Saturday, December 28, 2013

Books I Read in 2013

The Third Son by Julie Wu
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Don't Ever Grow Old by Daniel Friedman
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Familiar by J. Robert Lennon
The Hobbit (read-aloud)
A Wrinkle in Time (read-aloud)
A Wind in the Door (read-aloud)
A Swiftly Tilting Planet (read-aloud)
River of Dust by Virginia Pye
Fantay Freaks and Gaming Geeks by Ethan Gilsdorf
The Hive by Gill Hornby
Fuse by Julianna Baggott
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan 
Hemingway's Girl by Erika Robuck
Let the Water Hold Me Down by Michael Spurgeon
The Wife, The Maid and The Mistress by Ariel Lawhon
Heaven Should Fall by Rebecca Coleman
The Golden Age by John C. Wright
The Phoenix Exultant by John C. Wright
The Golden Transcendence by John C. Wright
Wash by Margaret Wrinkle
The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets by Diana Wagman
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
Small Blessings by Martha Woodruff
Red Moon by Benjamin Percy
The Last Enchantments by Charles Finch
The Rook by Daniel O'Malley
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Room by Emma Donoghue
The In-Between Hour by Barbara Claypole White
Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler
Fightsong by Joshua Mohr
The Art of Floating by Kristin Bair O'Keeffe
Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye
A Marker To Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik
How to Be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
Alva and Irva by Edward Carey
The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken
Seven For a Secret by Lyndsay Faye
The Animals by Christian Kiefer
Run, Don't Walk by Adele Levine
Shipbreaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Untold Damage by Robert K. Lewis
Heap House by Edward Carey
The Deepest Secret by Carla Buckley
YOU by Austin Grossman
The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller
The Future for Curious People by Gregory Sherl
Golden State by Michelle Richmond
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis
Budapest by Jessica Keener
World War Z by Max Brooks 
An Explanation for Everything by Lauren Grodstein
Cascade by Maryanne O'Hara
Field Guide for Lost Girls by Amy Franklin Willis
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen 
Don't Ever Look Back by Daniel Friedman
A Highly Unlikely Scenario by Rachel Cantor

Still In Progress as of December 28:
The Moment of Everything by Shelly King
Where I Am Born by Michele Young-Stone
Melville Biography by Herschel Parker
Stupid Children Lenore Zion
Cinder by Marissa Meyer
The Story of Britain by Rachel Frasier

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Guess the Story

On Christmas Day, the Richmond Times Dispatch will publish an original short story "Right Before Christmas." This is the illustration they created to go along with the story. If you can be the first to accurately guess the plot of the scene depicted here, I'll send you your choice of prize: a signed copy of the story printed in the newspaper, or a signed paperback of Shine Shine Shine. I'll pick one winner from my Facebook page and one winner here.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Girl's Eye by Sadie Netzer, Age 9

My daughter handed me this poem in an offhand manner yesterday. She'd written it with a large green marker in a sparkly notebook, in her bed with a flashlight after lights out. She's nine. I'm pretty sure I'm done as a novelist, because I don't know if I could ever match "sneeky and brave." But that's okay. 

Girl's Eye
by Sadie Netzer

From a girl's eye things
Must be pretty or perfect,
But some say okay and
Go on with their lives.

So some are princesses
And some are ninjas
And some just go on.

They all think differently but the
Eye of a girl is all the same.

The girl's eye is pretty and perfect and
Bright and so sneeky and brave.

We know what is right and
wrong, we know if something
is bad, we all see the same
and know the same.

So the girl's eye is
Amazing in so many ways,
But it never gets old.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky Cover

Believe me when I say: "I love this cover." 

How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky is a story of star-crossed lovers for the 21st century. Two astronomers meet and fall in love, only to find out that their mothers knew each other as children, planned for them to be soulmates, raised them to be perfect for each other, and then orchestrated their meeting. The book is about fate and determinism, science and faith, and asks the question: what is love?

Can't wait for you to read it.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik: A Master Class in Craft

I picked up this novel with no expectations and no idea what it was about. By the time I got to the bottom of the first page, the book had me  by the throat and I finished it on the same day. I wish you could have the same experience, so if you trust me to recommend books, I'd say go and get it, read it, and then come back to read my interview with author Alexander Maksik, below.

Sometimes when I finish a novel that has really lit up my brain, I am restless with questions for the author. Why did you make that choice? What was going on here? This is exactly the type of novel I want to dissect, as if I can get to the bottom of it, find out what makes it so successful. A Marker to Measure Drift has some excellent lessons for writers.

Lesson #1: Everything is Personal. 

Maksik's main character is a young black woman from Liberia, and when the novel opens she is starving to death near a beach on a resort island in Greece. Maksik himself is a man, an American, and lives in New York. Yet one of the most arresting things about this book is how immediate and real Jacqueline's experience is, how unfalteringly close the prose brings us to her, physically and mentally, so I asked him...

