Sunday, February 25, 2007

To Tallgeese

Thanks for pointing out the Immanuel Wallerstein newsletter. I now have it bookmarked. I've read him before, though not his newsletter, and like him because he's realistic, but not bleak. Bleakness is not useful today. We need hope and some kind of plan of action. How do we fix the world? There has to be a way. I see many ways, which may add up to a grand plan at some point. Though I suspect it will not be a centralized grand plan, or only centralized in places. One of the lessons of the 20th century is -- top down planning has some serious problems.

On Writing # 4

My last post explains why I write so little. I ended by comparing writing to coal mining. Well, hardly. Writing is safer. The ceiling rarely falls on you, and you don't usually have to worry about poisonous air. The pay is bad for most writers; but let's face it, most of us are going to have a day job and write for the praise and fame. Coal miners in nonunion mines get bad pay and little fame, unless there's some horrible disaster. No one wants that kind of fame.

So, I withdraw the metaphor.

But it's interesting to me that I stress the difficulty of writing and not the pleasure. Do you remember the Merle Travis song about coal mining? "It's dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew, the dangers are many, the pleasures are few."

True about coal mining, but not true about writing.

What are the pleasures of writing? Getting chapter or a scene or a line right; having the members of your writing group draw smiling faces on the margins of your manuscript; getting published and seeing your words on paper; getting a good review; having people come up to you at a con and say, "I really like your work."

Being good at a craft and knowing it. Making other people happy. Expressing yourself. "Self-expression is the need of my soul," said archie the cockroach. (I will cap the sentence, though not archie's name.) Saying something true about the world to the world. Making something beautiful.

On Writing # 3

This is the third question that came up in my writing group. How does one make production as a writer?

Part of the answer is in On Writing # 2. Don't get discouraged by negative feedback. This is true, but I also have second thoughts about it. Most writers I know are in writing groups, since editors do very little editing these days. You have to send them a critiqued and revised, completely finished manuscript. You should listen to criticism from the members of your writing group. If their comments seem off the wall, find or create another writing group. And sometimes the world is telling you that you aren't a good writer, and the world is right. I have no idea how you separate the criticism which should be ignored from a true message that says, "You really need to find another line of work."

I do know that the writers who grow, whose work improves, listen to criticism from their writing group and the friends who read their manuscripts and editors.

Other than that, one makes production by treating writing as work. You clock in the way you would clock in at a factory, sit down and do your job. The writers I know mostly set a word goal for each day: a thousand words, which is three of four manuscript pages. If you write three pages a day, you will have a thousand pages at the end of a year. Cut down and revised, that is a novel.

I've heard of writers who set a time goal, rather than a word goal. You sit down at the computer and stay there for three hours every day. You cannot do anything except write fiction. If words do not come, you sit and stare at the blank screen or write nonsense. But you can't escape to another place or task.

Think of writing as coal mining. Every day you down into a dark, dangerous place. You have to stay there for the length of your shift, and if you can't dig enough coal -- sixteen tons or whatever -- you will be fired. The town you live in has no other jobs. You have to mine the coal.


We are having a splendid snow storm, ten to fifteen inches of snow. It's March storm, the temp hovering around freezing, the snow wet and heavy and sticking to trees. But I'm not complaining that it has come too early in the year. At least -- at last -- we have snow and more than a light dusting.

On Writing # 2

Now on the other two questions raised at my writing group. How does one handle criticism and how does one make production in writing?

The first question is an interesting panel topic for a science fiction convention -- not because there's an answer to be found, but because it's fun to hear how different authors react. I find non-response, silence more painful than a negative review. When I first started writing, I got very few reviews. I felt as if I was dropping stones into a well, but there was never a splash.

Part of the problem was my difficulty with noticing positive feedback. My background is New England English on one side and Midwestern Scandinavian on the other. Both cultures have a tendency towards the dour, an ability to handle hard times pretty well, but a discomfort (almost) with good times. The second or third story I published was a Nebula finalist. I barely noticed this. I certainly did not realize what it told me: my peers -- the people I wanted to have as peers -- liked my story well enough to put it on the Nebula ballot. Not shabby, for a writer just beginning.

I don't think I was that unusual, and it may not have anything to do with my background. Writers, especially beginning writers, have a deep hunger for praise, which is almost impossible to satisfy.

I guess my answer to the question would be: notice when you get praise and enjoy it. As for the negative responses, the bad reviews -- I think the best thing to do is ignore them. You can rarely learn from a review; it's too short.

What I learned from reviews and editor's rejection letters was -- people did not get my stories. The late Terry Carr sent me note after note saying, "You write really well, but your story has no point." I wanted to put stars in the margins next to key paragraphs and underline the sentences that gave the story's point, but I didn't.

