Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Writing 2

We were talking -- among other things -- about how to talk about writing achievements without sounding like a jerk. Saying things out loud tends to reinforce them. If you don't mention achievements, you may tend to undervalue them. But how does one mention achievements without bragging?

I struggle with this in part because the Minnesota culture discourages bragging and getting above your neighbors. The best you can say about anything is "not so bad" or "it could be worse."

Writing

A cross post from the Wyrdsmiths blog:

I got together with Lyda Morehouse and Naomi Kritzer today and talked about Captain America, also about writing. I have been going through a bad patch, in which I envy other writers and feel bad about my writing career. Naomi pointed out that I have stories almost ready to go out and I am wasting time -- weeks and months -- tweeking them. They should go out the door.

It's perfectly true that fiction does not sell till editors look at it, and most of my work sells sooner or later.

I have no idea why I'm stalled right now. But the obvious thing to do -- as Naomi says -- is get the stories out.

There are plenty of things that can go wrong with a writing career. All you can do is make sure that the things going wrong have nothing to do with you. Don't do the work of malign fate for malign fate.

Cap 2

Well, now I have seen Captain America 2. I think I have used up a month's supply of adrenaline. Thus far, my favorite Marvel movies are Thor 1 and Captain America 1. But this movie is a fine mix of violence, paranoia and cynicism. I will say no more, for fear of spoiling the story for the two or three people who haven't seen CA # 2 yet.

Note: Cap is never cynical, nor is he treated with cynicism. But the world that poor guy has found himself in. You can understand why he longs for WWII.

I did nothing after Captain America, except lie on the couch and read. I am going through Quiet a second time. According to the book, introverts need to limit their input. Well, I certainly exceeded my limit at CA # 2. That's okay, so long as I have down time after. Now I am thinking about the movie, trying to understand what it says. Not that it's hard to figure out, but I need to distance myself from all the crashing and banging. It occurs to me that good writing -- writing that is obviously skillful and thoughtful -- can put a barrier between the reader and the experience: a kind of glass wall. Action flicks smash right through that wall. The noise and the adrenaline removes a layer of protection. Remember that American torturers use noise -- especially rock music -- to break their victims down. I am not saying that the noise of an action flick is torture, but it makes the audience vulnerable. You can't maintain an intellectual and emotional distance in an action flick. Of course, there is evidence that this kind of adrenaline high also protects people from the reality of what's happening. But I guess I am inclined to think that the crudeness and rawness of an action flick is closer to life in contemporary America than is intelligence and grace.

An action flick says, "Civilization? You think we have a civilization here? The more fool you!"

There are a lot of ways that writing -- and movies and art -- can break through the glass wall which I don't like. I am kind of a wimp, and there is a limit to how much ugliness I can handle. I didn't like The Avengers, except for the bit at the end when they are in the shawarma joint. It's almost the only part of the movie I remember. Too much violence. Not enough plot. And the villains were all external. The problem for me is -- how do you break the glass wall without being way too nasty? And is disgust an adequate way to break the wall?

I think I am trying to be profound and failing. Ah well.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Shark Post

I've been in a vile mood, I think because I'm revising stories. One story in particular has been really hard to finish, and I'm getting more and more frustrated. But I want this thing done and out the door and out of my life.

Why can't I be like a shark and resolve problems by biting them in half?

Friday, March 28, 2014

Notes on the Concert Tonight

Osmo Vanska is leading the Minnesota Orchestra in two Sibelius symphonies tonight. Per the announcer, Orchestra Hall is full and the musicians -- who now gather backstage and come out as a group -- got a standing ovation. When Vanska came out there was another ovation and the waving of many, many blue and white Finnish flags. Vanska is currently negotiating with the orchestra board on whether or not he comes back. He says he would like to come back, if the orchestra can play as well as he wants them to. I figure this is code for, if the board will promise to keep its stinking hands off the orchestra. He knows how well the musicians play. He has been conducting them in concerts during the lockout. Go, Osmo! Go, the musicians! And go, Sibelius!

The CEO who caused all the trouble by trying to break the musicians union is leaving this summer "by mutual agreement" with the board and its new president. Eight board members have quit, because they're angry about the CEO leaving. Good riddance to all of them.

I wasn't paying enough attention to the Sibelius 4th Symphony, but I did listen to his 1st Symphony. It sounded good, very lush, but also on the edge of the modern era, with sudden breaks and shifts. According to the announcer, Vanska looked happy at the end. He hugged the entire string section and then went out to the new, huge lobby to sign copies of the Grammy-winning CD of these two Siberlius symphonies. It's obvious the concert goers adore him and the orchestra.

Great Sentences

This is a link to an article in The Guardian that made me crazy. "What are the great sentences in genre fiction?" I guess I had missed the concept of great sentences. They are the ones that really stand out, like the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice or the ending of The Great Gatsby. I said on facebook:
Most of the sentences listed in the article and its comments draw attention to themselves. They are finely wrought, often elaborate, often clever. Which is okay, but a lot of very good writing does not have flashing neon arrows that tell us, "Art! Art! Art."