LN: Your main character is a 24 year old African woman, and your novel is an antidote for that poisonous advice: "Write what you know." Your voice never felt contrived, Jacqueline's voice never felt artificial, and the relationship between her and her mother seemed to me to be particularly authentic. Did anyone ever tell you to write what you know, or imply that you couldn't properly write this character because you're a man?

AM: I don’t think there’s a writer alive who hasn’t heard that adage. The problem is that it’s often misunderstood as law, as a kind of strict limitation: you must only write about your immediate experience. It’s an absurd idea and it goes counter to the whole idea of fiction, the point of which is to fabricate, invent and imagine. On the other hand, what I know about relationships, about sorrow, about joy, about love, about lust, about loneliness, I know from experience. How can I not use what I know when I’m writing about these things? The adage should provide writers a sense of freedom rather than restriction. Writing fiction should be an act of deep empathy, a way to inhabit lives outside of our own, to imagine the experiences of others.

As for the rest, I believe strongly that it is the writing that must be evaluated. Not the writer.

Yes. Just because you're not in the demographic of the character doesn't mean you're not writing something sharply personal, something you "know" intimately, something from your own life.

Lesson #2: Memories Aren't Tidy

I'm always interested in the structure of novels and how these structures emerge -- whether they spring up fully formed in a first draft or whether they're the result of revision, rearranging. This book stays very tight to a short timeline, with flashbacks to earlier memories and scenes. However, the flashbacks aren't tidy and informative as flashbacks can sometimes be -- arriving just in time to provide a piece of information to a reader. The way Maksik handles his flashbacks, they're more glimpses or really "flashes" and the scattered way they came through seemed to mimic real memory and how haphazard and uncontrolled it can be. As a result, we don't really get "the whole story" wrapped up neatly, but we do get the whole story that's important to the character in the present. And I never felt like "Ah, I'm being filled in on the backstory."

LN: I found your choices regarding timeline fascinating -- there is a lot of the story that's left out, and yet we know enough, as readers, to follow the emotional arc of the character if not every little detail of her life. Did you write this book longer, and then cut? Or did you always know that this little piece of her story, with the past bleeding in in fragments, would be enough?

AM: I knew early on that this would be a short novel, and that it would be focused very precisely and intensely on Jacqueline’s immediate life. And I wanted as little separation as possible between Jacqueline and the reader, who would know only as much as she does. I like the idea of coming to understand a character through fragments, as you say. That’s the way we come to know people in life, isn’t it?

Whether or not it would be enough to be successful is another question entirely. I hoped so, but I certainly wasn’t sure. I’m still not.

Lesson #3: Follow Your Instinct, Not Your Rulebook. 

Another rule that Maksik violates, without drawing much attention to it at all, is the directive we've all heard to keep verb tense consistent within a novel. The end of the book moves to present tense. Switching verb tense is something close to my brain, since I've just finished going through revisions on a novel with some present tense sections, and it was a point of debate, whether that should be allowed to stand. When I asked Maksik about it, he didn't explain his choice or defend his scheme -- it seems he had no scheme and feels no explanation is necessary. He's just letting the material dictate how it needs to be told, and there's a narrative instinct at work there that he doesn't question. This answer was enormously satisfying for me to read, especially when he brought up another paragraph in present tense that I hadn't even noticed. I almost wanted to ask: "And your editor let you do that?" But the point is he knew it was there, and while it wasn't intentional it also wasn't an oversight. Somewhere between intention and oversight -- this must be where instinct lives.

LN: You switch to present tense in the final section. I feel it torques up the tension beautifully and almost invisibly draws us closer to Jacqueline as the book peaks. At what point in your process did you decide to do this, and why? Did you write other bits in present tense, and change?

AM: With that kind of thing, I really go by feel, by instinct. It wasn’t a conscious consideration, but I didn’t hesitate to do it. There’s another brief passage (p. 92) in the present tense. A single paragraph. I can’t say exactly why I made that choice. It hardly feels like a choice, really. It has something to do with that moment being a significant turning point in the novel. I could go on about it being a moment of tremendous relief for her, of change, of deep engagement. But that would suggest some serious intention and consideration, which if I’m to be honest really isn’t the case.

A Marker to Measure Drift is dense, foreign, and beautiful, but ultimately it is a very simple book. Here is a human, detached from humanity, in pain and need. The world swirls around, the past lingers, but this human is at the center, small and yet deep. Maksik's prose brilliantly delivers -- I think he has fully realized what this story could be, and has told it in the best way possible. An amazing accomplishment. Of course you should read this book, if you are a reader who is looking for a great story. But especially if you are a writer, this is one you should not miss.

(Find Alexander Maksik on Facebook and Twitter and you can preorder a signed edition here.)

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Eleven Inequalities to Explain All Human Behavior

Do you think human behavior can be reduced to math expressions? 

