Archive for 2012

[Achievement Unlocked: Publication]

Monday, October 29, 2012 § 1

I used to have a running bet with myself whether I’d get published in Day Job (scientist, for a certain value of scientist) or Night “Job” (fiction) first. Well, that’s been answered by a review committee. In a few weeks my name will be part of the lineup for a paper in PNAS*. And some indeterminate time after that it’ll be on another piece of non-fiction writing that I’ve been working on.  Both pieces are utterly unrelated to anything fiction-wise (and, more to the point, are under my Nom de Science) so I won’t spam the links here.  Sorry to have made you read all this way before saying so, whups.

* Since I live within a reasonable distance, I plan to celebrate upon publication by taking the issue in question and perhaps a bottle of coke that has been … enhanced … and parking myself on the steps of a certain structure with both items. If you see a strange woman being dragged off the hallowed marble steps, stop and say hi!

Yesteryear's Tree

Sunday, September 30, 2012 § 2

Yesteryear's Tree, by Nankichi Niimi.  English translation and accompanying artwork by the lovely Tongari.  A tiny and bittersweet tale, translated perfectly.

As a note, the original Japanese version is available at Aozora Bunko (青空文庫, or, "The Open-Air Library"), a Japanese digital library created "to provide broadly available, free access to Japanese literary works whose copyrights had expired." Do check out Nankichi's other works if you have the time; they are invariably lovely.

Home Office Large Major Enquiry System

Monday, September 3, 2012 § 2

As mentioned in the Peter Grant series, which is a brilliant work that everyone should read, the real life UK law enforcement/London Met has an IT system called called the Home Office Large Major Enquiry System = HOLMES.  At one point, it is remarked that when the Met put out an updated version of the database they wanted to name it SHERLOCK, but nobody could make up a good acronym, so it was named HOLMES 2.

Well, I think Aaronovitch should hold a contest to find the Best Acronym. My entry would be Services/Historical Emergency Records of London's Official Constabulary of the King. (WHAT. I'm allowed to dream.)

Also, this led me down the path of pondering what would be a good substitute for HOLMES in the universe of BBC's Sherlock series (see: Celebrity Paradox). Current top two contenders: DUPIN and WOLFE. Other contenders: MARPLE, POIROT, WIMSEY. I love Father Brown but that name is  too common, and the series isn't terribly well known.

(Where have I been?  I've been doing far more nonfiction writing as of late than fiction, due to my Actual Timesuck Job.  I don't know how everyone else in the blogosphere seems to balance the two so well, kudos to each and every one of you.  I'm getting a few things ready for submission, but it's taking ages.)

Wednesday Night Reading

Wednesday, August 1, 2012 § 3

(Perhaps I should've saved this for Sunday ...)

I'd like to steer gentle readers towards An Angel's Guide To Bureaucracy, a hilarious and profound short story by Pei Yi.  Set in an afterlife where each religion has its own department to handle the souls of the dearly departed, the story takes the reader through the hijinks that ensue between the Taoism and Christianity branches when it's discovered that a soul has made a last-minute religious conversion.

"A deathbed conversion?" she echoed, skeptical. "But it wasn't captured by the system at all. How did you get this data? Are you sure it wasn't a mistake on your side?"

"Oh, I'm pretty sure it isn't. Deathbed conversions can be easy to miss, so we have special receptors for that. Maybe the universal system missed it?"

"But the funeral rites?" She paused. "Oh, the Final Act."

"Right, funeral rites can be overridden by prior religious affiliations at the soul's own discretion," he quipped. After a long history of souls complaining when they'd been ignored and given the wrong religious rites by family members, enough consensus had finally been reached for the revision seventy years back. It was still recent enough to be the last act listed under the universal post-mortem processing laws - and it would probably take two more inter-religion wars before any new laws got close to approved.

The rest of the story can be read here!

London Dreaming

Tuesday, July 10, 2012 § 2

Went to London for the first time last week!  It was really wonderful and I'm already missing it and fruitlessly fantasizing about sending my CV over to UCL.  What, I'm allowed to dream.

