Monthly Archives: July 2010

The Big Idea: Alethea Kontis

It’s my opinion that any sort of book can have a Big Idea behind it, and when I say “any sort of book” I really mean “any sort of book.” And to prove this point, here’s Alethea Kontis, talking about her book AlphaOops! H is for Halloween — a kid’s alphabet book. Skeptical there’s a big idea here. Oh, just you wait.

ALETHEA KONTIS:

Alphabet books are dumb. I mean, come on, really. What’s the point? It’s not like the English alphabet’s anything shiny and new. A generous smattering of years ago, Smarmy McTinkerson wrote twenty-six characters down in a scathing letter to the illiterate Viking brutes who sacked his village, and A has been for Apple ever since.

And yet…there are almost as many alphabet books published every year as there are versions of the Bible. Why is that? F’s not going to get kidnapped in the middle, X isn’t going to get sucked through a wormhole, and B and Q aren’t going to run away and elope. It’s not even a dark and stormy night. Every incarnation of an alphabet book will always begin with A, and your kid will always be passed out from boredom by the time the zebra comes around. But people still buy these books, people who already know the alphabet well enough to pass a driver’s test and own a smart phone. There are even folks who collect alphabet books. No kidding! I can’t tell you how many times I wished I was an artist so I could get in on that racket.

Turns out, the question was not “How does one make the alphabet shiny and new?”; the question was “Who asked the alphabet what order it wanted to be in the first place?” And just like that, contrary to even my own contrary nature, AlphaOops: The Day Z Went First was born.

I still remember the morning I called my parents, all excited about the blasphemous epiphany I’d woken up on the couch with that morning. (Needless to say, the epiphany was quickly fed up with the eight hours of writing that commenced and left without even making me breakfast.)

“Hi, Dad!”
“Hi, honey. How’s it going?”
“I just wrote an alphabet book!”

In the dramatic pause that followed, I realized just how ridiculous I sounded. I thought about the situation from my dad’s point of view. Either his eldest daughter was playing one heck of a joke on him, or she really had just spent eight hours at her dining room table writing down the alphabet. I imagine he prayed for the former and silently planned an intervention for the latter, but his response was simply. “Fantastic. I really need to brush up on that.”  I love my dad.

Six and a half years after that fated phone call, here we are, celebrating the release of AlphaOops: H is for Halloween. That’s right–not only am I the girl who questioned generous smatterings of years of authority, but I gave it a sequel. AlphaOops: H is for Halloween was born of that initial irreverence, as well as my love of theatre and science fiction conventions. Seriously…how cool is that? (I had to change that blurb for the book jacket, by the way. People who drive cars and own smart phones might not know what science fiction conventions are.)

In fact, I was this close to dedicating the book to anyone who’d ever attended Dragon*Con when I got the news that one of my favorite teachers had passed away. Mr. David Oberly taught me (and a generous smattering of my friends) two years of Calculus at Spring Valley High School. He gave us all nicknames, made jokes so corny even we crazy nerds laughed, and he always–ALWAYS–dressed up for Halloween.

So this one’s for Mr. Oberly. May it give other young people just as many laughs as he gave us. I hope he’s somewhere smiling down on me, patting his belly (or doing that cool arm-twist thing he could do with his double-jointed elbows that creeped us all out) and chuckling about how his Countess Allie Kat is all grown up and a real Princess now.

Thank you, sir.
And thank you to the fans of AlphaOops: past, present, and future.
Viva la revolucion!

—-

AlphaOops: H is for Halloween: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read Alethea Kontis’ blog. Follow her on Twitter.

Various and Sundry, 7/10/10

Stuff here and there:

* Apropos to an earlier discussion here about when it was ever a fine time to be a full-time science fiction writer, here’s Robert Silverberg to drop a little perspective on who was able to be a full-time science fiction writer when he entered the field some fifty-five years ago. The good news is, things are slightly better today (at least, I can think of more than five science fiction writers doing better than scraping by as full-time novelists).

I noted in the comments to the earlier post that while I am at the moment in the fortunate position of being able to support myself off my science fiction novel writing, I like just about every other freelance writer I know have cultivated several writing revenue streams. Because I think every novelist should expect their career to have its ups and downs, and I’m a big believer in making hay while the sun shines.

