Interview: Nancy Kress on POVs

Nancy KressMike Resnick said of Nancy Kress, “No one teaches writing basics better.” Here she gives us the basics on POVs. When to use one and not the other, why one works and another doesn’t.
First person, second person, third person, alternating person, third person subjective, third person objective, third person omniscient, multiple third person, epistolary. Did I miss any?

I’m not even familiar with all the ones you listed! I think in terms of: first person, multiple first, third person, multiple third, second person (rare), omniscient, objective.
When do we use them and why, when do we not use them and why not?

That’s a big topic; entire books have been written on the advantages and disadvantages of each. Briefly: First person allows for a very tight reader identification with the narrator, as well as a more distinctive voice,which means it’s a good choice if your character has a distinctive voice. Its disadvantage is that you are limited to only what that character knows and observes. Third person allows more description and observation of the characters. Multiple third “opens up” a book to more settings, action in different places, more characters’ internal lives. It can, however, feel more fragmented if each POV character is not fully developed. Omniscient is hard to do well; it’s more than just going into anybody’s mind whenever you feel like it. Omniscient implies the presence of a strong authorial POV (the “all-knowing” presence of “omniscience.”) Objective goes into no character’s thoughts, recording only what a camera would see and hear. It works best for short stories, and even then can feel cold in less-than-skillful hands.
When is it a hard and fast rule to use/not use a certain POV, and when is one OK but another is better?

There are no hard and fast rules in writing. Everything is a trade-off: are you gaining more than you are losing with a particular point of view? What overall effect are you trying to achieve, and how much reader identification are you aiming for in this story?
Is there such a thing as a story that is more effectively told with several POVs, each chapter or scene with its appropriate POV, omniscient in one chapter, second person in the another chapter, epistolary in another?

That actually sounds like a mess. Unless you are aiming at a deliberate confusion of identity (as in Alfred Bester’s classic “Fondly Farenheit”), don’t mix first, second, and third. With multiple third, I usually keep to one POV per scene. Epistolary, as in inclusion of a letter or diary entry, works in any POV.
Suppose an author’s fan base has come to expect a certain storytelling style that involves certain POVs, whereas a different POV strategy might appeal to a broader audience but alienate the established readers.

This sort of thing is always a problem, if what you mean by a change of POV is “a different protagonist doing different things and written in a style different from previous books.” Then it’s not really a POV question but, rather, a content question. Readers will easily accept one book written in first and then another written in third, if the story being told is the same kind of story usually associated with that author. J. K. Rowlings’s Harry Potter books are all multiple third; so is her novel CASUAL VACANCY, but their audiences are entirely different.
I’m working on a short story with every character in every scene. One is dominating the situation, one is trying to moderate the situation with mixed success, one is trying to take control of the situation with no success, 2 are asking a lot questions and seeking a lot of assurance, 2 are preoccupied with each other and neutral toward the others. There’s lots of rapid fire, heated dialog; lots of action; lots of choreography. Everything about the plot and the characters is revealed in real time through the interaction of the characters; no info dumps, no flashbacks, no descriptions, no body language, no inner narrative; strictly the words and activity of the characters. Which POV/POVs do I use?

It’s hard to be sure from that description, but if this were my story, I’d probably tell it in either first-person or limited third. In both cases, I would give the internal reactions and thoughts of only one character, whose story it would then become, and that choice would be the character who either has the most at stake or is the most capable of change. The events of a story should affect the protagonist,if they don’t, why should I, the reader, be affected?
Is POV a standard part of the curriculum in most workshops?

Yes, either through direct lecture or, if not addressed directly, it inevitably comes out in critique sessions, as in “You are switching POV on page 6,why?” or “You cannot describe a character’s appearance in first person unless he’s thinking about his own looks” or “This story might be better told from the wife’s POV and not the husband’s.” By the end of the first paragraph an author has usually committed to a POV, so it’s a good idea to consider your options before you begin.

 

 

Nancy Kress’ writing craft books:
BEGINNINGS, MIDDLES, AND ENDS
DYNAMIC CHARACTERS
CHARACTERS, EMOTION, AND VIEWPOINT

 

 

Meet up with Nancy Kress at the Hugo House workshop in Seattle, Washington and at Taos Toolbox workshop in Taos, New Mexico.

 

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

Interview: Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress

editor’s note: We interviewed Nancy Kress in 2009–feel free to check that interview out as well.

Nancy Kress is an award winning author, Asimov’s regular, and workshop instructor. She authors a book in Writer’s Digest‘s “Write Great Fiction” series and was a columnist for Writer’s Digest. Here she offers how-to insights into character development.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: Humans are complicated. How does a writer know when to develop a character through personality, feelings, experiences, biochemical makeup, relationships, circumstances, motives? When to emphasis which aspect of a person? Are certain aspects of a character inherently more useful for storytelling?

