Daily Archives: March 13, 2014

Reader Request Week 2014: Get Your Requests In!

Huh. Looking at my schedule for the next couple of months, it appears that next week is the only week through mid-June that I am not going somewhere or coming back from somewhere, and it’s the only week where I don’t have a batch of Big Idea pieces scheduled. Which makes it the perfect week to do my annual Reader Request Week.

And just what is Reader Request Week? Why it is what it says: Once a year, I let you, the readers of Whatever, offer up the topics I will write about for an entire week. Always wanted me to answer a question? Frustrated that I never write about what you want me to write about? Wish I would write more about a specific topic you can never get enough of? Now’s your chance! Submit your request, I’ll go through and select topics, and I will start writing them up, beginning March 17.

And what topics should you request? Anything you want. Politics, sex, religion, cats, entertainment, favorite talcum powders, advice for living, technology — honestly, whatever topic it is, if you wanted my opinion on it, this is where to ask.

With that said, some suggestions:

1. Choose quality, not quantity. Don’t unload a whole bunch topics that are really generic or overbroad, because those won’t interest me and I won’t write about them. One really excellent topic is more likely to catch my eye. As an example, don’t ask me “could you write about cats?” because that’s too general and kind of boring. Asking something like “You have three cats — how do their personalities differ and what does that mean for how you relate to them?”, on the other hand, would pique my interest. I think you can see what I’m getting at here.

2. Questions on writing will not be a priority for selection. Because, dudes, I write about writing all the time. I’m not saying you can’t ask questions about writing, or that I won’t answer some, I’m just saying that I’ll be looking for topics that aren’t about writing first, and the ones I do answer (in a nod to point one above) will be stuff that’s specific and interesting. I note this every year, and yet every year about half of the questions are about writing. Be different this year!

3. Don’t request a topic I’ve answered recently. To help you eliminate these topics, you’ll find the last five years of Reader Request Week topics below. If you see your intended topic there, it’s very unlikely I will answer it again this year (and by “very unlikely” I mean “I won’t”).

How do you submit requests? The simplest way to do it (and the way I prefer, incidentally) is to put them in the comment thread attached to this entry. But if you have a reason not to want to have your request out in public, the other option is to send me e-mail (put “Reader Request Week” in the subject head so I don’t have to hunt for it). Please don’t send requests via Twitter/Facebook/Google+, since I don’t always see those. I credit those whose topics I write on, but feel free to use a pseudonym if you’re asking something you’d prefer not to have attached to your real name.

Reader Request Week is one of my favorite weeks of the year, and I’m looking forward to what you want to have me write about this year. Make me dance like a monkey, people! Get your requests in now!

Here are the Reader Request Week topics for the last fives years (click through to see the full articles):

From 2009:

Reader Request #1: SF YA These Days
Reader Request #2: OMW and Zoe’s Tale (and Angst and Pain)
Reader Request #3: Space!
Reader Request #4: Procreation
Reader Request #5: Having Been Poor
Reader Request #6: 80s Pop Music
Reader Request #7: Writing and Babies
Reader Request #8: Twitter
Reader Request #9: Can I Be Bought?
Reader Request #10: Writing Short Bits
Reader Request #11: Wrapping Up

From 2010:

Reader Request #1: Christianity and Me
Reader Request #2: Rewriting the Constitution
Reader Request #3: How I Think
Reader Request #4: Quitting Writing
Reader Request #5: Rural Ohio, Revisited
Reader Request #6: Depression
Reader Request #7: Writery Bits
Reader Request #8: Short Bits

From 2011:

Reader Request #1: Children and Faith
Reader Request #2: The End of Whatever

Reader Request #3: Middle Ages Me

Reader Request #4: Old Man’s War and the Best SF/F Novel of the Decade

Reader Request #5: Taking Compliments

Reader Request #6: Sociopathic Corporations

Reader Request #7: Unruly Fans

Reader Request #8: Short Bits ’11

Reader Request #9: Writery Bits ’11

From 2012:

Reader Request Week 2012 #1: Snark and Insult
Reader Request Week 2012 #2: Would I Lie to You?
Reader Request Week 2012 #3: Why I’m Glad I’m Male
Reader Request Week 2012 #4: Future Doorknobs or Lack Thereof
Reader Request Week 2012 #5: Them Crazies What Live in the Woods
Reader Request Week 2012 #6: The Cool Kids Hanging Out
Reader Request Week 2012 #7: My Complete Lack of Shame
Reader Request Week 2012 #8: Short Bits
Reader Request Week 2012 #9: Writery Short Bits

From 2013:

Reader Request Week 2013 #1: Further Thoughts on Fame and Success
Reader Request Week 2013 #2: Regrets
Reader Request Week 2013 #3: Guilty Pleasures
Reader Request Week 2013 #4: College Education (And Costs Therein)
Reader Request Week 2013 #5: How to Be a Good Fan
Reader Request Week 2013 #6: Intuition
Reader Request Week 2013 #7: Books and My Kid
Reader Request Week 2013 #8: Whatever Topics and Comments
Reader Request Week 2013 #9: Women and Geekdom
Reader Request Week 2013 #10: Short Bits

So: What do you want to know now? 

