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Yet more pie

Sunday May 30, 2010 @ 12:48 PM (UTC)
Apricot-Mango Pie with coconut topping
Apricot-Mango Pie with Coconut Topping

There’s real content a-brewing (one small bit later today, in fact), but until then, let me show you what else I’ve been doing. Crust from the family recipe, filling & topping from Ken Haedrich’s Pie: 300 Tried-And-True Recipes for Delicious Homemade Pie. Ryan informs me that the topping is scrumptious but the filling is a bit too tart. I have yet to make my own investigations. Have to run!

Mrrfl Pie

Sunday May 09, 2010 @ 01:11 PM (UTC)

Homemade pie for…some month…is Strawberry Chiffon Pie.

Homemade Pie of the Month for the month of Mrrfl.

This is made from frozen strawberries and lemonade, with a chocolate wafer crumb crust and fresh berry garnish. It comes from Ken Haedrich’s Pie: 300 Tried-And-True Recipes for Delicious Homemade Pie, which is the pie book to end all pie books. I say that without reading any other pie books, but I’m pretty comfortable putting it out there.

In which I discuss dentifrices

Monday April 26, 2010 @ 11:54 PM (UTC)

I have brought it to my own attention that this blog has been both sparse and all-work-no-play of late. Therefore, I am going to post about something very trivial and obvious which bothers me, in celebration of the fact that this is still a blog and it is still on the internet, and all this substantive stuff and serious business needs a little leavening.

So, people of the internet: I do not want to whiten my teeth. Seriously, I don’t want to paint whitening agent on my teeth or bathe them in a whitening wash, or even commit the relatively sane step of asking my dentist what whitening process he recommends. And most of all, I do not want to whiten while I brush. This should not be difficult to accomplish. I just want toothpaste that does what it says on the box: when used in a regimen BLAH BLAH BLAH, keeps my teeth from rotting and falling out. Because I like being able to eat a steak, because cavities make eating chocolate painful, because tooth pain can cause headaches, because tooth disease can cause other more systemic health problems. Because cleaning our teeth is a pretty basic hygienic standard we’ve mostly agreed on for decades (if not more).

Which is why it’s so frustrating to find more and more of the grocery store toothpaste aisle devoted to whitening every day. I actually have to read the fine print on each box before I buy it, to make sure that I’m not being accidentally whitened. Fates forfend I should try to buy a travel-size of plain toothpaste. It’s as if I walked into the canned veggies aisle and found that 80% of canned green beans now come mixed with diet supplements, because you can’t just want green beans.

We all have our personal capitulations and complicities with the beauty standard. But we don’t have to embrace living in a world where every single part of our body has an established yardstick by which its appearance is inadequate. “Clean” is a pretty good social standard: for hair, for skin, for teeth. If we accept that the default version of a simple toiletry should include extraneous “beautifying”, we’re accepting that the standard isn’t just clean, it’s also “shiny and manageable”, “toned and tightened”, or “white and glistening”. There are enough channels telling people they aren’t good enough in America. Why does toothpaste have to be one of them?

I’m posting from Norwescon on a borrowed netbook (thanks, Camille!) on a borrowed wifi network (thanks, next hotel over!) to share splendid news. Despite my tenuous connection to the outside world, I found out this morning that another story of mine has sold to Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine! The story is called “The Termite Queen of Tallulah County”, and it’s my third sale to editor Sheila Williams at Asimov’s.

This story marks two milestones for me. First, this means I have three and a half professional sales, pushing me over the three mark and allowing me to become a full member of SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. I’ve wanted to join for such a long time, so it was quite a thrill to have my membership upgraded today (in person!) by SFWA Secretary, Mary Robinette Kowal. “Junior Cadet” (Associate Member) no longer!

The second milestone also involves Mary: she is a member of my critique group, along with Dave Goldman, Damian Kilby and Garth Upshaw. Joining this group has done wonders for my short story output, and this is the first story I’ve sold that’s passed through the group’s hands. Thank you for your input and insight, fellow scribblers!

I will of course post again when I know the issue in which the story will be printed. Every time this feels a little more real, but it doesn’t get any less wonderful.

