Trimming Down

Old paper notes.

Going through my filing cabinet has yielded plenty of detritus from the past: notes from Armageddon staff meetings, my transcripts from Hopkins, countless Christmas cards, and a decade's worth of old credit card receipts and checks to lit magazines for sample copies.

Continuing to pack and sort and dispose of stuff. This morning I’ll take a box over to PC Recycle, send my brother yet another box of books, and haul one more trunk’s worth of stuff to Value Village. I find myself increasing ready to pitch things, but I still cling to some: a plastic crate full of notebooks I want to sort through, a few knick knacks, a favorite mug. Taco goes to the vet this afternoon and will be suitably appalled by the process, I’m sure, but I want to make sure the cats get all their shots and a good check-up before I leave them.

All the art is off the walls, carefully bubble-wrapped and ready to be stored, and the apartment is starting to feel empty. There’s plenty of little (and some major) maintenance work to do, including putting Pergo down in the bedroom, and culminating with painting all my turquoise and pink and green walls white again. Two weekends from now, I’ll rent a truck and take a couple of pieces of furniture over to my mom’s but all in all, we’re not keeping much. My bookcases, luckily, were bought several decades ago and disassemble easily to pack small. They’re recycled rainforest wood, purchased through some green catalog, and have served me very well through all my wandering. There’s a storage unit’s worth of stuff to get through still, but the ultimate aim is to get it all in a storage pod while we’re gone.

Stress levels are high but manageable. I find myself talking to the cats during the day, and worrying about them, despite the fact that I know both will be in excellent hands while we’re traveling. I am afraid that Raven will die while I’m gone, and I won’t be with him and that will break my heart. At the same time, I can feel an exhilaration creeping up as some stuff falls away, and right now there’s plenty of possibilities as we continue planning. Worldcon has become more optional — it ties us to Europe in August and we’re wondering if maybe there’s more pleasant ways to schedule that visit. Yesterday I was reading a book and ran across mention of the gardens at Menton, which hold the oldest living olive trees in the world. Now there’s a new push pin on the map, because I want to go commune with those trees.

If you’re interested in taking a class with me this year, be aware there aren’t many chances left. There’s a Podcasting Workshop on April 27 and a Flash Fiction workshop May 14, and that is it for 2014. I’m very happy with both the Writing F&SF and Advanced workshops in this last round; they’re full of strong and interesting writers, and that’s a nice way to end this round of teaching.

So much left to do. But so many possibilities are opening up. Planning how I’ll write on the road is something I’m thinking about. I think ipad plus wireless keyboard plus Dropbox should serve me well, as long as I’ve got a notebook and pen along too.

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Radio Silence

Map of Europe with push-pins in preparation for travel planning. Accompanies blog post by speculative fiction writer Cat Rambo.

There's something enchanting about maps, about all the possibilities they represent. Certainly they're not the territory, but they promise so much about it. I'm looking forward to sharing the exploration with my favorite person in the world.

I’ve been very absent from the blog of late, and I apologize for that. I’m actually in the process of radically trimming down our belongings, packing up Chez Rambo, moving us into temporary housing, and then getting this place ready to sell. Then Wayne and I are going to travel a bit while we figure out what we want to do. There will be plenty on that to come, but it’s why I won’t be teaching in the latter half of 2014 and will generally be unreceptive to anything other than requests for stories or reprints during that period as well. I do plan to write steadily while on the road, which should be a new and interesting experience. Advice from other road-warriors is welcome.

For people wondering how that’ll affect my tenure as SFWA’s vice president, which seems increasingly likely barring the eruption of a singularly well-organized write-in campaign: not too much. That’s one reason I’ve cut a lot of other responsibilities. As before, I’ll be stepping down as head moderator of the SFWA boards, which takes a good slice of stuff off my plate. I did commit to driving the third iteration of a SFWA cookbook (more on that to come as well), but I’ve got the capable Fran Wilde co-leading that effort as well as a nice long deadline, so all’s good there.

Various publishing news: Just turned in the last edits for “Rappacini’s Crow”, which will appear in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. There’s another story going through edits there right now, “Call and Answer, Plant and Harvest,” which features a city, Serendib, that I sense will become a working part of my mental universe as far as story production goes. “English Muffin, Devotion on the Side” will be popping up in Daily Science Fiction. “The Raiders” (formerly “In Andersonville”) will pillage in the pages of Fiction River’s Past Crimes issue, edited by Kristine Kathyrn Rusch and “Marvelous Contrivances of the Heart” will unfold in Fiction River’s Recycled Pulp issue, edited by John Helfers. “Elections at Villa Encantada” will appear in Unidentified Funny Objects 3.

