Archive for May, 2010

Rio Hondo workshop

I’m now at the Albuquerque airport, on the way from Taos NM to Milwaukee WI for the third leg of this three-week five-city tour. Kate’s in New York for another couple of days, then will meet up with me in Milwaukee, after which we will proceed to Wiscon by car.

This is the second time this year I’ve flown to a desert state, driven to an isolated location three hours from the nearest airport, and spent an extended period confined with a small group of smart people of debatable sanity. The first time was my trip to “Mars” (six people, two weeks); this time was the Rio Hondo writers’ workshop (twelve people, one week).

The food at Rio Hondo was much better.

The writers invited to Rio Hondo included Karen Joy Fowler, Daniel Abraham, Alex Jablakow, James Patrick Kelly, Diana Rowland, and our hosts Maureen McHugh and Walter Jon Williams. The primary purpose of the workshop is critique, but the week also included lots of schmoozing, talking about writing, hiking and touristing, and eating. Oh, how we ate. Walter and Maureen did most of the cooking, but Kristin Livdahl and I took the lead on a dinner each, and the food was both ambitious and fabulous. I was actually more intimidated by the prospect of cooking for this group than by the prospect of critiquing or being critiqued by them, but my main dish of Broccoli and Tofu in Spicy Peanut Sauce was well-received. Karen even asked for the recipe.

The workshop was held in the Snow Bear Condominiums, which boasted comfortable beds, plenty of hot water, well-equipped kitchens, and breathtaking views both down the mountain (trees, rock formations, pristine streams, deer, and marmots) and up the mountain (looming cliff down which pebbles continually rattled). On the last night a small tree fell down the cliff, coming to rest against the battered fence just above my room. With luck the Snow Bear will still be there next year.

A typical day at Rio Hondo went as follows. Morning: group critique of two stories. Afternoon: reading stories, hiking in the mountains, touristing around the area, cooking, and napping. Evening: chatting, watching episodes of Middleman, or playing Thing, all lubricated with appropriate amounts of alcohol. Kind of like Clarion but without the lecture or the pressure to produce a story a week (though many of us did spend a lot of time putting down new words, especially those facing deadlines). I didn’t do very much new writing but I did some research and a lot of thinking about my current project.

It was an honor, a privilege, and a great learning experience to have the opportunity to read these writers’ drafts with a critical eye. In many cases I got more out of the reading than I was able to give in critique, but I hope I was able to provide some useful feedback. I also learned that there’s no story that’s so good that eleven insightful writers can’t talk for an hour about how it can be improved. All of these pieces were, I think, publishable as they are, but just about all of them received at least one of those “ding!” comments that points the author in a direction that can make the story truly outstanding.

I got some excellent feedback on my own current project, which I am currently trying to assimilate. I need to keep in mind that all of the other stories, some of which were superb, got just as many comments as mine did, and I need to find a way to incorporate all of this feedback in a way that moves the story in the direction I want it to go. Once I decide what that is.

I also got some very good advice about my career, and I intend to get a lot more serious about writing and marketing my work once I get home, possibly including some difficult decisions. Though there’s lots of travel to come in June and July, and in August we head to Australia for a month. The days truly are just packed.

Nebula Weekend, days 2-3

I’m now at the Houston airport, heading from Orlando (Nebulas) to Taos NM (Rio Hondo writers’ workshop) for the second leg of this three-week five-city tour. Kate’s still in Orlando for a couple of days, then will go to New York for a week before we meet up again in Milwaukee before Wiscon.

Saturday morning and afternoon at the Nebulas were mostly spent in programming — Future of Publishing, Finances For Writers, Social Networking, that sort of thing — and schmoozing. Best quote of the morning was from Finances For Writers: “The IRS won’t let you take off the dress you bought for the Nebulas.” (!?!) NASA TV was on the TV in the lobby 24/7 and I commented to someone else in the elevator that many of the things the astronauts get to do, even apart from going to space, are things the rest of us would kill for, such as commuting to their jobs via fighter jet. Another fellow in the elevator, not a SFWA person, commented that the pilot was a friend of his. This guy is the manager of the Solid Rocket Booster program, staying in our hotel for the launch. He’ll be going home after the SRBs are fished out of the ocean and sent back for refurbishment. ::gawp::

Saturday evening was the Nebula Awards Banquet, of course. The bad news is that I didn’t win a Nebula. The good news is that I didn’t lose a Nebula, either, though I think I was may have been nearly as nervous waiting for my speech as I have been as a nominee. I missed the pre-banquet milling and swilling in favor of making sure my audio-video equipment was properly set up, but I was very glad of that trade-off when my speech was the only audio-video presentation of the evening that went off without a serious glitch.

