Saturday, March 22, 2008

Work in progress

I've come to believe there's no winning when it comes to work in progress.

My policy, which I don't plan to change, is never to show it to anyone. No matter how far along I am in a book, regardless of how desperate I am for feedback, I keep the book to myself. Until, that is, I've finished my second draft, at which point I run it by Dave. Other than Dave, no one sees it until I turn it in to the editor.

The problem with this approach is that part of my mind constantly inhabits the world of the current work, so naturally I want to talk about this nifty place I'm living. I want to discuss the cool ending of the first chapter of Overthrowing Heaven, or this amazing place that figures centrally in the book, or, well, you get the idea. And, I want to talk about it without being the kind of tease I just was (though, I have to admit, being a tease can be fun, too).

So, why not talk about it?

Because doing so would create its own set of problems. For one thing, talking about a book or story almost inevitably colors the reader's perceptions of that work, and I want reader reactions that reflect only the words on the page, not what I've previously said. And then, of course, there's the fragile state of my writing ego. What if I show this draft to someone and he or she hates it? Would I be motivated to go back and change it? I certainly hope not, not unless the reader found a genuine problem, because I have to stick to my vision and trust in it, but I can imagine myself succumbing to this weakness.

There's no winning. I'm going to stick with my current policy, but every now and then it will bug me.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Congratulations to Barry Malzberg

The Hugo nominations are out, and without trying to offend any of the other worthy nominees in any of the categories, I would like to congratulate Barry N. Malzberg on his nomination for his wonderful non-fiction book, Breakfast in the Ruins: Science Fiction in the Last Millennium. If you haven't read this collection of essays and you are at all interested in the SF field, you should buy a copy immediately--and then vote for it for the Hugo award, as I will.

Well done, Barry!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The wisdom of indirection

I am by nature a very direct person. I say what I mean. If I say I have no preference about what we eat for dinner, then I really have no preference. My instinctual approach to anything is to go directly for it.

Yet I have learned that sometimes an indirect or even apparently off-target path is the best route to a goal.

For example, if you want to sell someone a service and make a business that will survive for the long term, the last thing you should do is try to sell that person. Instead, you should focus completely and utterly on the person's needs in your service area and try to figure out ways to help meet those needs. Trust that if you do that well, the sale will be a natural by-product of the discussion. If you don't maintain that focus, even if you sell a service, you're likely to sell the wrong one and thus ultimately end up with an unhappy client.

Similarly, if you want your fiction to talk about issues that are important to you, the worst thing you can do is try to make the fiction be about those issues. Instead, tell great stories, the best you can possibly manage, as well as you can manage. Trust that your concerns will find their way into your prose.

Trust doesn't come easily to me, but I've learned that in the above cases and in many others, you often have to trust the winding, indirect trail will prove to be the best way to your goal.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A damn fine speech

WARNING: I generally avoid politics in public forums and even at parties where I don't know the guests well. Stop reading now if you don't want a glimpse of my political feelings.

If you read on, you've been warned.

Yesterday, Barack Obama delivered an amazing speech in Philadelphia. Even if you saw it, I encourage you to read it, which you can do here. As a writer, someone who loves words, I am incredibly impressed. In this address, Obama confronted multiple serious issues, he refused to back down from facing the problems and conflicts some see in his relationship with his former pastor, and he treated us like adults. At the end, he even managed to be genuinely inspirational.

I consider Lincoln's writings to be the best of all I've read of the works of American presidents--a reading I must hasten to add is nowhere near complete. Lincoln was simply a superb writer.

Obama, who from the few reports I've seen did the first and final drafts of this speech, is positively Lincolnesque in this work.

On a more personal note, when the father who gave me my last name--not my birth father, but still the man I knew as my father--died when I was ten years old, I went to work mowing lawns so I could help out my family. It took me five hours to mow, rake, and edge a lawn. My clients paid me $2.50. Minimum wage at the time was $1.60 per hour. I've worked ever since. I've been broke, not anywhere near as poor as many but certainly not well off, and now I live well, better than I had any right ever to expect. America gave me the chance to create this better life.