Sentences belong in the texture of a story, and many sentences in a story are not going to be -- should not be -- examples of tour de force writing. I'm sure it's possible to write entire works of fiction with tour de force sentences. Most likely it has been done. But Jane Austen didn't do it. Yes, she has written some amazing, witty sentences -- the opening to P&P is the most famous. But a lot of her beautiful, clear, precise writing simply describes her characters and their actions. You say, "What beautiful writing." But you don't remember the individual sentences, except the opening to P&P.

The comments to the article gave some good examples of tour de force sentences in SF. But I don't think this kind of writing is necessary for good fiction. I was trying to think of great, memorable sentences in the Icelandic family sagas. Everything I came up with was a line of dialogue, which does not display the skill of the writer, but the personality of the character. When Bergthora says she will go into the house with Njall and die with him, when the family's enemies burn the house to kill Njall and Bergthora's sons, she says, "I was given to Njall young, and I said that our fates would be the same." That does not draw your attention to the writing, but to Bergthora, her toughness and loyalty. You can't pull a line like that out of context and marvel at its beauty. It only works if you know the story.

Or when Grettir and his brother Illugi are making their last stand on the island of Drangey and Grettir says, "Bare is the back with no brother behind it." Sounds lofty and heroic, doesn't it? Well, by this time we know that Grettir has a nasty mouth on him and likes to quote Viking proverbs sarcastically. What he is saying is, "You asshole, someone just got behind me. You get back there and defend me." Which Illugi does and does well. I love that line, because it shows us Grettir's character so well. At this point, he is dying of gangrene and can't even stand up to fight, but has to fight on his knees. He knows he's going to be killed in a few minutes, and he still manages to be sarcastic; and Illugi still manages to be loyal to his difficult, even impossible brother.

The people commenting on the article are right: there are a lot of tour de force sentences in P.G. Wodehouse. The family fight with "aunt calling to aunt like mastodons across a primeval swamp." He was a terrific stylist. I have read him for years looking for serious content and not found any, which may reduce his chances of being called a great writer. But what a stylist!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Bibliography

I don't have a complete bibliography online. There is a bibliography in the Mammoths of the Great Plains chapbook, and it's complete up to the date of publication, which is 2010. Since then a collection, Big Mama Stories, has come out from Aqueduct Press; and I've had five new stories published: "The Woman Who Fooled Death Five Times," "Holmes Sherlock," "Kormak the Lucky," "The Scrivener" and "The Hatmaker of God." "Woman" and "Kormak" were in F&SF. "Holmes Sherlock" and "The Scrivener" were in online magazines: Eclipse Online and Subterranean. "Hatmaker" just came out in Tales of the Unanticipated, a Twin Cities semipro zine. TotU has a website, but it doesn't seem to give ordering information. It does give contact information, so it should be possible to ask them how to order.

Conventions

I don't do a lot of conventions. This is partly due to lack of money and partly due to dislike of flying, especially since the TSA came into existence. I find the searching humiliating, and I think it is unnecessary. (See Bruce Schneier on security theater.)

However, I go to Wiscon every year and will be there again this May. The Science Fiction Research Association is meeting at the same time at the next hotel over from Wiscon, and I am a guest at SFRA. So I will be going back and forth between the two cons.

I'm also attending Minicon, a local Twin Cities convention, in April and Diversacon, another local con, in August. I will probably be at CONvergence, a very large local con, over the 4th of July.

So that is my schedule this year.

Weather Report

It's snowing at the moment. I pulled together the paperwork for my taxes yesterday, as planned, and am spending today inputting all the data to spreadsheets. When this is done, I plan to lie on the couch and read.

The snow keeps changing. Earlier it was big flakes falling at a slant. Now it's small flakes falling straight down. Some accumulation, but the streets are mostly clear, though wet. A late winter snowfall, which is not going to last...

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Less Mulling

Looking back over this blog, I notice the posts I enjoy most are about what's happening in the present: such as a big storm with photos of snow. I think I need to do less mulling and more reporting on current events.

And I need to strive for John Scalzi's cheerful, chipper tone.

Today I need to pull together the paperwork for my taxes. How is that for cheerful? I use a tax preparation service. But I like to come in with everything neatly ordered and on a spreadsheet.

Following One's Passion

This is from a post by Kevin Drum about advice given by Richard Branson (of Virgin Mobile and Virgin Airlines) on "doing what you love:"

I know I'm being cranky, but I am sick to death of rich people telling us to "follow our passion" or something similar… For most of us, this is a recipe for going broke. That's because, sadly, the world tends to assign a low market value to most of our passions.

Here's some better advice: try to avoid stuff that you hate. I admit that this is less uplifting, but it's generally more achievable and produces reasonable results. You might not ever get your dream job, or your dream house, or your dream partner, because that's just the way the lottery of life works. But with a little bit of effort, you might be able to avoid a soul-crushing job, a two-hour commute, and an empty relationship. Maybe. It's worth a try, anyway.

