Tag Archives: Mary Robinette Kowal

Obligatory Hugo Post

Hey y’all! Long time, no see, huh?

For 2016 I did not have any awards-eligible works appear, but that doesn’t mean I won’t come on here to tell you who I think you should nominate for the final Hugo ballot.

Best Novel

Borderline – Mishell Baker

Is this the best debut novel I’ve ever read? Maybe. Is that question hyperbole? Certainly not! Borderline is the best book I read last year, and thankfully, it also came out in 2016.

If you like urban fantasy, read Borderline. If you don’t usually like urban fantasy, check it out anyway, because our protagonist is a disabled woman with Borderline Personality Disorder who ends up working with faeries.

Ghost Talkers – Mary Robinette Kowal

I was sold on this book the moment I heard the premise at a reading Mary did in SF back in 2015: mediums in the British army gathering battlefield intelligence from fresh ghosts during World War One. This book delivers on that promise in spades. There are lots of things I want to say about this book that are huge spoilers, so instead I’ll say this: I want Mary to write more in this world, and once you read this book, you will too. A Hugo nom can help make that happen.

Best Short Story

“This is Not a Wardrobe Door” – A. Merc Rustad, Fireside

This was the first short story I read in 2016, and the fact that it’s stuck with me these past 12 months should be an indication of how good this post-portal-fantasy story is. Seriously. It’s not that long. Go read it right now. LINK

“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” – Brooke Bolander, Uncanny Magazine

Short, violent, heartbreaking, triumphant. I love the hell out of this story. It’ll take you just a couple minutes to start loving it, too. Go! LINK

“The Green Knight’s Wife” – Kat Howard, Uncanny Magazine

Holy crap, y’all. This is a late addition, just rescued from my tab-purgatory today, and it’s just. Holy hecking eff, y’all. I love me some fabulism, and this right here hits that spot perfectly. Not your average wintertime story. LINK

Best Editor, Short Form

Lynne and Michael Thomas

The Thomases have done amazing work at Uncanny Magazine, which should be evident from the fact that Uncanny won a Hugo last year in its first year of eligibility. They’re quality folks.

Brian J. White

Brian is at the helm of Fireside, which has published some of the best fiction to come out in the past year. He is quality people.

Best Semiprozine

Uncanny Magazine

Uncanny has been publishing wonderful, vital fiction since issue 1, and this year has been no exception.

Fireside

Fireside has been on a roll the last couple years. They’ve published many of my favorite stories from many of my favorite authors. They also work really hard to make sure that their authors get paid and get paid well.

Best Related Work

The Women of Harry Potter – Sarah Gailey, Tor.com

Sarah’s series of essays is wonderful. You will be filled with feels and reminded that HP is maybe even more relevant today than it was when it was written. LINK

#BlackSpecFic Report, Fireside

This series of essays takes a powerful look at the state of speculative fiction today and the ways that racism is still present and insidious. LINK

Best Professional Artist

Galen Dara

Seriously, look at this cover for Uncanny.

issue10_mayjune16_coverfinal_med

“Bubbles and Blast Off” – Galen Dara, Uncanny Magazine, Issue 10

Portfolio

John W. Campbell Award for New Writers

Sarah Gailey

Sarah kinda exploded onto the scene a little while ago (I even talked up the first of her stories that I read on here), and she’s just continued to shine since that time. Recommended stories include “Look,” from the post linked above; “Haunted,” Fireside; and “Bargain,” Mothership Zeta.

I’ve undoubtedly left off things that you love and forgotten things that I love, so this post may be followed by addenda. And if there’s something that you love that you think I’d love, please let me know in the comments!

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A Canny Decision

Last year, I supported the first year of Uncanny Magazine on Kickstarter at a level that got me a guaranteed slot in one of Mary Robinette Kowal’s weekend intensive short story workshops. As a writer, that workshop was life-changing for me and my art. It also introduced me to a group of fellow writers who I’m proud to call friends and who I meet with regularly for story critiques and fannish talk.

Uncanny is currently running a Kickstarter for their second year of putting out amazing fiction, insightful nonfiction, great podcasts, and gorgeous cover art. And Mary is once again offering a couple of workshop slots. As of this writing, only one remains.

The point I’m trying to make if that if you want to support a great magazine and you also want to grok short story writing better, you should jump at this opportunity.

Help fund Uncanny Magazine Year Two on Kickstarter.


Of Noble Book Tours

Last night, I made a rare weeknight trek across the bay to San Francisco. I got home late, and now I’m running on Irish breakfast tea as much as anything else.

