Saturday, October 31, 2009

National Novel Writing Month

I think I'm nuts for starting this when I have classes going on, but I also think it'll be the kind of discipline I need. Whether I feel like doing so or not, I'll have sit down and type an average of just over 1600 words per day. Which is do-able. But making sure they form a coherent story, making sure that the work won't be wasted... that'll be the interesting part.

And while I do have the idea for a story - a sub-urban fantasy - I still don't have a grip on the protagonist's and antagonist's personalities. The secondary characters are very vivid, but not the main ones. Go figure. I think I'll take an hour tonight to jot down some notes, and then hit the ground running tomorrow.

If you're taking part in NaNo, what's your last-minute pre-launch preparation like?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Pumpkin-carving contest

The college held a pumpkin-carving contest in the cafeteria a day ago, so one of my professors said she would enter and any of us could sign up to be on her team if we liked. My friends told me to go for it since I'd never carved a pumpkin before, and when the professor heard that, she said we'd take pictures of me helping out.

Unfortunately the professor was ill the whole of this week, and her classes were canceled. I turned up at the cafeteria at the correct time anyway, thinking I could watch the rest of the contest, but not expecting to take part.

That's partly why, in the pictures, I'm not exactly dressed for scooping the seeds out of a pumpkin. Yes, the other members of the professor's team gathered anyway and decided we'd go ahead. :)

That's me in a lace ruffled shirt reminiscent of the Vampire Lestat. That's also the first time I've put my hand into a pumpkin. It was... surprisingly less squishy and pulpy than I expected.

Ethel, the girl beside me, is keeping an eye on the competition, since we only had 35 minutes for the carving.

And what did we carve?

Behold, the winner in the "Most Creative" category!

(It's a light microscope, and that's a pumpkin seed as the specimen under the objective lens)

Pumpkin also had a cute biohazard symbol on his backside.

Best pumpkin-carving contest ever.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


Midterm exams came down like a sledgehammer - three of them this week and three more next week - so I probably won't be updating my blog until those are done. I have some topics in mind, so once I do have a block of guilt-free time, the posts should flow.

And the midterms will be done by the start of November, which is when I want to try NaNo for the first time.

Best of all, I got my Clinical Chemistry marks back already, and although I was worried about them, I did well. What a relief.

Hope everyone else is having a good week!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Five defenses of vanity presses

1. “The press did everything they said they would do” or “they did everything specified in the contract.”

This one implies trustworthiness and reliability. Living up to the terms of a contract is a good thing, isn’t it?

The problem is that such contracts are usually written to favor the publisher rather than the writer. For instance, a contract may specify that the writer has to promote the book, whereas the publisher will only market it “at our discretion” – meaning, “if we feel like it”.

Some contracts are set up to ensure that legally, the publisher need only do the bare minimum - turning the book from a Word document to a pdf, assigning a stock image cover, adding an ISBN, and submitting the information to online bookstores (no editing, no reviews, no marketing, no distribution). It’s very easy to live up to a contract which allows so little to be done.

2. “This press will publish your book for free” or “I didn’t have to pay a cent for publication”.

This is like saying, “I didn’t need to pay a cent to borrow money from Manny the Loan Shark.” Well, no, you didn’t. Not upfront, anyway. But that’s hardly an understanding of how the loan shark’s services operate. Or, for that matter, of how loans work in the more… traditional, shall we say… institutions which offer them.

With commercial publishing, writers never pay for publication and so you don’t see them stressing this as a selling point when it comes to their publishers. With the vanity presses that don’t request fees upfront but get the charges in through the back door, it’s a major defense – and a red flag.

3. “I am satisfied with this press’s services.”

I once emailed an author to say that I had completed a manuscript and wanted to get it published; did she have any suggestions? She replied,

“For a first book I suggest Publish America. Also they have a nice discussion board and all of the new authors can share questions and it is helpful.”

Satisfaction, niceness, a pleasant atmosphere – all this is extremely subjective. Some authors are satisfied by the sale of a single book, or by their families’ and friends’ support.

"Success is my mother pitching my book at Barnes and Noble. Success is the six books purchased by my son for his friends."

There’s nothing wrong with this – provided that it’s what you want for your book. The problem comes where there are crossed wires, when writers who want commercial publication (and sales to more than a pocket market) end up with a vanity press because they believe that claims of satisfaction = good sales or publication credits.

