Sunday, August 31, 2008

A puzzler

"Are you a plotter or a pantser?"

If you are a published author, how many times have you been asked that? If you are a reader, do you care whether or not an author is methodical and well organized? If you are a writer who is seeking publication, do you try to change your ways if you see a pattern and all your favorite authors are proud plotters? (Or proud pantsers?)

Or... is the question really code for something else? Does the interviewer really want to know if you write plot-driven, or character-driven stories?

According (I think) to Orson Scott Card, there are four types of stories: event (or plot) focused; character centered; idea based; or about milieu.

No one has ever asked if I write Idea, or Milieu. Among speculative fiction writers, I'd think some of us (but not me) might be more interested in an idea, or in world-building. In my opinion, Lord of the Rings (the book, not the movie) was a Milieu story.

I've digressed from the confines of being "plotter" or "pantser".

This year --I've been honored with a few interview requests-- I've seen a third option both asked, and discussed on writers' loops: that of puzzler.

Given that I'm asked the question, I like to give a thoughtful, unique, and interesting answer. Maybe I don't always succeed, but a monosyllabic response must miss the point of doing an interview, mustn't it?

Until yesterday, I often compared my own writing approach to solving a jigsaw puzzle in which the corners and outline were always in place first, but some of the pieces (including outside pieces) were identical in color and shape on at least two sides so I might not notice they started out in the wrong place until the work was almost completed.

Yesterday I attempted a chess analogy. It actually doesn't work as well as a jigsaw puzzle, unless I think of my editor --or someone else-- as an opponent in the process, which of course, I don't.

I write chess-titled Romances. I have done since 1993. It's ironic that other authors have chess covers, isn't it?

I write character-driven stories, usually centered on the hero. Plot... or a series of thrilling events... isn't my primary interest.

Comparing the beginning of a work to having a chess board before me is interesting (to me). Of course, my editor would never tolerate a cast of thirty-two: 16 good-guys and 16 baddies.

Well, I don't need the sidling Bishops, and I don't need a full complement of pawns on either side, either. Moreover, I can cut down on the Rooks (or castles) and if I think of them as the spaceships and palaces (or milieu, not characters), I'm almost down to a manageable cast.

You might (or might not!) be interested to know why I didn't have time to send Christmas cards last year. My editor needed me to write out a "Castle", an entire spaceship on which a climactic scene took place, and also two "Knights" from Knight's Fork.

She was right, of course.

Each character has its strengths, powers, and limitations. They can only move as far, and in the directions dictated by who/what they are, and what is in their way.

There are rules. Every move has consequences. There's a time limit. There are space constraints. Pawns can be transformed into more powerful pieces.

My fanciful little chess analogy ought to fail on account of the color contrast. In politics, not everyone acts as his party expects. However, I collect chess sets. I have a Cretan set, where Black is Gold and White is Silver. Once the men (chessmen) are rubbed a few times, it's hard to tell which side they're on.

With that happy thought, I'll wish you a safe and happy Labor Day.


By the way, I heard this week that Insufficient Mating Material won the 2008 Hollywood Book Festival's Romance category.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Guises of Oppression

Right now I'm reading a nonfiction book, SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME: THE RE-ENSLAVEMENT OF BLACK AMERICANS FROM THE CIVIL WAR TO WORLD WAR II, by Douglas A. Blackmon. I had no idea this appalling chapter of our history existed! It's about the system of convict leasing widespread in the American South from the 1870s all the way to the early 1940s. Poor, mostly illiterate people, overwhelmingly black men, were arrested on flimsy charges, sentenced to fines they couldn't possibly pay, and essentially sold to mines, factories, or farms to work off the "debt." In a way the system was worse than pre-Civil War chattel slavery, because these "employers" had no financial interest in giving the workers proper food or medical care. If an employer needed cheap labor and had friendly connections with a local sheriff or magistrate, getting a supply of convicted "debtors" was easy. Often no specific charge was even recorded, and many of the "crimes" that were cited consisted of vague offenses such as vagrancy, abusive language, or leaving a job without permission.

This account of institutionalized abuse highlights at least two socio-political facts relevant to constructing imaginary cultures: (1) Ingrained biases hang on stubbornly, and it may require society-wide changes to shake these attitudes loose. For many decades after the Civil War, large numbers of southern white people sincerely believed the welfare of their region depended on keeping black citizens "in their place" and furthermore maintained that the black population (except for a handful of troublemakers) was "contented" with the status quo. (2) Oppression takes different forms, and when knocked down in one guise, it can easily reappear in another if those institutional changes aren't made. In speculative fiction, we can imagine many varieties of social inequity, disguised as well as overt. Suzette Haden Elgin’s short story “We Have Always Spoken Panglish” (it’s online; just google the title) portrays an alien society in which the ostensibly “contented” ethnic underclass can protest their status in only one way, by keeping their native language a closely guarded secret. To complicate matters, in SF different intelligent peoples may live together on the same world or space station, raising the question of whether their differences really do justify some kind of unequal treatment. Suppose an aquatic species and a land-dwelling species, for instance, occupy the same planet, coming into frequent contact at the shoreline? Obviously it wouldn't be fair or even sensible to treat these two kinds of creatures exactly alike. What would constitute fair, equal-but-not identical treatment? Suppose, on Earth, dogs became intelligent? Dogs, as far as we can tell from interacting with them in real life, are pack animals who enjoy obeying a leader and feel insecure without one. How would that facet of canine character affect our treatment of sapient dogs? (Cats, on the other hand, if they attained human intelligence, would of course be capable of ruling the world, except that they wouldn't want to bother.) In Cordwainer Smith’s classic “Ballad of Lost C’Mell,” the Underpeople, genetically engineered from animals, have to fight to get recognized as full citizens.

You can read in depth about Blackmon's research on the legal enslavement of convicts at:

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Source of the Expository Lump

I was recently asked to evaluate the first 2 chapters of a novel which I have watched this author develop. It's main target is to become a TV Series -- and I believe the premise has the potential to draw in Star Trek, Babylon 5, and Battlestar Galactica (2) fans.

The premise is rich, deep and broad, the worldbuilding meticulous, the scope nearly infinite. It could be a huge story writ on a galactic canvas (like The Lensman Series) or more like Dallas, mostly set in one place (this solar system) but about the people and inter-related families.

The concept is dazzling, the flexibility of the material designed to allow many authors to contribute. I've seen some of the outline and "bible" material, and I'm entranced.

So I was delighted to get electronic copy of the first 2 chapters in novel style that I could read on my Palm.

Right off, I fell into Writing Teacher mode, being more "critical" than I would be if I were reading this for review. And you all know how picky I am about books I review! Can you imagine being the target of my "find something wrong" mode of reading? Ouch.

Still, because I love the premise as much as this author does, I avidly devoured the first 2 chapters. It helped that I was sitting in a) a dentist waiting room, and then b) a car repair shop waiting room. When I finished, I stared at the wall a while before I decided what exactly I was noticing in this first draft manuscript.

A final draft should read in such a way that the Writing Teacher mode never notices anything.

The story should unfold beat by beat, each beat where it belongs but the content leaping with flames of delight. The author should be invisible; the story vivid.

One doesn't expect that in first draft. First drafts are for debugging. So I read looking for bugs.

The sentence, paragraph and word-choice work in this first draft is top drawer professional. The visual descriptions will make any producer salivate. As I said before, the worldbuilding is superb. The characters are likewise, vivid and well rounded, deep and fundamentally interesting. What is presented in the first 2 chapters is intriguing.

So what's WRONG? Why is this text dragging? Why don't the characters leap off the page? Why won't it translate in my mind into a script? What rules is it violating?

OK, as I was reading, I mentally marked out paragraphs for deletion because they were EXPOSITORY LUMPS. But this is first draft material. Any writer, however experienced, passes some Lumps when drafting an opening. You just delete them, or shred them and sprinkle throughout the rest of the story, and what's left is usually a fantastic opening.

Rewriting is no big deal. You expect to do that, and it's largely a mechanical exercise when it comes to curing the lumpiness of a piece of goods. In fact, the classic cure is to move the opening scene to a later point in the story, skipping over the throat-clearing and pencil sharpening.

But this particular 2 chapter opening is "right" for the story this author is telling. Two conflicting elements smash together explosively kicking off a huge Interplanetary War Story.

But the whole thing just does not WORK. Why?

Well, when you delete ALL the Expository Lumps in this 2 chapter opening, you haven't got anything left that's 2 chapters long. Nothing happens. It's all "about to happen" -- not happened and creating consequences. There's no because-line; no plot line.

The author has told me how much FUN it is to be writing this story at last. It's exciting and fulfilling and very real. The characters are jumping up and down to get their story told.

Well. That is the problem, you see. The author has held back on writing the story while the background develops, fleshes out, becomes dimensional. The characters have lives and histories, and backstory-gallore. The politics, history, technological advances (this is set in a near future century when humans have colonized the solar system) and elaborate backstory on the colonization and its politics.

The source of the expository lump is the author's own familiarity with the material.
The author knows too much. The author started to write the story too late in the creation process. Screenwriting books warn over and over about starting to write too early in the creation process. These 2 chapters are an example of what happens when you start too late.