And it was

So

Worth

It.

The reason for this unusual behavior on my part was that Mary Robinette Kowal and Marie Brennan, fabulous authors, both, were finishing up their book tour with a stop at Borderlands Books. There were readings from books that aren’t out yet. There were puppets and natural history lessons. There were secrets that we are sworn to keep. There was fannish squeeing. Tor (their publisher) even bought us wine and cheese.

I must admit, at this point, that I don’t get out very much, and this was my first time going to a book tour stop in a very long time. It might have spoiled me for other tours. Mary and Marie both dressed in period clothing (Mary in a Regency-era dress that she herself sewed as practice for making the dress that appears on the cover of her most recent book, Of Noble Family, Marie in a Victorian dress sewn by one of the costumers for the SF Opera), and at the end of the reading, there were prizes for those who came in costume. (Next time they come through, I’m determined to put together a Back Watch parade uniform, or something approaching that, at least.)

Mary read from her upcoming novel, Ghost Talkers, which opens in a warehouse near the front during the Somme with our protagonist speaking to the spirit of a recently-deceased soldier of the Black Watch to determine enemy locations and movements and relay that information to command. I’ve been seriously excited for this book since I read a bit of its first chapter during the workshop I took from Mary back in January, but her reading, complete with accents (Mary is a professional audiobook narrator, after all) has me even more stoked (and panicking about how I’m going to finish my huge to-read pile in preparation for that book’s release). Following the reading, Mary (also a professional puppeteer) performed “The Broken Bridge,” a shadow puppet play that was popular during the time period in which her Glamourist Histories are set.

Marie took the podium next to read the first chapter from her upcoming fourth book in the Lady Trent series, the title of which I have sadly forgotten. Marie’s reading, likewise, was excellent, and she had the audience laughing many times. Her reading was followed by a brief natural history lecture in which artifacts from the world of her books were passed through the audience. Dragon teeth and claws, reproduction skulls and eggs, a mysterious fossil of an unknown but ginormous beast: Marie’s lecture had it all.

The readings and demonstrations were followed by a Q&A period, in which we, the attendees, learned some secrets. Pity you who were not there. We also got a story from Mary about her time on the set of Sesame Street. Yes, that Sesame Street.

I know, right?

So much squeeing.

A book signing followed, as is only right. We were bribed to buy local with the promise of sandalwood fans. My messenger bag smells fantastic.

And Mary recognized me, even though I wasn’t shivering under a pile of coats and blankets in my home office.

I got a hug from a Hugo-winning author. Hashtag humblebrag.

(EEEEeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! There, I managed to save that for later, rather than squeeing directly at Mary.)

So yeah. Worth it.

I can’t wait for their next book tour to come through town (Borderlands, I love you, but maybe Pegasus could have the next one, so I can stay in the East Bay?), and I really strongly encourage you to check out both authors’ books and stories and go see them the next time they come through your town. You won’t be sorry.


Dr. Bulletpoint or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Outline My Stories

If you’d asked me what kind of writer I was just a few months ago, I would have said, without reservation, that I was a discovery writer.  (This despite the fact that, in a loose way, I had outlined much of the novel I had written a few years earlier in Wikidpad.)

Now, though?  Well, for one thing, I’d say that outlining and discovery writing are not a binary, one or the other, but a spectrum.  Like gender.  The very act of writing an outline is indeed an act of discovery writing.  More to the point, though, I actually learned how to outline effectively by being made to outline a story (actually five stories, though I’ve only written one of them so far) in Mary Robinette Kowal’s workshop.

Previously, I would just sort of plunk away at a story, generally going from one idea to the next, and if I was very lucky, I knew the general shape of what I was building towards.  And that method can still work for me.

But.

(And this is a big “but,” which I like, and cannot lie.)

But this method presupposes that I have all the time I want for my writing (or that I have a deadline—in undergrad, deadlines were generally a pretty effective way of getting me to finish a story).  I don’t now.  I have a full-time job.  I have a family.  I have many obligations, and I must shoehorn my writing into the crevices between those.  And if I can sit down and have an outline telling me where I’m going next, I won’t waste as much time noodling and staring at an empty page wondering what the fuck I’m going to write next.

This covers the “why” decently, but not the “how” of outlining, or at least of the outlining process that I learned from Mary.

The how starts with a sketch.  A hundred words, give or take (at least for a short story), that covers the basic beats of the story, beginning, middle, and end, along with which MICE element(s) come up.  During the workshop, I managed to bang out five of these in about an hour and a half, with a little twittering and cat-wrangling in the middle.

