On the road, again

Today was a travel day for me.  I’m in Salt Lake City to attend a seminar addressing the business side of writing (Superstars Writing Seminar) and being taught by the likes of Kevin J. Anderson, Brandon Sanderson, David Farland, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Eric Flint, and Rebecca Moesta.  While here, I’ll try to provide a few blog updates about the seminar and my adventures – literary and otherwise.

The trip has started out rather inauspiciously, to be honest.  I wasn’t supposed to leave New York until tomorrow afternoon, but the gods of snow (or maybe just some suit at Delta) decided a big storm was coming and canceled my flight (though not a flake of snow has yet fallen).  My only choices were:  come on a 6am flight today or not at all.  So, here I am.  Sleepy and a bit jet-lagged, but here.  It’s cold (around 14 degrees right now) and there’s snow just about everywhere you look.  But, man, the mountains are really pretty, and a hot shower managed to scour away the residual pain of getting up at 4am.

Right now I’m at a little cafe far too cute to exist anywhere outside of a movie (Raw Bean Coffeehouse) and determined to stop using this internet connection to procrastinate 🙂

I’m going to go and write now.  You should too.

See you later.

Fiction and the art of anthropological maintenance

This will be the first in a series of posts discussing anthropology and speculative fiction.  I’ve decided to do this series for several reasons.  First of all, anthropology is my field of study (specifically, anthropological archaeology), so I’ve got a bit of expertise here.  Second, and more importantly, the discipline lends itself well to speculative fiction.  In fact, many great sci fi and fantasy authors have anthropological backgrounds (Mary Doria Russell, Ursula K. LeGuin, Kurt Vonnegut, Gregory Keyes, Octavia Butler, and Chad Oliver, among many others).  In this post I’ll discuss some basic concepts we’ll need for future discussions.  All of the posts on this topic will be tagged as anthropology 101.

So, a brief primer.

Quickly, for those who aren’t familiar, anthropology is the study of humanity.  It is composed of 4 sub-disciplines: cultural anthropology (the study of living cultures), archaeology (the study of past cultures), physical anthropology (the study of human evolution, human biology & primatology with reference to human cultural adaptation), and linguistics (the study of language and its role in the transmission of culture).  So, basically, anthropology covers everything to do with humans and how they interact with each other and with the natural world.  Useful, eh?

Focusing as it does on the varied and splendid world of human cultures, anthropology provides fertile ground for writers, especially those looking to create imaginary but authentic-feeling worlds.  Living and ancient cultures can serve as inspiration for fictional ones, while anthropological perspectives and methods (cultural relativism, participant observation, and ethnography, for instance) provide tools for world-building and character development.

Some concepts:

Cultural relativism is the idea that no one cultural viewpoint or practice is better or worse than any other.  This concept is at the core of modern anthropological method and allows ethnographers objectivity when studying a culture different from their own.

Participant observation is an ethnographic technique in which the anthropologist observes cultural practices and comes to understand their meaning by taking part as much as possible in the culture which he or she is observing.

An ethnography is the end product of (typically a year of) cultural anthropological research.  In it, the anthropologist presents their data and interpretations.  Traditional ethnographies include detailed observations on kinship, religion, material culture/technology, politics, subsistence, economy, gender/age roles, arts/music, and language.  In conducting research and preparing an ethnography, an anthropologist brings two perspectives to bear: the etic and the emic.

The etic perspective revolves around the anthropologist’s interpretations as an objective, scientific observer – an outsider.  Here an anthropologist explains practices and behaviors with reference to larger theories about culture.  Conversely, the emic perspective is the insiders view of their own culture.  Here the anthropologist attempts to understand how a cultural participant makes meaning.

As I’ll discuss in upcoming posts, these methods and perspectives can be immensely useful in:

1. building fictional cultures that feel authentic and fleshed-out

2. writing first contact stories, in which insider and outsider perspectives both play a role in the conflict

3. helping us get inside our characters’ heads and see through their eyes

4. finding inspiration for fictional cultures or characters – by drawing on real cultures (whether living, recently squashed by globalism, or ancient) we save ourselves the trouble of starting from scratch (truth really is stranger than fiction, after all)

5. getting a look at how technology really works: past cultures are a veritable laboratory for the invention and implementation of new technologies (as well as their consequences).  Just because many of these examples aren’t high tech or space-age doesn’t mean they can’t inform how we develop such fictional technologies (and more importantly, how they’ll impact society).

