Last week was a slow writing week. I didn’t even get a chance to sit down and compose until Friday morning. Some spring clean-up, some things I’d been putting off around the house, babysitting, and other obligations intervened. That’s life, but by the time Friday rolled around I not only missed writing, I kicked myself for not making the time to write.
And the weekend of April 5-6 was certainly inspiring. I attended the Tom Wolfe Seminar at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA. Wolfe, a 1951 W&L graduate, is so admired by his classmates that they endowed an annual seminar in his name, which pairs Wolfe and another author for a weekend of panel discussions of the author’s work. W&L faculty also present a scholarly address on a particular work of the featured author.
This year the featured author was Jennifer Egan, a Pulitzer winner for A Visit from the Goon Squad. I’d read “Goon Squad” right before the Pulitzer announcement because I’d heard it was a novel in stories, something I was interested in exploring. Some of the stories intrigued me, though the PowerPoint story gave me a flashback to working days and countless, bad PowerPoint presentations. I wasn’t entirely sure what I thought of the book as a whole, though the writing was excellent.
Turns out Egan never intended that book to be a novel, in stories or otherwise. She knew she had this cast of interrelated characters, and she had decided to write a story for each character; but she wasn’t calling it a “novel” in her own head. Nor did she call it a collection of short stories, though that’s what she intended it to be. It wasn’t until the paperback edition came out that the words “A Novel” appeared on the cover, but that, Egan stated, was likely at the publisher’s instigation–as if “Pulitzer Prize Winner” wouldn’t boost sales.
In truth, I read the book over a period of several weeks, and I think it’s a work you need to finish in a single sitting or not over a protracted amount of time. Otherwise, you tend to forget the connections and the fact that a minor or barely mentioned character in one story is featured in another. So, this seminar, then, along with the two scholarly explorations by W&L professors Christopher Gavaler (“Goon Squad as Pulp Fiction”) and Jasmin Darznik (“The Art of Discontinuity: Time and Memory in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad“), brought the characters back to mind. And the connections clicked. “Goon Squad” is a book I recommend.
Egan’s speech–“Journalist as Novelist; Novelist as Journalist”–was thought-provoking as well. She admits she’s an “accidental journalist” and took advantage of a job offer from The New York Times Magazine to conduct research for her novel Look at Me. The emphasis on research as a journalist improved her lot as a novelist, Egan stated, and she lauded the recent trend in writing non-fiction along the lines of fiction and vice-versa. In all, a very inspiring talk, and Egan was self-deprecating; no swelled-head Pulitzer diva in the house.
This past weekend I attended a two-day workshop on Speculative Fiction by Edward M. Lerner and hosted by WriterHouse in Charlottesville, VA. It wasn’t so much a craft workshop as an in-depth explanation of what speculative fiction is, the elements of speculative fiction, its place in the current publishing market, and its related fandom. Lerner, who has co-authored with Larry Niven in addition to publishing several “hard” sci-fi novels on his own, is very knowledgeable of the topic and gave an excellent presentation with plenty of opportunity to ask questions. In truth, it was more of a refresher for me because I’ve read spec fic since I was a teen, but it did inspire me to give writing sci-fi a second (or third or twentieth) chance.
Why? Well, Lerner himself is a physicist, but he has written sci-fi books on nanotechnology, medical thrillers, and other non-physics topics through research and contacting subject matter experts. That approach doesn’t put it out of my wheelhouse, even though I’ve always thought I didn’t have the science chops to pull off writing sci-fi. However, the first story I had published in eFiction Magazine was sci-fi–“Without Form or Substance.” It was about time travel, but, unbeknownst to me until Lerner’s workshop, I used time travel as a trope. It was there and central to the plot, but the details of how it worked were unnecessary.
So, a great workshop for inspiration or, rather, renewing inspiration. If you live near Charlottesville, VA, give WriterHouse a look. In addition to providing space for actual writing, its workshops are always top-notch.
After all that, here’s hoping this week is more productive. I’d cross my fingers, but I need them to type.
