Monday, May 30, 2011

Convention musings

I spent the better part of this weekend at Baycon, a local science fiction convention, and I've been thinking about this phenomenon of sf/f conventions. Once upon a time, I suppose, a group of fans thought it a fine thing to get together and talk about their favorite books. And invite their favorite authors to speak. And have a room of sellers of books and jewelry, swords and costumes. And hold a masquerade. A Regency dance. A benefit auction. A concert. A writing workshop. Late night parties.

Readings and panels and autographs, oh my! We'll need a hotel to hold us all -- no, a convention center!

Of course, "the convention phenomenon" did not come about in exactly this way. It evolved along many diverse paths, and each con has its own flavor. Some focus more on books, others on media (film) or graphic novels or anime or serious literary and political discussion. I picked up an ad for "GeekGirlCon," whose goal -- loosely paraphrased -- is the support of women in all aspects of the sciences and science fiction. Cons can vary from year to year. Things can go spectacularly right, or just as spectacularly wrong, with the hotel, the guests, the organization, the programming, the economy.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

And now a word...

A sleepy and frazzled hello to you all. I've been commuting to Baycon, "over the hill" in San Jose. While this makes good financial sense, it adds an hour of mostly mountain-road driving each way. So, despite my best intentions, I remain blog-impaired. Fear not, loyal friends, I will compose a con report as soon as the fog clears, the sleepy-time has been restored to balance, and yoga has been achieved.

Until then, play nice!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Iconic Childhood Books: Red Feather

Red Feather by Marjorie Fischer; with illustrations by Davine; Modern Age Books, 1937.

My favorite childhood books all came from someone else. This one had my brother's name on the inside cover. He was 11 years older than I, my half-brother, and lived with his mother rather than with my family, so I suspect there is an interesting story in how I happened to come by the book, but not one I ever knew. I must have been older than I was when I got Artie and the Princess, for I made no attempt to colorize the illustrations. The book would be considered a "chapter book," 151 pages long, with lots of pictures but lots of text, too, with lovely spoken rhythms for reading aloud.

Red Feather is a changeling story. The usual scenario is that the fairies exchange one of their own babies for a human child, only in this case, the swap is interrupted. The resemblance is so close that when they return, they can't tell which is which. It makes a difference because the fairy child is nobly-born and the human child is destined to be the scullery maid for the Fairy Queen. In this world, only mortals are any good at housework. We follow the one the fairies take back, and like most children, she feels that she doesn't belong, she can't do anything right, she longs to be somewhere else. It's a variation of the "prince-in-hiding" Harry Potter "special-child" theme.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Iconic Childhood Books: Artie and the Princess

For those of us fortunate enough to have memories of being read to as small children, those books retain a luminously magical aura. Sometimes, alas, they don't stand up well to being re-read as adults. I have no doubt that some of those I treasured would disappoint me greatly. This isn't about them. It's about a book that's as delightful to me today as it was 60 years ago.

Artie and the Princess, by Marjorie Torrey, Howell Soskin,1945.I don't believe my parents actually bought this book. It had a Christmas gift sticker on the flyleaf, now so peeled off as to be illegible, and an inscription from some folks we didn't know. The binding's all but disintegrated and many of the illustrations have been adorned with my own crayon scribbles. but the paper, thick and soft, has worn well.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Today's Blog Appears On Book View Cafe

“Settling” in Meditation and in Writing 

I've always been struck by the commonality between trying to calm my mind to meditate and trying to get myself in gear to write. Here's an excerpt:
The very concept of being ready to write took me years to formulate. Partly because I have insanely high expectations of myself and partly because I began writing professionally when my children were small and there was no such thing as transition or warm-up time, I think I should be prepared to write at any moment. The truth is that when I do that, I have to rip out a lot of what I do. If, on the other hand, I am able to pay attention to what my creative mind needs, I am much more likely to work well and productively.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


People ask me if Marion was my mentor, or simply assume she was. Mentoring is a term that's thrown around a lot these days, and I often wonder what it really means. So I looked up the definition and found:
1. a wise and trusted counselor or teacher; influential senior sponsor or supporter.
The definition gives me four essential qualifying relationships: counselor, teacher, sponsor, or supporter. That covers a whole lot of territory. Half the science fiction/fantasy community would go on my list, either as mentors or mentees. I need a narrower definition. 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Holding Forth on Nothing: Giving "Good Panel" at Conventions

Just about every writer I know goes through moments of excruciating self-doubt. When these moments give rise to thoughts along the lines of, "I have no idea how to write. Up until now, it's all been smoke and mirrors and luck, but now that's gone and everyone will find out I've been faking it," that's called The Imposter Syndrome. I've run across it in public appearances as well.

