucial if you're getting feedback from other readers; sometimes, when revising according to their suggestions, you can lose sight of your goals and your voice.

One thing that helps me keep going through draft after draft is passion for the craft of writing itself. I want to improve what I've written; I want to make it clearer, make my voice stronger, bring the emotions and settings to life. I often find myself rewriting during this stage as new ideas come to me, so there's still some of that first-draft creativity present. When I receive feedback from others, I consider how well it fits. Some suggestions are easy ones to make, but sometimes people will suggest changes that affect what I want to do with the story. In those cases, I try to consider the intent behind the suggestion. Sometimes that inspires me to go off in a completely new direction as a way of fixing the problem my way.

Perhaps writing a novel, when you're working with something over months or years, is like sustaining passion in a marriage. You have to be willing to change with your partner and try new things. Does this analogy make sense? How do you keep the passion alive in your nth draft?

Friday, April 09, 2010

Back on the Blog Chain: Business or Pleasure?

Time again for another Blog Chain Post! We've added several new members to the chain; their blogs are in the sidebar, so please visit them! This round, Michelle asked us:

Do you write for the market or for yourself? Why? Are there times you do both? Or times when you've written something specifically because it was "hot" at the moment? If so, how did it turn out? 

Amanda posted before me, and Eric follows me.

I've mentioned before that I feel the answer to most "either-or" questions lies somewhere in the middle. For this question, though, my answer lies closer to one end (myself) than the other (the market). Writing a novel is like running a marathon; it takes a lot of dedication, and if you're not committed to your project, it's easy to walk away from it. There's also often a long lag time between the sale of a book and its appearance in bookstores, so a trend may lose popularity before the book is published.

One of the things that drives me to write is the desire to read types of stories that weren't getting published. When I first started writing my Season Lord books, much of the fantasy out there was set in the medieval era, so I wanted to use a different time period. I chose the Victorian era--or at least an imitation of it, since my story was set in a fantastic country with significant differences from England. These days, it's more common to see stories use this time period. It makes me wonder sometimes if I should pull Day of All Seasons out and rework it into something more publishable. Across Two Universes was originally written as Beatles fanfiction (something that's very hard to market). I did choose to remove the Beatles references to make the story more marketable, but I think that also gave me more freedom to shape events in the story as I choose.

Amanda mentioned in her post how she came up with a unique take on urban fantasy but had a hard time finding an agent for her book. My NaNoWriMo project was my attempt to twist the tropes of urban fantasy. I like some of the things urban fantasy does (strong female protagonists, mixing magic with the modern world) but dislike others (the heroines all start sounding the same, too much emphasis on fashion, more lust than real love in the romance). These things may appeal to a certain segment of readers, but I'm not part of it. My idea was to focus on a pair of sisters, one older and a working mother, the other younger and interested in fashion. That way, there's a heroine to suit everyone. I still haven't finished the first draft of this story; it's something I plan to return to after I'm done with Across Two Universes, though.

Before I end this post, I'd like to share with you part of an essay called "Why Should You Be a Writer Anyway?" I wrote several years ago for my website. I attended a panel at ChiCon in 2000 where professional authors talked about their careers. Here are my thoughts on writing as a full-time profession:

A couple of years ago at ChiCon, the 58th World Science Fiction Convention, I attended a panel where professional writers discussed the pros and cons of becoming a freelance writer. I came away from that panel with the impression that it wasn’t worth it; you would trade a regular paycheck and benefits for a job with irregular payments and no benefits, particularly no health care coverage. Also, some of the writers on that panel paid the bills by writing media tie-in novels, just as the writer I mentioned earlier did. If you enjoy the shows and like to write about them, that may be fine. Personally, I consider that taking time from my own personal projects. In effect, those writers still can’t work full-time on their own unique projects either, since their first priority has to be putting food on the table.

I need a day job to support my family, so I'm in no position to write full time. But if you do reach that point in your career, you may find yourself having to write for the market after all, whether it be media tie-in books or short stories for an anthology. (Often editors will invite published authors to submit stories for a themed anthology.) So what you write may change depending on if you're doing it for business or for pleasure. But as long as there are still a diverse range of publishers, there will be places for books that don't follow trends. Go forth and start your own trend!