The best thing to do, therefore, is not to go by assurances of dream fulfillment or personal definitions of success. Ask about advances, sales and royalties instead, or the relevant experience of the editors. Facts are objective. And they’re better than emotions when it comes to choosing publishers.

The author who recommended PA to me didn’t say anything about marketing, royalties or the numbers of copies sold, so I knew that we had different goals when it came to our manuscripts and publication.

4. “The press works hard to put books on shelves in bookstores.”

I saw this used as a defense of Tate Publishing once. Not only is it clever, it’s one of those statements that are difficult to refute because they may well be true – just like “the publisher did exactly what the contract said it would do”.

But look at exactly what the claim states. That the vanity press actually put books on shelves? Not quite. It says the press “worked hard” to do so.

I could work hard to climb Everest. That doesn’t mean I’m going to succeed. And since there’s no specific definition of “works hard”, I could mean that I do an extra minute on the Stairmaster every day. Accomplishment is what ultimately matters, rather than attempts (or claims of such attempts).

5. “A book is better printed – by anyone – than sitting on your hard drive.”

“Every book I publish is a stepping stone, which is better than hiding my manuscript in my laptop. We all need to start somewhere, and be willing to work for it!”

This is a false dichotomy. The defense assumes that there are only two fates for a book rejected by the major leagues – vanity publication or permanent residence on one’s hard drive. It also assumes that the former is better than the latter.

Other options :

• Submit the manuscript to a small press or even micropress
• Self-publish (not recommended for all books)
• Set the manuscript aside temporarily while you work on another. Time and space always help when it comes to objectively evaluating a manuscript.
• Correct whatever problems the manuscript has that might have caused the rejections

I’ve done three of these, and they’ve helped a great deal. Much more so that sending my manuscript to a vanity press or author mill, which would have eaten the rights of first publication and left me with the bones.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Language and translation

If a manuscript contains dialogue in a foreign or alien language, should this be translated? And if so, how should this be done?

Translation : no.

Words or short phrases don’t need to be translated if the context makes it clear what they mean.

“Look, I’ll pay you twenty throne for it--”
Dyn!” she said through clenched teeth. “Dyn, dynal, dynalak! Now get out of here!”

The readers can probably tell that “dyn” means “no”. And the narrative could imply or suggest that the other words are a way of saying, “it’s no now, it will be no tomorrow and it will be no forever”, without spelling this out.

There are terms and sayings in other languages that can’t quite be translated, which don’t have exact matches in English – schadenfreude, savoir-faire and so on, so it’s realistic to have such terms in alien or fantastic languages as well.

Another reason not to translate something is if there’s more to be gained by allowing readers to imagine what it might mean. In Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead (Ender, Book 2), Quim insults his mother before a large crowd, in Portuguese.

"Mamae," he said loudly, mockingly. "Quen fode p'ra fazer-me?"
People gasped.

I can’t tell exactly what he said, but I know it was something shocking, and something he intended everyone to hear. That’s all readers really need to know; their imaginations will fill in the rest. Leaving a few things untranslated or not made entirely clear gives the impression of something going on beneath the surface, like the part of an iceberg that isn’t visible above the water level. I believe there’s a verse of a song in The Lord of the Rings that Tolkien left untranslated – and which contributes to the richness and mystery of his world.

Translation : yes.

Large sections of dialogue should be translated. Or better yet, not presented in a foreign/alien language at all, because it’s no fun reading through something really incomprehensible, and readers are likely to skip this. And if there are any words or short phrases which it is necessary for readers to understand immediately, those should be translated as well.

The question is, how to do so. In Speaker for the Dead, Card simply puts the English translation after the Portuguese speech.

“My true name is Detestai o Pecado e Fazei o Direito.” Hate Sin and Do the Right, Ender translated.

In another novel I reviewed, dialogue in Portuguese was translated by italicizing the English translation and enclosing it in brackets. I prefer the Card method, which blends the translation into the narrative more smoothly. Brackets always lend a story an academic feel to me, and they made the translations stand out.

In Watership Down: A Novel, Richard Adams translates the rabbit language Lapine through footnotes to the story, but this is a grey area. Too many footnotes and they can also seem too academic, plus they take the reader out of the story. A few times, after I’ve finished an especially long footnote, I’ve had to search for my place on the page.

If there are other ways to render translated dialogue, please comment and share them!

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Search for God and Guinness

Beer, well respected and rightly consumed, can be a gift of God.
(page xxv)

Okay, I had to keep reading after that.