I don’t plan to make a habit of posting every review my work receives. It could very quickly become boring for my readers, and it would raise other questions: how would I decide which reviews to post? Some sort of professional standard? Would I ignore bad reviews? Besides, reviews and reader responses tend to leave me feeling gawkish and confused, and this blog doesn’t need a regular feature where I digitally shuffle my feet and fail to make eye contact.

However, I’m making an exception: my friend Pam Rentz (watch for her first published story in Asimov’s August issue!) e-mailed me today to congratulate me on my story being mentioned in Locus Magazine. Now, in case you don’t know, Locus is (in the words of the Independent, “the news organ of choice for the American science-fiction community.” Any sort of mindful, professional creature would already have subscribed to it, and Pam thought this would be old news to me. Luckily I know mindful, professional people like Pam. (I’m also thinking of embarking on a subscription-fest, so perhaps this time tomorrow I’ll be a sober, thoughtful Locus subscriber.)

Anyway, Locus is quite important, and so is Gardner Dozois, the editor and writer who now reviews their short fiction in a column called “Gardnerspace”. This double-scoop of prestige is why I’m breaking my review radio silence in order to report that in the March 2010 issue of Locus, he said “Conditional Love” was “excellent.” “…this is a moving, compassionate story with a killer twist in its tail.”

Now you are duly informed of the facts: firstly, that I won’t be posting about my reviews here on a regular basis, and secondly, that I can be shocked out of that position on extraordinary occasions such as this. Thirdly, Gardner Dozois liked my story! Fourthly, I’m a doofus for not subscribing to Locus. I’m glad we could clear these matters up.

P.S. I do not believe in the prognosticative powers of fortune cookies. No matter how accurate they may be.

P.S.2. Maybe I should dig up a May 2008 issue and see what the reviewer they had then thought of “Burgerdroid”? Maybe someone would have told me if it was exciting — but then again, I don’t think I’d met Pam then.

On Genre, Part II: the future of genre

Sunday February 28, 2010 @ 05:15 PM (UTC)

I’ve been trying to write adequate responses to the fabulous comments I’m getting on my first post in this series, a very brief manifesto. And, as I rather feared, my responses are growing into blog posts. So here we go.

Eric A. Kugler writes in his comment:

I think the problem comes down to the human need to label and package everything and put it into its proper place. Genre is simply a way for people to keep track of stories. The literary is simply another genre to those of us who simply read books, rather than publish them.

To an extent, I agree. Genre is quite artificial, relatively recent, and obviously confining. I do believe the current “literary novel” is a genre in itself. Witness my “literary is a genre” tag here, and my literary-is-a-genre shelf on Goodreads1.

I wouldn’t suppose, however, that literary isn’t a genre in the mind of those who publish books. I very much believe it is. Because genre is about marketing. Genre is a way of classifying books so that you can sell them more readily. While I haven’t read a history of genrefication, I’d imagine it’s a consequence of the number and diversity of books that existed, say, in the mid-twentieth century, widely distributed. Some system for determining which titles were of interest to which readers was a public good. A system for telling a reader who enjoyed The Puppet Masters they might like Dune probably seemed logical, even helpful to the consumer (as well as to the publisher.)

The 1977 Star Wars movie poster
Genre, we all know, isn’t just a category on a library’s card catalog. It’s a way of marking things. Covers with rockets or exploding spaceships, in the 1950s and today, mark a book as science fiction. Look at the original poster for Star Wars: A New Hope. If you’d never seen that movie, you’d know the genre instantly, from a dozen details (including those that don’t entirely represent Princess Leia as she appears on film.)

So genre allows a product to reach its desired audience, the publishers sell books, what’s the trouble? Two sources of trouble to start with. In another comment to my first On Genre post, Philip Palmer writes “there’s a tendency to assume that labelling the genre of the piece is a black & white/either-or process. But most novels belong to SEVERAL genres.” The strict genre system serves these novels poorly, as it does books which are hard to place firmly in any genre at all. When you use marketing to shape readers’ expectations, betraying those expectations is a bad idea. So you may end up with frustrated readers who bought the cover and don’t like the book, or a great book may languish unpublished or poorly marketed because it didn’t fit neatly.