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Discussion: Choreography

I find choreography--plotting the specific movements of each character within a scene--frustrating at times. I know what I want to accomplish by the end of the scene, but figuring out how to reach that point isn't always easy. Each step has to make sense in terms of how the character would react and the overall logistics of a scene. Each individual action is like a link in a necklace, caused by the one before it and inspiring the next one. And you have to do this while keeping track of characters' motivations, the overall plot, and the setting at the same time.  In fact, I find that it often takes up most of my writing time. I'll pull out the laptop and stare at my scene, flipping back and forth between games of Spider Solitare or the Internet. Then I'll start tweaking things as my mind starts to work. Usually it starts coming together towards the end of my time, leaving me with only a few minutes to work.

I think this would be a lot easier if I had more idle time for my brain to work out choreography before sitting down to the keyboard. Sometimes I can do this, but it's become much harder as I have more overall responsibilities in my daily life to track too. So I thought for today's blog post I'd throw this topic out for discussion.

What's harder for you, plotting the overall book or each individual scene? How do you work out your scenes, in advance or at the keyboard? What matters most to you when choreographing a scene?

Please leave comments below.  I look forward to reading them!

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Contest Annoucement

This was posted on my Broad Universe mailing list, so I thought I'd pass it on:

(I Like a Little) Science in My Fiction is hosting a contest for science fiction and fantasy short stories inspired by a scientific discovery or innovation made in the last year. (You must provide a link to the relevant article or study when submitting your story.) Prizes include cash, an online subscription to Crossed Genres, and a print copy of the Crossed Genres anthology. The submission period runs from April 1 to June 30. You can find more details about the contest here.

Humm, I don't know if I can finish a story that quickly, but this may be something to consider once I finish this current draft of Across Two Universes....

The Science of Science Fiction: Emotion without Expression

Elana Johnson recently discussed some ways to reach more people with your blog, and one of them was to make your name more prominent near the top. (At least, I think it was Elana who said that.) Hence the name change from Dual Citizenship in Specfic and Mundania. I think the new name looks better with this theme too.

Anyway, the New York Times online is a good source for intriguing science articles, including this one about Moebius syndrome, a rare condition in which the victim suffers from facial paralysis. That means the person can't show the typical emotional expressions we expect other people to display, and that can lead to difficulty communicating with others and establishing a connection. During social interactions, people subconsciously mimic the emotions they see on others' faces; this not only helps them establish a rapport with other people but helps them interpret the other person's emotions. This mimicry isn't possible for people with Moebius syndrome, but a recent study suggests their brains have other ways to read people's emotional expressions, and these other systems help them compensate. Just as a blind person interprets the world through the rest of the senses, a person with Moebius syndrome uses other types of nonverbal communication to express their emotions and show rapport with others. Further research into these types of nonverbal communication may help not just people with Moebius syndrome, but socially awkward people (the article's words, not mine!) in general.

As I read this article, I thought of all types of non-human sentients who might have trouble communicating with us if they had no form of social mimicry. Robots would be one example--unless they had some sort of "facial screen" where they could project a human face. Aliens, genetically enhanced animals, fantasy races like elves -- all of these creatures might have different types of nonverbal communication unlike our own. How would we communicate with these beings? Would we find new mutual ways to express ourselves, or would we misunderstand each other, leading to hostile consequences? Would we need a new type of interpreter? Also, how does this tie into the Uncanny Valley, the hypothesis that when nonhumans have a certain amount of humanoid appearance but still look "off," they tend to repulse us instead of attracting us? Sentient beings who can't display human emotions may fall into this valley.

We use speculative fiction as a way to look at ourselves, but when the reflection is distorted, we may be too focused on the inhuman to see the human aspects of others. And when we can't do that, our ability to empathize and communicate with them is diminished.

