Archive for July, 2011

Vampires as fanfic

In a discussion in the car on the way home from Cascade Writers, I realized that writing about vampires or zombies is a lot like writing fanfic. In both cases, much of the character development and worldbuilding are done for you; all you have to do is say “vampire,” or “Kirk,” and the reader instantly knows what to expect.

In both cases, defying those expectations is possible, but it’s more work, and it’s not often done because it will disappoint or anger a good chunk of the readers. Some writers wind up “filing off the serial numbers” so that the fanfic is no longer recognizable as such (or is recognizable in a camouflaged, wink-and-a-nod way). You end up with a starship that isn’t quite the Enterprise, or a powerful life-draining immortal who isn’t quite a vampire. There has been some quite good fiction produced in this way.

Although I recognize that fanfic is a useful writing exercise, and can be used as the basis of some interesting transformational works that take the basic material and comment on it, or use it to comment on other aspects of society, I generally find it uninteresting because it’s lazy. And that might be why I find so much vampire and zombie fiction (and there is so much of it, these days) extremely put-downable.


At the Pittsburgh airport now, heading home from the Alpha Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Workshop for Young Writers where I was an instructor. The Pittsburgh airport is pretty cool; it has a T. rex skeleton and exhibits on Mister Rogers and Andy Warhol, plus free wi-fi.

I had a fabulous time at Alpha. The young writers are smart, energetic, focused, and extremely talented, and the staff very helpful and well-organized. Even the school cafeteria food was good. The four manuscripts I critiqued from the “Betas” (previous students returning to the workshop as teaching assistants) were of extremely high quality, and the ideas I reviewed for the stories the Alphas will be writing this week were astonishing in their creativity. I wish I could be here next week to see the stories that result.

I got great feedback on my lectures and critiques; one of the Betas even told me that he’d been to Alpha three times and he liked my lectures the best. Everyone was friendly and supportive. However, I must publicly acknowledge the debt I owe to my own instructors: Pat Murphy, who gave me the “turn an idea into a story” exercise I used for my first lecture; Algys Budrys, who gave me the seven-point plot outline I used in my second lecture; and Carol Emshwiller, who gave me the line “use exposition as ammunition.” I stand on the shoulders of giants.

One of the students, Gretchen Hohmeyer (@adkwriter15 on Twitter) live-tweeted the following highlights from my lectures:

  • “Writing is a form of telepathy. You are putting your thoughts into someone else’s brain.”
  • “Experiment with experimental writing… just don’t inhale.”
  • “A symbol is a prop that has more weight than its own self.”
  • “Use exposition as ammunition.”
  • “The first sentence of any story is going to be world-building.”
  • “You can do a lot of world-building in a few sentences, if you choose the right detail.”
  • “Smoking’s a great help during dialogue. I dont smoke, I dont recommend it. But ur characters wont get cancer unless u want them to!”
  • “English is a marvelously rich language. We’ve stolen language from every other language.”
  • “You can get away with anything in this business as long as you can sell it, in both senses of the word.”
  • “The difference between a comedy and a tragedy is where you choose to end the story.”
  • “Ideas are like neutrinos: they fall from the sky and we just have to be dense enough to catch them.”

We also had a successful reading and signing at a local bookstore and attended a showing of the final Harry Potter film, which I really enjoyed (much more than the previous one, which took the sins of the whole book onto itself, leaving all the good bits for the final film).

All in all, I’m pleased, honored, satisfied, and very tired. It’s been fun, but I’m ready to be home now.

Reminder about EphSpec, July 17

Just a reminder that “Ephemerata Speculata,” a live event of F&SF story readings, will be held TOMORROW, July 17, at 5:00 pm at Tabor Space, 5441 SE Belmont, in Portland Oregon. Writers Bob Zahniser, David D. Levine, David W. Goldman, and Jennifer Cox read their work. For more information, see

My life is improv

Woke up at 4am. Now at the airport headed to Greenburg, PA (via Denver and Pittsburgh) for the Alpha Workshop for young F&SF writers.

I’m honored to have been selected to teach at this workshop. This is something I wanted; in fact, I pushed hard to get it. Yet I don’t feel remotely qualified for it. Maybe I can write (sometimes I have my doubts about that), but can I teach it? I have a one-page handout prepared for the first of my four lectures, and apart from that I’m just going to wing it. What was I thinking??

Still, I have taught at Cascade Writers and workshopped at many other venues; this is just a step up from there. I’ve lectured off the cuff many times and people seemed to like it. I have excellent support from the Alpha staff. And even if I blow it completely, there are three other instructors following me to clean up the mess.

