Come to My New Blog!

If you followed a link here from a comment I made on somebody's google blog, I would love to have you visit my blog, but this is no longer it. While I may occasionally post things here again once in a long while, virtually all my content will be at from here on out. If you were curious enough to come this far, why not give me one more click?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Cabrón (a story)

This isn't strictly speaking a brand new story, but I did that "leave it alone and then come back to it in a few months" thing, and I've spent the last week or so spiffying it up. I'm hoping I've finally got something good enough to sell. Here's a teaser:

As the days passed, I began to sense my certainty that something was profoundly wrong at Fátima slip away. It all began to seem silly and embarrassing. I had taken a series of minor calamities and pieced them together into some sort of ludicrous dark conspiracy, with Hermano Leopoldo at the center. Hermano Leopoldo, who was almost certainly harmless, and who only aroused suspicion because of my aversion to his disfigurement. Nothing but the delusions of a pathetic, homesick girl.

I nearly convinced myself of this, until the night I woke up in a pool of my own vomit.

This story is my completely made up origin tale for a well-known folkloric monster, so if you figure out where it's going before the end, good for you! It's about 8800 words--a bit longer than "Spacelift" was.

Without further ado, here's the story. As before, if you know me, including if I've posted on your blog or if you've posted on mine before, then you're welcome to read it. Just drop me a line asking for the encryption key and I'll shoot it off to you. Any constructive comments you feel like making will be very appreciated, but if you just want to read it, that's fine too.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Don't worry, Bev Vincent, I write like a girl too . . . Or maybe we should both worry, because neither of us will ever win a Hugo award. ;)

By now most people who follow SF blogs have heard of this story. In case you haven't, the short version is that Mr. Bev Vincent received an editorial note back from an editor who had been brought in on an anthology that had already bought one of his stories, explaining at length that, like many women, Mr. Bev Vincent could not write men convincingly.

Leaving aside for a moment the absurdity of an editor looking no further than an author's first name before making all sorts of erroneous assumptions, the rigid gender profiling the editor showed in his letter hits on a hot-button topic of mine. Look at these assumptions for yourself:

The editor says: “The story seems far too personal, introspective and emotional for a man . . . It is hard to imagine a fellow from a place like [the setting] uttering the following line.” The editor then provides three sentences from my story as examples. He or she continues, “And I can’t think of many guys from [setting] who call home every Sunday afternoon to talk to their family” [Emphasis his or hers]. Another brilliant insight: “Most men don’t think deeply about the dewy greenness of nature.” The ultimate conclusion: “She [sic] needs to write more convincing [sic] from a man’s perspective.”

I've always had problems with such gender stereotyping because I've never felt like I fit those stereotypes myself--yes, I do think deeply about the dewy greenness of nature. ;)

I lean toward thinking that traditional gender roles are societally constructed and not inborn. No, I don't have a ton of evidence for that position, and I'm comfortable in my unmanly unscientificness. I've seen evidence for traditional roles being genetically determined and found it unconvincing--I've never believed it was possible to adequately control for the pervasiveness of society's messages. Parents of daughters who, like me, tried to keep their kids away from Barbie and from the Bratz know what I mean. If you didn't do a good enough job of reinforcing society's stereotypes, don't worry: your kids still got the message from their teachers at school, from their classmates, from their friends on the street, and, most of all, from television. My kids find it odd that I'm the cook in the house--why would something that's been true for all of your life seem odd to you, unless you're hearing the message somewhere else that it runs contrary to expectations?

I'm not sure the question of where traditional gender roles come from can be answered satisfactorily, but you know what? It doesn't matter. The question is actually irrelevant. (Like the question of whether homosexuality is a choice or not, but that's way beyond the scope of this rant.) Let's suppose traditional gender roles are in fact in our blueprints; I'll concede the point. It's not the real issue. The real issue, to me, is that regardless, there will be exceptions. There will be boys and girls who don't meet your stereotypes. Artistic boys who like to cook, draw, and write, who grow into young men who focus on relationships and on their feelings. Athletic girls who like to play with toy cars and tools, who grow into young women who like to figure out how stuff works and who can opine knowledgeably on football.

