First Thoughts on Viable Paradise 2016 (VP20)

I spent last week attending the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop on Martha’s Vineyard as one of 24 students. It’s been a little more than 48 hours since I left the island, but less than 48 since I arrived back home from. Yesterday was caught up with the combination of both mental and physical exhaustion, as well as taking care of Michelle, who broke her foot the day we were supposed to leave. In the end I went up solo as she underwent surgery on Monday; fortunately, my mother in law spent the week with her and oversaw Michelle’s care, freeing me up for the VP experience. I am forever grateful for that.

This was my first experience with any kind of writing workshop, and only my second with any type of critique process, so I was somewhat nervous of how that aspect of things would go. This was mitigated a great deal by having connected with a number of my classmates on Twitter or via Slack, a text-based chat system. This meant that a bunch of us knew at least a bit about each other.

That prior connection no doubt helped, but it seems to me that what truly brought us together was our love of writing, of the SF/F/Horror genre, and our shared desire to improve our craft.

And we did come together. Not as some kind of perfect cohesive whole, but definitely as a tribe. I know there are people I became closer too than others over the course of the week, and I’m sure the same holds true for all of us. And I regret not finding ways to spend more time with those I didn’t share group critiques or after-hours talk/singing/drinking/hanging-out sessions with. But it was clear that while the work people brought was at differing stages of development or polish, there was a consistently high quality of ability and skill among all the students.

In other words, I spent a week immersed in talking about writing with incredibly intelligent, thoughtful and skilled colleagues. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this was a life-altering experience.

I’ve heard it said that the biggest thing a workshop like VP does for you is to give you a cohort, a collection of folks with a shared experience. Time will tell, naturally, but I’m gonna put my money down now on that being the case for us.

It’s fair to say I learned at least as much outside the formal classroom sessions and group critiques as I did within them. The instructors and staff were incredibly approachable and freely shared advice from their experience in writing and publishing. But I learned a ton from my fellow students. Each person brought a variety of experience to the workshop, and absolutely everyone I interacted with was all-in for helping each other become better writers. It’s fair to say I learned something from everybody I talked to at any length beyond “say when” whilst pouring.

And what did I learn? Beyond the practical instruction around plotting, character development, and the Clusterfuck Deathtrap Corporation of Peoria, IL? Three main things, I think:

First up, that there’s a bunch of stuff I’m doing reasonably well for someone at this point in my writing career. Since we writers tend to be an insecure bunch, this part is often overlooked when looking back at critiques, but it’s front and center in the critique methodology VP uses. That’s really helpful – maybe in part because it softens you up a little for what follows – but more so in helping identify those things one needs to be better integrating into one’s work. (One of mine was “Really efficient world-building”, and I’ll be glowing about that one for months.)

Second was confirmation of a number of things I suspected I needed to work on – but more importantly, getting some tools on how to fix them. And as I mentioned above, those fixes came from the students at least as much as the instructors.

But the truly valuable things for me were items that only people with experiences different from myself could point out to me. I’m truly grateful that they did so, with respect and encouragement, and with trust that I was making a good-faith effort. They gave me ideas of how to fix these things too, and my work will be stronger for this.

I’ve mentioned the instructors before, and they were uniformly awesome. All of them are truly committed to mentoring and developing new writers and were incredibly giving of their time and expertise. This came during the formal classroom and group sessions, but also during the scheduled one-on-ones, off-schedule sessions, or simply while hanging out in the evenings. They packed a ton of information into our heads in an incredibly short span of time.

But, in my not-so-humble opinion, the true heart of Viable Paradise is the staff. These wonderful people, all former students themselves (with one exception, IIRC), make sure everyone is looked after. They make sure everyone is involved in whatever’s going on to the extent that they wish to, or are psychologically up to. There’s a lot of stress in this experience between the reading & giving of critiques, receiving critiques, and the writing assignments, and everyone has their own way of dealing with that. As I said to Macallister Stone, the head of staff, there seemed to be a million acts of kindness, love,  and support, and I’m certain that for every one I saw, there were a number I didn’t. I don’t think any of my classmates were hurting or in any significant distress over the course of the week, but I suspect some folks needed help over the humps at various points. I’d lay money that I got help I didn’t even realize I was receiving at times.