Maxon's equation for walking at a reasonable pace.
In my novel, Shine Shine Shine, I introduced a character who interprets the world in terms of equations and code snippets. This helps him understand why people act the way they do, and allows him to determine how he should behave, in order to fit into different situations. He has equations to determine how fast he should be walking in varying circumstances, matrices to tell him when he should clap or stop clapping, geometry to show how his face should look when people say certain words to him, etc. 

Engrossed with this idea of reducing social etiquette to math problems, I began to wonder if human behavior could be explained in even simpler terms. So I have been attempting to develop a set of mathematical inequalities complete enough that one could use it to explain any behavior. 

Starting from the supposition that humans are consciously or unconsciously motivated by making choices between two inequal values or qualities, one which they see as better and one which they see as worse, I tried to pair these in expressions of either/or, where a person’s actions could be determined by choosing the preferred, or greater term. 

These statements aren’t meant to be truths, and none of these are universally applicable, of course, but here is my hypothesis: These eleven “reasons” can explain any choice made by a human being.

More > Less

Why keep on doing something that you’ve already done? Why try to get additional iterations of something you already have? Why not stop with one bite of chocolate? Why train and train to go faster or jump higher or lift heavier things? Why set a record? Why hoard dolls?

Elaboration > Austerity

Why does ornamentation exist? Why does a table go beyond being just a table and become a monstrosity of vines and coils and floral motifs and gold leaf? Austerity can be beautiful. And not everyone sees beauty in the same way. But this answers the question... why does the little girl choose the shoes that glitter? Why baroque?

True > False

People will endure pain, poverty, and all manner of deprivation for a cause they believe in, to stand up to wrong worldviews and defend what they perceive as right. They give away their money, donate their time and labor, against their self-interest sometimes, to prove that true is preferable to false, no matter the cost. 

Full > Empty

Looking at this figuratively, one can explain introverted behavior, gift-giving, whistling sea shanties on a long voyage. People seek out behaviors that fill them up, and yearn not to be bored, emptied, drained. They read, instead of sitting quietly for an hour. They stake out some alone time before re-joining a crowd. 

Kindness > Cruelty

Kindness! To turtles!
Often there is no apparent reason for kind behavior except that kindness in itself is preferred over cruelty. Of course it is not always the case. But this is why you get out of your car and are late to your meeting in order to help a turtle across the road, instead of smashing it with your wheel and moving on.

Work > Sloth

Production is satisfying. It fulfills a deep human need -- so much that we do it even when we don’t have to do it. People knit, sew, and bake, even though they can get knitted and sewn garments and baked goods more cheaply and easily than they can make them. People continue to work hard even after their basic needs have been met.

Success > Failure

Everyone knows the star of the football team gets the girl. Well, the winner of the chess tournament, the best diver, the most skilled guitar player, the best computer programmer... also get the girl (or guy). Success is attractive. Winning draws people to you, even if you’re winning at something obscure and unlikely. This also explains why people try, try, and try again through repeated failures, because success is so desirable, so preferred, people will risk everything to get it. 

Strength > Weakness

Interpreting strength as personal this can mean physical or spiritual strength, fortitude, etc. But in a larger sense it can be structural, or collective strength sought by a civilization making collective choices. This also explains why people choose something that lasts over something that dissipates. I considered making this "Function > Malfunction" -- but that's not quite the same thing.

Connection > Isolation

People often make choices and engage in behaviors purely to connect with other people, for the inherent satisfaction and goodness that it provides. Not always. Sometimes isolation gives “fullness” or “success” or “work.” But then Facebook. Twitter. E.M. Forster: “Only connect.” 

Pleasure > Pain

There are times when humans will endure pain for truth or work or success. But there are also times when we avoid pain just because it hurts, and seek pleasure for its own sake. People give up, stop short, quit. They fail, get lazy, and endure false worldviews. As Daffy Duck once said: “I’m allergic to pain; it hurts me.”  

Art > Absence

Making art doesn’t feed us, shelter us, or save us from attackers. But it is crucial enough to our humanity that we seem to always do it, no matter what. Music is better than silence, colors are greater than blank canvases, dance is greater than stillness; there’s something in us that needs to erect creative works against the absence, the nothingness that is the only alternative. We have to mark up our caves.

Well, does it work? Does it make sense? Can we use these to explain religion, war, doorknobs manufacturers, diets, blue ribbons, Crayola markers, and grief? Eleven is an arbitrary number, of course. Can it be reduced to fewer terms? Which of the above would you eliminate, and what others would you add? Are there redundancies or omissions? 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Hello Paperback!

Today the paperback edition of Shine Shine Shine is in stores! This is very exciting because it has special bonus material, a brand new cover, and I corrected the part where I called a river one name when it actually should have been another name. You pretty much need this version. Otherwise you might never recover from the whole river-misnaming fiasco that I perpetrated in the hardcover.

Not only can you find this novel at your favorite independent bookstore and online (and ebook!), but you can also find it at Target in a special signed edition! That's right, because Target chose Shine Shine Shine for their July Book Club Pick, I signed thousands of pages that were bound into thousands of books! Now you can find a signed copy at Target, or order one from Target online.