Christy Varonfakis Johnson, aka Folly Blaine, will be narrating both of my collections and is currently working on Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight. PseudoPod will include “The Worm Within” in an upcoming podcast.

I will pick up the “You Should Read This” posts again soon! I’m finishing up a review of two new Jo Walton books for Cascadia Subduction Zone right now, but once that’s done, I’ve got a number of old as well as recent reads I want to talk about.

So…plenty to do. And plenty more to come.

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Cat’s Norwescon 37 Schedule

Here’s where I’ll be. If you’re a SFWA member, you’ll also see me at the Saturday morning meeting.

Geek, Geek, Don’t Tell Me!
Fri 4:00pm-5:00pm Evergreen 3&4
If you enjoy NPR’s weekly quiz show “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” you’ll enjoy our humorous F&SF version of this popular show. We’ll test audience members’ knowledge against a panel of Pro artists, authors, and film critics in the field as former co-workers Les Howle and Brooks Peck, current Science Fiction Museum curator, display images from books, films, comics, and art from the 1940′s till now. Our panel of pros will give answers and our audience participants will bet on whether they are right or wrong. Chocolate to the winners!
Brooks Peck (M), Caren Gussoff, Leslie Howle, John Picacio, Cat Rambo

Defining Urban Fantasy
Sat 1:00pm-2:00pm Cascade 3&4
There are almost as many definitions of urban fantasy as there are readers. Is it simply a supernatural story in an urban setting? Does this mean the “mean streets” of urban fantasy are more metaphorical than actual? Is the fantastic in urban fantasy a part of the landscape, or can it just be an intrusion? The panel will look at different explanations, interpretations, and expectations that writers and readers bring to the genre.
Cat Rambo (M), Myke Cole, Stina Leicht, Kat Richardson, Duane Wilkins

Reading: Cat Rambo
Sat 5:00pm-5:30pm Cascade 1
All the Pretty Little Mermaids. Near future feminist SF that recently appeared in Asimov’s. Some adult language and mild violence. Rated R
(I am actually planning on reading something completely different. It’s funny. You will probably like it.)
Cat Rambo

First Page Idol
Sat 3:00pm-4:00pm Cascade 10
Feeling brave and bold? Send us your novel’s first page to be read aloud and critiqued by three pros. (Email to: idol@norwescon.org)
Phoebe Kitanidis (M), Camille Alexa, Cat Rambo, Kevin Scott

Writing What You Don’t Know
Sun Noon-1:00pm Cascade 5
Many writers have heard the advice to “write what you know”. But, have you really met any dragons, or robots, or zombies, or vampires? How do you write about something that you haven’t experienced personally? Tips for how to (and how not to) use research and common sense to improve your writing.
Cat Rambo (M), Ann Gimpel, John (J.A.) Pitts, Kat Richardson

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Some Slushpile Thoughts

Picture of books stacked in a hallwayIn reading for Women Destroy Fantasy, I’ve cleared about two hundred stories away so far, and there’s still about a hundred I have yet to read. Some amazing stuff, some familiar names, and all in all, a slush pile that is full enough of solid stories that I could fill several issues. It’s been a great pleasure to be elbow deep in so much excellence. So here’s a few notes on the experience so far.

In my head, I have these slots:

  1. My fairytale/legend/historical slot: Right now there’s a very good historical piece that I’ve tentatively penciled in here. It hits a lot of my sweet spots as a reader, it’s an interesting magic system, and it’s a good story. We’ll see if anything comes along that knocks it out of that slot.
  2. My steampunk/Victorian slot: Plenty of these stories to choose from, and again there’s a particular one in the lead.
  3. My superhero slot: A good number of these, and they are all jostling for the slot. I don’t have a favorite yet.
  4. My urban/modern day fantasy slot: Another one with multiple contenders so far, and there’s a number of wild and weird ones.

My criteria? I want good stories that will stick in the reader’s head and keep them thinking long after they’re done reading. I want lovely prose — but not so lovely that it eclipses the story. I want heart — I’m still looking for a story in the pile that makes me cry.

Other observations:

  • It’s a good idea to think about the impetus behind the anthology. Things like an anti-feminist message are probably going to be an awfully hard sell for an issue with what I’d consider a feminist theme.
  • Lots of wings in this slushpile. Not saying that’s bad, but man are there a lot of stories with this focus.
  • A lot has been done with fairytales in the past. Looking for fresher ground might be more rewarding.
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Creating An Online Presence Now Available for More E-formats

Cover of the book Creating an Online Presence by Cat Rambo, teaching writers how to use social media to build buzz (and sales!) about their work.

