Gone fishing

This morning I will rise in the wee dark hours and travel the rainy streets of Brooklyn to JFK, where I will board a plane to San Juan.  There I’ll transfer to a clutch-the-seats-and-take-your-Dramamine 8-seater and soar above the beautiful blue ocean until we land in Tortola. Then I’ll board a water-taxi shooting spray as it zips across Sir Francis Drake channel.  I will wind up here:

Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands

…where I will spend approximately a week sitting on this beach drinking Caribe and reading.

Spring Bay beach

Perhaps I will do some writing.  Perhaps I will update the blog.  Perhaps I will simply bask in the sun and let it beat my brains into a happy puddle of mush.  Anything is possible.

Bon voyage!

Writer’s Workspace: 4/20

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

What I’m working on:  Today is short story day.  I’ve got two drafts nearly ready to venture out into the big, wide world.  “Reversal of Fortune” tells the tale of a poker game playing out across the landscape of post-apocalyptic NYC.  “Ark in a Sea of Stars” recounts the adventures of a revolutionary group who steal the next generation of babies and flee to the stars.  This morning I’ll massage them both with bath oils and braid their hair.  They’ll be so lovely and fragrant no one will possibly be able to refuse them.  Alternatively, they’ll turn out to be those weird kids no one wants to sit next to on the bus.

Snippet from the screen: [From Ark in a Sea of Stars] “Alton pulled into the parking lot, their little biodiesel trailing French-fry smell among the ubiquitous hybrid SUV’s.  Brenda felt a swell of excitement.  She’d been dating Alton three months now, but only last week had he finally told her about his radical group.  Brenda had imagined their meetings taking place in a dark basement somewhere, unfiltered cigarette smoke drifting among their whispered plans like stardust.  Instead, the first meeting she’d attended was in a Starbucks.”

In my mug: Irish breakfast tea, or the dregs thereof.

Keeping me company: Mr. Ramses is falling down on his job of overseeing my progress.  He seems far more interested in snoozing on the sofa, begging for friskies, and generally making an adorable nuisance of himself.  Shameless, isn’t he?

Out the window: Rain and thunder, hail, wrath of the gods.

A little procrastination never hurt anyone: Here’s Juliette Wade from TalkToYoUniverse on how and when to begin a story, Julia Rios breaks down Hop in terms of race and class over on livejournal, and some silly from Wired Magazine on Skynet’s impending self-awareness.

That’s all from here, folks!  What are you working on today?

Book Review: The Secret History of Moscow

The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia (2007. Urban Fantasy. 289 pages)

This book snuck up on me — tiptoeing in through a side door, tapping me on the shoulder, and whispering strange, beautiful secrets in my ear.  I was charmed.

Though it takes place in an urban setting infused with magic, Secret History of Moscow is unlike any urban fantasy I’ve ever read.  It’s strange, and drifty, and thoughtful.  Sad.  Dreamlike.  In fact, the book is much like the Russian fairytales from which its author draws inspiration.

Set in the chaos of 1990’s Russia, Secret History, tells the story of those who don’t, won’t, or can’t belong.  It tells the story of a hidden, underground realm where misfits, magic, and fairytale creatures dwell side by side, ageless and ambiguous.  This isn’t a realm of delights any more than it’s a realm of horrors.  Like the surface world, it’s hung with a strange, claustrophobic feeling of impending and inescapable sadness.

Enter, Galina, a misfit herself on a quest to discover the fate of her younger sister, Masha.  Masha, it seems, has turned into a bird and flown away.  Drawn into the narrative (and the search for Masha) are a multitude of sad, lovely, lost souls.

Don’t look for an action-packed plot here.  This story is about the sights along the way, not the end point (though Sedia does arrive at a satisfactory and tonally appropriate conclusion, wrapping up all of the hanging plot threads).  The writing is quite beautiful and the book a delight, if a slightly mournful one.

Funny, though, for so melancholy a tale, I felt oddly uplifted after having read it.  Secret History of Moscow was a pleasure — one I hope you’ll share.

Gettin’ in the mood

Whenever I’m working on a novel, I find it helpful to immerse myself in sensory details relating to the project.  Getting into the “mood” of the piece I’m working on definitely influences how I write dialogue and descriptions.  It shapes the pacing and helps me conjure an image in my mind, giving life and color to the world and characters I’m writing.