I’ll be unpacking these experiences over the weeks, months and probably years to come.

Writing Update, August 2016 Edition

The last 12 months have seen a lot happen in my writing life. I finished the first draft of what I hope will be my first book, “The Frozen Past”, early last December. Along the way I learned a lot about what works for me in terms of writing process. (I do best with 2+ hour stints in a place that’s not my house.) I could also see my writing getting better as I went.

Not entirely coincidentally, completion of that manuscript coincided with the beginning of an “Open Door” period at Angry Robot books, a time during which they accepted unsolicited submissions. I sent it off with fairly realistic expectations, knowing I wouldn’t hear anything for months – the window didn’t close until the end of January 2016, and they expected to get hundreds of submissions.

They got over 1100.

I went for quite a while without hearing anything. I passed the manuscript around to a select few friends and family to read – my alpha readers – and got some good feedback. After giving it a few months, I started a revision pass in March that finished in April, which fixed a few of the more salient problems. I knew the beginning was too still too slow but tried a few things to fix that, with limited success. I sent it around again, including a few new folks, in early May, with a request to provide feedback by month’s end.

May saw a couple of developments. With my surgery date set for July I was free to attend Balticon, the big SF/F convention held annually over Memorial Day weekend, and the con suddenly added a set of writing workshops (for an additional fee). I signed up for two. I also got my expected rejection from Angry Robot. Since they were looking at the weakest part of the book, and the first draft at that, the rejection went down pretty easily. (I’ve taken a leaf from writer Tobias Buckell and stuck a print-out of the rejection e-mail in a binder.)

Feedback on the second draft started rolling in, and I trucked off to Balticon, which proved to be a significant event in a couple of ways.

The first few came during the initial workshop, on “Worldbuilding in a Hard SF Universe”, taught by Chuck Gannon. There were only three students counting myself and one turned out to be Beth Tanner, a friend (and friend of the family). During the session Chuck, Beth and our fellow student talked about our works and several key things about my setting crystallized for me on the spot. Chuck also brought up a couple things I absolutely hadn’t considered which make the background of the Exile Clusters more real, but also helped me find the key conflict going on in my little fictional universe. The session was well worth the $180 I spent on it.

The second thing happened over the course of the weekend while participating in the grand tradition of “Barcon”, i.e. the conversations between folks at the hotel bar during the convention. Beth asked if I had plans to submit my writing to any workshops, particularly the Viable Paradise workshop coming up in October. I’d thought about it, and had originally hoped to apply to the Taos Toolbox workshop run by Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress over the summer, but my surgery and the expense precluded that from this year. Beth kept at me through the weekend: “You’re at the level where this is the next step for you,” she told me on more than one occasion. “Just apply – you’ve got nothing to lose!”

So, after a week of wrangling with my synopsis and fixing up the beginning of “The Frozen Past” a bit more, I submitted the synopsis and first 8000 words. I also won a professional manuscript critique in a charity auction for “Con or Bust”, and sent the entire book as it then stood off to the terrific writer Yoon Ha Lee.

And then, at the end of June, I was accepted to VP.

This is a really big deal for me. Viable Paradise only takes 24 students. It’s an intense, one-week workshop, and the instructors are some of the best authors and editors in SF/F today. People who apply often get wait-listed and have to re-apply the next year. Alumni include award-winning and best-selling authors.

Now, there’s no guarantee I’ll ever become one of those. There’s no guarantee I’ll even be published (traditionally, anyway). But no matter what I’m going to learn a huge amount. I’m learning lots already from my interactions with my classmates as we get to know each other ahead of the workshop.

