travel pic: Newgrange

October 20, 2014

This is the front stone of the neolithic passage tomb at Newgrange:

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I saw it, and felt like I was looking at one of the greatest pieces of artwork in the world.  Perfect abstraction 5000 years before actual abstract art became a thing.  (I usually try to take pictures of things without people in them, but I’m glad now that people ended up in this one so you can see the scale of it.)

The tours I took in Ireland were good because they put a lot of history in context for me — especially prehistory, because I kind of had no idea.  Newgrange is old.  Older than Stonehenge.  I kept thinking about the level of organization and sophistication required for a society to be able to put these things together, and it blew my mind, because I realized that there are thousands of tombs, forts, stone circles, and monuments scattered over Britain and Ireland, and that this extensive culture existed to support all that — some 3000 years before the Celts came along.  Everyone thinks of the the Celts when they think of Ireland.  But there was so much more going on before then.

Yeah, I kind of got obsessed.  And yeah, I wrote a story already.  We’ll see what more comes out of this obsession.

 

October 17, 2014

Hey!  So it turns out the first of the string of Wild Cards stories I have coming out went live this week!  “Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza” is up at Tor.com.  Check it out!  I’ve been wanting to do this topic for a while now:  deal with the Wild Card virus being passed along through the DNA of victims — people who’ve inherited the virus rather than been newly infected, and what it looks like to have a family with a Wild Cards heritage. (Very rare, granted, given the fatality rate.  But still, it happens.)

In other news:  I made part of my niece’s Halloween costume this year:

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I’m thinking back to when my Mom made me a Wonder Woman costume when I was about 5, and it was all felt because that’s what was available.  Now, we’ve got gold lamé, sparkly stickers, all kinds of fancy fancy things to make costumes with.  I’m wondering how much of the cosplay revolution is due to the availability of great materials — or if cosplay is driving the availability of great materials?  I don’t know.

Speaking of cosplay, I’m making a Thing that I hope to have finished by Mile Hi Con next week.  I decided to try to adapt an existing pattern, and it’s kind of kicking my ass — it’s just ever so slightly beyond my skill set.  Which I guess is good, because I’m learning something.  We’ll see if I can figure it out this weekend.  If I can just get the collar to work, the rest will be cake.  *rolls up sleeves*

 

This gig is always changing, and sometimes I can’t decide if that’s good or bad.  Good, I think — if it’s changing then I’m changing which means that maybe I’m evolving to keep up, which would be nice.  Lately, I’ve been thinking about how the way I send out short stories and pursue publication for them has changed.

In almost ten years of being published novelist, I’ve figured out that while I’m writing novels I can also write about 5-6 short pieces a year. That includes anything under about 12,000 words.  Before about 2007, I wrote short stories and sent them to magazines (online and print) on a regular basis.  Quite a few sold.  Quite a few didn’t.  When the novel-writing really picked up, I wrote fewer shorts, sent out fewer, and eventually only sent stories out sporadically because something strange was happening:  I started getting invited to submit stories.  This was a weird and wonderful thing — it meant I could write a story and pretty much be guaranteed that it would have a home (maybe with rewrites, but still).  Some of the uncertainty went away.  Huzzah!

For a few years there, I said yes to just about every anthology invitation that came along. This is pretty normal — as a newish writer, it’s really awesome getting asked to write for anthologies.  Plus, there’s a common neophyte worry that if you say no, you’ll never get asked again.

After I hit the NYT bestseller list for the first time in 2008, the anthology invites increased — it turns out editors look for authors with “NYT bestseller” in front of their names when they pitch anthologies because it’s a selling point.  Turns out, the sale of an anthology to a publisher can depend on having a couple of NYT bestsellers in the table of contents.  I felt a huge amount of pressure when I first found this out, like I would be letting people down if I didn’t say yes to anthology invitations.

But remember that 5-6 stories a year?  That includes all the stories I promise to anthologies.  This is one of the reasons that around 2007-2008 I stopped sending things out to magazines almost entirely.  Magazine editors were asking me for stories (and wow, was that a shocking switch after some 10+ years of collecting rejection slips), and I simply didn’t have anything to send them because all my new work was going to anthologies.

I found this to be a frustrating situation.  The anthology invites are most often for theme anthologies with specific guidelines — like, say, werewolf Christmas stories — that I would never have written about if I hadn’t been invited.  Meanwhile, I was collecting a whole stack of story ideas I just didn’t have time to write.

