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Archive for June, 2013

Most people have this notion that archaeological work is a sort of super-thrilling adventure that takes place exclusively in distant lands. While sometimes (on very rare occasions) all components of this description are true, much of the time archaeology — like any other job —  is just hard work.

To wit: I am currently in Kansas City doing some archaeology with my long-time colleague, Bill McFarlane. What work, you ask? Well, this week, what “archaeology” means to us is the ugly labor of putting finishing touches on a manuscript presenting the results of our last four seasons of fieldwork. Laborious hand editing. Long debates about the right structure for the discussion and interpretations. The tedium of making sure the dreaded “findings” section is thorough but as short as is humanly possible.

On this visit, archaeology also means visiting the Biodiversity Institute at KU to check out some local, previously unstudied artifact collections. Why? We’re (gulp) considering starting up a small scale field school in the area while we wait for Honduras (the country where we’ve always done our excavations) to become “safe enough” to return to with field school students for whom we are liable.

I mention these things because, actually, this kind of work is a lot of what archaeology really is. Yes, digging stuff up and having adventures in foreign lands is a fun (okay, let’s be honest, AWESOME) part of being an archaeologist. But without analyzing your findings, writing them up, making them fit for publication, and doing the same for old, neglected museum collections, you’re not really doing archaeology. You’re doing Indiana Jones. You’re doing looting with some field documentation on the side.

So, yeah. Today I’m off to do some archaeology. At the office.

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Wheeee!

I am happy to report that ABSENT, my archaeological time travel novel, is done! As in really and truly and completely done. As in ready to start submitting. Yay!

Now I’m working on pitch materials and compiling a list of agents. Tomorrow I head out for a short work trip to Kansas City. I hope to have my pitch materials ready to begin sending out by the time I return, next week at the latest.

A big, big thanks to all of you who read and provided feedback on ABSENT’s many drafts. You are all awesome.

Okay. I think I’ve earned a drink.

Later!

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Just returned from a fabulous 5-year wedding anniversary trip to my old hometown of Philadelphia. Many nostalgic walks were taken. Dear friends were visited. All the food (as in, all the food in all of Philadelphia) was eaten. It was good.

Now I’m back at my desk and hard at work (anything to postpone that much needed morning trip to the gym!). With our trip, and the preceding week being occupied by a house guest, I’m not quite as far along with my final edits to ABSENT as I’d like. I’ll pick that back up today, continuing to hand edit the printed manuscript, enter the changes, and then read each section aloud for final tweaking.

This process is working well and I feel the final draft is tighter, cleaner, and lacking in some of the kinds of tiny POV slippage errors that can sneak by if you don’t read the manuscript. Thanks to my awesome batch of final readers, I’ve also got a few small revisions to make as well — in particular, switching a couple POV chapters (the novel has two main POV characters) and clarifying some of the rules (and consequences for violating them) of time travel in this universe.

I leave for another trip (to visit my archaeology colleague at his home institution in Kansas City) next Wednesday, so I’m using that as my deadline to finish this thing. So, hold me to it: I promise ABSENT will be done exactly one week from today. Then it will just be honing that query letter (which I’ve begun to draft) and researching agents to find the right folks to pitch the novel to.

In other news, I’m doing a fair bit of Beta reading these days. The two novels I’m doing this for are both about magicians and are both dark and funny. Beyond that, though, they’re pretty different — and both inspiring and fun in different ways too. I always enjoying seeing what my friends are up to, and since I’ve been reading for many of them for a long time, it’s also cool to see firsthand how we’re all evolving and changing as writers.

Since I have a background in academia, I always tend to think in term of “cohorts” (in grad school, this was the graduate class you went through five kinds of hell with, graduated with, became abused junior faculty or adjuncts with, and – in a perfect world – eventually rose to comfy tenured positions with). You suffered, grew, shared, and evolved together. I feel like my VP13 writing “tribe” (and the folks absorbed into that group over the years) is much the same. It gives me warm fuzzies.

Okay. Lots of reading and editing and not wasting time on the internet to do!

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Hey-o, dear Reader! Welcome to this writer’s workspace. Here’s what’s happening liiiiiiiiiiive at Miranda’s desk.