* Hey, wanna see something cool? Look at this cover of Diana Rowland’s upcoming book, Secrets of the Demon, by artist Dan Dos Santos. See that creepy-looking demon in the background? You know what its name is? Skalz. THIS IS TOTALLY AWESOME. And I’m sure you can see the resemblance. Anyway, Secrets of the Demon will be out in January, and I’m totally going to be there for it. Because I suspect this Skalz character is going to be one bad demon. As if there were other kinds.

* Along this same line, check out the name-check Nick Sagan gave me in the genuinely excellent new comic book series he’s writing, Shrapnel: Hubris. Apparently I was a nice part of town, once. Sigh. I yearn for gentrification, I do. In the meantime, if you’re a fan of science fiction and/or the comic book arts, I have no idea why you have not already picked up this comic.

* And in sports news: I profoundly do not care about the LeBron thing, and in the World Cup final I’m rooting for Spain, because a publisher in Spain has bought the translation rights to several of my books, and no publisher in the Netherlands has ever bought a damn thing from me. That’s right! I root for my economic interests! Go, La Roja!

And there you have it.

My Latest Thing

I have a stated goal for my summer of losing roughly 20 pounds — going from a flabtastic 180 to a pants-fittable 160 — and aside no longer permanently wearing a feedbag filled with Reese’s Pieces, here’s another tool in my arsenal: The LiveStrong calorie counter, which is available as an app on the iPod Touch. I entered into it my height and (then-current) weight, my activity level (lightly active — SHUT UP) and then also entered the amount of weight I was hoping to lose on a weekly basis (a pound a week, which I felt was reasonable). It then spit out the number of calories I should consume a day to hit my goal, which is, in case you’re curious, 1,743.

I have found this to be a perfectly reasonable amount of calories on a day-to-day basis; it’s fewer than I was eating, apparently, but not so few that I get randomly hungry and try to gnaw on the cats. Aiding in this task is the app’s database of food item calorie counts, so I type in the name of the item and it tells me how many calories I am jamming into my maw. The database is stumpable but most of the big brand names and chain restaurants are in there. Logging one’s calories is surprisingly addictive, which is why I suspect at this point it’s working for me — I’m at 173 pounds at the moment.

This won’t get me to 160 by the time I get to Worldcon, but it’ll get me to about 165, which is the weight below which I no longer have the “defeated middle-aged white man” body profile. Which will work for me.

The Big Idea: Karen Lord

Sometimes in writing, who you make your protagonist, and the qualities that person possesses,  makes all the difference for the story you want to tell. When it came time for Karen Lord to tell the story in Redemption in Indigo, she chose a protagonist who was unconventional — Paama, a character from African lore — but whose unconventionality served her story well. And indeed she has, with the book earning starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Booklist. What qualities makes this unconventional protagonist so essential, and so readable? Lord unfolds the tale.

KAREN LORD:

I’ve known Paama for a very long time, almost as long as I can remember.  Her story was in an anthology of folktales from all over the world, in the company of such standards as Aesop’s Fables and The Ugly Duckling.  There were fairy godmothers, talking animals and beautiful princesses (some passive, some plucky).  There were kingdoms, enchantments and adventurous journeys.  And then there was Paama, a ordinary woman living in an ordinary village.  She had a husband, a glutton, an embarrassment, a blight on her happiness.  And she got rid of him!  Now that was real – and useful!

Years later, I sat down to attempt my first novel.  Paama, I thought, what are you doing these days? First I wrote what I knew about her life, which took only three chapters, and then I just … kept going.  I had an image in my head of an uncanny being and an ordinary woman struggling over a cou-cou stick (cou-cou is a Barbadian dish, somewhat like polenta, made of cornmeal and boiled okras stirred smooth together).  That was another fragment of childhood – when the rain is falling and the sun is shining, the devil and his wife are fighting for the cou-cou stick. But now I had questions.  Why that stick?  Why did it make the weather go wild?  I decided it was a Chaos Stick, able to turn any possibility, no matter how improbable, into reality.