Here's a picture of the special message I included for Target readers, photographed by my friend Susannah in an actual Target store in actual Chicago:

Much as I love being sold in a place that also sells my favorite shampoo and also beach balls, I also urge you to visit your independent bookseller if you have one! Having spent a lot of time traveling this summer and staying in rural places where bookstores are hours away, I feel very lucky to live one mile from a great store: Prince Books in Norfolk.

I would love to see your pictures of you with Shine Shine Shine, visiting Target or any store, or hanging out on your rocket ship, or playing video games with your robot. Would you post them on Facebook and tag me so I can see too? Here's one from a friend in California:

Friday, April 5, 2013

How to Write a Sci-Fi Flash Fiction Story: Part 3: The Crack in the Wall

(This post is part of a series. For part 1, click here. For part 2, click here.) 

I have one more tip for those of you who are writing sci-fi flash fiction, maybe even entering the Fly-By Sci-Fi contest to benefit Up Center Books this summer. This one may help you find a story that’s big enough to be significant and affecting, and small enough to be told in two pages, or 500 words. In the last part of this series, I focused on dissecting the climax, but now I want to look at the beginning of the story. The full plot arc of a novel has an inciting incident at one end and a climax at the other -- consider that you can tell your flash fiction from either end.

Yep, she's cracked.
When a writer thinks of when to start her story, it’s a good idea to look for firsts or lasts -- the first time something happened, or the last straw. You always want to launch your story on a day that violates the status quo, a day unlike any other, when something pushes your character to action and changes his/her world forever. When you’re writing micro-fiction, you can tell a whole story around just that first moment, when the change is initiated.

So how can a day be unlike any other? There are tons of ways -- tornado, plague, discovery, a lost tooth, , but here’s one that’s uniquely suited for the sci-fi milieu: it's a very tiny reversal that I'm calling the crack in the wall. It’s the very moment when good turns to bad, when safe turns to dangerous, when fixed turns to broken. This moment can be just small enough to be a perfect subject for flash fiction.

Think of a huge strong dam, holding back megatons of water, and imagine the moment that the very first crack is born.

Think of an impenetrable planetary shield, which keeps the inhabitants absolutely safe from all contact with the outside world, and imagine the moment that one small first particle (or person) gets through.

Good technology is good, until it's not. Then it kills you.
Think of a completely reliable piece of technology, that is unswervingly good and helpful and trustworthy, and imagine the moment that it first malfunctions, and wounds.

Think of a person who has been completely moral, just, and upstanding for her whole life, and imagine that first moment that she sins.

I’m talking about a crack in the metaphorical wall. The first, tiny crack. Sometimes in that first moment, the whole story is encapsulated, and that’s the kind of subject I’m looking for in flash fiction. Give me that first tiny crack and 500 words that let me see it, and my brain can fill in the rest of the fissure, the crumbling, the devastation. Give me that first crime, and my imagination can supply the dissolution, the aftermath, the ending.

You might also find yourself imagining sort of the opposite of a crack -- a tiny reversal that takes a character from devastation to redemption. The first good thing that happens. The first motion toward salvation. The first failure of an evil mechanism, when hope is born. The first friendly alien in a galaxy of wickedness. Writing in this direction could have the same effect -- a suggestion of the future that leads the reader to the beginning of the story.

Much of flash fiction’s value comes from what you say, but much of it comes from what you do not say, the necessary gaps you create that your reader fills in with her own extrapolation. And if you do it right, a short fiction can imply a whole novel’s worth of material, exploding, like a flash, in the reader’s brain. Good luck!

This spring, I am judging the Fly-By Sci-Fi Flash Fiction Contest, a writing contest to benefit Up Center Books. Writers in the Hampton Roads area will submit their best science-fiction-themed flash fiction to be judged first by instructors at The Muse Writing Center and then by me. Winners will win a writing class at The Muse, a nifty prize basket, and will share the microphone with me at the launch of the paperback edition of Shine Shine Shine, on July 10th, at Up Center Books. To encourage college students and adult writers who are tackling this challenge, and to give some guidance and support to teachers and parents who may be working with a younger child, I created this three part guide to explain a few (of many!) possible ways to approach writing a sci-fi short.

How to Write a Sci-Fi Flash Fiction Story: Part 2: Three Parts of the Punch

(This post is part of a series. For part 1, click here.)

Not this punch, smartass.
The second strategy for putting together a great story in a tiny space has less to do with topic and more to do with structure and chronology. You have decided on your story of a character in conflict, but the full scope of any character’s story really starts when the character is born and doesn't end until the character dies. Your most crucial job as a writer, especially as a flash fiction writer but really as a writer of any length of story, is to decide where to start and where to end. In the span of your character’s life, there may be a dozen major moments -- crises of relationships, physical dangers, decisions, turning points, etc. Maybe each character has the potential in him or her for a dozen novels or five hundred flash fictions.