Then Yoon sent his critique of “The Frozen Past” back right before my surgery, and it included words I was really happy to see: “There’s nothing here that can’t be fixed in revision.” The book is probably going to need a lot more restructuring and rewriting than I’d thought, and there’s some problematic characterization at points which needs addressing. But the last third seems to really work – which is feedback I’ve gotten from everyone who has read it – and the rest can be fixed. But not until after VP.

So what’s next? I wish I was more of a short fiction writer, but I seem to be stuck in book mode. I’ve spent the last part of July and first half of August working on the plot for my second book, which straddles the line between stand-alone and sequel to TFP. I seem to be on-target to start writing the first draft by the end of August.

And we’ll see what happens.

“Call it Your 2.0, Your Rebirth, Whatever”

And many thanks to Vienna Teng’s “Level Up” for the title here.

Updating this has been infrequent at best, but I’m trying to get into a more regular habit of blogging. I have a few things lined up for the coming weeks, but I thought I’d start out quickly recapping the big changes going on in my bit of the world at the moment. Because boy, howdy, at lot is happening in a short time.

Today’s topic: I had bariatric surgery in early July. This was a decision long in the making, and a long process preceded the surgery itself. I’d finally determined that it was a necessary step for me in combating my obesity. After kicking the process off in October, I made my way through the many preliminaries over the next 7 months, finally getting to the point of scheduling my procedure (a sleeve gastrectomy) in April. Two more months of prep and I entered Hopkins Bayview on July 6th for what turned out to be three days – right on track.

My recovery has been almost completely complication-free, and weight is coming off at a steady clip. I’m still in a transitional phase, diet-wise, having only recently graduated from “I can eat it if it’s on the list and I can blend it” to soft foods – all in small amounts. This week I’m finally back at work and trying to adjust that routine to meet my current requirements. I’m still pretty early in my journey, but being more than 60 pounds down from my peak weight, and nearly 30 since my surgery, I can see things working.

I cannot recommend the program at Johns Hopkins Bayview highly enough. The attention both before my procedure, the care in the hospital, and the follow-up care have all been top-notch. The program really seeks to find what works best and communicates that to their patients. The medical teams and support staff – nutrition, psych, insurance coordinators, and everyone else there – are fabulous.

Everyone who struggles with obesity has to find their own path in dealing with it. I’d tried a number of other weight loss measures in the past. Surgery was, in the end, the right path for me.



Research! Or, How to Avoid Lazy Worldbuilding

One thing writing the first Exile Clusters book taught me is that my worldbuilding needed some fleshing out. Despite having noodled around with bits of this setting for more than 35 years (seriously, I have notes dated 1980) a lot of things about it haven’t been written down. A lot of what was written down earlier has changed, as both I and my sense of this world have matured. So one of the things I’ve been working on while beta readers take another pass at The Frozen Past has been pulling these ideas out of my head and writing them down. Another part has been doing research to flesh out some of those better ideas that have come along.

Lazy worldbuilding in SFF has really started to tick me off, and generally boils down to stuff that simply Doesn’t Make Sense. These are things about which I’m unable to suspend disbelief within the bounds of the story at hand. I’m not talking about things like getting the details of computer hacking wrong (which applies to almost everyone besides Chuck Wendig and Walter Jon Williams, who get it mostly right). Nor about breaking the rules of science, which is true of most space opera. I’m talking about fundamental ways in which the world behind the story is put together that defy reason. Stuff that would be easy to get right with a little research.

So – I’m trying to avoid that in my own writing. And since I’m postulating a future history in which few of the people who escaped [REDACTED] came from the “First World”, that means my universe is populated with people from outside the US & Europe. Peoples from South America, Africa, South and Southeast Asia predominate the Exile Cluster.