I enjoy reading about sword-swinging heroines and heroes of noble blood and epic destiny, but I’ve also observed that in real life the powerful people are those who have learned how to make good choices.  This has nothing to do with luck.  I’m talking about creativity (making the most of what’s available or finding new resources), discernment (seeing people and situations clearly) and detachment (keeping free of peer pressure, the praise and blame of society).  The Chaos Stick would suit someone who already had the knack of choosing well.

It was a risk, making Paama the protagonist.  After all, what makes for good living does not always make for good story.  But Paama told me very clearly the kind of heroine she was going to be and the plot moulded itself around her personality.  She failed, and did not despair; cried, and stayed strong; left, and returned on her own terms.  Her enemy expected a head-on confrontation, but she countered with strategic yielding.  She kept making choices, good and bad, and never stopped learning from the bad and improving on the good.  She mastered the art of serendipity, which is more than mere luck.  She wielded the Stick well.

Paama became my patron saint of editing.  I often don’t know what I’m writing till I’ve written it, which makes editing a crucial exercise in making choices.  It is a combination of finding and following the narrative’s flow; uncovering and enhancing the subtle patterns in the framework; keeping story separate from self-esteem – creating, discerning, detaching.  It is the art of serendipity, which is, for me, the essence of storycrafting.  Serendipity is a lively sprite, always planting surprises in mundane places.  A random, unconnected sentence becomes foreshadowing, a side character develops into the antagonist’s foil, and a watcher from the sidelines ends up conducting the entire orchestra.  Writing has its fun and flow, and so does editing, for all its workmanlike appearance.

Don’t get distracted by the talking animals, the deathless beings, the Object of Power and the other staples of fantasy that I’ve added to Paama’s story.  Redemption in Indigo is a novel which celebrates ordinary people and everyday magic, because sometimes all it takes to be a heroine is to choose wisely, walk softly and carry a small Stick.

—-

Redemption in Indigo: Amazon|Borders|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt here. Read the author’s guest blog at Powells.com. See the book’s video.

Today’s Small Thing Which Brought Me Such Joy

Gaze in wonder, O dear readers, at the burst pipe in my basement. This pipe burst some indefinite time ago, thanks to water freezing inside of it. We would have noticed it earlier, except that the pipe leads to an outside faucet that hasn’t been used for years because it was obscured by a veritable miniature jungle of brush in my backyard.

That is, until the landscapers tore out all that brush yesterday and used the faucet today to water the new plants they put in. The good news is that the plants were indeed watered. The bad news was that so were several boxes of books and old electronics I stored in the basement. So I and Krissy spent a good portion of the afternoon moving and emptying out boxes, throwing out soaked stuff and generally doing more exercise in the subterranean depths of our house than either of us would have preferred to do.

Fortunately, not too much of value was lost. All of the books were fine (the cardboard of the boxes took the moisture hit) and the electronics and computer equipment that I stored down there was of the “I’ll just keep these old speakers down here in case I ever need them” variety, i.e., this may have been God’s way of telling me it was time to throw that crap out. Dear God: I thought you said you were done with floods.

Anyway, deeply annoying and took time out of our day, but it could have been a whole lot worse. We’ll be telling the landscapers to use the other outside faucet tomorrow and put a call into our plumber to fix the pipe. Then we’ll sacrifice a goat or one of the neighbors to the gods of mischief to ensure it will never happen again. I think the goat might be the usual sacrifice, but the neighbor might be easier to lure into the basement. Hmmm. I may have said too much.

For When You Want to Send an E-Mail to the SFWA President

I’ve been President of SFWA for about a week now, which is enough time to know that folks appear to want to talk to me in my capacity as President of SFWA. If you are one of those people, here’s what you do:

Please send that e-mail to my official Presidential e-mail address, “president@sfwa.org“.

Conversely, please do not send e-mail relating to SFWA to my personal e-mail address.

The reason for this is pretty simple: My personal address is for my personal and business correspondence, and I would like to keep SFWA business and correspondence separate that, lest I descend into complete organizational madness. Nobody wants that. Except the haters. Stupid haters.

Anyway, for the future, please remember: SFWA business to the SFWA account; personal business to the personal account. Thank you.

(Note: This entry valid through June 30, 2011 only. After that, it’s possible/probable someone else will be SFWA president. In which case definitely don’t send SFWA-related business to my personal address.)

