Wednesday, October 3, 2012

My 3rd SFWA Reception

This year SFWA held its annual NYC reception in the Manhattan Penthouse.  The past two years have been at Planet Hollywood at Times Square, which was convenient for me because it's only a few blocks from the Port Authority Bus Terminal.  The new location gave me a chance to walk around the city and take in the sights a bit.  Well, I did that anyway in previous years, but this year I got to explore some new neighborhoods.

As always, it was a wonderful opportunity to catch up with old friends and meet some new friends.  I look forward to seeing Carl Frederick each year; conversations always get interesting when he's around.  I talked to him for quite a while when he first arrived, then bumped into him a few more times during the night.  Siobhan Carroll caught me standing alone at one point and initiated a long and interesting conversation.  These receptions are all about making new connections, so I was glad to have the chance to meet her and hope to see more of her.  And speaking of connections, I bumped into Brian Theis early in the evening and we talked for a long time.  Turns out he's the webmaster for Abyss & Apex magazine, and he introduced me to the magazine's editor, Wendy Delmater.  She asked about my writing and, by the end of the night, I promised to send a story or two her way.  I'd better get working!

I considered it a priority to talk to Trevor Quachri sometime during the night, but it was no surprise that he was a rather popular man.  Near the end of the night I managed to get his attention and we talked for a bit.  He seems to be settling into his position as editor of Analog quite nicely.  We talked business, family, a little of everything.  It was nice catching up with him again.

I don't get much time to travel during the school year, so the SFWA reception was likely my last chance to see a lot of my industry friends until the summer.  Meanwhile, I'll stay in touch with as many as I can online.  Oh, and I'll have to keep writing too; I need to have a new story or two to talk about next year!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Writing Racial Slurs

About a week ago, my friend Juliette Wade posted a blog entry about using racial insults in your writing.  It was interesting timing for me because I've been struggling with the use of racial slurs in the story I'm currently working on.  Juliette's scenario isn't quite the same as mine; she was talking about inventing slurs for made-up races and beings, while my story involves a near-future Earth fifteen years after a vicious war with China.  But what she had to say sure resonated!

When writing about the near future, about people who actually exist, racial slurs can be hurtful, rude, and offensive.  My dilemma is that some of the characters would surely use that kind of language, would intentionally hurt with words, but I don't wish to do any of that.  That leaves me with three options--

1. Write the dialog in such a way as to avoid racial slurs all together.  There's no risk of being offensive in this case, but I'd be sacrificing some of the veracity of the dialog.  I know that people would come up with horrible racial insults, especially after a devastating war.  Besides, it robs me of the chance to develop characters through their dialog.

2. Come up with realistic racial slurs and have characters use them.  This is the most realistic option, but also the most offensive.  I actually googled a list of racial slurs, which was one of the most distasteful bits of story research I've ever had to do.  I even played around with inserting one or two into my story, but ultimately removed them.  I felt like I needed to wash my hands each time I typed them, and if I wasn't comfortable typing the words, I imagine that they wouldn't sound convincing to my readers.

3. Use toned-down language that is derogatory but not outright offensive.  This is the best compromise, I believe, but it doesn't come easy.  So I have a character say, "Hey China-girl, come here."  I'm hoping that the context of the story, plus the imperious and condescending dialog itself, make it clear the term China-girl is intended to be degrading.  In my mind, it's sort of like having a white supremacist character address a black man as "boy."  It gets the intention of insult across without having to use the n-word or something equally offensive.