What I’m working on: as a final editing pass on ABSENT, I’m currently reading the entire novel aloud. This is the first time I’ve done this particular exercise for a novel (though I do it a lot for shorts). It’s quite illuminating and is really helping me pick up little errors, find things that are off with voice, and so on. Fun stuff. As far as writing goes, though, the last few days have been devoted primarily to non-fiction. My colleague Bill McFarlane and I are working on an article on our recent archaeological research in pre-Columbian Honduras. In case you were wondering what kinds of stirring prose go into an academic article…here’s a…

Snippet from the screen: “A sketch of the past practices within Sinsimbla and the Jesus de Otoro valley is beginning to emerge. However, as this image comes into focus, it raises far more questions than it answers, especially with regard to the nature of inter-valley interactions across southeastern Mesoamerica.”

Breathless to read on? Well, who can blame you? Not I.

On the iTunes: you can’t rock the archaeology without some rockin’ tunes. Right now Whitesnake is screaming “Here I go Again” at me.

In my mug: the usual grog – Chinese Breakfast tea from Numi. Don’t mess with a classic, I say.

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Keeping me company: Ramses is exploring the wild world of freshly folded laundry. He finds he approves. A lot.

Out the window: so far, summer seems to be one long rainy day. It’s overcast, cloudy, and wet. Still, it hasn’t pulled the ole 95 degrees, 95% humidity trick yet. That’s something!

A little procrastination never hurt anyone: Lies! Still, here are a few links to distract yourself with: first up, more bad news on the climate front! Disaster! Flooding! Second, supercool glowing clouds! and, finally, an article from the New Yorker on how the culture of privacy in America is fading.

Enjoy!

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I’ve been mulling over the latest SFWA kerfuffle, and here’s what I think: I find it unsurprising, disappointing, encouraging, and disturbing.

Let’s break these down in order.

Unsurprising: okay, a couple of old white males who write hard sci fi penned an article in which they bemoaned the overreaction of “lady authors” to “compliments” on their beauty and sexiness. Well, color me shocked. Never would I imagine something like this would happen. NEVER.

Disappointing: while the fact that this article got written is not surprising to me, the fact that it was published was definitely disappointing. These guys didn’t write this on their own personal blogs, they wrote it in the SFWA bulletin. And it made it past the editor and board without comment. Now, I suspect it’s quite likely that the editor and board of SFWA are busy folks and don’t necessarily vet every article in the bulletin because they don’t have time. This doesn’t make what happened right, but it does cast it in a less menacing light. We’re probably talking about a case of things falling through the cracks, not a case of intentional collusion with and support of outmoded and insulting ideas.

Encouraging: the response to this incident has been, for the most part, encouraging. There’s a lot of outrage. SFWA’s president immediately took responsibility for what happened and steps to try and keep it from happening again. This all shows that there are a lot of people who get why this is a problem and want to change the culture of sexism in our field.

Which brings us to…disturbing.

What disturbs me about all of this is not what got published in the bulletin or the reactions to it. It’s the people who aren’t saying anything. The ones who are quiet because they either agree with Resnick and Malzberg, or because they don’t understand what the big deal is.

See, the thing is, it isn’t just old white dudes from another era who don’t see why women object to being called attractive. There are a lot of otherwise reasonable people who think this way too. Now, some of them are trying to understand, but plenty of them aren’t.

So, in what I hope is a clear explanation, here’s why it’s objectionable to call a woman beautiful or sexy or anything else related to her physical attributes in a public forum:

First, and most obviously, it reduces a woman to the sum of her physical attributes, stripping away any other relevant quality about her. That is demeaning and insulting–doubly so when it’s done in a professional setting, such as the SFWA bulletin, or a convention panel, or whatever.

A lot of times when this complaint is raised, people point out that we are biologically hardwired to notice the physical — especially secondary sexual characteristics such as breasts and butts — and hardwired to respond to them. This response has always bugged me because it’s such an easy “out” for men. The “my biology made me act that way” response. Ugh. We moved past biological hardwiring about 10,000 years ago, people.