Both too soon and too early result in just about the same kind of unusable text, delineated with TELL rather than SHOW. Both result in a text sequence that weights every detail with the same importance, instead of prioritizing.

If the writer doesn't yet know the world, the writing process turns into worldbuilding block by block of impenetrable prose about the background instead of storytelling. If the writer knows the world too well, the writer is afraid the reader won't understand the story without all that the writer knows, so writing turns into an info-dump instead of storytelling.

And that, in essence, is what an Expository Lump is -- some rich-delicious detail that the writer wants the reader to know all about IN ORDER TO UNDERSTAND the emotional, strategic, and political import of the events in the character's life.

The reason these events are important is TOLD rather than SHOWN (or dramatized).

Exposition is "about" the facts, an explanation of the facts. It is what the writer thinks the reader needs to know before starting the story or getting on with the events that form the because-line of the plot.

Exposition is the data that goes into the equation, not the equation itself (the plot and story are two variables in the equation that is a work of fiction). The equation is the problem the reader is working in his mind while the writer feeds in the data. Exposition doesn't register with a reader as data and isn't put into the equation.

Exposition is rhetoric laced with opinion, slant, and possibly the omniscient point of view. It is everything the character already knows before the reader arrives. gives a more dictionary sort of definition. Exposition is the writer's effort to make the reader understand "things" the exact same way the writer does.

The writer wants very much to share this vision, this story, this imagined world with the reader.

The writer wants to draw the reader in to the dreamscape using photographic reality. And the writer desperately wants the reader to enter into the exact dreamscape the writer is in. It has to be THE SAME DREAMSCAPE, so therefore everything (absolutely everything) has to be described in detail and explained back to twenty years before the story starts (or twenty centuries).

But in order to gain entree into the dreamscape, the reader needs a Japanese Brush Painting of the "reality" the writer has created -- not a digital photograph with sharp detail.

New writers (and experienced, published writers just starting a new project) can't do this -- simply CAN not do brush-painting style evocation.


Because without all the relevant details, the reader MIGHT NOT GET IT.

The reader might make other assumptions, mistake the hero for the villain, or think the main character is behaving without sufficient motivation.

Motivations have to be explained -- in exposition. Because otherwise, the reader might guess wrong!

Exposition says, "This is MY story and you have to understand it MY WAY - or otherwise don't read my story."

Marion Zimmer Bradley taught me to understand that expository lumps come from the writer standing in the "wrong place" to tell the story. She called this kind of overly detailed storytelling "self-indulgent." The writer is standing in a self-indulgent psychological space -- demanding the reader enter into the writer's own story, and no other.

Being jarred out of that "place" is what makes a talented amateur into a seasoned professional writer.

There is a knack, and a talent, and also a learned skill to handling expository lumps.

You can never avoid depositing them on your page. You must learn to handle them.

The skill part is learning to dissect a lump into its component parts, preferably even before you've finished inputting the entire lump in words.

Recognizing you are passing a lump is just a matter of practice. The more diligently you rewrite, the more your subconscious will learn to recognize something "wrong" before you finish entering it. But sometimes you have to finish writing the lump before you know what to do with it.

Lumps consist of "important" and even "vital" information the reader actually wants all twined around stuff the reader isn't (yet) ready for.

There can be elements of the characters' backstory -- who the father was, when the mother died and of what University they all went to -- things about the character's backstory that are characterization, motivation, color, and even worldbuilding (such as this alien species marries and raises children before going to grammar school).

There can be elements of politics, office or national level, perhaps what political party the character is registered in, or how the career was blunted because of supporting the wrong person for promotion.

There can be elements of description -- how the room is furnished, floor plan of the apartment, what's visible out the window, what people are wearing (which can also be worldbuilding), what type of computer or handheld device, how clean or dirty things are, what kind of music is playing.

There can be the reasons why things are the way they are in this scene -- and those reasons can involve other characters, other places, decisions made and executed long ago or recently. Lumps usually refer to things, issues, and situations that are "offstage" -- thus theoretical and abstract to the reader who hasn't yet been "backstage" of this story.

Those categories of expository lump material are not the only categories. And a clever writer can disguise all that in a nicely flowing narrative that is interesting and engaging. So how do you test your own words to see if you've committed a Lump?

A) identify WHY you wrote that particular information in exactly this particular place. If it is because YOU want the reader to know it; delete it.

B) identify WHY you think the reader is dying to know this information. Find where you've created suspense on this issue prior to this point.

C) consider if there is any other way to convey this information to the reader. What would it take to convert that ONE PARAGRAPH into "show" rather than "tell?" A whole chapter maybe? Another whole character with speaking part?

D) delete the Lump and reread the whole story again a few days later. If you can't retype the Lump into the story without looking at what you deleted, then it shouldn't be added back.

The first mistake new writers make is to misplace information. The expository lump in Chapter One may in fact contain vital information to make Chapter 10 work, but that doesn't mean it belongs in Chapter One. There is a "rule" for conveying information to a reader without causing the reader boredom, impatience, or pain.

The rule in information feed is FIRST MAKE THE READER CURIOUS. Then make the reader even more curious. Ratchet up the suspense.

If there's something you, the writer, desperately need the reader to know, DON'T TELL IT.

Withhold that information until you feel the suspense in your own gut. Use characters and events, deeds and decoration, red herrings, but mostly foreshadowing to create suspense. Set up a question the answer to which lies in the information, but don't answer the question until the right moment.

Read up on writing craft techniques for creating suspense. Draw the suspense TIGHT, and then tighter, until when you break the suspense by presenting the tidbit of information, the reader is so relieved to find out that it's pleasure not pain to learn it.

Remember, people come to read fiction for pleasure. Don't make them work at it. Make it fun!

Play the game with the reader. You've read a good book or two; you know what that game is.

It's FUN!

So the process of breaking up a lump requires you to tease it apart until all the facts you've included stand separately. (some people would write down a list) Identify why you think the reader is dying to know each item on the list -- and most importantly, why you want the reader to know, and know it right now -- or maybe later will do.

Consider what the reader might imagine if you don't give the information.

Try leaving the information out. That will leave space for the reader to fill in the color, the backstory, the characterization, the details and make the world their own. If you don't know what I'm talking about, go watch some TV shows that have reams of fan fiction posted about them -- then go read the fan fiction that fills in the gaps from the televised show.

That's what readers pay writers for -- to unleash their own imagination, not to demonstrate the writers'imagination.

Marion Zimmer Bradley often repeated the quote, "The story the reader reads is not the story the writer wrote." I don't have the original attribution handy, but it was an important point she made often.

The grim reality is that readers don't want to read YOUR story.

Readers want to experience their own story their own way. You, as writer, are there only to provide the template for the entertainment -- you are the band playing the dance music, not the dance instructor leading everyone's moves on the dance floor. So don't provide too much detail and discipline -- open up the vision with a few brief, artistically chosen details so that the reader fills in the rest and makes your story their own.

In my Tuesday Aug. 19, 2008 post

I talked at length about how writing is a performing art. When you commit an Expository Lump, you are not performing, you're listening to the prompter (your own imagination) whisper your lines then repeating them in a dull monotone.

When it comes to backstory, you have many tools beyond exposition.

You have dialogue, sparse brush painting style description, actions (actors call it business) that speak louder than words, and narrative. Don't forget flashback, but that's a real tricky technique. Even though you move back in time, you must keep the story moving forward.

Marion Zimmer Bradley often described exposition as the writer popping up out of the paper to stand on the page, blow a whistle, and call TIME OUT while the writer explains the story to the reader, thus blowing the reader's suspension of disbelief, destroying the dreamy mood, peeling the readers' feet out of the characters' moccasins, and basically ruining the whole thing. The writer's "style" pre-empts the reader's imagination. So now the story is no longer fun to read.

So after deleting everything you possibly can from your Lump (keep the trimmings aside in a note file because you probably will need to put it in later; just because you're deleting it doesn't mean you're scrapping it), convert the rest of the Lump that really has to go here to Show rather than Tell.

Yes, this will take many more words and make the story longer, may require another character, or even a sub-plot and additional chapters. So you must choose with your artistic senses what to discard and what to show. Show only those things that really ADVANCE THE PLOT forward.

The key to choosing which details to expound upon and which to delete (even though in your mind's eye, you see the deleted ones -- the reader gets to choose their own details) is your THEME.

Any detail from your Lump which illustrates the theme can stay if you really need it to advance the plot. Any detail which does not illustrate or explicate the theme has to go no matter what else you have to change. Everything in the composition must explicate the theme(s) of this particular piece. Otherwise, what you've produced isn't art, nevermind performing art.

So now we see that Expository Lumps destroy the reader's enjoyment because they force the reader to see it your way while what the reader is paying you for is to stoke up their own imagination so they can see it their own way.

But the reader is also paying for a rip-roaring good story, and that means a story that moves, a plot that rocks!

How do you achieve that with all this background to stuff into the reader's head?

Keep in mind one of my simple definitions I've repeated many times here.

Action = Rate Of Change of Situation. Or PACING = Rate of Change of Situation.

