Monday, September 28, 2015

What I Learned From Reading the Year's Best SF&F

I recently finished reading Rich Horton's The Best of Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015. I've often picked up anthologies and Best Of series but only read through them casually, often skipping stories that didn't catch my interest right away, or skimming those that weren't relevant to my tastes. But this time, I decided to read with the idea that (1) I'd finish the story no matter what, and (2) I'd make notes of what I liked and didn't like in each story in order to find what I'd like to focus on in my own short stories.

I finished every story, save for one. That one was just too dry for me. I absolutely could not make myself read it. I think a lot of people enjoy that style, but it reminded me of required reading in grad school and I sort of wanted to stab myself in the eyes. But I finished all the other stories. A few started out slow or confusing, but after a page or so, they got really interesting, so I'm glad I gave them a chance.

There were a few things that I enjoyed across the stories that worked best for me. I prefer clear prose over that which is too rich. Not that clear prose is always simple, but it conveys the idea and the image just right. I also enjoyed those stories which surprised me, or that subverted my expectations. This is a hard one for me to pull off in my own writing. A strong emotional resonance was always appreciated, especially those moments that made me nod my head and said, "Yes, that's how those things are." There was a truth in the emotion portrayed. And finally, the best stories had layers. Images worked literally and metaphorically and tied into the theme clearly. They were repeated often, but not too often, throughout the story, and so tied it together.

Those things I didn't care for included stories I found too confusing. Sometimes I felt there were too many characters or too much going on, especially in the beginning when I was trying to ground myself in the story. And often, as I read along, I felt it unnecessary to have cluttered the beginning with so much. But other times, it seemed necessary. Tied into beginnings, but on the other end of the spectrum, I found some of the starts slow. Those are normally stories I might put down after a page, but because I was determined to read on no matter what, many of them turned out to be enjoyable. And finally, I didn't care for most of the stories where there was no discernible plot. I like things to happen, even if they're quietly happening, but some of the stories struck me as pretty prose and interesting observations or characterization, and not much more.

Of course, this is all a matter of taste. Another reader might love the things I don't and strive to make their stories more like that. But I'm going to try to incorporate the things I enjoyed into my own short stories going forward, which is easier said than done, of course.

My favorite three stories of the collection were "The Scrivener" by Eleanor Amason, "How to Get Back the Forest" by Sofia Samatar, and "The Grand Jeté" by Rachel Swirsky. There were about ten other stories that I really enjoyed as well, and I learned quite a bit from the lot of them.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Getting Back to the Artist at Heart

Low rider dash!
I've written about artist's dates before. This past weekend, I decided it was time for another one with the kiddo in tow. We went to the Albuquerque Art Museum, toting a sketch pad, pencils, and crayons. I let my 5 year old son lead the way to the exhibits he wanted to go through, with the following instructions: (1) don't touch anything!, and (2) if you see something you like, you can draw it in your sketch pad.

Math art
We started in the New Mexico Artists' Exhibit. The pieces are changed out from time to time, but there are some enduring ones, such as this rendering of a low rider's dash and steering wheel. I love the colors and the textures. It's one of my favorite pieces in the ongoing exhibit.

As we were walking through, my son said, "I want to find some math art." We ended up looking at some abstract art, and he found a piece that spoke to him. He promptly sat down and started drawing while muttering things like, "And another circle here, and a tree there." I sat and studied the piece below with all the sharp angles. I love the angles and the way the artist depicted the hanging sheets. I also thought, "Yep, sometimes I feel like I'm about to get run over by a bull."

My favorite piece from the day
De-luxe ENT machine, or torture device?
He copied a couple of paintings, then we headed to an exhibit of old stuff, like counting machines, a hundred year old typewriter, a hundred year old desk phone, and a cozy little De-Luxe Ear, Nose, and Throat machine used in a doctor's office. You wouldn't mind your doctor coming at you with those implements, would you? There was also an old perm machine from the 1920's. What the picture doesn't show

you is the mask hanging above it with empty circles for eyes and an empty circle for a mouth, as if the person is screaming forever. Because there's nothing like the idea of eternal pain to draw people in for a permanent.

We ended up sitting by a sculpture I thought of as Raging Angry Dying Buffalo while my son drew an original sketch inspired by his tour through the museum. I kept waiting for the Raging Angry Dying Buffalo to come to life and trample us all to death as its entrails streamed behind it.
"No, honey, this won't fry your hair at all."