The exceptions are out there, and I can't for the life of me think of a reason why anybody should have a problem with this. And because they are out there, I think we should honor our children's right to be individuals. When we as a society hammer home the message, over and over, that males are Y and females are X, we tell those children and young adults who don't fit the mold that there is something wrong with them. How damaging this is--and for what? How much healthier to send the message that there's nothing unusual about a nurturing boy or about an empowered girl. Better yet, let us send the message that all children can have the healthiest features of either gender, and all grow into nurturing, communicative, empowered, confident adults.

Anyway, enough ranting. In the wake of this story, I started seeing references and links to The Gender Genie pop up all over the place. If you're not familiar with it, the short version, once again, is that some researchers did a study of the writing tendencies of men and of women and came up with a complex formula for determining the gender of the author of a writing sample, based on the frequencies of certain key words that men were more likely to use and others that women were more likely to use.

The word lists are the most common of stereotyping: women use personal pronouns, reflexive pronouns, possessive pronouns, and words like "should." You know, 'cause they always gabbing about relationships and shit. Men use prepositions, articles (Seriously?! Men use more articles than women?! How is that even possible??) and forms of the verb to be (except for "be" itself, curiously, which is a woman's word). That's because men are always building shit, so they need to look at blueprints. I guess.

No, this is not a detailed look at their methodology, just my overall impression from several hours of playing with the thing when I should have been revising a story for submission.

Anyway, I first played around with the Gender Genie, er, so to speak, two or three years ago, but seeing it again in the context of Bev Vincent's story made me want to look more closely at the supposition that a fiction editor could distinguish between manly writing and womanly writing based on the textual clues.

So I fed through the story I was supposedly revising. Gender Genie said it was written by a woman. No surprise . . . it was a first person story with a female protagonist. Probably lots of womanly words there. So I ran through "Spacelift," the story I posted here last week. It has a gender-ambiguous protagonist, but at least it's not first person. And it's on a space ship, so maybe there are more engineering words there. Nope, couldn't fool Gender Genie. That was definitely written by a woman. So I tried my coarsest, most vulgar story, which featured an unambiguously male protagonist. Written by a female, said Gender Genie again. I tried my wife's WIP next. Female. *whew*

Well, big deal anyway. Like I said at the beginning, I never felt like I fit those stereotypes very well. So it's no surprise that Gender Genie says I write like a female. Besides, writers tend to be artsy types, right? That probably skewed things. Maybe all fiction writers showed up as women on Gender Genie.

There was an easy enough way to check: coincidentally enough, it's almost time to award the Hugos, and that means most of the nominees are available online. I thought it would make an interesting experiment to run as many of those stories as I could through Gender Genie.

First the short story nominees. According to Gender Genie, all of those stories were written by men. Yes, that includes the stories by Mary Robinette Kowal and Kij Johnson.

Now I started to freak out a little bit. It's one thing to be told I write like a woman. It's quite another to discover that a sampling of the most well-received short fiction in SF this year is written in a more masculine style. Gender Genie didn't peg a single one of my stories as being written by a man, so what did that say about my chances of publication? Is this what I've been doing wrong? Am I not butch enough?

Oh, but the plot thickens. Because next I tried the Best Novelette nominees, and three out of the five were identified by Gender Genie as being written by women. Oddly enough, though, none of those three was the one by Elizabeth Bear, the only actual woman among the nominees.

Mike Resnick is an interesting case. His "Article of Faith" was written by a man, while Gender Genie thinks his "Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders" was definitely written by a woman. Don't worry Mike. I empathize with your painful gender confusion. (((Mike Resnick)))

By this point, I wasn't sure what to make of it all. Maybe the novelette form is friendlier to a more feminine style of writing because it's longer. Women write florid, dontcha know, while men use fewer words and more grunts and gestures.

I plowed on, because the alternative was productivity, and found that, among the best novella nominees, Gender Genie correctly identified the three stories written by men ("The Tear" by Ian McDonald was not available for examination) and the one story written by a woman. Thank God for Nancy Kress--finally, a woman who writes like Gender Genie says a woman should!

(Many of those were extremely close calls, though. A couple more "with"s, maybe one less "around," and we'd have some more gender confusion among SF's leading men.)