NANCY KRESS: That’s a complicated question! The most useful aspect of a character for story-telling purposes is motive: What does this person want and why? That’s what drives plot. A character’s personality will determine how he tries to get what he wants (earning it, stealing it, getting someone else to provide it, etc.) and how he handles frustration along the way. The character’s prior “experiences” (otherwise known as backstory) are good for the writer to know in order to provide the character with the feelings, relationships, and reactions that will make him vivid to the reader. Each of these elements is important.

 

How to know when to take the reader into the character’s head versus letting the character express themselves versus letting the reader discern through the character’s actions?

What feels natural? If it’s natural for this particular character in this particular situation to express his feelings directly through dialogue, let him do it. If his actions make his feelings clear (“James hurled the frying pan at Pamela”), then do that. If your character is inarticulate or has no one around to express to, then take us into his thoughts. The biggest mistake I see in student writing is not going deeply enough into a character’s point of view.

 

How to determine whether a character should evolve, devolve, or remain flat? Do you start with a character who is predetermined to evolve/devolve, or do you build a plot and let the plot determine whether the character should evolve/devolve?

The latter. I do believe that nearly all protagonists should change in some way , after all, if the events of the story don’t affect him, why should they affect the reader? How he will change is something I often don’t know until I’m about halfway through the book. Then I must go back on rewrite and set up the foreshadowing that makes it believable that this character can and will change in that specific way.

 

When to use sinister character versus victim/hero and when to give every character a legitimate motive and a compelling case?

Always. Every character must be believably motivated, and that includes the villain (sinister or not). When characters do things not from their own reasons but because the plot requires it, the whole story collapses. Their reasons may be 180 degrees away from objective reality (“I know that I’m Napoleon reincarnated”), but the writer still must convince us that the character believes it.

 

How to integrate premise, plot, and theme into character development.

Premise is the situation the character finds himself in, and it should appear fairly early on in the narrative. Plot is how he deals with that situation, which in turn is determined by his character. For example, Luke Skywalker in STAR WARS finds a hologram of Princess Leia begging for help from someone named Obi-Wan. Another boy might have shrugged and erased the holo, or tried to sell R2D2 on eBay, or whatever. Because of Luke’s personal character (plucky, curious, bored to death on Tatooine), he goes looking for this Obi-Wan, and the plot is off and running.

 

Do we really need to know that a character wears a goatee, listens to Bach, uses standard language instead of colloquialisms, and prefers omelet over scrambled? How does a character’s appearance or lifestyle help the reader understand and appreciate the story?

All those things can help readers (1) visualize the character, (2) learn something about his socioeconomic background, and (3) identify with him (or not, if that’s what the writer wants). People form first impressions of other people in seconds, and those impressions are remarkably sturdy. Use details to make sure we have the first impression of your protagonist that you want us to have.

 

Most/least useful strategies for character interaction?

The most useful: dramatize. SHOW us your character talking with others, doing things with others, treating others well or badly or indifferently or exploitatively or tenderly. We want to be a fly on the wall observing your story, as if it were a play or movie. Least useful strategy: Nothing but dialogue. You actually aren’t a playwright or screenwriter,you have the added advantages of (1) being able to show us your character’s thoughts and (2) of using exposition to provide background. Use all the narrative tools available to you.

 

Common misconceptions aspiring writers have about character development?

The most common: “My readers understand what my character’s feelings are because they’re the same ones anybody would have in those circumstances.” No. People are amazingly varied. If you don’t provide enough dramatization of your character’s motives and emotions, we may misconstrue them entirely. Or,worse,assume the character is a big bore. Another common misconception is that saying “John was sad” amounts to showing emotion. You must make us feel his sadness.

 

Common mistakes writers make in developing characters?

Writing villains with no motivation other than pure evil.
Giving us too few details to grasp a character’s personality.
Having characters change without enough foreshadowing to show that they are capable of change.
Not taking us deep enough into a character’s POV.
Having all your characters sound exactly alike in dialogue.
Making heroes all-good and all-powerful.

 

Where can writers get book length advice from you?

I’ve written three books on writing: BEGINNINGS, MIDDLES, AND ENDS; DYNAMIC CHARACTERS; and CHARACTERS, EMOTION, AND VIEWPOINT. All are available from Writers Digest Books and on such book-selling sites as Amazon.com.

 

Where can writers workshop length advice from you?

I teach at various venues, depending on the year, but the two most consistent are at Hugo House in Seattle and at Taos Toolbox in Taos, New Mexico. The latter is a two-week intensive seminar in writing fantasy and science fiction.

 

Where can writers get article length advice from you?

I no longer write my column for WRITERS DIGEST MAGAZINE, but much of the same information is collected in my books on writing.