So far, in my fledgling writing career, I’ve got two main techniques for getting in the mood:  surrounding myself with images and listening to music. (But I’m always looking for new tricks to add to the toolkit – so share your ideas in the comments!)

When I was working on Blood Red Sun I downloaded lots of pics of the desert (and was even lucky enough to take a trip to the desert to snap pics of my own and make notes on the taste, smell, and feel of the place).  I also surrounded myself with drawings and photos of murals, sites, and artifacts from the ancient Aztecs (on who the people in the novel were modeled).  This was all good visual grist for the mill.  From an aural point of view, I created a playlist in iTunes with lots of music from epic film soundtracks (think Braveheart, Lord of the Rings, Stardust, Last of the Mohicans, Dune, and so on).  Much of it wasn’t culturally appropriate, but it captured that sweeping, dramatic feel I was going for.  I’d listen while writing and it really helped me immerse myself and shut out the distractions of the modern world.

My latest novel project is set in three different times and places: modern day New York City, the Ice Age Americas, and a British archaeological expedition in 1925-26 Iraq.  For this latter segment, I’ve had a lot of luck with listening to big band era jazz tunes out of New York, Chicago, New Orleans, and even Britain itself.  I also dug up a bunch of great historical photos from the actual archaeological expedition the fictionalization is based on – their grainy black and white frames show dapper gentlemen in their knickers, suits, and fedoras posing in front of massive, dusty ziggurats.  Beside them stand slim, elegant women in cloche hats and coat frocks, shading their eyes from the sun’s glare.  Scattered across my big glass desk, they smile up and remind me I’m not in Kansas anymore.

What are your tricks for immersing yourself in the worlds you write about?

My workspace is trying to kill me

Most of us are aware of how deadly sitting at our desks all day can be — especially if our workspace is not set up ergonomically.  That stiff neck you’ve had all year?  The pain in your wrists and arms?  Your bad back?   Poor circulation in your legs?  They can all be attributable to a poor desk setup.  For those of us who write, these problems are exacerbated.  Not only do we spend long periods of time at our desks, but we’re also often alone.  There are no colleagues to get up and chat with, no meetings to tear ourselves away from our desks to attend, no water-cooler to congregate around.

Since I started writing seriously I’ve slowly developed a permanent set of stiff shoulders and neck so stiff I sometimes can’t turn it without serious pain.  Why?  Because I use a laptop and therefore spend all day looking down instead of straight ahead.  Also, my crappy non-adjustable chair and bad sitting posture weren’t helping matters either.

There are lots of places online to find information about making your workspace more ergonomic.  But a lot of us don’t take the time to seek them out or make the necessary changes.  I’ve recently chomped on the bullet and revamped my office.  So I thought I’d share some tips with you.  Consider them, guys – even if you feel fine now, these problems are cumulative.

The first thing you must do is make sure when you type that your arms are bent at a 90 degree angle.  Your forearms should extend in a perfectly straight line to the keyboard and your wrists should not need to rest on the desk or bend in order to type comfortably.  This means you need an adjustable chair so you can position yourself at the proper height with respect to your desk.  A work-around here is to get a tray installed in your desk to lower your keyboard if necessary.  You don’t want to have to reach forward for the keyboard, either.

Second, your monitor must be at eye level and an arm’s length away from your face.  When you are sitting erect with good posture, your eyes should naturally fall at 2/3 of the way up from the bottom of the screen.  This position keeps you from tilting your head up or down while you are working.  If you use a laptop (like I do), this means you need to purchase a separate keyboard (I got an illuminated Logitech that I’m in love with) and elevate the entire laptop.  Mine sits on a tower of books, but you can also purchase a little set of drawers or an elevating tray – just make sure it’s the right height.  Even if you use a desktop, check to make sure your monitor is set at the right height and distance.

Ideally, you should invest in an ergonomic/multi-function chair.  These are adjustable in terms of height, angle of incline of the backrest, angle of incline of the seat (tilting the whole chair forward or backward), and have adjustable armrests.  Look for one with good lumbar support (your spine curves inward at the base and that curve needs to be supported for good posture.  Comfortable padding is important here too.  I found a very satisfactory chair at OfficeMax.

