Wish you had more time to read?

Two words: recumbent bike.  No, stay with me here, because this is pretty much the most beautiful thing ever.  The recumbent bike (that one at the gym where you sit with your legs out in front of you) is one of the few cardio machines that make it easy to hold a book.  Because you aren’t bouncing up and down (stairmaster, treadmill, or elliptical) or weaving side to side (a regular exercise bike), you can easily focus on the page.

So, the recumbent bike is a good place to read at the gym.  But wait, there’s more!  If you’re like me, when reading at home there’s all sorts of pesky distractions.  There are family members looking at you puppy-dog-eyed, wondering why you aren’t paying attention to them.  There are chores, tsking from the kitchen and laundry room, making you feel bad for not being productive.  And there’s the evil television, luring you away to zombie-land.

But the gym has none of these distractions.  You can sit on the bike and pedal away and feel NO GUILT about reading.  In fact, you can feel virtuous (and who doesn’t like that?).  After all, you aren’t just reading, you’re getting fit – and the books help take your mind off all the unpleasant sweating and so forth.

Now, it’s true, the recumbent bike does not provide the most rigorous workout ever, but it’s low impact and a great supplement to other exercise (I ride it 3x a week and run 2x a week)…or, even if it is the only exercise you do, it’s a heck of a lot better than doing none.

I’ve read ten books in the last two months, all on the recumbent bike.  I’ve also lost a few pounds and feel more energetic (which means I’ve got more get-up-and-go juice to write, do chores, work, and pay attention to my family).

I told you it was beautiful.

Why we write

Just a short link to share today, but one well worth your time.  Go to the Superstars Writing Seminar site and scroll down to the middle of the page where it says “Tracy Hickman Story”, then listen to the .mp3.  It’s a recording of an incredible story Tracy related at the seminar a few weeks ago.  In the first 30 seconds or so, you may be wondering “wha?”…but keep listening.  Trust me, it’s worth it – an amazing story about how our writing can effect people in ways we’d never have imagined.

In defense of writing groups

Today I want to talk about writing groups.   For some reason, I’ve been hearing a lot of flap lately about the downsides of writing groups.  Personally, my experiences have been largely positive, but I’ve heard horror stories, too.  So, I thought I’d chime in with some thoughts about the pros and cons.

A whole host of issues can crop up when you get a group of writers together to share and comment on each others’ work — bruised egos, hurt feelings, jealousy and all that.  Find the right group of folks, though, and these problems largely disappear.  Frankly, interpersonal issues are not a writing group problem, but a group dynamic problem.  If you were introduced to a circle of friends who had negative energy, you probably wouldn’t hang out with them again.  The same should go for writing groups.  So, step one: find a group with a good dynamic.

A more serious concern is the time suck.  Participating in a regular writing group is time consuming.  You’ve got to read the subs, write your critiques, and make time for the meetings.  Some writers feel this takes away from their most important task – actually finding time to write.  No doubt, this can be a problem, but all that work reading and critiquing is valuable in of itself.  In analyzing and pulling apart another person’s story, you learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t.  In offering suggestions, you improve your understanding of how to structure and shape a plot and characters.  The key here, though, is being in a group where the other writers are at (or just above) your own level of skill.  If you’re reading material substantially substandard to your own, you aren’t going to get out as much as you put in.  Finally, if you still feel like you spend all your time critiquing, maybe your group needs to meet less often, include fewer members, or limit the word length for subs.

One of the biggest (and, in my opinion, most legitimate) criticisms I’ve heard about writing groups is that they can have an effect counter to their purpose.  Namely, members of writing groups sometimes end up not subbing their writing for publication because of the writing group.  Rather, they spin round in a cycle of revising, sending the piece to their writing group, receiving critical feedback, revising…and on and on.  Eventually, they abandon the piece as not good enough and never send it out.