Kate tells me I was a little nervous and stammery at the beginning of the speech but I soon found my footing and delivered the rest of it fast but smooth. (The “fast” part was appreciated by the audience because the ceremony was running way behind schedule and the nominees had already gnawed their fingernails all the way to the collarbone.) I wasn’t feeling much of a reaction from the audience as I spoke, but I did get laughs in the right places and after the ceremony the praises were effusive. Connie Willis, Sheila Williams, Patrick Neilsen Hayden, Betsy Wollheim, and many others all went out of their way to say it was the best Nebula keynote they’d seen, using words like “riveting.”

(If you haven’t yet seen the list of Nebula winners, it’s here, and I must say I’m generally quite pleased with the results.)

After the ceremony and photographs we found ourselves out on the deck with most of the winners. So thrilled to see Eugie Foster still stunned by her win, after she’d said on the bus to the shuttle launch that she hadn’t even prepared a speech. Some wag — might have been China Miéville — suggested that all the winners should be required to get Nebula tattoos. “Tramp stamp!” said someone, but I countered that would only be appropriate for an urban fantasy — as Paolo Bacigalupi had won with a dystopian SF novel it should be on the neck, or perhaps forehead. This led to the idea of Nebula brands, where the winners would be branded immediately upon receipt of the award. (“And the Nebula goes to…” ::rotates brand in brazier of hot coals::) It would certainly make losing the award a lot more palatable.

I didn’t sleep well at all; maybe I was still wired from the banquet. I really do enjoy public speaking, and in fact I have already delivered variants of this same speech before packed houses at Ignite Portland, Potlatch, and Google so I should have been confident, but I think this was the toughest audience of all. Not to mention I was wearing my tux, which always induces nervousness. I think it’s soaked up pheremones from all the other nerve-wracking events I’ve worn it to, including my wedding, Writers of the Future, three Hugo ceremonies, and the Nebulas. Maybe I’ll get a nap on the flight from Houston to Albuquerque.

Sunday morning I gave a brief Q&A about my trip to Mars, because there wasn’t time for questions during the banquet. Only a few people showed up, but it was also streamed to the Internet and there were some good questions. Then we raced to the airport, where I discovered the addition of the Nebula freebies bag had pushed my checked luggage over the weight limit. Fortunately the removal of a large handful of books brought it down far enough to pass, and there was just barely room for them in my carry-on. Good thing I didn’t win a Nebula — those suckers are heavy!

Nebula Weekend, day 1

The Science Fiction Writers of America’s annual Nebula Awards weekend started yesterday, and indeed we left home yesterday, but it doesn’t count because the entire day was consumed by travel. But everything went smoothly and we arrived at the hotel around 1:00 AM as expected and were settled and asleep by 2:00.

We awoke this morning at 7:00 to catch the bus to the Space Shuttle launch viewing area. There we met up with the Nebula folks, notably including Mary Robinette Kowal, Cat Valente, Eugie Foster, Laura Anne Gilman, and Jerry Oltion who was wearing the same T-shirt as I (the two-sided one with cats wearing NASA space suits), the bitch.

The part of Kaylee will be played today by Laura Anne Gilman

There was some confusion as to who was on which bus. The Nebula nominees and podium staff, including myself, were on the Short Bus to the VIPs’ Banana Creek launch viewing area, but Kate had been left off the Short Bus list and it seemed that she would have to go to the Causeway viewing area with the hoi polloi. But at the very last minute she was allowed on, yay. Even though our buses didn’t actually get rolling until nearly 10:00, we still got an earlier start than most and encountered no traffic on the way to Banana Creek nor any crowds once we arrived.

The Banana Creek viewing area is where the astronauts’ families and other VIPs watch the launches from. In addition to bleachers for a couple of thousand people and parking for their buses, it also includes the Saturn Building, a major visitor center containing a nearly-full-size replica of a Saturn V booster and many mockups, prototypes, and actual space hardware from the Apollo missions. Also bathrooms, a gift shop, and both permanent and temporary snack bars — all very welcome.

Oh, so that’s why they call it the Saturn Building

We spent a couple of hours gawking at the exhibits, then had a pretty decent lunch before heading out to the bleachers to claim seats. We’d been warned that the bleachers would fill up starting about two hours before launch, and indeed by the time we (Laura Anne, Kate, and I, later joined by Jane Jewell and Peter Heck) got out there more than three-quarters of the seats were taken. But as the afternoon wore on, people just packed in tighter and tighter. It was sunny but not unreasonably hot, especially since all the women in the party had brought parasols.