Once you get your keyboard, monitor, and chair adjusted you may find that in order for everything to come into alignment, your feet will no longer touch the floor.  This is a problem (but one with a solution!).  Your feet need to be resting firmly and flat on the floor to prevent undue pressure on your legs.  Like your elbows, your knees should rest naturally at a 90 degree angle.  If you have to raise your chair up to bring your arms to the right angle, you can purchase a foot rest for your feet.  These are generally adjustable and bring the floor to you.  Look on Amazon – they have bunches.

This might all be starting to sound expensive.  You may need to buy a new chair, a new keyboard, a footrest, and a stand for your laptop.  That can definitely add up.  But, if you think about how much time you spend at your desk and how important your arms, wrists, neck, and legs are to your daily life, it’s probably worth investing a little money in.  Plus, you’ll save on medical bills down the line.

Here’s a good article from Lifehacker with more tips.  It also includes a diagram that shows how your body should be aligned with respect to your chair, desk, keyboard, and monitor.

Happy sitting!

Writer’s Workspace: 4/8

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

What I’m working on:  Now that I’ve FINALLY finished Blood Red Sun and sent it off to Angry Robot, I’m diving back into my next novel, Absent.  I’m about 1/3 of the way in to the first draft and the characters have just traveled through time to the excavations at Ur, Iraq in the 1930’s.

Snippet from the screen: “A crumbling guard’s house hunched to their left, and Emily saw two Iraqi men lounging inside.  Then she was swept along in Davis’ wake, following him through the outer wall and into a large, tiled courtyard.  A trio of boys crouched over buckets, washing broken pottery from the excavations; they looked up with keen, dark eyes.”

In my mug:  Lately I’m obsessed with Numi tea.  Today I’ve got their Aged Early Grey steeping in my cup.


Keeping me company:  Since I’ve revamped my office with a new desk and ergonomic chair, Mr. Ramses has inherited my old office chair.  Regular readers will know that he and I have long competed over access to that chair.  Needless to say, he is pleased with what he perceives as a thrilling triumph of good over evil.

On the iTunes:  I put the collection on shuffle and it offered up “Try a Little Tenderness” by good old Otis.  I’ll take that.

Out the window:  I can’t talk about it, I just can’t.  I know a lot of us are wondering where the hell spring is.  All I can say is:  it ain’t here.  We do, however, have plenty of April showers.

A little procrastination never hurt anyone:  Writing Excuses has a podcast up that’s all about the romance, Catherine Schaff-Stump is working on a series of posts addressing things she wished she’d known when she first started writing, and John Favreau defends his latest offering, Cowboys and Aliens.

Okey-dokey people, that’s all from here.  What are YOU up to today?

Book Review: A Deepness in the Sky

A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge (1999, Science Fiction, 774 pages)

Deepness in the Sky is set among one of the cultures that provided backstory in Fire Upon the Deep, the Qeng Ho space-faring traders.  The story revolves around a fleet of Qeng Ho vessels journeying to a remote planetary system known as the On/Off Star (because the sun burns out and relights on a regular cycle).  They plan to make contact and trade with the planet’s occupants, a race of intelligent spiders, but their plans are disrupted by the arrival of another human culture, the Emergents.  Conflict ensues.  The story explores the cultural differences between all three groups, focusing especially on technology, trade, and mind control.  It’s creative and compelling.

I read this book because it’s a prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, one of my favorite books of all time.  Perhaps going in with my expectations so high, it was inevitable I’d be slightly disappointed.  I certainly liked and enjoyed this book, but I didn’t love it.  While I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys science fiction and space opera, I wouldn’t necessarily say OMG YOU MUST BUY IT NOW!!

The main problem I had with this tale was the way it was told.  Rather than the action unfolding in uninterrupted “real time” it occurs stutter-stop over many years.  Thanks to the technology of coldsleep, the characters in Vinge’s world can live hundreds of years by periodically interrupting their normal lifespan.  While cool (no pun intended), coldsleep also stalls the action and allows a lot of character interaction and dynamics to occur offstage.  For me, this stole some of the urgency and interest from the narrative.  Also, as compared to the Tines culture in A Fire Upon the Deep, the spiders of Deepness just didn’t interest me as much – they weren’t as inventively alien.