Ultimately, how a writer handle the use of offensive dialog is a personal decision.  It's a function of what you're comfortable with, but it's a complex function whose amplitude varies with story context.  If I had been writing hardcore military SF, I might have felt more comfortable with soldiers using terms equivalent to gook or nip or kraut from previous wars.  But calling a twenty-year-old girl some of the words I found in my web search just didn't feel right.  People can be very cruel, but that doesn't mean I have to repeat it!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

My First Worldcon

Wow...where to start?  This past weekend, I attended my very first con, Chicon 7.  Yeah, I jumped right into the deep end, as quite a few people pointed out to me.  It was a blur, of course, and I often found myself wandering in a daze.  Luckily, I had some help getting my bearings.  I met my friend Lisa Montoya at O'Hare Airport and we traveled and learned together.  It was her first con too, but it's good to have someone to turn to and say, "Is this where we're supposed to be?"  The other person who kept me oriented was Jamie Todd Rubin.  Within minutes of tweeting that I had arrived, I had an invitation from Jamie to meet him at the Big Bar.  He walked me through a lot of the activities, showed me the ropes, and introduced me to a bunch of wonderful people.  Without Jamie's guidance, I would have spent much more of my time wandering aimlessly and I would have met far fewer people.

After a drink or two at the bar, Jamie and I decided to go looking for the SFWA suite.  We had the good fortune to share the elevator ride with David Brin, who entertained the crowded elevator with some jokes.  I've already lost track of exactly when I met people, but over the course of a few visits to the SFWA suite, I met Ken Liu, Dave Creek, Rob Sawyer, Bud Sparhawk and his wife, Rick Lovett, Mike Flynn, Allen Steele, Myke Cole, and countless others.  A highlight for me was bumping into Ed Lerner and having a good 20-minute conversation ranging from Interstellarnet to con panels to the future of Analog.  I also had the opportunity to meet Brad Torgerson and Alastair Mayer in person; I had been communicating with both of them online, and it was nice to finally meet face to face.

Friday was my Analog day at the con.  I spent most of the morning wandering the vendor area with Lisa, then met Stan and Joyce Schmidt for lunch.  We bumped into Jamie on the way and invited him to join us.  Stan took us to a wonderful Mexican restaurant, where we discussed his retirement, the future of Analog, and much more.  After lunch, Jamie and I talked about Stan and writing and cons over a beer.  That night, we hit the Analog party in the SFWA suite, where we celebrated Stan's career and met Trevor Quachri.

On Saturday, Lisa and I met the Escape Pod crew, including Mur Lafferty, Paul Haring, and David Steffen.  By this time I was catching on to the idea that most events at cons involve alcohol, and this was no exception.  We had a great time, and during the meet-up Paul learned that he had won a Parsec award.  I was fortunate enough to be among the first to congratulate him.  Later that night, Lisa and I hit a few of the room parties.  We drank with the Texans to celebrate next year's Worldcon in San Antonio, and also with the ChiZine crowd in their suite.

Sunday, Lisa and I bought a few things from the vendors and had decided to settle in for a quiet afternoon updating blogs, Facebook statuses, etc.  We bumped into Jamie, and ended up at the Big Bar with him instead.  Within minutes, our table filled in with the likes of Kate Baker, Kay Kenyon, Kij Johnson, and Bryan Thomas Schmidt.  Bryan and I did a lot of talking, and it turns out he has an anthology in mind that would be a very good fit for one of my stories.  That night, at the Hugo awards, we bumped into Bryan and talked a bit more.  After the ceremony we hit the London suite for their party celebrating their upcoming 2014 Worldcon.  Dave Creek and Rick Lovett arrived shortly after we did, and we talked with them for quite a while.  Later, we bumped into Bryan again and he took us down to check out the floor with the Hugo party.  Security was tight, so we went over to the SFWA suite once more and partied it up.

Monday was supposed to be a boring day--just a shuttle to the airport and a flight home.  It turned out that Jay Lake was on the shuttle with us, and we spent the trip to the airport listening to a fascinating discussion about the paleogeology of Mars.  Okay, so that had to be the end of the excitement, right?  Well...while waiting at the gate for my flight to be called, I noticed Trevor standing a few rows of chairs away.  Then he got into the same line I was heading for.  Aaaand...I counted off the rows, found my seat, and there was Trevor right next to me.  Am I the luckiest writer or what?  I was fortunate enough to spend an hour-and-a-half flight sitting next to Trevor Quachri, the incoming editor of Analog.  We talked about the magazine, of course, it's history and it's future.  But we also chatted about other aspects of life--hobbies, cooking, family, and more.  Turns out he's a Giants fan, but I can forgive him for that!  It was very nice to get to know him a bit better.

