Archive for February, 2013

TT: Cybernetic Storytelling

February 28, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back and join me on the road where names are made.  Then settle back as Alan and I take a look at some of the better uses of cyberpunk and its tropes.

JANE: Last time, Alan, we talked about how both of our initial reactions to cyberpunk were more negative than not.  However, I’ll admit, I later found stories I really liked.

Realms of Cyberpunk

Realms of Cyberpunk

One of these was Walter Jon Williams’ novel, Hardwired.  His emphasis on the personal lives of his characters got me involved in a way I never was with Gibson’s characters.

ALAN: I agree about Hardwired. But my favourite cyberpunk novels, and the ones that finally convinced me that the genre was actually about something important, were the Budayeen novels by George Alec Effinger. When Gravity Fails was the first of the series, and he wrote two sequels before, sadly, he died. Had he lived, I’m sure these novels would have brought him fame and fortune. They were set in the Middle East in the 22nd century and the characters have cybernetic implants and modules allowing them to change their personalities and bodies.

JANE: I haven’t read those, but they sound interesting.  You also bring up an important point – how cybernetic implants became an important part of the whole cyberpunk scene.

Many years after I had dismissed cyberpunk as more often window dressing than good story, I came across the works of Vernor Vinge.

These days, Vernor (I refer to him by his first name not only because we are acquainted but also to avoid confusion with his ex-wife, who also writes SF, Joan Vinge) is known best for the concept of the Singularity.  However, back in 1981, Vernor published “True Names,” a novella that many consider to be the first cyberpunk story.

I recently re-read “True Names” and found the story remained gripping.  As we have said so often, quality plot and characters keep a story fresh even when the trappings become out-dated and stale.

“True Names” was reissued on its twentieth anniversary in an anthology that included a very lively introduction by Vernor and essays by the many well-known figures in computer science who were inspired by this story.   And, by the way, Vernor lists several stories that he feels anticipated even “True Names” on the cyberpunk scene.

So, who else has done a good job with cyberpunk?

ALAN: Neal Stephenson is often tarred with the cyberpunk brush and his essays as well as his novels are sometimes mentioned as inspirational within the genre. I think novels such as Snow Crash and The Diamond Age are the ones that made his cyberpunk reputation, but I’m arguing from weakness here because I never actually managed to finish either of them. However, they are both often mentioned in cyberpunk discussion groups.

One Stephenson novel that I am particularly fond of is Cryptonomicon. It’s probably only peripherally a cyberpunk book in that it doesn’t really make much use of the tropes and metaphors associated with the genre. But nevertheless it is full of speculations about the technology and the philosophy of computing. The novel mingles its computing speculations with an exciting and detailed narrative about cryptography during the Second World War – and brings both threads together into the present and near future. I’ve read it at least half a dozen times.

JANE: I tried Snow Crash and couldn’t get beyond the pizza delivery.  I did manage to get through The Diamond Age, but it was an effort.  I guess I missed its appeal.  Maybe someone can explain it to me.

Later, I read Cryptonomicon because both you and my friend Michael Wester (another computer expert) spoke well of it.  I must admit that, while there were things I liked,  I found it overwritten with errors littering the extraneous material.

Early on (well, relatively), I encountered a basic North American history error.  This made me doubt the value of the tremendous amount of other historical and technical material Stephenson included, and wish his editor had been more ruthless.

ALAN: Cryptonomicon certainly is a very large book – you wouldn’t want to accidentally drop it on your toe. It could easily have been trimmed down a lot. It’s the only one of Stephenson’s novels that I’ve ever managed to finish. I’ve always found his other books (particularly his so-called “Baroque Cycle”) very easy to put down and very hard to pick up again.

Stephenson has also published an essay collection (Some Remarks) which makes it clear that he really is as erudite as his novels make him appear to be. I was unable to fault Cryptonomicon when it went into areas in which I have some professional expertise and this, together with his essays, makes me trust his expertise. But even Homer nods – the error you spotted is probably just that, a small mistake that he made on a bad day. We all do it.

JANE: Ah, but if you’re like me – not an expert on what is important to the book (in this case computers and ciphers) and you catch an error in something pretty routine (like Adam’s apples in women, another thing that threw me out of the piece), then you begin to doubt the rest.  I mean, if   Stephenson messes up about American history (and he’s American, I believe), then can I credit the huge amount of Japanese, Philippine, and other history in the book?

But I digress…

ALAN: You’re allowed. These are tangents, after all!

JANE: Cyberpunk’s influence has gone beyond print fiction.  The Shadowrun game system included cyberspace hackers and cybernetic implants.  The concept worked best – at least in the games I played – when the focus of the adventure was on cyberspace intrigue.  Otherwise the action was too split.

There was a Cyberpunk RPG.  It  had a Hardwired supplement (which Walter wrote).   I bet there are others.

ALAN: Cyberpunk tropes have also been influential in the cinema, both directly and indirectly. Johnny Mnemonic is a movie made from a story by William Gibson. There are also strong cyberpunk elements in the Matrix movies and, rather more obscurely, in Max Headroom.

Originally Max Headroom (subtitled “20 Minutes Into The Future”) was a made for TV movie produced in the UK. The ideas (and some of the original footage) were later adopted by an American production company which turned it into a fourteen episode series. I quite like the thought of artistic input being provided from both sides of the pond. That’s almost a cyberpunkish idea in its own right!

