Thursday, September 30, 2010

Discussion: Creativity

My three-year-old son is obsessed with trains. To him, everything is a train--markers, playground equipment, even me. It's almost the opposite of that old brainstorming exercise where you think of as many different uses for an object as you can. So I came up with a question: is it more creative to make the same thing out of several different objects (what my son does) or to come up with several different things to do with the same object? In what types of situations would you find each type of creativity useful?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

100 Follower Book Giveaway

I knew The Great Blogging Experiment was going to be popular, but I had no idea there would be so many participants or that I would gain so many followers. As Colin Mochrie said on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, "You tolerate me! You really tolerate me!" As a thank you, I'd like to give away the following books:

1.  Red Hot Fury

2. Love in the Time of Dragons

3. The Crystal Throne--This one is signed by the author!

4. Writing the Other: A Practical Approach

To enter, all you have to do is a) be a follower, b) leave a comment on this post, and c) tell me which books you're interested in. You can enter to win one, some, or all of the books. Please leave your comment by midnight CDT Sunday, October 3rd. For each book, I'll draw a winner at random out of all the people entered for that particular book. Winners will be announced on Monday, October 4th. Good luck!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Monday, September 27, 2010

Authors Leading Characters

Thanks again to Elana, Jennifer, and Alex for coming up with the Great Blogging Experiment. I'm still making my way through the list of participants; I hope to reach the end by this Friday. I'm now following a lot more blogs, and I'm amazed to see all the new followers I have. Welcome, everyone! To celebrate reaching 100 Followers, I'm going to announce a book giveaway on Wednesday. Stay tuned for more details.

In the meantime, I wanted to comment on something I noticed last week.

I don't have much free time for pop culture. Although I've heard of Glee, I didn't watch the first season. I have seen a couple of Lady Gaga videos, but I hadn't heard of Charice until last week, when my husband showed me this video and gave me a lovely earworm:

After watching this video, I kept thinking about Charice's character, Sunshine, and her appearance. The pigtails and big black glasses didn't suit her, to say the least. And she only wore them in this scene; I watched the entire episode online, and the rest of the time she had no glasses and wore a beret. I had come up with some reasons Sunshine would dress the way she does in the video (bad eyesight requiring heavy glasses to handle her prescription, poor self-esteem, personal taste, etc.), but they don't seem to fit the situation. The pigtails and glasses seemed like something put on Sunshine to make her an ugly duckling--or perhaps to make Rachael underestimate her. In other words, it seemed more like an author (or producer) decision than a character decision, and that pulled me out of the story.

I think that's something we authors need to be careful about in our own stories. It's not just about how we costume our characters; it's also about not forcing them to do something out of character for them to make the plot go a certain direction. In most instances, characters should show common sense and not do something that will hurt them--unless you've already demonstrated the character doesn't have common sense or has very good motivation to work against their own self-interest.

All that said, I did like the diversity of characters on Glee and enjoyed the plot twists. I told my husband we could watch the show together to have some couple time. Whether or not we can manage that with our three-year-old son's sleep (or lack-of-sleep) schedule is another story.

Do any of you have other examples from books, movies, or TV where the authors/producers obviously steered a character into doing something the character wasn't motivated to do?

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Great Blogging Experiment: Creating Compelling Characters

A couple of weeks ago, Elana Johnson (along with Jennifer Daiker and Alex Cavanaugh) proposed a blogging experiment. They challenged readers of their blogs to post today on the same subject: creating compelling characters. The idea was to show how each participant (there are over 150) would have a unique take on the subject. I figured that in order to create a compelling character in fiction, it would help to look at a real-life compelling person. Those of you who know me are probably not surprised at my choice: John Lennon. Here's a short list of the traits that make John Lennon a compelling figure, at least to me. All of these traits can be given to fictional characters as well.

A Dramatic Backstory: John Lennon was born during World War II (some sources say there was an air raid in progress at the time), and his childhood and adolescence weren't peaceful times either. Abandoned by both his father and his mother (when John was five, his father forced him to choose between them), John was mostly raised by his aunt and uncle. He started seeing his mother again when he was a teenager but lost her for good when she was killed in an accident. He also lost both his uncle and his best friend. All this happened before the Beatles became famous. Perhaps it's no wonder John had what I'll call...

