Thursday, August 20, 2015

Review of december magazine


Summer is winding down and my work on the novel is ramping up.

Not much to blog about this week. Instead you can click on over to the Review Review to read my review of december magazine. Another strong literary journal that covers a broad range of poetry, essay and fiction.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Nephelai's Song

Czech designer, Kateřina Smolíková, captures the wonder of bioluminescent sealife in her breathtaking glass chandelier design -- to me, this looks like a wonderful design for a living spaceship!
The story I wrote for SFComet, The Nephelai's Song, is now available to read in English. 

SFComet is definitely worth keeping an eye on. Every month five writers are given a prompt and must write a short story in ten days. My prompt was  "echo from the future," and The Nephelai's Song is what I came up with. To date, all the stories are no longer than 2,500 words, but according to their home page they are upping the word count, so some longer stories will be on the way!

Check out their archives for more great science fiction stories!


Saturday, August 1, 2015

Armadillocon 37 Report

First things first, one of my favorite flash fiction stories is currently up at the wonderful Flash Fiction Online. Even if you’ve already read it, be sure to stop by and check out all the other fabulous stories featured at this excellent venue!


I’ve spent this week resting up and catching up after a wonderful Armadillocon 37. This is a small literary con, which makes it extra friendly as you keep seeing the same faces at panels, readings, in the audiences, and passing each other in the hallways. The guests, James Morrow and Ken Liu, were super friendly and fun to talk with, which really set the tone for the weekend. The programming was excellent this year, and I had to make a lot of tough choices. Here’s what my con looked like.

THE WRITERS’ WORKSHOP

The Writers’ Workshop went well. We spent the morning in two in-depth panels (the topic varies every year).  First we discussed how to structure your work. Questions and comments covered works of all different lengths and types. Later we talked about how to go about assessing what you’re working on, with larger thoughts about managing projects and the writing life. Between these two panels, the workshop attendees broke out into small groups for a quick and quite entertaining writing exercise.

We broke out into our assigned critique groups for lunch, so that we could get to know each other a little better before diving into the critiques. Martha Wells and I had five bright new writers, all with interesting stories or first chapters. Even the newbies did well, both giving and taking critique like pros! Covering five manuscripts in three hours is a tad exhausting, but so rewarding.

Another big benefit for workshop participants is that they get so spend early Friday forming connections with their fellow workshop attendees, so they already have a couple dozen familiar faces going into the rest of the weekend.

I think the concom’s commitment to this workshop, which feels like an integral part of Armadillocon (and not just a tacked on event as it can at other cons), is one of the reasons that Armadillocon continues to have a well-deserved reputation as an excellent literary/writerly con.

THE PANELS

The hard part about being on programming is that I now have commitments, and can’t get around to see all the panels that are scheduled at the same time as the ones that I’m on!


I was a little nervous about my first panel, “The Work of James Morrow.” While I have loved everything of his that I’ve read, I have only read a fraction of his books! Luckily, I was in the company of some great minds such as Jacob Weisman, Chris Brown, and Claude Lalumiere. As with all good panels, it became a conversation that covered Morrow’s works and their universal themes of human nature, theology and philosophy. James Morrow and his wife attended the panel, and were darlings, heartily rooting our conversation on! It was a delightful hour and such a pleasure to meet the man whose works I’m so enjoying!


I attended the “Silkpunk: Asian themes and influences in SF/F” panel. Ken Liu, Jake Kerr, Wesley Chu, and Justin Landon among others discussed the use of Asian themes, and the nature of cultural difference between east and west as we might see it through genre literature. The take away was that we are all more alike then we might assume, though there are some interesting differences between story forms and the expression of common themes via fable and various mythologies.


Ken Liu also gave a fascinating talk about the nature of translating literature titled “Betrayal With Integrity: Conformance and Estrangement in Translating Chinese SF.” As the title suggests it was full of thinky thinks. As someone only tangentially interested in the nuts and bolts of translation, I was completely fascinated and gained insights that will forever change how I view translated texts.

I thoroughly enjoyed the panel I was on titled “How Would the Discovery of Alien Life Affect Us?” moderated by the lively Aaron de Orive, with William Ledbetter and Patrice Sarath among others. We discussed the effect of confirmed contact with alien life might have on international geopolitical scene, then tracked back to talk about the problem of recognizing alien life and communicating withbeings that may very well be unimaginably different from us.