JANE: I agree…  Rather like two friends who haven’t met in person for something like eighteen years having weekly chats. <grin>

Anime and manga – both illustrated storytelling forms – have used cyberpunk very effectively.  Indeed the giant mecha the Japanese love could be said to be forerunners of the concept of cyberspace since the wearers often interface with their armor and enter an alternate reality.

Illustrated formats are great for showing cyberspace, too.  In Sai Yuki, for example, there’s a minor character who is always shown doing his work jacked-in and wearing VR goggles.   What he’s doing doesn’t need to be explained…   So I guess what was once cutting edge has become part of the furniture of the field.

ALAN: You know, looking back over this conversation, I get the distinct feeling that, with one or two exceptions, such as Effinger and Williams, we are both rather lukewarm about the cyberpunk phenomenon. To borrow a lovely descriptive word from modern slang: meh!

JANE: And Vernor Vinge!  Well, I guess I am lukewarm when a sub-genre becomes defined by the window dressing rather than the content.

I hope that our readers will offer their thoughts on cyberpunk, pro or con.

 

Long and Winding Names

February 27, 2013

Earlier this week, I had an e-mail from a friend who is a long-time SF/F reader asking the

Arenas for Naming Challenges

Arenas for Naming Challenges

following question: “Why is it that some writers like to make up long names consisting of many, many consonants with maybe two or three vowels?  They are completely unpronounceable.  When I see them I frown.  I recently started reading such a book, gave up and threw it away.  What’s wrong with names that sound normal?”

While I’ve touched on names before (“What’s in a Name?” WW 3-24-13), this was partly autobiographical and partly related to writing.  There’s certainly room to expand.

Obviously, I can’t answer for every writer.  Although long names and terms are not something I use often, I have done it, especially when establishing a different culture.  In Wolf Captured, Firekeeper, Blind Seer, and Derian end up in the country of Liglim.  The language of Liglim is aggultinative – that is, shorter words combine to make longer ones (as is the case in many Germanic languages, including English, and in Japanese).

Since I wanted to make sure readers would know how to pronounce the words, I used a modified phonetic spelling.  Therefore, for the character “Harjeedian,” I used “ee” rather than “I” in the second syllable, so there would be no confusion.  However, for the final syllable, I did not feel the need to use a double “e” instead of an ‘I” because in the “ia” combination the “I” is usually pronounced rather like a long “e.”

Equally, for “Rahniseeta,” I used “ah” rather than just “a” for the first syllable, so there would be no question as to whether the sound indicated was a long or short “a.”  Having, hopefully, established that in most cases a single “I” is pronounced as a short “I” I left that, but used a double “e” in the second to last syllable.

This seems to have worked, because readers who have spoken to me about the characters usually pronounce the names correctly.  Oddly enough, it is the short word “Liglim,” that causes problems.  I’ve heard it pronounced “Lee-gleem,” “Lee-glim,” Lig-gleem,” and, correctly, “Lig-lim.”  So, obviously, shorter is not always clearer!

Ironically, the cover copy for Wolf Captured made up an entirely new word: Liglimoshti.  This frustrated me quite a bit, since within the novel the culture is always referred to as the Liglimom.  Ah, well…  Just goes to prove the old saying, “Never judge a book by its cover copy.”

I want to go back to one part of the question that started all of this: “What’s wrong with names that sound normal?”

To this I answer, “What is normal?”  I live in New Mexico, which is officially bilingual (Spanish and English).    I am so used to seeing election ballots and other official documents printed  in both English and Spanish that  I’d find it “abnormal” to see a ballot that didn’t include both languages.  Street names and place names go back with cheerful lack of rhyme or reason between languages.  There’s one street that is Montaño (Spanish for “mountain”) for part of its length and then shifts to Montgomery.   I suppose someone who didn’t know any Spanish could be forgiven for thinking Montaño meant “montgomery,” but I’m willing to bet that most people who live here know it doesn’t.

This takes me to the problem of writing a book that uses another extant culture.  I’ve run into this quite a few times, most particularly in Legends Walking (aka Changer’s Daughter), part of which takes place in Nigeria, and in the “Breaking the Wall” series (first book, Thirteen Orphans) in which many of the characters are either Chinese or of Chinese descent.

English is commonly spoken in Nigeria, so I was fine there.  However, from reading both novels set in Nigeria and non-fiction about the place, I rapidly learned that English was heavily salted with terms from many languages spoken by the various ethnic/linguistic groups that reside within the borders.  I chose to follow the same custom, doing my best to carefully define terms within context.

However, this choice meant that I had to deal with the problem of how to deal with accent marks.  See my “Accent on Page” (WW 1-11-12) if you’re interested in knowing how I dealt with this issue.

The “Breaking the Wall” books provided an entirely different challenge.  Not only isn’t there one accepted way to transliterate Chinese, the “accepted” pronunciations often reflect the domination of Northern Chinese over the other dialects.  People of my age probably remember when we were told that “Peking” was now “Beijing” – and that the name had not been changed, just how it was to be spelled and pronounced.

I did an informal experiment and learned something very interesting.  Readers unfamiliar with the base language have more trouble “seeing” a foreign word, especially one that is oddly pronounced.    In a novel about Chinese characters in which the names were given in Chinese, I had more trouble remembering the names than I did when the names were partly or completely translated.    So “Master Li” or “Judge Dee” would stay in my mind, whereas “Qu Boyu” and “Zhongni” did not.