Ten Word Tuesday: Book Quality

Bad books' flaws occupy me more than good books' virtues.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Easter 2010

I was too lazy to post last night, so here's a quick recap of the weekend:

It rained Saturday morning, so we weren't able to go to the egg hunt in the local park. I took Alex to the mall instead. We were lucky to have a short wait to see the Easter Bunny. I think I got a better picture of Alex than the professional did. We went around for a little bit, letting Alex ride his favorite red car, play in the playground, and have some ice cream, before I finally bought some summer clothes for him--I got some pretty good deals on them too, I might add. Unfortunately, Alex did not fall asleep on the way home and wouldn't nap in his room. But since the weather had improved, Eugene and I took him to the neighborhood egg hunt a couple of blocks away. Alex enjoyed coloring eggs there. After I saw some of the children with their baskets, I realized I'd left Alex's at home. Eugene wanted to just ask for a plastic bag, but I felt I was letting Alex down that way. So I returned home, only to realize we don't have a key for our storm door. I was locked out of my own house! I ran back and borrowed the garage door remote from Eugene. Alex spotted me and of course wanted to come with me--with me carrying him, of course. So once again I ran back (well, I could only run part of the way), and this time was able to get Alex's plastic bucket. We returned a few minutes before the start of the egg hunt. Maternal honor was restored--though my legs still ache a bit.

Alex really enjoyed the egg hunt. Since he was so young, he and the other little kids got a head start. I helped him gather some eggs. The candies and prizes were nicer than the ones the park district offered last year. Our neighbor also had the Easter Bunny stop by with bubbles for the kids. Alex preferred checking out the inflated Easter Bunny and his colored egg.

Surprisingly, Alex did not fall asleep after the egg hunt; must have been all the chocolate. We colored a few eggs that night, or I should say Alex did. He was very good with it; he was done before I even realized it, even though he dipped some of the eggs twice. Last year he banged the eggs together; this year, we did lose a couple when they dropped on the floor, but he was more careful with them. He did eat about one and a half of the cracked eggs.

After he went to bed early (he was in meltdown stage by that point), I arranged his basket and hid it in his indoor tent. I left a trail of jelly-bean-filled eggs leading from his door to the basket. Alex generally wakes up slowly, but once he saw the eggs, he knew what to do. He was quite happy with his treats and his new additions to his Thomas the Train collection.

Later on, we had brunch with both families (my parents and grandmother; Eugene's parents and brothers) at a nearby banquet hall. Alex got spoiled, needless to say. In the late afternoon, we drove over to Eugene's aunt's house, where Alex was introduced to billiards. He already knows how to get into Trouble with a capital T!

Tomorrow, we will return you to your regularly scheduled writing posts.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Blog Updates

I've added some new pages to my blog; the links are in the sidebar. One of them is a biography of me; the other lists my sales and awards. I may move some of the links to a separate page when I have more time.

Is there anything else you'd like to have me put on a separate page of this blog?

Friday, April 02, 2010

Setting Priorities

I've decided I need to be four people. One to work, one to take care of Alex (though I think the stimulation he gets at daycare is good for him), one to cover domestic duties, and one to actually take care of me and write.

Scary to think so much is demanded of a single person, isn't it? But I'm sure I'm not the only one out there who's overworked like this. The reason I'm bringing this up is because today work is closed and daycare is open. Since dropping Alex off, I've gone shopping, swept and mopped the floors, vacuumed the upstairs, cleaned the master bathroom, made a dessert (which took longer than the recipe claimed), and baked two loaves of potato bread. Oh yeah, and done two loads of laundry (one's still in the washer; the other has to be folded). I said this would be my day to recharge my batteries, but instead I've spent most of it on other things. They needed to be done, and there's still much more I should do to make this place presentable. But I promised myself I would work on Across Two Universes today, so it's time to "just say no" to the rest of the chores. I've got a strawberry banana smoothie, retro tunes on Pandora, and red polish on my toenails. Time to sit in my office (which desperately needs to be organized too) and crank out some words.

My take-home lesson for you is to make time for you and your writing too. After all, the chores will always be there. Especially later, when my son returns home and promptly starts creating more messes.

Have a happy Easter, and enjoy your weekend! I'll be back soon.

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