I’ve wung it before, and I’ll wing it again.

Let’s talk about plot

I woke up this morning and realized that at 7am tomorrow I will be on a plane to Pittsburgh to be the first of four instructors at the Alpha workshop for young F&SF writers (the others are Tamora Pierce, Ellen Kushner, and Scott A. Johnson). I know that I can do this, but I’m still kind of freaked out. It seems like so much responsibility.

I will be giving four lectures, of about an hour each (1:15 in the morning, 0:50 in the afternoon). I have decided I’m going to speak on the following topics:

  • How to develop an idea into a story
  • What is plot?
  • Using sets and props to develop character
  • Using all the senses (there are more than 5)

For the first one I’m going to use the method Pat Murphy gave us at Clarion West, and I’m pretty solid on the last two. But plot is important, and I don’t feel that I have as firm a handle on it as I’d like.

One way of looking at plot is Algys Budrys’s basic seven-part outline: a person, in a situation, with a problem, who tries, and repeatedly fails, but eventually succeeds, and is rewarded. Another is the three-act structure used in Hollywood: setup (inciting incident and first turning point), confrontation (second turning point), and resolution (climax). One definition of plot is “a series of events that happen for a reason.” I can’t talk about plot without talking about how plot, character, and setting are thoroughly intertwined.

What are some of the most useful things you’ve been told about plot?

Jury duty

So I was on jury duty today.

I spent the whole day in voir dire (i.e. listening to the attorneys quiz the other jury candidates). I was called up for two juries and was not able to serve on either of them, because I’m flying to Pittsburgh on Wednesday for the Alpha workshop and both of the trials will take longer than that. Nonetheless I had to wait for the entire voir dire process to finish before I could leave. Frustrating.

The good news is that jury service is only for one day, so even though I was not on a jury I’ve still discharged my civic duty for the next two years. Go me.

My stories “Pupa” and “Teaching the Pig to Sing” were given Honorable Mentions in Gardner Dozois’ 2010 “Year’s Best SF.”


The #iagsdc square dance convention is being held at the same... on TwitpicJust back from the annual gay square dance convention in Atlanta, which was held in the same “H.R. Giger” Marriott as the 1986 Worldcon.

Mindful that we’d had elevator problems at that Worldcon, and that at a previous square dance convention in a hotel with an internal atrium and glass elevators some friends of mine had gotten stuck in one for hours on the 4th of July, I was careful not to board an overloaded elevator and kind of pushy about not letting people get on when I thought the elevator was full. We had no elevator problems until the last day of the con, when at the convention’s brunch banquet the food ran out before everyone was served — the elevator with the food had gotten stuck on the way up from the kitchen. Okay, it was a service elevator rather than one of the glass ones, but I was amused. I suspect I would not have found it so amusing if I were one of the ones who waited in line for breakfast for half an hour or more.

At the Fernbank Museum. The Argentinosaurus was the Biggest. ... on TwitpicApart from that the convention went very smoothly and I came away happy and footsore. In addition to lots of dancing, socializing, flirting, and eating (we had some fine meals), we did a couple of days of touristing around Atlanta. Highlights included the Center for Puppetry Arts, Martin Luther King’s old neighborhood with several different facilities with exhibits about Dr. King and the civil rights struggle, and the Fernbank Museum of Natural History with the Biggest! Dinosaur! EVER!

Note to convention planners: if you are going to hold a convention on a holiday weekend, it behooves you to contact the local restaurants and include information in the restaurant guide about which ones are open on the holiday. Not that the restaurants make this easy — we actually made reservations at a restaurant for dinner on the 4th (through their web page) only to find when we arrived that it was closed.

We got home to find that summer has finally arrived in Portland, with gorgeous sunny weather and a blessed lack of humidity. We celebrated by setting up the grill for a delightful dinner of corn on the cob and grilled tofu.

That’s July so far. The rest of the month promises to be equally interesting:

I need to go unpack now, so I can pack…

EphSpec – July 17

“Ephemerata Speculata,” or EphSpec, is an ephemeral, time-based event whose purpose is to allow writers of speculative fiction to share their work with the public, and to provide an opportunity for community with other writers and readers of the genre. The inaugural EphSpec event will be held at 5:00 pm on Sunday, July 17, 2011 at Tabor Space, 5441 SE Belmont, Portland, Oregon (corner of 55th and SE Belmont).  Come hear writers Bob Zahniser, David D. Levine, David W. Goldman, and Jennifer Cox read their work!  For more information, see

(I’ll be reading “Charlie the Purple Giraffe.”)