I checked and found this was the case for many people.  Therefore, deciding that my job as a writer was to communicate, not to provide a language lesson, most of the time I gave the translations for the names, rather than making my readers learn another language and its conventions just to enjoy a series of  novels.   That it also saved me from having to decide which transliteration version to use.  Not having to deal with whether to change the transliteration according to dialect, or whether the character was from “The Land of the Burning” (our world) or “The Land Born of Smoke and Sacrifice” (the alternate China) was a bonus.

Remember, familiarity with a language changes everything.  Writers need to remember that  they may have been working within their invented language, or within another culture for long enough that what was once odd has become familiar.  However, this will not be the case for the reader.

Back when I taught college, one term I had three Japanese exchange students in one class.  They were named Yumiko, Yukiko, and Yukari.  I despaired of every getting their names right, but within a month I had no problem.  However, it did occur to me that I would not have had the same problem if my students had been named “Ann,” “Andrea,” and “Angela.”  It was the combination of the unfamiliar first letter “Y” (not very common in English – and even names like “Yvonne” and “Yvette” are often mispronounced) and my lack of familiarity with the language’s conventions.

In the years since, I have learned a lot more Japanese and probably wouldn’t have the same problem.  “Yukiko,” for example, would automatically break down into “yuki” (snow) and “ko” (a common feminine suffix, roughly translated as “child”).

So, to answer my friend’s question, what seems unpronounceable may not be unpronounceable, what is normal may not be normal, but when writing you should never forget that you’re communicating and owe your readers a bit of a bridge.

TT: Punking Up Computers

February 21, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back and join in as we practice some of the steps in the Critique Dance.  Then join me and Alan as we continue our voyage through the varied realms of Science Fiction.

"Antique Computer" and Friends

“Antique Computer” and Friends

JANE: Alan, a couple weeks ago, you hinted there was a form of SF that owed more than most to the New Wave.  Can I guess?   Do you mean cyberpunk?

ALAN: Well spotted! That’s exactly where I was heading.

JANE: Do you have a good definition for cyberpunk?

ALAN: Yes, as it happens, I do. Cyber is easy of course. It derives from cybernetics, a term coined by Norbert Weiner in 1947. He defined it as the science of control and communication in animals and machines. Today, according to the Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, cybernetics is defined as:

…the science of effective organisation.

Most people think it has something to do with computers and indeed it does, but only peripherally. One can talk of computer cybernetics as one branch of the science. But it is a small and not very important part.

Now, what about punk? What on earth is that? The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines it as:

prostitute (archaic);
rotten wood; fungus growing on wood used as tinder;
worthless stuff; rubbish; tosh.

Obviously therefore, cyberpunk is literature about pimps and their effective organisation of worthless, archaic and somewhat wrinkled prostitutes who have fungus growing on the rotten wood beneath their beds. I suspect that the popular appeal of the books derives from the fact that the fungus may be used as tinder and is therefore highly inflammable and liable to burst into flame if too much friction is applied. The sources of such friction and the gory descriptions of burning beds that it engenders are, as far as I am concerned, the highlights of most cyberpunk novels.

JANE:   Ouch!  That’s wonderfully warped!

And to think I thought that “cyberpunk” was science fiction in which not only computers, but also the concept of “cyberspace”-  a semi-mystical or virtual reality realm in which people who are specialists live alternate lives within their computers – is central.

ALAN: Actually, to be serious for a moment, I think that’s a very good description of the genre.

JANE: I’m curious about how you – as someone who works with computers – felt about cyberpunk when the stories started becoming popular in the early 1980’s.

ALAN: It seemed to arrive with a fanfare of trumpets when William Gibson published Neuromancer. I read the book because everyone was raving about it, but I was distinctly underwhelmed and I couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about. The style was terribly derivative, and the technology was naive. In a review I wrote at the time, I referred to Gibson as “The Raymond Chandler of the spaceship and rayguns set,” and the years have only served to reinforce that opinion. Gibson himself later admitted that he knew nothing about computers when he wrote the book and, irony of ironies, I think it was actually written on a typewriter rather than on a computer!

But I have to admit that the metaphors he coined are powerful ones. He deserves credit for that.

JANE: I’m with you in that I wasn’t crazy about cyberpunk when I first encountered it.  I think my first encounter  was also with Neuromancer.  I couldn’t believe that people who were that stoned and otherwise under motivated could be so effective just because they were interfacing with computers.

You mentioned that William Gibson knew nothing about computers when he dove into cyberspace and made his name.

Roger Zelazny was similarly ignorant – and yet similarly fascinated with the potential of the technology.  I remember when we were living together he’d stand behind me and watch when I used my computer, captivated by little things like how the line wrapped automatically, without the need to hit the “Return” key.

(For those of you who don’t remember typewriters, this key reposed where the “Enter” key is on the standard Qwerty keyboard.)

ALAN: Ah! That reminds me of something… May I tangent?

JANE: Go for it.

ALAN: Once I was in an antique shop in Auckland. It was obviously run by a typewriter enthusiast because one wall of the shop had floor to ceiling shelves full of refurbished and gleaming ‘sit up and beg’ typewriters – the kind you often see journalists pounding on in 1940s black and white movies. A little girl, who must have been about five years old, was standing in front of them, staring in open-mouthed fascination.

“Dad,” she shouted, “come and look at all these old computers!”

JANE: Oh!  Lovely!