Hollywood has set the standard for pacing in all genres. Novels now are hitting this standard, too. I review, remember. I read lots of books. Change has happened.

The Situation must change materially every 3 pages of script (according to several courses I've taken recently) -- or in a book every 3 pages of manuscript (or about every 750 words which is a rule I learned from A. E. Van Vogt in the 1950's and it has become the rule today.)

With a discipline like that, you won't produce any expository lumps because during a Lump the Situation can't change.

In fact, that's a good definition of Lump. It's a lump because it stops the flow of the story, the changes that generate the plot. Events don't "happen" inside a Lump. A Lump tells you about events that aren't happening right now or to these people.

And that's a good test to see if a paragraph is an Expository Lump or not. If the Situation of the plot has changed during that paragraph (not the reader's understanding of the Situation, but the actual Situation as the main character sees it) then it's not a Lump.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Poverty and Speculative Fiction

Readers of this blog who are also on the FFandP yahoogroup may have noticed that Arwen (of Tarot by Arwen) posted a notice about International Blog Action Day, which takes place on October 15th.

Every year, for one day of a year, the Blog Action Day group aims to turn the blogsphere into a global think tank, but simply demonstrating global awareness of a world problem is enough.

This year's topic is Poverty.

"From the About Page:

One Issue, Thousands of Voices
Global issues like poverty are extremely complex. There is no simple, clear answer. By asking thousands of different people to give their viewpoints and opinions, Blog Action Day creates an extraordinary lens through which to view these issues. Each blogger brings their own perspective and ideas. Each blogger posts relating to their own blog topic. And each blogger engages their audience differently.

Mass Participation
From the smallest online journals, to huge online magazines, to EU ministers, to professionals and amateurs, Blog Action Day is about mass participation. Anyone is free to join in on Blog Action Day and there is no limit on the number of posts, the type of posts or the direction of thoughts and opinions."

If Arwen's post held out a baton to me, I've certainly run with it. I'm not sure why. I write Futuristic Romance. Normally, Romance writers are encouraged to write escapist fantasy, where Knights in armor smell manly but nice, no one has bad breath, heroines walk the streets without stepping in anything gross, there's almost always food in the space ship kitchens and the beds are clean. We tend to assume that Poverty and Disease (with the frequent exception of infertility) have been solved in our futuristic worlds.

"What do I know?" "What can I say?" "I'd like to help, but I've nothing to contribute..." has been a common thread on private discussion loops.

Showing up is probably enough. Posting a short excerpt from a novel where a hero or heroine face poverty or discuss poverty or destitution would work, I think. It has occurred to me that I probably ought to have something in one of my future books where some kind of privation is acknowledged, but basically I've been at a loss for what to do.

I got my answer today. Apparently, this is Capuchin month, and a monk was in church to explain how today's collection would help relieve a little bit of the effects of poverty in downtown Detroit. I'm going to interview that monk for October 15th. Although I don't have anything useful to say, I can make sure that a man who has taken a vow of Poverty gets his message out on the Blog Action Day for Poverty.

Will you sign up, and speak up on October 15th?

Best wishes,

Rowena Cherry

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Back to the Future

Here's a book titled YOU CALL THIS THE FUTURE? by Nick Sagan (son of Carl Sagan) and two other authors:

Profusely illustrated, it explores SF predictions of future technology, whether they have come true, and, if not, how close they are to realization. Each device or concept has two or three pages devoted to it. Some topics include flying cars, bionic body parts, robots, space travel, and cryonics. A few present-day marvels far outstrip the expectations of most Golden Age SF, such as calculators, cell phones, and personal computers. Some other examples of long-awaited technology, e.g. time travel, remain as distant as ever. I'm a little surprised that the authors don't include a section on the cashless economy, speculated about as long ago as Edward Bellamy's late nineteenth-century utopia LOOKING BACKWARD. This book is a fun read and a useful resource for SF writers.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Wrting As An Artform - A Performing Art

I've written extensively about writing as an artform in my review column

but right after returning from Denvention III, the World Science Fiction Convention of 2008, I had another blazing, blinding insight into the mysteries of ART and storytelling.

For most people, this will seem boring, complex, abstract and maybe trivial or absurd. But this is an example of how I learn.

I suspect this insight was sparked by several factors I will identify below. It is a "perfect storm" of input and experiences that brought me what I want to share with you.

I think that reading -- and then writing about what you've read -- as well as writing original stories of your own, is a process, an adventure in consciousness. As you can't learn anything by reading books ABOUT that thing -- you can't learn to write by reading about writing. You have to do some writing -- but there's more to the homework. You have to assemble and express what you've learned. The apprenticeship method -- "See one. Do one. Teach one."

I want to point you to my review column of June 2008

Where I discuss Spiderman 2 (which is a Romance, you know). I wrote that column nearly 6 months before this huge insight which came to me while I was watching (again) Spiderman 2.

Long ago, when I was in grammar school, Alma Hill, a professional writer who ran the first (free) writing workshop I ever joined which was under the auspices of the N3F (National Fantasy Fan Federation), a companion organization to SFWA ( Science Fiction Writers of America), taught me something that forms the foundation of this massive new insight. I use it for the motto of the WorldCrafters Guild (the free writing school we run on

Writing is a Performing Art.

As you can't learn acting or dancing or playing a musical instrument by reading about them, you can't learn writing by reading about writing. But likewise, just practicing in a room by yourself won't give you the skills of an actor, dancer or musician -- you must get out on stage before people and PERFORM because the art is a performing art. And WRITING IS A PERFORMING ART. It sounds so simple. I told you, therefore you know it. Ah, but it doesn't work that way. This is a very abstract notion that brings together a thousand theories of the universe into one package. It is profound!


When you finally come to internalize that bit of wisdom, you begin to be able to flip your point of view from "outside looking into a story" to "inside looking out from the story into the world" -- onstage/offstage -- and then to flip back and forth so rapidly you can hardly tell which way you are looking at a piece of fiction.

So this insight I'm going to try to describe will sound obvious and useless from one point of view, and "the key to the universe" from another point of view.

It's complex because it is a synthesis of a huge range of experiences I've had at Denvention 3, then afterward, but goes back to grammar school, and includes much of the writing and working that I've been doing this last two years.

On the other hand, it is soooo obvious, that in retrospect I wonder how I could be so dull witted as not to have seen it and understood the implications before this. I suppose the whole world already has understood this and I'm the last to learn it. But I believe I can see it now because of a series of experiences. Here's a short list of those experiences.

At Denvention 3, right at the beginning of the convention, Kristin Nelson (Linnea Sinclair's agent) gave a talk on how to construct a query letter description of a novel you have written and are trying to sell. I listened raptly because she was painting what I knew already for years, but knew it as if it were an analog video. But she was painting me the same picture in DIGITIZED form. She made it soooo clear. So vivid. So sharp-edged.

I quoted Jean Lorrah's notes on Kristin Nelson's the method of formulating a novel description in

At the end of Kristin's talk, I commented from the audience and Kristin paraphrased my comment about writing the cover copy before you write the novel brilliantly:

In my con report blog entry, I forgot to mention an encounter with Lois McMaster Bujold outside the Dealer's Room when we were headed in opposite directions at con speeds. She rattled off the startling news that she would be quoting me in her Guest of Honor speech at the Convention and sped away (remember, the mean free path of a pro at a con is about 15 feet, maybe 30 if you move fast enough).

So I sped off in the opposite direction and about 30 feet later, it hit me what she'd said. Wow. Amazing. She's quoting me in the Guest of Honor speech at WorldCon.

Here is her blog entry with a transcript of her speech which is about genres and particularly the blending of Romance and SF which is a hobbyhorse of mine.

Here's a quote out of the middle of Lois's magnificent speech:

So the two genres -- Romance and SF -- would seem to be arm-wrestling about the relative importance of the personal and the political. My solution for The Sharing Knife was to align the two levels by making the central characters be each a representative of their respective and conflicting cultures. Even so, to balance the elements I still had to divide the tetralogy into two halves, the first pair of volumes concentrating on cementing the relationship, and the second pair looking outward from this now-firm foundation once again to the larger stage. Most of all The Sharing Knife as a whole does not have a villain-driven plot, fun and cathartic as those can be. (I know: I've written a boatload of them.) For the political side, I set Dag and Fawn to wrestle with a much more difficult and diffuse problem, a demographic problem, not of merely destroying the villain du jour, but of building connections and friendships and fresh ways of doing things that will allow both their peoples to meet the challenge of many new dangers in their future. Building is harder than destroying. "Winning" in the usual sense is not what's going on, here, but the prize is certainly their world. Seeing where the books' argument is finally going to end up must wait for February 2009, and the last volume, Horizon.

The reader-response from the skiffy crowd so far has been exactly as my hypothesis predicted -- once the focus shifted back to the political in Book 3, they perked up and decided it was really a story after all. Except for the usual holdouts, who only process action as significant when it takes the form of "guys hitting each other", who are likely not the audience for these books in the first place. Although I am reminded of Jacqueline Lichtenberg's tart description of action scenes, roughly paraphrased: "The story is going along, but then stops while guys hit each other. Guys hit each other for three pages, then stop. The story starts again." (I've been watching a bit of shonen (that is, boys') anime lately, and I must say that describes those episodes to a T.)

