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Book Release Party

The book release party at WorldCon was wonderful. We pretty much sold out all the copies of Pandora's Gun. Food and drink lasted to the end. All kinds of folk came by. Patrick Swenson throws a heck of a party with the help of several people, including Louise Marley (thanks for the cookies and other munchies ), Brenda Cooper (for transportation and shopping), and Gisele Peterson who manned the door all night, checking IDs. I carried stuff. I'm exhausted and happy.

pandora sold out.jpg

Pandora's Gun Cover Reveal

On my want list is a wall with the covers of my books, beautifully framed.  I'd have to keep it in a dark part of the house where people didn't go because it would look somewhat like a wall of self portraits and be just as self indulgent (at least it would feel that way to me), but it would be a place where I could go some times if I was feeling like I hadn't made any progress, or that life hadn't been treating me well.

Or, I could want them because I've been lucky to have beautiful covers on my books. I mean really, really lucky.  Awesome lucky. You can see the current covers here.

And then there is this new one, Pandora's Gun.  I want the art in a three-by-four foot frame.  Maybe with a craftily placed spotlight on it. It will be available at WorldCon in August.

The image is a wrap-a-round, so it's twice as wide as you see here, with gobs of interesting details.


A reader on my Facebook page commented with "What are the Hugos good for?" to an earlier post of mine, where I reposted a Katherine Cramer article about all the good writers who hadn't won the award.

I think the easy answer is "not much," but the Hugo winners I've talked to have told me that there actually are numerous benefits to winning one, besides the obvious sales bump to the work (albeit a small one in most cases). This bump is pretty much limited to novel Hugos, by the way, since the best a short story writer could hope for would be reprint sales on the winning story, or maybe being able to leverage the short work Hugo into a short story collection. Either way, not much economic benefit for most of the shorter work Hugo winners.

I suspect that Hugo name recognition is a real thing too. It's the ultimate cover letter factoid which wouldn't even need to be mentioned. Not that being a Hugo winner means that the new story is any good.

I have had reported to me career perks to winning a Hugo, like guest of honor possibilities at conventions, the possibility of some paying speaking gigs, and a greater demand for the winner's work (although Hugo winners still have stories rejected too).

To me, though, the real benefit is to the writer's pride or sense of self worth. There's something very, very cool about winning an award. In the case of the Hugo, I think there is a genuine cachet to it. Certainly, if it is true that just being nominated is an honor (and it is), winning one must be a bigger one. A Hugo winner is forever a Hugo winner. The phrase "Hugo winner" will always be attached to the writer. It will be a part of introductions, and it becomes permanent in the biography. It's sort of like getting into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

To my thinking, the Nebula carries the same weight. Some people disagree with me on this.

For most writers, writing will never pay the bills or financially change their life style. The Hugo is a tangible award that says "for this one year, the WorldCon voters liked your work best." And that's a cool thing.

The award won't make the writer any better. It won't give them a leg up on creativity, and it will quickly gather dust somewhere. But still, it feels wonderful to win. It gives a writer a special pat on the back for the effort. And even though many more writers (and in some cases, different writers), deserved the award and didn't get it, at least some writers did.

And I think that's awesome.

For me, the Hugo is the equivalent of Teacher of the Year. The Teacher of the Year award is part popularity, politics and service. It comes with no money or promotion, but it does pick one teacher to highlight. There were many other teachers that year who also worked hard and were deserving. Hopefully they will get their chance in another year, and it's entirely possible that they will finish their career without the award. They weren't teaching to win it in the first place. The good work is really the best reward. The Teacher of the Year recognition is just a bit of special icing.

For readers, the Hugo award can serve as a guide to reading, but not an infallible one. There have been numerous years where I hoped a different title than the winner would have taken the rocket (how in the world didDaryl Gregory's "Second Person, Present Tense" not win a Hugo?). I don't think a reading fan would go terribly wrong reading the Hugo winners, though, and there have been amazing pieces that have also taken the prize.

From the reading standpoint, the Hugos mostly point me toward authors. It gives me a shortcut to find recommended works. I get the same boost from the various Year's Best collections.

So, all in all, that's what I think a Hugo is worth.


Novel Sale!

My YA novel, PANDORA'S GUN will debut at WorldCon in Spokane this August.  Fairwood Press, who has done my other books, will be doing this as well. It will be their first foray into the YA market. Yay! I'm ecstatic.

