Friday, August 19, 2016

Auntie Deborah Answers Questions on Writing

Q: What advice would you give an aspiring young writer?
A: There are a gazillion tips on how to write, how not to write, do’s and don’ts galore. The best advice I can give to a young author is to fill your life up with experiences. You aren’t fully formed yet, either as a person or as a writer. So go have adventures; read widely; learn a second or third language; play a musical instrument; dance; study cultures other than your own, history, psychology, sociology, comparative religion, music theory. Anything and everything that interests you. Make friends who come from different backgrounds and listen to their stories with an open heart. Fill up your creative storehouse so that you will have something worth writing about.
In school, we learn how to write literate English (at least that’s the goal). We may analyze English literature, but usually the focus on reading comprehension not the mechanics of fiction. That often creates the illusion that we do or should know how to write effective fiction. That’s a bit like saying that because you can drive a car, you know how to build one from scratch. To create an inspiring story, you need a tool kit and skills. The tool kit includes a deep understanding of how and why stories move us, a wide range of life experiences (the raw material), and the basic mechanics of prose narration (exposition, dialog, theme and metatheme, rising tension that leads to climax and resolution, world-building, sympathetic characters, etc.) The skills are how to put together all these elements, when to introduce them or remind the reader, that sort of thing. There are perhaps as many ways of learning those skills as there are writers. Some benefit from reading widely and mindfully across a range of the best literature they can find. Others respond to “how to” books like John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction or Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction. Still others do better with hands-on critiques and explanations (when I was a new writer, I had to have things explained to me in words of one syllable).
Q: What mistakes do new writers make?
A: There are a gazillion lists of specific faults in prose (such as grammar and punctuation) or story craft (such as the rise and resolution of tension). A new writer can get so overwhelmed by “dos and don’ts,” she ends up paralyzed.
So I’d like to take a different tack and suggest that new writers learn to trust their readers. Trust them to figure things out. Trust them to read intelligently and sensitively. Most of all, trust them to experience the story for themselves. If there’s a “don’t” here, it’s don’t tell the reader how to feel. Take the reader on a journey that will be different for each reader because no two of us are alike in temperament and experiences. Give them what they need to know what’s going on, but allow the story to flow through them, seen through the lens of their own lives. At the same time, play fair with your reader. That means no surprise out-of-nowhere endings that have nothing to do with the meat of the story. If you set up expectations for one kind of story, hard-boiled noir detective, for example, it’s not a good idea to switch to a fluffy sweet romance. You and the reader have an agreement: “Give me x hours of your time, and this is the reading experience I promise you.” Just as a new writer must learn to trust her readers, she herself must be trustworthy in fulfilling that promise.

Q: How do you build a science fictional world -- the prospect is overwhelming!
A: The most important thing to understand about world-building is that not every writer does it in the same way. For some, it’s important to have that world fully realized in every detail and all the technology and science worked out before beginning to write. Others begin with a character or plot idea and let the landscape unfold as they explore it. I’m in the latter camp: I often don’t know what questions to ask when I begin a project, but they become clear to me once I start developing those characters and human dilemmas. I end up pausing to do research and map things out in rough draft or outline stage. I used to feel overwhelmed by the notion that I had to know everything first, and only when I understood my own creative process did I follow my intuition and let my stories grow organically.
P.S. My science fiction has been praised for its world-building. So it doesn’t matter how you get there!

Q: What should I keep in mind when starting a science fiction novel?
A: I’d give the same advice to a beginning writer of any genre, including mainstream. Write the best stories you can. The same principles of effective prose and storytelling apply, no matter what type of story it is. Keep pushing your literary craft. Read the best literature you can get your hands on and critically analyze what makes it work.
Of course, you have to do your homework when it comes to science and technology, but also world-building that includes culture, linguistics, sociology, etc. But so does every writer.