Lois's comment on a casual comment I had made about action plotting (probably made the same comment on a number of panels over the years -- but didn't quite HEAR myself) finally penetrated all the way when I saw it paraphrased in print on her blog. I learn from reading not hearing.

At another point at Denvention 3 I was on a panel with Marc Zicree and once again thinking through what he has done with Star Trek and other SF in the visual media.

I'm also on the social network LinkedIn where from time to time writers ask very insightful questions that I feel impelled to answer. Sometimes I'm surprised at what I say! I answered a few questions on writing --

is my profile, and LinkedIn members should be able to find my answers (and link to me) on that profile.

So, these experiences are sinking in as I finally get some time to plop down and watch what's collected on my TV recorder. The oldest thing on there is taking up 3 hours of space and it's SPIDERMAN 2. Well, I can't erase it without watching it again. That's one I don't have the DVD for. So I watched it again.

Here's a quote from my June review:

Look more closely at Spiderman 2. Ostensibly about a guilt ridden Superhero fighting a monster created by pride, this movie discusses in depth the issue of what makes a human being a hero just as Elf discusses what property of the world creates the kindly generosity of Santa’s annual ride.

Where does the power come from? Where does magic come from? How does being the focus of the magic generated by public attention (Santa has his moment, but Spiderman is always expected to perform miracles) change a person? Where inside the ordinary human psyche does this magical power come from? And what can break it?

Are we all just broken superheroes or supernatural beings who could change the world if only we were fixed?

We all have our favorite answers. For Elf, the power comes from belief, which once restored let Buddy find his place in his world. For Spiderman, the power comes from a clear conscience purified by confession.

Power, which the world views as magical, or Star Wars dubs "The Force," is viewed as connected to the foundations of what many cultures call morality. But as Theodore Sturgeon advised, we must ask the next question, not just stop thinking at "Right Makes Might".

Well, I stand by all that. But now, out of the stew of experiences noted above and more, I see something in Spiderman 2 with that kind of DIGITIZED clarity Kristin Nelson achieved in her talk on query letters.

Amidst this stew of experiences, I had occasion to remember an insight I had into the genre of Comedy while watching the Mary Tyler Moore show.

I saw how the script writers took everyday human embarrassments, saying or failing to say something at just the right point, foibles, failings and pure NIGHTMARE ( like showing up at school in only your underwear ) -- experiences that we all think about in passing but then shun, flinch away from thinking about -- and then the screenwriter portrays those experiences on the screen in SHOW DON'T TELL.

At full concert pitch, the writer PERFORMS the experience for the viewer. The fictional situation and characters are "caricature" sketches of reality, not photographic recordings of reality. These are all analog experiences, analogous to but not the same as our everyday reality.

"The same as" wouldn't be funny.

The actors are tools the writer uses to evoke that exquisite pain, keeping it just short of the viewer's conscious recognition as pain.

I saw the mechanism by which comedy writers turned ordinary people's ordinary experiences of the ordinary world inside out and exposed the human's interior life for all the world to see.

That "exposure" of what is personal and private is what makes it funny.

I saw the mechanism that makes comedy "work" -- that gets a laugh.

And the great spiritual benefit of laughter lies not just in the physical release of tension and the physical exercise of the diaphragm -- it also lies in sharing our innermost subconscious reality with OTHER PEOPLE. Sitting in an audience (or watching TV alone, knowing others watch alone too), you can experience the subconscious and painful reality others live in and recognize yourself in those people.

Comedy, when done right, is a binding force of society as strong as love. And thus the Romantic Comedy rules the roost in films!

This Mary Tyler Moore insight came to me years and years before Blake Snyder wrote his definitive books on screenwriting, SAVE THE CAT! and SAVE THE CAT GOES TO THE MOVIES!

Snyder's main point is that the essence of story is the PRIMAL experience. He goes to considerable length explaining what "Primal" means in this context. The plot, the life-issues the main character faces must be (in order for the story to be movie material, not a novel) so basic, so purely human, that a caveman could understand it (no insult). It has to be something viewers grasp clearly from the images, something every human being understands because they are human.

What I saw in MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW is exactly what it is that makes COMEDY so very PRIMAL.

It was one of those "flip" moments when instead of being a viewer, watching from the outside, I became a writer, evaluating from the inside. I saw where inside the writer the primal comedy came from -- I saw the mechanism of comedy apart from the art of it. And I saw the art of it as the teasing balance on the edge of unbearable PAIN - emotional pain, primal emotional pain.

You're probably thinking: "Well, everybody knew that already! Where have you been?"

I'm sure you've read this exact same thing in many books about writing.

*sigh* but knowing and understanding are not the same thing. In that moment, watching THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, what I knew became something I understood. I grokked comedy as a writing craft -- consistent and reproducible, methodical and mechanical -- as well as an artform, unique and magical -- and as a performing art.

That insight has stayed with me, and now all these years later, I have another to add to it. This one is on SUPERHERO FANTASY.

One of the questions on that I was intrigued by but didn't get to answer fully was about why it is that Americans are so responsive to the superhero movies today. I still don't know the answer to that question in full, but I have a whole new perception of what a superhero movie is.

What is the appeal of comic books? Graphic novels? Superman. Green Arrow. Lone Ranger. Spiderman. Buffy.

Just as I said in my Spiderman 2 review -- this is the story of every human being living inside him or herself.

Every one of us is a Superhero inside. We all know beyond a doubt who we really are -- and it is NOT that clumsy wimp or clutzy dunce the rest of the world sees.

We fight our everyday battles ( car breakdowns; buses that get us to work late; cell phones out of juice; stains on the white shirt we have to wear to a meeting; stubborn or suborned computers; high gas prices) until we reach total collapse of strength and will.

Our story is the story of confronting and facing down our internal demons, our own personal emotional issues (Spiderman's bout with Guilt is not everyone's emotional struggle; some people don't get disabled by Guild). Spiderman 2 is not OUR story, but it is ANALOGOUS TO the story of all our disparate emotional lives.

We gravitate toward the primal Superhero stories because they are about our own lives -- with ourselves cast as Superhero. We help others at risk to ourselves; we fumble and stumble and fall, cast off that "identity" and stand tall, lower our voices and answer the phone with our corporate voice. We all have many identities.

And we get confused. Are we really the Superhero -- or the wimp?

The primal Superhero story is about Identity. But it's our own search for identity -- the perplexing question of whether we are what the world sees us to be or what we know ourselves to be?

Where does our strength come FROM?


Like Comedy, the comic book story is about our universal internal life exposed for all to see and all to share.

When a comic book character (think Tom&Jerry) falls off a cliff and smashes flat against the ground, it is ANALOGOUS to what we feel when something unexpected and emotionally painful stuns us. Comic book action makes our invisible emotional responses visible.

The appeal of the comic book is simply that it replicates in art, writ larger than life, our very own internal struggle with that which opposes our will, ethics, morals, or sense of identity.

Just as Comedy exposes our inner, most secret fears of embarrassment and other emotional pain of that social sort -- the Comic Book (especially the violent Superhero ones) exposes our inner struggle with conflicting demands, thwarted will, the pain of being defeated, and the eternal search for the strength to overcome.

The ostensible primal story of the Superhero is the story of Strength coming to the rescue of the Weak and Defenseless.

But the secret to understanding why these stories are so popular among the weak and defenseless is the opposite to what you normally assume.

It isn't the fascination with being rescued that is so riveting. It is the affirmation of the inner conviction that you, yourself are inherently the Rescuer -- but you just have to figure out where to get the strength. The Super Strength.

Thus the most popular (and Primal) Superhero stories are about the Superhero's struggle to find out where to get the strength. Or when having the strength, the power, finding out when NOT to use it.

That isn't someone else's story. That is the story of our own everyday life exposed for all to see. We drive cars that are lethal weapons. Every driver has super-power. Every driver has the kind of super-power and super-problems that Spiderman does.

So contrast and compare THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW with SPIDERMAN 2. What do they have in common?

Writers who know how to use art to expose the mechanism of our internal psychological reality have mastered the hardest lesson in any course on writing -- SHOW DON'T TELL.

Reading about it won't give you any skill at using it.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Monday, August 18, 2008

(Alien) Culture Club

One of the fun parts of writing science fiction romance--for me--is the invention of the not me, not here, not now, not as we know it sections of the book. It's the chance to move beyond stereotypes (or invent new ones), to move beyond the expected (and invent new expectations). And throw my characters' conflicts in the middle of that.

I think that's why I tend to gravitate away from the "aliens on Earth" stories (except for The Down Home Zombie Blues which is the ubiquitous exception that proves the ubiquitous rule...). I don't want readers to automatically filter in Judeo-Christian ethics or feminist principles or the "Sin City" label for a locale with slot machines...unless I choose to create that in the story. I don't want my characters pre-typecast as "Southern Belle" or "California Surfer Dude." I want my readers to meet my characters on the level of interaction: derive who they are from what they say and do.

