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[writing|science] Geeking out over asteroid strikes

One of the things I love about writing is research. One of the things I love about research is interviewing experts. An acquaintance (and fan) is an asteroid geologist and runs a meteorite laboratory. I asked her about the kinetic strike on Seattle that occurs in my METAtropolis: Green Space novella, “Rock of Ages”. Here is part of what she sent me, redacted somewhat for clarity and confidentiality:
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[writing|cancer] We can write the gospels so they’ll still talk about us when we’ve died

Some years ago, I was in a discussion with the mighty, mighty Tim Pratt about why we write. At this point, I cannot recall if it was private conversation, email, a Con panel, bar chatter, a joint interview or what. What I do recall quite strongly was me making some fairly high flying statement about literary ambition and being read even after my time as a writer had passed. Tim claimed that he wrote to pay the rent.

To this day, I’m not certain how serious he was. I absolutely deserved to have my leg pulled at that point. I’m pretty sure I was overfilled with my own sense of self-importance in the moment. Pegs needed to be taken down, and whatnot. But even so, there’s a valid discussion here.

For one, I don’t write to pay the rent. I have a Day Jobbe for that. It pays reasonably well, is moderately entertaining, minimally stressful, and I like what I do while working with good people and for a good employer. Chances are pretty strong that if we ever talked about it, I’d bore you to tears, but I like my work. That’s what counts.

But the writing? I write because I want to write. I write because I’m in love with the language. I write because the buzz I get from doing a really nifty thing on the page is tangible. I write because I like to be read. I write because I like having readers. And, yes, in I write for posterity. (Which statement could be argued to mean that I write to make an ass of myself, but that’s the English language for you: riddled with half-baked puns and deceptive etymologies.) Money is mostly a way of keeping score, and far from the only method of doing so.

Literary posterity is a funny thing. The author of The Epic of Gilgamesh is anonymous. Most people with much of an education can name Homer as the poet who wrote the Odyssey. Some people know about the Illiad, or that he was supposedly blind. I don’t think anybody but Classicists knows much else about him, even in terms of what tradition says. By the time you get to Sophocles and his lot, there’s at least a little biography attached to the texts. William Shakespeare has entire fields of study around him, complete with academic controversy, revisionism and all the other fun of postmodernist thought.

Who writing today will be subject to that kind of literary posterity? Not me, certainly. But it’s hard to tell. Edward Bulwer-Lytton was the great hope of nineteenth century English letters. Today, his work is literally a joke. His contemporary Charles Dickens was widely reviled by the academic and critical establishment of the day as a hack. Who is the more widely read now?

My guess is of twentieth century authors in popular American letters, we’re most likely to see Stephen King and Nora Roberts on college reading lists a century from now. Not the only ones, of course, but I cannot pretend to know which critical darlings and academically significant authors will also be read.

What I can and do know is that I will not be among them.

I’m okay with that. My vanity is a little disappointed, of course, but my common sense knows better.

What I do hope for is to stay on the shelf a while after I pass. It comforts me that some people love Mainspring or Green or some of my short fiction. It please me that I’m in translation across at least a dozen languages. It pleases me that my work will always be at least footnoted in the history of various awards. It pleases me that people have read me, and for a while at least, will continue to read me.

In a way, that’s always been why I write. To raise my voice a little higher, and have it heard a little longer. The end is coming, and I won’t write all that much more in my life, but I’m happy with what I’ve been able to do. I only wish I could have done more.

[writing] Editing METAtropolis: Green Space

[info]kenscholes and I are a good way through the primary editorial process for METAtropolis: Green Space, the third volume is the highly successful original audiobook series from Audible.com. We have all the stories in hand, and have gone through them all for revision notes. Some are back to the authors, some need a little finalization from either me or Ken, depending on which of us did the primary editing pass.

I’m waiting on my change notes back from Ken, which will also incorporate feedback from series editor Steve Feldberg. And we’re on track for project deadlines, which is a good thing.

