Hoping Everyone Had a Fine Thanksgiving

Or at least, those of you in the U.S., where we just celebrated a day of remembering things we’re grateful for. For me, it was an atypical one, as my wife is in Puerto Rico with her parents, and my older daughter was at her boyfriend’s house. Younger daughter and I enjoyed the afternoon at the home of good friends, with lots of terrific food.

The last month has simply flown by. Teaching at MIT, and simultaneously running the Ultimate SF workshop, has been both time-consuming and thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding. All the students have been great to work with, and have been bringing some real talent to their writing projects. I’ll be surprised if I don’t see at least a few of their names in print in the next few years. Meanwhile, I’ve had a bunch of family issues going on, which has taken a lot of my energy and is one reason why I haven’t posted in a month. Another is that I’ve been experiencing serial computer failure. First my laptop: a nasty virus infestation, then a wonky hard drive, and finally the whole machine kacked. Only a couple of days after that, my office computer blew its video card. (That, at least, was fixable.) A few days after that, my PDA fritzed out. It felt almost like a concerted attack. Anyway, I’ve got a new laptop, a black Dell Inspiron named Cygnus-X for the black holes Cyg X-1 and Cyg X-3 (maybe). I know some people who have had bad experiences with Dell, so wish me luck. It seems like a good machine. What really sold me on it is the keyboard—vastly better for touch typing than any of the others I tried out. Anyway, so far I really like it.

So…back to getting some real writing done soon? Here’s hoping! I got some cheery encouragement in the form of actual royalties for my ebooks that went on sale last Spring. That market truly seems to be picking up.

Snow? On October 18?

Yes, indeed. I was driving to the store in the rain—and it didn’t really even feel that cold out—when I noticed that some of those raindrops were falling too slowly, and splatting too big on the windshield. By the time it was over, we had a steady fall of inch-and-a-half wide snowflakes. (Two to three centimeters, for you metric folk.)

Just a little joke the warming globe is playing on us, I guess. Or not. (This is not disproof of global climate change, by the way. One of the predictions of the warming of the Earth is that climate patterns may behave in unexpected ways.) For all I know, snow in New England in mid-October is well within the range of our crazy weather, anyway. But it sure felt weird. I was just pondering taking the air conditioners out of the windows, not an hour before.

Our Ultimate SF Workshop began tonight (okay, last night at this point), and it looks like we have a great group of aspiring writers, including people from a variety of walks of life. We almost cancelled the workshop last week because we only had three confirmed students. Today we had eleven confirmed, and one more possible late-joiner. Full house! Lots of good workshopping ahead of us.

“People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. —Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” —Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Joe Haldeman Update: Good News

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Things are looking much better in Joe’s recovery. According to his wife Gay, he’s out of intensive care and in a rehab facility. He’s able to sit up, eat a little, talk a little, and—according to Gay—smile a lot. I’m guessing he’s really happy to be alive and kicking, and surrounded by his wife and friends. I expect he has a ways to go on the road to recovery, but it’s all just so much more hopeful now.

Meanwhile, I’m settling into the business of teaching a university class, and continuing to enjoy working with the students there. Next week, they’ll be handing in rough drafts of their short stories, and we’ll be dissecting them (in a nice way) in workshop sessions. I got my MIT employee card—I look like part of the maintenance staff—and put it right to work at the MIT Humanities and Sciences Library. There was a book I wanted to use for next week’s class, and they didn’t have it. Some hunting around established that it was available in quasi-ebook format, and darned if they didn’t get it for me to read on my computer in just a couple of days. (The interface to read it is atrocious—the people at netlibrary and the publishers who work with them should join the 21st Century and learn how to make real ebooks—but that’s not the fault of the folk at the library. My hat’s off to them for being so helpful.)

Meanwhile (again), my own Ultimate SF Workshop is gearing up to start this weekend. Craig (Gardner) and I weren’t sure if we’d have enough people to run it, but we delayed the start by a week, and that seems to have made the difference.