Still, Deepness in the Sky is an intricately plotted and well-told tale, and I would unreservedly recommend it to science fiction fans.

The parent trap

So, now that my brain has been released from its stint in editing prison, I’ve been thinking about stuff again.  Ah, sweet thoughts….  One thought that just keeps badgering at me is this:  where the heck are all the families in fantasy and sci fi?  Generally speaking, parents, siblings, and grandparents seem to serve pretty much one purpose in spec. fiction:  tragic backstory.   So often, if families appear in the genre at all, it’s mostly offstage.  They are either dead, evil, imprisoned by the antagonist, estranged and/or separated from the protagonist, or never mentioned at all.

The orphaning of the hero(ine) in sci fi/fantasy is so commonplace its like we don’t even notice or comment on it anymore.  What’s this about?  In real life, families provide a ton of drama.  They’re there for love and support, to build us up or break us down.  Or we’re in conflict with them, which provides lots of juicy plot too.  Literary fiction mines this wellspring till the geyser practically runs dry.  Why don’t we see it in genre fiction?

Consider the last couple of books I read as a (somewhat) representative sample:

1. In Vernor Vinge’s “A Deepness in the Sky” families are definitely part of the narrative, but all close family members are killed off very early in the story (at least for the human characters).  Their deaths serve as a motivation for the protagonists’ fears and their desires for revenge (e.g. tragic backstory).

2. In Marie Brennan’s “Midnight Never Come” families are really not mentioned at all.  The hero and heroine certainly must have come from somewhere, but families aren’t discussed meaningfully.

3. In Daniel Fox’s “Dragon in Chains” we do see some family dynamics at work, but they still fit into the tropes I mentioned above.  The heroine’s grandfather survives throughout the story, but he is separated from her for most of the book.  The hero’s family is never mentioned, except to note that they sold him into slavery.  Another main character’s mother serves as a minor player who spends most of her time plotting against him (e.g. families as evil, tragic backstory, or separated from the protagonist).

4. The protagonist in Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” appears parentless.  No mention is made of any family outside his insular world of wife and work.  Did he spring fully formed from a hole in the ground?

These four books are just random examples, but they range across many sub-genres, settings, and even publication dates.  I don’t mention them to be critical – I really enjoyed each of them – but to point out a common practice in our genre.

So what’s behind this?  Why are there so few families and parents playing a meaningful role in speculative fiction plots?  Do we tend to orphan our protagonists in sci fi/fantasy because we need them isolated for their quests?  Is it a cheap way to add pathos and drama to their pasts?  Is this a sign of our times and culture?  Or do we find it too difficult and/or inconvenient to deal with real family relationships in our fiction?

I’m inclined to think the tendency relates mostly to the first and last points.  Much of sci fi/fantasy revolves in some way or another around the protagonist’s journey (towards adulthood, towards becoming a hero/heroine, towards the completion of an epic goal, etc.).  We seem to have decided, as a genre, that relying on family to complete those goals or quests is to invalidate their results.  The protagonist must be cut adrift and make his/her own way.

Family dynamics make great drama, but do the complications they introduce (the obligations, especially) make the right kind of drama for sci fi/fantasy?  Imagine Rand al’Thor stuck at home taking care of aging parents.  Or what if Bilbo had a younger brother, one who depended on him for food and shelter.  Would he have been so quick to run off with Sam and the Ring?

Yeah, this kind of stuff can be damned inconvenient for a writer who wants to get their characters off on an adventure.  But family interaction can be a rich source of plot-y inspiration, too.  Just look at the best exception of all:  George R.R. Martin’s epic series, Songs of Ice and Fire.  Hell, these books are ALL ABOUT family drama–families torn apart, families struggling to remain loyal to each other, families scheming, family betrayal–and they still manage to be epic and enthralling.  In fact, I’d argue that family dynamics is one of things that makes them so gripping.

After all, whether the relationships are good or bad, family members are often the people we have the most complex and interesting relationships with.  Why would we intentionally leave such meaty stuff out of our writing?  Why don’t we find family-derived interaction deeply and meaningfully woven into the plots of sci fi/fantasy novels?

What do you think?  Am I right?  Am I wrong? Should families play a bigger role in the stories we tell?  Are there other great exceptions to the general rule?