The second big problem, I’d say, is that ‘literary’ has become, as we said above, a genre. Maybe it wasn’t in the mid-20th century, but now it is. While it’s more subtle than an exploding spaceship, I can tell you without having read the two books at right that they are the same genre. I could have found a much closer match if I’d looked further. Why is “literary” being a genre a problem? Because “literature” is also a pursuit and an ideal. “Literature” is a laudatory term, and having a genre name that’s a value judgment is a disaster. Just try discussing whether U2 makes “rock music” with someone who hates U2 and thinks “rock” is a laudatory term. It also has to do with marked/unmarked status, I think, but that discussion’s too big to add into this already epic post.

“Literary” has two meanings: One, high-minded, pursuing the act of writing as an act of art, trying to increase understanding and beauty in the world. Two, realistic or occasionally surreal, written with attention to language, telling a story that could happen, using a minimum of adverbs. The confusion of the two is poisonous, and leads to moments like the one I touched on in my first genre war post, when a young English teacher told me that “science fiction isn’t literature.” He didn’t think science fiction was high-minded and artistic (except when he did) so we stood there, me listing work after work whose merits he could not deny: Brave New World, 1984, Lord of the Rings; and he insisting these were not science or speculative fiction. This is exactly what another of the commenters, Casey Samulski, noted: “…a critic will retroactively reclassify something as ‘not SF’ when it has reached a certain status, thinking it impossible for the two to inhabit the same space.” Circular logic, faulty thinking.

I said then, as a teenager (even though at the time I believed that by this age I’d have a doctorate in paleontology and only be writing science fiction on the side) that one of my life goals was to take some bricks out of that wall, the wall between the literary and the science-fictional.

There is good news about that wall. While Margaret Atwood did, as Philip Palmer notes in his comment, say some abrasive things about science fiction, she does admit to writing “speculative fiction”, which is a distinction even SFF grognards might make. Michael Chabon’s stunning The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which I lauded here, joins other works by him in receiving praise and readers from both sides of the wall. He seems to embrace both sides of his literary heritage. More and more, the surreal and the speculative is creeping into the ‘literary’ mainstream. While there are aspects of this I find troubling and appropriative (more, perhaps, on that later), it may be, as a very smart friend of mine (an academic and spec fic fan) has predicted, that the Hemingway/Carver era of literature is at an end, and only the speculative can ask the questions literature wants to ask next.

I’d like to tie that possibility back into my discussion of genre as marketing earlier. You’ll notice that the situation has changed a lot since the days of the simple genre division and the rocket on the cover. We have even more books, even more widely available. In spite of tax codes in the U.S., we have a Long Tail of books still being sold that were published decades ago, as well as new books coming out all the time. The publishing world seems largely to be adjusting to this by continuing to split. We have more subgenres now, like urban fantasy (tattooed woman with weapons on the cover), literary science fiction (trade paper back, abstract cover), et cetera. The mix of small categories and large can be confusing to consumers — while I won’t link it, I recently saw a reader complaining that there were “too many female writers in sci-fi” because when he clicked on “sci-fi/fantasy” he saw mostly urban fantasy covers.

I’d argue that it’s time to move away from genre and subgenre, even in an economic sense. They may still be useful if we make them less restrictive: as Philip Palmer points out, novels can have many genres. Sure, let’s label books, but let’s not put them in exclusive parts of the bookstore, segregated by shelf. I’ve waxed rhapsodic about folksonomy before, so I’ll keep it to a minimum here, but tags add information instead of reducing scope. Tags are freeform and encourage creative thinking. Lets use genre and subgenre as tags, not categories.