Finally, ten or fifteen years ago, which was twenty years after I began to publish stories, people began to see what my stories were about.

This is not entirely true. There had been people all along who liked my work. Charles Platt bought two stories for New Worlds, and Damon Knight bought three for Orbit. Pamela Sargent reprinted my Nebula finalist story in one of her Women of Wonder collections. My worst problem has always been that I didn't write enough. I think my stories are simple and obvious, but apparently they are distinctive enough, so people needed time and exposure to understand what they were saying. The time happened. Time is always reliable. It just keeps chugging along. But I didn't do my part. Instead, I got bothered by silence and bad reviews and wrote slowly, with many periods of no writing at all.

Don't follow my example. Always keep writing.

Do I write differently now, in a style that is easier to understand? I think it's possible I do. I have written stories with footnotes, forewords, afterwords, and even one story with five morals listed at its end. I'm especially happy about the story with the five morals. They are good morals: Don't trust ghosts, don't use other people's bodies. Stuff you can live by.

On Writing # 1

I went to my prose writing group last night, and it was a neat meeting, even though I am way behind in reading submissions to the group and thus feel guilty. Several questions were raised:

What do people do to make production in writing?

How do people handle criticism?

And… where are the good SF writers now, the people like Gibson and Delany, who really open readers’ minds?

I’m going to discuss the third question first. When I think about people who are doing interesting work, three groupings occur to me.

(1) Iain M. Banks and Kim Stanley Robinson are writing big idea books. Banks is good on violence, war and what it would be like to live without scarcity. Robinson is doing good near-future novels about politics and environment. I would say all these issues – violence, war, scarcity, politics and the environment -- are of huge importance in contemporary society; and I find both these guys write real page turners. I really liked The Algebraist by Banks, which came out from a small press in the U.S.

(2) There are a number of African-American and African-Canadian writers I find interesting, because (a) they write well and (b) they are doing something about the unbearable whiteness of SF. Names that occur are Nalo Hopkinson, Andrea Hairston, Minister Faust, the writers in Sharee Thomas’s two anthologies.

(3) I also like a number of women writers, many of whom are associated with the Wisconsin science fiction convention: Suzy McKee Charnas, Anne Harris, Pat Murphy, Pamela Sargent. There is a long list.

(4) There are a growing number of small presses doing excellent work. Small Beer, run by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant comes to mind, also Aqueduct, Tachyon, Night Shade. I’m not doing a good enough job of tracking these presses, and this is a mistake. The center of SF -- its living heart – was in the pulp magazines in the 40s, 50s and 60s, then shifted to the New York publishing houses in the 1970s. (I think I have the timing right.) Now (I think) it has shifted from New York to small presses and small press magazines. There are still good books coming out of New York, but a lot of work published by the big houses is stereotyped: another generic fantasy, another generic space war novel.

Patrick's Dream

Patrick has been recovering from an operation and feeling not too well. This morning, he woke up happy. He said he'd been dreaming about Duluth. In his dream, it was bigger than the real Duluth and had a shipyard that built boats of every size from commercial fishing boats to the big lakers. (There is a shipyard in Duluth, but it does repairs rather than ship building, and commercial fishing has almost entirely vanished from the Great Lakes.) Pat was in the shipyard photographing, under a sky as intensely blue as the sky in South Dakota.

"Did you have to sneak in?" I asked.

"No," he said. "They were proud of what they were doing and wanted everyone to see it. There was a big visitors' center, with people to explain the shipyard. You got a permit, and then you could go everywhere and take photographs. You could go on top of buildings, and the maintenance workers would show you the good views. The center had a little gift shop, full of workers' kinds of gifts. Shipbuilder's gloves, shipbuilder's caps, the kinds of things you and I like."

We had a hotel room in Duluth, Patrick said. "It was small and spartan, with a bare wood floor, but clean. It was a corner room, with windows on two walls overlooking the harbor."

The real Duluth Harbor is a wonderful place, but not especially open to visitors, especially after 9/11. When you approach the company-owned docks, you meet a security guard, who does not let you go any farther. There are nice hotels in the city, but not workers' hotels with amazing views. Patrick dreamed a utopia, and I must say I like the sound of it.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Max Sawicky and Political Economy

I have three or four economics web logs that I like to visit: Max Sawicky, Dean Baker, Brat Setser and Angry Bear.