Now you can find Creating an Online Presence on Smashwords as well as Amazon. The book covers the basics of creating and maintaining a presence on the Internet for writers. Here's a coupon for 50% off on the Smashwords version, good through 4/22. BH28S

Huzzah! Thanks to the patient labor of Tamara Vining, there’s now plenty of options up on Smashwords, including epub, mobi, pdf and online.

If you’re not familiar with the book, it’s based on my online class, and tries to go through basics of creating and maintaining an online presence for writers.

It includes what you need on a website, how to effectively use social media, how to find readers via social media, what free resources and tools are available to writers (and how to use them most effectively), whether it’s worth it to pay for online advertising, and, most importantly, how to promote yourself online without using all your valuable writing time to do so. Because the writing always comes first.

If you’ve read the book, please recommend it to other writers and/or leave a review somewhere. Here’s the Amazon page.

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You Should Read This: An Appreciation of Andre Norton

Cover for Voodoo Planet by Andrew North/Andre NortonMy high school years were steeped in reading from several F&SF authors. Among them, the most influential was quite probably Andre Norton. In arranging my book collection in those early days, Norton was always satisfying, because she wrote a gazillion books and I had most of them. In fact, I know three fantasy landscapes well because I wandered them so often as a young reader: Narnia, Middle Earth, and Norton’s Witch World.

The book I’m working on right now, (working title CIRCUS IN THE BLOODWARM RAIN) tries to get at the feel of some of those books: a protagonist moving across a mysterious landscape laden with both treasures and perils from the past, along the lines of Breed to Come, Forerunner Foray, or Star Man’s Son, 2250 A.D.

Norton, the first female SFWA Grand Master, wrote both fantasy and science fiction, both awesome, but I have a particular fondness for her science fiction, like Moon of Three Rings, Judgement on Janus, and Sargasso of Space. Her Free Traders have a gritty feel that predates many other works with a similar feel, like Star Wars or C.J. Cherryh’s Chanur series.

The problem with talking about Norton is that she’s both prolific and consistent, making it hard to find stand-out books to recommend. So here, rather than a single book out of her 314 titles, are several possible entrances into her work.

    The Witch World series: Like a lot of Norton’s works, this hovers somewhere between science fiction and fantasy, but ends up sliding pretty firmly into fantasy. There are predecessors, long gone, who have left behind objects of great peril and power, and rival factions with differing degrees of what is either magic or technology that amplifies psychic powers. Technically, the series should start with Witch World, where Simon Tregarth of Earth finds himself transported to that world, but my own suggestion would be to back into the series the way I did, starting with Year of the Unicorn and its sequel, The Jargoon Pard, (the overall series is made up of a number of sub-ones) which will give you the flavor of the world before explanations begin.

    The Solar Queen series: The Solar Queen is the name of a Free Trader spaceship. these are early Norton, many originally written as Andrew North. Look to the earliest ones — Sargasso of Space, Plague Ship, Voodoo Planet, and Postmarked the Stars — later cowritten ones lack some of the energy of the early books.

    The Beast Master series: Norton often uses animals in her writing, sometimes as protagonists, but also as helpmates, as with the genetically altered animals that companion and assist telepathic ex-soldier Hosteen Storm. Like the Solar Queen series, the earlier ones written by Norton solo are stronger.

In an earlier post, I mentioned Robert A. Heinlein as someone to read not just because so many of his works are classics in the field but because he’s problematic at times. Norton, on the other hand, never is (at least to my memory). Many of her protagonists are strong females, while others are representative of minorities not found elsewhere in YA F&SF of the time, such as The Sioux Spaceman.

So…I salute you, Alice Mary Norton, and deeply regret never meeting you. You’re one of the people that shaped my writing, and you did that to a significant degree. Here’s to your stories, and all the readers who will find them in the centuries (or so I hope) to come.

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You Should Read This: The Past Through Tomorrow by Robert A. Heinlein

Cover of Robert A. Heinlein's The Past Through TomorrowA blog post I read recently used attitude towards Robert A. Heinlein as a measurement of a person’s…I’m not quite sure what, but it seemed to be connected to their worthiness to be part of the F&SF community.