Stephen Mansfield’s The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer that Changed the World is a story of the Guinness family’s rise from the humble working-class to the owners of the largest business enterprise in Ireland (the Guinness Book of World Records is named after them). But it’s also a paean to beer, and to money used well. I received this book from Thomas Nelson as part of the Book Review Bloggers program, and enjoyed reading it.

The Blessing of Beer

The first chapter is a history of beer and why people throughout that history considered it good for them – for instance, it was a healthy substitute to unboiled water, it was an alternative to hard liquor and it contained B vitamins. The author’s enthusiasm froths over in this section (sorry, bad pun) and beer all but gets God’s stamp of approval. I think the reasoning is that since the Bible praises wine in Psalm 104:15, beer is likewise allowed, in moderation.

This section also includes mentions of famous people who have appreciated and influenced beer, from Martin Luther to Enkidu (from the Epic of Gilgamesh), but I would have liked to see some attributions for Luther’s more… permissive, shall we say… quotes.

Of God, and Gold, and Beer

The rest of the book deals with the Guinness family, starting with Arthur Guinness. I’ve never even drunk beer, much less taken an interest in its history, but this section of the book was easy to read and involved interesting facts – for instance, the lease on Guinness’s first major brewery was for nine thousand years. Talk about long-term planning. Then again, the yeast strain originally used in the 1700s is still busily at work today.

Guinness coupled ambition with vision – he bought property near the docks, so ships could one day transport Guinness beer abroad. At the same time, though, he had a social conscience. His workers were treated very well by the standards of the day, and the Guinness board supported its company doctor’s reforms in public health. Guinness also disapproved of the poor treatment of Catholics, which frequently had tensions brewing (OK, I’ll stop here) in Ireland.

Only one thing disappointed me about this book. The author mentioned that when Arthur Guinness started out, brewing was more superstition than science. People waited for airborne yeasts to ferment the alcohol, rather than selecting for and adding their own strains. Since my education is in microbiology, I was waiting eagerly for the moment when they would do this, but the book is far more about the men than the microbes involved in beer.

And that’s a small issue compared to the unfolding saga of a famous family, people who transformed wealth into the service of others, and changed water into beer.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Reproduction in other species

Reproduction is something fundamental to a species – even viruses, which don’t do much else, use other cells to make copies of themselves. So it’s fun to play around with this in speculative fiction, and here are a few ideas.

Skew genders

How would a society which consistently produced fewer males than females – or vice versa – handle the issue of reproduction? Polygamy still takes place on Earth, but in such a society there would at least be less marginalization of men who are not allowed to breed for whatever reason – e.g. the Lost Boys.

And what about polyandry? I’d love to see more of that in speculative fiction – especially with attention paid to how the husbands form a pecking order and how children’s paternity is established. Or if it’s simply not an issue.

Make reproduction mandatory

Between the ages of twenty and twenty-five, a woman is required to have two or more children. It’s a bit like National Service, and the woman is free to do whatever she likes from then on.

The children might be raised by someone else, if that’s what she wants. Or they could be preserved at birth age for her until she’s ready to raise them. I prefer the first, because it’s a way to divorce reproduction (no pun intended) from marriage and love. The vast majority of humanoid SF races have that in common with humans: love and marriage are intrinsically linked with children. But what if they weren’t?

Confine reproduction to one class of the population

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid's Tale did this for a group of women who were simultaneously controlled and envied, but it doesn’t always have to be the case. If only a small subpopulation of women were capable of reproducing – but could do it with consistent success and without forming strong ties to their children – they might occupy a prominent place in society. They could travel from place to place offering their services and being paid very well for it. Or they might become the third person in a legally and socially sanctioned menage.

Or reproduction might be restricted to just one person, like the humanoid version of a beehive. A similar situation operates in Karne, one of the lands in my manuscript Dracolytes, where very few women breed – but those who do give birth to over a hundred children, which kills the mother.

And what if reproduction couldn’t occur unless the offspring – while conceived by humanoid parents – had to be incubated in someone else? It would be the cuckoo’s strategy raised to a whole different level.

Don’t be too unrealistic

I don’t expect rigorous science from Star Trek, but on the other hand, there are some things which can’t withstand a suspension of disbelief. One of them was the reproductive capacity of the Ocampa from Voyager. An episode established that Ocampa women have only one fertile period, called the Elogium, in their lives.