Then it was on to an excellent panel on the hot button topic, “The Hugo Award’s Struggle for Relevance” expertly moderated by Michelle Muenzler, with Lou Antonelli, Justin Landon, Marguerite Reed and Jacob Weisman. This curated discussion about the Hugos, slate voting, and the Sad Puppies. The discussion was both passionate and illuminating.

Then I was up for “SF as a Survival Guide.” (Personally, it was more about me surviving in a conscious state for a 10:00 p.m. panel!) We discussed a variety of different apocalypses featured in popular media, including Zombies, nuclear war, and natural disasters. We also covered Kaiju  (e.g. Godzilla); stay out of urban centers was the take-away there. Long-term survival would look pretty pastoral, and we agreed that this might be part of the appeal of these kinds of stories – a chance to hit the reset button.

My last panel of the con was “Short Fiction You Should Have Read Last Year” with K. B. Rylander, Eugene Fischer and myself. After discussing our favorite stories, and stories that made a splash this year, we talked about great venues to find, read, and listen to great short fiction. I will post a list as soon as I locate my scrawled notes from Sunday morning.

MISCELLANY


I heard Patrick Sullivan read a fantasy story of magic, love and zoomorphic calligraphy. I also listened to a suspenseful excerpt from Patrice Sarath Bandit Girls novel.

Jacob Weisman, founder of Tachyon Press was back with his usual selection of great books. When not at panels or readings, I spent some time chatting with him in the buyers’ room. He's another very approachable pro with lots of good insight into the business. I love that Tachyon publishes short stand-alone novels (call them long novellas if you prefer), as that’s my favorite reading niche. I picked up Shambling Toward Hiroshima by James Morrow, and We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory. In the buyers room, I also finally got my hands on a copy of Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor, a book I’ve been waiting to read for a while now. Hopefully, one day I’ll see her on ArmadilloCon’s guest roster!


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Here's my ArmadilloCon37 Schedule


I'm looking forward to a fun weekend. Look at all these amazing panelists and cool topics. I'm going to have to bring my A game!


The Armadillocon Writers' Workshop
Friday 9:00-4:00 p.m.

The Work of James Morrow
Friday 9:00-10:00 p.m., Ballroom D 
Christopher Brown, Claude Lalumiere*, N. J. Moore, Rebecca Schwarz, Jacob Weisman
Our panelists explore the humor, breadth, and impact of our Special Guest's writings.

How Would Discovery of Alien Life Affect Us?
Saturday 7:00-8:00 p.m., Ballroom F
Aaron de Orive, William Ledbetter, K. B. Rylander, Patrice Sarath, Rebecca Schwarz, Amy Sisson, Barbara Ann Wright
Do we run scared, work things out in the spirit of peaceful cooperation, or accept our new alien overlords?

SF as a Survival Guide
Saturday 10:00-11:00 p.m., Ballroom D
P. J. Hoover, Juan Manuel Perez*, Lawrence Person, Rebecca Schwarz, Lee Thomas
OK, you've read about dozens of apocalypses. How are you going to use that to survive?

Short Fiction You Should Have Read Last Year
Sunday 1:00-2:00 p.m., Southpark A
Eugene Fischer, K. B. Rylander, Amy Sisson*, Nate Southard, Rebecca Schwarz
Our panelists discuss short fiction from the last year that you need to know about.

Reading
Sunday 2:00-2:30p.m., Conference Center
Rebecca Schwarz
I'll be reading The Nephelai's Song, and one other story.

Check out the full schedule here!


Friday, July 17, 2015

Writing Workshop Survival Guide



A week from today, writers from far and wide will be gathering in Austin for The Armadillocon Writers’ Workshop. I’m excited to take my place among the pros this year. This is my hometown con. I have been a student of this workshop for several years and have learned a lot about the craft and art of writing from the wide range of professional writers that make this workshop so special.

I know workshops can be a daunting proposition. Since I started writing seriously, I’ve gone beyond the Writers’ Workshop. I attend my local in-person critique group and participate in online critique communities. These activities have both improved my writing, and thickened my skin a bit when it comes to presenting a brand new piece of writing to a group of people who I’ve implicitly and explicitly tasked with finding its faults.