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

 

 

 

 

Using SF Podcasts to teach Business and Economics

written by Moritz Botts

Who wouldn’t have liked to have studied their university subject using their favorite science fiction or fantasy stories? I missed a crossover between my favorite genre fiction and the subject he was studying, so when I became a PhD student and lecturer at a German university, I decided to take matters into my own hands and asked my professor if I could teach a business course using Escape Pod as the main source. I might have understated the fact that Escape Pod is a science fiction podcast thoughâ€

The first question of course is, whether science fiction or fantasy stories lend themselves to the subject that is taught. Accounting would be a difficult subject to teach with a Robert E. Heinlein story, and human anatomy courses should probably stick to the regular, human based textbooks. There are certainly fields which are much more open to genre fiction, like anthropology, which Julianna Beaudoin of Western University in London, Canada, teaches via science fiction and fantasy classics. Authors like Ursula K. LeGuin, a daughter of anthropologists, immediately come to mind in this field. Ram Mudambi of Temple University, PA, uses the fantasy novel The Empire of the Zon as a source for his undergrad international business classes. If a manager has to study foreign cultures and their ways of doing business, why not go for a totally foreign, a fantasy culture? I decided to not rely on my students’ motivation to read though, but rather thought that podcasts would be a solution that make it more likely that students could listen to the “required listening of the week” during their commute, while exercising, or while shopping. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that all podcasts offered by Escape Artists are available free of charge.

Before the course began, I asked myself a couple of questions: Were Escape Pod, Podcastle, or even Pseudopod, podcasts I have been following since 2010, suitable for a university course? Would the young generation of students be open to genre fiction? Could podcasts make it easier for students to follow the course? There was only one way to find out!

In the summer of 2014, the course “Business and Economics in Fiction Podcasts” was offered to undergraduate students of international business at a German public university. The university has a strong international focus, and more than 50% of the students who eventually signed up for this course were exchange students from the European Erasmus program, coming from countries such as Poland, Russia, Turkey, France, Italy, or Greece.

Students picked a podcast from a selection of science fiction and some fantasy podcasts, mostly from Escape Pod and Podcastle. I had preselected these podcasts to include some economics or business related topic, often following suggestions from Escape Artists’ forums. These included totally new takes on supply and demand with Nancy Kress’ “Nano comes to Clifford Falls” (EP 075), the meaning of value with Daniel Abraham’s “The Cambist and Lord Iron” (PC 051), or intercultural communication with David D. Levine’s “Tk’tk’tk” (EP 045). You can see the complete list of stories at the end of this article. In many cases, this meant near future stories with social criticism by authors such as Nancy Kress or Cory Doctorow. Even though students would usually be 21 years old or older, no Pseudopod stories were selected.

The course was offered as a “soft skills” course with credits but no grade, to make it easier to experiment a bit. A typical week would include two presentations by student groups and a section on different academic skills, such as presenting, citation, editing podcasts, or creating a wiki. Therefore, even if the idea of using the podcasts terribly backfired, the students would have still taken something useful with them.

The results of the course were somewhat mixed. On the one hand, all stories were suitable to be used as case studies in economics or business on an undergraduate level. One German student mentioned that he had been very skeptical about using science fiction stories at first, but when he listened to his story – Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Tamarisk Hunter” (EP 384) , he immediately “got it”. A group of Turkish students presented Tobias Buckell’s “Anakoinosis” and expressed a deep concern for the ethical issues discussed in the story. For me, it was initially a bit weird to hear my students present genre fiction authors and talk about the awards they got, but why should a story concerning aliens and spaceships be any weirder than a business case?

The lack of a grade for the course led to a couple of rather lackluster presentations though, and not all students would listen to the podcasts regularly. For future iterations of this course, incentives for a stronger engagement of the students should be given. Also, as the stories seem to “work” in an academic setting, grades could certainly be given, which should raise the quality of the students’ presentations.

To evaluate the course, I handed out a questionnaire during the last class. This survey is not really representative, because of the small class size. Nevertheless, there are a couple of trends that can be seen. Most students hadn’t really heard of podcasts before the start of the course. They usually listened to the course’s story on their computer while not doing anything else. There was only one native speaker of English in the course, and most students found it easier to follow the stories in a written format alongside the audio file.

About half of the students actually like science fiction stories. While most students only listened to a couple of the podcasts, they usually listened to more than one, the most popular being “Tk’tk’tk”.

I am sure that I will offer this course again in an upcoming semester. New and engaging Escape Pod (and Podcastle and Pseudopod) stories will certainly enhance the next course, so keep them coming!