I teared up at the end of Obama's speech, because I want my America to be one in which hard work gets you ahead; in which none of the stupid, superficial stuff--the color of your skin or the way you worship or the gender of your sexual partners--affects your chances; in which we strive together to lift up all of us; in which we use the might and the greatness of this most powerful of nations to confront the huge, frightening problems facing us--and overcome them.

God, how much I want that country.

I don't believe Obama--or any single candidate--can deliver it. I believe we can be that country only if the vast majority of us decide we want to be it and are willing to work long and hard to create it.

I am, though, coming to believe, against all my cynicism about political candidates, against the wisdom of my experience of repeated disappointment at the behavior of our country's leaders, that maybe, just maybe, Obama genuinely shares my desire and can inspire others to do the same. Wouldn't that be wonderful?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke, RIP

Sir Arthur C. Clarke, a giant of the SF field, died today. I won't try to recap his life or work; many, many others in many venues will do that. I don't have any personal stories to tell of him; I never had the privilege of meeting the man. I will, however, note two key points.

Clarke was one of those rare SF authors whose influence extended far beyond the genre. To get a sense of how important he was in the greater world, the story about his death made the home page of CNN (though now it is here). How many other SF writers will ever get the lead story position there?

Clarke, unlike some of the other early SF writers many of us in the field remember, was a giant not simply because he was writing SF in its relatively early years, but because he was both an inventive and an occasionally brilliant practitioner of the craft. Again, I'll spare you the lists, but if you don't know his early work--the books and stories he wrote himself (not the collaborations)--you owe it to yourself to read at least a few of them.

When I was young, Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke formed the ruling trinity of SF writers. All three are dead now. That makes me sad.

Help! (The Beatles' movie, not a cry for assistance)

We watched this old film last night. It is silly, self-indulgent, and self-commenting almost to the point of being po-mo, but I still enjoyed it on this viewing almost as much as I did when I first saw it at age ten. The music, of course, is wonderful, with songs that still play true and pure. If you haven't picked up the DVD set yet, do so, crank up the volume, and enjoy traveling back in time for a couple of hours.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: The Beatles were the greatest band of all time--no doubt, no argument, end of discussion.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Web Weasel speaks

On the topic of phone sex callers:

"A bunch of gooey, redneck, single-helix mutants"

What more can I say? A pleasure to work with, our Web Weasel.

Overheard in Raleigh (and a correction)

Correction first: I made a most embarrassing typo yesterday and wrote "Patterson" rather than "Watterson" for the creator of Calvin and Hobbes. My apologies to the genius, Bill Watterson. I've fixed the error in the blog, but I still feel obliged to apologize.

Now to the main topic for today.

We were at dinner in a very upscale, long-established, extremely nice Raleigh restaurant. I'm a compulsive people watcher; others fascinate me. At a table near ours sat a couple somewhere in their thirties or forties; another couple joined them not long after they took their chairs. As we were eating, a few loud words caused me to tune into their table, where I picked up this conversational snippet. The speakers were the original man and woman at that other table.

He: So she's gotten us these two strippers.

She: They were hookers, dear, hookers dressed as strippers.

He: They were wearing stripper clothes.

She: Garters, g-strings, and tits-out bras.

He: And these tall shoes.

She (with a theatrical sigh): Stilettos.

He (now looking exasperated but continuing): They started doing these sort of dances.

She: They're called lap dances, dear. That's why they were playing with you.

At this point, the other couple leaned closer, the speakers lowered their voices, and the rest of the conversation was lost to me.

I enjoy our group's discussions, but I have to admit that rarely have I been party to one that was quite so unusual, particularly in a rather conservative restaurant.

I'm sorry I didn't get to hear the rest.


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