Sawicky caused a brouhaha about three weeks ago by an essay in the Talking Points Memo Cafe. He was responding to an essay I didn't read, which apparently praised the "Internet left" and was critical of old-time New Leftists. Sawicky wrote a defense of 1960s movement people. The key paragraphs (to me) are the following:

The "Internet left" is substantially a captive of the Internet bubble. It's a nice bubble, full of fun. It is awash in hypertext and flash graphics, but it doesn't demonstrate much depth in history, political-economy or ideology, which is another way of saying it is fairly stuck in mainstream ideology and narrow tactics. It needs to step away from the LCD monitor and crack some difficult books, go to some boring meetings, wear out some shoe leather.

The real Internet left is the Internet of leftists who use the Internet.

The essay led to a discussion on Sawicky's web log, MaxSpeak. A number of the people commenting asked, "Why do we need ideology? What's the point of reading people like Marx today? Can't we all just get along, instead of arguing about politics and political-economy? After all, the real enemy is the Republicans."

I am now going to quote from New Scientist, the January 6-12, 2007 issue. This is from an interview with a sustainable designer named Jonathan Chapman:

To understand why we have become so profligate, Chapman believes we should look to the underlying motivation of consumers. "People own things to give expression to who they are and to show what group of people they feel they belong to," he says. In a world of mass production, however, that symbolism has lost much of its potency. For most of human history we had an intimate relationship with the objects we used or treasured. Often we made them ourselves, or family members passed them on to us. For more specialist objects, we relied on expert manufacturers living close by, whom we would know personally. All this gave objects a history -- a "narrative" -- and an emotional connection that today's mass-produced goods cannot possibly match. No wonder we are dissatisfied, says Chapman.

Without these personal connections, consumerist culture instead idolises novelty.

Professor Chapman has failed to notice that huge advertising and marketing industries exist with the sole aim of making us buy stuff we don't really need; and that many manufactured objects are made to wear out and break down quickly. In other words, Chapman has not noticed capitalism. Presumably he does not know that there were desperate discussions in the 1940s about what going to happen after the war was over. How could people be made to buy things they didn't need? Because if this couldn't be done, the U.S. was likely to sink back into the Great Depression, which had only been ended -- or briefly paused -- by wartime production. (Chapman is English. I assume the same conversations went on in England.)

This is why we need political and economic analysis and some kind of decent grounding in history. So we won't fail to notice things like capitalism, when we are discussing how to change the world.

Finishing a Story on a Pretty Cold Winter Day

I finished a story for the first time is year or more, a good feeling. I almost want to go on to another story that's in need of finishing or revising. I have four in various stages of completion: another hwarhath story about the actor Dapple, two more stories about Lydia Duluth, and a new Big Mama story. It's possible that I haven't been writing because I'm tired of writing in series. That occurred to me recently. The story I just finished is a stand-alone and one of those stories where you are racing contemporary science and history. Will I get the story out before it becomes (at least in part) true? Or obviously untrue? It was obvious as I finished A Woman of the Iron People that the Soviet Union was on the edge of collapse. But my novel required the USSR. I wrote really fast toward the end.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Writing a Blog

I am a fiction writer, which means I write through a mask, as the narrator of a story (who is not me) or as a character, since I like the first person. There are times I find it interesting that I devote so much energy to communication, but always indirect communication, through stories that are not true and a medium that tells my stories at a distance. I'm not there as a person, speaking. Instead, black marks on white paper speak. Self-expression is the need of my soul, as archie the cockroach wrote. But almost never is my self-expression direct and face toface.

This is one reason (I think) that writing a blog is not easy. Blogging is self-expression at a distance. I am flinging my words into cyberspace toward an audience I can't see and mostly do not know. But I am speaking as myself and trying to be honest. For me -- not a writer of essays or memoirs -- this is uncomfortable, especially when I don't know my audience. When one speaks face to face, one can check reactions. Is the listener upset? Does the listener like me?

In addition, the ideal length for a blog entry is short, a page to two pages of manuscript, 250 to 500 words, if you count words.

I have written six novels and lots of shorter fiction ranging in length from five manuscript pages to a hundred papers (1,250 words to 25,000 words). But I don't do short-shorts, and I don't find it easy to write at the ideal blog length, especially if I'm writing about ideas. A paragraph about the weather or a trip to Duluth is (almost) a piece of cake. But when I write about something like politics, it's a struggle to get my thoughts down clearly and a struggle to keep the writing short.

Why do I keep trying to write a blog? It's an art form that's new to me. Maybe I will learn something.

Sub Zero Weather

It finally got cold -- below zero at night, with a high around 10 above. The daytime windchill has gotten down to 28 below. The St. Paul Winter Carnival Parade was shortened to three blocks last weekend and all kinds of winter events were cancelled. I am treasuring this weather. It's the way Minnesota used to be in the winter and ought to be, and I'm not sure how much of it I'm going to have in the future.