Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Anxiety of Self-Influence


Long ago, in a galaxy far away, William Gibson told Eileen Gunn that he had discovered the secret of writing:  “You must learn to overcome your very natural, and appropriate, revulsion for your own work.”

This is an extremely useful observation.  But it will only take you so far.  I'm working on the third and final novel of what will inevitably be seen as the Iron Dragon Trilogy and so I did a fast skim of the first two novels.

I didn't have to do this when I was writing The Dragons of Babel because it was not intended to be a sequel to The Iron Dragon's Daughter.  I didn't even decide that the two books were set in the same world until it was halfway written.  (In retrospect, this seems naive.  But it's true.)

So it was a new experience for me, comparing my half-formed notions of what I wanted to write to the finished products of my own imagination and a whole hell of a lot of work.

The result?  I was intimidated.  There were passages that were as good as I could make them.  Rereading them, it seemed like I couldn't hope to do as well.

This sounds like a fancy, a notion, but it's not.  I know at least one writer who gave up on fiction because he believed -- incorrectly, I'm convinced -- that he couldn't write as well as himself anymore.  He read his previous books and was too intimidated to go on.

The lesson to be learned from this was explained to me a third of a century ago by my pal Jack Dann.  "You have to learn to turn off your inner critic while you're writing," he said.

True words.  A story or novel is literally unpublishable until you finish writing it.  For one thing, it has no ending.  You must simply write as well and as honestly as you are capable of.  When it's done, you can turn on the critic and judge whether it's ready for the big time.  But while you're writing, just write.

End of sermon.  Go in peace.

Above:  Detail from the British cover by Geoff Taylor.  One of my favorite covers ever.


Monday, July 28, 2014

An Unintentional Trilogy


Here's a rule of thumb for authors' lives:  When we're at our most interesting, we're at our least productive, and when we're at our most productive we're at our least interesting.  When I'm sitting in a teahouse in Chengdu, talking with fellow writers from around the world, or staying in a small room just inside the Silver Gate of Diocletian's Palace in Split, I can guarantee you I'm not getting much writing done.  Conversely, when I'm pounding out five pages a day, I don't have much in way of interesting anecdotes to report.

Before Marianne retired, she used to come home from a long and busy day at the Bureau of Labs and say, "How was your day?"  To which I'd reply by lifting both hands and wriggling the fingers as if typing.

A writer's life can be glamorous and even exciting at times.  But not when he's writing.

All of which is my roundabout way of saying that I'm beginning to hit stride on the new novel.  I began it at the same time I began Chasing the Phoenix (now forthcoming from Tor Books) and set it aside when that novel (in which Darger & Surplus, with perfectly innocent intentions, wind up conquering Post-Utopian China) caught fire and demanded all my thought and attention.

On finishing Phoenix, I took a few months off to work on short fiction.  There's no real money in short fiction, alas, but I learned long ago that I was not put on this planet in order to become rich.  So I might as well do what I love.  Which includes not only novels but the short form as well.

But now the novel I set aside has caught fire and is demanding more and more of my time and attention and even love.  So I may or may not have interesting tales to share with you here in the coming months.  It all depends on how much time I can steal from my chief duty.

Up above is the cloth notebook dedicated to the novel, resting atop a rather large volume I'm reading for research.  Both resting, appropriately enough, on the dragon rug in my living room.

And because some of you will want to know . . .

This book will be my third and last dragon novel.  The working title was originally Mother of Dragons before a certain Old Pal of Mine decided to apply that title to a claimant to the throne of Westeros in his rather successful series of fantasy novels.  So I'll have to come up with something else.

Will the three books together comprise a trilogy?

Well...  I never intended them to.  But let's be honest.  That's how most readers will receive them.

Here's the brief history:

Twenty-some years ago I was driving to Pittsburgh and talking with Marianne about fantasy and locomotives.  I made a quip about the Baldwin Steam Dragon Works and she laughed.  We drove a mile or so down the Interstate and I said, "Write that down for me, please."