The only novel I could try, Little Brother, was correctly identified by Gender Genie as being written by a man.

So what wisdom can I take from all of this?

Beats the hell out of me. In twenty unscientific trials, Gender Genie was right ten times. A .500 batting average is fantastic in baseball, but a 50% average is not so good in school. The samples I fed were 75% by male authors, and Gender Genie guessed male 55%, which is basically comparable to results I could have obtained by flipping a coin. Beyond questioning the stereotypes underpinning the algorithms of Gender Genie, maybe we can say that some men write "like men" and some women write "like women" and some don't, and yet they all seem to please their fans enough. Or, in other words, that it doesn't matter much whether you fit the stereotype.

Nah. That's sissy talk.

Oh, and Bev Vincent is right. I ran his blog post through, and Gender Genie says he definitely writes like a girl.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

On Voice

As I mentioned in my last post, I had what felt like an epiphany about voice while reading Nephele Tempest's blog entry on how to make a manuscript unputdownable.

I think I know voice as a reader, in that I-know-it-when-I-see-it sort of way, but haven't had a whole lot of a sense of how to create it as a writer. Once thing I've worked on that I think has made me better at it was writing in deeper third person, but I think there's more to having a really good voice than just that.

Here's the realization I came to as I read her entry: I've been approaching voice--and I think most novice writers do this--as an issue of craft, by which I mean nuts and bolts word choice and stuff like that. Style. And beyond a certain point, it's not. It is, I think, an issue of characterization. I'm thinking if your voice is not distinctive, it's because your protagonist is not. Looking back on my writing, I'm suddenly struck by the realization that I have a tendency to make my protagonists somewhat vanilla, and to have a side character that totally steals the show--or at least every scene she or he is in. (My interesting supporting characters tend to be girls more often than boys for some reason.)

I think I've been approaching my protagonists with an unverbalized sense that they're interesting simply by virtue of the fact that they're at the center of the stories. With just a little more thought on how to make them stand out, together with the lessons I've already learned on things such as deeper third, I think I could do a much better job.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Food for thought

I've run across some really good advice over the course of the last week on little things that seemed to be just what I needed to hear. But as I mentioned elsewhere on the blogosphere, I feel like a newbie driver who has to consciously remember to look at the rearview mirror, the speedometer, figure out where the median line should appear to be if I'm in the right place, etc. . . . I don't seem to have it all integrated so that I can remember to do all these things without giving it much thought. I frequently find myself forgetting lessons I've learned and needing to relearn them.

So here's a sampling of recent advice that has hit home for me. Posting it here seems more sensible than bookmarking the pages, since it's little blog snippets. So I'm really doing this for me, as an easy way to store stuff I'd like to find later without cluttering my own browser. But who knows? Other folks might find this useful too.


Here is a great rundown of EVERYTHING* writers should be thinking about in order to make their manuscripts un-put-down-able. It's from Nephele Tempest's livejournal. The whole list is great, but the part that I found personally most useful was this little tidbit on "voice":

Voice. Agents talk about this all the time, and it covers a lot of territory for me. Mostly it's about what your narrator sounds like in my head. Vocabulary, chattiness, thoughtfulness, etc. Are they intellectual, sarcastic, uneducated but smart, somewhat slow, ethnic--and this is more about word choice than anything, so please don't try to get elaborate about writing accents phonetically--young, old, etc.? Whatever it is, it should be distinctive to the story and the character. It should fit, there should be a reason for it, and it should be consistent.

At some point I'll probably cross-post the thoughts that sprang to my mind when I read that, but for now I'll just say I think I understand what voice is quite a bit better now.

During Nathan Bransford's recent absence from his blog, be had other folks post guest entries. This post by editor Victoria Mixon was another catch-all of things writers should be thinking about as they polish their work. It's all great, but here's the bit that really caught my eye:


Leave out most of the words. No kidding. Leave out oh, well, yes, no, um, uh (definitely these last two). Leave out names except for extreme emphasis. Leave out first articles and even subjects of sentences wherever possible. Do you answer a question with, "It's on the table," or with, "On the table"? Try it and see how much snappier your dialog becomes. For heaven's sake, leave out ellipses. Be like Emily Bronte and use em-dashes instead. Leave off dialog tags. Replace them with brief significant actions or, if you can get away with it, nothing at all. A book filled with characters talking the way we really talk, with tags, goes on forever and bores even the writer to tears.