Anyhow, Roger wrote at least two books that could be considered cyberpunk: Coils, with Fred Saberhagen, and Donnerjack, which I completed for him after his death.

I’ve often thought that Roger’s view of the future of cyberspace as presented in Donnerjack (okay, minus the big crash and alternate reality part) was much closer to what the internet has become in our daily lives, a place with room for ordinary people as well as wizard hackers.

ALAN: Given the importance of computers in the everyday life of almost everyone these days, I think that cyberpunkish speculations are a vital part of modern SF.

But beware! In 1909, E. M. Forster published an incredibly prescient short story called “The Machine Stops.” In it he envisages a connected world very similar to our own. Nobody goes out any more – all social interactions and routine tasks like shopping take place over the network. And then, one day, the network goes down; the machine stops. The results are truly horrifying.

JANE: I’m going to need to look for that one.

Now, we’ve been a bit hard on cyberpunk.  However, I need to go write.  How about next time we talk about cyberpunk stories we’ve liked?

The Critique Dance

February 20, 2013

In last week’s comments to my Wandering about what a writer owes friends and family, the theme of reader reaction – and the difficulty of getting anything substantive – came up.  I’ve written several Wanderings related to the subject, but as these were a year ago (WW 2-08-12 and 2-15-12), I thought we could take a look at the subject from a different angle.

Figures in the Dance

Figures in the Dance

My inoculation to the fact that feedback would not always be positive came pretty early on.  I have  mentioned that I’ve been really lucky in having a family who reads my stuff.  That doesn’t mean they always like it…

I remember with a twisted fondness my mother’s reaction to my first published short story, “Cheesecake,” which came out in Starshore magazine.  I gave copies to both my parents.  I don’t recall if my father ever said anything, but my mother’s contribution remains vivid.

I’d come to her house for some gathering or other.  The first guests to arrive were old family friends.  Mom pulled the magazine from a shelf and thrust it at the guests, both hands extended: “Look!  Jane has published a story!  I don’t like it very much, but she’s published a story!”  Her evident pride took away any sting and made me giggle.  Later, I learned she’d shared that magazine with just about everyone she thought might be even vaguely interested.

But for all her maternal pride, she was honest in her reaction.

So, the first question you’d better ask yourself before you solicit a reader’s reaction is: Am I looking for a critical response or do I just want to be praised?

If you’re looking for praise, take it and keep your peace.  Don’t beg for more.  Don’t ask “But didn’t you really, really like Bob?”  Or “Wasn’t the plot twist at the end of chapter four brilliant?”

If you want a critical response, what form do you want it to take?  We’re going to assume that you’re writing with the intention of sharing your work beyond the audience of yourself.  Therefore, the goal of feedback is to learn if you’ve gotten your personal vision across to someone else.

I had a long chat about this with my friend and fellow writer, Sally Gwylan (A Wind Out of Canaan).  I solicited her opinion specifically because our approaches to writing and feedback differ greatly.   Sally has belonged to several writer’s groups and finds getting feedback along the way very helpful.  I don’t want any feedback until the work is done and I’ve made the piece as strong as I possibly can.

Despite Sally and my different approaches, our thoughts overlapped a great deal.  We both agreed that it’s important to remember that anyone who is reading your manuscript is doing you a terrific favor.  They’re taking time to read your stuff that they could have spent on something else.  If you’ve solicited comments, they’re making notes and circling things.  They’ll probably go over the piece more than once.  Therefore, it’s important that you provide some guidelines for what you hope to get out of the process.

Many writer’s groups have the rule that the author of a specific piece can’t argue with each and every comment.  The author should listen, take notes, and then answer politely – or not at all, at least not until enough time has gone by that the emotional reaction can balance with the intellectual.

It’s absolutely fine if the writer doesn’t like or agree with the comments.  However, remember, the people providing the feedback – especially if they are not being paid for their service – are doing you a favor.   Take time to think.  If you disagree, try to explain why politely.

My husband, Jim, is always my first reader.  I’ve promised him that, even if I disagree with one of his comments, I will write it down.  If I hear the same thing from another person, then I will face the fact that although I thought I’d made my point, obviously, I didn’t do so as clearly as I thought I had and changes need to be made.

Obviously, this becomes a bit more problematical when the comments are coming from a group, because it is human nature for members of  a group to react to each other.  For this reason, it’s a good idea to ask that people in a group to write notes in advance and that these be given to the writer.  That way the writer has to face that the reaction isn’t just crowd psychology.

I’ve been told I like to argue about comments….  I’m not sure I see my response as “arguing.”   <grin>  I want to explain, absolutely.   Especially if someone tells me I didn’t put something on the page that I’m sure is there, I want the chance to show them.   I don’t see that as arguing, but as creative give and take.  Not everyone agrees.

Because people react differently to giving and taking criticism, you should choose your critiquers carefully.  Not all are created equal.  Also, a critiquer who is good for one type of writer may not be good for another.  For example, there are critiquers who cannot do so without telling you how they would write the piece.  If you’re a bit at a loss, this can be great and stimulate new approaches.  If you have, however, told the story you wanted to tell, this will be less than welcome – in fact, you may feel inclined to say “If that’s the story you want, go write it.  Leave mine alone.”

This is probably a good time too mention that, if you’re looking for criticism, you should make certain that your reader shares an interest in the type of fiction you’re writing.  This is truer in Science Fiction and Fantasy than in most genres, since SF/F has its own complex vocabulary and understood literary conventions.