MIT SF Writing Class

Today the paperwork rolled for me to become Visiting Wizard at MIT, and I met for the first time with Joe Haldeman’s SF Writing class. (Actually, my title will be “temporary lecturer.” But Visiting Wizard is so much more motivating, don’t you think?) The class went well, considering that I jumped in midstream, and was trying to fill Joe’s shoes without too much sense of disruption. The students pitched right in and participated, and I found them to be a bright, interesting, and likable bunch. Good insights, and a lot of enthusiasm. I enjoyed meeting them all and look forward to reading their work. I was helped immeasurably by the volunteer assistance of Antony Donovan, a former student who is now Joe’s longtime friend and helper.

Meanwhile, Joe remains in intensive care in a hospital in Cincinnati, with his wife Gay right there surrounded by friends who are helping her in every way possible. He’s been under sedation (unconscious, mostly) and on a ventilator for over a week now, following emergency surgery for twisted bowel and a severely inflamed pancreas. It seems to be the latter that’s keeping him in stable critical condition with a steady fever. I don’t know anyone in the SF field who doesn’t love Joe and Gay, so we’re all just waiting and hoping. He’s got a lot of people sending thoughts and prayers his way.

Pinch-hitting for Joe

In recent months life has thrown a fair number of curveballs, including some pretty nasty ones, to people close to me. I haven’t written about it, mostly because it’s personal to those folk (although I might mention that my wife loses her job this week—funding gone—so that one’s close to home). The latest is that my friend and colleague Joe Haldeman—whose work I’m sure you know—great writer, great guy—was taken seriously ill last weekend. He’s in the hospital in intensive care right now. (Prognosis good, I’m happy to say.) One spin on this particular curve ball is that Joe’s SF writing class at MIT was left temporarily without a teacher. I got a call. And yes, I’ll be filling in for Joe for however long it takes him to get back on his feet.

So, for at least some weeks, I’m going to be, sort of…part of the MIT faculty. There’s a sobering thought. Doesn’t MIT, like, run the world or something?

Ironically, I was just gearing up for the beginning of my own Ultimate SF Writing Workshop, which I co-lead with Craig Shaw Gardner. So it looks like I’ll be working with student writers on Sunday nights (Ultimate SF) and Tuesday nights (MIT). I think it’s going to be a busy next few months.

If you’re in the Boston area and are looking for an intensive SF/F writing workshop, check us out! Registration is now open.

Odyssey Interview

Workshops R Us. A week and a half ago, the advanced novel-writing workshop that I run with Craig Gardner came to an end for this year. It was a seriously good ending, as every one of the six participants is working on material with definite publication potential—some closer to being ready than others, but all good. It was a terrifically encouraging workshop, and I’m especially cheered that the group is going off and continuing to meet and support each other on their own now.

With that done, I’m leaving shortly for a brief stint as instructor-for-a-day at the Odyssey Workshop in New Hampshire, another seriously good program, a much denser and more immersive workshop. I’m going to be working with the participants there on issues of story structure and how plot, conflict, and characterization all play into it.

Odyssey did an online interview with me a while back, and I thought it would be appropriate to reproduce it here, just before I leave. Herewith, the Odyssey interview:

Once you started writing seriously, how long did it take you to sell your first piece? What were you doing wrong in your writing in those early days?

I guess I would call my writing in college the point at which I was writing seriously—by which I mean, trying to produce real stories that someone might want to read, or even publish. I’d had encouragement at that point from family and teachers, including a college writing teacher who told me he thought my work was publishable. It wasn’t. I didn’t know that yet, but the encouragement helped keep me going as I ever so slowly learned the craft of storytelling. It would be another six years and a file full of rejections before I sold my first short story (to Fiction magazine, in Boston).