Short stories can be a playground.  It’s where I can experiment and try new things and explore ideas I can’t do anywhere else.  Novels are a big investment of time and energy, but short stories?  Not so much.  A few years ago, I decided I wanted to have more time to work on my story ideas instead of writing to assignment, so I started saying no to most anthology invitations. Remember, I only have a few short story slots per year, and I wanted to keep some of them for me, because that makes me happy.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that over the last 3-4 years I feel like I’ve written some of the best short stories of my life.  Since 2010, I’ve landed stories in “Best of” reprint anthologies for the first time and got a Hugo nomination.  Harry and Marlowe came to life and are going like gangbusters. I think this strategy of making sure I reserve a few of my short story slots “for me” is paying off, and it feels really validating.  (I’ve also collected more rejection slips in the last couple of years than I did in the couple of years preceding, but really, that’s okay.)  At the same time, I’m pretty sure that those years of writing “on assignment” probably helped make me a better writer as well, because they taught me how to better craft and structure a specific idea into a story that will stand out.

So, what does it take for me to say yes to an anthology invitation these days?  1) The theme is something I already have an idea for and I’m looking for motivation to write said story, 2) I want to work with the editor, or 3) Some other undefined really good reason.

I’m at a place now that would have astonished me 10-15 years ago:  I can be picky.  I have options.  And I wonder what changes are going to happen over the next 10-15 years?

 

 

Books in the Basin was a hit, I believe.  Next up, in two weeks:  MileHi Con, which sometimes feels like it doesn’t really count as travel because it’s the local “hometown” convention.  But it’ll be the last big gig of the year — promotion for Low Midnight starts in January.  Until then, I’ll be able to kick back for a little while.

Hey, have I mentioned recently that Low Midnight is out on December 30?  Just in time to use the gift cards you get for Christmas!

A couple of other things are due out before the end of the year:  I’ll have a Wild Cards story up on Tor.com in a week, and the next book, Lowball, will be out in November.  Oh, and the re-release of Wild Cards 4: Aces Abroad will be out in January, it looks like — I have a story out in that one, too.  An embarrassment of riches!

A couple of other short stories should be making their way to the world soon.  More news when I have it.

I may also have a couple of surprises.  We’ll see if I can make it happen.  (This has been a busy year, but I’ve spent much of it in a holding pattern, waiting for news, waiting for delayed releases to happen.  But progress is happening.  Excelsior!)

In the meantime, I’m working on a third Golden Age book.  It passed 50,000 words last week.  Now is the part of the writing when I’m trying to tie all the threads back together.  Fingers crossed that I can make it happen.

 

Zero Theorem

October 10, 2014

This is Terry Gilliam’s latest.  Gilliam is his own genre, and a new film from him is always cause for celebration.  This is probably not one of his best, but it is fascinating, with some incredible performances from some of my favorite actors.  (“Wait, who is that guy?” I asked.  “That’s Matt Damon.”  “WHAT?!  WAAAAAAAH!”  He’s so great!)  Visually, like all Gilliam films, this thing is splendid.  But I could have wished for an ending that more resembled an ending and not the petering out that it was.

What really fascinates me about this movie is that it’s cyberpunk.  Maybe one of the better cyberpunk movies there’s ever been.  Through the first half, I rather suspected it was cyberpunk — but then there’s that Matrix reference smack in the middle, that totally cracked me up, and yeah, this is cyberpunk, full stop.  A great chunk of the movie is about how much of life is mediated by technology, and how abstract and sometimes baffling that technology can seem.  There’s a party where everyone is dancing and smiling and having a great time, and holding a glowing tablet.  Everything from dates to therapy sessions happen via computer, and main character Qohen’s job as some kind of mathematician/programmer is pretty much incomprehensible, except that it looks very much like a video game.  Everything looks like a video game, and everyone’s being watched.  Qohen definitely doesn’t feel a part of it all — but he also doesn’t ever really want to leave his claustrophobic world.  This is cyberpunk without the adventure/messianic tropes that usually show up in cyberpunk, and I think that’s cool.

this weekend — Texas!

October 8, 2014

I’m back in Texas for the Books in the Basin Festival in Midland and Odessa, Friday and Saturday.  My schedule’s on the website.

After this, I just have MileHi Con, and then I can take a bit of a break.  Which is good, since I’ve decided I want to finish the novel I’m working on by Thanksgiving.  It’s about 3/4 done now, so I think I’ll be able to make it.