Sometimes working with the same people can create a shared ethos.  If this is indeed shared, then all is well and good, but sometimes a writer can be overwhelmed by other people’s strong opinions as to what a story should say, how it should be structured, and a million other details.  In fact, the stories from that group begin to have a curious sameness – a criticism that I have heard leveled at the end results of certain writer’s workshops as well.

A good friend of mine tells how when he was writing his first novel, he fell in with a group of people who believed that a book wasn’t strong and mature unless at least one major character died.  Reluctantly, he violated his own vision and killed off a main character.  This, of course, distorted his vision for the story and, in the end, it was not the story he wanted to tell.  He has said that someday he’ll re-write it and follow his own Muse.

But does this mean you should not take negative feedback or suggestions for how you might change?  Not at all!  I’ve been very grateful to editors – professional and not –  for their suggestions, but the suggestions I accepted were those that made my vision more clear.  I have never changed the thrust of a story to fit someone else’s vision – and I would hate it if anyone changed his or hers to fit mine.

That mean to benefit from criticism you need to have a vision for your story.  Without that, even the best criticism in the world won’t do you any good.  If you don’t know what you’re trying to do, there’s no way a reader can tell you.  Don’t ask until you’re prepared to listen.

On that note, I’m going to wander off, but I’d enjoy hearing tales, both good and bad, about your experiences with giving or receiving criticism.

TT: Will You Be My Valentine?

February 14, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back one and take a look at what one writer (me!) thinks writers owe those who support or rather weird way of viewing the world.  Then come back and join me and Alan as we take a look at Valentine’s Day.  Oh…  And there’s a special Valentine for you at the end!

JANE: Happy Valentine’s Day, Alan!  Do you and Robin celebrate?

Valentine Glow

Valentine Glow

ALAN: No we don’t. We pay more attention to birthdays and Christmas than we do to Valentine’s Day.

JANE: When Jim and I started dating, he was the perfect traditional swain – covering the check if we ate out, holding doors for me, and all the rest.

ALAN: Sorry, but can I just interrupt you there?

JANE: Absolutely!

ALAN:  I once had a girl friend who was a fairly militant feminist; she insisted on equality in the relationship and point-blank refused to let me do any of those things. I was perfectly happy with that. In many ways I found it quite refreshing. But, for my own amusement, whenever we walked down the street I always made a point of walking on the outside so that my sword arm was free to protect her from footpads and thieves. I never made an issue of it or mentioned it in conversation, and in all the time we were together, she never, ever noticed I was doing it. I found that hugely entertaining.

JANE: Honestly, it’s never bothered me to have a door held for me as long as the person doing it doesn’t give the impression that he figures I’m too stupid to figure out how a door works (or how to pull out my own chair).  I think it’s the assumption that women were too physically and mentally fragile to handle these little jobs that was being protested, rather than the action itself.

Jim always walks around whatever vehicle we’re driving and opens my door for me.  I’ve had women stop and sigh in admiration.

That said, back to romance…

Valentine’s Day came around fairly early when Jim and I were building our relationship.   I immediately insisted on staking it out for my own, since he was always so nice to me.  To this day (and we’re celebrating our seventeenth Valentine’s Day this year),  I take him to dinner (not usually on the day, since the restaurants are insanely crowded) and buy him a present.  Jim usually buys me a box of dark chocolate with nuts from a nice place in Santa Fe.  This is a true gift because he lets me eat all of it.

ALAN: Actually I’d be really pleased if you ate all of it, too. Dark chocolate with nuts was how I first discovered that I was allergic to nuts. Trust me – anaphylactic shock is not pleasant!

JANE: I believe you!  Now, I suspect that you and Robin are less than typical.  What would a typical Valentine’s Day celebration be there?

ALAN: The main tradition is secrecy – the recipient of a Valentine’s Day gift is not supposed to know who it came from. Secret admirers are the order of the day. Therefore, those poor people who have no admirers at all can always save face by sending themselves an anonymous Valentine gift so that they can show it to their friends and boast about how loved they are. Nobody will ever be any the wiser!

JANE: That reminds me of what I’ve heard of the Japanese “White Day” celebrations.  Girls give guys chocolate.  In one manga I quite enjoyed (Love Hina), the main male character is a romantic loser who has become an expert candy maker because he’s had to make him his own “White Day” gift for so many years.

ALAN: Perhaps Jim, and all the girls in Japan, should dive into the pages of your novel Thirteen Orphans and visit “Your Chocolatier” where they can talk to Albert Yu and buy the perfect chocolate for the perfect occasion.

JANE: Wouldn’t that be cool?  That place came to me in a dream and I can still smell the aroma.

Valentine’s Day rituals are almost the opposite here – especially with established couple or couples that would like to be.  Valentine’s Day becomes a sort of “coup counting” event for some people.  I’ve known women who judge their beaus very strictly on how they attend to their Valentine’s Day duties.  Talk about sexist!  Very few of this type bother to do much for their guy.

When I was a kid, Valentine’s cards were given anonymously.  There would be a big box in the front of the classroom, usually covered with pink paper and hearts.  Kids would drop their cards in there and then the teacher would play post-mistress.  Again, there was that sense of popularity being judged.  I wasn’t ever popular and didn’t get many cards – and those usually from the nice kids who gave cards to everyone.

These days, I understand, kids are required to give cards to every other kid so no one ends up with hurt feelings, but I bet there are still ways the popular kids get shown they’re extra-special.