More news as it becomes available.

In the meantime, story #6 is coming along more slowly than the first five stories. I don't know that I'll make an end of it today. If it finishes tomorrow, than that would push the editing into story #7's time. I can mix composing and editing, though, so not a problem.

Getting Ideas: Lecture Notes

My presentation at the Rain Forest Writers's Retreat this year was on getting ideas. This is an intimidating subject on a couple of levels because it's really a topic that you might present to beginning writers (the Rain Forest crew had a ton of non-beginners), and because I can't really answer the question.  Nonetheless, here are my lecture notes for the presentation.  When I have too much time to prepare for a presentation, my notes begin to look like an essay.

So, because several people asked, here are the notes:

I.                    No matter what I say today, idea generation is still, basically a mystery.  Peter Elbow made a similar point when he tried to explain what learning how to write was like. He said, imagine a world where the people are trying to touch the ground, but for some reason they’ve come to believe that the only way to get to the ground was to reach higher.  They’re walking around with their hands in the air, bemoaning the fact that they can’t touch the ground.  Some people, though, can touch the ground, they just have a hard time teaching other people to do it, so they try tricks, like telling the people to tie their shoes, and while they’re down there to wave their hands around. This works, but the folks who do it also have a tough time explaining how they did it since the idea that the ground can only be reached by straining upward is intrinsically ingrained in everyone. Getting ideas is like that. People get them all the time, but they don’t have a way to tell anyone else how to do it, and when they get right down to it, they might be able to tell you when and where they got the idea, and what they were doing when they got it, but the actual mechanics of why an idea appeared in their head is still unknown. One moment there was nothing, and the next there was an idea, just like that.
II.                  Almost all anecdotal evidence on how authors get ideas is interesting but impractical. I work with an English teacher who is also a poet. He talks to his classes about inspiration. One of his favorite stories is that he was hiking one day and he saw a solitary crow on a power line. He said that image stuck with him and became the basis of his favorite poem. Of what use is that story to a student? He could take his whole class out to see a crow on a power line, and not one of them would get an idea.
III.On the other hand, I knew another English teacher who would take his English class out to the canyons to watch him dive off a cliff with a hang glider.  They all seemed to find plenty to write about.
IV.                Annie Dillard says that her best writing environment is the one that is most unstimulating. She likes a room with no view. What does seem common is that writers often do best in an unfamiliar environment.  I’d read that meant that for some men, they write best at home, and for some women, they write best anywhere but home. The call of the house is too loud for some, evidently.
V.                  I read an interesting book called DAILY RITUALS, by Mason Currey, which was about the working habits of 161 artists, composers, and authors.  What I thought was interesting was how many of them incorporated long walks into their day. That was probably the most common behavior between them (followed closely by lots of coffee).
VI.So, what I’m going to talk about will be in many ways the equivalent of trying to get you to touch the ground by misdirection. We won’t be trying to touch the ground: instead we’ll do something else and occasionally run into the ground, more or less by accident.
VII.Freewriting: This is stream of consciousness writing championed by Peter Elbow in WRITING WITHOUT TEACHERS. The idea is that the act of writing will produce ideas faster and more reliably than the act of being paralyzed in front of your keyboard waiting for an idea.  Freewriting is timed writing (say 10 minutes). You can write with no prompt, or you can start with your reaction to a quote or thought from someone else. I think it’s productive to look at the summary of a plot on the back of a book, and then use that as my starting point.  Freewriting means idea production at the keyboard through active effort. This activity can be used at any time in the writing process, where you may be trying to figure out things about your character’s motivation, or you are wondering what is supposed to happen next.  Stop at the stuck point, open your notebook or another document, and do the freewriting.
VIII.Use writing prompts. The web is filled with them. Do a search for “writing prompts.” You can even narrow your search to “science fiction writing prompts,” “fantasy writing prompts,” or “horror writing prompts. Bruce Holland Rogers wrote his brilliant short story, “The Dead Boy at Your Window,” because he was responding to a writing prompt in a workshop, which was, “Begin a story with a lie.” He won both the Pushcart Prize and the Bram Stoker Horror Award for that story.
IX.Writing exercises: a random first line generator, like http://writingexercises.co.uk/firstlinegenerator.php will give you a first line like, “As the policeman pulled back the sheet, she knew immediately that . . .” or “The victim had tried to write something as he was dying.”
X.Co-writing. Sometimes two heads are better than one. It’s an interesting exercise to work on a piece with another writer. Brainstorming and the inevitably different approach your partner takes will produce new thinking.
XI.                Without know how ideas come, many people talk about the conditions where ideas seem to come to them.  One is while doing any activity that requires them to be awake, but doesn’t require much thought. It needs to be an activity where the mind can wander.  This list includes:
a.       Long drives
b.      Mowing the lawn
c.       Washing dishes
d.      Jogging, walking or biking
e.      Taking a shower
f.        Painting the house or a fence
g.       Knitting or sewing
h.      Proctoring a test
i.         Preparing a meal
j.        Gardening
k.       Raking leaves
XII.              The other activity where people frequently report getting ideas is where their brain has had a chance to disengage from the busy world.
a.       Going to sleep
b.      Dreaming
c.       Waking up but staying in that drowsy, free associative state
d.      Drinking/drugs (not recommended)
e.      Sickness (particularly if they’re bedridden)
XIII.It is possible to actively provoke ideas, or at least put yourself in an idea-rich environment. These are activities that creative writing teachers will use:
a.       One of my favorite memories of being in an English class was my junior year when the teacher had told us that our next assignment was going to be a short story. When we came to class the next day, she’d covered the walls with photographs from magazines, and art prints.  All four walls were covered.  There were hundreds of images.  She told us to walk around the room, studying the prints, and then when one “spoke to us,” to write the story that the print suggested.  This was basically the same prompt as the the VISUAL JOURNEYS anthology in 2007, where the authors were given a set of science fiction art to choose from to write a story to, or the 2003 anthology, IMAGINATION FULLY DIALATED featuring the artwork of Alan M. Clark that operated on the same principle.
b.      So, go to an art museum.
c.       Listen to moody music with the lights low.
d.      Go on a long, solitary hike, especially in a strange place or at an unusual time (like 3:00 am).
e.      Sit on the beach or by a stream (moving water seems to be very inspirational)
f.        Watch a fire
XIV.            When I assign a short story to my Science Fiction class, I’m dealing with an audience who didn’t necessarily sign up for writing a story. It is a lit class, after all. So when I give them the assignment, bunches of them are at a loss for coming up with an idea. To help them, I give them the “What If” sheet.  Show them the What If sheet.
XV.              Ideas do not come full blown. They develop as the story is written
XVI.            Where to you get ideas? How would you answer the question from a sincere, beginning writer who would really like some help?