But honestly, most of us are better off saving our passions for our hobbies. This won't get me invited to give any commencement speeches, but it's still pretty solid advice.
And my comments on Kevin Drum:

I sort of agree with Drum. One has to negotiate with life. You don't always get what you really want -- and what you really want might not be best for other people. Remember the Bester story, "Oddy and the Id?" And there's a LeGuin story -- in Orsinian Tales -- about a musician who is offered the chance to be a famous composer. But the impresario who offers this says he must leave his home city and his family and devote his life to his career. He choses not to. That story always chilled me. The idea of giving up one's art! But he didn't want to give up his home and family.

I have very mixed feelings about negotiating with life. Shouldn't one demand more? Shouldn't one take more risks? On the other hand, starving in the streets is not fun.

I admire people who go for broke. For the most, though, we learn about the people who succeeded. They may have had miserable personal lives, but they wrote the great book, painted the great paintings, changed the world in some crucial (and good) way. We benefited from the risks they took. For some people, I think it was absolutely the right decision. Van Gogh died in an insane asylum, having sold one painting in his life. But look at what he left us! Could he have had a better life, if he'd been more willing to negotiate? I suspect not. I can't imagine one. I'm not sure he's a good role model, however.

Well, I could go in a circle about this one. Follow your dream, but have some idea where your next meal is coming from. And you might consider other people, now and then. Don't let your kids starve, if you can do anything about it.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Bibliography

I updated on my bibliography yesterday. Not too bad, though I could have written more. This was not true when I started. I had to learn how to write without waiting for the muse, one reason why I wrote novels, which require less inspiration than short stories. You can just trudge on, until another neat idea hits. And it was hard for me to write when working day jobs. But I have no excuse for not writing more in the part five years.

I've been saying that I have published 30+ works of short fiction. It's 40+, almost 50 when a few more forecoming stories actually forthcome. And six novels, if I include Tomb of the Fathers, which is almost Nebula novel length. This is published work, not the stories piled up on my work desk.

A lot of stories are in groups: hwarhath stories, Lydia Duluth and Goxhat stories, Big Mama stories, Icelandic stories; and a new group seems to be emerging: fairy and folk tales about writing and art. I have four of these so far. The best one is "The Grammarian's Five Daughters," but the others are perfectly okay; and I love writing them. Naomi Kritzer wants me to write a fairy tale about readers, and I think there should be one about librarians. One of my facebook colleagues has suggested a story about booksellers.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

MFA vs. NYC

There is a new book out: MFA vs. NYC: The Two Culutres of American Fiction. It sounded morbidly fascinating to me, so I got it.

The two cultures are Creative Writing workshops and the "literary" community in New York City. The workshops are spread out in college towns all over the US. The literary community is made up of people (this book tells us) who live in one neighborhood in Brooklyn, hang out with one another and aspire to six figure advances.

There is a lot more to American fiction: all the genres, for example. And there is a lot more to the US than Brooklyn or the college towns with writing programs. Writers live everywhere and do not all make their living from MFA programs.

I made a couple of facebook posts, as I read the book. They follow:
I got MFA vs NYC on my nook and have read 100 pages. It is clear that I am not a writer. I've had none of these experiences. On the other hand, I have worked in a printing plant in Detroit and an art museum in Minneapolis and three different warehouses... I have not been a short order cook, which is fine. I never wanted to work in food service. And the merchant marine was out, because I get seasick. But it would have been nice to be a forest fire lookout...

The printing plant was not like Kinko's. The presses were two stories tall with two stories of shock absorbers below them. They couldn't move the presses, so they turned the plant into a kind of fortress surrounded by tall fences, with security guards at every entrance. I had an office job and got to wear a pretty dress. The guys on the plant floor were covered with ink and got union wages.

*

I am most of the way through MFA vs. NYC. Interesting book. If you are a writer, your response to the book will be autobiographical. I am up to Fredric Jameson and the workshop rules for writing: Write what you know. Find your own voice. Show, don't tell.

No, no and no.

It's good to know where show, don't tell comes from. (Not from Jameson, from the workshop culture. Jameson does not seem to like show, don't tell much.) I hate it. It is so obviously untrue. And I remember when -- almost 50 years ago -- one of my professors mentioned that many of her former students were writing back to her and saying, "I think I have finally found my own voice." Find your own voice? I thought. What is this crap? As for write what you know, why? Did Homer fight in the Trojan War? Must have been difficult, given that he was blind. How about the author of Beowulf? Met a lot of dragons, did he?

How about tell a story and use whatever techniques are needed to tell the story? The story is primary, not the author. (Lyric poetry may require a personal voice -- or maybe not. Is the voice of "My Last Duchess" Browning's voice? How about "Andrea del Sarto?")

I probably have more to say about the book, but I haven't organized my thoughts. It may not be worth more thought. Neither culture is my culture.