ALAN: Actually I suspect that the bullies and sociopaths will just use it as one more way to humiliate their victims with cruel and cutting remarks. Anonymity in the classroom encourages that kind of thing. Or maybe I’m just a cynic.

JANE: Be a cynic on any other day…  But not today!  Today we’re all in love. <grin>

On a less sappy note, I’d love to hear about other Valentine’s celebrations…  Any takers?

Oh, and I promised you a Valentine!  The Thursday Tangents are available as a free e-book — courtesy of Alan’s hard labor.  You can download them from http://tyke.net.nz/books

What a Writer Owes

February 13, 2013

Last week, I took a look at living with writers with special emphasis on some of the oddities involved.  This week, I want to take a look at what writers owe those who live with them.  In my last piece, mostly for reasons of convenience, I presented matters as if to a writer’s partner.  In this piece, I’m going to expand a bit and include family and even friends.

Salad Days

Salad Days

One: So you’re a writer.  So what?

Writers are pretty funny creatures in that they expect the people around them to take an interest in what they produce.  They want their partners to read what they write, to comment on it, even to get enthusiastic about it.  They’d like their family members to do so as well.  Even nicer would be if their friends would express an interest.

Early in my career, I was on a panel  where the participants were asked about whether their family members read their work.  Most said that they didn’t.  Several told stories filled with pathos about giving their latest work to a spouse or parent, only to have it put by unread.  The audience was so sympathetic that more such tales were elicited.

I was actually embarrassed to admit that not only did my spouse read my stuff, so did my parents, most of my siblings, and even a few family members who had never read SF before trying mine.

When you think about it, this expectation that family members should take an interest in the writer’s work is very egocentric.  Does an accountant come home and expect everyone to go over that astonishingly complex incorporation agreement he wrote that day?    Jim writes long, scholarly archeological reports.  I read some parts.   I read the articles he writes for a more “popular” audience, but he certainly doesn’t expect me to follow all his work.

Why then should I expect him to follow mine?

I don’t.  I’m lucky that Jim was an SF/F reader long before we met and that he happens to take an interest in my writing.   I’m lucky that he is also a great first reader and editor.   But that’s the point – I’m lucky.  I know I’m lucky.

Being a writer does not make you the center of the universe.

Two: I’m a writer.  Leave me alone.

I touched on this last week from the writer’s perspective.  However, when you think about it, this is an insanely selfish point of view.  Yes, to write you need some time and space, but what do you give in return?  Many writers expect to be given their space, but don’t give much back.

My feeling is that, if you expect to be left alone to write, then you need to give time in return.  In my case, I try to write when Jim is also working.  Occasionally, he comes home to find the house dark and cold and me in the office pounding away on the keyboard.  I look up and say “The Muse hit at 5:30, sorry!  Just a sec…”  However, I don’t make a habit of this.  I made an adult choice to get married.  I think I owe my marriage at least as much attention as my job.

Maybe the fact that I was “widowed” relatively young (Roger died when I was 33) gave me this un-American perspective toward my writing.  Maybe I’m just an advocate of balance.

As I said last week, there is no one guide book for how to live with a writer.  I’ll stress here that my solution is not everyone’s solution.  I know one night owl writer who goes out his way to make sure he’s awake and up to have dinner with his family before going to write.   I know another where the writer (who also has a full-time job as a mom) makes sure her writing time is when her kid is otherwise occupied.

The point is, if a writer wants a healthy relationship, then part of the responsibility is on the writer – not solely on everyone else.

Three: The Other Side of Staring at the Wall.

Last week I mentioned how writers can be working very hard indeed at those times when they don’t appear to be working at all.  I’m not saying this is incorrect, but I am saying that the rest of the family deserves some indication of when the writer is brainstorming and when the writer is just taking it easy.

I’ll tell Jim, “I’m a bit stuck.  I’m going to go make tonight’s salad and see what comes loose.”  Then he’s not completely surprised when he wanders in, and I wave the paring knife at him and say, “No!  Don’t talk to me!  I’m writing.”

Or I’ll tell him, “I’m done for the day.  I’m going off to…”

I think it’s only polite to supply some indication of what you’re doing.  Otherwise, can your partner (or kids or parents or whatever) be blamed for thinking you’re just goofing off?

Four: Don’t Expect Them to Read Your Mind…

I mentioned last time how writers need a certain amount of stroking.  Jim and I have been together long enough that he knows my creative pulse points pretty well.  This wasn’t always the case.  I needed to explain to him why the arrival of – say – the cover art for a new book wasn’t automatically a cause for jumping up and down.  Instead, I might want his thoughtful assessment of whether he thought it was good or bad or suitable.

Give a hint of what you’re looking for.  “What do you think of this cover?” rather than “My new cover came today.”  Or “I’ve just been reviewed in PW, I’m happy about that, but what do you think of…”

You’ll both be a lot happier.  You, because you’ll get the feedback you crave.  Your associates, because they’ll be able to avoid guessing what you’re angling for and be helpful.

Five: Remember – You’re Sharing the Space

Perhaps because the wild and crazy artists are the ones who get the press, some writers have the idea that being rude or inconsiderate is part of the turf, even what is needed to be a “real” writer.  I don’t believe it.   If wearing a little black beret puts you in your “artistic” mind set, by all means, wear the beret (or sweater or whatever), but don’t go raging all over the place, shouting about how you can’t write without it…

Yeah, it sounds pretty dramatic – that is until you substitute “account” or “data process” for “write.”  Then it just sounds weird or self-indulgent.