My Science Fiction kids did their own version of WAR OF THE WORLDS, like the Kevin J. Anderson GLOBAL DISPATCHES anthology, as if warotwthey were witnesses to the H.G. Wells Martian invasion happening today. The assignment is a preliminary foray into writing narrative, which is what they will be doing later. So, the paper is short (only 500 words) and what I’m looking for are appeals to the senses and emotional reaction. But some of the kids do so much more! Some ...of them are fun and inventive. I can see the developing story-tellers and wordsmiths.

So, to debrief the assignment, I took what I thought were the best sentences from each of the essays and put them on a PowerPoint. This is great to do in a class. Students respond very strongly to seeing their own work published (I try to use their writing in class as much as possible).

One of my favorite opening sentences was from a student who told the story as if she was dealing with survivor’s guilt. Her sentence was “I don’t rightly know how I got here. I’m not sure, after all, that I really belong in this aftermath.”

Isn’t that beautiful?

Here’s a couple of others:

• “I decided to hide. I found a path to the sewer systems below my town. Surprisingly, It didn’t smell badly as the bacteria died from the radioactivity and stopped producing gasses and breaking down materials. The rats were dead as well – small animals and small organisms alike. I trudged through the sewer waiting for hope, waiting for something to allow me to continue with life.”

• “This attack almost seemed like a holy cleansing; it almost seemed like god himself was trying to destroy the earth and end all of mankind.”

My second favorite passage was from a student who thought of the practical results of surviving a Martian invasion. How would life go on? I’m afraid that I agree with her. This probably is what would happen:

• “As you can tell, living through a Martian invasion is very impactful, and instead of lockdowns at our school, we now have Martian invasion bunkers and drills every two weeks.”