One of the points really impressed upon me during the SFWA sessions at the Baltimore Book Festival last September, and in an earlier conversation with Tobias Buckell, was that you need to do research about peoples you’re not familiar with if you want to depict them accurately, plausibly, and respectfully. I’m extending that to my worldbuilding as well. I want my characters to reflect a plausible image of a future projection of the cultural mashup I’m building. I also want the world they inhabit to occupy a reasonable “probability cone”. In other worlds, crafting the future history that won’t show up directly in the books in a way that makes what does appear seem plausibly organic, and furthermore a plausible outcome of today’s world.

This leads me to my preparations for writing the second book in the Exile Clusters, bearing the working title “The Shadowed Web”. TSW is set on a world populated by a mix of West Africans and Vietnamese. In my original visions, the West Africans came primarily from Nigeria. Why? Well, what I knew at the time is that Nigeria has a huge population, around 180 million. It’s got oil which has brought it wealth, at least until the crash in oil prices in recent years. Africa has huge economic growth potential, and Nigeria seemed like a place where that might come from.

And then I started digging in. What I found is forcing me to rethink a little bit, but is also driving some new ideas into how my future history developed.

Nigeria has a many, many problems. A lot of these are fallout from the colonial era in one way or another. Others come from the kleptocracy, or government by theft, that has dominated most of Nigerian history since independence in 1960. Deforestation, the encroaching Sahara in the north and the prospect of ocean rise in the south, pollution of the Niger Delta from oil spills and other oil-extraction-related problems are just the beginning of the environmental issues. Corruption is rampant, as is poverty. Extreme religiosity impairs rational problem solving and fuels interethnic suspicion.

All that comes from one book, Noo Sari-Wiwa’s excellent “Looking for Transwonderland”, the travelogue of a diasporan visiting her ancestral home.

How do I take a group of peoples in these straits and make them one of the groups that gets off Earth in sufficient numbers to become one of the foundational blocks of the Exile Cluster’s peoples? How do I integrate these people’s histories, traditions, and viewpoints into the cultural mixing bowl I’m creating in a way that doesn’t come off as Western condescension?

I’m working on that. Meanwhile, I’m hitting the books.

On Being a First-Time Hugo Voter

I’ve been reading science fiction and fantasy a long time – most of my life. I think I encountered the 1970s reprints of the Heinlein “Juveniles” when I was 11 or 12, along with Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot”, but I’d argue that a lot of the children’s books I read were really science fiction, just aimed at a younger audience. I’d certainly been interested in science and space since I was really, really young – four or five. Some of my favorite toys were the “Major Matt Mason” line of astronaut action figures.

But despite reading prodigous quantities of science fiction and fantasy over the years, I’ve never voted for the Hugos before this year. The Hugos, for those who don’t know, are arguably the premier awards in science fiction and fantasy, named for Hugo Gernsback, the founder of many early pulp SF magazines and a major figure in early SF/F fandom. I won’t get into the background (see the explanation at the Hugo site here) but the nutshell version is that they’re voted on by the “members” of the World Science Fiction Convention, or WorldCon, which actually moves around from city to city and host convention to host convention each year.

So that was one big reason I’ve never voted – you had to either attend the WorldCon, or purchase a “supporting membership” that didn’t give you attendance privileges, but did permit you to vote for the Hugos. And while I’ve been attended many gaming conventions going back to Origins in 1982, I’ve only attended one science fiction convention, ever. I knew about the “supporting membership” thing, but for a long time was hesitant to drop a $60 or more simply to vote on the Hugos.

I didn’t realize that the number of people who actually voted on these storied awards was small. Really, really small. As in 1000 or less each year, out of the millions of people who enjoy science fiction and fantasy. That data point, plus two other events, pushed me over the edge to pay the fee to LonCon3, the host of this year’s WorldCon in London, and vote for the 2014 Hugos.

The first was the outcome of the 2013 Hugos. I’d actually read three of the five nominees for Best Novel: Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold (one of my all-time favorite authors); 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson, who’s best known for his Mars novels; and my favorite of the pack, Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, his debut novel. The winner turned out to be one I hadn’t read, John Scalzi’s Redshirts. So I picked it up and read it.