Equally, if you need to play loud music to cut out the world, make sure the rest of the family can deal with it.  If not, consider alternatives: closed doors, headphones, sound proofing.  Or if you can’t stand their music, consider ear plugs.

You might even need a separate office or to go to the library.  Moreover, if you can’t find a compromise, consider why.  It could be an indication of uneven expectations on one side or the other.  It might  even indicate that you’re trying to find excuses not to write and hoping to shift the blame to too much noise or too many distractions.  Be honest with yourself and look for a solution, not a target.

So…  There are a few thoughts on how a writer can be a part of a vital relationship – or relationships – and still be creative.  I’m always curious about how other people manage to find the balance.  Any thoughts?

TT: A Long Holiday Without Fear

February 7, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back and learn a little about the care and feeding of a writer.  Then come on back and help me explain to Alan how holidays work – or don’t – in the country of your choice.

Holiday Pursuits

Holiday Pursuits

ALAN: I’ve just gone back to work after a nice, long relaxing Christmas break. One of the things I stumbled over during my holiday was an internet discussion group that was talking about American vacation habits.

To my surprise, many people were complaining that they didn’t dare take holidays from work because they were scared that they’d be sacked and replaced while they were away. Since I live in a country where workers are mandated by law to take a minimum of four weeks holiday a year whether they like it or not (and many employers insist on giving their workers more than that), I found this quite shocking. Do you have any thoughts about this?

JANE: I guess I’d better start with the reminder that I don’t get any paid holidays at all.  That’s one of the joys of being self-employed.  Before that, I was a college professor.  That’s a job where there is ample time off, but little choice as to when you can take it.  So I suspect this is a topic where our readers are going to need to help out in explaining how matters work here in the U.S.

I’ll start by asking you a question.  When you say four weeks vacation mandated by law, do you mean that those four weeks are paid?

ALAN: Yes – paid leave. We get paid sick leave, parental leave, and bereavement leave as well, over and above our holiday allowance. A friend of mine once took bereavement leave because his pet rat had died. Some people mocked him for that – but not me. Grief is always real and he was very, very upset and quite incapable of work so why should he have been forced to come in?

If I may neologise for a moment, “presenteeism” (as opposed to absenteeism) has always struck me as being a short sighted policy. What’s the point of being there if you are sick, or grieving? You won’t get anything useful done.

JANE: I agree with you – although sometimes work can be a great distraction from grief.  It was for me when Roger died, but I doubt it would have been if I hadn’t loved writing.

Anyhow, you get all this leave  for any job, even flipping burgers?

ALAN: Yes, indeed – there’s even a minimum wage that employers have to pay.

JANE: We have a minimum wage here, too.  The amount is set by the federal government, although a state or city can choose to set a higher minimum wage.

However, vacation time and other types of leave are considered  benefits or bonuses, not something set by law.

ALAN: I understand that in America you have employees known as interns who aren’t paid anything at all, but who are just getting job experience. Is that the case?

JANE: That’s right.  There are both paid interns and unpaid interns.  As our economy gets hit harder and harder, unpaid is more likely.  Again, this is an area where someone else can probably provide details that I can’t.

ALAN: I won’t say that never happens here because I know that it does, but it’s very rare. Most intern-like positions would actually pay minimum wage.

JANE: Going back to how paid vacation time is handed out, policies vary a lot.   Often someone new to a job doesn’t get any paid vacation.  In some cases, there is a formula for accruing paid vacation and sick leave based on how long you work.  Back when I worked for the Small Business Administration (summers in college), I was enchanted to find that I earned both sick leave and vacation time.  That certainly wasn’t the case when I worked at a restaurant.

How long does a person need to work at a job to get that mandated four weeks?  Certainly, you can’t just start and then claim vacation time.

ALAN: Indeed you can’t! You have to be in the job for a year to be able to claim the full four weeks. But during the first year you accrue leave at a pro-rata rate.  But if you wanted more than your accrued allowance during that first year, very few employers would quibble on the grounds that you’d certainly make it up later.

Actually, when I first came to New Zealand, the mandated holiday allowance was only three weeks. I was horrified! The job I had in England gave me eight weeks – but I must admit, that was exceptional. Most UK jobs gave four or sometimes five weeks holiday allowance.

JANE: Astonishing…

ALAN: There were also a lot of postings in the discussion I eavesdropped on about “at will” and “right to work” states where the posters said that employees could be fired at any time for any reason or for no reason.

It’s almost impossible to sack people here. In the whole of my working life, I’ve only known of two people being summarily dismissed, one because he swore at and threatened violence to a customer, and one because he stole money from the company. Outside of that, it’s almost impossible to get rid of an employee.

JANE: I can’t say it’s impossible to fire someone here, but it isn’t quite as easy as you seem to think.  I remember the convolutions Jim went through trying to get rid of someone who wasn’t showing up at work, wasn’t doing his job when he was there, and several other things I’d better not mention.  Jim had to document all of this –  then in the end the fellow just stopped showing up, solving the problem for them.

However, didn’t your wife recently lose her job?

ALAN: Yes – but Robin was made redundant and that’s quite a different kettle of fish. That means that the job she was doing was no longer required by the company. Because her job had vanished, there was nothing for her to do and so they let her go. She was paid six months salary as compensation,which was quite a handy chunk of change!