Okay, so that's the brief (!) synopsis.  I'm missing a lot of events, and even more wonderful people whose names are darting in and out of my mind as I think back.  And I shouldn't neglect the food, which was wonderful, especially some local places recommended by my old friend Jim Stem.  To sum it all up, Worldcon was more fun than I could have possibly imagined.  I was welcomed by the other writers and accepted as one of their own, I got to do a good deal of partying, and got the opportunity to put faces to quite a few names in my inbox.  Oh, and yes, I will be at San Antonio next year!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Analog without Stan

Locus just announced that Stan Schmidt will be retiring as editor of Analog.  The news saddens me, of course, and I will miss his guidance.  In a very real sense, Stan started my career.  He was the first editor to send me a personal rejection letter.  For the non-writers out there, most editors receive so many story submissions each month that they cannot possibly write a reply to each one.  Instead, they must send form letter rejections, things like, "Thank you for letting me read your story, but it is not right for this magazine."  Believe me, I have a stack of those in a drawer; most writers do.  Stan was the first editor to move one of my stories out of the "slush" pile and give it more detailed consideration.  He rejected the story, but sent me a two page rejection letter where he spelled out what he liked and what needed improvement.  He advised me to put the story aside for a year or so and write more stories to hone my skills.  I followed his advice, of course.  I sent him several stories in the year or two following; all of them came back with personal rejections which spelled out what I needed to work on and offered encouragement to continue writing.  When I finally looked back at that first story that he had commented on, I saw very clearly how flawed it was.  I was glad he had rejected it; I would have been embarrassed to have it in print!  With a couple years of experience and guidance under my belt, I rewrote the story and sent it back to Stan.  That story was Thanksgiving Day, and Stan made it my first professional sale.

In addition to publishing my stories, Stan pulled me into the SF community.  In his response to one of my stories, he asked if I was planning to attend the SFWA reception in NYC and, if I was, would I be interested in lunch with him and a few other writers.  Noob that I was, I didn't even know there was a SFWA reception in NYC.  I had bee writing in a partial vacuum, talking to a handful of people in my writer's group and on the Analog forum.  Suddenly I had an invitation to meet the top editor in the field!  I didn't hesitate to take the day off work and grab a bus into the city.  I still consider that lunch with Stan, Carl Frederick, and Jamie Rubin a highlight of my career.  The conversation was all over the place, as you would expect, from SFWA politics to physics to Swahili (both Stan and Carl are fluent).  At the SFWA reception that night, Stan dragged me over to the "Analog table," where I met Ian Randal Strock, Dan Hatch, and countless others who until then were just names in the table of contents.

I will miss Stan.  I'll miss the thrill of reading an acceptance letter from him, and I'll even miss his clear and cogent rejection letters.  I'll miss seeing him at SFWA events and cons.  But when I feel sad, I have two happy thoughts to hang onto. First, Stan says he will now have time to focus on his own writing, so we'll all have some good stories to read soon.  Second, Trevor Quachri will be taking over the helm at Analog.  I haven't yet met Trevor, but I have exchanged a few emails with him in dealing with galleys and the mechanics of publication.  He has always been professional, helpful, and pleasant, and I look forward to meeting him in person one day--hopefully at Worldcon.  Better, he has worked with Stan for years and knows the vision for Analog.  I'm sure he'll bring his own style to that vision and things will change a bit, but I'm also sure that the overall guiding principals will remain in place.

Good luck, Stan.  I cannot possibly thank you enough for all you have done for me.  You will be missed.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Sweet Sixteen

We celebrated my daughter's sixteenth birthday this weekend.  Her birthday is actually at the beginning of September, but she wanted to have the party now, at the end of summer break, while we had time to plan and execute, and her friends had plenty of free time.  Sixteen is kind of a big deal for kids...and for parents too, come to think of it.  My little girl is growing up!