Bad Advice for Writers

In October at MileHiCon, I was on a "Bad Advice to Writers" panel. My habit when I'm on a panel is to do some prep ahead of time (I hate to look like one of those panelists who clearly have NOT given the topic any thought). Sometimes there's a lot of prep; sometimes prep just means getting away from everyone for a bit so I can organize my thoughts.  The bad advice panel was like that. The tough part of the panel is that it was all supposed to be tongue in cheek, like everyone on the panel was giving the bad advice sincerely. It was surreal.

I was going through my messenger bag and I found my notes.  Here's my list of bad advice to writers:

  • - Try self publishing.  You save time and Amazon exposes you to millions of readers.

  • - Give up your day job.

  • - Don't edit. You're too close to it, so you should let editors who are paid for this work do it.

  • - Don't start a project until you have a complete story in your head.  After all, you wouldn't go on a road trip without having already planned your route.

  • - Editors respond to bribes, threats, sexual favors and appeals to sympathy. Choose the strategy that works best for you and use it in your cover letter.

  • - Take long breaks from writing. Only write when you feel totally inspired.

  • - If you ask for feedback on your writing, like from a writers' group, be prepared to defend yourself against criticism. Any negative comment about your story should be refuted immediately.

  • - Use lots of linking verbs. Everyone is familiar with them and feel comfortable with them.

  • - Try to make your characters look and sound like popular television and movie characters.

  • - Use lots of familiar phrases in your writing, like "She trembled like a leaf," "He was a true straight arrow," and "Never give up, never surrender."

  • - Hang out with other writers who don't write. Have weekly meetings to talk about what you might write about in the future.

  • - Ideas are the true gold in publishing. The rest is just typing. Chat up your favorite authors with your ideas and an offer to split profits if they'll do the typing.

We Should Be Immortal

I got home today from a half-day writing workshop, and I thought it would be productive if I cleared off the pile of books by my bed, but the topbook was Jay Lake's PROCESS OF WRITING that I'd bought at When Words Collide in Calgary. The cover is a picture of Jay walking through shallow flood waters at the Rain Forest Writers' retreat.
I'd forgotten that I'd bought the book. I picked it up, processed the cover and what it was and started crying.


I've been jumping around in it since. The book is an organized collection of Jay's thoughts on a variety of writin
g-related subjects that he posted at his blog. Since I'd been a long-time reader of the blog, and I respected Jay a great deal, I know that I've read almost all of them, but what I've read so far sounds new to me again and helpful. They also sound like Jay.

At least for the moment Jay's voice is alive in my head as it should be. We should all be able to carry on like that--to live on.

Jay couldn't walk on water, despite the cover of his book, but man could he create the illusion that he could.


Reading for What Should Work in Stories

WHAT I LOOK FOR IN A MANUSCRIPT: For the writers' workshops that the Imaginative Fiction Writers' Association sponsored after the When Words Collide festival in Calgary, I talked to the writers about what I look for in a manuscript: what makes a good manuscript good. I wanted to avoid a list of "don'ts" and concentrate on features that make a story stand out above the vast mass of the slush pile.

What I Look for in a Story
James Van Pelt – August 8, 2014
Comments Prepared for the IFWA Two-Day Workshops

• Strong beginning: There needs to be something arresting fairly early in a piece. I can be patient for a while, particularly if the language is nicely done, but even then, at some point I’m going to start to wonder why I’m there. What I need is two-fold: an event or conversation or description that tells me something important is happening in the world of the characters; and I need to feel I’m in the hands of someone who knows the end of the story.  This may be because of my strongly held belief that the beginning exists to set up the end. The beginning is the first rhetorical shot the author takes.  It’s a move, like in chess.  It’s a strategy shoving the reader in a direction. Too many stories don’t appear to be written with the ending in mind.  The beginning doesn’t feel like a confident first step in a direction. This is why I often find myself rushing right back to the beginning when I finish writing a rough draft.  Most of the time the beginning is the most changed part of the piece.

• When I write a draft, the first opening is the writing I did when I least understood my characters and what the story was about. It’s only natural that it is the place that is most likely to need work.