6.understanding how developments (think especially technological ones – on the small scale, things like specific tools, on the large scale, things like agriculture) impact cultural development

7. creating imaginary languages

8. and, generally, helping us think more deeply about how cultures work, how they help us adapt to specific environments (e.g. what works in particular settings, and why), and how people tend to interact with each other (based on race, class, gender, age, and cultural affiliation).

So…stay tuned!  Up first will be an anthropological look at first contact.

ps. let me know in the comments if you think this series will be useful, and if there are any topics you’d particularly like me to discuss.

Writer’s Workspace: 1/8

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

What I’m working on: In a few short weeks I’ll be attending a writing retreat (in Vegas! with friends!), for which I must prepare a submission for critique.  So, today’s labor is to polish up the first 9,000 or so words of my latest novel project (“Absent”) and write a synopsis and brief outline to go along with it.  I need to get this done asap, as the Saints play Seattle this afternoon.  Go Saints! (apologies to my hometown…)

Snippet from the screen: “Emily felt a faint wave of embarrassment.  She’d always envisioned her office outfitted with a big comfy armchair, not a hard plastic one looking like an escapee from a 1970’s warehouse of institutionalized furniture.”

On my iTunes: “Why Don’t We Do it in the Road” by The Beatles

In my mug: English Breakfast tea

Is it just me, or is a diet in order?

Keeping me company: After our trip to New Orleans, Mr. Ramses has been extra snuggly – and just as lazy as ever.

Out my window: Gah! More snow!  (weeps softly)

Since the ugly heaps from the snowpocalypse last week were starting to melt, this is demoralizing.  Seriously, the sidewalk was only beginning to reemerge – and with it a host of scary things buried for more than a week.  About a block from our apartment, I saw a pile of snow receding to reveal a moldering mattress.  I kid you not.  This newest dusting created more ice than anything else, but also coated several Christmas trees left on the curb for recycling, as well as a sofa and love seat set.

Ah, life in the city.

Okay, Suri, focus.  Assuming I can get my chair back from Mr. Ramses, there’s work to do.

It just makes me sad

I’m sure most of you are already aware that a new edition of Huckleberry Finn is out, in which the word “Nigger” is replaced by “slave.”  The producer of this new edition, Alan Gribben (a professor of English), argues that the substitution will ensure the book does not drop off of more school reading lists and will spare the reader the unpleasantness of repeatedly reading a racial slur.

I will not go on and on here, but I feel that as a teacher and a writer I have to voice an objection to the idea of editing out the parts of our cultural heritage we find unpalatable (not, of course, that we’ve hesitated to do so in the past).

Huck Finn is, ultimately, an indictment of slavery, and we should read it as the author wrote it.  The idea that we might need to “spare” teachers the effort of placing the novel in cultural and historical context for their students or excuse them from having a meaningful discussion about race relations in US history is just sad.  The idea that editors can (or should) sweep in and alter an author’s text to fit with current notions of politically correct behavior is disturbing — almost as much as the idea that such literature should be banned in the first place.

Book Review: Sandman Slim

Last week I blogged about all the lovely new books I got as presents over the holiday, and I promised to post reviews of each as I finished reading them.  So, without further ado, here’s the first review.

Sandman Slim, by Richard Kadrey (388 pages, Urban Fantasy)

This book is written in the first person, which normally turns me off.  But here it really works.  In fact, after the first paragraph, I neither noticed the first person any longer nor could imagine the story being told any other way.  In fact, a lot of what works about the book (and the few things that don’t) are linked directly to the main character’s feeling of rage and alienation, as well as his penchant for self-destructive thoughts and behavior.  All of these smack you with much greater impact when delivered hot and steaming from his screwed-up head.

The protagonist’s voice is probably the most unique thing about Sandman Slim.  He’s ugly, mean, and morally ambiguous.  Kadrey does not hold back in showing us all of Sandman’s neuroses and relating his view of the world as stinking and dark.  There are plenty of times in the story when you don’t like him, when you feel a sort of cruel satisfaction seeing him fail, one that makes you realize you’re actually starting to think just like him.  So, I take my hat off to Kadrey for creating someone so persuasive, who feels so real and so absurdly unreal at the same time.

That said, the story itself didn’t strike me as especially distinctive – a war between Heaven and Hell, a world of magic just outside what mortals acknowledge, fallen angels, evil magicians, and plenty of violence.  But it was strung together well enough, providing enough reason to keep hanging out with the compellingly horrible and delicious Sandman Slim.  That was good enough for me.