SciFi 70s Flashback!

Hey, remember how a few weeks ago I did that FilmCritic.com column on 1980s science fiction films ripe for the remaking? Well, I’m doing it again — except this time, it’s 70s science fiction films up for the remaking. Because I’m lazy, that’s why! But lazy or not, I guarantee you’ll find lots to discuss in this list of remake-able science fiction flicks. Want to argue with me about the selections? Well, that’s what the comment thread is over there for.

Hey, John, What Does the Front of Your House Look Like At the Moment?

It’s funny you should ask. It looks like this:

It looks that way because as part of the 2010 Spend Money On The House Initiative, we’re redoing the landscaping around the house, and before you can put the new stuff in, you have to take the old stuff out. So we’ve hired professionals to that, because if I did that, in about five minutes I’d be reduced to an overheated pudding of Back Thrown Out, mewling in a puddle of my own I-Should-Never-Have-Left-the-House-ness. I’ll let the pros handle it. Look, they even brought their own back hoe! Clever folks.

This will look much less de-foresty in a couple of days. Honest.

The Big Idea: Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn is best known in many circles for her New York Times best selling paranormal series featuring a werewolf named Kitty, but as with many authors every once in a while she likes to wander away from what she’s known for and try something new. And thus, her latest novel, Discord’s Apple, in which a near-future and trouble-scarred United States mingles with stories and legends from the days of the Trojans. Trying new things is working for Vaughn, who has seen this book received a coveted starred review in Publishers Weekly (“brilliantly structured, beautifully written”) — but as Vaughn relates below, the story of Discord’s Apple isn’t so much new as it is ripe after many years.

CARRIE VAUGHN:

This is a case where the final novel doesn’t much resemble the seed that started it.

Early in 2002, I went to visit my great aunt Rose, who was dying.  It was the first time I’d ever visited someone for the express purpose of saying goodbye.  Not to sound callous, the experience was amazing, because two of her sisters were there — my grandmother and great aunt Ag — and the three of them told stories about growing up in the tiny town of Swink, Colorado, in the 1920’s and 30’s.  I’d never heard any of these stories before, and I got a window into another world.  Sitting with my mother, grandmother, her sisters, three generations of women telling and hearing stories, connected me to my family in a way I’d never felt before.

About a month later, my paternal grandfather died.  While in Alabama for his funeral, we visited the house where he’d grown up, which had been beautifully restored by one of my father’s cousins.  A tree in the backyard had two straps of canvas hanging from one of the branches — obviously, it had once been a swing, but the swing was gone, and the straps had been there so long that bark had grown over them where they were tied.  I realized that my grandfather had probably played on that swing as a child, and once again I felt this great sense of family — of my family’s history — in a new and powerful way.

See, I grew up without much of a sense of heritage.  My father was a career officer in the Air Force, and I spent my childhood on the move.  I never saw my extended family except for visits every couple of years or so.  Our family culture was Air Force with a sprinkling of Catholicism.  I have at least five different nationalities in my ancestry, and I was jealous of people with strong senses of national heritage and family pride.  I’d read about England and wish I were English, I’d read about Ireland and wish I was Irish, ditto for Wales, Scotland, Sweden, the Netherlands.  I’d wonder what it was like to have a dozen cousins who all spent Christmas together.  I didn’t have anything.

That is, until that difficult and illuminating spring when I visited my grandfather’s childhood home, and asked my grandmother to take me to see the places she and her sisters had talked about, and realized that I do have a family culture, a family heritage.  I just hadn’t recognized it.

So:  Discord’s Apple is about main character Evie coming home to be with her dying father, and discovering an amazing, unbelievable family heritage that she never knew existed.  Because I’m a fantasy writer, I made that treasure literal:  a basement filled with magical artifacts, including a certain inscribed golden apple.

Now, that’s just an idea.  It isn’t a story, yet.

A little about my writing process:  I have more ideas than I will ever be able to write in my lifetime.  One of my solutions to this dilemma is to put as many ideas in a book as I can manage.  The more disparate the better, because finding connections between seemingly unrelated ideas can make for great stories.