A Complex Personality: John presented a brash, rebellious face to the world to cover up his inner insecurities. His wit could be quite cruel, especially if he sensed vulnerability. But he could be kind to fans, signing autographs for them when they waited outside his house. John's personality was large enough to contain other contradictions, as if he was a "sweet bird of paradox" himself. He sang about peace yet had a temper. An intelligent man, he could still be taken advantage of by unscrupulous people. He described himself as the laziest man in England, but he had the ambition and drive to travel across Liverpool to learn a single guitar chord, play for hours on end in Hamburg--in short, to do whatever it took to make the Beatles the best. Throughout his life, John continued to grow, seemingly conquering his inner demons. Although he wasn't much of a father to Julian, he was much more nurturing with Sean.

Leadership: John was the one who started the Beatles, but he inspired countless other people to do things, whether it was playing guitar or giving peace a chance. He was even one of three Men of the Decade (the 1960s, of course).

So to summarize, compelling characters have unique backgrounds that affect their personalities and actions in the story. They aren't one-sided, but have multiple aspects to their personalities. They have both strengths and flaws. And to make them compelling to readers, show how other characters in the story find your main characters worth watching and listening to.

I'm sure there's more I could say, but I'd rather watch this:

For a full list of the people participating in this blogging experiment, please check out the link to Elana's blog at the beginning of this post. And if you're here because of the experiment, hello! Please leave a comment so I can check out your blog too.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Practice Makes Perfect: Writing Exercises

A recent guest post on Writer Beware® Blogs! reminded me of something I'd meant to do earlier this year after finishing Across Two Universes: develop my description abilities through writing exercises. Here's my first attempt, slightly edited to make the POV consistent:

Descriptive Exercise # 1—Lakeshore Path

It has been far too long since I’ve walked down Lakeshore Path to Picnic Point, but I still remember it like a pathway to my heart.

Lakeshore Path is on the edge of campus, on the other side of the marsh where wild swans swim. I usually drive there and park in the small lot, where gravel slips under my feet. There’s a wall surrounding Picnic Point, but an opening in the wall permits passage down the sandy road.

Once inside the wall, I see grassy areas where on pleasant days students sit on blankets, studying behind sunglasses and shut off from the rest of the world with earphones. More students pass me, jogging or biking, but not engaging me. I’m free to study the gnarls in the oak trees, the ruts in the path. I smell someone grilling up ahead near one of the picnic areas. Most of these areas are just wooden seats around a central area.

At one point the path splits. I choose to walk the cooler, shadowed path. Squirrels dart away from me, and crows caw overhead. Then the paths unite, and I continue past the small beach on the left. If I peep to the right, between the trees you can see the skyline of Madison past the blue lake.

This land isn’t level; there are small hills to climb. But I continue on, passing more picnic areas and a rusty water pump. Eventually I come to my favorite part of the path, a level stretch where trees arc above you like the roof of Nature’s cathedral. Then I burst through to the end of the path. Success! Another grassy area with the largest seating area of all awaits. Other walkers or joggers resting for a moment, strolling about as they regard the sailboats on the lake. But is this really the end?

No, it’s not. I continue down the sandy path there about one o’clock. The bank is steep, but tree roots cut steps into the path. Finally I’ve arrived at a fallen tree at the water’s edge. If I sit here quietly, smelling the water, I may hear a pair of ducks quietly peeping at each other as they swim past.

I'm thinking of trying a writing exercise once a week. Is anyone else interested in joining me? We could all post on the same day and offer feedback to each other. Please comment below if you'd like to do this.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Science of Science Fiction--Measuring Consciousness

What is consciousness? People have been trying to understand it for thousands of years. One University of Wisconsin professor has made developing a theory of consciousness his career, and he may be closing in on an answer.