If you find submitting your work to a writing group is preventing you from eventually sending that work out into the world to sink or swim…well, honestly, that’s your own fault, not the fault of the writing group.  Remember, it’s your story.  The reason you’re writing it is to try and get it published.  So, set a limit for yourself on how many times you’ll send it out for critique.  After all, the job of your crit partners is to provide critical feedback.  No story is perfect, no matter how many times you revise it.  If you keep sending it to the writing group, of course they’re going to keep giving you feedback.  At some point, you have to trust your own instincts about when the story is ready to go out.

So…my experiences:  I currently belong to two writing groups, each very different from the other.

The first I’ve been part of for about a year and a half.  It consists of seven members, all of whom met in person before forming the group.  We submit writing via email on an ad hoc basis; when someone has something they need critiqued, they send it out to the group.  Members of the group provide feedback within a week or so, replying to all so everyone can follow along.   The other group is brand new and has met only once so far.  There are only three of us, not all of whom have met in person.  We submit work on a monthly basis on a set date, prepare critiques, and then “meet” on Skype to present our feedback.  Thus far, both groups have worked out very well, providing valuable feedback, diverse perspectives, and a community to share successes and failures with.

I’m curious to know how other writing groups function and what you find beneficial (as well as detrimental) about them.  Tell me what you think.  How are your writing groups set up?  What works and what doesn’t?  And, in your opinion, are writing groups worth the trouble?

Book Review: Sixty-One Nails

Sixty-One Nails by Mike Shevdon (509 pages, Urban Fantasy)

Sixty-One Nails follows the adventures of a middle-aged Brit named Niall after he has a heart attack in the London underground.  This event opens the door to his previously unknown Fey heritage and sucks him into a world where he finds himself hunted and in constant danger.  The novel cracks off at top speed, but, overall, was a bit of a mixed bag.

On the one hand, the pacing was good, the protagonist was interesting company, and the central problem (disruption of a British ceremony performed annually since 1211, called the Quit Rent ceremony) was sufficiently intriguing.  On the other hand, the romantic line in the story (which was prominent) turned me off a bit and the climax came a good 50 pages too soon, giving the actual ending a strange, tacked-on feel.

So, first the good.  In many ways, Sixty-One Nails is a rather conventional urban fantasy involving the Courts of the Fey existing alongside a modern world that knows nothing of their existence (in this case London).  What distinguished the book from so many others was the aforementioned use of the historical Quit Rents ceremony as a plot device.  I got quite caught up in the hero’s efforts to discover why this ceremony was important and how it related to his own predicament.  The history nerd in me really enjoyed this.

What felt a bit flat, however, was the fact that the plot line surrounding the Quit Rents ceremony wrapped itself up well before the book was over.  Subsequently, a bunch of other things unrelated to the main story line lept to prominence at the end of the book.  It was structurally jarring.

Shevdon plays with some cool ideas in this book, though.  One of them was the magic/power the protagonist must learn to control.  I don’t want to give away too much, but it was pretty nifty, if I do say so myself.  I also liked how Shevdon played with ideas of age and appearance and whether they truly define who we are.  Some of this really resonated and struck me as, if not original, at least insightful.  Some of it, though, messed with my enjoyment of the romantic elements of the plot (which made me feel rather shallow, truth be told).  Ah well, nobody’s perfect.

On the whole, I’d say if you dig the whole thing where the Fey and human worlds exist side-by-side, especially when enlivened with cool historically-based plot points, you’ll probably enjoy Sixty-One Nails.

Writer’s Workspace: 1/22

Good morning!  Welcome to this writer’s workspace.  Here’s what’s happening liiiiiiiiiiiiiive at Miranda’s desk:

What I’m working on: After getting some great feedback from my writer’s group, this morning I’m revising a short story called “Reversal of Fortune.”  It’s about a high stakes poker game being played out across a mysteriously fog-shrouded, post-apocalyptic Manhattan island.