Q: Why are books for young people popular when they're not well written?
A: I notice that you are referring to the books your kids read. Kids and adults read for different reasons. Children have not yet developed internal critics, they suspend disbelief readily, and they respond powerfully to tropes that leave adults cold. By trope I mean a motif, device, or cliche that has psychological resonance, for example in Harry Potter, you see The Worthy Orphan, The Prince in Waiting (The Chosen One), The Wise Old Mentor, as well as a school story and The Adventures of Friends. Kids also love stories in which the young protagonists have agency, the ability to have adventures they could never experience in their own lives. All of these things are more important to young readers (and many adult readers!) than literary quality.

Q: How do you write a novel?
A: A crucial part of writing a novel is discerning when you have a novel-sized idea, as opposed to one more suitable for a novella or short story. In order to carry the weight of 100K words, the concept of a novel must have depth and emotional resonance. It must be capable of maintaining tension and forward propulsion, and spinning off subplots that enhance rather than distract from the central theme.
Sometimes I’ll start with a notion (or character or line of dialog or scene) and let it play out in my imagination to see how it develops. In the first decade or so of writing professionally, I’d make mistakes, trying to squash a huge idea into 5K words or, conversely, to stretch out a single gem-perfect nugget into many chapters. But I learned by stepping back and identifying the skills I needed. Now I’m usually accurate (and with short fiction, I can tell within 1K words how long the story will be). That said, there are a gazillion ways to structure, plan, and actually write a novel. Since there’s no right or wrong way, only the final product, you can find what works best for you.

Q: What's the best advice about writing you've ever received?
A: The best advice I ever received came from my mentor. She encouraged me to “play it out,” meaning to explore all the nuances and emotional beats of a dramatic scene. Like many newer writers, I built up to those scenes and then rushed through them, thinking that if the action was happening very fast, so should the scene. I thought that I’d set up all the pieces so the reader would realize their importance when they came together. But really, I was selling my readers short. I didn’t realize that the more action, tension, and emotional weight a scene has, the longer it can — and should — be. Readers want to savor every moment, every breath of breathless action. They don’t want to have pages and pages of not-much-happening and then something incredibly important in a paragraph.


Monday, August 15, 2016

Book Review: Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

From the very first page of Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult (Random House, October 2016), I knew that I was in the hands of a master storyteller, one who would effortlessly guide me into the lives of her characters, with all their unexpected twists and turns, without a single jolt or bump in the road that was not intentional and expertly handled. Very early in the book, I kept thinking what it must have been like to read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee for the very first time, without knowing how it was going to turn out. I am a little leery of applying superlatives to a work which has not yet withstood the test of time, but I would be surprised if Small Great Things does not have the same impact and enduring popularity. Picoult has taken one of the defining issues of our age and woven it into a story with universal appeal.

The book begins simply with a day in the life of woman who has attained a high degree of skill and no small amount of professional recognition. Ruth is a labor and delivery nurse with over twenty years of experience, who enjoys the respect of her colleagues and the gratitude and trust of her patients. She is rightly proud of her educational achievements, being the daughter of a housekeeper who has spent her entire life in sacrifice and hard work so that her children might know a better life. All goes smoothly, with mothers giving birth and babies being evaluated, until Ruth and the reader are taken by surprise when two young parents of a newborn react to her performance of her duties with antagonism. Soon Ruth is forbidden to care for the baby and finds herself in the untenable position of obeying those instructions from her supervisor or standing by when the baby stops breathing. Ruth’s dilemma soon becomes a moot point when, despite her heroic intervention and that of the hospital pediatrician and her fellow nurses, the baby dies.

Now comes the conflict that will furnish the emotional and political driving force of this book: Ruth is black and the parents of the unfortunate baby are not only white, they are racist skinheads of the most violent sort. Unable to cope with the loss of their baby, they bring charges that quickly result in Ruth being charged with murder.