Now, I like John Scalzi as a human being. I read his blog regularly and follow him on Twitter. I like a lot of what he’s trying to do in making science fiction approachable, and in promoting diverse voices in the field. I’ve read several of his books.

But Redshirts wasn’t the best novel that year. Not by a long shot.* And that led me to digging around and discovering just how few people actually vote on these things.

The other event that prompted me to vote was the publication of Ann Leckie’s debut novel, Ancilllary Justice, which is flat-out one of the most inventive-yet-accessible science fiction books I’ve read in a long, long time. The protagonist is simultaenously a warship, the warship’s complement of soldiers, a unit of those soldiers, and an individual soldier. It’s a really remarkable feat of writing, but the book isn’t solely about this gimmick by a long shot. (Clearly, I’ll have to post a more complete review at some point.) It’s an excellent book, the best I read last year, and definitely Hugo-worthy.

So I decided that it was time to stop sitting on the sidelines, so I paid my $40 to Loncon 3 in time to submit nominations, and you can bet Ancillary Justice was on my list. (I also nominated The Incrementalists, Abbadon’s Gate and The Great North Road.)

The short list of nominees was released on Saturday, so I’ll be doing my best to read most** of the other nominated work prior to voting. In recent years the publishers have made these works available for the Hugo voters which should save some $$.

* I didn’t read Seanan MacGuire’s (writing as Mira Grant) book Blackout, but having read four of the five, my ranking would have been Throne of the Crescent Moon, then 2312, with CVA in a distant third place, trailed by Redshirts.

** There is apparently a novellette written by a person who is reliably described as a misogynistic, racist asshole, both in person and in his writing. I don’t think I can bring myself to read that. We’ll see; it promises to be in the Hugo Voter Packet.

Forest Moons and Warrior Races

Like any genre, science fiction and fantasy have their share of cliches and lazy shortcuts taken by creators who haven’t thought through their universes and the people who occupy them. One of the best known staples is where an entire world, usually one that supposedly supports human life in a near-shirtsleeves environment, has its surface completely covered by a single type of terrain. Star Wars is famous for this of course – the “Forest moon of Endor”, the desert planet Tatooine, the swamp world of Dagobah. But George Lucas isn’t to blame for this trope; they appeared in science fiction long before he came on the scene. I’m sure writers have a variety of reasons for coming up with them, such as being deliberately silly in the mode John Scalzi used in Redshirts. But if one is striving for something plausible, you need to put at least some minimal effort into world-building.

A similar shortcut which has come to bother me more and more in recent years is that of treating entire societies or populations as monolithic constructs. Now this way can lie some perilous ground, so I’ll say up front that I’m not talking about obviously racist drek such as we’ve seen through much of human history, impugning negative characteristics upon those not of the same ethnicity, religion or caste as oneself.

Rather, I’m talking about the notion that one can have an entire race composed of nothing but “noble warriors”, which seems to be the most common. Or dedicated scholars. Or ruthless traders. Or… the list goes on.

Now, perhaps this will in fact be the case in some sort of truly alien socieity. But what experience teaches us – or should – is that socieites are made up of individuals, and that those individuals, and subsets of the larger population, are going to have differences of belief and of experience that are going to result in differences in attitudes, in customs, in outlook.

Sure, broad similarities are possible and sometimes have bear out in the real word. Just within the United States alone we have the uptight East Coast versus the more laid-back West Coast. Miami has a completely different pulse and vibe than Orlando. The differences in things considered “normal” by my wife’s family in south-central Pennsylvania and by mine in central Maryland, barely 100 miles apart, are sometimes surprising.