One of the coolest takeaways of the whole day was when my son sat down to do this last sketch and said, "Looking at the sculptures helps me come up with something to draw." And that right there sums up the whole idea of the artist's date. Young kids are all artists at heart. They don't second guess themselves. The brain weasels haven't started nibbling at their thoughts yet. Sometimes it's hard as an adult or older child to get back into that headspace where you draw/write/dance/act as you want without any concern, but it's the best headspace to be in while creating something.
Raging, dying buffalo says get back to your art!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Bubonicon 2015 Report

I can't believe it's been a month since my last blog post. I've been extremely busy, though, with the first week of the kiddo's school, with company, and with writing. In fact, this past weekend was filled with Bubonicon, which is a local SFF convention. I went to panels, cruised through the sellers' room, and had some great conversations. As always, I added a ton of books to my to-be-read pile and had some great insight into the novel I'm working on right now. I was initially a little bummed about missing out on WorldCon in Spokane this year, but Bubonicon was fantastic and more than made up for my sad previous weekend of living vicariously through others on Twitter as they attended WorldCon.

One of the first people I spotted when I walked into the hotel on Friday night was George R. R. Martin. Not long after that I also saw Loki and a giant furry squirrel. I feel like I have the start of a great joke there, but I haven't gotten far with it...

This year's theme was "Women of Wonder." Several panels focused on women in fiction, and those were the majority that I went to. The first panel I attended was about warrior women. There was some great practical advice (from Livia Blackburne: it's easier for women to choke someone because of their flexibility and how their slim arms can fit around a neck) and discussion about women pirates.

Panel on whether strong women need strong men
Another panel asked the question: Do strong female characters need strong male characters? Susan Krinard said strength does not necessarily mean muscle bound; there are different types of strength. Pari Noskin said she thought strong means having a solid self identity and core. Strong women don't need strong men. Jane Linskold said men should not be strawmen who exist simply to show how strong the women are. Carrie Vaughn flipped the question around and asked whether strong male characters need strong female characters, and Tamora Pierce said you should have well rounded characters in general. This panel went on to discuss LGBTQIA pairings as well as pairings between characters who were simply friends and not love interests.

In the panel on the curse of the strong female character, Catherynne Valente talked about how people love bad guys in fiction, but they don't feel the same way about bad girls. People love Walter White from Breaking Bad, but not Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones. She attributed this to societal coding. I do agree that most people find it easier to like a bad guy than a bad girl. After all, girls are 'sugar and spice and everything nice' while boys are 'snips and snails and puppy dog tails.' Okay, now I suddenly want to watch The Powerpuff Girls.

Panel on writing different genders
The last panel I attended was on writing different genders. World Weaver Press editor Sarena Ulibarri (who edited my latest novel Fractured Days) was on this one. All of the panelists had great things to add to the discussion. I was lax at this point about noting who said what, so most of this is my best guess here. I believe S. M. Stirling was the one who pointed out that sometimes socioeconomic differences stood out more than gender differences. He relayed a story about two women police officers out on patrol. One calmly tried to talk a perpetrator into relinquishing his weapon. The other simply grabbed it and, uh, rather forcefully handled the situation. There might have been some blood involved. At any rate, one woman came from an upper middle class background, while the other came from a blue collar family. Guess which was which?

John Barnes also made a great point when he said that there are cultural gender differences. Men have been socialized to have agency. "You pick up the wrench and do it." Sarena said that when you create your own world, such as a secondary world fantasy, you get to choose who gets agency and who gets what role. The panel also touched on non-binary genders, and when it comes to writing a transgender character, for example, Sarena suggested reading something by--rather than about--someone transgender. And finally, because this was quite possibly one of my favorite quotes of the whole weekend, S. M. Stirling said, while describing his experience at an all boys' boarding school, "It's like being locked in a baboon house at the zoo."

Scarf dragon puppet

I also attended a highly entertaining and informative panel on puppetry given by Mary Robinette Kowal. She turned an ordinary scarf into a dragon to demonstrate movement, breath, and rhythm. She showed pictures of some of the puppets she's worked on. She told a hilarious story about a puppet show fail (I'm still chuckling). One of the things that stuck with me, though, was how the person operating Big Bird is, of course, inside the bird, but also has their right arm fully flexed overhead with their hand operating part of the puppet. I immediately thought, "Oh, that poor person must suffer some severe shoulder impingement at some point." And then I couldn't get it out of my head, imagining a patient coming in because of shoulder impingement from operating Big Bird's head, and how that medical note would go...

There was a lot of other cool stuff that happened, but those are some of the highlights. I was having so much fun that I hardly took any pictures. I can hardly wait for next year's con!