From the sketch, I pretty much went straight into a bulleted list with each point being a beat of the story (plot, character, emotional).  This is the stage where I can really start to work out the problems of the story; the initial sketch is just the shape of the story, but this is where the detail starts to emerge.

From the list of story beats, then I make another list, with each point being a distinct scene in the story.  If the first ~100 words were a rough sketch of the shape and the first list was starting to pencil in the details, this next list would be the next stage of pencils if not an initial inking.

What Mary suggests, following this scene-by-scene breakdown, is to make a copy of this list and stick it in the live document you’re writing in, and then remove sentences as you actually write those parts of the story.  While this may seem too rigid of a process for some people, I’ve found that it still leaves me plenty of freedom.  Just because you’ve written an outline doesn’t mean that everything you write must follow it to the letter.  (I will say, however, that if you find yourself diverging too far from your outline as written, it might be prudent to re-outline the as-yet-unwritten parts.)

Will this process work for 100% of people 100% of the time?  No.  Nothing ever does.  But this works for me, and it might work for you, too.


Of MICE and MFAs

In the course of something else entirely, I stumbled across my notes from when I attended the 2011 MFA Winter Residency at my alma mater, Warren Wilson College.  What stuck out to me from those notes was something a professor had said on the subject of poetry: “You know you’re getting to the end [of a poem] when themes from the beginning start showing up again.”

My notes revealed, further, that this was said to be true of poetry moreso than of fiction, that it was an indicator of the poem’s coming to an end, since, unlike in fiction, there is rarely some large ending action in a poem.

I think that in four years of studying writing in undergrad, this was the only time that anyone really talked about endings.  I know that I learned a lot about writing in that time—if you go looking, you can find some of my old writing, pre-college, and while it’s not the worst ever, it is painful for me to look back on—but I don’t remember talking much about the mechanics of stories.

I don’t know a whole lot about poetry.  It’s not my thing.  I can appreciate a good poem, though “good” is, of course, very subjective (I think moreso than with prose).  But I just wrote this thing down, four years ago, and forgot about it because I didn’t have anything to connect it with.

Mary Robinette Kowal, in her workshop, teaches a variation on the M.I.C.E. quotient.  I’d heard about it before, chiefly from Writing Excuses, but I’d never really gotten it before that workshop (if you’re reading this, thank you, Mary!).  As someone who works with computers and studied programming, if not computer science, in both high school and college, the idea that you have to close every element, be it Milieu, Idea, Character, or Event, that you open, and, critically, in the reverse order of their opening (<M><C></C></M> rather than <M><C></M></C>, for instance) in order to make your story work right resonated with me.

And that’s what that person was talking about in that classroom in the basement of Jensen four years ago.  They probably didn’t know it.  My experience with that MFA was often one of “genre” fiction being very much second-class, only occasionally able to “transcend genre” and reach the level of Art.  I doubt that anyone there had read Card since high school, if ever.  I very much doubt that there was a secret class about M.I.C.E.

Nevertheless, they hit the nail on the head, and not just for poetry.  You can tell that a story is coming to an end when the questions/problems/whatever raised at the beginning are finally coming to a close.  And if it goes on after that last element is closed, or if it stops before closing that element?  Well, that’s what revision is for.


Math for Writers

So I just finished an intensive weekend workshop taught by Mary Robinette Kowal (and can’t quite believe that I’m back at the keyboard already).  I got a huge amount out of it, and I hope I can get back on my game enough to talk about it more here, but that’s for another time.  For the moment, I’ll just say, first, that if you get a chance to take one of Mary’s workshops, you really really should.  Your writing will thank you, and you’ll make some new friends.

Second, I wanted to share something that came out of the workshop that we talked about in detail, and which I then condensed into this handy (not a guarantee) formula.  If you want to know about how long a story you’re going to be writing, given an outline, just remember:

Ls=((C+L)*750)*M

In other words, the Length of your story (roughly) will be the number of Characters (C) and scenic Locations (L) times 750, further multiplied by the number of major elements of the M.I.C.E. Quotient (M) that you are focusing on.

This is, of course, a very rough calculation, based on the assumption that each Character or Location adds between 500 and 1000 words to your story, per major M.I.C.E. element focused on.  It shouldn’t be seen as some magical target goal that you must hit exactly and should never go under or over (especially since I’m using the middle-ground figure of 750 words, rather than either extreme).  Rather, it’s for planning.  If I want to put five characters and seven locations into a CE story, but I only wanted it to be 4K words, this would quickly tell me that I either have to adjust my goals or make some major cuts.