Snippet from the screen: “Velice once crept through the inky darkness to spy and glimpsed The Cleaver dissecting zebras from the Central Park Zoo.  The moonlight had caught the gleam from serrated knives and the wind had carried eerie snatches of The Cleaver’s strange whispering voice.  The dissection’s purpose, however, had been unclear.  Velice suspected the man was losing his mind.”

On my iTunes: God Only Knows, by the Beach Boys

In my mug: Numi’s Chinese Breakfast tea

Keeping me company: well, at present, I’m all by my lonesome.  Mr. Ramses, aka The Overseer, appears to have abandoned me for a good snooze in the bedroom.  Here’s a cute picture of him anyway, though (the lazy cuss):

Out my window: Deceptive sunshine on a day clocking in at 12 degrees.  I weep.  Will winter never end?  My insane husband is out there playing soccer in the park.  Curled under a blanket, I have no words to describe how unappealing soccer in 12 degree weather sounds to me.

A little procrastination never hurt anyone: I’ll start with this one from Terrible Minds, as it gave me the best laugh I’ve had in some time.  This dude can really write; even his discouragement is entertaining.  Following the serious tone he sets, I’ll send you over to Stacia Kane’s blog for a post she wrote last week about women and how their books are marketed.  Thought-provoking.  Then, if you still want to be a writer, head over to Writing Excuses and see if you’re fulfilling the promises you made to your readers.

That’s all from here, folks!  What are you up to this fine, if chilly, Saturday?

Encounters with the Other

This is the second post in a series on intersections between anthropology and speculative fiction.  A common interest shared by both is first contact.  In discussing anthropological considerations of first contact, I hope to provide useful tools for your fictional accounts, a bit of inspiration, or, at the least, fifteen minutes of procrastination.

So here goes.

Anthropologically speaking, first contact is all about how cultures construct, perceive, and interact with an unknown “Other” (and, yes, the “others” in Lost are a classic example).  Ideas about a cultural other are usually built from tiny bits of inaccurate or distorted information.  As a result, encounters are often fraught with the potential for miscommunication and conflict.

Cross-culturally, factors that tend to play a crucial role in shaping first contact encounters include:

  • Technology (especially technologies relating to transportation and warfare)
  • Religious ideology
  • Communication (language barriers and translators, in particular)
  • Physical appearance
  • Disease
  • Political considerations

These elements appear again and again, across cultures and through time, so let’s take a look at each in turn.  Just to have a touchstone, I’ll drawn on the first contact encounter between the Spanish (specifically, the Conquistador Hernan Cortes) and the indigenous peoples of Central America as an example.

When they talk about technology, anthropologists generally mean any kind of tool made by humans to assist them in adapting to their environment.  So, yes, computers and all that count, but so do stone tools and shields and weapons and ships.  Because it includes things like transportation and weapons, technology is usually front and center in determining when and how first contact encounters occur.  For example, without ship-building technologies, the Spaniards would not have encountered the Maya and Aztec when they did, nor would they have been able to assault the island city of Tenochtitlan.  When constructing your fictional first contact stories, always consider how technologies might limit or define the nature of the encounter.

Religious ideologies are also a big one – in many cases, such ideologies are the trigger for one culture to go out and encounter another in the first place.  In some cases, the religious motivation might be learning, exploration, or teaching.  In other instances it might be to conquer and convert.  Because religious ideologies are rooted in faith and often tied to beliefs about morality, they can shape first contact encounters in profound ways.  Take the Spanish conquest as an example.  When they arrived in Mexico, the Spaniards believed they had a mandate to convert any peoples they encountered.  The Maya and Aztec, who believed in a pantheon of gods and goddesses, had a tradition of incorporating new deities into their worship; they were happy to include the Christian god in their rituals, which was not at all what the Spanish had in mind.  From religious misunderstanding, chaos ensued.