In a grad school Latin course, I translated bits of the Aeneid and fell in love with Sinon.  He’s the Greek spy left behind to talk the Trojans into bringing the horse into the city.  He’s brash, clever, and really awesome.  So I committed a very long piece of fanfic telling what happened to Sinon after the war — he was kidnapped by a very pissed-off Apollo, made a slave, granted immortality so he’d be a slave forever, and. . .well.  You’ll just have to read about it, because his story is the second part of Discord’s Apple, in which we learn that the Trojan War never really ended.  (It all fits together, honest.)

At first, I didn’t know quite what to do with this very long piece of fanfic.  I got to thinking about the nature of epic literature in general, and I decided that Sinon’s story needed to be part of Evie’s story.  You see, “Evie returns home to discover an amazing heritage” is just an idea.  But Evie and Sinon meeting each other, the chaotic events surrounding that meeting, and the fact that the goddess Hera still wants to get her hands on that apple — that’s a story.

Throw in King Arthur and my deep and irrational fondness for 1980’s GI Joe comics and what I ended up with was a novel about family, storytelling, history, and war and how they get tangled together.

—-

Discord’s Apple: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read the first chapter of Discord’s Apple here. Visit her blog. Catch her on her book tour.

Mary Robinette Kowal Sneaks You a Peek at Her Debut Novel

My friend and SFWA running mate (and now VP) Mary Robinette Kowal is getting some great reviews for her debut novel Shades of Milk and Honey (“the grace of Sense and Sensibility, a touch of classic fairy tale magic, and an action-packed ending” — Library Journal), and is getting ready for the novel’s debut on August 3rd. But why should you wait? You are special. Yes you are. And because you’re special, here: The first chapter of Shades, available for your perusal, right this very second, by way of the author herself. The link takes you to the html version of the chapter, but if you prefer, at the link .pdf and .epub versions await you, and your favorite eReader.

Enjoy, and if you enjoy, be sure to pick up a copy a month from now.

“Judge Sn” Review at San Francisco Book Review

Oh, hey, this is nice: A review of “Judge Sn Goes Golfing,” by the San Francisco Book Review. Pro reviews of short story chapbooks are fairly rare, so I’m glad the Review made the effort. And it’s a positive review as well:

Judge Sn Goes Golfing is the hilarious chapbook by the Hugo and John W. Campbell award-winning author John Scalzi… Illustrated throughout by The New Yorker cartoon contributor Gahan Wilson, this short story is a side-splitting must read.

Excellent. And I’m happy to say the Subterranean Press still has copies of the chapbook available for your reading and collecting pleasure (it’s also available via Amazon). Each copy comes signed, which makes things awfully convenient if you’re looking for a signed thingie from me.

This concludes the commercial portion of today’s postings. Thank you for your attention.

Status Check, Re: USA

The 234th birthday of the United States of America is a fine time to check in with one’s self about how one feels about being a citizen of this country, so today’s question: Am I proud to be an American?

I am. The United States, like so many things, is better as an idealized concept than it is as an actual entity, on account that the nation is made up of people, and while most people mean well, in a day-to-day sense they struggle with their ideals, which are often so inconvenient to their desires. And so, like a married family-values politician with a Craigslist personal ad, or a vegan Febreezing the apartment so no one will catch the smell of bacon, America often finds itself failing its own expectations for itself and others.

In times like this what I remember is that while people (and countries) fail their expectations and ideals, those expectations remain, and even when failing them, people and countries find those expectations and ideals to be powerfully attractive. Despite sidesteps, backtracks and inactions, over time — over the long haul — we move toward our ideals. Martin Luther King famously noted that the arc of history is long but bends toward justice. He was correct, but only to the extent that justice is in itself genuinely held as a goal.

As Americans, we do hold it so: It’s right there in the preamble of the Constitution of the United States, along with other laudable goals. And I do believe that despite whatever day-to-day failings our nation has, however we are on this particular day struggling to live up to our ideal of ourselves, nevertheless over the arc of history we are bending toward justice, and are forming that more perfect union we imagined ourselves having more than two centuries ago. It is this commitment to justice and a more perfect union, written into our country’s genetic code, that makes me proud to be an American, and inspired to make sure that I do my part to get us there.