I don’t care so much about that. There are problematic aspects to Heinlein’s writing, yes, and one fascinating thing about that is that they span the range of the political spectrum. But regardless of attitude, if you want to be well-read in science fiction (by which I mean you have read much of the significant material in the field and understand at a rudimentary level where it fits in relationship to other significant works), you need to have at least a nodding acquaintance with Heinlein. And if you are looking for one work that shows his range and also includes some stories that show how marvelous a wordsmith he can be, I recommend The Past Through Tomorrow: Future History Stories.

Why do you need to have read Heinlein?

  • Because a significant group of readers came to science fiction through Heinlein’s YA novels. Know the novels and you’ll have a better understanding of some of their sweet spots as well as many of the basics for writing a YA novel. Heinlein knew how to do it.
  • Because he wrote so many landmarks in the field. Decades later, they’re still using the word “grok” (from Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land) at Microsoft. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Starship Troopers are other books that are worth grabbing if you only read a few of his books.
  • Because he influenced so many other writers and also interacted with and mentored many of them. Read his letters to get a sense of those interactions.
  • Because he is problematic. Farnham’s Freehold is infamous for how badly it’s aged and how racist it appears today, and in some ways it showcases how a writer can fail (in my opinion) to rise above the limitations of their own world view. If you want to avoid similar traps, you need to understand where Heinlein fell into them. Heinlein has some books that I recently saw described as “squicky” and I will agree that featuring an incestuous relationship with underaged twin girls, for example, in a book does strike me as squicky — (although I didn’t note it at all when reading the book as a teen). Lolita‘s squicky too. But it’s still literature. I don’t think anyone should be shamed or scolded* for having read Heinlein or even liking his work. I like a lot of his books.

To go back to the idea of using this as a measurement of who belongs in fandom and who doesn’t: this assumption is asinine. It’s a straw man argument. If you read and enjoy science fiction, you are a part of science fiction fandom regardless of what is and isn’t your favorite. And to present this as a characteristic of some monolithic block in fandom (or use it as a way to place them outside “true” fandom) strikes me as a misguided strategy if one is genuinely trying to solve divides causing difficulties in communication.

But I digress, and in doing so I’m pulling you away from some writing that has always moved and impressed me. The story, “The Green Hills of Earth,” for instance, makes me weep and sticks with me to this day. “The Man Who Sold the Moon” is another classic, with a protagonist who is one of my personal favorites. Beyond that, the book provides a sense of the chronology of Heinlein’s universe and the events that shaped it, functioning as a sampler of of his stories.

And it holds “The Menace From Earth,” a story that so irritated me that decades later it spurred my reply, Long Enough and Just So Long.

So yeah. You should read a little Heinlein. And you should read other stuff too, newer stuff. Stuff that grew out of his works, like Bill the Galactic Hero, which was Harry Harrison’s reply to Starship Troopers, or Soldier, Ask Not, which was Gordon Dickson’s answer in turn.

*I note that this has never happened to me, but several people have recounted incidents. Your mileage may vary.

Posted in 2014, Books, reading, reviews, you should read this | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Teaser: Circus in the Bloodwarm Rain

Illustration to accompany blog post by speculative fiction writer Cat Rambo. www.kittywumpus.netThis is the YA SF novella (?) I’m working on.

Synopsis: Stella’s life is on the unusual side, but whose isn’t nowadays, half a century after the Fall that led to this ruined landscape with its mesh of mythology and machinery? Still, being brought up as part of a troupe of circus performers wandering along the coast of the Inner Sea, going from small village to small village, sets her apart from many.

Even more alienating is the fact that she doesn’t know who her parents were. The others in the troupe deny any knowledge of them, and so Stella feels herself a stranger among them, particularly as adulthood draws near and she must figure out what her role with the circus will be.

When one of the circus elders reveal that Stella’s mother was, in fact, a circus performer, Stella must navigate feelings of betrayal, new responsibilities, and her mother’s legacy of magic-enhancing technology. When she fails to control her temper and half the circus burns down as a result, she’s ejected from the only family she’s ever known.

Accompanied by a village girl named Abacus (Abbie), the two strike inland, hoping to find the city that Stella’s father was rumored to come from. Their ingenuity and bravery are put to the test as they battle minotaurs, mutants, and other perils created by the crumbling technology of a long-gone scientific age.

When they finally come to the city, they find it deserted, much to their despair. But that night they are seized and taken to find Stella’s father, who lives far above on the space station. Abbie is slated to be the human sacrifice who will “pay” for Stella’s admission to the station, but when they find out they manage to (with great peril and suspense) flee to an abandoned lunar colony, where they come face to face with the greatest challenge of all: the aliens who created the Fall.