While I genuinely enjoy editing open call anthologies, there’s also a specific pleasure to working with a select group of authors whose work you admire, and can trust. The editorial eye still comes into play, but it’s working at a different level. And the fiddly bits to map series continuity across the stories can be fun and challenging as well. We aren’t writing tight shared world work like Heroes in Hell or Thieves’ World, but the stories still have to hang together and feel of a piece.

In the end, we’re dealing with seven voices telling different parts of one much larger metastory which even across all three volumes the reader barely glimpses. It’s an interesting approach and fun format, and I feel privileged to have been involved in all three volumes to date. Maybe someday there will be a fourth, that’s a wonderful thing for me to imagine.

[writing] What I have been doing just lately

Continuing to work as I can. Currently dividing my time between two projects. One is editing duties for METAtropolis: Green Space, which I am interchanging with the mighty [info]kenscholes. That is fun and interesting, as editing almost always is. Because METAtropolis is a shared world, there are continuity issues to be dealt with. Because it is a loosely shared world (the only stories with tight overlap are mine and Ken’s), those continuity issues are subtle and fine-grained. It’s a joy to work with that writing crew.

I am also doing some audio annotation for the Audible.com edition of Trial of Flowers. My egregiously idiosyncratic vocabulary is jumping out and biting me in the butt on this one. In effect, I’m about halfway to a Lexicon Flora, should anyone ever feel the need for such. I am also filled with admiration for the poor narrator who has to take this ornate little beast on. Revisiting this work from some years ago has been fascinating in its own right. Perhaps its an exercise we authors should engage in more often.

[personal|writing] Being busy

I am busy these days. Working under a mortal deadline is wonderfully clarifying to the mind. Even if I am wrong about the immediate future, I am not wrong about the general trend of my disease, so the things I am trying to do right now apply regardless.

As mentioned recently, I have temporarily suspended work on Original Destiny, Manifest Sin to grod around closely inside of METAtropolis: Green Space. In the past three or four days I have done a close read on stories by Karl Schroeder and Elizabeth Bear. Today I’ll dive back into Ken Scholes‘ story. Editorial work is very different from writing a first draft, but they come out of the same general space in my brain. Each has its joys. I’m committing a minimum of one hour per day to this task.

There is also an ongoing project to simplify the holdings here at Nuevo Rancho Lake. Hence the recent Basement Party, and future such in late May and through June, most likely. I have committed at least half an hour per day (though yesterday it wound up being more like two hours) to advancing that ball. Lately that has been a lot of sorting through receipts, files and paperwork to determine what needs to kept for tax purposes, and what can be disposed of. Also, walking through my large and essentially random pile of CDs, CD-Rs and DVD-Rs to make sure whatever is on them has been captured either into iTunes or into my photo files as appropriate. Later there will be larger scale decisions about the disposition of books, clothing, furniture, art, et cetera. I’d rather I do these things now than someone else have to puzzle through them after I’m gone.

Plus Day Jobbery, parenting, relationship time with Lisa Costello, keeping up with friends and family, forthcoming travel, and so forth. So, yes, I am being busy.

[writing] Where I am, where I am going

A new independent press deal is in the works. I’ll announce shortly, but suffice to say that I am pleased.

I’ve temporarily stopped working on Original Destiny, Manifest Sin in order to concentrate on my editorial duties for METAtropolis: Green Space. This is all right, as the Original Destiny manuscript is now 40,000 words long. If I needed to abort the project, the working draft is now long and detailed enough that I could make a few thousand more words worth of notes in the synopsis, write a few ending scenes, and have someone else finish it collaboratively. I don’t expect that to be the case, but I am thinking ahead.

On METAtropolis: Green Space, [info]kenscholes and I have divided up the duties of close editorial read and continuity editing. That’s one of the challenges of this specific project, which involved a loosely shared world. It’s also one of the fun parts.

With respect to my own work, whatever time is left to me once I finish METAtropolis: Green Space and Original Destiny, Manifest Sin will probably be spent writing outlines and story stubs, and seeking collaborators. Also, identifying a few existing stories or drafts which could benefit from an outside eye. One idea I have which may or may not bear fruit is to line up about fifteen collaborators for a posthumous collection of stories by me and each of them. I think that would be a lot of fun, but I’m not sure it has any critical or commercial value beyond my vanity.