It’s hard, after investing so much in a story, to hear about all the ways its not working yet. It’s like finding out my beautiful baby is a Frankenstein’s monster after all. (But fear not, after some excisions, new body parts, and some clever suturing, my readers might just see a thing of beauty after all. And with luck, they’ll love it as much as I did when I struggled to create it.)

Workshopping is not for everyone, but you’ll never know if a workshop or critique group is valuable to your process until you try it, so here are some thoughts to get you through the experience. Many workshops (including Armadillocon) use the Milford method of critique, or at least the essence of it, which is:

“The author whose work is being critiqued has to sit in silence through the first part in which each participant in turn is allowed an uninterrupted four minutes to deliver their critique. Then the author gets an uninterrupted right to reply. Following that a general discussion ensues.” 

I believe that the single most important reason that this method works so well is that it forces you to:


No speaking up while receiving your critique. This is more than just good manners, it is a crucial skill that every writer should hone. You may feel like you, or your work, is on trial. You are not. It is not. When people are engaged in a debate or a conversation they tend to spend the time when the other person is talking formulating a response. When you are thinking about what you are going to say, you are not listening. Regardless of the stated rules of any particular workshop or critique group, practice not only shutting your mouth, which will give you the appearance of polite propriety, but also opening your mind so you can really hear. This is hard, I think because it is hard for us to truly receive anything, say nothing of critical notes on a piece of our own writing.

Your group is a collection of writers trying to improve their craft, but it’s important to remember that you are all readers, too. Listen for the ways these readers go astray, look for patterns. Is everyone getting hung up on a certain detail, wondering what a character looked like, or how the knight’s horse got from the stable to the field? More than once I’ve been rewarded for really listening. Even the person who is entirely off base regarding what I am trying to accomplish with a particular story, will often have valuable insights embedded in their feedback, little gems that I would have missed if I wasn’t giving that person my full attention.

You will hear multiple opinions on your story. This is a great opportunity to compare your intention, your vision, to what others are actually receiving when they read it. Until telepathy becomes a reality, what you are trying to communicate with a story, and what your reader gets will never be the same thing.

Be kind to yourself. In the heat of creation I’m investing myself in the story, sometimes the drafts come easy, sometimes they come hard. Either way, I’m often riding high when I finish. Sometimes, I’m even convinced that this piece is pretty damn good; sometimes it is, sometimes not so much. It can be hard to tell when I’m still so close to it.

More than once I’ve gone in to my crit group thinking I’ll just get their stamp of approval, they’ll catch a couple typos, and I’ll be sending it to editors tomorrow. It hurts to find out that my story isn’t quite working yet, that there are confusions and problems that still need to be solved. That it will take more time and hard work before this story will become all that it can be.

If you are pushing yourself you will have some brilliant successes, but more often you will fall down, will write something that has moments of brilliance but is also deeply flawed – this is a good thing. Achieving excellence is a long hard road, but that’s the road you’re on, right? Be kind to yourself. Catch your breath. Set your story aside for a few days. When you pick it up again, read all the positive comments first; fluff up your ego a bit before taking the next step.


With most groups, you will be sent home with half a dozen copies of your manuscript riddled with notes, some of which will agree, others will directly contradict each other. This is the tricky part. You want to keep your ego somewhat intact, but there’s no point in workshopping a story if you’re not going to consider any of the advice. At the same time, it is important not to rank everyone else’s opinion over your own. As a writer, one of your greatest assets is your voice, and I think the quickest ways to destroy your unique voice is to try to implement every note given. You have to assess all these notes and opinions and decide what to take.

Before going through the notes, I believe the best thing you can do is sit down and really think about what you’re trying to accomplish with this particular story. What is your goal with this piece? If the first draft is about figuring out how to write it, this draft is about the Why. Why did you tell this particular story in this particular mode? I will usually work this out in my journal. Once I have the Why of the story, I can better see which comments to use and which to disregard.


Reading other people’s stories critically is one of the best exercises by which writers can learn their craft. When critiquing, I read for comprehension, plot and flow, marking the manuscript as I go. I note places where I’m confused, phrases that seem out of the idiom for the setting or characters. I write questions that pop into my head as I’m reading.