Even More Tools for Writers

The other day, on Twitter, Seanan McGuire put out a call for help

A lot of people responded, and they all apparently missed the mark by many miles, but author and Writing Excuses panelist Mary Robinette Kowal came to the rescue with a tool that I always (in a vague, back-of-my-mind way) thought should exist: the reverse dictionary.

(As a side note, I can’t seem to get the parent tweet in that conversation to not show up here, which is bothersome to me because reasons.)

As somebody who on occasion likes to use precise language but also sometimes totally forgets words, this revelation is world-changing.

This second tool is no less useful, but its target audience is a little smaller.

I discovered Markdown during the last NaNoWriMo.  For those of us who sometimes like to write in plain text but still get to have italics and other formatting options available to us without having to go through any tedious editing work later to add them in, Markdown is brilliant and wonderful.  Learn the syntax (which takes its cues from plaintext email formatting), write, and then Markdown turns your work into beautiful, valid (X)HTML, ready to publish straight to the web (if that’s your thing).  (You can also just open the HTML with your browser locally and then copy/paste into your word processor of choice for final manuscript preparation if you like to make things more complicated like I do.)

With Markdown, Vim can play right along with Word/Pages/Writer as far as I’m concerned (and it’s one of the best low-distraction writing environments I can think of).  For ease-of-use, if you’re a *nix user, just drop this into your bash profile, and you’re set:

alias md='perl /path/to/Markdown.pl'

(Vim users can also get Markdown syntax-highlighting scripts from github–I’m using the files from tpope/vim-markdown.)


Save the Pearls, Weird Tales, and Racism

If you’re already in the loop–and with Twitter etc, who isn’t these days–then you already know something about the Save the Pearls debacle (and by debacle I mean racists trying disguise their bigotry by saying “look how progressive I’m being”).  If you’re not in the loop, here’s the short version.  Victoria Foyt is a white woman.  Thanks to the magic of self-publishing and companies who basically sell so-called literary awards, she put forth upon this earth a book called Save the Pearls: Revealing Eden.  To promote this book, she created a video of a young woman in blackface.

You read that right.

In the interest of presenting both sides of this, I will say that the author has written to defend her decisions, saying in part:

The titular character, Eden Newman, loathes her white skin because of this, and accepts the oppressive opinion that she is ugly, even worthless. Because her chances of survival are so low, she has little chance of finding a mate (her mate-rate is an embarrassing 15%). And if she doesn’t find a mate by the time she is 18, she will be killed.

She colors her skin with a special dark coating in order to protect it from “The Heat,” and because she is desperate to appear darker in order to be desirable. With the clock ticking, she will do anything to attract a mate.

The use of blackface presents a mockery or travesty of African Americans’ lives. Eden Newman wishes to “Great Earth” that she had dark skin, not because she wants to make fun of people with dark skin, but because she admires their status and is jealous of the genetic advantage they offer against “The Heat.”

You can read more about it here, or even preview the first (quite poorly-written–though I was disinclined to think well of the thing from the start) chapter on Amazon, and form your own opinions.  What I’m here to talk about is the part where the new editor of Weird Tales, a magazine which I always used to hold in high regard, decided to publish the first chapter in the next issue of the magazine.   The internet, as it is wont to do, made a big stink about it.

Since then, the publishers of WT have backtracked, but not before a lot of angry authors pulled their upcoming stories from the magazine and a lot of people who used to be involved with the magazine, including former editor Ann VanderMeer (who has now resigned as contributing editor) and Mary Robinette Kowal (vice-president of SFWA and former WT art director), have distanced themselves from the once-prestigious publication.

While I think that pulling support is a fine act of protest, I think that Mary Robinette Kowal took a more meaningful stepShimmer will now be paying pro rates, thanks in part to Robinette Kowal.  I used to revere WT, both under the editorial leadership of George Scithers and more recently Ann VanderMeer.  Both editors believed in strong, well-written stories.  If current editor Marvin Kaye manages his slush pile in such a way that the first few pages, let alone the first whole chapter (which I found horribly racist, even knowing the context of the protagonist’s world), then I wouldn’t want any of my work to appear within those once-hallowed pages.  I’m proud of the stand that Robinette Kowal and the team at Shimmer are taking in defense of weird, wonderful fiction.
Edit: another view, giving some insight to the inner workings of WT following its change of ownership courtesy of Jeff VanderMeer.


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