Granted, I know it fairly impossible to have readers leave all preconceived notions at the airlock. But I think most SF/SFR readers at least make the attempt.

In return, I endeavor to bring them into a culture not quite like their own. That isn't to say, however, that the basic human emotions of greed, jealousy, love, hate, desire, hope and fear are left out. Rather, I use them as a building block for my characters' cultures.

A lot of my stories have a military setting or military main characters (and no, regretfully, I never served my country and yes, it is something I very much regret. But my American middle to upper class culture of the mid 1970s, a young girl just didn't do that. If I had my life to do over, I would.) I've done a fair amount of research on women in the military as well as law enforcement procedures (and law enforcement is considered para-military). But I try not to assume that our current military would be like the military my characters experience.

For one thing, women have served in the military scenarios I create for a lot longer than they have here on this planet, as of 2008. Gender bias doesn't exist. But in Gabriel's Ghost, Shades of Dark and the upcoming (Feb. '09) Hope's Folly, there is species-bias. There is still an us-not-them emotion reaction.

I don't include that blindly. My cats have an us-not-them reaction to the neighbor's dogs. The ducks in my yard in Florida (now a bullseye for a storm, evidently) have an us-not-them reaction to the hawks that live in woods (prey-predator, also). I think us-not-them is something deeply ingrained in many species--not just humans. So it's a factor I factor in when creating my alien cultures. (I would also love to create a culture void of us-not-them, just for the experience.)

I also consider religion and spiritual belief systems when I build my cultures. Working with the us-not-them basis, there is the human desire to have assistance from something bigger and better when them comes after us. There is the human desire to wonder, to question. I think there is a human desire, a quest for faith--even if that faith is that there is nothing out there to help me, so I'd best find what I need within myself.
It's still a faith.

But with faith there often again arises an us-not-them as we can see from the religious wars on our own planet.

Which brings up the point that all the elements that go into creating a culture intertwine.
Species affects spirituality which effects educational systems which affects economic systems which impacts on political systems which affects military structure which impacts protecting us from the them of other species.

I had a great deal of fun with this in Shades of Dark, specifically with the character of Del: Regarth Serian Cordell Delkavra, a Stolorth prince and one helluva interesting character. If Del is anything, he is someone who is trapped by his culture and--much to Sully's and Chaz's consternation--it's not a culture they know well. There are a lot of miscues and miscommunications, many of which Del uses to his advantage. He knows their human culture much better than they know his.

As Admiral Philip Guthrie warns Chaz: “Chaz, he won’t have a choice. It is part of what a Kyi is, what a Kyi does when he or she reaches certain levels of power. Understand that to Regarth, he’s not asking for anything unusual or wrong. It’s his culture. It’s a practice steeped in tradition that goes back centuries.”

As much as Shades is an galactic space opera adventure story, as much as it's a love story, it's also an exploration of a culture in which there are no clear guidelines and no easy answers. Workign with the Stolorth culture and specifically the clan dynamics of the Kyi-Ragkirils allowed me to turn "good" and "bad", "friend" and "foe" on its ear.

Of course, I could have done a similar issue set on our planet. Middle Eastern cultures differ in many aspects from Western cultures. Hasidic Jews have different belief systems and rituals from Southern Baptists. But had I set a similar story here, with a Muslim protagonist and a Southern Baptist antagonist (for example), I could be sure readers would be brining a clean slate and open mind to the story.

Writing it as SFR, I could. Or at least, the chances of readers leaving their personal prejudices at the airlock were greater. And so, therefore, was the chance of them really experiencing The Story which, in Shades, is a twist and turning of us-not-them.

It was something Del understood well: Loyalties can shift in the blink of an eye, my friend. Never forget that.

Loyalties can and do shift--especially in the vast and varied cultures found in science fiction romance.


Saturday, August 16, 2008

Strong Moon Rising

I didn't blog last Sunday. I was at The Shedd.

What, you may well ask, is The Shedd? It's one of the best aquariums in North America, and it's in Chicago. I drove for more than five hours, each way, to visit it.

I think I have to write the petrol off to Motherhood. It wasn't really a business expense. If I'd known about the exhibit showing the 16 foot rise and fall of the water level in the Amazon, it might have been... but that's not why I went there.

However, that Amazon exhibit would be fantastic research for a world where the gravitational pull from a moon, or primary planet, was very strong.... in fact, as I have in my lightly-touched-upon Volnoth world.

Naboo. Jar-Jar Binks. I seldom see positive comments about the creativity of that world, but I think it would be very interesting to write of a society that lived both above and below a waterline.

Why would it happen?

Jacqueline would say, "Start with the sun!" But, I might start with the moon. If I wanted a race that spent half of the year in the trees, and half of the year in biodomes under the "sea" there would either have to be seasonal high tides... on an Amazonian scale, or else, the surface climate would have to become intolerably cold in winter (Helliconian?).

Next time I go to The Shedd, I'll start in the rainforest, not with the somersaulting dolphins! Oh, and by the way... I had another paradigm shift on this trip. I paddled in the surf of Lake Michigan. It looks like the sea, acts like the sea, is about the same temperature of the sea, and it's fresh water.

Whoops, there goes another preconception.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Big Surface SF and Space Age Demographics

The latest JOURNAL OF THE FANTASTIC IN THE ARTS features an essay by Geoff Ryman (author of WAS) about “Big Surface SF.” By this he means high-profile, commercially successful products such as STAR TREK, STAR WARS, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, and BABYLON 5. According to Ryman, these kinds of works pay little attention to scientific accuracy (he particularly dislikes FTL drives). Rather, they succeed because they embody grand dreams, especially the aspiration to leave the nest (Earth) to achieve the freedom of traveling to the stars and transcending terrestrial, or even human, limitations. An extension, in fact, as he implies but doesn’t say in so many words, of the nineteenth-century philosophy of Manifest Destiny.

Ryman admits to enjoying some features of Big Surface SF. Most of his comments, however, are critical, focusing on such issues as the role of minorities in these series’ versions of the spacefaring future. Ships and space stations have multi-ethnic crews, but socially and politically they seem like middle-class, white Americans. Ryman doesn’t ascribe this tendency to deliberate racism; he thinks the established tropes of Big Surface SF have a life of their own. They carry the writer along in their wake, unless consciously resisted. Now, I think Ryman is, in part, over-interpreting. Surely part of this tendency in popular media flows from the same factors that result in English scientists saving the world in British horror movies and monsters trampling Tokyo in Japanese horror movies. But I acknowledge that there’s also, probably, an implicit socio-political philosophy at work.

Ryman summarizes this position as the expectation that minority ethnic groups will exist in the future, but they’ll all be “assimilated.” The galaxy, as he puts it, will look like contemporary America. Even though I’m a bleeding-heart liberal myself, one of my reactions to this complaint was, “Well, duh.” Despite our flaws, North American culture embraces ideals of freedom and justice that have drawn people from all over the world to these shores and continue to do so. In the past, “assimilation” into these ideals has been viewed as a Good Thing, not a Bad Thing, as has a “color-blind” society. While I don’t endorse now-laughable retro visions such as the transplantation in Heinlein’s juveniles of 1950s suburban family structures into the twenty-first or twenty-second century, I don’t think it unbelievable (although by no means inevitable) that the present dominance of Western culture might continue for another century or two.

Also, I see criticism like Ryman’s as presenting the writer or producer with a double bind. If the minority characters behave and talk like everybody else, they’re “assimilated.” If they display distinctive ethnic traits, they may be perceived as stereotyped or ghettoized. (The same problem arises with strong female characters. If they fill conventional “masculine” roles, they may be dismissed as essentially men in drag, as Ryman does for some of these characters. If they fill any other kind of role, they’re apt to be charged with portraying a feminine stereotype.) With regard to DEEP SPACE NINE, Ryman (in my view) even distorts the on-screen situation in support of his argument. He cites Captain Sisko as an example of an “isolated” black character (the one-of-each syndrome). On the contrary, in addition to Sisko, we meet, at the least, his son, his on-and-off lover, and the continuing character played by Whoopi Goldberg. Not exactly racial parity by a long shot, but hardly “isolation.”

Whether the future will reflect a tendency toward greater homogeneity (I’ve read a few stories that anticipate a future Earth on which the races have mingled so thoroughly that everyone has a “rainbow” heritage) or will result in maintenance or strengthening of our present ethnic divisions is, surely, a question that allows valid arguments on both sides. It could be plausibly argued (as numerous SF authors have postulated) that interplanetary travel and contact with extraterrestrials will promote greater unity and uniformity among Terrans. Not that I’d want our colorful diversity of cultures to melt into a bland soup. But it would be nice to imagine that someday diversity won’t equal division.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Denvention 3 = Walk-a-con

I had a wonderful time, overall, and made several new acquaintances, learned a great deal and brainstormed some new screenwriting ideas. The overall theme of most conversations I was in was MARKETING -- promotion, advertising, blurb writing, pitching, salesmanship.

I arrived Tuesday Aug 5th. Jean was late in due to thunderstorms. We crashed that night and picked up our badges and program participant materials on Wednesday. That took an hour and a half. Some program participants stuck in the pre-registration "get your badge here" line, which you had to go through before getting your final panel schedule, were late to their panels because of this.