We eat domesticated plants and animals, which are not the foods we evolved to digest. When someone gets sick, we don’t say ‘oh, too bad. Their biology has doomed them.” We developed and use medicine to help those people get better. We’ve put culture ahead of biology for a long time now, and there is no reason that shouldn’t be true for gender as well. Yes, maybe you notice a woman has a nice shape. Maybe you think she’s really pretty. WELL, KEEP THAT SHIT TO YOURSELF.

There is no reason that you have to act on that observation. No reason you have to let it guide your behavior. No reason you have to assume that a woman’s body is the thing that should structure how you approach her. Culture has shaped the way we deal with a lot of things that are biologically based — gender and sex should be no different.

Further, it’s a ridiculous double-standard. As many people have pointed out, you wouldn’t say “I’ve heard male author X writes pretty good fiction but, more importantly, he’s got a great ass!” or “I think we should publish a calendar of male editors in speedos – or better yet — barbarian fur undies, because those dudes are hot.”

Too often men are the default and women are a sexualized variation on them. Not cool.

This is the tiresome part of it, but there’s a menacing aspect to all this as well. While many times these comments are meant as “compliments”, the fact remains we live in a culture where men rape women. Way. Too. Often. And that very much shapes how women experience and perceive the world.

Theodora Goss put it aptly on her blog, when she wrote:

the point I want to make is that something that may not seem threatening to a man may seem profoundly threatening to a woman. I’ll give you an example.

Scenario: A woman passes a man on the street. He says, “Hello, beautiful.”
How the man perceives this: “I paid her a compliment.”
How the woman perceives this: “Is he going to attack me?”

I don’t know if this is true for all women, in all circumstances, but if I’m the woman in that scenario, particularly if I’ve been walking down that street absorbed in my own thoughts, as soon as I’m spoken to I will immediately check my surroundings. What time of day is it? Is there anyone else on the street? How threatening does the man seem? (Although I have to add, if I am completely honest, that I never walk down a street lost in thought. I used to when I was younger. I’m smarter now.)

Yes. Absolutely. I don’t know a single woman who doesn’t have this experience on a regular basis. Imagine that, men of the world. Imagine having to engage in that kind of situational awareness on a daily basis just because you were born a particular gender. It sucks.

And this scales up from strangers on the street to male acquaintances and sometimes even male friends. For instance, we have to be careful when we make new male friends, always wondering if maybe we’re being too friendly or too effusive on a shared topic of interest. Will he misinterpret my enthusiasm for sexual interest? An uncomfortable thought. After all, I don’t know this man very well. If he does misinterpret my offer of friendship for something more, will he act on it? Is it wise to be alone with him? What if I try to clear up the misunderstanding and he doesn’t care? Doesn’t stop?

So, if you’re a man, the next time you meet a woman, consider that she may be grappling with all these concerns and fears — just because she’s a woman. Consider that your admiration for her loveliness may not be the “compliment” you intend but instead a minefield of danger and potential misunderstanding.

Consider that the things you take for granted (that people are interested first in who you are and what you do and second – if at all – in how “beddable” you might be) are the very things women are asking for when they say “please don’t call me a ‘lady author’ and please don’t tell me I’m pretty’.

Instead of looking at me, try talking to me.

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I’ve just returned from a writing retreat in Colorado — the most recent of many that I’ve attended in the last several years — and it’s given me a chance to pause and reflect on the nature of that particular beast.

Writing retreats. What makes them work? What sinks them? What’s the right alchemy to bring a group of friends, acquaintances, and sometimes strangers into productive and harmonious balance?

A couple of thoughts:

1. Finding the right people matters.

And here I don’t just mean the right writers. You need the right people AND the right writers. If you’re going to gallivant off to some strange place and spend several days talking intensely about highly personal things, well…you’d better be sure you’re doing it with people you can get along with (and who can get along with you). In my experience, folks who can go with the flow, not take critique personally, and are able to assess when they need alone/down-time are good. Folks who thrive on drama? Folks who don’t really want to hear that their work needs work? Well, obviously this can be less productive and less desirable.