Big populations, societies numbering in the billions or trillions, make these kind of silly shortcuts even more problematic. If we see so much variation among smaller groups in our daily lives, how can one make those kind of sweeping generalizations about whole species? And that’s before you get into the acutal needs for individuals to to fulfill all the myriad functions which an actual functional society requires. Who takes out the trash in your noble warrior race? Who cleans the toilets? Who builds their houses, heals their wounds, drives their busses? Clearly, all those people filling those roles are going to have different motivations, different views of what is important and what is not.

And yes, some cultures are going to prize some attitudes and features more so than others, and some cultures are going to enforce their norms with more rigidity than others. But again looking to actual human experience, these tend to be cultures which are more closed, less engaged with the world or with those from outside their culture. This is as true of the Japanese as the Amish. But even here, we find exceptions.

So if you’re going to try and sell me on a story, or a fictional background for a game universe, and you pull out these hoary old cliches, you’d better have something else up your sleeve to compel me to pay attention. Because for good or ill, I’m going to judge your work, and in this case, I’m going to find it wanting.

Allegiant – Violating the Covenant of Consistency

I’ve recently been reading Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” trilogy at the behest of my son Ben, who thought we should read at least the first book prior to seeing the movie. I’ve made my way through the first two, but now, about 120 pages into the third book, I’ve hit something which not only broke my disbelief suspenders, it’s thrown me out of the story so badly that I’m not sure I want to finish it.

I’ve had other issues with these books as I’ve made my way through them the last few weeks. Most of what’s bothered me are artifacts of sloppy world-building. It’s really hard to get a handle on just how big the factions really are, and how big the factionless population is. And when I step away from the story of the main characters and try to visualize the society in which they live, things just don’t add up. Dauntless only accepts 10 new initiates a year? All of Abnegation can fit into the meeting room at their headquarters, and yet Tris never knew Tobias, despite both of their parents being leaders of their factions? The factionless don’t get food except from Abnegation and Amity charity, and squat in unused structures, but yet they work all the scut jobs? Why would they perform all that essential labor without getting something in return?

Roth’s descriptions of Dauntless training also clearly display a real lack of any knowledge or understanding of military or martial arts training. Two weeks to make soldiers? You can barely learn the minimum essentials in 9 weeks of basic training, and that includes a host of things Roth leaves out: tactics at any scale from individual to unit; movement under fire; first aid; weapons maintenance; patrol techniques; and a host of other things you have to know as a soldier. Of course, if you’re just going for “Thugs with guns” then two weeks is probably enough.

I’ve also not been pleased that the major villains so far have all been members, past or present, of the Erudite faction, the one which prizes knowledge and inquiry. Consciously or unconsciously, Roth displays a real anti-intellectualist and anti-learning bias.

Then there’s her lousy science. If you’ve got wet-nano technology such as she describes the various “serums” possessing, and the ability to perform research and development along those lines, there’s a host of other supporting tech you’re going to have access to.

But when I pushed those aside and followed the exploits and struggles of Tris, I found the story to be fairly engaging in the first book. The second, Insurgent, was more of a struggle, suffering a bit of “middle book syndrome” along with lots and lots of angst, but at least Tris has some good reasons for her angst (namely, she’s suffering post-traumatic stress).

The third book, Allegiant, starts out briskly, at least compared to its immediate predecessor. But about 120 pages in, Roth drops something that – for me, at least – is a deal-breaker. Without getting too spoilery – Allegiant hasn’t been out all that long – Roth reveals something about a character from the first book that should be flatly impossible, given the society she’s described so far. Readers can forgive a lot of implausibility, as long as the implausible world maintains a high level of internal consistency with it’s own rules. Roth and her editor break that covenant in Allegiant, and that drags all the other sloppiness up to the surface.

I think I’m going to put this aside, and get back to Kameron Hurley’s excellent “Bel Dame Apocrypha” cycle; I’d put the second of those books, Infidel, aside in favor of Divergent. It’s shame that Hurley, a far better writer than Roth, isn’t landing multi-million dollar movie deals for her vastly superior books.