We were told there were hotspots for Internet access in the area, but until Thursday, I had no Internet access. We finally decided (Jean Lorrah and Torun Almer and I) to split the cost of a T-Mobile temporary account to get Torun's notebook online.

T-Mobile has a grand reputation. We thought the monetary expense would be the only expense. Instead, in order to complete and maintain the T-Mobile connection, Torun spent several hours over 4 or 5 days on her cell phone on tech support with T-Mobile, and it was a struggle. But we were able to file brief con reports and get a number of business emails attended to. Frankly, I don't recommend T-Mobile from hotels. The hotel access that was offered, though, was slower than T-Mobile. T-Mobile wasn't fast enough or enabled enough to allow sending a short video from Jean's camera or you might have had a video report. It was just a hassle all around.

Wednesday I attended a panel where Kristin Nelson was giving a slide presentation on how to write a cover blurb. Kristin is Linnea Sinclair's agent and it was marvelous to discover that Kristin is the bright, splendid, energetic and erudite person I'd expect for Linnea to choose as an agent. She really REALLY knows her business. Kristin used Linnea's covers as examples in her presentation.

Jean Lorrah took these notes (it was that kind of lecture you needed notes):

The cover blurb (and the query letter, which ideally becomes the cover blurb) should be no more than nine sentences, but may be more than one paragraph. It should include these four elements and nothing more:




Inter-related Plot Elements

Any sentence that does not address one of those four elements should be removed.
------------------------ -- somewhere on there or a related URL there should be a FAQ page by Kristin with more details, but we can't seem to find it. Someone who knows the FAQ URL Kristin referred to, please drop a note on this blog.

At the end when Kristin Nelson opened the discussion to the audience, I interjected several comments to the audience full of writers about how reviewers use cover blurbs to extract a book from the avalanche of books publishers send us. And from the writer's point of view, in order to penetrate the reviewer's mind and be reviewed, it's best to write the cover blurb FIRST, then write the novel to fit it (which I've done on books of mine that got New York Times, Library Journal etc etc reviews). When I got home, I discovered Kristin had mentioned my comment in her blog.

And that was mentioned in other blogs:

Thursday morning, Jean Lorrah and I opened the SFWA Suite -- made coffee and put out breakfast foods. A few dozen SFWA members (Science Fiction Writers of America -- see ) dropped by to tank up on coffee before their early panels. We met some people we hadn't known before and had catch-up conversations with old friends. The hours melted away!

Thursday afternoon I was on two panels that will remain memorable.

The first had an odd topic title about how large a galactic empire could be.

As I arrived for the panel, three fans with armloads of my books ambushed me for autographs. The program had me listed as doing autographs on Saturday, but the fans knew that wasn't going to happen because I don't do autographings on Saturday. I had put in a program change to a Sunday slot with Jean, but the daily newsletter hadn't published it yet. And they'd lugged all these books here. It had to be a mile or more from their hotel room.

There were 7 hotels scattered around the side of the convention center that was opposite where our convention space was. Even by Thursday it was clear we would spend more time walking than talking at this convention, and so it was. But my heart went out to those who carried so much extra weight so far in such thin air just to get my autograph.

So, sort of against the rules, I sat down at the panel table to sign autographs real-quick-like because the panel was starting. (usually you autograph after a panel)

In fact, the moderator came over and wanted me to leave because the next panel was about to start -- then I said but I'm on the next panel, not the previous one, and she laughed as everyone else took their places and found their name cards.

As panelists were being seated, a woman came up to me from the audience -- and I didn't get her name, but I remember her face. She said I'd analyzed one of her short stories at a previous convention and she'd done what I said had to be done to the story -- and had just a few days ago SOLD the story, her first sale. I told her to tell the audience what she'd told me, and she did. BIG CHEER!!!! I'm so bummed that I didn't write her name and the story title and publisher down so I could be sure everyone reads her story! (I do remember I liked it!) This may be Linnea-Sinclair-the-next-generation!

Most of the people in the audience were writers, so I ended up sketching a formula for how to use this question about the size of a galactic empire in WorldBuilding.

First we talked about TIME -- how long does it take to get information and/or goods from one end of the Empire to another? Any political structure is limited in size not by geography but transit time. I cited Ursula LeGuin's LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS and the ansible technology.

Then we talked about MOTIVE. Why would anyone want a political organization that big? Why would any species (humans included) want or need to organize on such a scale. In all fiction, the key to plausibility is MOTIVE. In this case it has to be the motives of the non-humans (based in their biology) and the motives of humans based on the usual plus unusual circumstances.
The list of motives I have scribbled down here are:

a) PROFIT $$$ and otherwise, sometimes emotional

b) KNOWLEDGE and/or DATA (I was thinking of but did not mention Robert J. Sawyer's novel ROLLBACK which postulates aliens trying to get into touch with Earth by sending their own genetic code to Earth so we can create a breeding circle of members of their species. I later sat beside Sawyer at the con's autographing session but forgot to mention that!)

c) CURIOSITY -- just because you want to know what's on the other side

d) RELIGION -- maybe to convert everyone, or maybe because your religion says you must go see what's out there.

e) Uniting against an external threat -- maybe you need to organize the neighborhood against an extra-galactic threat. Maybe it's not a threat but you think it is.

f) ART -- often the first trade a newly discovered people engage in is "native art".

g) EXCESS POPULATION -- maybe finding colonizable planets and offloading criminals or just plain huge numbers of people is the motivation. Some mathematicians have shown you can't export excess population.

h) everything we haven't thought of -- those ideas make the BEST galactic novels

And then we discussed how such a galactic sprawl of a political unit might be governed, and why writers default to the "Empire" or central-control model. I mentioned the place of background in an artistic composition such as a novel, and we talked about sociological SF a bit.

It's amazing how fast an hour goes!

The second intensely memorable panel was on whether Star Trek has made a difference in our modern world. Well, I doubt anyone here has an answer to that other than "yes" which ends the panel in one word. However the four or five panelists raced on and on talking and talking about all the various contributions that one bit of fiction has made to our modern way of life.

Rick Sternbach (Star Trek art director) was on the panel, as was Roberta Rogow (Star Trek fan writer turned pro). And I was seated next to Marc Zicree whose Star Trek: New Voyages episode WORLD ENOUGH AND TIME was up for a Hugo. I have known Marc for at least twenty years, since he started in the TV business. He really deserved that Hugo but didn't win. (this time)

Marc kept saying things that were on the tip of my tongue and it was delightful to feel how someone currently working (hard and fast) in the thick of things in Hollywood sees and understands the forces shaping what I call the "Fiction Delivery System" in very much the same way that I do. That lends me a feeling of confidence in the future.

Marc Zicree is one of the leaders -- will be one of the most powerful leaders in Hollywood. It's not just that he can do so much. It's that he understands what he's doing and can teach it, as can (and does) Blake Snyder with his SAVE THE CAT! series on screenwriting.

Jean Lorrah said that she and her collaborator, Lois Wickstrom had taken Marc's telephone seminar on how to pitch a screenplay and it had made a big difference in how their ideas were treated by various studios.

Friday we toured the Dealer's Room. Well, no, we entered the Dealer's Room to shop.

But we got caught in conversations here and there -- one Dealer had none of our books shelved with "Authors at this Convention" -- but a few of them over in "Autographed Copies". Then we ran into a new publisher from Canada who had some classic volumes displayed, new editions of oh, I can't remember, I think Dracula, Frankenstein, etc. Our kind of stuff.

I don't have his card or his name written down, but I remember a long conversation in which we explained some of our more harrowing experiences with publishers and the kinds of writing we do. Rarely do writers have the chance to discuss publishing in depth with someone who is "a publisher" -- rather than an editor who works for a publisher. The running of a publishing business lends an entirely different perspective. This particular conversation gave me more material for my concept of "the fiction delivery system" as it is functioning today. Things are still in flux, and our times are "interesting" so I will remember this rambling conversation for a while.

Friday night, one of the most skillful organizers of fans of Sime~Gen, Kaires, put together the Sime~Gen Party, which we combined with the Broaduniverse party and the EPIC party. The room was ultra tiny and taken up mostly by the huge king size bed (maybe it was a California King). I kept telling people who came in that this was a 3-fer party, and we got it all in because the room was a Tardis. Everyone knew exactly what I meant! I love fandom!

People flowed through the room constantly from 8PM to Midnight and Jean Lorrah and I kept explaining what Sime~Gen is or what it has to do with Broaduniverse and EPIC.

Short form:
"Broad Universe is an organization of professional women writers; EPIC is the organization of e-Book professionals; Sime~Gen is a series of novels by two women who also have e-books."

Our party got a nice mention in the evening edition of the daily newsletter of the Con. There were dozens and dozens of parties, most of them lavishly decorated and serving liquor (two attributes we did not have). But WE got mentioned along with our raffle of Sime~Gen novels.

Jean and I set ourselves the objective on Saturday of seeing the Art Show. We didn't make it.