• I want to get very early in the story a sense of the conflict.  I need to know what the character wants, what stands in the way, and what is at stake.  Sometimes this is obvious; sometimes it doesn’t focus until the end, but there should be a sense of urgency.  The events have to feel like they matter to the point of view character or to the storyteller.  Some stories are like a war, and there are opposing sides. I want to know who the combatants are and what condition would constitute a win or a loss for each.  Some stories are journeys: there needs to be, then, a clear sense of where we are going and why it’s important to get there.  Some stories are a birth. At the end, something will be born that didn’t exist before. In this kind of story, I may not get an immediate sense of direction, but I should feel characters under stress early in the story so I know that change is on the horizon. Occasionally, stories are a riddle or puzzle. The early events or the character’s situation are described in such a way that I want to know what happened to produce this condition. The payoff in the end is a satisfying explanation for the initial situation. I find puzzle stories the hardest to do well, by the way, and the kind of story I see way too often in workshops.

• I like to find “gems” on the page. These are clever, interesting, arresting elements that even if I don’t know what is going on, or I don’t like what I’m reading in general, that I recognize are cool.  It might be a turn of phrase, a line of dialogue, a funny bit, a place name, an aphorism, or a touch (or bucket) of figurative language. The gem is evidence of the writer caring not only about the big picture, but also the details and style along the way.

• I need a sense of place in the story. Every scene requires enough information so that I know where the characters are, where they are in relationship with each other, and how the point of view character is experiencing the environment.  Early scenes probably need more setting than later ones, but there’s a lot of flexibility in presentation as long as I have the essential questions answered in my mind: Where are we? Who is in the scene? Where are they in relation to each other?

• I want to see competent, confident writing. This is language that does not hesitate.  In general, it’s language built on well-chosen action verbs with varied sentence lengths and types.  It doesn’t accidentally repeat the same sentence beginnings or the same word too close to itself.  It has a rhythm that doesn’t trip itself or make me reread to figure out what is going on. Pronoun references are clear, paragraphing aids in clarity, and the words are the right words.  Of all the elements I want to see in a story, this is the one that is the most irreplaceable.  Competent writing is what editors look for when they pull a manuscript only half way out of its submission envelope. If the writing betrays a lack of competence in the first half page, there’s no point in reading anymore. Nothing will save it.

• I need characters who are fleshed out enough that I care about their fates. Sometimes I care about a character just because they have a cool voice or an identifiable attitude. Sometimes it’s because of actions they take. Most often character comes out of a point of view that reflects who they are. Does their point of view color the world of the story?  In most stories, if I don’t know the character well enough to care, then what happens to them won’t matter. In some stories, what happens is what is most interesting, and the characters are less important, but these are rare stories. Plot will occasionally be the star in a story, but strong characters save a plot way more often than strong plot saves the characters.

• I also need characters who struggle.  The struggle is what makes them interesting.  The main character should be an active participant in her/his story.  Even if they don’t know what is going on in the story, and events are motivated by outside agencies, the character should be trying to survive, trying to get ahead of events to control what is happening. I look for active characters who are not merely passive victims. Characters don’t have to win, but they shouldn’t lose because they didn’t move. The actors must act.

• I love stories where the ending resonates.  It’s not just that the plot ends and the conflict is resolved, but that the story feels like it has been told to illuminate some mystery of existence. This is a fancy way of saying there should be thematic overtones in the end.  The storyteller told the story because she/he thought the tale was interesting, and what makes it interesting is that it is a revelation. It uncovers, even a little, the mysteries of the human condition, or it tells us something important about the universe we live in, or it challenges our complacency or apathy about life. The ending should feel larger than the whole, like a poem. I should finish with a rueful grin of recognition because the writer shared a truth that I hadn’t thought about before, or I should feel an empathetic spark for the characters because they went to a place or completed a cycle that I now understand because I read their story. The end of the story answers the question of “so what?” It’s the reason the story was written in the first place.  All the good writing before the ending should be fun or interesting or amusing, and good writing is a kind of payoff on its own—after all, the journey needs to be worthy—but everything in the story exists to make the end work.  There has to be a good ending.

Story Art: Aubrey Comes to Yellow High

shootoutI've written a few stories in the last year that have felt emotionally close for one reason or another. I spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to try to make a difference in school when you are a kid for this one. "Aubrey Comes to Yellow High," is now live at Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show. If any of my students read this, they'll have a (probably disturbing) insight of what goes through my mind during the day. As a side note, the illustration captures almost exactly the look of my high school's hallway, without the wild west action.