Every time I fill out a programming questionnaire for a convention, I experience a moment of panic. I look at the writing/genre/literary topics and think, "I don't know a thing about any of this." My mind goes totally blank. What would I have to contribute? It's usually fairly easy to talk myself through that moment, to reassure myself that I do, indeed know a thing or two about writing and editing, creating characters and pitching books. Thanks to Book View Cafe, I even know a thing or two about publishing ebooks.

Then I look at the science panels. "I really don't know a thing! And what I do know, I've remembered wrong." Which is ridiculous because although I may not be current on all the cutting-edge discoveries in every single field, I do have a solid background in the biological sciences and medicine. This feeling of incompetence is not rational. It's based on the expectation that I should be an expert on everything. As soon as I demand that of myself, I throw away my strengths and depend on my weaknesses.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Jim Hines Hosts Deborah on "First Book Friday"

Today's treat is my guest appearance on "First Book Friday," a new series hosted by Jim C. Hines. He's gathered tales of how authors wrote and sold their first novels (well, in my case it wasn't the first I wrote, it was something like the 6th, but it still makes a good story!) So scoot on over and enjoy the tale!

About the time I finished the first draft, I joined a writer’s workshop. They tore it to shreds. I went home and cried, and then set about learning everything they could teach me. Four revisions later, I sent off Jaydium to Sheila Gilbert at DAW. And waited. And wrote the next book. And researched agents. And sold a bunch of short stories to increasingly prestigious markets. And waited some more.

(You can download Jaydium in multi-ebook formats, including those compatible with Kindle and Nook, from Book View Cafe here.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Meet You At Baycon?

If you'll be in San Jose over Memorial Day weekend, come join the fun at Baycon! Here's my schedule:

Friday, May 27  2:30 PM Writing Rituals: Conventions can be great places to get re-energized as a writer -- or can be distractions. It's a great time to re-think (and perhaps try some new) writing rituals. Panelists discuss some of their favorites.
Friday, May 27  8:00 PM Meet-the-Guests Reception: Come meet the Master of the Carnivale, BayCon 2011 Chairman Robert Toland. Mingle with our guests as our Toastmaster Martin Young regales us with interesting anecdotes and introduces our Guests of Honor.

Saturday, May 28 10:00 AM Book View Cafe: Book View Cafe started as a cooperative to make the authors' out-of-print books from major houses available to a new generation of readers, but it's since expanded to original publishing. Book View Cafe members talk about the cooperative.
Sunday, May 29  4:00 PM Themed Reading: Science Fiction: Come listen to two of our authors read from their science fiction works. 
I'm not sure what I'll read; depending on time, maybe "The Price of Silence" or "Mother Africa," both of which earned Honorable Mention in The Year's Best SF. Any requests?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Looking Ahead: Goals Vs. Wishes

Quite some time ago, in the late 1970s I think, I stopped making New Year's resolutions (which always seemed to me to be engraved invitations to guilt) and started making goals. One year, 5 year, 10 year, and lifetime goals. They'd be something like:

1 year -- write 3 short stories
5 years -- sell a story
10 years -- sell a novel
Lifetime -- win a major award

As years rolled by, I wrote those stories, I sold one and then another, and the goals shifted. Sometimes they got more specific, like "1 year -- finish X project" and sometimes more vague, "Write a work of enduring literary quality." Items came and went, like getting an advance of Y thousand dollars or getting published in hard cover or getting reviewed in Z publication. I found that the more I achieved, the less satisfied I was with how I was progressing with my goals.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Now We're Talking Space Opera!

Once upon a time, two young people who lived in the same apartment building in Hollywood and shared a love of science fiction, Dorothy Dunnett, and The Three Stooges, went to see Star Wars, came home and said, "We can do better!" And they did.