The important decision is which one to tell, and then you must get as close to that critical moment as possible. You may have heard the popular writing advice to begin as late as you can and end as soon as you can. This is especially true in micro form, because there is no time to waste building up to a climax or wrapping up with explanations. No one wants to read a brief summary of a story -- they want to read the story itself, and that means immediacy, scene, physicality, dialogue. Some short shorts sound like elevator pitches for entire novels -- don't do that to yourself. Narrow your focus to the exact moment of conflict, to the pivotal scene itself, whichever one encapsulates the whole story. Now you deliver something visceral and immediate to your reader, while still telling the whole piece.

The moment of impact. 
To help you break it down into even smaller bits, think of a punch. Maybe the act of punching someone is the climax to which your character has been building, or maybe a punch is just an example and your actual climax is a kiss or a declaration or an exit or a car crash or the clink of handcuffs or a foot landing on a mountain summit or a baby being born -- whatever. I’m asking you to take that climax and break it into three smaller parts, and to help us examine that, let’s look at a punch.

A punch can be divided into three moments: the swing, the impact, and the shock. Those three discrete intervals can each be their own stories. You can tell a story in the moment when the hand is still in swing, you can tell a story in the moment with the hand and the face connect, and you can tell a story in the moment when the head is kicked back, reeling.

Check the ripples! That's shock.
When you take any climax and divide it like this, interesting things happen. For one thing, point of view becomes very important and clear. In the punch example, your story is of “the swing” is very different depending on whether you’re telling the story of the person punching or the person anticipating the pain. Likewise “the shock” would be very different. Examining your choices about where to position your narrative camera, you’ll find the most minute changes bring about interesting reverberations in your story.

So when you’re getting down to the business of writing a tiny story, I recommend you examine your scope. First, the character’s whole life. Second, the moment of climax you want to illustrate. Third, within that climax, which of the sections you want to focus on -- the swing, the impact, or the shock?

Back to Part 1 | On to Part 3
This spring, I am judging the Fly-By Sci-Fi Flash Fiction Contest, a writing contest to benefit Up Center Books. Writers in the Hampton Roads area will submit their best science-fiction-themed flash fiction to be judged first by instructors at The Muse Writing Center and then by me. Winners will win a writing class at The Muse, a nifty prize basket, and will share the microphone with me at the launch of the paperback edition of Shine Shine Shine, on July 10th, at Up Center Books. To encourage college students and adult writers who are tackling this challenge, and to give some guidance and support to teachers and parents who may be working with a younger child, I created this three part guide to explain a few (of many!) possible ways to approach writing a sci-fi short.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

How to Write a Sci-Fi Flash Fiction Story: Part 1: Fish Out of Water

Sci-fi Version: "For sale: Space suit. Never worn."
How hard could it be to write flash fiction!? After all, it only has to be 500 words long. You could get 500 words out of a detailed grocery list or an angry Facebook post calling for genetically modified undersea pothole relief. (Or calling for an end to it.)

True, writing 500 words is not hard. But what makes a story a story? What elevates your 500 words from the realm of the vignette or scene or sketch to the level of an actual short story? A reader can tell the difference between a paragraph and a piece of fiction -- there’s something about a story that feels complete, finished, whole, no matter how short it is.

This something is conflict. Conflict can be a fistfight or an internal battle, but either way it is struggle -- the struggle to move, either physically or emotionally, from point A to point B. So a story is a fight to move, no matter how minute the obstacle and no matter how infinitesimal the motion. That’s what makes it whole.

Conflict can be tricky to set up even in a long form short story, and sci-fi conflict can be even more tricky. You may find yourself imagining world-building that takes chapters, alien races that must be described in glorious detail, histories of space battles with implications that span thousands of years. The idea of condensing it into the space of 500 words seems laughable. But here are three ways you can ignite your story in a very tiny space, and a few secrets to help you get it firing immediately. (Parts 2 and 3 are linked below.)


When sci-fi works best, the most alien of situations relate to very familiar human experiences. One category of conflict that is instantly relatable and needs very little wordy explanation is the fish out of water.

Get your jungle character into this neighborhood.
Generating this story is easy: Take a character and place him in circumstances that are opposite what he’s used to.

On the most obvious level, this can be physical. Take a character who’s used to the desert and put him on a snowy planet. Take a character who breathes water and put him on a mountain (literally the fish out of water). A city dweller in the country, a nocturnal person forced out in the day, a cave dweller on the plains. Instant conflict, just add physical discomfort, the urgent need to adapt, survive, on a primal level.

Goodbye, city life! 
On another level, this shift in circumstances might have less to do with setting and the fear of death, and more to do with the character’s identity and the fear of discovery. Maybe this is a man living as a woman, a child in a man’s body, a corporate drone living like a king on a tropical island. (Apparently Tom Hanks has a gift for portraying the fish out of water on film!) Again you have immediate and impending doom in the threat of people finding out -- any near escape would give you a chunk of conflict just the right size for a story in micro.