JANE: Again, similar programs do exist here.  They’re not mandated by federal law, rather by state law or specific company policy.

I’m betting some of our readers can help you understand what those folks were so afraid of that they wouldn’t dare miss work.  I know we have readers from other countries as well.  I’d be interested in hearing how hiring and firing and vacation time work elsewhere.

Life With a Writer

February 6, 2013

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d present you  with a two-part look at life with a writer.  Today I’m going to focus what life with a writer is like.  Next week, I’ll  focus on the question of what writers owe those with whom they live.

One Writer's Haven

One Writer’s Haven

I feel pretty qualified to write about this because, in addition to having been a full-time writer since 1994, I’ve been seriously working on being a writer since I finished writing my doctoral dissertation in 1988.

Additionally, I’ve been on the other side of the equation.   I lived with writer Roger Zelazny.  Before that, we were avid and enthusiastic correspondents, so even before we were living under one roof, I had a good idea of how he dealt with the demands both of  being  a writer and a member of a family.  Most of  you know that my husband, Jim Moore, is an archeologist.  What you may not realize is that archeology – especially the type that Jim does – involves a lot of writing.  So, in a sense, I’m still living with a writer.

Jim and I just celebrated our sixteenth wedding anniversary, so we’ve  done a lot of thinking about how to live happily with a writer.  Here are a few things we’ve figured out, presented in a semi-logical order.

One: Writing involves more than writing.

A writer is writing even when fingers are not moving either pen or keys or anything at all.  In fact, the times when a writer is staring at the wall, apparently doing nothing, or playing solitaire on the computer, or reading, may actually be when the writer is working very hard indeed.

So, the worst thing you can say to your writer at these times is, “Since you’re not doing anything, could you…”

Really, you’re likely to start fireworks.

Two: Life with a writer is not cool.  In fact, it’s excruciatingly boring.

Several writer friends have told variations on the following tale.  They get into a relationship with someone, in part because that someone thinks that writing is “cool.”    Then, once the relationship is underway, the non-writer is shocked that the writer needs time to write…

Sounds stupid, but I’ve seen it happen a lot.  Don’t get into a relationship with a writer if you can’t take that he or she is going to spend a lot of time with other people and traveling to other places.  Even worse, those people and places don’t exist, so all those rules in relationship guides about making yourself interested in your partner’s life and interests simply don’t apply.

Maybe your writer will want you to know every bit about a work in process.  In that case, you’re going to need to struggle against boredom and repetition.  Maybe, like me, your writer won’t want to share anything until the project is done, so you’ll just get a lot of fragmentary comments.

My friend Sharon Weber has been known to say, “My husband has a mistress.  Her name is Honor Harrington.”

Three:  Writers are very different from each other.

Seriously.  Except for the fact that they all make up stories, most writers have little in common.  Some are like me: they write a bit every day and end up with a book.  Others are binge writers.  They might not seem to do anything for weeks and then go nuts.  Some can work a nine-to-five sort of schedule.   Some need to work at night, when distractions are at a minimum.  Some need to start first thing…

There is no one guide book that will suit every writer.  However, if you’re going to live with a writer, you need to learn that particular writer’s signals: when things are going well; when they’re going horribly; when there is a real obstruction in the creative process, and when it’s just a temporary stoppage.

Back in my Wandering for 1-26-11, I quoted a passage from Agatha Christie’s autobiography where she talked about her recurring problems at the start of each novel.   She also noted how how her husband, Max, reacted.    I recognized that reaction.  It’s very similar to how Jim reacts to me.  I wonder if it has anything to do with both of them being archaeologists?

So, just as you’d learn the care and feeding of an exotic pet, you need to learn the care and feeding of your particular writer.  He or she will appreciate it – and so will you, especially when you find yourself being praised for being such an important part of the creative process, even when you don’t write a single word.

There’s a reason that every book I’ve written since Jim and I have been together is dedicated, in all or in part, to him.

Four: Writers Need Stroking.

Why?   Because, most of the time, they don’t get any at all.

Really, this is true.  Even the most famous of the famous – unless they decide to make a career out of being famous – spend a lot of time alone, working really hard at something that won’t be seen by its intended audience until months or, more probably, years after it is concluded.

When writers do get attention, it’s disproportionately small in regard to the work involved.  A book may take a year to write, then another year going through various stages of production.  When it finally comes out, there is an intense month or so of interest.  Then, for maybe the next six months, there might be late reviews or interviews.  After than, all anyone seems to care about is what’s next.

Five: Writers have different times when they want to celebrate.

For me, the day that I finish a manuscript in rough –  so that it has a beginning, middle, and end –  is actually my day of greatest celebration.  Jim has learned this and goes out of his way to share my pleasure.  He knows perfectly well that I’m not done with the book, but he recognizes that for me this is a special time.

Jim also realizes that, for me, the release of a book is more a time for trepidation than celebration.  That’s when I need to worry about reviews, about giving interviews, about doing my best at book events.   However, he reminds me about the good stuff  – especially to take pleasure in the book’s release – and so helps me keep my balance.

In between, when I’m just struggling to get words on the page, to keep up my enthusiasm in the face of very human doubt, Jim provides encouragement.  I really value how often he asks, “How did the writing go today?” even when the sour look on my face promises a grumpy reply.

Okay…  So that’s a bit of a look at what it’s like to live with a writer.  Next time, I want to look at what writers can do to make living with  a bundle of creativity a bit less maddening for their loved ones.