1. I pre-gamed for the trip by mainlining as much London urban fantasy as I could*, so I tore through A Madness of Angels and Rivers of London -- which, by the way, Amazon neglected to inform me that a US edition existed, resulting in my ordering a UK copy which resulted in three weeks of shipping, and of course for consistency's sake I had to get the sequel in the UK edition as well.  I picked up a copy of Moon Over Soho in Oxford, along with a really pretty leather bookmark, and I may have ignored some gorgeous scenery in the Cotswolds because I was too busy inhaling the book.  No regrets.  Since I forgot to pick up Whispers Under Ground, so I guess there will be another three-week wait, shaking my fist over here.  (Not only were the books very awesome, they were also helpful for teaching this US resident some vocabulary.  Okay, watching all of BBC Sherlock twice helped, too.)

2. I spent some time idly pondering urban fantasy and its trappings.  As many have noted, Charles de Lint is probably the progenitor of all this, and interestingly, he didn't actually use the big city, which in our times is probably the first setting to come to mind when one speaks of urban fantasy.  Rather he used small towns and colored up their featureless solitude by importing folk tales and deities ... which Neil Gaiman takes on again in American Gods. And then in contrast there is Madness, in which magic is inherent to the city, is born out of the city and its rules, spontaneously generated out of and shaped by urban detritus; the city has now come alive if not aware.  I think it comes from what the writer is relatively more concerned with: the magic or the city?  Madness is all about London; the magic is a lens, a kaleidoscope through which we can turn the city inside out and shatter it into bits and see how it comes back together.  Rivers and American Gods lean towards being more about magic and myth and how they might hold together/tear apart a city or a world.

* Urban fantasy pretty much tells you what the city and the author wish it could be, up to and including the imperfections that make the masterpiece.  As Sabina pointed out, it gives you the dreams of the city, which I find to be much more interesting than anything found in a travel guidebook.

The 22 rules of storytelling, according to Pixar

Tuesday, June 12, 2012 § 2

Yes, everyone and their writing group has read this, but whateves, it still deserves my marginal bump to its pagerank.  Originally posted at The Pixar Touch.

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on - it’ll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

if it feels bad, you're probably doing it right

Comments Off

Me: I hate every single word I've ever written.
Writer Friend: Good.  It means you're developing taste.

And she's right, and that's what we were discussing.  There comes a stage between taking levels of Writer where the clouds part but instead of receiving some kind of beautiful vision, what I see instead is ... all my screwups and all the potential pitfalls in front of me.  But I don't actually know how to not screw up, because that's the next level.  There's no way out except punching on through, so yes, I'll just have to write it out, because I want that next level more than anything else.

Comments closed as this post is a reminder to myself, not a complaint.

The Whole Art And Joy Of Words

Saturday, May 12, 2012 § 3

Quote as found on Diane Duane's blog:

“Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek the Fox would say, ‘Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.’ A glib saying. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the centre of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

-- C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

"Anna Karenina Themselves To Death"

Monday, April 30, 2012 § 2

"... the Osbourne Brothers' bluegrass classic, 'Rocky Top' [says] in two lines what poets and writers 'Anna Karenina' themselves to death to convey, about a girl who's 'wild as a mink, but sweet as soda pop/I still dream about that.'" -- Singer-Songwriter Neko Case.

And that is the kindest, cleverest way I have ever been reminded to cut down on the purple prose a tad.

forget flow

Monday, April 9, 2012 § 1

A really nice post, with links to other posts, about how learning and growing has got nothing to do with the state of "flow."  It's when things are hard that we're learning.

... the feeling of flow is different than the feeling of getting better. If all you seek is flow, then you’re not going to get better. There is no avoiding the deliberate strain of real improvement.

Writing gets harder as I get better.  But that's okay, because it means I'm getting better.  I'm writing a techno-thriller right now, and it's like pulling teeth to write, but I am determined, because see above.  Also, it's all kinds of fun, because nobody said it couldn't be hard and fantastically enjoyable at the same time.

I highly recommend the blog in question (Study Hacks), by the way, as I find it to be insightful wrt the learning and practicing process.


Friday, February 3, 2012 § 1

I came across this article, Transcendent fantasy, or politics as usual?, on Black Gate, which discusses whether it's "possible for fantasy to move beyond the political."

1. There are lot of people whose Thing is consciously, deliberately, thoughtfully writing sociology, politics, economics into their stories.  For my part, although I have my opinions on issues, I feel no delight or urgency in consciously expounding on those issues in my fiction. And some days I want nothing more than a vacuum for my story to exist within.  However, on this topic I defer to Italo Calvino, who a) is more eloquent than I am, b) surely wrote stories fantastic enough to know. In his Invisible Cities, Marco Polo describes "a great number of lands" to Kublai Khan, until:

“Tell me another city”, Kublai insisted. [...]