Even more than this, though, you need people who bring different perspectives, write with a distinctive voice, and are able to hone in on the real problems with a piece of writing. One of the things that worked fabulously at the Colorado retreat was the fact that everyone wrote very different kinds of fiction. We had historical fantasy, hard sci-fi, YA space adventure, near future post-apocalypse, gender-bending avante garde stuff, short fiction, long fiction, and everything in between. It made for a nice mix and allowed each person to bring distinctive skills to the fore.

2. Finding the right place matters.

I’ve been to writing retreats in pastoral settings, in urban settings, and in suburban settings. The thing I’ve found is that it doesn’t matter so much if a place is near or far, built up or peaceful. What matters is that it’s interesting and pleasant. Writers need stimulation. They need light. They need comfy sofas. You can find all these things in a remote mountain town in the Colorado Rockies, but you can also find them on the Las Vegas Strip, or in a bed and breakfast in Des Moines.

The Colorado retreat worked really well because it wasn’t just a writing adventure, it was an adventure adventure. We rode a train and went to hot springs and got time to hang out and socialize in a beautiful setting. This built trust and strengthened bonds that, I think, improved our ability to discuss our work frankly and productively.

3. Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses matters.

By this I mean a lot of things. I mean the ability to figure out that maybe you shouldn’t spend every waking with minute with everyone — that maybe you need a little quiet time. Or being the person who realizes that everyone’s tired and burned out and the group needs someone, anyone to make a decision (or that they need you to shut up). I also mean knowing where the holes in your work are and being open to exploring the ideas of your peers (even if they aren’t the direction you wanted to take your story in). Or, conversely, knowing when your critique partners (however insightful their comments) are leading your story down a path you don’t want it to take. I guess another way to put this is: getting a lot out of a writing retreat is contingent on you being able to self-monitor and self-assess as you go.

The most recent retreat in Colorado was really top-notch in all these regards. The group of people brought together by the organizers was fabulous — a mix of old friends, new friends, and people I’d never met before. There was no drama and a lot of good times. People seemed to do a great job of knowing their limits and adjusting their behavior in response to the mood of the group. The setting was gorgeous and the balance of work to play spot on. I feel really lucky to have been able to be a part of it and know I’ll be holding it up in the future as a standard for other such events.

I’d love to know what you all think about the writing retreats you’ve been to. What have you found to be essential elements for a good retreat? What works? What doesn’t?

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Summer! It’s here at last. The semester is over. My Cold of Doom is finally gone. And I’m back from what was meant to be my summer kick-off, a writing retreat in the Colorado Rockies.

So far, the summer’s been a little inauspicious. I was sick for most of the writing retreat (which didn’t prevent me from enjoying myself, but which was kind of a bummer). We’re facing down a long weekend of rain, rain, and more rain here in Brooklyn. And, as per usual, I seem to have packed the next few months so full of travel that I’ll probably have less time to write than I did during the semester. Silly me.

Next week a good friend of ours will be visiting us from Germany. Then it’s down to Philadelphia to celebrate our 5 year wedding anniversary (yay!). Then I go to Kansas City to spend some time doing work with my archaeology colleague at his campus. Then my mother-in-law is here for a week. Then we’re in Seattle for two. Whew. I’m getting tired just thinking about it! At the same time, I know it’ll be fun. I always ask, ‘why do I do this to myself’ and then I remember the answer (‘oh, right, I can’t help it!’). Plus, as of now, we’re not going anywhere for the whole of August. Which will be weird. And wonderful.

Anyway, if I can get writing done during the rush of the semester, I can squeeze some in during summer craziness too. I’m currently on the last editing pass for ABSENT, and have started drafting my query letter. That will be out the door very soon, happily. I got a lot of good worldbuilding and plot arc notes on my newest novel idea at the Colorado retreat, as well as some great discussions to resolve a few issues that have cropped up in PROJECT AWESOME. There is no shortage of work to be done. I’m feeling optimistic, though. As I prepare to send ABSENT out to agents, I can really see the improvements in my writing since the last novel I subbed. They are substantial and bridge everything from prose to structure to general confidence in my craft.

Maybe this will be the one.

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