 

Short stories included in the Curriculum

Week 1: From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled… (Michael Swanwick), Escape Pod
Week 2: Accounting for Dragons (Eric James Stone), Podcastle
Week 3: Nano Comes to Clifford Falls (Nancy Kress), Escape Pod
Week 3: The Tamarisk Hunter (Paolo Bacigalupi), Escape Pod
Week 4: Dragonomics (Lance Shonberg), Cast of Wonders
Week 4: The Cambist and Lord Iron (Daniel Abraham), Podcastle
Week 5: Anakoinosis (Tobias Buckell); Dunesteef
Week 5: Special Economics (Maureen F. McHugh), Clarkesworld
Week 6: Anda’s Game (Cores Doctorow), Podiobooks
Week 6: Patent Infringement (Nancy Kress), Escape Pod
Week 7: Just Do It (Heather Lindsley), Escape Pod
Week 7: Tk’tk’tk (David D. Levine), Escape Pod


MoritzBottsMoritz Botts is a research and teaching assistant at European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder), Germany. His research focuses on intercultural differences in management, while his teaching includes international management and innovation management. He is also an intercultural trainer and interested in innovative teaching methods with diverse media. He has written a horror short story in German published in an anthology and various academic articles. You can contact Moritz at botts@europa-uni.de

 

Review: Hugo Novella Nominees 2013

written by David Steffen

And here’s the last of the short (ish) prose fiction categories, the almost-a-novel aka Novella, which covers fiction from 17,500-40,000 words. This was a tough category to pick my favorite in, so for this one I’m glad that the Hugo awards use an instant runoff voting system so that if your favorite doesn’t win your lower votes can count towards the result.

Hugo Award for Best Novella

1. The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson (Tachyon Publications)
The Emperor’s wife has been killed and the Emperor has been injured in an attack by assassins, via a crossbow bolt to the head. The best magic of the legal variety can heal his flesh, but cannot heal his mind, leaving him catatonic. The Emperor’s highest ranking officials are the only ones who know of the outcome of the attack. The official mourning period for the Emperor’s wife is one hundred days, at which the Emperor will be expected to speak in public. If he cannot, the Empire will be thrown into chaos. They have but one chance to salvage the situation with the recent capture of the criminal Forger Wan ShaiLu. Various legal branches of the art of Forgery, which can rewrite the history of an object, can be practiced in the Empire. Shai, however, practices the forbidden branch of art which allows even a person’s soul to be Forged into something else. This criminal, this blasphemer, is their only hope, if she can reforge the Emperor’s soul using only journal entries and interviews with his counsel.

Brandon Sanderson is great at inventing new magic systems. I enjoyed Warbreaker, and I enjoyed this. The details are intricate, but logical, so that the magic is more of an alternate-world-science, something which appeals to my engineer mind. Shai is an expert in certain areas of her craft, and she goes at the work with the zeal and skill of an expert craftsman, all while contemplating how to escape before she is inevitably killed to silence her. The situation maintains constant tension while maintaining intellectual curiosity and emotional depth. The art of Forging depends upon understanding the history of a person or thing completely and then creating a manmade branching point to change that history, so to pull of this most difficult of all Forgeries she has to exercise her powers of empathy like she never has before.

Great story, well written. One of my new favorites. Well done!

 

2. After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall by Nancy Kress (Tachyon Publications)
An apocalypse hits the Earth in 2014, killing most people and rendering most of the planet unliveable. Very few people survived, and those were saved from certain death by boxlike tentacled figures (nicknamed Tesslies) that would appear in a shower of golden sparks, grab the person, and take them somewhere else. These survivors wake up in a building with no doors to the outside, with machinery meant to serve their basic food and sanitation needs. The Tesslies never told them what was happening, but their best interpretation is that aliens have attacked earth and kept some humans as specimens. Many years later a new piece of machinery they call the Grab machine appears in the Shell which periodically makes a window through time to the years before the apocalypse. Whoever goes through, the Grab machine yanks them back to the future with whatever they’re touching, so they use it to grab supplies and to grab children to help repopulate the future (adults die when they pass through). This part of the story follows Pete, a fifteen year old boy who is a child of some of the original survivors.

Meanwhile, back in 2013, mathematician Julie Kahn is working with a police task force trying to determine a pattern to the robberies and kidnappings.

I related completely to both Pete and Julie, even when they did things I didn’t agree with or when their actions were in direct opposition to each other. This story had me interested from beginning to end and it felt neither too long nor too short. Well done, Ms Kress, well done. Unfortunately, I hadn’t finished reading this before the Nebula voting period ended, and Sanderson’s story squeaked past this one for my top vote, but with the instant-runoff system I can still show my love.

 

3. San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats by Mira Grant (Orbit)
The first outbreak of the zombie epidemic happens during the overcrowded opening night of San Diego Comic-Con 2014. This story is the chronicle of that chilling event, told as a 30-year retrospective.