According Professor Tononi in this article from the New York Times, consciousness is integrated information. What this means is that the neurons in our brains (or I should say, within a single brain) are sharing information. They're not doing this generally; they're organized into structures which then interact with each other. According to information theory, this is the best way to maximize shared information, referred to as phi in the article. Phi cannot be calculated because there are too many possible connections between neurons. However, Tononi is testing his theory by studying how brain activity changes after a sedative is used. Pulses of brain activity are longer, more complex, and more widespread in conscious people than unconscious ones. Someday, doctors may use these differences in brain activity to determine if a person is conscious or not. This test would work even if the patient is unable to respond.

Of course, as a science fiction writer, I'd like to look for ways to test consciousness in animals, robots, and even aliens. Would a test of this type work on these subjects? It probably would on animals, would need to be modified for robots and computers, and unfortunately be unlikely to work in aliens, given that their physiology would be so much different from ours. We'd need to find more universal tests. If we are able to find a universal test for consciousness, it would enlighten us to the general natural of consciousness and perhaps answer some of our basic questions.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Back on the Blog Chain: Remember Me

If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write something worth reading or do things worth the writing.--Benjamin Franklin

This week, Ten Word Tuesday has been preempted by the Blog Chain. Shannon has a tough question for us:

Imagine this: when you're gone, readers will remember your writing most for just one of these things: your characters, your plots, your settings, or your style. Which one (only one!) would you prefer over the rest? Why?

It isn't emotionally easy contemplating your death and what will be left of you afterward. However, I knew my answer to this question as soon as I read the choices. I admire authors who have poetic styles or who can create lush, detailed settings, but those aren't my strengths. Enthralling, unpredictable plots are great to read, and if I could choose two things, plots would be my second choice. But my first choice is characters. To me, bringing a complex character to life with just words, creating a "virtual" person who evokes intense emotions in my readers, who changes over the course of a story, and who may even feature in several plots is a great accomplishment. If I can manage that, then I feel I have written something worth reading indeed. I'm not the one who makes that call; it's up to my readers. As the Beatles said, "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make." I hope I can create characters people love--even if they love to hate them.

Please check out Amanda's and Eric's posts on this topic to continue following the chain.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Said-Bookisms, Emotion, and Children

I bought Alex a couple of new books on Saturday, and we've been reading them over and over, the way he normally does the first few days after getting something new. One thing I noticed is how much the characters' emotions are described with said-bookisms and adverbs, things that are generally frowned upon in adult fiction. For young readers, I think it does make sense to use them, since they aren't experienced in picking up subtle clues about emotions. So, when do kids learn how to interpret body language and facial expressions in fiction? Does it depend on how much they read? Does there ever come a point where kids/readers in general start to notice said-bookisms, or is that a writer thing? Do any readers of this blog have answers for me?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Science of Science Fiction: Hello, Hybrids!

If I mention science fiction and hybrids in the same sentence, chances are this may be the first thing that comes to mind:

As "fascinating" as Spock may be, he's not a natural hybrid; it required a team of Vulcan scientists to create him. Given how different Vulcan and human metabolisms are, it would have been impossible for his parents to conceive naturally. However, closely related animal species can and do produce hybrids. According to this article in the New York Times, up to ten percent of animal species and twenty-five percent of plant species interbreed occasionally with a different species. Some of these hybrids are obviously different from their parents; they may have an intermediate number of teeth, for instance, or their coats may be a patchwork of their parents'. (See the article for a picture of a zebra-horse hybrid called a zorse.) Unfortunately, due to genetic issues such as an unusual number of chromosomes, hybrids tend to be sterile. (This is more of an issue in animals than in plants.) Although hybrids generally can't compete against their parent species in the same niches, sometimes they are able to find a unique niche where they thrive and the parents don't.

What does this mean for science fiction? For near-future science fiction, I could see interest in creating species better suited to handle upcoming climate change. Perhaps scientists would even find ways to make these hybrids fertile by manipulating genes and chromosomes. Although species have to be very closely related (usually within the same genus; never outside the order) to hybridize in nature, genetic engineering makes it possible combine DNA from vastly different species. (I think in this case, probably only a few genes would be added from the other species, not half.)