My trip to San Diego for my Guest of Honor gig at Gaslight Gathering is this Thursday. Both [info]the_child and Lisa Costello are coming. I am really looking forward to this. Some interesting stuff going down, and, well, it’s my probable last chance to play this particular role. Plus I’ll try to get more writing done both in transit and while we are there.

[writing] Juvenilia

More or less literally juvenilia, in this case. In the various excavations of my basement, some very old manuscripts have turned up. I don’t have time to re-key them, but I have scanned a few things to .pdf for your delectation. Some of the scans are a little hard to read, but this is a problem with the source material more than with the scanning process.

Untitled high school poetry — Overwrought and anguished with the desperate importance that informed the world for me in my teen years. Probably 1980.

Untitled SF short — Something from about 1980 that is inexplicable to me now.

Untitled SF short — Something from about 1981 that is also inexplicable to me now.

Hempkill” — This is the first real short I have any recollection of writing. It was a class assignment my senior year in high school, dated June, 1982.

Canyon Dam Narrative — Apparently I wanted to be a blogger even in 1983. A narrative of my near-drowning in a boating accident.

Enjoy!

[writing|process] Old home week at Wordos, “The Stars Do Not Lie”

Yesterday, Lisa Costello and I drove the 100+ miles down to Eugene, OR to attend a Wordos meeting, with a dinner preceding. This was the first Wordos meeting I’ve been to in years, though for the first half of the last decade I was an almost weekly attendee. It was great good fun to see some old friends there, as well as meet a few new ones. And it was a very strange experience to hear my Nebula- and Hugo-nominated novella “The Stars Do Not Lie” be discussed in critical terms.

One of the points several people made was that the story would have taken a real beating at the critique table. The first two paragraphs are so dense and strange that they violate a number of the classic Turkey City lexicon rules. Yet those first two paragraphs neatly encapsulate one of the basic themes of the story, and foreshadow much of the plot. In other words, they work in spite of themselves and the rules we try to follow.

It was also interesting to hear people talk about my intentions for this-and-that, and how I crafted the contrasting voice for the two mutually antagonistic protagonists, and so forth. To my mind, one of the oddities of literary criticism (as opposed to critique) is the imputing of motives to the author. I can remember back in high school hearing English teachers say things like, “What Faulkner is doing here is emphasizing [some cultural trope]”, and thinking, No, what Faulkner is doing here is telling a damned story. It’s the readers who find those other things.

Over three decades later, it turns out I was right. That discussion really made me reflect once more on the concept of unconscious competence. When I wrote “The Stars Do Not Lie”, I was just telling a damned story. I was generally aware of what I was doing — I’m not blind to my own thinking, after all — but I never sat there and said to myself, “Gee, how shall I emphasize the dynamic of faith in conflict with reason in this scene?” I never said to myself, “Oh, this fits into the conversation-that-is-genre going back to Lord of Light and Universe.”

Those sorts things are true, in the sense that they are very clearly present in the text, but Fred put them there, not me. At least not my conscious, self-aware self.

All in all, it would have been a fascinating experience in almost any context, but all the more so among the friends and writers who played a powerful and very material role in launching my career.

After that discussion we had about a thirty-minute impromptu Q&A on the craft and business of writing, which was kind of fun, too. Like world’s shortest writing workshop or something. And again, as I said to Lisa, a decade and a half ago I was at the other end of that exact same table, asking those kinds of questions. Quite weird to be talking to my past self. Giving back by paying forward. Plus it was a lot of fun.

My thanks to the Wordos for inviting us down and hosting us.

[writing|process] Yet more work on Original Destiny, Manifest Sin

Two questions emerged during yesterday’s efforts on Original Destiny, Manifest Sin. One is a character issue, the other is stylistic but at a very deep level.

Regarding characters, [info]klwilliams commented thusly:

“No female perspective for Manifest Destiny? [sic] I think you’re missing a good opportunity if not.