Unless absolutely necessary, make characters talk at cross-purposes. How many of us actually listen to other people? We don't. We're always thinking about what to say next, when they shut up.

This morning, I ran across this entry by Mary Robinette Kowal talking about a point where she was stuck this week, and how she unstuck herself:

But! I was still stuck. I looked at the scene again. The historical figures weren’t the problem at all! It was just dull. I backed up and asked myself the usual helpful question, “What does Jane want?” and then thought about ways to deny her that. Things went much better after that.

It's not anything I haven't heard before, but that's kind of the point of this whole post. There are a lot of things I hear and forget. This was vividly stated, and hopefully I'll remember it when I'm stuck.

(I've read a handful of Kowal's short stories by the way, and she manages to write stories that are intelligent and highly entertaining--a great mix that's not as common as one might wish. I wanna be like that when I grow up.)

And finally, Lynn Viehl is doing a series of con-workshops-via-blog on her blog, and linking to others doing the same thing. She did the same thing last year--I don't know how many years she's been at it--right around RWA time, for writers and aspiring writers who are unable to attend. I found a *lot* of very useful "workshops" last year, and highly recommend to anybody that they follow Viehl's blog this week and follow all the links to other workshops she provides.

Anyway, today she was talking about the conceptual plan behind a story, whether you're a plotter or a pantser, I think, and I found this tidbit on hooks/high concept particularly useful:

A hook needs to be a lot of things, but primarily it should be brief, simply-worded, and contain the real power and conflict of the story:

1. A vampire hunter discovers her dream lover is a captive, tortured, blind vampire.

2. The secret lovechild of a powerful politician is the only witness to her father's murder.

3. A half-alien athlete trains as an assassin to kill her rapist father.

4. An outcast prostitute must save her friends and former family by harboring two spies intent on destroying them and their city.

5. A mystery writer haunted by the ghost of her worst critic tries to solve his murder.

Look at the juxtaposition of the concepts contained in the above hooks. The more conflict potential they have, the more powerful they are:

vampire hunter - blind vampire

secret lovechild - powerful politician

half-alien assassin - rapist father

outcast prostitute - enemy spies

mystery writer -- ghost critic

The situation as presented also plays a major part in the impact of the concept. For PBW's neighborhood, it has to be an almost impossible situation; what I think of as the worst possible situation for the protagonist to find themselves in. But whatever your situational preference is, the elements in the predicate you use in the hook (verbs, adjectives, objects of verbs) need to provoke a strong emotional response:

--a vampire hunter loving the a helpless vampire.

--a lovechild witnessing the murder of her powerful father.

--a half-alien assassin training to kill the rapist who created her.

--a prostitute protecting enemy spies to save those who cast her out.

--a mystery writer solving the murder of her worst critic.

Again, not anything I totally haven't heard, but specifically, what I found useful here was how she built up her examples, and how she embedded to conflict right into the hook, basically designing her protagonist as the person who would most struggle with the situation. Any old Bella can fall in love with a vampire, but what if she's a vampire hunter? I'm thinking now that maybe I don't give enough thought to why This Plot should happen to This Character.

I'm starting to think that I'm embarking on a phase of my learning where I'm moving away from worrying about polishing my prose, and moving toward an increased focus on characterization.

* Well, not really EVERYTHING, but it's pretty amazingly comprehensive.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Spacelift (a story)

As promised, here is a story for your possible enjoyment. It's science fiction, 5000 words, so if any of that puts you off, this may not be for you. If I know you from somewhere, including the blogosphere, and you'd like to read it, feel free to drop me a line and I'll tell you the encryption key. If you know me well enough to know which of my friends I wrote this story for, you don't even have to ask--it's that person's first name.

If you choose to make comments that will help me improve this, I'll be extremely grateful. In the first comment post under this entry, I'll point to some specific concerns I have. I'll encrypt them with the same key as the story, so that you can come to the story "cold," without any preconceived notions sparked by my leading questions.

But if you just want to read it without critting it, that's cool too. Just let me know if you enjoyed it is all.