“Sire, now I have told you about all the cities I know.”

“There is still one of which you never speak.”

Marco Polo bowed his head.

“Venice,” the Khan said.

Marco smiled. “What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?”

The emperor did not turn a hair. “And yet I have never heard you mention that name.”

And Polo said: “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.”

“When I ask you about other cities, I want to hear about them. And about Venice, when I ask you about Venice.”

“To distinguish the other cities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me it is Venice.”

2. I don't mean, actually, that in writing a story I must be saying anything about this particular universe that you and I share. But I cannot help saying something about the world that I created.  Even if something is merely for a laugh, the fact that I think it is worth a laugh, or the fact that some reader thinks it is worth a laugh, means that there is something entertaining in that setup, in that situation, in that world.  Therefore, the author has said something about that world, not to mention themselves, after all.  And the bigger the world, the more is said.  The only way to say nothing, to preserve that vacuum, is to remain silent.  To not create at all.

(3. ... isn't the author dead anyway?  So who cares what I intended ... )

The Library of Babel

Wednesday, January 25, 2012 § 0

1. In 1979, Jorge Luis Borges edited a 33-volume anthology of fantastic literature, in Spanish, titled The Library of Babel (like his own marvelous story of that same name).  The Rumpus has found the titles -- though not all are available online, and many are only available in Spanish -- and amassed a number of reading links for one's pleasure here.

2. Borges being one of my favorite authors, if not the most favorite -- I once found out that there was a Borges museum, and was distraught that I couldn't go.  The Significant Other consoled me by pointing out that the Perfect Borges Museum would simply stand you in the lobby, ask you to imagine the most perfect museum to Borges, and then send you out the door saying that was the entire exhibit.

Words Without Borders

Saturday, January 14, 2012 § 0

One of my favorite web publications is Words Without Borders, which focuses on short stories translated into English and describes itself as "the online magazine for international literature." I have a difficult time describing why I love translation, but even if you don't care for the art and craft, it's still important as a way of understanding other people, other cultures, other ways of thinking.  Stories that could only have arisen out of other lives, but remind us that we're all living.

My favorite story from the current issue is God's Obituary, by Fernando Paiva, translated by Brent Alan James. It's a simultaneously thoughtful and satirical take on humans "playing God," focusing on a(n athiest!) biologist who is nicknamed "God" after developing some amazing advances in genetic engineering. An excerpt:

In a bombastic interview with Today Science four years ago, God publicly recognized the error of having created genetic architecture, even with the ethical principles that might keep it under control. “It was naïveté on my part to believe that human beings would be capable of adhering to some limit. Controlling the creation is easy. Difficult is controlling the creator,” he lamented.

The rest of the story can be read here.

Other favorites include this hilarious and blackly humorous story, Spaniards Lost in America by Carlos Franz, in which an unknown and penniless Spanish man dies in a foreign country, and his countrymen are called upon to pay for a proper burial. They refuse, and complications ensue, full of hilarity and black humor.  Translated by Marian Schwartz.

Barrales junior left for the cemetery. In the dusty administrative office of the necropolis—besieged by nameless mausoleums, crooked crucifixes, washed-out tombstones—he was taking account of plots and holes in the ground. Visiting them and testing them out, he asked after the minimum dimensions for a man's corpse, checking to see if the cheapest available ditch, one reserved for a five-year stint, could be rented for six months, since his compatriots' donations could only cover that long. This last part, though, he didn't say (he didn't have to since at this point half the city was saying as much anyway).

Read the rest here.

And this one touches the heart, especially at its frosty, dreamy end: None of Your Business by Natalia Klyuchareva. This is a story of the son of two alcoholics who tries to help his parents, and when that fails, takes things into his own hands with drastic results.  A harsh yet beautiful story, like a frozen winter landscape.  Translated by Jonathan Blitzer.

He heaved a sigh from a crushing emotion he couldn't name. He felt as if he were running through a magical forest with silver trees. And he tried as hard as he could to believe in it. But the pitiful little bell cried straight to his heart, not letting him forget that it was never to be.

Behind him the snow creaked guiltily, and reflected in the window was his mother's face.

"You want a tree?" tight drunken tears gurgled in her throat. "We'll buy one. Tomorrow."

Yurka squeezed his eyes shut, clenched, and with a final incredible effort—believed.

"Just like this?" he clarified, hiding in his scarf from the maternal reek.

"I promise," she lied, and turning away she shed silent tears.

The rest can be read here.