This flushed out two issues for me. One, the stated issue she cites, that I don’t have a female POV on the Manifest Sin side of the plot dynamic. Two, that despite decades of careful effort, I’m still quite capable of unconscious sexism in my writing. Of the seven protagonists named in yesterday’s post, one is female. Four are white men, though one of them is essentially undead through most of the book and another is a ghost through much of the book — I don’t think that lets me off the hook. One is Native American and one is Chinese, and one of the white men is gay.

This is why we have first drafts. To find such issues and correct them. Because while I don’t labor at political correctness, I am perfectly aware that world today is constituted of far more people who are not straight-identified white men like myself than it is of people who look and sound and act like me. I am also perfectly aware the historical reality is likewise constituted of far more people who are not like me. It just makes sense to me to write about the world in all its complexities. Plus that’s just more interesting. I’ve held this view since long before I had a writing career. And still my unconscious defaults can take hold when I am not paying attention.

Stylistically, yesterday I drafted the first dialog between Original Destiny and Manifest Sin. Oh great Ghu is it bad. I’m talking junior high school poetry bad. Declamatory text, fruity diction, overwrought emotional color. Stinky, stinky, stinky. Very wrong for what I want and need in this book. Yet what they are actually saying to one another is almost exactly what I do want and need.

Long experience tells me not to revise while I’m drafting. I know some writers do that, but I’ve also seen a lot of writers fall down that hole and never come out with a finished manuscript. Again, this is why we have first drafts. The dialog says what it needs to say, however badly it does so. I’ve satisfied the structural and thematic needs of the book here. Later, on revision, I’ll go back and rip it out and try again to capture the voice and flow and rhythm and speech register and sensibility I want there. For now, this steaming pile of angsty crap will serve as a placeholder and carry my intended meaning until I’m ready to do those dialogs proper justice.

Later, though. I have a book to write in the mean time.

[writing|process] More work on Original Destiny, Manifest Sin

I really need to come up with an online icon for this book.

Spent a bit of time yesterday mapping the timeline and structure of Original Destiny, Manifest Sin. I’ve realized I’m going to have to approach this book differently from any of the other 20+ first draft novels I’ve ever written. With the partial exception of Madness of Flowers, I have always written in reading order. This regardless of how the plot or narrative timeline are structured. Even when writing first draft, my experience of story is remarkably parallel to the way I experience story as a reader.

Except that’s not going to work on this book, unless I want an especially messy first draft. And the meta-requirements of the voice of the book impose another layer of craft I really don’t think I can account for with my usual linear writing problem. I need the piece to be a dialog between Original Destiny and Manifest Sin. In my character sheet, I have labeled them “urges”. That word is a backformation from demiurge, and is a concept I’ve explored somewhat in the Green continuity. (Which, to be clear, is entirely a separate thing from the continuity of this book.)

In simplest terms, Original Destiny is the voice of pastoralism, premodernism, magic, divinity and the naturalistic world of God’s creation. The Dionysian impulse. The feminine principle. Mythos. Manifest Sin is the voice of industrialization, Enlightenment civilization and an increasingly mechanized, deterministic empirical world. The Apollonian impulse. The masculine principle. Logos. I need to work on those definitions a lot, obviously, but it’s the dialog between those two voices that must frame the book and provide the through-line, reader identification and narrative continuity. And I have to do so in a way which engages the reader’s attention.

So yesterday was a lot of thinking about that.

Likewise, I was looking at my character list with an eye toward whose individual stories are being told to highlight this tension. It is pretty obvious from how I’d first begun to address the story that my personal sympathies lie strongly with Original Destiny and the Dionysian impulse. But then The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen was always my favorite movie of Terry Gilliam’s Apollonian-Dionysian film quartet. However, this book isn’t about my personal preferences. I want to tell this story as a sort of parable about the evolution of the modern world, and it doesn’t serve me well to impose a moral axis. The Apollonian-Dionysian tension is fundamental to the choices that govern both culture in general and our individual human existences in particular, at least when seen through the dualistic lens of Western thought and philosophy. It’s not a good-evil dynamic at all, though in our world both great good and terrible evil have arisen as real consequences of that dynamic. And that Western dualism is decidedly the tradition in which I write and live my life.