If I had realized sooner what I was doing wrong, I might have shortened that learning period considerably. The problem was, I wasn’t telling complete stories. I was going with what people told me were my strengths—description and characterization—and missing the need to tell an interesting story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. I didn’t understand about story structure. I was writing mood pieces, story fragments. My teachers weren’t really versed in SF, or even in anything resembling conventional storytelling standards, and they weren’t able to give me the direction I needed. I had no workshop to turn to, and was really writing on my own, with occasional feedback from editors like Terry Carr and Robert Silverberg, who liked my work well enough to at least hint at what they didn’t like, as they returned my stories. It wasn’t until years later that I found a source of good, regular criticism, when I met Craig Gardner and he invited me to join the writing group he was a part of. He and I are still members of that group-thirty years later! And Craig and I now run our own writing workshops in the Boston area.

Why do you think your work began to sell?

I’d learned just enough about putting a story together, and the craft of writing narrative prose, to make it over the bar to become publishable. Little did I know at that point how much more I had to learn—and am still learning! But I think the turning point was realizing, somewhere deep in the subconscious, that I had to bring an interesting character through a conflict and to a resolution of that conflict. I think I had to find a balance between the ambiguity that was interesting to me and the kind of resolution that was satisfying to a reader.

As a science fiction writer, I would imagine you devote a certain amount of time to actual research in order to enhance your stories and their believability. When, in your writing process, do you start researching, and how long does it take? Do you have any tips on making the research process more simple? Any favorite websites you frequent?

The amount of research I need to do varies wildly from one story to the next. Sometimes I do none; sometimes I do a lot. When I say none, of course, I’m sort of lying; all of life is research for my writing. All my human interactions, all my experiences as a kid and as a parent, as a loner and as a husband, come to bear on my characters. All my reading, much of it in areas of science and public affairs, influences my stories. Though I didn’t major in science, I’ve always been a science junkie, and my general knowledge of science has been important to my ability to tell stories with scientific plausibility. For particular stories, I’ve done targeted research: nanotechnology, cosmic strings, and supernovas for From a Changeling Star; chaos theory and the Voyager spacecraft findings about Neptune and Triton for Neptune Crossing; tachyons for The Infinity Link; stellar nurseries and stellar evolution for Sunborn. For The Infinite Sea, I drew heavily on my experience as a scuba diver and the knowledge I’d gained from that, years before.

I do the research when I realize I need to. That sometimes happens early, sometimes late in the process. My biggest “Oops!” in research was waiting to do some of the supernova research for From a Changeling Star until I was nearly finished. (Stupid, stupid.) I had consulted with an astronomer friend, but hadn’t taken his advice to check with his friend, who was a supernova specialist. When I finally did, I learned that I’d gotten some important things wrong. So while my editor was tapping her foot impatiently, waiting for the manuscript, I was busily rebuilding certain key points in the book, getting it right. (I knew that not one reader in a thousand would know the difference. But now that I knew the difference, I had to fix it.) It didn’t help that it was an amnesia story as well, and some of these key points were being revealed gradually through the story, so I had to change not just one place, but many places. My advice: Don’t do that.

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to attend the NASA-sponsored Launchpad Astronomy Workshop in Wyoming. This is an annual, week-long intensive astronomy course tailored for writers, and covers everything from the basics up through cutting-edge research. A great experience, and one I highly recommend for pro or near-pro writers.

The website I most frequent is Google. Okay, I guess that’s not very helpful. I do check Astronomy Picture of the Day every day. And I get the New Scientist and Discover e-newsletters, which send me down some interesting paths. (I also subscribe to those magazines, as well as to Astronomy, The Atlantic, and the New Yorker.) Mostly, though, I just follow my nose when something looks interesting. I also sometimes, when I need to know something about a subject, find an expert and ask. Very helpful, that.

What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?

Finding time and concentration to write, the same as (I’ll bet) for many of your students. It hasn’t gotten any easier over the years. Being a parent and needing to earn income in other ways have, at times, had to take priority over the writing. That’s just life, and I’m not as good at time-sharing my mental and creative work as some people are. How do I cope? I keep at it, and don’t give up (even when I want to). In the actual creative process, I seem to keep taking on story ideas that are more and more ambitious, and more difficult to pull off. This is probably a good thing artistically, and always feels rewarding in the end. But it doesn’t always feel good when I’m in the middle of it!