From the first chapter:

I’m practicing juggling again, because it’s raining outside, big fat bloodwarm drops drumming on the tent’s waxed canvas. In an hour, as the day’s light vanishes, the circus’s light will begin to flicker and shine, powered by the ancient turbine/treadmill pulled by three ponies and a servobot. Townsfolk will wander through the maze of entrance gates and aisles, hesitant and eager all at once, pockets full of silver slugs and other tradeable metal.

They’ll wander through the booths, looking at the freakshows and trying their luck at the games, winding their way towards the bigtop, ready to make their way up the creaking bleachers and sit to watch marvels unfold.

This time we’re within earshot of the ocean, a jungle-hugged glade near two different villages.

I drop a beanbag and curse. I’ve worked my way up to four at a time, but keeping five aloft continues to elude me.

Roto the Tiger Boy sticks his head in the flap in time to catch the last words. His whiskers twitch. He holds out a tin silently and I take it, gesture at him to sit on the floor. He does, closing his eyes as I start to apply the orange greasepaint that colors his dun fur, turning him from an ordinary cat-man to something more exotic.

What can I apply to myself, what will turn me into the exotic thing the circus just hasn’t realized it needs yet?

#sfwapro

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Women Destroying Fantasy: What I’ll Be Looking For

Picture of western cowgirls

I've got a weak spot for weird Western stories as well, but the fact that I've read a lot of them means that the bar is set pretty high for that in my head.

I was just at a Kristine Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith workshop where people were using the idea of reader “cookies” and “anti-cookies”, things that delight or turn-off a specific editor, increasing or decreasing the appeal of a story when they’re considering it.

So I’ll be open to submissions from March 15 through March 31 for the Women Destroying Fantasy issue. Here are some of my wants and a couple of things that will turn me off.

  • I want fantasy that showcases the amazing emotional range of the genre and the spectrum of forms it can take.
  • I’ll want at least one tearjerker and one humorous piece.
  • I’ll want something that draws on fairytale or myth, but which does so in an amazing, interesting, and fresh way, and I’m hoping to find something that feels urban fantasy-ish as well, also in a fresh and interesting way.
  • Fantasy that often hits well with me: superheroes, non-cutesy talking animals, linguistic-related, the weird.
  • I like language: make yours wonderful, but never at the cost of the story.
  • Your character should make me care about their fate (and for this issue, probably a female protagonist is, quite frankly, probably going to be a better fit).
  • I’ll want at least one piece with an utterly amazing landscape, that immerses me in a fantasy world that delights my heart.
  • Diversity does matter to me. It doesn’t trump quality, but when you’re going to be up against the very best, score your points where you can.

I don’t want retellings of D&D adventures. Or pirates. I really don’t like pirates (got exposed to an awful lot of fantasy pirate stories while at Fantasy Magazine) and I’m not particularly fond of zombies. Typos are another big turn-off: proofread your work.

This is not a time to go for the low-hanging fruit or play it safe. I have four, count ‘em, four slots. Send me something — but make it the very best you have, something that is unique to your voice, something that you and only you could write.

Posted in 2014, editing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Five More Ways to Increase Your Blog Readership

picture of a tortoisehell cat

When in doubt, go with a picture of your cat. But do include a picture of SOME kind, no matter what.

I blogged a couple of days ago with five ways to increase your blog readership. Here’s an additional five that I hope are helpful for those who like to look at their numbers every once in a while. But remember — writing always comes first!

  1. Be a pro. Proofread and remove errors. If someone points one out to you, fix it and thank them for the feedback. Make your posts look professional, not hastily assembled or sloppy. The appearance of the post can’t help but make an impression. Take the time to preview the post and make sure all links lead to the right place.
  2. Monitor results. You won’t know what works unless you’re looking at the data, even if it’s at the topmost level of “how many comments?” (This is a bad metric because so often the answer is “none.”)
  3. Your profile matters. Fill out your profile on social networks and make sure it includes your website’s URL. This adds to its search engine ranking, making it appear higher in search engine results.

  4. Pay attention to the Zeitgeist. Pulling your blog topics from Google or Twitter trends can be a good idea — as long as you have something useful to say. Don’t hashtag for the hell of it.
  5. Content trumps cash. Producing good, interesting, useful content will outperform any amount of money thrown at advertising. I find that some social networks send me coupons to use on advertising every once in a while and I do use those — but once they’re used up, I stop the campaign.
  6. Promote other people. This gives you good content if the recommendations are wholehearted and worthwhile.

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