Nearly all life on Earth uses the same genetic code (there are a few exceptions in extreme climates), but would this extend to life on other planets? Even if extraterrestrial life follows the same biochemical principles that we do, tiny but crucial details may be different. Their equivalent of DNA would be highly unlikely to follow our genetic code, or perhaps they may use different amino acids to build proteins. But if there's a way to create terrestrial-extraterrestrial hybrids, science fiction writers will find it--and explore the results and implications.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Absolute Write Blog Chain: Seasons

Yes, I'm crazy enough to join yet another Blog Chain, this one comprising posts from members of the Absolute Write Water Cooler forum. Since the topic was seasons, I immediately thought of Day of All Seasons, one of my trunked novels. Every four years, the country of Challen is afflicted with a magical storm that mixes up the seasons, and a group of four magic-users (servants of the Four Gods and Goddesses) must deal with the storm and the resulting damage.When the Sola Spring, leader of the magic-users, dies unexpectedly, a new group of four female magic-users must learn to work together despite internal differences and sabotage by the current Sol Win. The excerpt below shows a soltrans, a religious ceremony marking the change of seasons. (Jenna and Bel are two of the trainees.)

“God of Summer, God of the sun that gives us life, God of the plants that feed and clothe us, heal and please us, accept our thanks,” the Sol Sum said. His voice was strong and clear, carrying over the square. “You have given us a good season, a season of warmth and light, a season for growing, a season for enjoying all the gifts of the Four. Truly this has been a season of life.” The Sol Sum paused and glanced at the Sol Win, who nodded slightly. The Sol Sum continued, “Although this fire and these grains come from You, accept them as a measure of our gratitude.”

As he finished, the lucifer burst into flame. A strong breeze rustled the Season Lords’ clothes as the Sol Sum tilted the bowl and the Sol Win put the lucifer into it. Jenna wrinkled her nose at the smell of burnt grain, made worse by the incense mixed with it.

When the grain and incense had burned out, the Sol Win caused a small cloud to rain into the bowl, quenching the fire. He took the bowl and stepped back. The Sol Sum continued, “Oh God of Summer, Your season has been so fruitful we would ask You to stay with us always — ”

“Stop!” the Sola Fall called out. She stepped forward and threw off her cloak.

The Sol Sum looked astonished. “Who are you to interrupt my prayer to the God of Summer?”

“I am the Sola Fall, representative of the Goddess of Fall. This is Her season, and you have no right to pray to the God of Summer now. His time is over.”

“Not so. I challenge your claim.”

“I accept. Bring out the sticks.” The Sol Win stepped forward with a long stick in each hand. One end of each stick was well wrapped with leather. The Sol Sum and Sola Fall each took a stick and paced towards the sides, where the girls stood. Jenna stepped away to give them more room and motioned Bel to do the same.

“I used to play this with my brother,” Bel whispered.

“I’ve done it in the actual ritual,” Jenna whispered back. Back in Bull Rock she and her opponent would just tap each other a few times with the sticks and go on to the Kiss of Peace. She couldn’t wait to see how the real Season Lords fought.

The Sol Sum and Sola Fall saluted each other with the sticks and rushed forward, hitting each other with the padded ends. They crossed their sticks like swordfighters, retreated, and attacked each other again. The Sola Fall’s divided skirt flared as the fighters danced back and forth. Once the Sol Sum knocked the Sola Fall on her shoulder hard enough to make her sit down abruptly, provoking laughter from the audience. But she skillfully fended the Sol Sum off with her stick until she could get up, and they continued.

Bel tapped Jenna on the arm. “I hope you and Gwen don’t ever actually fight, but if you do, see if you can borrow those sticks.”

Jenna stifled her laughter.

The Season Lords moved to the center of their stage. Sweat made the Sol Sum’s green silk shirt stick to his back. The Sol Sum took the offensive with a series of blurred strikes, forcing the Sola Fall to retreat. She parried with her stick, but a few of the blows landed. Suddenly, as the Sol Sum rushed forward, the Sola Fall tripped him with her stick, and he fell. Before he could move, the Sola Fall placed her foot on his back and raised her stick above his head. “Yield!” she cried.

“I yield,” the Sol Sum said, and he dropped his stick. “On behalf of the God of Summer, I yield to the Goddess of Fall. Let us fight no longer, but follow the Goddess of Spring’s teaching and work together for the good of Challen.”