For me, the hardest part is getting a first draft down. Once I have the clay in my hands, so to speak, I find it much easier to work at reshaping it.

Your 2008 release, SUNBORN, is the fourth book of your CHAOS CHRONICLES series. The first book of this series, NEPTUNE CROSSING, came out in 1995 and is unfortunately out of print. Can you talk about what it’s like to write a series that spans such a great length of time, in publishing terms?

In publishing and marketing terms, what I did with the Chaos books was sheer idiocy. The long gap between the first three books and Sunborn resulted from my taking time out to write Eternity’s End, set in my Star Rigger universe. That book proved really hard to write and took something like six years to finish. It was well received, and got me a Nebula nomination; but the problem coming out of it was that the Chaos trail had grown cold by the time I got back to book four. My outlines no longer made much sense to me, and it took a long time to rebuild momentum. In addition, with Sunborn, I was tackling what turned out to be an extraordinarily difficult narrative challenge: telling a story of cosmic-scale events, but keeping it personal and immediate on the human level. I hope I succeeded, but not without heading down many a wrong path in the process. Still, once I had the initial draft done, I felt for the first time that I knew what I was doing, and I could tackle the rewrite with a clearer sense of the story.

By pure coincidence, the day after I finished the first draft of Sunborn, my editor called and asked me if I’d like to write a novelization of Battlestar Galactica (the miniseries). That was something I was required to do fast, but it was fun and a welcome change of pace. I was retelling someone else’s story, so I was able to use other parts of my brain to focus purely on the craft. It was just what the doctor ordered.

Once Sunborn was done, another year or two down the road, the book was scheduled for publication—and then delayed yet another year for reasons internal to the publishing process. That was pretty frakking hard to take, but it did give me an opportunity to revise some sections after having some months away from the book.

So, there I was, with Book 4 of an out-of-print series scheduled for publication. Tricky, from a marketing viewpoint. (I try to avoid the word “suicidal.”) I knew I needed to do something to renew audience interest in the series—and to try to bring new readers to it. Creating a national scandal might have been a good choice—but I’m not a very scandalous person. So I went with Plan B, which was to release all the earlier books in ebook format, for free download from my website. (You can download them right now, in fact, at http://www.starrigger.net/Downloads.htm.) The results were immensely gratifying. I got many emails from readers who said this was the first they’d heard of me, and now they were looking for my other books, as well. So it definitely increased interest in the series. Did it boost sales of the hardcover book? Damned it I know. (Well, I’m sure it did, but I haven’t a clue as to how much.)

Do you write each installment to be read as a stand-alone, or is each book in the series interconnected, so knowledge of previous volumes is necessary to understand the current one? Do you have any advice for writers working on multiple-book series of their own, and would you handle your own series any differently now than when you first started?

The story is a continuing arc, but each volume is a self-contained story that comes to a conclusion—and sets the stage for the next. I worked hard to build enough recap into the early parts of the stories that someone could pick up any book and enjoy it. But no question, the best way to read the series is from the beginning.

Advice to others? Don’t do what I did! (That’s my advice for investing in the stock market, too. Watch what I do. Then do something different.) I’m only partly serious, of course, but that part is sincere. I think where I went wrong was thinking that I could write a series of short, snappy novels that cumulatively would form a long, complex story. (This, you see, is what I always seem to do—write long, complex stories. I was trying to find a way to do it in a more sustainable way.) Then each Chaos book turned out a little longer than the one before, and soon I was writing a series of long, complex stories. People seem to like them. I’m proud of having written them. But making me independently wealthy, they’re not. 🙂

Your work is known for strong characterization and internal conflict. How do you use that internal conflict to create a character arc for the whole novel? Do you plan it out in advance, or do you discover it as you write? And how do you tie your characters’ internal conflict with the external conflict of the larger story?