Your character misses his lonely hermitage.
Perhaps the most interesting way to do this type of conflict is on an ideological level. A character accustomed to freedom is in chains, a character accustomed to oppression is suddenly free, a character who lives in a ruggedly individualistic society finds himself on a commune, a character from a caste system finds himself in an egalitarian world. Here the character’s understanding must shift in some significant way, giving way to pressure from his new surroundings, or coming to a new understanding based on this new context.

Science fiction or speculative fiction is perfect for this type of set-up. Time travel, interplanetary travel, alien species, and the pervasive themes of exploration and discovery lead to many of these juxtapositions -- showing a moment of the resulting conflict can be just enough story to fill up a short short.

In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about strategy #2: Find Three Parts of the Peak.

This spring, I am judging the Fly-By Sci-Fi Flash Fiction Contest, a writing contest to benefit Up Center Books. Writers in the Hampton Roads area will submit their best science-fiction-themed flash fiction to be judged first by instructors at The Muse Writing Center and then by me. Winners will win a writing class at The Muse, a nifty prize basket, and will share the microphone with me at the launch of the paperback edition of Shine Shine Shine, on July 10th, at Up Center Books. To encourage college students and adult writers who are tackling this challenge, and to give some guidance and support to teachers and parents who may be working with a younger child, I created this three part guide to explain a few (of many!) possible ways to approach writing a sci-fi short.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

How is Literary Fiction Like a Porn Store in the Suburbs?

It's spring. The windows are open. And the cries of protest are in the air:

J. Robert Lennon, author of Familiar, in Salon: "Literary fiction is terrible"

Matt Haig, author of The Humans, on his blog: "Literary fiction must go"

These are not my exaggerated summaries of their ideas -- these are direct quotes from their own headlines. You can almost imagine the picket signs taped to yard sticks, clutched by the gloved hands of women in pearls, marching up and down a suburban sidewalk, determined to get that awful adult video store out of the building that used to house a perfectly respectable 7-Eleven. It's TERRIBLE. It MUST GO. March march march!

Lennon's point is just that literary fiction is mostly bad. Or as he put it: hackneyed, insular, terrible, mannered, conservative, obvious, mediocre, uninteresting, crap, boring and also "fucking boring."

Haig goes a step further to say that literary fiction as a genre damages our culture, imprisons the imagination, codifies snobbery (as he put it "book fascism"), and ejects people from the collective campfire of... reading?

To be fair, Lennon's broader point is that writing students shouldn't have to read everything on the IndieNext list. (I would argue they should at least know that there is an IndieNext list.) And Haig seems to be ready to do away with all genres entirely. (Even sci-fi post-punk supernatural upmarket women's true crime erotica? Yes, that genre is a STRAITJACKET.)

I've read both Haig and Lennon and I liked them both. Both of them are genre-busters. Lennon's most recent book, Familiar, reads like literary (yeah, literary) women's fiction but plunges its main character into an alternate universe bizarrely like her own, bending it sharply into scifi. Haig's The Radleys was a domestic novel with vampires. His new one (The Humans, coming to the US in July from Simon & Schuster) promises to be about an alien. The NYT called Haig "a novelist of great seriousness and talent." In his review of Lennon's Castle in the NYTBR, Scott Bradley said, "J. Robert Lennon’s literary imagination has grown increasingly morbid, convoluted and peculiar — just as his books have grown commensurately more surprising, rigorous and fun."

So obviously, based on that, literary fiction has all but destroyed books and writing. Literary fiction, with its tiny market share, its limited shelf space, and shrinking media presence MUST GO because it is TERRIBLE!  This reminds me of a blog post I wrote back in 2009 -- "How Twilight Killed The Wasteland." I wrote it after Lev Grossman announced in the Wall Street Journal that "lyricism is on the wane." Yeah. Must still be waning?

I'm honestly confused by the strength of the rhetoric in these articles declaiming literary fiction. Why would intelligent people crap on a genre where interesting things do happen, where boundaries are exploded, where formal experimentation is acceptable, where transgressive topics are allowed, and "newness" is encouraged. I read a lot of books last year including scifi, historical, 19th century, memoir, and yes nonfiction and even instruction manuals. My favorite books were the ones I could preface with this much-maligned and apparently dangerous adjective "literary." Literary scifi yes please! Literary historical thank you! Literary southern hello! "Literary memoir" tells me this is not a celebrity tell-all or political expose. "Literary thriller" tells me I can enjoy my sentences while I scramble through a plot.

And before we go, let's talk about that awful pit of "fucking boring" writing: the literary novel itself, the one without the saving influence of any other more acceptable genre.

YES PLEASE. Write more like that. Put it on every street corner in my neighborhood. I'll be breaking that picket line to buy it in hardcover. Make it strange and difficult and I'll buy two.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Shine Shine Shine Paperbacks are Coming!