Her party provides a good indicator of who she is growing into.  She writes, you see, and researches heavily to get the details right.  Her research for one particular story left her with a love of 1920s culture.  She is also a huge fan of cyberpunk--the literature, the music, the style.  She combined the two into the theme for her party, a 2020s-era speakeasy.  After banning smoking, fatty foods, and sugary drinks, the government turns its eye on alcohol and prohibition returns with a vengeance in the early 2020s.  Underground bars spring up, and pop culture begins emulating the 1920s, complete with electroswing music and bootlegger gangs.  So we spent two days turning my back yard into a 21st-century speakeasy.  Every one of her friends showed up in period costume, which says a lot about the quality of my daughter and her friends.

It was fun watching a bunch of modern sixteen year olds dressed as flappers and gangsters, dancing to electroswing.  And it was fun playing the "bartender," challenging new arrivals for the password (Kevin sent me) and serving drinks like White Mule (Sprite) and Coffin Varnish (Diet Coke).  It's even more fun to look back and realize that the party was uniquely my daughter's, a window into her world.  Who would build their birthday party around a theme that requires a paragraph of back story?  An intelligent, creative young woman, that's who, and one with the character to select intelligent and creative friends.

Who has my daughter become?  A science geek, a writer, an honor student, a fangirl, and so much more.  She makes it easy to be a proud parent.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Sad Anniversary

A year ago at this time, one of my former students suffered a brain aneurysm and died.  His name was Jay Brownell and he was in his mid-twenties--far too young.  I have dealt with the loss of students before, but this one was especially difficult for me because Jay was one of *my* students.  He was one of those students who spent more time in my classroom than all the rest of the rooms combined.  He took every class I teach, even if he wasn't interested in the subject, just for the sake of being in my class.  He stayed after school to play chess with me.  We played D&D together.  He was a big, gentle, bear of a man.  He had a rather warped sense of humor; after he went through my C++ programming class, I could never again use the term "dangling pointer" without thinking of him and laughing.

Everyone who knew Jay has a thousand stories; this is my favorite.  When he was a student in my class, I think only a freshman, he joked about taking me out drinking.  I told him he'd have to wait until he was 21, laughed, and forgot about it.  Throughout his time in high school, he would periodically remind me that I had to drink a beer with him when he reached 21.  Years later, he called me and insisted on taking my entire family out to dinner to thank me for being his teacher.  And of course he ordered a couple of beers and we finally got to drink beer together.  That's the kind of guy he was--sweet, funny, and generous.

I can't even imagine how difficult this past year has been for his family.  Even though I maintained only sporadic contact with him after he graduated, I feel his loss every day.  He was young and full of life, the kind of guy who made the world a better place.  He was my student, and he may well have been the best teacher I ever had.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Seeing a Story in Print

Okay, so I've been lazy this summer.  During the school year, I was busy with classes, grades, tutoring, and a thousand other things, which gave me a tidy excuse for falling behind on the old blog.  But we're a month into summer and I have no excuse for letting things slide.  Ah well, summer is supposed to be a lazy time, isn't it?

So what got me off my figurative butt?  The October 2012 issue of Analog arrived, and it includes my story Ambidextrose.  I suppose it marks me as a noob, but I still get a thrill every time I see a story of mine in print.  I still stare at the pages in disbelief.  This issue is especially exciting because it includes a Biolog about me.  It marks my third appearance in Analog, which I suppose officially qualifies me as a member of the Analog MAFIA.

Another thrill comes from looking down the table of contents and realizing that I actually know several of the people sharing the page with me.  Juliette Wade has the cover story of the issue; although I haven't yet met her in person, we have interacted online.  I met Carl Frederick in person at two successive SFWA receptions, and both times we engaged in long and interesting conversations.  I've talked to Rick Lovett on the phone and swapped a few online messages with Mike Flynn.  And getting to meet Stan Schmidt was, of course, a highlight of my brief writing career.  Getting to know these amazing and brilliant people is one of the best parts of being a writer.  If you aren't already a fan of all of them, go read their work!  Now!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Finishing a Story

I hate writing, I love having written.  This quote, attributed to Dorothy Parker, summarizes what all writers must feel upon finishing a story.  For me, anyway, a story starts innocuously enough.  Usually, ideas swirl around in my head until two or more collide and spontaneously define a theme, a character or two, and a general plot line.  From that moment, the story idea becomes a mental itch that demands to be scratched, and the only way to scratch it is to mold it into a coherent story.  Often that involves research to make sure I get the science right, and that almost always suggests plot and characterization details.  The story begins to take shape and becomes a living, breathing entity in my mind.  And it's clawing from the inside, demanding to get out.