LEM cockpit mockup

The actual Apollo 14 command module, gosh wow

It took about three hours to get through the last hour of the countdown, with several scheduled holds and a search for a missing ball bearing, but no major problems occurred and the final countdown from 10 started exactly as scheduled.

T minus 26:11 plus me

I knew exactly what to expect from all the times I’d seen launches on video, including the rushing sound of the water they dump to lessen the blast, the rumble of the engines, and the pants-flapping rush of air and sound that follows a minute behind the sight of the launch. The one thing nothing had prepared me for was how bright the exhaust was. It was nearly as bright as the sun — hard to watch, yet impossible to look away. This can’t be captured on film or video, of course.

The shuttle climbed quickly. I alternated watching through binoculars, naked eye, and camera. Through the binoculars I saw the solid rocket boosters separate and fall away, just barely visible as a couple of tumbling flecks of white. Eventually that massive searing flame was reduced to a tiny bright dot. The Shuttle had become a star. A rising star, something I’d never seen before. It left behind a column of smoke which quickly dissipated, and swarms of disturbed birds.

The huge crowd that had taken all day to build up now all wanted to leave at once. Our bus was poised for a quick getaway, though we nearly lost a wheelchair when the driver failed to lock the back door, so we avoided much of the traffic. Even so it still took a couple of hours to get back to the hotel. Then it was nap time.

So we spent all day on a show that was over in about ten minutes. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Although I must confess that, space geek though I may be, I wasn’t as bowled over by the experience as some. It was still pretty freaking impressive, both the sight and sound and the knowledge that, as John Scalzi said on Twitter, we humans can actually throw people all the way into space and get them back again safely. Hard to come up with anything fictional that’s quite that awe-inspiring.

Go, baby, go!

After a bite of dinner provided by the Nebula committee, I found that I’d been assigned a spot next to Joe Haldeman at the mass autograph signing. I hadn’t signed up for a spot, but I duly took my place and actually signed a couple of autographs. After that was the traditional milling and swilling and the presentation of pins and certificates to the nominees. Then Grand Master Joe Haldeman and Author Emeritus Neal Barrett Jr. were called up to the podium to receive gifts from the committee. To my surprise, my name was also called. As the presenter of the Keynote Address I received a delightful surfboard-styled cribbage board. Cool.

Why I’m deleting my Facebook account

This was the last straw: New Facebook Social Features Secretly Add Apps to Your Profile.

Now, it’s true that the abiity for other websites to add apps to your Facebook profile without asking was a bug, and was corrected as soon as this story was published. The fact remains that Facebook’s new APIs, which allow any website to add a Facebook “I like this” button and link back to your Facebook account, made this behavior possible. Facebook users are now relying on Facebook and its partners to design well, program well, follow their own Terms of Service, and respect users’ privacy. But Facebook and its partners have a terrible record on this. For example, the Facebook APIs make it easy for the “Like” button on a website to actually “Like” a completely different site. And the CEO of Zynga, maker of some of Facebook’s most popular games, admits to using scams and spyware to build revenue.

I’ve known from the beginning that “on Facebook, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.” Facebook provides you fun content for free, which gets your attention (“eyeballs”), which it then sells to advertisers. That’s the same deal that broadcast TV offers and I’ve been accepting that for my whole life. But changes within the last year in Facebook’s policies about users’ private information, culminating in these new APIs, change the rules of that game. Facebook is no longer selling your attention — it’s selling your private information. Basically, anything you’ve put on Facebook is visible to Facebook’s customers — advertisers, app developers, and anyone else who gives Facebook money for it — no matter what privacy level you’ve specified for it. Yeah. Read that again.

In response to these changes, yesterday I stopped leaving Facebook open all the time, instead logging out unless I was actively using it. I posted a status update to this effect, to which a couple of my more tech-savvy friends replied that they’re already using a separate browser just for Facebook, just to keep it from interacting with the other websites they visit. Furthermore, one of them said:

At first I thought that simply logging out of FB would be sufficient. Then I started looking at all the tracking cookies that are generated when visiting totally unrelated sites. So now I block cookies by default and manually enable them only in a private browsing session when I want to check FB (much less often than before).

That’s when I realized that Facebook has become a malware platform.