I hope you enjoyed the excerpt. Here is the list of the September Blog Chain participants; please visit their blogs too for their individual takes on the seasons.

Ralph_Pines: and direct link to his post
Aheïla: and direct link to her post
DavidZahir: and direct link to his post
orion_mk3: and direct link to his post
LadyMage: and direct link to her post
semmie: and direct link to her post
llalah: and direct link to her post
hillaryjacques: and direct link to her post
AuburnAssassin: and direct link to her post
laffarsmith: and direct link to her post
sbclark: and direct link to her post
FreshHell: and direct link to her post
IrishAnnie: and direct link to her post
PASeasholtz: and direct link to his post
SF4-EVER: (You are here.)
T.N. Tobias:

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Monday, September 13, 2010

Back on the Blog Chain: Genres

For this round of the Blog Chain, Margie wants to know How did you come to write your YA genre (e.g. contemp, fantasy, etc.)? AND (yep, it’s a 2 parter), if you weren’t writing that, what genre would you be interested in exploring?

As usual, Amanda comes before me in the chain and Eric afterward.

I'm in the minority in this group; I don't consider myself a YA writer. (But you still like me, right? Right?) For me, the speculative element of science fiction or fantasy is more important than the age of my main character or my readers. I've written both teenage and adult main characters. I like to plan not just trilogies, but sagas in which the characters I originally started with mature and have children/new main characters to continue the story; I'd like to do that with my current project. So although Across Two Universes could be YA, I think I'm better off marketing it as regular science fiction.

As to how I got into science fiction and fantasy, I started reading it when I was a girl. I went through periods where I explored other genres, but when a friend introduced me to the Star Trek novels, I gradually found my way back to SF/fantasy. At this point, it makes up the vast majority of my fiction reading. I'm a science geek, so that's part of the reason I read SF. I'm also a Midwesterner born and raised. I love the region, yet I must admit it's very mundane at times, especially in the middle of winter, when I'm surrounded by a barren landscape full of suburbs and strip malls and dead spaces between highways. Who wouldn't want something magical or alien to revive you with a sense of wonder?

Ironically, if I could no longer write SF or fantasy, my writing would probably be full of the mundane I try to escape. They say to write what you know, after all. It's hard to imagine writing something without a speculative element. I might wind up writing general fiction or women's fiction, drawing my themes from the challenges of middle age. As Ringo said in A Hard Day's Night, "Being middle-aged and old takes up most of your time, doesn't it?" But I'd still prefer to mix some magic into the mundane world of middle age. Why let teenagers have all the fun, after all? ;)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Quote of the Day

"The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause."

Mark Twain

Friday, September 10, 2010

Five Years Ago....

I wore this...

And ate this....

That's right, it's our wedding anniversary! Eugene and I are taking the day off to celebrate and enjoy an Odyssey cruise on Lake Michigan. Have a happy weekend, everyone!

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Kindle--Highlights and Sharing

I'm not trying to become a spokesperson for the Kindle, but it does change the reading experience.

One of the Kindle's features is that it allows you to highlight text or add notes to it. You can also share your highlighted text on Facebook or Twitter. (Edited to add: the book is automatically cited.) And if you're reading a book that other people have shared highlights from, you can see those as well. (You can turn public highlights off if they distract you.) What I like about the public highlights is that they make me feel like part of a community reading a book.

(I don't interact with a lot of SF readers in my daily life, and I don't belong to any SF book clubs. There are probably forums out there where I could discuss my reading, but as a writer, I'm not comfortable posting about other writers' books. If I say anything negative, it could come back to haunt me.)

I also like sharing my highlights on Facebook. I'm currently rereading my beloved Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig on Kindle, so if you're friends with me on Facebook, expect to see a lot of passages from that book popping up on my profile over the next few days.

Do you mark up your paper books? I generally don't, but ZMM is the exception for me. Do you like the idea of sharing your favorite passages with others? If so, would you do it for fun or publicity?