Communication is another critical element in first contact scenarios, one that involves the need for both literal translation and cultural interpretation.  Translators often come to play roles of exaggerated importance.  Take Dona Marina, the bilingual woman taken as a interpreter (and later as a lover) by Cortes.  Able to speak both Mayan and Nahuatl, Dona Marina would translate to Alguilar (a Spaniard who lived for some time among the Maya), who would then translate to Cortes.  This three-way game of linguistic telephone left plenty of room for both literal and cultural misunderstanding.  Only when Dona Marina learned Spanish was Cortes able to fully draw upon her keen understanding of the languages and cultures of the people he was attempting to conquer.  Some argue to Marina’s insights and advice gave Cortes a critical advantage against the Aztec.  When writing fiction, we should not overlook the importance of translators, or of their ability (or lack thereof) to translate languages and place the translated words in cultural context.

Physical appearance is probably one of the things people think of first when discussing first contact.  Things like skin, eye, and hair color, costume and dress, body decoration and jewelry…these all play a role in setting two groups apart from one another.  They are the canvas upon which cultural “otherness” is first drawn.  Beyond this, however, their importance will vary.  In some encounters, physical appearance is used as a gloss for “humanness” and a justification for enslavement or murder.  In other encounters, differences in appearance fade away almost immediately.  Remember that these types of differences may be shocking only at the onset of an encounter.

When one culture or group visits another and makes first contact, they often carry with them diseases to which they have immunity, but to which the people they are visiting have had no exposure.  Such was most certainly the case during the Spanish conquest, during which almost 90% of native populations were killed by smallpox and other Old World diseases.

Finally, political considerations can play a huge role in how first contact encounters unfold.  In the case of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec, political motivations drove both sides and ultimately contributed to Spanish victory.  Cortes was personally motivated to increase his own fortunes, which inclined him towards bold (even reckless) actions.  These behaviors caused the Aztec Emperor, Montezuma, to act with even greater caution than he might have, giving Cortes the time he needed to defeat a larger native force.  Furthermore, Aztec policies of conquest and expansion in Central America left a large disgruntled native population who were only too eager to side with someone promising to free them from Aztec rule.  As a result of this political instability, Cortes was able to manipulate huge numbers of natives to join his cause and swell his otherwise very small army.   Had this not been the case, Cortes’ campaign might have turned out quite differently.

Taking the aforementioned factors into account when writing fictional first contact stories will lend them depth, complexity, and a feeling of authenticity.  If you’re looking for an example of a novel that does this particularly well, I’d recommend Mary Doria Russell’s book “The Sparrow.”  Her story centers on a Jesuit mission to an alien planet and she weaves religion, communication/translation, physical differences, and political considerations together in an intricate exploration of tragic misunderstanding between human and alien.

Alright…I think I’ve gone on about this long enough for one post 🙂

If you have questions or thoughts, post them in the comments!  I’d love to know what you think, as well as what (if anything) you’re finding useful.

Superstars Writing Seminar, pretty darn super

Last week I traveled to Salt Lake City to attend the 2nd annual Superstars Writing Seminar.  I found the workshop extremely valuable.  Unlike many other writing seminars and workshops, SWS focuses exclusively on the business of writing.  Specifically, the seminar provides an insider’s view of the publishing industry, as well as advice on networking, writing productivity, and strategies for capitalizing on your intellectual property.

The instructors this year were Kevin J. Anderson, Rebecca Moesta, Eric Flint, Brandon Sanderson, and David Farland/WolvertonSherrilyn Kenyon and Tracy Hickman made guest appearances, and a few established pro attendees, including Mary Robinette Kowal and Howard Tayler, also joined several of the panels.  By any measure, these people know what they’re talking about.

Basically, the seminar consisted of three days in a conference room listening to the instructors share personal insights and advice about the publishing business.  To give just a few examples, Eric Flint walked us through one of his contracts, clause by clause.  He explained the exact meaning of all the legalese, including what’s standard (and therefore where we should set our expectations), and which elements were worth negotiating over and which weren’t.  It was illuminating in the extreme.