Still, I will have my little jokes. So when I realized that Original Destiny was well-represented in the human narratives by Peony Sykes, Red Eyes Parker, Li Cheng-Ho and William Clark (who in historical reality was very firmly a creature of Manifest Sin), but Manifest Sin only had Aaron Burr and Thomas Edison to tell his story, I had to add another major point-of-view character. In this case, the logical choice seemed to be George Armstrong Custer. Why? Because I can!

So, anyway, that’s where my head is at today.

PS: I debated going into this much detail about my internal process in developing the book. I don’t normally reveal quite so much. But I figured, why not? It helps me to articulate my thoughts, and might be a useful glimpse into my writing process for those of you who read this blog primarily from a writer’s perspective. Feel free to ask questions or seek clarification on what I’m discussing.

[writing|process] Working on Original Destiny, Manifest Sin

I’ve been working on Original Destiny, Manifest Sin. Which is to say, I’ve read the roughly 17,000 word stub I’d already written, plus the unpublished short story “Fool’s Curse”. Plus the synopsis. Plus the other synopsis. Plus the timeline.

It’s a damned complex book. I mean, I knew this all along, but I know it all over again.

So yesterday I drew up a Dramatis Personae. Named characters. Significant unnamed characters. (The killer angels, for instance, do not have names at this point, though they have distinct personalities and important roles in the story.) Named animals, mostly horses, oxen and dogs. (This is the Old West, after all.) Named places that are ahistorical. Named steam rams. And identifying the story year(s) in which each of these occurs, because the narrative spirals through the first 70 years of the nineteenth century, wandering across both space and time as the story unfolds.

I was laughing at myself for naming horses that don’t even appear on the page, for example, while leaving all sorts of people referred to only by their presence in a crowd or their profession. It feels right, but it also feels complicated. I expect that by the end of the weekend I’ll have begun laying down new words, but I need a very good handle on this indeed for this book to come together anything like my vision of it.

This is the most fun part of writing for me. Primary creation.

Just for fun, here’s the named animals so far. One of them is an actual historical character (so to speak). I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide which names belong to horses, oxen and dogs, respectively. In some cases, it should be obvious.

  • Belle
  • Seaman
  • Bucephalus
  • Kennesaw
  • Faith
  • Poquito
  • Little Dog
  • Mencius
  • Esau
  • Jacob

I am having a very good time with this.

[cancer|writing] A curious intersection of cancer and my experience of story

Something’s been going for a while in my life, the past two years or more, which has intensified since my cancer took a turn for the much worse this past January. The emotional stresses of cancer have inflected my experience of story.

When I’m watching a movie, reading a book or a piece of short fiction, or even when I am writing a story, I have a lot of trouble with endings. Doesn’t matter what the internal context of the ending is: happy, sad, bleak, uplifting, whatever. That moment of satori that comes even at the end of mediocre fiction has become an emotional trigger for me. I tear up at the end of everything. Even songs. Often I start to cry.

It’s the fact of the ending.

Prior to the cancer, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times in my life a book or movie had made me cry. The first time I read The Left Hand of Darkness is the only one I can recall off the top of my head. But now? Endings. It’s all about the endings. Even silly ones.

I suppose this is because I’m so attuned to story. My writer brain processes and parses endings very carefully. We as writers talk a lot about how endings work. The ending should be implicit in the beginning. The ending should provide both resolution and validation. The ending should offer closure. Endings, endings, endings. Without them, we don’t have books or stories, we only have narrative fragments.

Cancer has transformed my life from an ongoing narrative fragment to something with a clear-cut and impending ending. In my case, one that is not implicit in the beginning, though I am working hard to provide both resolution and validation, not to mention closure. I have more purpose now that I am on the verge of dying than ever had when I was simply living as if I might go on forever and death was something that happened to other people.

And that influences my experience of story. Truth be told, I’m not terribly happy about this.