That's the shameless promotion bit. Here's the disclosure. The result was a five volume series called Exordium by Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge, who is also my husband.

I didn't meet Dave until well after the series was published (in the 1990s, by Tor) and I'd missed them when they first came out. I picked them up as part of getting to know him, slogged through a difficult opening to the first book, and then got utterly carried away by the story. Rich and complex and intelligent. And not at all predictable. Dramatic and funny (an alien race who venerate The Three Stooges?), touching and gritty and romantic and irreverent. FTL battles in space (done right, according to physicist and Navy-type fans), puns and tragedy and Dangerous Liaisons intrigue. Politics (also done right). Did I mention the tri-partite aliens? Yes, I did.

Now the series is being re-issued as ebooks and that beginning has been rewritten (so even if you've read the print books, you should read these!). The first one, The Phoenix In Flight, is just out from Book View Cafe. It's in multiple formats, including those you can download for your Kindle or Nook.

Dave holds forth on "Space Opera and The Siege of Vienna." and Sherwood tells her own story of how Exoridum came to be written.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Lessons From Marion: Story is Paramount, Everything Else is Negotiable

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

The devil is in the details -- Anon.

One of the joys and frustrations of writing in the Darkover universe is the fluidity of the landscape (and sometimes the time line and the genealogy as well!) Although others have attempted to create maps of Darkover, Marion herself refused to do so. She wanted to make each Darkover novel complete in itself and not dependent on knowledge of any other. Geography and chronology, therefore, changed to serve the integrity and emotional completeness of each story. The wonder is not that there are inconsistencies, but that there are so few.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Expectations in Weather and Literature

It rained last night, an infrequent but not abnormal event for Central Coastal California in May. It will most likely be the last of the season, but perhaps not. I've been dancing the dance of the weather forecast (which has been wrong twice now) all week, taking down my wooden clothes pins from the line, then putting them back up again on sunny laundry day, then taking them down. So I've been grumbling and thinking about how I had far more trouble with how much power I gave the forecast than I did with the rain itself.

It's said that expectations are premeditated resentments. In some small part of my mind, I want to grab the forecaster and scream, "How dare you tell me it would rain when it didn't? Don't you know how much time it took to take down those clothes pins twice?" Which is, of course, petty and ridiculous. But the point is -- whose problem is this? Who trotted out dutifully to grab those clothes pins without considering what the weather was actually like?

I wonder if reading is like this, too. As authors, we talk about a contract with the reader, letting the reader know right off what kind of story this is going to be -- humorous? gritty? sexy? parodic (is that the adjectival form of "parody"?) romantic? tear-inspiring? And we know we'd better keep that promise or we'll have seriously disgruntled readers. Hopefully, the art and marketing departments of our publisher are on the same page with us, although this doesn't always happen. Stories of misleading cover art and copy are numerous, as are the grim results in sales figures.

So if I pick up a book, thinking it's one thing, and find myself in the middle of something quite different (or, heaven forbid, a story that switches genres mid-stream), who's creating that jarring sense of reality being uprooted and anticipation-of-delight thwarted? The author, for violating that "contract"? Me, for my own expectations based on very little data? Those who packaged the book, thinking X would sell, even though the book was Y?

What do I as a reader need to set aside that fit of pique so that I can honestly ask myself, Is there something wonderful here, hidden beneath the packaging and the filter of my own experience and expectation? If I'm willing to hang out, to pay attention to what's really on the page -- not what I think the story ought to be -- I may find something quite different in the very best sense. It's like an exercise in meditation, in being present in the moment. To do it, I need a certain amount of trust in the writer...but also an even greater distrust of my own frenzied need to label and categorize. Not every book is worth the effort, but the effort itself is always worth it.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

C. J. Cherryh on Constantly Becoming A Writer

We writers talk a lot about technique. Maybe that's because we're all in some process of figuring it out, no matter how many books we've published. Or because writers who are less-far-along in their own careers keep asking us. But every once in a while, we get to listen to a master writer, someone who's been around a long time and mindfully so, talk about this thing we are all trying to do.

C. J. Cherryh writes:
Writing is not about being a writer. It’s about writing. When things are going badly, nothing’s right, and when a scene is flying, it’s better than anything you’ll ever experience. A writer is not so much something you are as something you’re constantly becoming: you’re constantly learning and evolving and changing, or you’re stalling out and need to get moving again.