This story is well-written with believable characters and a strong emotional core. The main reason why this didn’t rank higher on my list is that I didn’t feel that it trod any new ground. Zompocalypse stories have been too common in recent years, probably only second to sexy vampires as overused tropes. I’d rather see an original speculative element, an original setting, or both. This story didn’t vary from the familiar zompocalypse rules, at least not in any significant way, so it’s not an original speculative element. I don’t recall seeing a zombie story set at a convention before, and I suspect that’s why it’s been popular enough to get nominated. But, personally, it just strikes me as lazy, trying to keep the writing in a comfort zone rather than trying something different. Kind of like a Stephen King story about a writer that takes place in a sleepy town in Maine.

Also, the story is formatted as though it’s a documentary, but the story itself admits that much of it is conjecture based on known facts. This in itself wouldn’t be problematic, except that by my reckoning, probably 80% or more of the events have to be either pure speculation on the part of the media because the deathtoll was high enough to make after-the-fact compilation of stories problematic. The story would’ve been better if it had just discarded the idea of using a framing story and just told it as a standard narrative.

 

4. The Stars Do Not Lie by Jay Lake (Asimov’s, Oct-Nov 2012)
Morgan Abutti, 4th degree Thalassocrete, member of the Planetary Society, has discovered something new in the stars that violates the truths taught by both the Lateran and the Thalassojustity belief systems that rule the world. He has arranged for a public discussion of his findings, which could shake the world. Bilious Quinx, master of the Consistatory Office (aka Inquisition) must find Abutti before he makes his heresy public. Eraster Goins, head Thalossocrete, has very different motives for finding Abutti.

As you might be able to tell from this brief explanation, there are several religious factions which at least to my mind were never clearly differentiated. Maybe that’s an intentional statement about religious schisms, maybe it could’ve been made clearer, or maybe I just don’t get it. I generally liked the Morgan Abutti character who did not consider his findings a heresy but only wanted to share his findings of the universe to expand their understanding of it, a scientist trying to work within a religious government system. But I just didn’t find the stakes all that riveting. Whether or not Abutti’s announcement becomes public, some other scientist will discover the truth anyway (as the story itself points out), so the events of the story feel pretty moot to me. It doesn’t help that the grand discovery has implications for major future changes, which don’t make it into the space of this story. Those major future changes are what I’m really interested in. If Jay writes a story about the events after this story I will read it eagerly.

 

5. On a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard (Immersion Press)
Cousin Linh has arrived on Prosper Station, seeking refuge from the Emperor, whom she has rebelled against in a token fashion. Quyen, magistrate of the station, allows her refuge grudgingly. Linh’s visit causes no end of trouble.

The world of the story takes traditional beliefs and uses futuristic technology to reinforce them. In particular, people in this society are not only expected to honor their ancestors, they also have memchips implanted in their brains that allow their ancestors to give them advice on everything that is happening around them. Very cool idea. The station’s systems are run by the Honoured Ancestress, a being that is sort of a metahuman, with an altered version of a human mind that allows it to run all of the day-to-day affairs of Prosper, and allowing residents of the station to interact with this mind by entering the trance. There’s something wrong with the Honoured Ancestress of Prosper.

I loved the worldbuilding in the story, but I just wasn’t that interested in the main events that took up the bulk of the story. Linh and Quyen’s conflicts didn’t really interest me. I didn’t particularly relate to either one, and it didn’t matter to me which one succeeded or failed in their goals. The state of the Honoured Ancestress was, to me, my biggest interest in terms of plot, but it did not have as much text devoted to it as I would’ve liked, and the solution to the problem was presented without a lot of interesting development to get there.

So this story just wasn’t for me. It was just too long to justify the parts of it I was actually interested in. It didn’t help that the length was such, and my free time segmented enough, that it took a dozen sittings to get through it.

 

Review: Nebula Novella Nominees 2012

written by David Steffen

On to the next category for Best Novella. I find this one another awkward one, covering word counts from 17,500 to 40,000. I like novels because they have room to spread out and really make you care about a broad range of characters in an intricately woven plot. I like short stories because they can really hit you with a story, worldbuilding, or other elements, get in and get out while you’re still excited. Novella I find is kind of awkward length, like a story that wants to be a novel but somehow just doesn’t have the stamina to make it all the way up there.

But, if I’m going to read novellas, I may as well start with the ones that others consider the best of the year, so here goes.

As soon as the Nebula nominees were announced I started reading through each category from Short Story up, intending to get as far as I could before the voting period ended on March 30. Since each category covers fiction that is progressively longer, the rate at which I can read them drops as I move on to each category. Unfortunately, I’m a pretty slow reader, so I didn’t have time to finish them all, and then I’ve moved on to Hugo-nominated works.

There were six nominees in total. I was able to read five of the six nominees, but I ran out of time before I could finish them all, and then the Hugo nominees were announced, giving me another load of stories to read. Katabasis (F&SF 11-12/12) by Robert Reed is the story that I didn’t get to read. Sorry about that, Mr. Reed! I’m a pretty slow reader and the Nebula voting window just wasn’t long enough.