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The Science of Science Fiction--Camouflage and Mimicry

If you ask someone to name an animal that uses camouflage, chances are she may respond with something like a chameleon (we had these in elementary school one year), or maybe a butterfly or a frog. Camouflage and mimicry are widespread in nature. As this article from the NY Times shows, they may be more widespread than most people realize, and they don't just apply to visual camouflage or mimicry.

The article lists several examples of mimicry, such as jungle cats imitating the calls of baby monkeys, baby cockroaches flirting with male cockroaches to obtain food (just when you thought cockroaches couldn't get more disgusting), and octopi that can adopt the coloration of toxic fish over their entire bodies or make an arm look like a sea snake. Interestingly enough, the article concludes with an example of human mimicry; we like other people who unconsciously echo our own gestures better than those who don't.

Shape-shifting aliens are nothing new, but there are other ways to use camouflage and mimicry in science fiction. On Earth, animals use camouflage and mimicry techniques that affect the senses of vision and hearing. Perhaps aliens would rely on different senses and attempt to fool others' senses of smell, touch, or taste. They may even play with senses that we don't have. Would they have other motives for these behaviors besides food and protection? Would they play a part in procreation, for instance, or perhaps alien art? And if they learn to imitate us, will we consider that sincere flattery and accept them? What do you think?

Monday, September 06, 2010

Labor Day Haikus

Is this summer's end?
Not quite--I hold with Nature
And seek the balance.


Time is strange today.
There's extra time for errands
But when do I write?

Friday, September 03, 2010

Discussion: The Joy of Rereading

I used to reread books when I was younger more often than I do now. Part of this is because I don't have as much free time for reading at all, so when I do, I attempt to conquer the Mount Everest of unread books stacked in my office. I like to fantasize that someday when I'm retired, I'll be able to reread some of my favorite books I have in my collection, but the truth is I'm more likely to die before I run out of new books to read. Some of the stories I have managed to reread (when I bought new editions) are The Jungle Book and the Sherlock Holmes stories.

When I got my Kindle last week, I discovered that there were a lot of free books for the Kindle--mostly older books that were in the public domain. I took the opportunity to download some classics I've read before. So far, I've reread A Little Princess and The Swiss Family Robinson. I preferred the first one over the second, as it was more of a story. Reading older books shows how much writing styles have changed over the years. Telling and moralizing have become less popular.

Another favorite book I downloaded was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I still have my beloved purplish paperback, with lots of underlining and comments. (It's probably the book I've written in the most, even including my textbooks.) I haven't reread this for several years, and given that I now work in Quality Control, it should be interesting to see what I get out of this book this time. I'm looking forward to having this book with me wherever I go and sharing favorite passages on Facebook. I'm also considering buying a Kindle version of Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog so I can have it in my permanent collection (even though I have it in paperback) and have an excuse to reread it.

Do you read books just once or several times? What are your favorite books to reread? What is it that draws you to them again and again? If you have an e-reader, has that changed your reading/rereading habits?

Enjoy the Labor Day weekend, everyone!

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Back on the Blog Chain: It Don't Come Easy

The blog chain has finally worked its way over to me again. Eric had this question for us:

What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of being a writer?  What is your greatest reward from writing?

First, here's Ringo Starr to sing the theme song for this post:

Like many of the other people, lack of time for writing is a big challenge for me at this point in my life. When I was single, I could spend all evening in front of the computer. Granted, I was chatting and goofing off in addition to writing, but I was still able to devote significant time to it. Now it's not just the reduced writing time that I have to deal with, but the lack of "pre-planning" I can do before I sit down and write. There are so many other things competing for my attention that I don't think enough about my current projects. I've been compensating for this by trying to outline the sequel to Across Two Universes and create "character bibles" for Paul and his friends.

Although I've sold a story, it was far more thrilling to learn about the sale and see my name on the back of the anthology cover than to get my royalty statement. (Not that I minded that.) But for me, the biggest reward is the feeling of satisfaction I get when I finish a story. Even if it's just a rough draft that will require extensive rewriting, I know I've accomplished something.

This is the last post for this chain. Please go back to Eric's post and read through them in order, or work your way backward from Amanda's post. Another chain will be starting soon!

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