My few nits include occasionally cheesy dialogue, Kadrey’s jarring tendency to sometimes forget he’s writing an anti-hero rather than a hero, and the stutter-stop ending.  The big climax comes too soon (or, alternatively, the denouement is overly drawn out).  Further, some of the punch is taken out of the plot in an apparent effort to set things up for the next novel.  But, by-and-large, this book was fun to read (for large chunks at a time, I literally couldn’t put it down).  There’s a sequel out in hardcover now.  As soon as the paperback edition is on the shelves, I’ll definitely pick it up.

In short, if you like gritty urban fantasy that eschews all sugar-coating, you’ll probably enjoy Sandman Slim.

Where did I pack my pen?

For someone who considers herself a homebody, I sure do a lot of traveling.  In 2010 I traveled to Seattle (2x), New Orleans (2x), Boston, the British Virgin Islands, England, Scotland, and Spain.  And that’s just the trips I remember.  I figure I spent at least a quarter of the year away from home (and thus away from my desk).  And, for the first two months of 2011 alone, I have trips planned to New Orleans (where I am as I write this), Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, and Phoenix.

Travel presents a range of delights and agonies, but perhaps one of the most challenging for me is not losing momentum on my writing.  There’s the trip itself, which, if it’s a vacation, can mean getting nothing done, but also the lead-up and unwinding after you get back — all lethal to my writing output.

Sometimes being out and seeing the world is a source of inspiration, prompting unexpected visits from the writing Beast, and the experiences accrued from traveling most certainly benefit us writers.  Getting away from daily life and leaving behind your mundane worries and tasks can be mentally liberating, too.  But, just as often, even if you pack your laptop and best intentions, the writing well remains dry…or ignored altogether.

Here are 2 things I do every time I travel, which unfailingly result in a productivity rate of zero:

1. print out draft versions of short stories or novels with the intent of line-editing them on the plane.  Because you wouldn’t want to be stuck with nothing to do but watch all those free movies on the seat-back screen.  Riiiiiight.

2. pack a blank notebook with the idea that all my “downtime” (cause there’s always so much of that on the road) will be ideal for world-building/brainstorming/plotting.  I have a lot of blank notebooks, many of them now yellowed around the edges.

So far, the only thing I’ve found that works in the slightest is to just stuff the ole’ laptop into my purse (yes, I have a huge purse) and carry it around.  When a free moment or two strikes, I pull it out and keep working on whatever I’d be working on if I was at home.  Pretty prosaic, and pretty hit-and-miss in terms of productivity (also, that shoulder bag gets heavy).  But it’s the best I’ve got so far.

A few other observations: when I’m traveling alone and staying in a hotel, I’m quite productive at night and/or early in the morning.  Along these lines, when I attended Readercon last year I got a ton of writing done.  Being around other writers and attending writing panels was really inspiring.  I’ll be at the Superstars Writing Seminar in Salt Lake later this month and I’m hoping I find the same thing to be true there.

But, given how much I travel, I’d really like to develop more consistent strategies for keeping up with my writing.  So, I’m asking for your input, advice, and tips.  What works for you when you travel, and what tactics are a bust?

A New Year, a new stack of books

My first glimpse of 2011:  a bleary-eyed grab at the alarm clock.  It’s 4:45am and I remember, with faint horror, that I must get up.  There’s a flight to catch; we’re off to New Orleans for a visit to the in-laws.

Staggering out of bed, cramming the last few things into the suitcase, and gulping rather desperately at a too-hot mug of tea, I grab the the book off the top of the pile on my nightstand, “Sandman Slim” by Richard Kadrey, and shove it in my purse.  Rather optimistic to think I’ll do much other than drowse and drool on the plane ride, don’t you think?.

This morning’s blind and random literary snatch, however, was momentous nonetheless, as it anointed the first book I’ll read in 2011.  After the delicious gift-giving frenzy of the holidays I’ve got a nice fat stack of books to plow through, including the aforementioned Kadrey book, as well as:

  • Ysabel, by Guy Gavriel Kay
  • Dervish House, by Ian McDonald
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K Dick
  • Sixty-One Nails, by Mike Shevdon
  • A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge

So, my New Year’s promise to all of you is the following:  I will read each one and report back with a review.  So, enjoy the start of another waltz round the calendar, and stay tuned for bookwormy goodness in the month to come!

ps. if you’ve already read some or all of these delights…no spoilers, please!

pps. Happy New Year!