I used to work for McAfee. I take computer security pretty seriously. One of the main reasons I switched from using a PC to using a Mac at home is that the time, effort, and aggravation involved in keeping the computer safe from malware is much less. And what I’m seeing in Facebook now is what I saw in Windows fifteen years ago: a platform that doesn’t do enough to prevent malicious software from negatively impacting users.

On Windows, security holes are patched by third-party anti-malware tools, like McAfee and Norton. On Facebook, the users must perform their own anti-malware scanning (watching out for scams and viruses in messages, blocking undesired applications, being alert for inappropriate requests for personal information, etc.) manually. I don’t think there’s any technical way for a third party to automate these scans on the Facebook platform. It’s going to have to be Facebook that does it, and given Facebook’s recent behavior that seems extremely unlikely! It’s the scammers and malware makers, not the users, who pay Facebook’s bills, so this problem is just going to get worse.

I already seem to spend just as much time on Facebook blocking unwanted applications and invitations as I do interacting with my friends. When I think about the additional work that will be required to keep my private information private, I just want to run screaming.

This is only the last straw. I’ve been annoyed for years by Facebook’s user interface (which changes frequently but never gets better), by its ads, by its psychological manipulation of its users, by the way it lets random strangers associate my name with any photo they like.

This isn’t about the time spent on Facebook, it’s about the Facebook corporation’s business practices. I have over 1000 Facebook friends; many of them are my actual friends and I enjoy reading their updates and sharing conversations with them in comments. The rest of them are, at least, potential readers of my fiction and Facebook is an excellent way to keep my name in front of them. But I’ve come to realize that, by providing interesting content for Facebook to use to attract and keep users, I’m part of the problem. I’m a professional writer who’s been giving content away to a company that I’ve come to despise.

That stops today.

“Citizen-Astronaut” takes the silver

My story “Citizen-Astronaut” just won second prize in the 2010 Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest. This is a contest for positive stories showing the near future of manned space exploration; the stories are judged anonymously. I won a year’s membership in the National Space Society and a prize package containing various Baen Books, Jim Baen’s Universe and National Space Society merchandise. Second prize does not include publication, but I now have a very nice recommendation to include in the cover letter when I submit this story elsewhere.

I have to admit that I feel a little bit strange about this win, as I finished the story barely in time and submitted what I considered an extremely rough draft. Basically, I used the contest deadline as a goad to get me to finish the story. I always used to use the quarterly Writers of the Future Contest deadlines for this purpose and I’ve kind of been missing that lately. At the same time I submitted the story to the contest, figuring it would not win, I also sent it to my critique group, and they agreed with me that it can be improved (in particular, it’s a bit exposition-heavy and the main character’s primary problem in the the front half of the story is not as well connected to the climax as it could be).

Part of me says I should take this prize win as validation and just submit the story as-is. However, I think I will go ahead and revise it, though perhaps not as heavily as I might otherwise have done.

The next question is where to send this story (an optimistic space-based hard-SF adventure) first. It’s an excellent fit for Analog, of course, but Clarkesworld pays better, replies faster, and seems to be catching a lot of positive critical attention. Your thoughts?

April 2010 Oregon Coast Writing Retreat

Sorry for the lack of blogging lately. I have a bunch of stuff to blog about, too, and I’m going to try to clear out that backlog starting now.

One of the things I’ve been doing and not blogging about is that I went to the coast last week for six days of hanging out, walking on the beach, cooking and eating, knitting, and writing writing writing with the cool folks pictured above: Jerry Oltion, Spencer Ellsworth, Janna Silverstein, Amanda Clark, Tina Connolly, Camille Alexa, Kathy Oltion, David D. Levine, Kate Yule. Not shown: Carrie Vaughn. Photo by Jerry Oltion.

I wrote over 7500 words of draft on a new project, plus 2500 words of notes and outline, and had a great time.

We also shared bits of our most embarrassing juvenilia. For myself, it wasn’t the clunky prose in my early work that really made me hang my head in shame (13-year-old me suffered from Exposition Syndrome rather than the more typical addiction to Purple Prose — obviously, the tree grows as the twig is bent) but the sexism. I cannot help but recall that when I was a young sprout my favorite TV show had only two female characters, one of whom was mute.

What can I say? I got better…

My unpublished story “Citizen-Astronaut” won Second Prize in the 2010 Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest. My story “Galactic Stress” was named one of the Notable Stories of 2009 for the storySouth Million Writers Award. Alembical 2, including my novella “Second Chance,” is now available for pre-order and got a starred review from Publishers Weekly. And the sixty-minute Tech Talk about my trip to “Mars” I presented to the engineers at Google is now available on YouTube.