I have no idea why. We were late getting up because we were out after mid-night at the Sime~Gen Party. We talked and talked that morning -- mostly plot, writing theory, and screenwriting ideas and techniques of MARKETING. Jean and her screenwriting collaborator Lois Wickstrom (who wasn't at Worldcon) have read SAVE THE CAT GOES TO THE MOVIES! by Blake Snyder, which gave us a paradigm in common to talk about. Market-market-market. It's a topic we really haven't spent much time on during our careers! We need to learn more about marketing.

Somehow it was 2PM or so before we got to the Colorado Convention Center top floor where the Art Show and Dealer's Room were located. And the Art Show closed on us so they could tear down for the Art Auction.

Jean was bound and determined to shop the Dealer's Room and said that she just had to do it without me because between her own getting caught in conversations and my getting caught in conversations there was no way we were going to do it together! She was right. We separated and both of us managed to see most of the Dealer's Room.

This re-confirmed my old saying that the mean-free-path of a pro at a con is about 15 feet.

Sunday, Jean and I did the convention autographing session. About 7 or 10 people sitting at a long table, each doing a 45 minute stint, but not all arriving or departing at the same time. Complicated.

People with books formed long lines, and sometimes a second segment of a line would hold back until the next writer swapped seats with the previous writer then flood forward. People who had more than 3 books to get signed had to go through the waiting line twice or more.

I was amazed that after the folks that ambushed me, and the other things I'd signed on the fly, there were still quite a few people who had read the program changes and arrived on time for my autograph slot. I signed only ONE copy of the Denvention III program book, so that will be a collector's item.

I keep thinking I've signed every copy of FACES OF SCIENCE FICTION ever printed -- and someone brings yet another copy! And I signed a pristine copy of STAR TREK LIVES! plus a first edition HOUSE OF ZEOR. The others are a blur because, as I noted above, somewhere in the middle of my signing stint, Robert J. Sawyer sat down next to me. I do love his books! That grabbed most of my attention.

After the autographing, there was a group of soft tissue massage professionals offering writers who autographed a free massage. I raced right over there and I got a massage from Patricia "Pat" J. Peterson, NCMT, who does Swedish, Polarity, Sports Massage as well as Cranialsacral Therapy -- boy, is she GOOD.

She apparently doesn't have a website and has all the clients she can handle. She's local to the Denver area. Email me if you need her phone number.

After that, I did another tour of the Dealer's Room. I stopped to look at some jewelry and the table next to that was from INTERZONE (the British magazine which carries science fiction and fantasy). I got to talking (well, I wasn't WALKING for a change) and gave them a copy of my newsletter. They insisted on giving me a copy of the magazine and I selected at random a 2006 edition. Then I went to meet Jean in the Green Room and set the magazine before her with the full back cover advertisement for a novel showing. "What do you think of this advertisement?"

As I said, the theme of all the convention for us, every conversation somehow, was marketing, promotion, advertising. Even a couple of email notes from Lois Wickstrom were about marketing, and believe me that's not the only topic Lois knows about! So it was fitting that the magazine I was given had this giant ad on the back with a single sentence in huge red letters on black, a bit of artwork at the top, the book cover at the bottom.

It was so "professional" on the surface, and so out of step with all the marketing stuff we'd been hearing and talking about that I wanted to see if Jean saw what I saw. (Keep in mind it's British.)

Jean basically did agree, which is unusual, so you can pretty much depend on it being true. The ad was totally generic but so generic it seemed more confusing than projecting the message "You want to read this book!"

So as people came in for one last cup of coffee (there actually was some food left; the Greenroom staff did a splendid job!!!) and sat down at our table (which was next to the coffee) I kept showing them (all men, writers and editors) this advertisement and asking what they make of it.

Some thought it was horror genre, some thought it was vampire, some thought it was poorly done -- nobody said the ad made them want the book.

So some people left, new people came, and I kept showing this ad for evaluation. I think we sat there for over an hour discussing that advertisement and MARKETING -- wrapping up the convention on the same theme it had started with at Kristin Nelson's panel on Linnea Sinclair's cover copy.

None of those who passed through our discussion sited Kristin Nelson's rules for cover copy writing though the ad violated them all. No matter how long you've been in this business, there is always more and MORE to learn.

Some of my memories of this convention are encapsulated in bright light and detached from Time.

At one point, in the Green Room, we met a new writer, Fancis Hamit, who is self-publishing and promoting a historical novel titled The Shenandoah Spy about a woman (who really existed) who became an Army Captain at age 18 in 1862. We talked marketing.

At another point in the Green Room, we ran into Beverly A. Hale who recalled when Jean and I had helped her teach a course in composition by providing some marked-up manuscript pages proving that professional writers REWRITE. We have a testimonial from her to post on our writing school. ( ) That of course, has everything to do with Marketing because to sell and get published you must rewrite to specifications and today those specifications are dictated more and more by the Marketing Department.

In the airport van on the way home, I found myself sitting behind Mike Shepherd who writes the KRIS LONGKNIFE series for Ace Books. I love those books and give them my top recommendation every time I review one. He told me his motive for writing about this very strong but very feminine character, Kris Longknife is so that his granddaughter will have a hero to relate to as she grows up.

I can't think of a more worthy motive for writing -- but I tell you, those books are SPLENDID. If you like Linnea Sinclair's stuff, read Mike Shepherd.

My husband and I got to the airport to discover that United Airlines had cancelled our flight and wanted to put us on a flight the NEXT DAY. But one of the United Employees who worked the alternate arrangements desk, a Mr. Doherty who said he had a relative at the WorldCon, went out of his way to find us two seats together on US Air that would get us home approximately at the same time that the United flight would -- but we had to change planes in Colorado Springs. He walked us to the front of the Security Line or we'd never have made that flight (which was loading as he was typing into his computer!).

So the next time you see someone with an employee badge walking someone through the line reserved for flight crews, don't be too upset by it, please. If we'd missed that hop to Colorado Springs, I wouldn't be home yet (THANK YOU MR. DOHERTY). And we had to do all the security things, including take our shoes off!

When we got to the US Air desk in Colorado Springs, we were told they had never heard of us, but apparently we got there before their computers could update the database because we were put on the flight, there were two seats together numbered as our boarding passes said, and we weren't boarded last on standby! THANK YOU MR. DOHERTY!!!

All in all, it was a wonderful 6 days, but now work is so badly backed up I don't know what to do first. Everything on my desk is top priority and there's only one me!

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Is the Internet Rotting Our Brains?

On another blog, I recently encountered a link to an article promulgating the familiar complaint that the Internet has undermined our ability to read complex material. The author of the article says his capacity for “deep reading” and focusing on long books has degraded since he began heavily using the Internet. I haven’t experienced that problem myself (nor had most of the people who posted comments in response on the other blog). I spend an hour or two online almost every day and continue to read three or four print books in an average week. (Any loss of concentration and retention can be attributed to my age; I’m still waiting for that “post-menopausal zest” I was promised.) Doom-mongers have been warning for decades that modern technology has shortened children’s attention spans. TV was getting blamed for that effect long before the Internet existed.

Now, I can concede that electronic media might have different effects on us middle-aged late adopters and young people who’ve grown up with those media. On the other hand, though, the author of EVERYTHING BAD IS GOOD FOR YOU maintains that contemporary television demands more intellectual effort than previous generations of TV programs did, because of the need to follow numerous characters and multiple, complex plot threads extending over an entire season (or more). So we might contend that the new media require just as much mental focus as the old, but of a different kind. Moreover, the popularity of such works as the Harry Potter series and, currently, Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight” YA vampire series demonstrates that young readers haven’t lost the ability to absorb long, complex books.

What about the effect of computers on writing? I’ve seen it claimed that computers encourage sloppy writing because text appears in continuous scrolling rather than discrete pages. (As if the screen couldn’t be set up to show page breaks!) Also, some editors gripe that word processing makes it too easy to write, and to accept the result as polished because it looks good on the screen, and therefore authors are more likely to submit work that isn’t ready for public view. Personally, I believe computers have improved my writing significantly, for one main reason: It’s so much easier to revise than on a typewriter. I don’t have to consider whether a small change is worth retyping an entire page, and if a large rewrite becomes necessary, chunks of text can be painlessly moved.

If you belong to a pre-computer generation, has the new technology changed your reading and writing habits? If so, for better or worse?

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

TITLE as Marketing Tool -- Part II

I'm sure many of you can document exact dates for these historical turning points that are different from what I'm suggesting. Remember that there's a lag between when something "happens" and when that event becomes integrated into the mind of the general public. And it works the other way too -- the general public may have an embedded notion that doesn't affect changes in Business or Hollywood for a number of years.

Books are often published 10 or (in the case of Marion Zimmer Bradley's CATCHTRAP for example) 20 years after they are written. Influences overlap before and after the fact, blurring the pattern.

I'm showing you a pattern here -- bringing it to the surface. Don't get distracted from the pattern into the exact dates or what you remember from those years. Pay attention to the pattern. Once you can see it -- look for other kinds of hidden patterns in today's world. You will find plenty!