From that seed came The Iron Dragon's Daughter, the tale of a girl who'd been stolen by the elves and forced to work in a Dickensian factory, building dragons.  It was always intended as a stand-alone novel.  Sometimes a fan would ask for a sequel -- but I thought it would be too cruel to take Jane, who had escaped Faerie at last, and throw her back into the hopper of plot.

Then, roughly a decade ago, Marvin Kaye told me at a convention he was putting together an anthology of dragons stories and would like to have one with the same kind of dragon (mechanical, implacable, evil) as in my novel.  I didn't have any ideas for such a story and told him so, but promised that if I came up with one by his deadline, I would send it to him.

The day after I got home, as sometimes happens, the opening scene for exactly such a story came to me.  I wrote it down.  One thing led to another, and I had a novella.  So I sent it to Marvin, and it became part of The Dragon Quintet.  And I had the beginning of another novel.

In TIDD, Jane Alderberry's essential problem is that she's trapped in a world where she doesn't belong.  No matter what she tries, she cannot find a place for herself.   In what became The Dragons of Babel, however, Will le Fey does belong in his world and his task is to find a proper role for him to fill.  This novel too was written as a stand-alone.  But by merely existing, the first novel created a dialogue with the second.  In many ways, the two novels were the opposites of each other.

So now I had Thesis and Antithesis.  Synthesis -- the final volume of a (cough!) trilogy -- hung over the entire enterprise like a third shoe waiting to drop.  But I had no ideas for such a volume.  None at all.

More years passed.  At last, an idea came to me, a way of opening up the rich, self-contradictory world of Faerie in a direction orthogonal to the other two, one which raised the possibility of answering all the questions raised by the first two books, and achieving other goals as well.  So I began writing.  This one is going to be a stand-alone novel as well.  But it's inevitable that readers are going to think of it as the last third of a trilogy.

Now all that's needed is lots and lots of hard work.  And a new title.  I'm thinking of calling this book The Iron Dragon's Mother.  But maybe that would confuse readers?  I don't know.

If anybody out there has a brilliant suggestion, I'd be glad to hear it.

Above:  Top, my novel notebook atop a research book; bottom, notes.


Friday, July 25, 2014

The Adventures of Mr. Chesterton and Yaa Asantewaa in China


I'm in print again.  In China!  The story in question is "The Trains That Climb the Winter Tree," which I co-wrote with the brilliant Eileen Gunn, and which features murderous elves, a talking dog named Mr. Chesterton who is more than he appears, sibling loyalty, a toy train that carries the plot to the stars for a confrontation with a murderous avatar of Entropy, and the comic book adventures of Yaa Asantewaa Warrior Queen.  Among other things.  It's an odd story, if a warm-hearted one.  And the publication is Science Fiction World.

I could joke and say that Science Fiction World is my favorite Chinese SF magazine, given that so far as I know it's the only magazine in China dedicated entirely to science fiction.  But in fact, it's one of my favorite SF magazines, period.  I've had several stories published there, and it always elates me when it happens again.  I've even visited their offices in Chengdu.  Somewhere, I've got the photographs to prove it.

I was also, for a time, a monthly columnist for SFW, explaining the world of science fiction to young readers who were going to be taking an increasingly active part in that world.  So I feel that I'm a part of the magazine's extended family.  The strange uncle who shows up once a year and nobody is exactly sure how he's related, perhaps.

So, um, that's all I had to say, really:  That I'm happy and I hope you're happy for me too.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Millennium Actress


I had a post ready for today, but it required a scan and unfortunately today was the day for switching printers, with all the usual dislocations.

So, rather than miss today's post entirely, I'll pose a question.

I'm rererewatching Millennium Actress by the great anime director Satoshi Kon. The central conceit is that two fanboys are interviewing a great actress in her old age.  As she reflects back on her past, the fans are there, passively filming.  Then, as excerpts of her movies are shown, they are swept in as extras.

In practice, this works brilliantly.  The fans -- naive, sincere -- stand in for the viewer and comment on the events.

Here's my question.  Has any live action movie ever done this?  And if not, why not?


Monday, July 21, 2014

For New and Developing Writers Only


I've been interviewed by Carl Slaughter for Diabolical Plots, a genre webzine featuring a great deal of material on the craft of writing.  In this interview, I was not asked about myself, my work, my idiot opinions . . . none of that.  Just about how to write.