Which brings me to my final point. People are always talking about the effect of the internet on publishing, but often in terms of physical books vs. digital media. I have to care about that because I hope to have my own books published in the future, but I’m more interested in how the internet will affect how we choose and discuss books (which in turn affects marketing). I am a member of LibraryThing and Goodreads, and I am delighted by the rich social exchange over books that I see on those sites. I can see what my friends are reading, what they think of it, read reviews they’ve written. I can get a sense of people’s tastes, how well or poorly it aligns with mine, and let that figure in to how I choose books. It’s not about genre. It’s about the individual reader and the individual book. Publishers do use the individual book in marketing — look at how many books have covers reminiscent of Twilight‘s admittedly beautiful cover design — but I hope that in the future they’ll do so even more. The information readers can add to the system – tags, reviews, personal recommendations to friends – is precious.

Marketing’s never going to go away, as long as it works. (And it does work. I wanted to buy Indigo Springs as soon as I saw that cover, though I suppressed the urge until I met and liked the author, too.) But I hope in the future, restrictive definitions of genre — and especially value judgments based on it — will take a backseat to a web of preference, similarity and serendipity.

Serendipity and possibility have always governed my reading. That’s the feeling that makes me tingle when I walk into a vast bookstore. The knowledge that half2 the books I love are in the Yellow Room and half in the Blue? That makes me feel something too, but it’s definitely not a tingle.

1 I have put books in this category which I feel guilty for shelving so: I can’t help but feel that Dickens, and even Fitzgerald, shouldn’t be drawn into a fight that is rather after their time.

2 This is figurative. I don’t know actual percentages, and I love a fair number of nonfiction books too.

Technically available at Powells.com

Saturday February 27, 2010 @ 11:24 PM (UTC)

I’m absurdly tickled to discover that you can now pre-order Is Anybody Out There? from Powells.com. This is the anthology edited by Marty Halpern and Nick Gevers I mentioned in November, in which a story I co-wrote with Leslie What shall appear. “Rare Earth” is my first story in an anthology, my first work in a permanent book of any sort. Having it available from Powell’s, even just for pre-order, feels like an arrival.

Words I wrote…in a book! When it comes out in June, you know I’ll haunt the shelves at Powell’s downtown and take photos of it. Because that is how ridiculous I can be.

Writers tend to be self-employed, and are often “their own brand”. This can mean the lines between promotion of work and promotion of self are blurry, especially as more and more people are active on social networks like Twitter, Facebook, or more niche sites like Goodreads.

My writing career is pretty young, so I may be an odd person to listen to about marketing. However, thinking about my future as a self-promoting writer has colored my experiences as a reader, consumer and user of social networks. These are the rules I’ve internalized. I say they’re “for writers” but I suppose they’re for anyone who is their own brand — anyone who finds the personal and the promotional mixing in social networks, and doesn’t want either to suffer as a result.

1. Don’t do anything that makes you uncomfortable. I hear people talking about the sites they use as if they are giant chores, or acting as if sooner or later someone will force them at gunpoint to sign up for Twitter. They won’t, and you can live your life and have your career, I’m fairly certain, without having a Twitter account. You have to decide what you’re comfortable doing, not just now but longterm. Everyone’s different. If using Facebook, or even blogging, is a chore and you think it’s eating away your creative time, don’t do it.

2. Remember these are social networks. Even if your primary reason for being on a network is business, you’re surrounded by people who are doing it for fun (okay, not with LinkedIn.) Their expectations for the network are social, and if you only use it for promotion, they’ll feel used and turned off. If you occasionally mention your books and stories, but also post silly anecdotes and links, you’ll come off a lot better than someone who is only posting promotional info. Another way of being social: engage in genuine conversation with others and comment on their links and doings. If doing the social stuff seems like too much of a chore, consider #1. Those networks may not be a good fit for you.

3. Offer information, don’t demand attention. There’s a natural order of obtrusiveness in communication, something like:

  • Dropping by
  • Phone call
  • Text message
  • Instant message
  • Email
  • RSS feed
  • Posting on the web and hoping they read it.

Twitter and Facebook status updates are somewhere between RSS feed and posting on the web. They’re mostly passive. It’s up to the other person whether they want to check the site, and whether they pay attention to that particular item, gloss it over, filter that sort of content, whatever. That’s pretty unobtrusive. Many people have, say, Twitter direct messages or Facebook messages set to notify them by email, which demands more of their attention. So use messages, or event invitations, more sparingly than you do wall/status posts or tweets. (This is especially true of Facebook messages to multiple recipients, as even if a user deletes the original message, he or she gets all the replies. Facebook’s suggestion for dealing with this is to educate your friends about using ‘reply’ rather than ‘reply-all’. Oh, that sounds fun.) I don’t mean you should never send out email or email-level communiques: just that you should remember you’re being more demanding of your audience, and reserve their use for more important occasions.