Another panel focused on networking, driving home not only the point that it’s crucially important for both new and established authors but also providing concrete examples of how to go about doing it (both in person and online).    Other topics included things like:  collaborating with other authors, insights into the different publishing houses, the economics of the publishing industry, working in Hollywood, and, honestly, so much more I can’t even remember it all right now.  The expression “drinking from a fire hose” doesn’t even come close.

The rest of our time was spent having lunches, dinners, and drinks – both with the instructors and fellow attendees.  The instructors really made themselves available and answered questions very frankly.  The workshop itself was an excellent networking opportunity.

As many of you know, last year I attended the Viable Paradise Writer’s Workshop (submissions for which are open now until June 15), and it had a transformative effect on my writing.  I feel SWS will have an equally profound impact on my understanding of the business and how I approach my career.  For those hesitating at the cost, I’ll simply say I consider the money well spent and likely to pay dividends for years, if not decades, to come.

The 2012 Superstars will be held in Las Vegas.  You can find out more on their webpage – and if you have specific questions, post them in the comments and I’ll be happy to answer them.  If you haven’t already seen it, I previously posted a preliminary review of the first day of the seminar.

Book Review: Ysabel

Ysabel, by Guy Gavriel Kay (Fantasy, 416 pages)

If you’ve read any of Guy Gavriel Kay’s fiction, you know he tends towards lyrical language and infuses his stories with a unique sense of languid urgency.  By this, I mean his beautiful prose encourages the reader to linger on each sentence, but the pace of the plot nudges you along insistently.  Ysabel, one of Kay’s most recent offerings, is no exception.

Though set in modern day Provence, Ysabel echoes Kay’s interest in the way history is a dynamic force, malleable, intruding upon and influencing the present.  The story follows Ned, a fifteen year old Canadian spending several months in France with his famous photographer father.  Bored by his father’s work, Ned stumbles (seemingly by accident) into an ancient clash between the Celts and Romans playing itself out endlessly through time.  Just as it melds past and present, Ysabel also deftly weaves a large cast of characters into what is ultimately revealed as an intimate family drama.

Despite the fact I was traveling and incredibly busy, I read this book cover-to-cover in just three days.  Once I picked it up, I found it almost impossible to put down.  I think this had something to do with the way Kay united a classic fantasy with a contemporary coming of age story.  Ysabel is a compelling read, beautifully written and plotted.

Also by Guy Gavriel Kay and highly recommended by this reader: Tigana and Last Light of the Sun.

From inside the belly of the beast

It’s still dark here in Salt Lake City, and a thin layer of icy snow has covered everything.  Is the bad weather following me, or are we finally beginning the slide into our global-warming induced Ice Age?  Anyway, here’s a quick update from the Superstars Writing Seminar in Salt Lake City…

1. Damn, I’m exhausted…and it’s only Day 2

2. Some great insights from Brandon Sanderson on diversification and working multiple projects.  In general, a common theme on Day 1 was a push towards maximizing productivity and output.  Listening to Brandon, and also Kevin J. Anderson, I feel like I’ll really be able to organize my time better.

3. Persistence is another point that’s been coming up a lot.  Brandon’s first big sale was the 6th novel he wrote – and he sold it while he was writing his 13th.  David Farland says: “Make yourself a lightning rod, and lightning with strike.  You aren’t going to get struck while hiding in your basement.”  Truer words have never been spoken.

4. From Eric Flint: when editors look at a submission, they care about only one thing: do I want to keep turning the page?  If the answer is yes all the way to the end, they might buy your story.

5. Also some very practical advice on networking (the geeky, reclusive writer’s bane)…and, apparently, YES, we have to figure out how to do it, because it’s important.  Rats.

6. And, finally, thank you Eric Flint for explaining how the economics of publishing work.  Depressing, but clarifying.

Okay, if you want to know more, you’ll have to sign up and attend next year.  Thus far, I feel like I’m getting my money’s worth.  More to follow…