From St. Martin's Griffin in the USA, July 2 2013:

From Simon & Schuster in the UK, July 4 2013:

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Robots are like Humans are like Robots

Researchers in France have used their knowledge of the way a human acquires language to create a robot "brain" that listens and understands language using recurrent construction. This gives the robot the ability to decode complex sentences quickly by predicting what follows from each word, and then modifying those predictions from context as new words are spoken. Humans process language in real time, and our brains execute loops of understanding  -- as I grasp it, it sounds like we narrow down all possible meanings as each subsequent word comes to us, until the end of each sentence or phrase, where we've narrowed it precisely.

Of course scientists put this brain into the ridiculously baby-faced and disconcertingly man-voiced iCub robot. Here you can see it understanding the researcher's utterance. In this video the blue object is referred to as a guitar and the red object as a violin. Romantic, isn't it?

They made the robot better. That's fantastic. But here's the fascinating thing. As they make the robot's brain work like the human brain, they get a better understanding of the human brain. In the same way that we learn more about what it means to send the signals and impulses that make us bipedal and make our hands work, we understand more about how our brains actually think about abstractions and meanings by creating robots that think about abstractions and meanings. So these scientists are learning about how we lose function with Parkinson's, or how we gain control of this function as infants, by studying the simulation. They study the simulation to learn about the original.

Really, it makes sense. This terrifyingly complicated and mysterious thing we have in our heads -- the brain -- cannot be understood yet as a piece. We can't map it much, or see the whole thing working. I say terrifying because it boggles my (mysterious) mind that one of the most profound unknowns in all of biology or philosophy is our own self-awareness, our ability to know the things we *do* know. We look back at those silly Egyptians and the way they vacuumed the brain out and discarded it after death because it was useless, while lovingly preserving the spleen and liver. Well, I need my liver too. And how much farther along now are we, really? We know the brain is useful for something, right? Now we know how to make a brain that understands and decodes language in the same way we do. Thanks to his robot brain, we know more about ourselves.

Maybe that's the biggest reason to keep making better and better robots -- they help us understand ourselves, where we stop and machines begin, where that line is blurry and where it overlaps. Something to ponder if you watch the video: Parents, how many times have you asked your human child to repeat instructions back to you, so you know they're understood? Just like the robot does, and for the same reason.  Your kid might not have a creepy man voice (yet) but here's a small way he's just like a robot all the same.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Gödel, Escher, Bach: Introduction

I have to start out this installment with a comic from xkcd, found by a guy in our Facebook reading group:

Yep, nailed it. Our group discussion wandered through self-referential words and the difference between a fugue and a canon, and landed on Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, which no one really claimed to fully understand, but lots of us wrestled with. Here are some resources and links we found helpful, and my thoughts on the three sections:


I really loved the Bach section -- it was so interesting to learn about how these musical compositions really begin with math problems, and how composers would set challenges for each other that could be solved mathematically. The anecdote about Bach sitting down to extemporaneously compose such a complicated canon for the King of Prussia was almost unbelievable, but I'm willing to swallow it. Then again I was a Lance Armstrong supporter for years. Maybe I'll believe anything of someone I want to be brilliant.

Here's a recording of that six part fugue, RICERCAR:

Here's a video of Bach's never ending canon, which rises in a "strange loop," mentioned on page 10:


I found the concept of "strange loop" easiest to understand visually, in Escher's work. Here is a link to a large image of Escher's "Waterfall" and also a video of Metamorphose, by Escher, hanging in a post office:


I fell off the book backward at the Incompleteness Theorem, I'll admit. I was helped by several different ways of looking at it, including this post. Here's an interesting discussion of Gödel, by Stephen Hawking, called "Gödel and the End of the Universe."

I loved the stuff about Ada Lovelace and early computers. Was intrigued by predictably intrigued by L'Homme Machine, enough to buy a used copy in the French. The strange loops elude me at this point, but I think all of us in the group are hoping to understand the mathematics parts more fully as we go along. Comforted by the fact that "This is only the introduction!" we persevere.

Friday, January 25, 2013

How to Teach a Child to Write a Novel

Why teach a child to write a novel? It makes them sharper readers, more critical thinkers, and gives them a vast sense of accomplishment, the confidence to tackle a grand task by breaking it down into bits and knocking them out one by one. A child who understands the construction of a book from the inside, even on the most rudimentary level, will approach the next book she reads more thoughtfully, with better questions, and a deeper grasp of what goes into making books work.

I've been homeschooling since my son was born, and always have tried to keep books at the center of our studies. I first published this set of lessons on my homeschooling blog in 2009, when I took my son and a bunch of his elementary school friends through eight weekly lessons about heroes, villains, plot, and conflict: The Junior Secret Noveling Club. I've updated the PDF this year, prompted by several requests for more info about the lessons, and I'm posting the new link here with this excerpt from the intro.

Download the free 40 page lesson plan booklet here

The process of writing a novel can be broken down for your child into eight lessons. This curriculum is less a curriculum and more a club. Kids will name their club, choose a secret handshake and “oath,” and earn “badges” by doing weekly lessons, games, and activities. By completing these lessons, the student prepares him or herself for the task of writing a novel, without ever getting spooked by the enormity of the task.