The Big Idea: Denise Kiernan

Fiction and non-fiction are different categories of storytelling — but in both cases the author has to decide what to tell and how to tell it, shaping the story so that it is a story, rather than just a leaden bundle of information. When researching the real-life information the would become The Girls of Atomic City, author Denise Kiernan found an interesting idea… now all she had to do was make a tale out of it. Here’s how she did it.

DENISE KIERNAN:

A story without conflict is like an inhibited lover. It just lies there. No matter how hard you try to get turned on, you lose interest. It can’t be over soon enough.

What attracts me as a writer to a particular story, what inspires that chemistry, is often—on the surface at least—unpredictable. Though there may not appear to be much rhyme or reason to my tastes, the one thing that always hooks me is that those tales keep me guessing. Their conversations grab me and I keep coming back to get to know them better, to keep turning their pages.

As a writer, sometimes it is just a look—photos, specifically. That’s what happened with my latest nonfiction book. I came across a vintage, black-and-white photo of some very young women operating some very odd-looking machines. The caption explained that many of these young women were recent high school graduates from rural Tennessee, and that they were enriching uranium for the first atomic bomb. The kicker: they had no idea that that was what they were doing.

Fantastic dramatic tension! I thought. You’re working on the most destructive weapon known to mankind and you have no idea until that very same weapon is revealed to the world? I dove in, and the story kept getting better. People were recruited from all over to live and work in a secret government city not found on any maps. They were highly trained to perform intricate tasks with no idea what larger purpose those tasks served. Better yet, if they asked too many questions, their stay living and working in this mysterious town was over in a hurry.

I was hooked by the Orwellian feel of it all. Looming billboards reminding everyone to keep their lips zipped. Undercover agents and citizen informants stealthily listening in on conversations in dorms and cafeterias. While I felt the story had all the hallmarks of an engaging novel, I figured that when truth seems stranger than fiction, why not stick with the truth?

This presented a couple of challenges. First, my subjects were in their eighties and nineties. If I  was going to write a work of narrative nonfiction, I wanted the women’s experiences to move the story forward. I wanted to stay with their voices and their perspectives. While I was routinely amazed at the level of detail many of them recalled regarding events that had transpired so long ago, there were certainly gaps in everyone’s memories. In order to tell what I considered to be a complete story about the town of Oak Ridge during World War II, I had to use multiple women. There was an incredible amount of time-lining and Post-It shuffling going on all over my living room floor (no computer screen was big enough in the early stages) in order to piece it all together.

Another central challenge revolved around the book’s big idea: Only they didn’t know… I wanted to embrace the “not-knowingness” of those characters, which was going to provide the most juice, dramatically speaking. So while the reader knows the story is headed to the dropping of the world’s first atomic bombs, I still needed a way to let the main characters drive that story, even if they were essentially driving blindfolded.

I considered various approaches. Omitting the entire behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the Manhattan Project officials and scientists kept my female leads in control, in a sense, but it risked leaving the reader too far behind. If he or she knew too little about the history of the Manhattan Project, the real stakes of that moment in history would be lost. Third-person omniscient seemed promising for a bit, but whenever I heard my inner voice beginning to say, Little did they know… I started to feel as though I was writing a cheesy movie trailer instead of a nonfiction book.

So I decided to take a hint from the Manhattan Project itself: I decided to compartmentalize. One of the ways the folks in the know kept a lid on the Manhattan Project was by keeping jobs, responsibilities and access to information as limited and as separate as possible. There were two worlds, really, one in which workers toiled away with little idea what they were working on and a much smaller, more exclusive world in which strings were pulled, strategies were devised and nuclear history was made.

I decided to create two worlds, too. I wrote interstitial chapters that took the readers out of the world of Oak Ridge and gave them a peek at what the was going on at the highest levels of the Manhattan Project. I deliberately kept my women, my characters, out of that world and those chapters. That separation reinforced one of the key strategic elements of the Manhattan Project, kept my characters in control of their piece of the puzzle, while helping the reader understand the larger stakes impacting my characters’ lives.

In the end, this freed up my characters to explore their own wartime dramas, ones I found were filled with the kinds of surprising twists and challenges that we all can relate to. They found loves and lost loved ones. They faced fears and forged unexpected friendships. They wondered what was going on around them, but put their heads down and got to work and I, in turn, got to work for them. They kept me hooked, and I was happy to let them take the lead.

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The Girls of Atomic City: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s 

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.