The whole article is up on The Night Bazaar. Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Pad Thai, Meatloaf, and Learning to Write

Today I made Pad Thai for dinner. If you've eaten this dish at a Thai restaurant, you probably wouldn't recognize mine. Usually, it's made with wide or medium rice noodles, scrambled eggs, bean sprouts and chicken, with a sprinkling of chopped peanuts. I use brown rice spaghetti (Tinkyada, if you want specifics), onion, carrot, baked tofu, and a bunch of bok choy from a friend's garden. Not a peanut in sight, although I did use canned sauce.

I learned to make Pad Thai from Sunanta, a Thai exchange student whom we hosted some years back. Her mother, perhaps skeptical about American food in general and those crazy vegetarians in particular, used to send her care packages that included the dry rice noodles and packages of dry seasoning (which were undoubtedly mostly sugar and salt, although as I don't read Thai, I can't say for sure). Sue would cook and I would watch and learn. She made hers with nappa cabbage, carrots, and shrimp. (The packages had sesame seeds to sprinkle on top.)

What I learned was this: Pad Thai is like meatloaf. Every family has their own recipe and the best way to learn is to watch mom and then try it yourself. Chance are, you won't be able to duplicate the exact recipe anyway, and once you've figured out your own taste, you won't want to. You'll make it your own.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Drenched in Roses

I was thinking about a topic for today as I went out to the garden to see what it had to offer for my lunch (slightly-bulbing onions, asparagus, cilantro). The paved walk goes between the house and an oak tree on which our Cecil Bruner rose bush has grown--20 feet or more. In the recent warm weather, the bush has exploded into blossoms, what seems like hundreds of them, weighing down the branches so that they bend over to create an arbor or tunnel. The fragrance of the roses, usually quite delicate, was concentrated so that as I passed through, I was drenched, flooded by it.

So I have no words for you today, only the intoxication of roses.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Nothing Creative Is Ever Wasted

I know I've said this before, and more than a few times. I've probably blogged on it before, but I'm not afraid of repeating myself because this idea does merit repetition.Marion used to say that the first million words were practice. I doubt she took her own proclamation literally. It's both a daunting prospect and a relief. Daunting: You mean I have to write ten 100,000 word books before I get anything right? A relief: I have lots and lots of time in which to develop as an author. So what do we do with those ten books (or those hundred 10K short stories)?

Well, occasionally we prevail over the proclamation and we get it right. We sell a story and see it in print. Every blue moon it's someone's first story. OMG, as my kids would say. I don't know about how your mind works, but I immediately start expecting the same from myself. I forget that a career entails slow steady improvement in skill, the gradual accumulation of experience, and lots of mistakes. If I'm not getting rejection letters, I'm not taking the risks I need to become better.

At any rate, by the time I sold my first novel, I'd accumulated a trunk full of writing -- novels, shorts, fragments. Most of them were unsellable, not just because of the amateurish caliber of the prose but because the ideas themselves were "half-baked," poorly conceived and developed. As I learned to revise, I was able to take some of these stories, excavate the heart of them -- whatever originally turned me on about them -- and completely or substantially rewrite them. (Northlight is an example.) By far the larger portion remain relegated to that trunk.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Outlines as an Exercise in Creative Exhaustion

Yesterday's rant addressed in very small measure the exasperation that ensues when I've written myself into a corner and have to figure out what went wrong, what went right but I didn't pay attention, and how to get back on track. I'm reasonably happy with my plan to untangle the mess and even more pleased with the nifty connections and plot twists that emerged from the process. However, I did notice how drained I felt afterwards. Excited, but devoid of what my kids call "spoons" -- mental oomph. (Today I am full of vim and vinegar and excited about diving back into the manuscript itself.) I've noticed the same feeling when outlining a new project or even composing a pitch or product description (as for preparing a book for epublication).