4. Avoid multi-posting. There are limits to this. If I subscribe to your blog’s RSS feed, follow you on Twitter, and am friends with you on Facebook, I expect a little overlap. But you should also be aware that that overlap exists. Consider it before implementing reposting software, for example, and also consider whether the place you’re reposting content has robust filtering (Facebook has decent filtering; Twitter doesn’t unless you use some of the most cumbersome third-party software.) Consider this most strongly before multiple-posting something on the same network. Sure, a double-post for time-zone reasons might be reasonable. But repeating much beyond that, you run the risk of the reader seeing that bit of self-promotion three times on Twitter, another two times on Facebook, one time aggregated on your blog, another time when the blog post is piped into another site…the last thing you want is your potential readers — especially people who know you and should be rooting for you — tired of you.

5. Opt-in, not opt-out. If you want to use more aggressive tactics than I’ve discussed above, consider using an opt-in system: for instance, making a “page” for yourself on Facebook. “Profiles” have friends. “Pages” have fans. While you still don’t want to spam people continuously, if people sign up to be your fan, they explicitly want to hear about your career, and you don’t have to worry about #2. It can be awkward for someone who values you as a friend to have to opt out of your marketing efforts. You don’t want to put them in that situation. Using a different medium, like a fan page on Facebook, an author page on Goodreads, or a group e-mail list, allows your friends to opt in if they’re interested, instead of assuming your social network also wants to be your marketing network.

On Genre, Part I

Sunday February 21, 2010 @ 01:45 PM (UTC)

I’m occasionally asked why I care about the struggle of speculative fiction to gain recognition in the literary world, which I call the Genre War. For one thing, I’ve been fighting since before I knew anyone else was, since a time when my sci-fi community was just me and my parents. For another, I have allegiances on both sides. I’m an English major and hold a Master of Fine Arts. I believe in the high artistic ideals of the literary tradition, and it saddens me to see them clouded (again, and still) by parochialism. The simplest, most primal reason is that I believe that the speculative and the literary enrich each other.

Since I was a teenager, if not earlier, I’ve been insisting that science fiction can tell us things about the human condition that realism cannot, because it places humanity into impossible situations. It tests the boundaries of identity and consciousness. It creates other sentient entities, which almost inevitably reflect our humanity back to us. Fiction is many things, but the loftiest goals of literature tell us that fiction is a way of making meaning, of expanding the reader’s understanding of what it means to be human, mortal, alive. To me, that project obviously includes the tools of speculative fiction. If literature is supposed to ask the great questions, why shouldn’t one of those questions be “What if?”

→ On Genre, Part II: The future of genre

Edition Française.

I often regret, as I go through my life, the absence in English of the word “bouleversé”. Often, “bouleversée”, since I want to say it about myself, and a female subject dictates another ‘e’. In an otherwise English sentence, I feel my mouth forming itself for French. “It was a simply incredible book,” I say. “I was…” and I feel the lack of that word, the fact that saying it will, in all likelihood, confuse rather than communicate. Then I remember that there is an analogue, and I finish my sentence, belatedly, “bowled over.”

“Bowled over” is what it means, knocked over by a ball, and I have gone through this cycle of reaching, regret and replacement a hundred times. Still I feel something lacking, despite the perfectly adequate phrase “bowled over.” And I think I know now what it is.

It’s the sound. “Boule”, intense and self-contained, barreling through the vowel without deviation or dipthong, and then “versé”, “turning”, turning outward, the sound itself an opening, a release. “Verser” means to turn or flip, yes, but also to pour, and that word captures so perfectly the experience of being shaken, awakened, and changed. The projectile of the first syllable shattering your preconceptions like a glass pitcher, so you are poured out to find a new shape, shattered and made new. I love that word.

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