Well, geez, if I tell you that now, what am I going to talk about when I get to the workshop?! I’ll tell you this much: I always have some vision for the overall story and character arc before I start writing. But much of it, I discover as I write. I seem to require the tension of being in the middle of the story to draw the full understanding of the character conflict out of my subconscious. I’m a very intuitive writer. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing until I’ve done it. There are people who can do all of that before setting down a word of the story. I hates them! (Preciousss…)

As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?

To quote the captain in the movie Galaxy Quest: “Never surrender! Never give up!” Or was it the other way around? Anyway, that’s the approach you have to take in writing. It can be terribly frustrating and discouraging when you can’t seem to get it right, or you think you’ve gotten it right and then a reader tells you, no, it’s actually still just warmed over beetle-dung, and you want to throw it all in the river. That’s when you have to remember those words. Not to shout in defense of what you’ve written, but to take a deep breath and keep at it until you do, finally, get it right.

Oh, and try to write something you would want to read yourself.

What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?

I am currently doing battle with the first draft of the fifth book of The Chaos Chronicles, tentatively titled, The Reefs of Time. Damn if I didn’t once more set myself some challenges that I don’t yet know the solution to. Why do I keep doing this?

I’m also working on getting all of my backlist into “print” as ebooks.

And I’m just finishing a short video piece for an arts festival sponsored by a local church: an audio visualization—for lack of a better term—of the fairly cosmic prologue to Sunborn. I hope to have that up for online viewing in a few weeks. I’ll put a link on my downloads page once it’s available. It’s 3 minutes long, and I think it’s pretty cool. Stop by and check it out! [Update: I’m still waiting for a few final changes by the guy who did much of the video editing. Soon.]

“If you wish to be a writer, write.” —Epictetus

SF Authors at Falmouth MA Public Library

Yikes! Can it really be two weeks since I last posted? Yes, I guess it has been. Well, I’ve been kicked into action by the need to let folks know (belatedly, yes, yes) about this:

Tomorrow evening (June 17), I’ll be appearing with a small group of other SF/F folk at the Falmouth Public Library on Cape Cod. Joining me will be Jennifer Pelland, Michael Burstein, and Walter Hunt, all from eastern Massachusetts. We’ll be talking about our work, answering questions, and (we hope!) selling and autographing books.

Falmouth Public Library, 300 Main St., Falmouth, Massachusetts. 7:00 – 9:00

If you’re in the area, why not stop by?

Bread Loaf Without Me

I’ve blogged before about how much I’ve enjoyed being a writer/instructor at the annual New England Young Writers Conference at Bread Loaf, Vermont. Well, this year, I had to miss the fun. They rotate the staff, so as to keep the program fresh, and this year I was rotated out. (Unfortunately, most of my writer-friends from Bread Loafs past were there, so now I’m afraid they’ll all be off when I’m next on.)

Having said that, I still got to spend most of Sunday making a round-trip drive to Vermont—to pick up my daughter, who was there as a student. At least, I’ve now learned the route. She reported positively on the conference, but not so much on the head cold she came down with in the middle of it. We carpooled with a couple of other families, so two other delightful young ladies rode back with us. Shortly after arriving home, I found myself in the midst of another writer’s workshop—this one in my own living room. The Advanced Workshop I’m conducting with Craig Gardner has just passed its midpoint, and we’re really seeing good stuff emerge. I look forward to reporting future successes. I have complete faith.

Interview at Odyssey Workshop

As I’m scheduled to make a guest-instructor appearance at the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop in New Hampshire this July, they put some questions to me, which I answered in an interview that’s just been posted online on the Odyssey blog.

As I answered some of the questions that I’ve probably not gotten around to answering here, think of it as Writing Question #10. (I was going to call it #X because I was too lazy to look back through the blog to see what the last one was numbered. But then I relented and checked, and saw that I’d called the last one #X-Z because I was too lazy then. So I figured I’d better check further. I think this is right.)

I have thoughts on marketing strategy, research, and other matters dear to the hearts of all who are interested in writing. Check it out.

“You will have to write and put away or burn a lot of material before you are comfortable in this medium. You might as well start now and get the work done. For I believe that eventually quantity will make for quality.” —Ray Bradbury

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