The title of this post I took from a small sign I bought many, many years ago at a sci-fi convention called Balticon. I always put it in a prominent place in every cubicle or office I’ve ever had. I’ve loved sci-fi since I first started to read something other than Dick and Jane and endured ridicule for it from friends and family. My mother swore reading sci-fi would give me nightmares because covers of paperbacks books back then were pretty lurid–a lot of big-headed, bug-eyed, multi-limbed aliens menacing a buxom blonde. Many times, the story within had nothing to do with the cover, but covers sell the book.
And, of course, I gave writing sci-fi a try, thinking I was good enough as a teen to submit to the venerable sci-fi genre magazine, Fantasy and Science Fiction. The rejection didn’t discourage me from writing, but it did make me realize that I was a better sci-fi reader. One of my short stories, published last year in eFiction Magazine, has a sci-fi hint–it’s the story of a professor hired for what seems is her dream job, then she finds out it involves time travel. Since it was a character study, I didn’t need to go deeply into the physics of possible time travel.
I know I’m about to offend some, but to me sci-fi is space, spaceships, space travel, traveling to other planets, encountering aliens (“new life and new civilizations”), living or co-existing with same with the concomitant problems, and time travel. To me it’s not telepathic cats, even if they live on another planet, any form of elves, pixies, ogres, orcs, dragons, or quasi-medieval themes. That’s fantasy or its derivative, sword and sorcery. But Sci-Fi as a genre is very forgiving and has fans who are always open to genre smash-ups.
Now, I have enjoyed some fantasy–Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series, Anne McCafferty’s Pern series, Conan the Barbarian, Red Sonja, Tolkien’s books, among others. I’m currently on book five of George R. R. Martin’s multi-volume A Song of Ice and Fire. But I always go back to what, again to me, is pure sci-fi. Bradley and McCafferty infused some sci-fi into both series, but the sci-fi aspects were always secondary, so far in the past, they were myths and legends, and I could never accept how women were treated in Bradley’s Darkover novels.
One of my favorite books of “pure sci-fi” is a collaboration by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, The Mote in God’s Eye. This book involves a quasi-military, human space fleet sent on a first contact mission to a newly discovered planet with life. It’s a well-written and well-spun tale of the things that go right, and wrong, with a first contact, and Niven and Pournelle meshed so well as writers, you can’t tell two people wrote the novel.
A few weeks ago, another writer from my local group, SWAG Writers, approached me with an offer to collaborate on a sci-fi piece. I demurred because I still don’t think I’m a sci-fi writer, but his concept was interesting. Then, I remembered finding a snippet of something I wrote probably more than thirty years ago (I could tell it was type-written.), and I pulled it from its hiding place and re-read it. There was something about it that could fit with my fellow writer’s premise, and I transcribed it as is as a Word file and sent it off to him. What came back was great–excellent enhancements of what I’d written, including an incredible character name, and an addition of a blaster-battle (somewhat requisite)–and I riffed off that to the tune of about 2,500 words late on a Friday night.
I get it now that I don’t have to be an astrophysicist to write sci-fi, and sci-fi has always issued a wealth of memorable characters. So, I’m having fun with collaboration, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it’s going to go–short story, novella, novel, who knows? But that’s the anticipation, and the lure, of writing.
How about you? Have you ever collaborated in your writing? How did it go? Who are your favorite collaborators? Would you take up an offer to collaborate?
You didn’t think I’d forget Friday Fictioneers, did you?
And here’s the story.
Perfect disguise, they told me. No one will ever notice you, they said.
And I bought it. I put the cynicism aside and went along with our astro-geeks’ plan for observing the bipedal, indigenous life on the exo-planet they found. Their arguments were convincing, I’ll admit, but I should have listened to the little voice in my head that said, “What? Are they nuts?” Uh, no pun intended.
I mean, I understand you can’t land the mothership in someone’s backyard and do the “Take me to your leader” thing. I get that.
But why didn’t they notice the damned squirrels?
Want more 100-word fiction? Go to Madison Woods‘ blog and have fun reading them.