At that point, I have no choice but to write the story.  The itch becomes a burning rash inside my mind, and as I write it becomes more intense.  Sometimes work and social demands keep me from writing, but the itch to complete the story is always there, demanding the lidocaine that can only be provided by writing the last sentence.  If I make writing sound less than fun--good, because it often is.  I tend to advance in frustrating fits and starts, a fit of inspiration spawning a flurry of writing followed by a painful pause where my mind tells me that what I have written is crap, that it is going nowhere, and the entire premise is flawed.  Then inspiration strikes again, and the story advances.

I wrote the final sentence of a story last night.  The itch has been scratched; my mind is at ease.  For now.  The story is by no means finished.  This is just the first draft, and there is much more to do.  It'll go on the back burner for a few days, then go through a couple of rounds of rereading and editing.  And the itching will begin again.  For some stories, it's a relatively painless itch--a few wording changes satisfy it quickly.  For others, it requires a painstaking revising process, including moving, rewriting, and deleting whole scenes.  I have the feeling this one will be closer to the latter scenario.  From there, it'll go out to my writers group to be scrutinized, torn apart, and again rewritten to fix flaws that I missed.  Then, finally, my mind will be at ease. By then, of course, I'll probably be deep in the grip of another story.  I already have an idea coalescing.

But at least for today, I have written, and I am at ease.  For now.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Life, Death, and New Beginnings

Two of my friends lost their fathers this week.  Attending all the social functions that accompany death--viewing, funeral, wake--reconnected me with old friends who I haven't seen in far too long.  As usually happens at such times, my friends and I spent hours reminiscing about the departed, retelling stories that we all knew, healing through laughter.  That is surely one of the primary functions of these events.

I found myself wondering when I had become the guy who only sees his friends at funerals.  Actually, I wondered aloud, if a Facebook status counts as aloud.  There's nothing mysterious about it; the usual culprits--jobs, families, responsibilities--gradually ate more and more time over the years, leaving friendly get-togethers to dwindle away.  Guys I used to see nearly every day were now men I talk to maybe once a year.

Some good can come from even the saddest of circumstances.  As Rajnar Vajra posted on my Facebook status, it's better to be the guy who sees his friends at funerals that it is to be the guy who doesn't see his friends at funerals.  True enough; good friends are a blessing to be appreciated, especially during difficult times.  And seeing death up close and personal puts people in the mood to reconnect with the past.  At the end of it all my friends and I scattered again--meetings to attend, and all--but not before agreeing to organize a grand get-together this summer.  Will we follow through?  Who knows; it's very easy to succumb to daily pressures and blur the long term goal that once looked so clear.  I sincerely hope that we don't allow that to happen this time, that we do follow through on our vow to get together, at least this once.

Because this once just might open the door to another.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Let the Blogging Begin

Okay so here's my blog, which I call Resonance.  Why resonance?  It's a term with multiple meanings depending on context.  Bonding electrons have resonance.  An idea can have resonance.  We can talk about acoustic resonance, or resonance in harmonic motion, or magnetic resonance imaging.  I try to make the themes of my stories resonate on multiple levels whenever I can.  Thus, the title of the story Contamination (Analog, Nov '10) can refer to biological contamination of the planet's ecology, or to the radioactive contamination faced by the protagonist, or to the cultural contamination brought by newcomers to an isolated society.  I hope to use this blog to talk about things that resonate with me, whether they're profound thoughts or just passing comments on the happenings of the day.  I would expect most posts will be closer to the latter!