This will be my last of the Nebula nominee reviews for this year, because it’s all that I had time to read in the scant time between announcing the stories and the voting deadline. Coming soon will be the Hugo nominees (some of which overlap with these)

 

Nebula Award for Best Novella

1. After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall by Nancy Kress (Tachyon)
An apocalypse hits the Earth in 2014, killing most people and rendering most of the planet unliveable. Very few people survived, and those were saved from certain death by boxlike tentacled figures (nicknamed Tesslies) that would appear in a shower of golden sparks, grab the person, and take them somewhere else. These survivors wake up in a building with no doors to the outside, with machinery meant to serve their basic food and sanitation needs. The Tesslies never told them what was happening, but their best interpretation is that aliens have attacked earth and kept some humans as specimens. Many years later a new piece of machinery they call the Grab machine appears in the Shell which periodically makes a window through time to the years before the apocalypse. Whoever goes through, the Grab machine yanks them back to the future with whatever they’re touching, so they use it to grab supplies and to grab children to help repopulate the future (adults die when they pass through). This part of the story follows Pete, a fifteen year old boy who is a child of some of the original survivors.

Meanwhile, back in 2013, mathematician Julie Kahn is working with a police task force trying to determine a pattern to the robberies and kidnappings.

This is one of the very few novellas I’ve ever read that worked effectively at its published length. I related completely to both Pete and Julie, even when they did things I didn’t agree with or when their actions were in direct opposition to each other. This story had me interested from beginning to end and it felt neither too long nor too short. Well done, Ms Kress, well done. Unfortunately, I hadn’t finished reading this before the Nebula voting period ended, but there’s a good chance that it will garner my Hugo vote for the same category.

 

2. All the Flavors by Ken Liu (GigaNotoSaurus 2/1/12)
Elsie Seaver is the daughter of a business owner in Idaho City in 1865. Much of the town, including her father Jack’s store have been burned down. Needing the money, Jack rents houses to Chinese miners despite his wife’s misgivings about their unfamiliar way of life. Elsie befriends the miners, especially a distinctive man named Lao Guan who tells her stories about a Chinese god who bears a very close resemblance to Lao Guan himself. They learn a great deal from each other in the time they spend together.

I ranked this story at 2nd because I liked the characters the most of the three that I read. I really liked Elsie and I enjoyed very much her interactions with Lao Guan. The story switches back and forth between Elsie’s time and Lao Guan’s stories, drawing some parallels between Lao Guan and the god in the story but never making the connection entirely concrete. The stories took up so much of the story space I wanted them to mean something, to tie into the main story in some way that was significant. So this story as a whole was either way too long, because it could’ve been split up into two component stories and the one about Elsie and Lao Guan would’ve been all the better for its conciseness. Or the story is way too short, lacking the space to really tie together its halves and making me really care about those other stories.

 

3. Barry’s Tale by Lawrence M. Schoen (Buffalito Buffet)
This is the story of Conroy, an interstellar businessman and his buffalito companion. Buffalito look just like buffalo but are the size of a dog, they can eat literally anything, and they fart oxygen. he has traveled to a planet called Colson’s World where a single family lives, all the adopted children of Colson himself. Most of the visitors to the planet are there for the barbeque cookoff, but Conroy is there to make a business proposition to Colson, to convince him of the value of buffalito that are Conroy’s business. While he’s there he meets Bethany, a little girl who has dangerous powers that have prompted her mother to keep her sedated for the safety of everyone. Only now the medication isn’t working anymore.

Hey, good to see what the buffalito thing is about–I know Lawrence Schoen was giving away buffalito plushies at his WorldCon reading, and I saw them on people’s shoulders throughout the weekend. Apparently two of his books have been published around buffalito, and this was part of a short story collection.

This story took way too long to get going. The first hook for me was about halfway through, which is entirely too far in a novella length work, where the stakes are finally revealed to try to save the girl from those who want to kill her to prevent her killing others accidentally (stakes that I can care about) that give our protagonist something more interesting to do than trying to sell buffalito breeding rights (about which I don’t give a damn). The second half of the story was action packed and interesting, but it was buried behind that first half.

It seemed, too, like I was supposed to be enamored with Reggie the buffalito and how irresistibly cute he’s supposed to be. And yes he is cute. But not enough to carry thousands and thousands of words on his own. It’s very possible that this story was targeted at people who’ve read Lawrence’s buffalito books, in which case I’m just not part of his target audience.

 

4. The Stars Do Not Lie by Jay Lake (Asimov’s 10-11/12)
Morgan Abutti, 4th degree Thalassocrete, member of the Planetary Society, has discovered something new in the stars that violates the truths taught by both the Lateran and the Thalassojustity belief systems that rule the world. He has arranged for a public discussion of his findings, which could shake the world. Bilious Quinx, master of the Consistatory Office (aka Inquisition) must find Abutti before he makes his heresy public. Eraster Goins, head Thalossocrete, has very different motives for finding Abutti.