I provided, if I may say so, an expletive bleeping lot of information.

Here are a few snippets, presented as if they were excerpted from somebody else's interview:

I’ve watched editors reading slush back in the days when the slush pile was a physical heap of paper, and they would read the first page of a typescript and then flip to the last page.  On the basis of that cursory glimpse, they would then put almost every submission in the reject pile and one or two stories aside to be read all the way through.

Write as best you can and as simply as you can.  That is the whole of the law. 

The thing is that there is not one single skill which we can call “writing”; there’s a large family of related skills which result in superficially similar end-products.  What works for one writer will stop another one dead.

I can honestly say that I’ve never given a moment’s thought to themes, much less reinforcing them. 

When my son was a teenager, he and a friend spent a summer writing a fanfic mashup of two incompatible gaming worlds, and for a year they received more fan letters than I did. 

You can read the interview here.  Or you can just go to Diabolical Plots here and start poking around.

Above:  Me, pontificating.


Friday, July 18, 2014

It's Just A Zoo


Federal officials found more than just long-forgotten smallpox samples recently in a storage room on the National Institutes for Health campus in Bethesda, Md. The discovery included 12 boxes and 327 vials holding an array of pathogens, including the virus behind the tropical disease dengue and the bacteria that can cause spotted fever, according to the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees the lab in question.
                           -- Washington Post, July 16

It's just a zoo.

Here's what happened:  Some long-ago microbiologist cultured all the most interesting strains that passed through his or her hands and kept them as pets.  Ordinarily the vials would all have gone into the autoclave upon the researcher's retirement.  But she or he was fired or (far more likely) had a heart attack, so the zoo was forgotten.

Microbiologists are not like other people.  They love those tiny little organisms, and they're comfortable being around them.  Being married to a microbiologist, I quickly learned that when she came home all bubbly and ebullient, it probably meant that a nasty new disease had just been discovered.

So when I heard that smallpox samples had been found, I knew there would turn out to be others.  The investigators had simply found somebody's collection.

At heart, all microbiologists are zookeepers.

There's no reason to get excited about this.  Nobody was exposed to anything.  The chances of a pathogen getting loose were negligible.  And the zoo was a perfectly ordinary one, assembled at a time when smallpox, nasty though it is, was still to be found in the wild.

If you absolutely insist on being terrified, buy me a drink at a convention sometime and get me to talking about the coming pandemics.  Or the utility of disease as a weapon of war.  Or security at the American and Russian germ warfare facilities.

But this?  Nothing.  There are hundreds, and possibly thousands of zoos much like it in facilities around the world.

Above:  That's the nasty stuff itself.  


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

One Thing I Learned From Joyce Carol Oates


Captains of industry are almost never mentioned in Locus and, similarly, I did not expect ever to make even the briefest appearance on  Yet, skipping over the programming, John Farrell wrote an article on the Huckster Room at Readercon and, more specifically, how charming it is to be surrounded by vast numbers of books both contemporary and vintage which one is permitted to buy.  In which appeared not only my name but my photograph (above, with David Hartwell).

The observant will note three things about the photo.  First, that (being an old hand at this) when asked to pose for a shot, I leapt to it.  Second, that I stood slightly behind David in order to not block his extraordinary shirt (it being safe to say that the viewers were going to want to ogle as much of it as possible), and third, that when the camera appeared, I took off my name tag and slipped it into my pocket.

This last, I learned from observing Joyce Carol Oates.  We were at a literary event and even chatted briefly -- about our mutual friend Ellen Datlow, of course.  It was a glancing encounter but just before the photo op, I noticed her take off her name tag and slip it into her purse.  That seemed sensible to me, so I took off mine and slid it into a pocket of my tux.

This may not have been responsible for the fact that when the roomful of writers was rounded up and arranged in rows on the staircase, Ms. Oates and I got to sit in chairs front and center, with the others arrayed behind us.  But it certainly didn't hurt.

And it makes for a cleaner photo, dunnit?

You can read the article here.

Above:  Detail from John Farrell's photograph.