Maybe I’ll see some of you in Texas!  In the meantime, have a good rest of your week.

 

 

saving things

October 6, 2014

Back in the dark ages, the mid to late 80’s, there was something of a revolution in comics and the depiction of superheroes.  Watchmen came out, along with The Dark Knight, and even Wild Cards, which all posited variations of the same idea:  if real people in the real world really had superpowers and/or donned costumes to fight crime, they would be neurotic at best, psychopathic at worst, and definitely some level of flat-out crazy.  These stories were dark, nihilistic and–everyone said, comparing them to the 50 years of gee-whiz adventure that had come before–more realistic.

In hindsight, politically and sociologically the 80’s were just awful, weren’t they?

Along with this new embracing of “gritty” realism came a rejection of anything that was too nice, too idealistic.  It was seen as immature, and the expression of idealism was considered naive, a glossing over of harsh worldly realities.  Yeah, I blame the 80’s.  For twenty years, a lot of storytelling seemed to get darker and more cynical.  Robin died. Superman died.  Everybody died, and came back so they could die again.  Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire made unrelenting terribleness in epic fantasy mainstream.  The term “grimdark” came into use, with much gleeful rubbing of hands.

A few years ago, I read Erikson’s Deadhouse Gates.  Now, Erikson does grimdark with the best of them — this book features a mass exodus of refugees who are being harried by an enemy, people are dying by the thousands, and when they finally reach the city, the gates are barred, and the survivors are all crucified by the side of the road.  The story ends with a group of characters searching for one man among the survivors.  Two other characters, immortal travelers, chance upon them when they have just found a dying dog.  Now, this dog and his pack have been running around the whole book providing a bit of comic relief through all the terribleness (no, really).  And now he’s dying no!!!!!!  One of the immortals has a healing potion, and a discussion ensues:  Should we use it on the dog?  Probably not.  The dog’s probably too far gone, better not waste it.  So the immortals walk away.

And then they turn around, go back, and give the healing potion to the dog, who survives and has many more adventures throughout the series.

I absolutely fell in love with Erikson’s Malazan series in that moment.  They saved the dog.  For no other reason than it was a good thing to do.  The Malazan series has some of the most brutal fantasy writing I’ve ever read, but it’s also filled with Save the Dog moments.  Characters who dearly love each other, without cynicism.  I need that.  Since the 80’s, so much SF&F and comics and superhero stories seemed to be about putting good people in awful situations and seeing how horrible they can be to each other, and how unrelentingly bad the world can be.  (And I was really into that for a time — I mean, I read all of Wild Cards, which got just as brutal as the rest.)  Those moments of idealism stand out like spotlights in the night.

I think it’s starting to change.  Saving things, unsarcastic idealistic characters — good people doing good — are coming back.  As Daniel Abraham has explained, when “dark and gritty” becomes the norm, it’s no longer shocking, it’s no longer radical.  So what then becomes shocking and radical?  Idealism.  Optimism.

My favorite comic to date is Warren Ellis’s Planetary, which is explicitly about saving things.  Captain America was not supposed to work.  Some people insisted that modern audiences would never buy the lawful good, earnest, idealism of that classic character.  And yet, it’s one of the best, most popular superhero movies of the last 20 years.  The whole Avengers sequence is filled with uncynical heroism — and I think people have been starved for that.  Guardians of the Galaxy — the climactic moment involves all the main characters saving the world by coming together and holding hands.  And no one’s complaining.

I really like stories about people coming together for the greater good, disparate folk who have a common cause and rise to meet great challenges. Who save things.  Turns out, I’ve always liked that kind of story:  Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Captain Power.  Some would like to see this kind of story as childish — the people making the DC movies, for example.  Grimdark isn’t going to go away.

But what I think it would be helpful to recognize is that grim and gritty isn’t any more realistic than idealism.  It’s a choice.  Sure, Wild Cards can get really dark — but I’ve chosen to write Wild Cards stories about friendship.  My upcoming story in Lowball is an outright comedy.  Terrible things happen in the world.  Really great things happen, too.  When someone tries to tell me that grim is more realistic because people are generally awful, I point them to stories like this:  during the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, firefighters stopped to save one homeowner’s chickens.  They saved the chickens, for no other reason than it was a good thing to do.

We makers of fiction, we’re not doing realism.  We’re making choices.  And I know what kind of world I’d rather be spending my spare time in.

 

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