Friday, May 6, 2011

Changing Gears: Downshift to Beginner's Mind

I've been juggling two different writing projects, or perhaps more accurately, two projects that have to be worked on right now. One is the next Darkover novel, The Children of Kings, which I hope to have finished this summer. The thing about stories is that unless you write them, they don't get written, but the thing about novels is that the writing goes on for a long time. This business of "oh, I'll just skip today, it's so beautiful I'd rather be at the beach" starts with a nibble here and a nibble there and maybe I'll just write a blog post and call that a day's writing and before you know it, it's three or five or twelve months later and you've written only a few pages. Maybe a hundred. But you really needed to have written five hundred if you wanted to hit your book-a-year rhythm.

The other thing about novels is that there are so many elements and they're so interdependent that even a short lapse in focus leads to many dropped threads. Maybe some writers can keep all that stuff in their heads for prolonged breaks, or just pick up with the outline where they left off. I, alas, am not one of them. Hence my working style of slow and steady, emphasis on the steady.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Murder at Mansfield Park: A Gem Among Austen Derivatives

I don't like applying the term "mash-up" to Lynn Shepherd's book. To my mind, it does not fit in the category of works of the Sense and Sensibility With Sea Monsters or Pride and Prejudice With Zombies or "[any Austen title] with [any odd or supernatural element that would have appalled a writer of her taste and intelligence]." Nor is it a modern attempt at a sequel, of which there are too many to mention.

Murder at Mansfield Park belongs to an entirely separate group, an homage or pastiche in the most positive sense of the word. Using Austen's novel as the basic structure of her own, Shepherd sets about replacing the personalities of some but not all of the characters, including their relationships and backgrounds. She plays out the results in a manner that feels seamless with Austen's. As a disclaimer, I am not an Austen scholar, so perhaps there are lapses and anachronisms I did not notice, but for me the overall reading experience was as if I had discovered a new Austen novel. Perhaps it is not her best, but it is consistent with her established work and delivers many of the same reading pleasures.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Hands Off My Book!

We've got a Costo membership, a remnant of my husband's bachelor days. He'd make a monthly run to stock up on gigantic sizes of everything; now I go there for what I call targeted shopping. I know exactly what I want, how I'll store/use it, and how much I'm saving over the local 99-Cent store. In addition, we get the Costco magazine. It's got a monthly "Informed Debate" section, often about issues on which I have no strong opinion. This month, however, asks, "Should literary classics be sanitized?"

The case in point was the recent publication of Huckleberry Finn with certain words expunged. The "expert" advancing the "Yes" opinion was Alan Gribben, a professor at Auburn University in Alabama who "helped produce the NewSouth Edition." He not only justifies replacing nigger with slave but goes on to say, "Would Mark Twain approve of making this change? No one can be certain..." and adds that Twain was such a commercial writer that he'd want his work to reach the widest possible audience and that necessitates "sidestepping" "the n-word acrimony."*

I'm outraged by the rewriting of a published work according to someone else's political or social agenda.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Reading As A Subversive Activity

This is not a new idea. We often talk about reading as subversive -- at least, I hope we do, because  encouraging subversive thoughts is practically a job requirement for writers. Mostly what we mean is that what's being read -- books, broadsides, newsletters, blogposts -- contains provocative ideas, notions that challenge the established order and society's comfortable assumptions. But it may be that reading itself is subversive.

Here's a quote from Sven Birkerts in Lapham's Quarterly (Spring 2011): "How familiar is this feeling, this impulse to hide the self away when reading, both because hiding not only intensifies the focus, but keeps the reader out of the the sightlines of those who anoint themselves the guardians and legislators of our moral well-being."

Monday, May 2, 2011

Here I Fell Asleep: Books I Couldn't Finish

I have a bookmark, a little leather triangle that fits over the corner of a page, that says, "Here I Fell Asleep." Its from Florence (as in Firenze) and has pretty gold decorations stamped on the leather. There is something to be said about books that put me to sleep. I love reading at bedtime, for one thing. It works well for me as a transition from awake-time to dream-time. The sleep hygiene people say your bed should be used only for sleeping and sex, but I disagree. Bedtime reading is sacrosanct. But not reading Stephen King! Reading something interesting enough to be pleasurable and sedate enough to help me relax. Good bedtime books would make a nice blog topic, but that's for another time.

This is about books I didn't finish. Recently, I've been more diligent about posting review of books I liked and it just occurred to me that it's as important to look at books that didn't work for me...and why.