The second viewpoint character is the husband of this couple, and I cannot begin to tell you how much I did not want to be inside his head. From beginning to end, I found his behavior inexcusable and reprehensible, but I must acknowledge that such people exist. It seems that every few days I read a story in the news of some outrage perpetrated by people like him. They may not call themselves white supremacists or skinheads, but they promulgate the same vile philosophy. As I was reading this book, I saw a clip on social media of a young white woman screaming racist epithets at a black person. In Picoult’s book such people have not disappeared simply because they are not in the news. They have changed tactics, using the internet and coded language to disguise their agenda. Their hatred extends also to guys, immigrants, Jews, and many others, but in this story it is directed with full force against black people.

With sensitivity, insight, and consummate skill, Picoult examines the question of whether a white person — in this case Kennedy, the public defender who represents Ruth — can ever understand what it is like to be black in America. The author herself acknowledges the limitations of any story that is told by an outsider. Perhaps the most moving parts of the book center around the struggles of Ruth and Kennedy — to understand and to be understood. Kennedy’s initial priority, based on her legal expertise, is Ruth’s acquittal, and her strategy calls for ignoring the racial aspects of the charges to focus purely on the medical and legal. But is it possible to ignore the elephant in the middle of the living room — the reality that race can and does color every aspect our society? Given that truth, what must we — black and white and every color in between — do to overcome it?

Friday, August 12, 2016

Supporting a New Writer 1: Introduction

Recently, I received this letter from Wendy, a fan with whom I’d been corresponding. It spoke deeply to me, and rather than answer it alone, I asked some of my writer friends to join in a series of round table blogs on the issues raised. If you’ve been there, too, I hope you’ll follow along and offer your own wisdom.

I've been trying to reconnect with writing friends after a hiatus from the creative life.  I've spent the past year or so taking care of my mom and working to pay the bills.  Mom passed away in October. 
When your last parent passes away, it changes you in many ways.  That foundation you always relied on -- even as an adult -- is gone for good.  Whether you're ready or not, you are truly on your own in the world and must somehow carry on without their nurturing presence.  One of the most difficult aspects of my mother's final days was the fact that she had so many regrets about life.  She once had goals and dreams, but left them behind out of fear and a belief that these dreams were just not possible.  
I'm 54 years old.  More than half of my life is over.  Writing has been a dream/goal of mine since childhood.  My mom was the only one who believed in me. I don't want to leave this world regretting the fact that I never pursued this dream to the fullest. To be honest, my writing "career" never took off.  I let fear, doubt and the negativity of others keep me from my dreams.  I want so much to be brave, to take risks with my creative life. I truly wish for a group of fellow writers who are willing to give me the encouragement and support I need to write with my heart and soul, to grow as a writer and a human being. And I want to be a support for others as well.  
How do I get back into the writing life after leaving it on the back burner for so long? 


Effie Seiberg: I hear you. Writing is such an inherently lonely business, spending that much time in your own head, that a good support group is critical. When I first started writing I went though wild mood swings ranging from "OMG this is the most hilarious thing ever" to "Why did I ever think I could English? This is total crap," and I began to fear that I wasn't emotionally stable enough to write. It was only after I found a community of supportive writers that I understood that this is just how writing works, and the only thing that improves is your ability to enjoy the highs and survive the lows. A good support group bolsters you through both.

Effie Seiberg is a fantasy and science fiction writer. Her stories can be found in the "Women Destroy
Science Fiction!" special edition of Lightspeed Magazine (winner of the 2015 British Fantasy Award for Best Anthology), Galaxy's Edge, Analog, Fireside Fiction, and PodCastle, amongst others. She is a graduate of Taos Toolbox 2013, a member of SFWA and Codex, and a reader at Tor.com. She lives in San Francisco, recently and upcoming (but not presently) near a giant sculpture of a pink bunny head with a skull in its mouth. She likes to make sculpted cakes and bad puns. You can follow her on twitter at @effies, or read more of her work at www.effieseiberg.com.


Barb Caffrey: For now, though...I can say this much to Wendy. It's never too late to do what you feel you must, as a creative artist. I have often felt like it's too late for me due to how my husband passed away suddenly; I'm now trying to carry on his work, and mine, and sometimes this seems like an overly heavy weight.