Will we get there? Not in my lifetime, and perhaps not in any lifetime; people stubbornly remain people, and heir to weakness, desire, self-absorption and stupidity. The Founding Fathers were wise to note we were working on a “more perfect” union, not a “perfect” one, because perfection is hard with actual humans involved. But I believe we can get closer to perfect, and then closer than that, and then closer still. It’s like approaching the speed of light: the closer you want to get to it, the more energy you have to put in to get to it. You’ll never get all the way to it. But you can get close enough to get to where you want to go, in time, with effort.

So happy birthday to the United States of America. I’m glad to be a part of it, and glad to be working on it.

Just Arrived 7/3/10

Because books are love (except any books titled “I Hate Love.” But screw those).

* The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald (Pyr): Having traveled to future India and Brazil, McDonald now turns his attention to a near-future Turkey and six characters caught up in a week of transformative events. I think McDonald’s near-future travelogues are some of the most consistently interesting science fiction on offer these days, and considering how often these stories end up in the Hugo lists (including this year, with “Vishnu at the Cat Circus” up for Best Novella), I’m not the only one. This book will be out later this month, on the 27th.

* A Life On Paper, by George-Olivier Châteaureynaud (Small Beer Press): Small Beer Press suggests this is the first book in English of this award winning French writer, known as that country’s answer to Kurt Vonnegut, and why would Small Beer Press lie to me about something like that. The answer is, they wouldn’t. Being a fan of Vonnegut, I’m looking forward to reading what the French answer to him might be like. This is out now.

* Inside Out, by Barry Eisler (Ballentine Books): A disgraced black ops soldier is recruited to hunt down another black ops soldier who is trying to blackmail the CIA with pilfered torture tapes. If he can stay alive long enough to do it! Yes, this is one of those books where you can’t trust anyone, even your own stomach (“I’m hungry.” “TRAITOR!”). Out last Tuesday.

* An Honorable German, by Charles McCain (Grand Central Publishing): I thought I noted this when it came out in May, but apparently not. My bad. This book follows a young German officer through the days of World War II, and his eventual struggle between the dictates of the Reich and his own morality and is McCain’s debut novel. A pretty good choice if you’re a fan of historical novels; I’m going to give a copy to my father-in-law and watch his eyes light up. As noted, out now.

* Come Fall, by A.C.E. Bauer (Random House): Three young kids starting their school year meet Puck — you know, Puck – and naturally then they have other things to worry about besides homework. Out on the 27th, and Bauer will be along to chat about the book in a Big Idea.

* The Map of All Things, by Kevin J. Anderson (Orbit): The second book of Anderson’s “Terra Incognita” series has its world in the midst of a religious war and the discovery of an ancient map that can lead its finders to the Key of Creation… which, you know, is one of those things you can get all adventure-y about. Anderson does quite a brisk business with Dune and other tie-in properties, but for myself I enjoy him best in his own worlds. This is out now.

* Unholy Magic, by Stacia Kane (Del Rey): Stacia Kane was here just last month to essay Unholy Ghosts in a Big Idea piece, and this is the follow-up novel, in which heroine Chess Putnam is trying to figure out who is killing off prostitutes on the bad side of town — some people think it’s a ghost, but Putnum isn’t so sure. And you should trust her, she’s the heroine. Out this next Tuesday.

* Pathfinder, by Laura E. Reeve (Roc): This latest Major Kedros novel has her unique piloting skills needed by an alien race for a dangerous mission — but the catch is that they have to implant technology in here which might not be able to come out. Like a tattoo, only inside your body, and, you know, ickier. Also out this next Tuesday.

* The Evolutionary Void, by Peter F. Hamilton (Del Rey): Hamilton closes out his sprawling and ambitious “Void” series with this volume, so those of you who like your Space Opera on a Wagnerian scale now know what you’ll be getting for yourself come August 31, which is when this one drops. I’ve been enjoying this series, so I’m using this book as a carrot to get me to finish some work I’m doing.

* Noise, by Darin Bradley (Spectra): You thought that the switchover from analog TV to digital was just a way to prop up the fat cat TV executives, right. Bwa hah hah ha! If only you knew. It was actually the beginning of the end of the world — or at least it is in this debut novel. The PR material likens it to The Road and Lord of the Flies, so this is probably going to get dark. Out August 31.