As you might be able to tell from this brief explanation, there are several religious factions which at least to my mind were never clearly differentiated. Maybe that’s an intentional statement about religious schisms, maybe it could’ve been made clearer, or maybe I just don’t get it. I generally liked the Morgan Abutti character who did not consider his findings a heresy but only wanted to share his findings of the universe to expand their understanding of it, a scientist trying to work within a religious government system. But I just didn’t find the stakes all that riveting. Whether or not Abutti’s announcement becomes public, some other scientist will discover the truth anyway (as the story itself points out), so the events of the story feel pretty moot to me. It doesn’t help that the grand discovery has implications for major future changes, which don’t make it into the space of this story. Those major future changes are what I’m really interested in. If Jay writes a story about those I will read that story eagerly. But this one just didn’t feel all that relevant even within its own context.

 

5. On a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard (Immersion Press)
Cousin Linh has arrived on Prosper Station, seeking refuge from the Emperor, whom she has rebelled against in a token fashion. Quyen, magistrate of the station, allows her refuge grudgingly. Linh’s visit causes no end of trouble.

The world of the story takes traditional beliefs and uses futuristic technology to reinforce them. In particular, people in this society are not only expected to honor their ancestors, they also have memchips implanted in their brains that allow their ancestors to give them advice on everything that is happening around them. Very cool idea. The station’s systems are run by the Honoured Ancestress, a being that is sort of a metahuman, with an altered version of a human mind that allows it to run all of the day-to-day affairs of Prosper, and allowing residents of the station to interact with this mind by entering the trance. There’s something wrong with the Honoured Ancestress of Prosper.

I loved the worldbuilding in the story, but I just wasn’t that interested in the main events that took up the bulk of the story. Linh and Quyen’s conflicts didn’t really interest me. I didn’t particularly relate to either one, and it didn’t matter to me which one succeeded or failed in their goals. The state of the Honoured Ancestress was, to me, my biggest interest in terms of plot, but it did not have as much text devoted to it as I would’ve liked, and the solution to the problem was presented without a lot of interesting development to get there.

So this story just wasn’t for me. It was just too long to justify the parts of it I was actually interested in. It didn’t help that the length was such, and my free time segmented enough, that it took a dozen sittings to get through it.

 

Fashionably Late to the Party: Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress, best known for her novel Beggars in Spain, recently released her latest novel, Stealing Across the Sky from Tor Books. Those are just two of her 26 novels and you can find her short fiction in seemingly dozens of anthologies and print publications. From the looks of her bibliography, she must have her own parking space as Asimov’s.

You can learn more about Nancy at her official blog, http://nancykress.blogspot.com/.

Nancy, thank you for taking the time to sit with us today. Let’s get started.

Anthony Sullivan: What is your opinion on revisions, re-writes, etc? Is there such a thing as re-writing too much?

Nancy Kress: Yes, one can rewrite too much, and when that happens it’s usually to a writer who is reluctant to send anything out and thus risk failure. I’ve seen students bring the same story to workshops for because “it’s not quite right yet.” But the more prevalent problem is not re-writing enough, either because one doesn’t know how to revise or because the writer can’t see the story flaws. That comes with practice.

Anthony: In your opinion, what are the five most common problems aspirants have?

Nancy: Not writing enough. This is by far the biggest problem. You learn by doing.

Not reading enough.

The ending that does not fulfill what the story promised to deliver.

The long expository opening not in story-time: background or flashback or whatever.

Lack of specific sharp images in the prose, which usually goes along with excess wordiness.

Anthony: What conventions or conferences would you recommend that aspirants attend, as part of their professional development?

Nancy: If it can be managed, an aspiring writer will learn a lot at the six-week conferences: Clarion, Clarion West, or Odyssey. If not, attending a few regional cons big enough to attract a variety of writers is good for hearing various points of view on craft. And some of them run advance-enrollment workshops.

Anthony: Is short story writing essential to breaking in, or can someone work exclusively on novels and still break in?

Nancy: There are natural short story writers, natural novelists, and people who can do both. If you can publish a few short stories, it certainly helps in getting your novel looked at by agents and editors. Also, you learn faster since a short story is much less investment of time while you make all the usual mistakes. But if not, you can still work exclusively on novels, yes.

Anthony: Do you believe in the million words theory; that all aspirants must write roughly a million words before they’re generally competent enough to sell?

Nancy: No. It varies. Robert Silverberg sold his first story. There are a lot of other variables to breaking in besides word count. I didn’t write a million words before my stories started to sell, no where near that.

Anthony: Why do you feel agents have increasingly been made ‘keepers of the slush pile’?