Afterwards, I think about the story as a whole and make a guess at what the writer is trying to accomplish with this particular piece. When I give feedback, I usually say, this is what I think you’re trying to do here and these are the things that worked/didn’t work – for me. Using phrases like “I think” and “for me” are not capitulations or ways to soften the blows of a critique – it’s an acknowledgement that I am one reader. The things that bother me may not bother the next person.




Be kind to others. Receiving critical comments on something that I worked very hard on, something that I may still have deep emotional ties to is hard. So when giving feedback I want to be kind. It is not kind to refrain from pointing out the weak spots in a manuscript because you don’t want to upset a fellow writer. On the other hand it is not kind to shred someone else’s work in the name of artistic perfection.

In a regular critique group, you will get to know your fellow crit mates and may be able to be more frank in your feedback. But often you may find yourself in a group – like The Armadillocon Writers’ Workshop – where you are meeting your workshop mates in person for the first time at the critique session. In either situation is always a good practice to find the positives of any given piece. I like to lead off with a couple specific examples of things I enjoyed. In the middle I’ll bring up the elements that were problematic, confusions, and anything that pulled me out of the story. After talking about the weaknesses, I like to finish on a high note with my impression of what the strengths are for the piece in particular or aspects of the writing that are working well in general.

And with those thoughts, I wish you happy writing, happy workshopping, and happy revising!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

This and That, Far and Wide


My Story The Nephelai's Song is up at SF Comet, but here's the catch. It is currently exclusively in Chinese! Every month SF Comet invites five authors to write a story to a specific theme. They are then posted and readers vote to pick their favorite. I was invited to write a story for June. The theme was "Echo from the Future."

You can see the story in Chinese here. But don't worry, if you don't happen to read Chinese the story will be posted on their English language web page later this summer.
  

I've also opined about a couple of excellent summer short reads over at SF Signal's Mind Meld. I picked Sleep Donation by Karen Russell and The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin. I am among several great writers, each of whom suggest short stand-alone novels. I'll definitely be adding some of these books to my beach bag.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Comicpalooza 2015 and the Texas Flood

Part of being a good panelist is being a good listener. Here, K. J. Russell and I listen to K. S. O'Neill's opinions about the topic of our panel: Is Hard Science Fiction Dead? Everyone on the panel agreed that it is most definitely NOT dead. While this sort of hand-wringing title/topic can be annoying in articles and blog posts, it generated a fruitful conversation. We discussed how labels like "hard science fiction" can be difficult to pin down when they are used in ever-evolving book marketing strategies. Individual readers also have different tolerances for the amount of actual science in what they might call hard scifi. To see what I mean, check out TV Tropes' Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness

I tend to be pretty forgiving as far as what I can enjoy when reading science fiction. Whenever a writer is extrapolating from known facts there is going to be a parting of the ways between reality and what he or she imagines, and that's the fun of science fiction, right? As long as you tell me a good story and don't break any promises as far as scientific rigor, I'm along for the ride. A great contemporary example of a book that promises and delivers a scientifically faithful tale is Andy Weir's The Martian. Another excellent example is Nancy Kress' Beggars in Spain, which is about what would happen to our society if we could make one tiny genetic change in some people.

Science itself is a big tent, some readers tend to think of hard science fiction in terms of what I would call engineering fiction, but I tend to seek out and enjoy books that feature biology, and yes, even the social sciences, which uses math-intensive game theory to hypothesize and test ideas about human behavior.

I'll write up my other panels more thoroughly soon. I'll just note that I also moderated the panel Discussing Dystopias with Raymond Feist, and got to sit next to the lovely Diana Dru Botsford on the panel, Star Trek: Evolution of a Franchise. She's written and produced for both Star Trek and Stargate SG -1 and had all sorts of amusing tales and fascinating insights.
I got to chat with Steve Bein, traveller, philosopher, and writer, and I  had a chance to spend some time with the lovely Stina Leicht, who will be this year's Toastmaster at Armadillocon. Go to her site to read about her latest projects and adventures (including getting back to Austin from Comicpalooza)!

By returning home Sunday evening instead of Monday, I dodged a bullet - and by bullet I mean the torrential rains and flooding that hit Central Texas on Monday.
Stevie Ray Vaughan walks on water during the 2015 Memorial Day Texas Flood