To form your own Junior Secret Novelist Club, you will first need some kids. Six is a good number. For optimal fun and awesomeness, these should be mostly kids who are pretty game. Naysaying kids who are nervous and uncertain will definitely benefit from this course, but there should be a good percentage of kids who will jump in with both feet and not be afraid to get a little crazy. With a few enthusiastic little writers in the mix, the hesitators will be more likely to cast aside doubt and join right in.

You’ll need a notebook for the kids to write in, do their homework in, and use to collect their exercises. Choose a small notebook, not a standard size, so they can really fill it up. A 3x5 is too small, but an 8x10 is too big. 6x9 is perfect, and recycled paper is cool. Ideally the notebook will have a sturdy front and back cover, since this is where the students will be collecting their badges. You will also need eight very very cool stickers per child that are more like badges than paper stickers. I found three dimensional glossy flower ones for the girls, and metallic compass/clock stickers for the boys. Look in the scrapbooking aisle for something that will really make their eyes go wide.

The key concepts are as follows:

Writing a novel is fun.
Writing a novel can be broken down into easy, manageable steps.
By the time you get to the part where you have a blank page in front of you, you have a solid, detailed plan and lots of material to use in your book.
Planning and writing your own novel helps you become a better reader of books that others have written.
Finishing means getting all your badges, not writing a complete novel and typing The End at the end.

On the front cover of the notebook, mark off four spaces, and label them GENRE, HERO, VILLAIN, and CONFLICT. On the back cover, mark off four more spaces, and label them SETTING, PLOT MAP, ANALYSIS, and CHAPTER LIST. Each week, as the children complete the exercises, you’ll hand out their badges.

The final thing you’ll need is something really super ridiculous to award them at the end of the course. I used a cool-looking paper clip, which became the Official Novel Writing Paperclip. After the final meeting of the club, you will pass out these official totems, and authorize the students to write their novels. Yes, it will be silly, but yes, you very much need something tangible. You could use hats, t-shirts, socks, necklaces, or whatever can be turned into an official, authorized novel writing item.

Kids, notebooks, badges, and a final prize. If you have all that in order, you are ready to begin!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Open Letter to the White Van Parked on 38th St. and Granby

Dear Large White Van Parked on 38th Street and Granby,

The van is on the north side of 38th, hidden by that building. 
Since moving to my neighborhood, I have driven past you countless times in anger. I have often shaken my head while flattening my lips into a resentful line. You have been parked there... let me see... let’s call it forever.

I understand: what you are doing is legal. There is a parking space on this street, and you are inside it. But you are the biggest vehicle in the world, parked nearly *on* the paint lines, the farthest possible distance from the curb and the closest possible proximity to the intersection.

You know that every honest citizen making a turn at this traffic light feels compelled to slow almost to a stop, worrying if they can make it past. You see them nudge their bumpers into oncoming traffic, causing drivers in the oncoming traffic lane to swerve away and honk. It’s a narrow street. The lanes are not marked. People get anxious.

There is shattered glass around your rear bumper, leaking out of the parking space and into the street. Your wheels are sunken. Whether they deflated from belligerence or despair I do not know. I don’t know whether that shattered glass is from an actual accident or whether it is the large white van equivalent of a middle finger, extending into the traffic lane. Drivers shy away, and there’s really not room for that, on this busy city street.

Until today, I dreaded going past you, wished you would just pack up your spacious running boards and go. I fumed over why your owner wouldn’t just move you twelve inches toward the curb. Or sweep the glass. Something. Why leave this gross abruption in the swift flow of traffic in our lives? It just seemed so inexplicable, and so wrong. I grumbled, and festered, and nudged my bumper into oncoming traffic, and honked, and ground my teeth.

Then today I realized what you are, you decayed, inconvenient old mess. You are Hemingway’s island in the stream. You are Olson’s stone in the shoe. You are Kierkegaard’s imperfection in everything human. Yes, large white van, that is you.

Contemporary author Charles Baxter wrote, “When all the details fit in perfectly, something is probably wrong with the story.” Well the story of 38th Street and Granby, an intersection through which I pass on a daily basis, is insanely disrupted by one magnificently ill-fitting detail: a large white van, tires deflating, bathing in a sea of broken glass, parked in the most inconvenient quadrant of the parking space, grinding traffic inexorably through its maw.

I’m writing now to let you know: Van, I capitulate. I won’t grapple with you. I won’t stab at you, from hell’s heart, or spit at you with my last breath. We don’t need another sensible intersection flanked by tidily parked compact cars. We don’t need another smoothly turning gear in the machine. You are the clunking sound in the apparatus. You are the hesitation in the march, the blip on the graph, the gap in the data.

Your end will come. You will be washed away eventually. Every island in the stream is always eroding. But until that happens, grind on, white van. Grind on.