The important thing is that I'm doing it. No matter how long it takes, no matter what is up against me -- bad health or family health issues or foreclosures or anything -- I keep on working. Some days, all I can do is look at my works-in-progress and say, "Hmmm," and do a little fiddling but add nothing tangible. The next day, or maybe the day after that, the dam bursts and I have more new words again.

The most important thing you can do -- and it unfortunately is also the hardest -- is to believe in yourself, and that what you are doing is valuable. No matter what anyone else says, no matter what anyone else does, you are going to do what you feel you must.


I wish I had a better answer, but persistence has mostly worked for me.

Barb Caffrey has written three novels, An Elfy On The Loose (2014), A Little Elfy in Big Trouble (2015), and Changing Faces (forthcoming), and is the co-writer of the Adventures of Joey Maverick series (with late husband Michael B. Caffrey) Previous stories and poems have appeared in Stars Of Darkover, First Contact Café, How Beer Saved The World, Bearing North, and Bedlam's Edge (with Michael B. Caffrey).



Alma Alexander: I'm roughly of an age with you, Wendy, and I think ours is now the generation which has to grapple with some of life's truths.  I’m technically only "half" an orphan at this point - my dad left us three years ago, my mother is still around, in her eighties now, frailer and more fragile than she's ever been before, both physically and psychologically, and it's something that it's up to me to deal with, I am in full defend and protect mode with her, often, and it takes up a huge swathe of mental and physical resources. But there will come a time when she too is gone and at this point it will be as you say - the foundation is gone. Until that moment you can always "go home". Afterwards, that first home, the foundation home, is gone, forever, and it takes a shift of thinking to adjust to it. So before anything else is said... there's that. There's the acknoledgment, and the understanding. We've been here, or we're coming up on that milestone, and we can look into that shadow and know exactly where you're coming from.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Magic, Mayhem, and Steampunk: An Interview with Julia Verne St. John

I’m delighted to have Julia Verne St. John as my special guest. She’s the author of The Transference Engine, a steampunk novel of magic and machines set in an alternate 1830s London, just out from DAW Books. Here’s the skinny on the book:

Madame Magdala has reinvented herself many times, trying to escape Lord Byron’s revenge. She destroyed the Transference Engine Byron hoped to use to transfer his soul into a more perfect body and perpetuate his life eternally. A fanatical cult of necromancers continues Byron’s mission to force Magdala and Byron’s only legitimate child–Ada Lovelace–to rebuild the machine and bring Byron back.
Magdala now bills herself as the bastard daughter of a Gypsy King. She runs a fashionable London coffee salon and reading room while living a flamboyant lifestyle at the edge of polite society. Behind the scenes, she and Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, use the massive library stored at the Bookview Cafe to track political and mercantile activity around the world. They watch to make certain the cult of necromancy surrounding Lord Byron, the poet king who worshipped death, cannot bring him back to life.
On the eve of Queen Victoria’s coronation in June of 1838, rumors of an assassination attempt abound. Both the Bow Street Runners and Magdala’sarmy of guttersnipe spies seek to discover the plot and the plotters. Who is behind the mysterious black hot air balloon that shoots searing light from a hidden cannon, and who or what is the target? And who is kidnapping young girls from all walks of life? 
Desperately, Magdala and her allies follow the clues, certain that someone is building a new Transference Engine. But is it to bring back the dead or destroy the living?

Deborah J. Ross:What was your inspiration for The Transference Engine?
Julia Verne St. John:  The character of Madame Magdala sprang from The Shadow Conspiracy anthology published by Book View Café. As co-editor I was in on the brainstorming for the shared-world anthology. The moment we decided to insert the Bookview Café as headquarters for the spy network seeking out evidence of a conspiracy to insert life-like automata into places of power with Lord Byron jumping from human body to automaton leading the way, I knew that I had to write the story of the woman in the corner reading the tea leaves. She ended up re-inventing herself as I wrote. She does that
periodically.