Star Trek was the first TV show that appealed to -- guess what? READERS. That 5% slice of the American public that bought and read actual BOOKS (not just newspapers and magazines) fell in desperate love with a TV show.

In the 1970's we saw BOOKS BASED ON STAR TREK - both non-fiction and fiction - come onto the shelves in the chain stores.

I remember when the first separate section for STAR TREK BOOKS appeared in WALDEN BOOKS. It had been a single shelf on the bottom of the SF section and contained only the latest publications. Suddenly it became a whole floor-to-ceiling section with all the back issues.
Then the section became not STAR TREK -- but TV-TIE-INS and NOVELS based on other TV shows appeared.

Yes, publishing had done things like this before, but in the 1970's what happened was huge -- just totally huge. Remember, the 70's is renowned in financial circles for the flat stock market and STAG FLATION and huge gas lines -- corporations were in serious financial trouble and couldn't grow to meet stockholder demands. This had never happened before in financial history and corporations didn't know what to do. It was theoretically impossible to have inflation and no-growth at the same time. GROWTH CAUSES INFLATION (they believed).

Something very fundamental underneath the business structure of this whole world changed in those years. It indeed had been impossible to have inflation and no-growth before. Now something changed -- and made it possible. I don't think the scholars understand the 1970's even today.

Today we're in yet another paradigm shift as massive as the 1970's with "productivity growth" where we have great increases in what we produce and a shrinking work force.

SF, Asimov and Heinlein and John Campbell all predicted this trend. Many novels have been published showing how technology can restructure the world to where 5% of the work force works and the rest are on Welfare.

So in the 1980's we had a phenomenon we called PAC-MAN-PUBLISHING (after one of the first computer video games where one character ate all the others). It just came out of the blue and knocked everyone over -- it kicked a lot of the really REALLY great editors right out of the business.

Behind the scenes (I found out much later) attitudes toward "publishing" had changed, very radically and very suddenly.

The corporations who owned the publishing houses looked at their "balance sheets" and decided they couldn't afford to continue to support non-performing assets like publishing houses.
Heretofore, they needed the publishing houses as tax write-offs.

Go look who was President in the 1970's, and who controlled Congress -- and what kind of tax laws were passed that actually caused Stagflation and how that could well happen again in the 2010's because very similar forces are in play.

Under the new tax laws of the 1970's, corporations could no longer afford to own publishing houses as tax write-offs.

So they sold them. (to other corporations, of course).

The independent publishing houses sold themselves to corporations.

Newly minted MBA's had to make a name for themselves causing corporate growth in a world where growth couldn't happen because of the tax laws.

So JUST LIKE THE BANKS TODAY, corporations took drastic action and seized an opportunity to "grow" by gathering up non-performing, money-losing, worthless assets all together and streamlining them into profit-makers.

Today those non-performing assets are Mortgages. Back then, those non-performing assets were publishing houses. The Business School principles are identical, and the motivation identical (tax code changes). With Banks today -- it was the Law passed in 1996 (or 1994?) by a Democratic controlled congress that forbade banks to do what was called "Red Lining" (drawing a line around a section of the city and refusing to lend mortgage money there). It was seen as racially based behavior and the law tried to stop it.

Corporations did what Business School teaches -- take a challenge and turn it into an opportunity. Since they were forced by Federal Law to lend to non-qualified buyers, they found a way to do that and make a profit (huge-gigantic-insane profit) by "securitizing" the mortgages (bundling them with top-qualified mortgages) and selling them abroad.

The Banks did just exactly what Corporations did with Publishing under the same kind of tax-code changes that caused stagflation in the 1970's.

Banks used to make loans person-to-person in a community -- loaning to home buyers who "ought" to get the loan. Publishing used to publish books that "ought" to be published.

One of the tax laws that affected publishing had to do with stock kept in warehouses.

When stock stored (at considerable expense) in a warehouse is taxed while it sits there -- that means the publisher has to shorten print runs. That means books that sell slowly never get reprinted even though they are successful. That means the NEXT book by that writer doesn't get published. It has nothing to do with how many people want to read that writer's work or how important those ideas are -- it was (and still is) a tax law that prevents ideas from being published on paper and distributed through chain stores. It's all economics of tax laws.

So under these new tax laws, it wasn't the "face of publishing" that changed -- it was the foundations. Tax laws forced corporations to turn their publishing houses profitable just as laws forced banks to turn sub-prime loans profitable.

Prior to this makeover of publishing into a for-profit business, editors chose books to be published because they should be published, because they should be read, because they SAID SOMETHING.

After the makeover, editors were hired for their knack of choosing books to publish that made a profit. Packaging, promotion, distribution, = MARKETING was all that mattered.

The way publishing houses decide to buy or not-buy a book changed.

Formerly, they hired an editor who had a sense of what the world needs to hear said and gave that editor an annual budget to spend publishing books -- hopefully breakeven or some profit, but nevermind. The writer or agent submitted a manuscript and the editor, all alone, decided to buy it or not.

Now, most Houses use a committee. The "editor" only gets to pick out and present some manuscripts to a committee consisting of her boss (managing editor), art department, marketing, sales reps, accounting, maybe other editors in other genres -- none of whom have read or will read the book. The "editor" gets to "pitch" (yes, just exactly as is done in the film industry where writers get to "pitch" projects are producers) the possible books she'd like to publish. She gets perhaps 15 seconds to pitch each book. One or two of the ten she's presenting may get chosen, get the OK so she can buy it from the writer.

And what is the key feature on which that decision is made? TITLE!!!!! Maybe a two sentence description of the market it will attract, and a sentence about the story. If the sentences support the TITLE -- and it "fits" the sales rep's notion of what's been moving well lately -- it may (or may not) get bought. All those 10 titles were GREAT -- but only a few get chosen.

That's the new editor's job now. Very different from what it once was. And what these new editors saw in the computers when computer-tracking first became available is that TV-TIE-INS SELL -- they sell as good or better than "how to mow your lawn."

Why did computer tracking become available? Because how ELSE can you run a publishing House for profit? Before computer tracking and computerized warehouse inventory, it wasn't really possible to do this for a steady profit, predictably.

So editors and their bean counters saw that NOVELIZATIONS of FILMS sell.
They sell at big profits. It doesn't matter who writes them. They sell.

If the TITLE has STAR TREK (or another film or TV series) in it, it sells. Title is all that matters -- ALL THAT MATTERS. Just title and nothing more controls sales volumes.

Puzzling over what's inside those books that gets people to buy more and more, editors tried to find other things to please those book buyers. Because editors are readers, they kept operating for a long time on the assumption that something about the content had to be attracting these book-buyers.

But eventually editors began to believe the sales-computers as "modeling" became more accurate in the programs, and more stores kept computer records. Sales depend on title and cover drawing - not content. Sometimes, but rarely, on author name.

I'll bet they teach that in school now.

But in the 1980's, gradually they changed what's available on mass market chain store shelves so that the books that have the best chance of appearing before your eyes so you can ignore the TITLE are the books structured like movies (or TV series) -- or even blatantly imitative of them (Buffy-type Fantasy universes abound in fantasy novels all of a sudden.)

TV of the 1960's (i.e. Star Trek) changed PUBLISHING by re-creating it in the image of TV (and/or Film -- remember Star Trek led the way from the small screen to the big screen and one very VERY large reason Star Trek got that opportunity was the sales of those STAR TREK NOVELS.)

But now track the percentage of people who buy all the books sold in the USA. I haven't seen this year's statistic -- bet you though it's fallen bellow 10%. There are well over 300 million people in the USA now. Maybe with election non-fiction and Harry Potter we might have edged up to 15%.

Now, in the 2010's, the INTERNET and e-book may give us a chance to get back to the kind of editing that chooses books because they "ought" to be published and read -- because they contain ideas that people really need to know about whether the people think so or not.

You see, by packaging ideas in fiction (especially Romance or Comedy -- or Romantic Comedy) you can get people to consider them even before they know they need to know.

So, we as writers, are now living through the third huge paradigm shift in our industry in a lifetime. Definitely INTERESTING TIMES!!!

First there were Movies and Movie Magazines promulgated ideas of how a woman should look to attract a man. (men?)

Next there was TV (I LOVE LUCY) that delineated Relationships between Husband and Wife, and created the TV-TIE-IN NOVEL. (and novelizations of TV episodes, too).

Now the INTERNET -- which is moving from text to images and animated or video images, too.
And we are selling novels using a BOOK TRAILER -- Trailer being a term taken from Film, which contains the SET PIECE moments from the script.

All of this is what I call The Fiction Delivery System (analogous to Health Care Delivery system). No matter how the links are arranged between the Imagineer's Mind and the Fiction Imbiber's Mind, the point is to move ideas, feelings, concepts, and most important the amalgam of all that into a Point Of View from one mind to another.

That's what Shamans did around camp fires -- that's what we do today via novels, TV shows, Movies.

To do it for a profit (i.e. commercial fiction) you must follow the public's thinking. To do it the way it used to be done (profits catch as catch can) for the sake of the ideas, you can LEAD public opinion.

Combine the two -- Mass Market paperback series, online e-book series in the same universe -- and you can affect the direction of the next paradigm shift.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg