Tag Archives: Sarah Beth Durst

Before the Blank Page, Part the Second: The Magic of a Magical List

Still working off one magical prompt for blog material from a Twitter pal, I’ve been writing about tactics for moving your writing along in those times when you need a little help. Last month I wrote about ways that I give myself a kick in the pants when an in-process project stalls. This month I’m writing about what happens before that–when you’re trying to pull vague ideas together into a Project, something you can dive into and begin to write. I have three main strategies (I think), and here they are:

Having already tackled Item Number One, let’s talk about lists.

My stories tend to come together like puzzles, which means I need to assemble a certain number of pieces before I get any sense of what the picture is. The story might have a single spark, but that’s very rarely enough to get started with, at least for me. So I start looking for the pieces that go along with it. I was on a panel last year with Sarah Beth Durst, who answered a question about the genesis of Vessel by saying (I’m paraphrasing) that her books often start out as ‘lists of things Sarah thinks are cool.’ I was really excited to discover that I’m not the only one who does this.

Making lists is kind of how I spend my days in between deadlines. I hunt down odd books. I make notes on things that interest me. My husband emails me almost daily with things he thinks might be useful either for something specific or just down the line. I keep everything. I read nonfiction like it’s going out of style, and I make notes when something interests me, even if I’m not sure why. Then every few months I sort the notes I’ve made into files or special notebooks based on what I think I might use them for. Sometimes, when I feel like I’m needing a new project, I’ll hunt through the file that holds the unsorted, undifferentiated notes. Inevitably, a few of them begin to coalesce into Something.

Now, what constitutes a useful list for you is going to be different from what constitutes a useful list for me, or that would be my guess, at least. I don’t think any two writers approach a potential story the same way. I also am not sure any writer approaches any two of his/her own books the same way. You might approach your list from a purely practical point of view: protagonist, antagonist, inciting incident, stuff like that, so you know what critical elements you’re still missing. I’m not a planner, so mine tend to be far less practical lists of stuff I want to include in the story. They tend to look something like this:

  • Fearsome critters
  • Old-fashioned candy
  • Pine barrens
  • Lost works
  • Radio dramas
  • A Popcorn Sutton-type character
  • Moonshine that isn’t moonshine

The downside of my whimsical lists is that there’s nothing to tell me what pieces I’m missing–but then, sometimes even though I need the list to get the story going, I need the story to tell me what it needs to be finished, and of course that comes later. (And yes, this is actually a working list for something I’m turning over in the back of my head.)

I think lists like these are useful because humans are wired to recognize patterns, to see how things fit (or could fit) together. Of course, sometimes it turns out a piece doesn’t fit, which probably only means it belongs more properly to a different puzzle. Save it! If you don’t already have one, may I suggest a folder or notebook specifically for cool ideas you haven’t found the right place for yet? Let no cool idea go to waste! And don’t judge yourself for what you put on your list. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you. It doesn’t even have to make sense to you at first. It just has to put ideas–even if they appear to be unrelated–together for you to think about.

The bottom line is this: a list is a way of getting ideas out of your head without the pressure of figuring out story that comes with setting out to write an outline or synopsis. Outlines and synopses are tremendously useful tools, but they do require you to have, you know, the story figured out. (One could look at it the other way–that writing one or the other forces you to figure the story out–which is obviously true. But a) I’m on record that I personally break out in hives at the idea of writing outlines and/or synopses and b) anyway I’m talking about the stage in building a story before you’ve got enough to dive into writing outlines and/or synopses.)

The other useful thing about a list when you’re trying to work through what you haven’t figured out is that it helps you to see how much you do have figured out. And knowing that might give you a place to dive in and start writing. And once you’re there…well, you’re there! Get writing!

Next up: a trip to Nagspeake to discuss how building a set can bring a story idea into focus.

Tonight at 6pm, I Get to Read with the Big Kids

And by “the big kids,” I mean some very fancy authors I’m kind of in awe of. Come hang out, if you can!

Clearly this is the place to be this evening. Come out and join us, won’t you?


Nebula Season, and the Return of the Informed Voter Project

It’s Nebula Time, and I have a vote to be informed about! That’s right, from now until February 15th, SFWA members get to cast their votes in support of their favorite SciFi and Fantasy works of 2010. Are you an SFWA member? Then get off your duff and start thinking about your ballot.

For those who don’t know, there are two rounds to the process. This first round, everybody nominates their favorites, and the six in each category (Short Story, Novella, Novelette, Novel, Screenplay, and Young Adult Novel) with the highest number of votes make it to the final ballot. Votes can be entered and even changed right up until the February 15th deadline. Then the second phase begins, where SFWA members read the finalists and cast a second round of votes.

Admittedly, I started this project way too late last time around, when my goal was simply to read all the finalists and blog about what I read (I did manage to get the reading done, but I didn’t manage to get my comments up on every category before the voting deadline). This year I am actually getting to cast a vote to help determine those finalists, and while I certainly can’t possibly read the entire field, I am going to use it as an excuse to get serious about catching up on my TBR pile, and maybe to occasionally remind anybody who cares that my book came out this year and is eligible for the Norton Award for YA lit. I would bat my eyelashes at you, but I have no makeup on and am just finishing my first cup of coffee and it wouldn’t have the effect I was looking for. I will, therefore, settle for tossing out the reminder and also pointing out that SFWA members can read the text free, along with the work of lots of other hopefuls, via the SFWA message boards. There. Self-indulgent message completed.

Books I’m really excited about reading? A Tale Dark and Grimm, by Adam Gidwitz. Sarah Beth Durst’s Enchanted Ivy. Paolo Bacigalupi’s National Book-nominated Shipbreaker, of course–although I suspect he won’t need my vote to make it to the finals, much like Megan Whelan Turner’s Conspiracy of Kings, which it’s about time I read, too. Cherie Priest’s Dreadnought. The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu, which I have to double-check the rules about (it hit the US market in 2010, which I think makes it eligible). China Mieville’s Kraken. The Dark Deeps by Arthur Slade. Ian McDonald’s Ares Express. That’s just off the top of my head. How many is that?

Books I’ve read this year that I loved? Jean-Christophe Valtat’s Aurorarama. Mistwood by Leah Cypess and Shade by Jeri Smith-Ready. Mockingjay, the final installment of the Hunger Games trilogy, which I also probably won’t vote for because, again, it’s not going to need my vote to place (which may be a crap way of doing things, but hey, it’s my vote, so deal with it). Monsters of Men, the final installment of Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy, which anybody who liked The Hunger Games should start reading immediately if not sooner. Bruiser, by Neal Shusterman. Matt Kirby’s The Clockwork Three. I’m resisting the urge to get up and check my bookshelves. I read so much good stuff this year.

And then there’s the short fiction. I am so bad at actually reading short fiction. I love it when I make the effort, but I will be the first one to admit I’m bad at making the effort. So it’s time to start making the effort. I would love to hear your suggestions about short stories, novellas, and novelettes to start my reading off with.

So welcome to Nebula Season, and the Informed Voter Project! I’ll be posting comments on my reading in the coming months, and would welcome your comments and suggestions. Happy holidays, and happy reading!

This Wednesday at Pandemonium; BEA; and Some Very Important Questions

Updates! I gots ’em!

This Wednesday, I’ll be signing at Pandemonium Books in Cambridge, Mass with Leah Cypess, author of Mistwood.

I just finished Mistwood yesterday, by the way, and it’s absolutely wonderful. I’ll do a Subway Literature post on it after the signing, but in the meantime, let me just say I read it in what would’ve been one sitting if I hadn’t had to work this weekend. It follows Isabel, herself a creature of legend in the world of the book: she is the Shifter, a preternaturally powerful bodyguard/assassin/adviser to the King of Samorna. The Shifter sometimes leaves the court, but always returns when her King requires her protection. Isabel is called from the Mistwood, her home and place of strength, by Rokan, a king with reason to fear for his throne. There’s fast-moving intrigue and several really excellent twists, and Isabel is a stellar character. I’m going to stop myself from saying more until after the signing, but I definitely recommend it. So come by if you can, this Wednesday, 6/2, at 7pm.

Pandemonium Books & Games
4 Pleasant Street
Cambridge, MA 02139

Last week, Book Expo America came to NYC.

I wasn’t able to attend the first day (bummer and a half, because there were some panels I would have loved to have had the chance to attend), but on Tuesday night I stopped by the Steam Salon at Madame X in Soho to hear readings from Felix Gilman, George Mann, Catherynne M. Valente (recent winner of the Andre Norton award for The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, which I loved desperately), and Cherie Priest. No, I did not wear the very cool veil I made in order to turn my dress into an appropriate costume–I took it with me but then I kind of wussed out (I’m not very good at costumes)–but I did get to meet Cherie, who was completely awesome, and who didn’t seem to think it was weird that after a couple scotches I felt it was really important to give her a giant thank-you hug (or maybe two) for being so cool about the title fiasco.

On Wednesday I made it to BEA for a video interview with a very nice woman from Amazon and the “Speed Dating” event with children’s librarians and booksellers, which was a bit of a blur but a lot of fun. Wednesday night Nathan and I stopped by Books of Wonder, where several tween and teen authors were reading. I will admit we went mainly to see Cory Doctorow. We’re both huge fans, but I particularly wanted to meet Cory to say thank you for his beautiful review of The Boneshaker on BoingBoing.net. We also picked up his new YA, For The Win, which I read in two days (although this required some ignoring of Nathan, which he has still not forgiven me for). Then on Thursday I had a chance to really wander around the main floor after lunch with Jeri Smith-Ready (whose awesome new paranormal YA Shade launched at the beginning of May) and Sarah Beth Durst (a finalist for the Andre Norton award for her gorgeous fairytale retelling, Ice). Jeri and Sarah had attended the entire conference, and considering I felt pretty brain-dead after my one event, I have no idea how they were capable of holding conversations by that point.

BEA is seriously overwhelming, and I don’t get the impression this is just my perception as a first-time attendee. Next year I will have a bit more of a plan in place. For one thing, that trade floor is absolutely made for a scavenger hunt. Filing that thought away.

Oh, another cool thing happened, during but unrelated to BEA. I got a message from a former co-worker that she’d spotted this in AM New York, a free daily newspaper, on Wednesday:

See it? There on the right hand side? Here it is, a little closer:

And now, as promised, Some Very Important Questions, in honor of the Pandemonium Event, from my oldest little brother, Buddy Chell.

Buddy Chell: If you were leveling a Blood Elf Mage for PvE play, would you spec him/her as a Frost Mage, Fire Mage, or Arcane Fire Mage?

Kate Milford: Good question, Buddy! While being a Frost Mage sounds wicked cool, I think I would feel obligated to spec him/her as an Arcane Fire Mage because the town in my book is called Arcane. On the other hand, being a Frost Mage would probably give me greater personal satisfaction, because Nathan hates the cold and I think I would feel very powerful if I could cast some awesome Frost Mage badassery at him to annoy him whenever I wanted.

(Nathan Milford, from across the room: Good luck. I would cast Ice Barrier at level eight and absorb only 3% of the damage, assuming Kate could really roll against my armor class and hit THAC0. She’d need a d30. *laughs maniacally*)

BC: What level Jewelcrafter are you? Can you transmute epic gems?

KM: I am a level two Jewelcrafter, master of crafting from antique shrimp forks and camera parts. No, I can’t transmute epic gems, but I can beat up any of those lame Jewelcrafters who make stuff out of yarn and elbow macaroni. Take that, kindergarteners.

BC: How many heroic dailies do you run?

KM: Okay, what the hell does that even mean?

(NM: I always live by my old dungeonmaster’s motto: We are armed to the teeth for your protection.

KM: How is that relevant?

NM: It’s relevant because it’s awesome.)

BC: Do you prefer to tank or be dps as a feral druid?

KM: Tank is a verb? Other than in the sense of, man, I tanked my history final? I prefer not to tank history finals. I prefer not to be involved in history finals. What’s my other option? Feral druid? I pick that one.

BC: How often do you hang out in Goldshire pwning n00bs?

KM: As often as possible. Nothing else gives me satisfaction like pwning n00bs, especially in Goldshire. It’s my favorite place to pwn them.

(NM: Psh. I pwn n0obs in Ravenloft. In the mists of Ravenloft. In the mists.)

BC: Whats your guild’s name?

KM: The Yankee Clock Peddlers. Because trust me, nothing is more intimidating or sinister than a Yankee Clock Peddler. Seriously. Look it up, n00b.

And there you have it! I will be available to answer further questions this Wednesday. In the meantime, I leave you with this, which I couldn’t help but be reminded of. Happy Memorial Day!

The Informed Voter Project Returns: The Andre Norton Award Finalists

When last I posted in this series it was a little over a month ago, the day before the voting deadline for the Nebula, Bradbury and Andre Norton awards.  At the time I still had the two full-length novel categories left to review–and, er, two books left to read. It was a close thing. All I have to say is, thank goodness for my two hours of daily subway time and my shocking ability to function on zero sleep. You all voted, right? Of course you did. So did I. And in just over a week, the winners will be announced at the Nebula Awards banquet in Cape Canaveral, Florida. What better reason to leap back into one of my favorite bloggy projects? So without further ado, may I present the finalists for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy. My thesis for the Norton finalists is a return to the idea that it’s all about identity–but more specifically, these are books about the quest to discover where one belongs, and The Hotel Under the Sand is the perfect place to start.

Hotel Under the Sand, Kage Baker (Tachyon, Jul09)

The Hotel Under the Sand begins with these words: Cleverness and bravery are absolutely necessary for good adventures. With this opening, we are promised something classic, and that’s exactly what Ms. Baker delivers. A storm at sea deposits Emma, violently separated from everyone and everything she knows and loves, on the wastes of the Dunes. But it turns out the castaway isn’t as much alone as she thinks: when night falls, she is visited by Winston, the ghostly bell captain of the hotel of the title, the Grand Wenlocke. Built by a strange and brilliant hotelier, Masterman Marquis de Lafayette Wenlocke the Fifth, the Grand Wenlocke entertained strange guests and was able to boast that within its walls time was forgotten, thanks to the owner’s Patented New Advanced Temporal Delay Engine. Until, that is, it was buried under the sands by the Storm of the Equinox. When another storm on the Dunes uncovers the hotel, Emma, Winston, and the Grand Wenlocke begin their adventures together, along with a pirate called Captain Doubloon; the hotel’s cook, Mrs. Beet; her dog, Shorty; and Masterman, descendant of the hotelier and last of the Wenlocke line. Emmadiscovers a home, a family, and a living, which she defends from pirates, storms, and predatory lawyers. We see her use her cleverness and bravery, but we also see her work hard. We see her lament the family she lost to the waves, and we see her build and protect and come to love the new family the strange hotel has collected to itself. Plus, there are fantastic machines, dread pirates, and the oddest collection of guests any hotel has ever played host to.

Ice, Sarah Beth Durst (Simon and Schuster, Oct09)

Ice takes East of the Sun and West of the Moon as its starting point, but it’s no simple retelling. Cassie Dasent ‘s grandmother (much to the chagrin of Cassie’s scientist father) always explained the fact of her missing mother’s absence by telling her that her mom, the daughter of the North Wind made a deal long ago with the Polar Bear King and is now being held at the end of the earth. When she turns eighteen, Cassie, who lives at an Arctic research station with her father and never credited her grandmother’s tale as anything more than an attempt to comfort her,  suddenly finds herself face to face with the Polar Bear King himself, who promises to bring Cassie’s mother back from the end of the earth…if Cassie will marry him. It’s a great, great adventure, and while plenty of books update classic fairy tales by resetting them in the present, Ice sets up a powerful contrast between the meticulously detailed scientific world of the research station and the magical realm that Cassie must find and journey through when things go wrong. Also, although while she is with Bear and protected by his power Cassie remains unaffected by the freezing polar setting, it isn’t long before she’s forced to cross the Arctic wilderness on her own, and must draw on all the real-world survival skills she has been taught by her father. But this isn’t just an adventure in which a young woman learns about herself and the depth of love while journeying from the familiar world into fantastic realms to rescue her beloved. Or rather, that’s exactly what it is, but it isn’t only her beloved for whom she is fighting. The stakes are incredibly high. And of course, Cassie finds her place, her family, and her way in the world.

Ash, Malinda Lo (Little, Brown and Company, Sep09)

Like Ice, Ash is a re-imagining of a classic fairy tale, but that’s where the similarity ends. Forced to work as a servant in her stepmother’s household after her father’s death, Ash’s only solace is in moments spent with Sidhean, a dangerous and seductive faerie with whom the girl desperately wants to escape. Ash’s mother had some connection to the faerie realm, and it looks like being kidnapped by Sidhean is the only way out of her new life, so she seeks him out over and over, each time only to be told that it isn’t time for him to take her away. Then she meets Kaisa, the king’s huntress, and begins to think there might be a potential reason to stay in the human world. Malinda Lo does a wonderful job conveying the agonized desperation and confusion of this girl even before she’s faced with choosing between the seductive faerie (and the world she’s convinced herself she’s meant to be part of), and the huntress, who is not only human, but a woman. One of the really nice details is that it is Sidhean who plays the role of the fairy godparent enabling Ash to attend royal gatherings, which adds a layer of complexity to their relationship. Also, while Ash is torn between her attractions to Sidhean and Kaisa, this is not presented as an epic issue of sexuality, but rather the necessity of choosing between two very different people the young woman is drawn to. It’s a story about risk and sacrifice and incredibly difficult choices, and, in the end, about finding one’s place and one’s true home.

Eyes Like Stars, Lisa Mantchev (Feiwel and Friends, Jul09)

Beatrice Shakespeare Smith has lived in the Theatre Illuminata ever since she was very small–although the details of her arrival there from the outside world are fuzzy at best, and she knows nothing about her mother and father. Surrounded by players bound to the Theatre by the power of a mysterious Book containing all the plays of all the ages, Bertie grows up enjoying something of a privileged existence among them until she told it’s time for her to leave at last. Unwilling to leave the only home she knows, she bets everything on an effort to make a contribution to the Theatre and earn the right to stay, and announces her intention to become a Director. And then things start getting complicated: what begins as an act of desperation meant to keep herself from being turned out into the Outside World becomes much, much more as the very existence Theatre Illuminata itself is threatened from within. It’s been a while since I spent time working in the theatre, but this book brought back memories. It evokes the world backstage, below stage, in the wings, in the flies, in the Green Room, in the Prop Room. It’s peopled with characters so familiar it seems it would be nearly impossible to invoke them in any new or surprising ways, and yet they do surprise, over and over. Bertie herself is an absolute treat, part uncontrollable teen, part lonely child, part artist in search of her magnum opus as she transforms herself to save both the Theatre and her place in it, and along the way, begins to work out the truth of her past. (The second tale of the Theatre Illuminata, Perchance to Dream, comes out later this month.)

Zoe’s Tale, John Scalzi (Tor Aug08)

This book is the fourth installment in Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, taking place during the same events as the third book, The Last Colony. In this vision of the future, where the universe is constantly at war because there are so few planets capable of sustaining life, a group of human colonists are sent to a previously unknown but habitable planet called (ha ha) Roanoke. Zoe is the sixteen-year-old adopted daughter of the leaders selected for the new colony (the protagonists of the first three books), and this is the story of Roanoke told from her point of view as she comes to discover that the survival or destruction of the colony and all who have made it their home just might wind up depending on her. Zoe’s is one of the best teen voices I’ve ever read. She deals with the standard teen issues (picking up and moving, making new friends, first boyfriend, fights with the boyfriend, that kind of thing) and several non-standard ones (issues with her identity as the blood daughter of a man considered both a traitor to humanity and a savior to an alien race called the Obin; frustrations related to being an all-but-religious icon among the Obin; vexations caused by the constant presence of Hickory and Dickory, two very devoted Obin warriors who have lived with Zoe as protectors ever since she was small). The manner in which this book addresses the questions of identity, purpose, and place in the world embraces all of the usual aspects and several very uncommon ones. To give just one example, there’s a wonderful climactic scene in which Zoe is forced to finally come to terms with her iconic status among the Obin so that she can ask of them a tremendous sacrifice and, well, that scene took my breath away.

When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb Books, 2009)

New York, 1979. Life starts to change for Miranda when her best friend Sal gets punched seemingly at random by a strange boy as the two walk home from school, then withdraws without explanation from their friendship. It’s a tough time to be without friends; a strange man’s been seen streaking near the school, there’s a crazy homeless man who spends his time lying under a mailbox near Miranda’s house, the boy who hit Sal turns out to be even stranger than the unprovoked punch suggested, and Miranda’s mother is preparing for a possible appearance on The $20,000 Pyramid. Oddest of all, and most worrisome, someone is leaving notes for Miranda inside her house–someone who isn’t her mother or her mother’s boyfriend, someone who seems to somehow know things that haven’t yet happened. This is hard, the first note begins. Harder than I expected, even with your help. But I have been practicing, and my preparations go well. I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own. I ask two favors. First, you must write me a letter. Second, please remember to mention the location of your house key. The trip is a difficult one. I will not be myself when I reach you. The events  the letter writer claims to be coming to alter creep inexorably closer, until at last the pieces fall into place in a shocking act of love and sacrifice. This January, When You Reach Me was awarded the Newbery Medal, the same award Miranda’s favorite book,  A Wrinkle in Time, won in 1963.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente (Catherynne M. Valente, Jun09)

Just after her eleventh birthday, while her father is away at war and her mother is at work in a factory, September is washing teacups when the Green Wind takes pity on her and whisks her away to Fairyland on the back of the Leopard of Little Breezes.  September’s adventures begin immediately: she encounters the Wyverary (part Wyvern, part Library) named A-through-L, the Marid Saturday, and the Marquess who, after succeeding the much beloved Queen Mallow as the ruler of Fairyland, introduced the realm to the wonders of bureocracy, red tape, and rules upon rules upon rules. There’s also a soap golem called Lye, an animate red paper lantern, and all manner of strange wonders, from a city sewn from fabric to a great, elaborate gearwork barrier that separates our world from Fairyland. September discovers that she has been set upon more than one quest, and determines to be as ill-tempered and irascible as she must in order to complete those quests and save Fairyland and the new friends she has made. This is a classically-structured fairy tale quest that pays sly homage to all manner of classics that came before, and the telling is beautifully tongue-in-cheek and begs to be read aloud. It feels old-fashioned, and yet there are tons of bizarre and not-at-all old-fashioned details (the soap golem, for instance, or the much-sought-after sword that turns out to be a wrench, or the volery of wild high-wheeler bicycles that carries September and her friends away from the city of Pandemonium). But most wonderful of all is September, who while being neither ill-tempered nor irascible, is the perfect heroine for this beautiful imagining of Fairyland.

Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld (Simon, Oct09)

Alek, Prince of Austro-Hungary, is roused out of bed, ostensibly for a piloting lesson in one of the two-legged war engines known as Cyklop Stormwalkers. It doesn’t take Alek long to realize something’s up and wrestle an explanation from his teachers: in Sarajevo, his parents have just been murdered, and the race is on to protect Alek from the same fate. In London, a Scottish girl named Deryn Sharp is preparing to take the tests that will start her on the way to becoming an airman. The actual aeronautics are no problem; it’s the fact that Deryn has to pass herself off as Dylan Sharp, a boy, that’s worrisome. But when “Dylan” volunteers to demonstrate her air sense by going up in a Huxley–a fabricated military airbeast crafted from the dna of jellyfish–the creature is blown off course and Dylan is rescued by the airship Leviathan, where she quickly becomes a member of the crew. It isn’t long before Leviathan’s mission brings it, and Dylan, into contact with Alek and his entourage, where their hesitant friendship alters the early course of the brewing conflict. In his reimagined World War I, Scott Westerfeld’s Axis powers are known as Clanker nations on account of their reliance upon elaborate mechanical war engines. The Allies are Darwinists, and through the use of natural philosophy they craft war beasts like the hybrid wolf-tigers called tigeresques, the Huxley ascender, and the Leviathan, a thing more like flying ecosystem than an airbeast. Both teens struggle with issues of who they are and who they can afford to trust, and although they could not be more different, they are equally wonderful characters and I can’t wait to see where the next phase of their story takes them. The book is decorated with gorgeous illustrations, which are just icing on the cake. (Behemoth, the second installment, comes out in October.)

And with that, friends, it’s nearly 1:30 in the morning, and I have to work tomorrow, so here I leave you for now. I’ll be back next week with the final installment of the Informed Voter Project, which will cover the Nebula Award nominees in the novel category:

  • The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade Books, Sep09)
  • The Love We Share Without Knowing, Christopher Barzak (Bantam, Nov08)
  • Flesh and Fire, Laura Anne Gilman (Pocket, Oct09)
  • The City & The City, China Miéville (Del Rey, May09)
  • Boneshaker, Cherie Priest (Tor, Sep09)
  • Finch, Jeff VanderMeer (Underland Press, Oct09)

The Informed Voter Project, Part the Third: The Nebula Award Novella Finalists

Well, here we are in the third installment of the Informed Voter Project. Today I’ll be looking at the Novella finalists!

In the first post on short stories I wrote that for me, each one was a tale about identity. The novelettes, I felt, sustained my little thesis. The novellas didn’t play along quite as nicely, though. This week, the Identity Thesis suffers a bit of a setback—but who cares, when the reading’s so good?

The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, Kage Baker

The women in question constitute an elite group of information gatherers for the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society—they are whores only incidentally. When four European power brokers are invited to the house of Lord Basmond, a noble offering a levitating technology at auction, Lady Beatrice and three of her cohorts are dispatched as the entertainment for the house party. Then Lord Basmond is murdered the night before the bidding begins, and the girls suddenly have not just a world-altering technology to secure for the Society, but a murder to solve.

If there’s an identity piece here, it’s Lady Beatrice’s discovery that, once ruined and abandoned by her family, she can still be of use; this time, in service to her country—but that’s a bit of a stretch. This story is an adventure with very, very cool detailing: the chain of events that brings Lady Beatrice to Nell Gwynne’s, for instance, and Mr. Felmouth, the Society’s “Q,” who invents marvelous gadgets. And there’s a pretty seriously cool twist at the end—this story turns out to be not exactly the story you think it is. I love when that happens.

“Arkfall,” Carolyn Ives Gilman

On the water-covered planet of Ben, the great work of creating a livable environment relies on people like Osaji, crewmembers on spherical arks that make rounds of the underwater world. It’s an ongoing project, the work of generations, and it depends on the selflessness of the Bennite people and their willingness to sacrifice their personal comfort. It’s a society stifled by politeness and vaguely passive-aggressive manipulation. This is how Osaji wound up traveling with her grandmother, Mota—she’s never been able to say no. When her new ark is cut loose in an underground eruption, Osaji and Mota wind up alone in the vessel with a loudmouthed outworlder named Jack.

Now we’re back in—not to be cute—more comfortable waters as far as the Identity Thesis is concerned. Osaji’s life is defined by her willingness and ability to sacrifice her personal wishes to someone or something else. The Bennites’ language alone is worth the price of admission. When Osaji goes to inquire about leaving Ben, the Immigration agent shuts her down without a single impolite question. Osaji’s own brother-in-law can’t address her directly, because it’s impolite. While inquiring about joining a new ark, Osaji can’t even claim she’s good at her particular specialty because it would sound like boasting. And when she asks Mota if she’d prefer to go on another round, Mota will not—cannot—make a choice. In order to transform the world, the Bennites have transformed themselves, trading away all their individuality for the sake of the Great Work.

“Act One,” Nancy Kress

In Hollywood of the near future, Jane Snow is doing research for her next film. Barry, her agent, accompanies her to an interview with a Group that specializes in gene modification; specifically, they engineer children with Arlen’s Syndrome. Arlen’s children are sensitive, able to read verbal and nonverbal cues so well they almost seem to read minds. What ensues, of course, is a wonderful meditation on morality and what it means to be normal in a world that’s capable of significant genetic modification.

There are a lot of great things about this story. Barry, a dwarf, was unable to imagine having an “average” child, so he convinced his wife to agree to modify the fetus to ensure that it would be born a dwarf, too—by the time the story opens, his family has been torn apart and his son, Ethan, is a complete stranger to him. The Group, it turns out, isn’t just turning out Arlen’s kids; it’s also turning out a very easily transmitted compound that changes behavior. And the entire story takes place under the scrutiny of the media as the script for Jane’s film is being finished, a film that will make a major statement about Arlen’s kids by bringing them to the screen for the first time.  And the ending–oh, it’s just phenomenal.

Shambling Towards Hiroshima, James Morrow

In the Hollywood of the past, an actor famous for portraying movie monsters is drafted by the U.S. military to play the role of a lifetime. The U.S. is still rushing to get the Bomb, but they’ve beaten Hitler and the Japanese in the race to get the Lizard. Certain parties in the military want to unleash firebreathing behemoths on the Japanese, but cooler heads want to stage a smaller-scale demonstration first in the hopes that if the Japanese delegation sees a model of Shirazuka being leveled by a giant lizard, they’ll convince their leaders to surrender. The problem: the dwarf behemoths are annoyingly docile. The solution: horror legend Syms J. Thorley and a Personal Reptile Rig. Operation Fortune Cookie: nothing can possibly go wrong.

So much great stuff here. The story’s narrated by Thorley, holed up in a Baltimore hotel room (after a horror conference in which he’s been awarded a Raydo lifetime achievement award) as he drinks Amontillado, writes his memoir on yellow notepads, and debates whether, when he’s finished, he’ll take a shuttle to the airport or jump out the window to his death. His tale is studded with stars real and imagined, from James Whale who has been drafted to direct Thorley in his PRR in What Rough Beast (the script written for Operation Fortune Cookie) to Sigfried K. Dagover, Thorley’s nemesis both onscreen and off. Clever repartee abounds, along with Hollywood twists and betrayals, unimaginably high stakes and ample doses of nostalgia. I loved it.

“Sublimation Angels,” Jason Sanford

On the frozen planet of Eur, a small core of humans struggles to eke out a living underground. Their mission is to survive in the unforgiving planet while trying to make contact with the Aurals–alien beings like balls of colored light so powerful they were able to shift Eur out of its orbit to pick up the humans who now live there: the moms, who occupy the highest level of the social hierarchy; the middle kids and the low kids, and two A.I.s who had to subject themselves to life as humans in order to lead the group–the Big Moms. Chicka and his twin brother Omare, like all kids of the moms, are taken onto the frozen surface to see if any of them catch the attention of the Aurals. Omare is chosen, which is when things begin to fall apart.

I think I read this one the same day I read “Arkfall,” and the two novellas had a lot in common: small communities working to make livable an unforgiving, unfriendly environment; citizens bound by a society that evolved in order to keep the great work going. In “Sublimation Angels,” though, there are ominous forces at work, and at odds with each other: Big Mom, the AI-made-human who, along with her enforcers, keeps the hierarchy of the people of Eur in place; and the Aurals, whose motives for allowing humans onto their homeworld, especially with such rudimentary technology, are completely unknown. The puzzles of why are almost as fascinating as the details of the world and its society, and I think I would feel that way even if they didn’t play so neatly into the Thesis.

The God Engines, John Scalzi

Captive gods bound by iron circles power the ships of the Faithful: the gods debased by the one who in some ancient time was victorious over the rest. What isn’t powered by the God Engines is powered by faith–up to and including, possibly, the iron that binds them and keeps them from escaping to wreak bloody vengeance on the ships they’re forced to move across the galaxy. Captain Ean Tephe of the Righteous has been sent to convert a planet that may hold the last known people who have not yet been converted. Faith, like iron, has levels of power, and these unconverted carry the most potent faith of all. The Lord needs them in order to combat a new and powerful threat that must be subdued—a new god calling some of the weakened and defiled ones to it, and attacking the Lord’s dominion.

Here are some things I loved about this story, in no particular order. The significance of iron: capability (and, arguably, identity) are handed down from the Lord in the form of iron Talents worn by the faithful, and there are three types of iron used to control defiled gods: third made iron binds, second made iron wounds, single made iron kills. The Age of Sail conventions that survive on the god-powered starships. The questions it raises about faith, belief, duty, and calling. The absolutely deliciously dreadful ending.

So this wasn’t as much of an identity-themed week, although certainly these novellas didn’t precisely kill the Thesis. The way in which faith powers the universe of The God Engines, for instance, the social conditioning of Eur and Ben, debates on the subjects of morality and normalcy of “Act One,” and even the way in which Syms J. Thorley tries to save humanity by becoming Gorgantis the fire-breathing lizard and the ruined Lady Beatrice turns whoring into the ultimate act of patriotism. This was, however, the week of the Flippin’ Sweet Endings. Ambiguous endings, devastating endings, unforeseeable endings, horrifying endings. Just great endings.

And now, it’s 7:30 pm on March 28th (although we’re having internet problems tonight, so I’ll probably post this tomorrow morning). I have two subway rides, one lunch break, and one day off before I have to be finished my reading, and here’s what I have left (pausing to count): five full-length novels and Avatar.

Full disclosure: I’m probably not going to make it to see Avatar, because I feel really strongly about finishing my reading. I’m pretty sure I can do it, but I’m not going to post on the novels until afterward. So this is where I leave you for now. But the Informed Nebula Voter Project will return! Here’s what you have to look forward to:

Nominees for the Nebula award in the Novel Category:

  • The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade Books, Sep09)
  • The Love We Share Without Knowing, Christopher Barzak (Bantam, Nov08)
  • Flesh and Fire, Laura Anne Gilman (Pocket, Oct09)
  • The City & The City, China Miéville (Del Rey, May09)
  • Boneshaker, Cherie Priest (Tor, Sep09)
  • Finch, Jeff VanderMeer (Underland Press, Oct09)

Nominees for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy:

  • Hotel Under the Sand, Kage Baker (Tachyon, Jul09)
  • Ice, Sarah Beth Durst (Simon and Schuster, Oct09)
  • Ash, Malinda Lo (Little, Brown and Company, Sep09)
  • Eyes Like Stars, Lisa Mantchev (Feiwel and Friends, Jul09)
  • Zoe’s Tale, John Scalzi (Tor Aug08)
  • When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb Books, 2009)
  • The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente (Catherynne M. Valente, Jun09)
  • Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld (Simon, Oct09)

Thanks for reading!

Adventures in the SFWA: My Efforts to be an Informed Nebula Voter

It’s Awards Season! Yes, I’ll be watching the Oscars this weekend, but I’m not really talking about that. March is voting month for members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). In May, the organization will present Nebula Awards to one exceptional short story, novelette, novella, and novel; the Bradbury Award to one film, and the Andre Norton Award to a young adult novel.

Last November, on the suggestion of a couple very nice gentlemen I met after a reading by Jeff VanderMeer, Geoff Manaugh, and Jeffrey Ford at Columbus Circle, I joined the SFWA and attended its  NYC reception.  There, I had the good fortune to spend a couple hours of my time there chatting with Sarah Beth Durst, so when the Nebula Finalists were announced last week, I was ecstatic to see Sarah’s Ice among those vying for the Andre Norton Award. Then I did another happy jig when I saw Malinda Lo’s Ash (Malinda’s a fellow poster on the Enchanted Inkpot), Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan (which I adored) and John Scalzi’s Zoe’s Tale (which has one of the best teen voices ever). Rounding out the list are the recent Newbery winner When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, Kage Baker’s Hotel Under the Sand, Lisa Mantchev’s Eyes Like Stars, and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente, which I think was only published online. I haven’t read any of those. Yet.

There were actually a lot of books among those up for awards that I had read last year and enjoyed, some of which I truly loved: Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch, China Mieville’s The City and The City, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, and of course, Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker. I’ve seen all the Bradbury nominees, save two. I’d read none of the short works on the ballot, though, and it occurred to me yesterday that, unlike, oh, any other literary awards being given this year that I’m aware of, I actually get to cast votes for the Nebula Awards. And I believe in being an informed voter. So here goes.

I’m going to get moving and read all the works on the ballot. I’m going to make sure I’ve seen all the movies, which means I’m finally going to see Moon, which I’ve wanted to see and somehow never got around to (Hooray! Of course it also means I’m going to see Avatar, which–don’t kill me–I haven’t felt any great desire to see). Because I’m going to be an Informed Voter. And I’m going to share the journey with you lot, if you’ll come along. I’m particularly looking forward to telling you about the shorter works, because if you’re anything like me, you just might not have them on your radar. I love short stories, but I’ll be the first to admit I don’t read them as often or as widely as I’d like, given the breadth and quality of what’s out there. And I couldn’t even tell you the difference between a novella and a novelette (but don’t worry, I’ll find out, and then we can all rest easy). I may not manage to post about every category before the end of March, but I’m going to do my best.

Before I sign off, though, I want to add (and I can’t say this loudly enough, so I will–pardon me–format the hell out of it) IF YOU ARE ELIGIBLE TO JOIN THE SFWA, YOU SHOULD. If I started into why, this would turn into an even longer post than it’s shaping up to be, so I encourage you to read more here. In brief, it’s an organization that works for you, the writer, through advocacy, communication, information, mentoring, even legal assistance and benevolent funds. To find out if you’re eligible, read here.

So, the Informed Voter Project starts today! Coming up next: the Nominees for a Nebula Award in the Short Story Category:

  • “Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela,” by Saladin Ahmed
  • “I Remember the Future,” Michael A. Burstein
  • “Non-Zero Probabilities,” N. K. Jemisin
  • “Spar,” Kij Johnson
  • “Going Deep,” James Patrick Kelly
  • “Bridesicle,” Will McIntosh

Stay tuned!