Nancy: Because editors are overworked and harassed by publishers, accountants, and market departments. It’s easier to let agents pre-screen books than to read everything that comes in over the transom. Agents only make money if a book sells, so it’s in their interest to back ones that they think have a higher chance of doing so.

Anthony: Can you offer some suggestions for making the first scene or first chapter in your story leap out at an editor?

Nancy: Get characters , preferably more than one , on stage immediately, doing something, preferably something in which the outcome is uncertain. This means not starting with one character waking up, going through his or her daily routine, or ruminating about the past or future. Use a lot of dialogue, if you possibly can. Make the prose sharp and specific. Hint at larger conflicts or issues to come.

Anthony: You’ve been doing this for so long; is there anything remarkable or significant you personally have learned about writing in the last year?

Nancy: It never gets routine. In the last year I’ve had a novel rejected, won a Hugo, sold a trilogy, written a story I disliked that sold, written a story I liked that did not (so far, anyway), had good reviews and mediocre reviews for the same book. This job never becomes stale.

Anthony: Do you think the industry is easier or harder to break into now, compared to when you broke in?

Nancy: Much harder. There are fewer short-story venues and publishers are more reluctant to take on novels that are not obviously commercial. I don’t think I could have sold my first two novels in today’s market. And I see student work which I think is wonderful but which somehow cannot find a market.

Anthony: Are there any new, significant barriers standing between aspirants and pro status, now, compared to when you broke in?

Nancy: I’m not sure what you mean by “new barriers.” A poor economy always means dropping workers , including writers , viewed as “less productive” of profit.

Anthony: Your novel Stealing Across the Sky is about an alien race that comes to Earth seeking to atone for some wrong they committed long ago. How did you come up with this idea?

Nancy: I never know how I come up with any of my ideas. They just sort of appear one day, and my great fear is that one day, they won’t. I’m not one of those writers who say, “Oh, ideas are cheap, I have a million of them.” I don’t.

Anthony: The novel is written as more of a discovery/milieu story. What sort of obstacles did you encounter while writing this sort of piece?

Nancy: Just the usual obstacles: the beginning, middle, and end. I don’t outline, and I don’t know the ending of anything when I start writing, so no matter the structure, I’m always groping my way blindly through it. This is not an efficient working method, but it seems to be the only way I can write.

Anthony: At what point, growing up, did you know that you wanted to become a writer?

Nancy: Not until I was nearly thirty. I was late coming to the party.

Anthony: What creative influences do you feel impacted your writing style most?

Nancy: Probably everything I ever read. Since my favorite writers are Ursula LeGuin, Jane Austen and Somerset Maugham, and since they seem to have nothing in common, I can’t really give a more precise answer to this question.

Anthony: As an aspiring writer, I go through lulls and manic periods in my writing. What motivates you when slogging through those less than exciting passages?

Nancy: Discipline, plus economic necessity. I’ve been a full-time writer for nearly twenty years, so I’m accustomed to getting up, having coffee, and getting right to the computer. Working at the same time on work days tends to produce more reliable cooperation from the subconscious, that vital collaborator. Also, if I don’t write, I can’t pay the bills. This tends to keep one slogging.

Anthony: The internet has changed the industry for writers, readers and publishers. What has been the biggest change for you?

Nancy: I think the transition to digital from print is only in its infancy. I’ve published on-line at venues like Jim Baen’s Universe, but they tend to fold because no one has really yet figured out how to make much money in Internet fiction. I have work available for the Kindle, including STEAL ACROSS THE SKY and BEGGARS IN SPAIN, but Kindle sales account for less than 1% of fiction sales in the U.S. So at this point, the impact on me has been minimal, but that may change. The real difference so far is that now much of the business side of writing is handled on-line instead of by phone or letter.

Anthony: What changes for the publishing industry do you see on the horizon?

Nancy: Haven’t a clue.

Anthony: I recently read Images of Anna, a story of yours published in Fantasy Magazine. I found Anna to be a very vivid character. How much time do you spend working on a character like her?

Nancy: I can usually do a short story in a week or two. The character, including Anna, almost always occurs to me bundled with the story’s original idea. The details of character come to me during the process of writing.

Anthony: Do you feel you spend more time on a novel character than a short story character?

Nancy: I don’t understand that question. Of course a novel takes longer to write, so I’m spending more time with/on the character. But there is no difference in any pre-writing character study (which I seldom do).

Anthony: What can you tell us about your upcoming projects? I think I heard you had some short fiction coming up in Fantasy Magazine?

Nancy: I usually publish short fiction in ASIMOV’S, and in the last two years I’ve published eight stories there, including “The Erdmann Nexus” that won a Hugo this year. I go in spurts of short-story writing, and that one is played out. Now I’m working on novels.

Anthony: Thanks again for your time, Nancy.

Also, a special thanks to Brad Torgersen and Jennifer Wendorf for your help with questions for Nancy.