This means that each woman has to give birth to twins to at least keep the Ocampa population stable. Producing only one child – which happened in the show – would cut the population in two with each generation. That was one reason I stopped watching Voyager (by the way, there was also an episode where a race of aliens became children as they grew older, which makes one speculate about what they’re like when they’re born).

But there are better methods of producing offspring that could be used – borrowing from science, prionic reproduction or parthogenesis a la David Brin’s Glory Season. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations, as the Vulcans would say.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Humanism for Parents : Parenting without Religion

It’s not easy to raise children free of religion, especially in societies where they will be in a distinct minority and where well-meaning people will attempt to change this choice. So I was eager to read Sean P. Curley’s Humanism for Parents - Parenting without Religion. On the whole, though, this book didn’t work for me.

I’ll begin with what does work. The book discusses religious traditions and ways in which humanists can adapt these or design their own. Religion plays an important social role in many people’s lives, providing a sense of community and tradition. Humanists should be able to enjoy that as well, if they wish to do so.

There are also two chapters of questions children and teenagers might ask about God, about science and about what their family believes or does not believe. Sample answers are included, and these are well-thought-out, sensitive and tactful.

Those are the pros. The first con is the cover art.

Normally the writer has little say over the cover. However, this book was printed by the self-publishing service Lulu, and the cover features da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man. That would be great for a scientific text but it’s not, IMO, the best choice for something written for parents and children. A picture of a family walking past a religious ceremony (or watching from a safe distance) would have been more reader-friendly.

Also, the book is 87 pages long (including the bibliography), and only 42 pages actually deal with how parents can introduce and support humanism in their families. The rest is devoted to the history of humanism and the author’s thoughts on controversial issues.

There are many topics which would be more relevant to this book than global warming. For instance, what if only one parent is a non-believer? What’s it like to participate in some aspects of religious festivals without believing in the theology associated with them?

Another way to improve this book would have been to intersperse the advice with anecdotes or examples. We learn much more easily from stories, which have a way of personalizing issues. That’s one reason I have no quotes; nothing leaped out at me as a fascinating way to explain or illustrate a fact. I would have loved to see the intelligent suggestions in this book framed with that kind of accessible approach.

Not to say that I found everything here intelligent. The section on abortion (one of the controversial issues) makes repeated references to “partial birth abortion”, a loaded political term which is not recognized by the American Medical Association. And the relevance of this to “a practical guide that is meant to address the differences between religious and non-religious parenting” was not clear.

The book is a trade paperback priced at $12.95. I’d like to see more publications about atheism and humanism, but I couldn’t recommend this one.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


When actors were auditioning for roles in the British SF comedy Red Dwarf: Series 1, Danny John-Jules tried out for the role of the Cat. Now, the Cat is vain and greedy, but he’s the epitome of coolness as well. Nothing flusters him. Even when hunting a predatory shape-changing mutant, the Cat is confident and suave (and always ready for sex, even with the pretty stranger who mysteriously appeared out of nowhere).

John-Jules showed up half an hour late for his audition, but didn’t realize that he was late. As a result, he wasn’t at all concerned or bothered by it, and the producers decided right away that he was perfect for the Cat’s role.

In contrast, I recently read the blog of a writer who had signed up with a vanity press. Not only did this press provide no distribution – which is normal – it made her job of selling copies even more difficult. That’s not so normal. Nor is it customary to see a writer telling people that if they buy her book,

If you live in Nevada, not only will I personally come and sign a copy of the book, but, you will get a special, one of a kind, custom made, handmade gift of your choice. These value from $5.00 to $150.00 (Remember, your choice!!!) Not only that, but you will receive a coupon for 20% off of {author’s next book – title redacted – Marian} when it is released at Christmas time.

Promoting one’s book is an excellent thing. I read a great post by Maria Zannini on the subject, and I recommend the strategies in J. A. Konrath’s The Newbie’s Guide to Publishing. But what I read crossed the line from promotion to desperation. Offering incentive after incentive to buy a book comes off to me like bribing the reader. It might also imply that the book has little merit by itself, hence all the freebies that come with it.

And we won’t get into the financial costs (or the personal safety aspect) of driving through a large state to sign books for strangers.

Desperation scares people off. Whether those people are potential dates, employers, agents or readers, they can tell when someone’s coming on too strong, and they run. We’re attracted to confidence and coolness, not to insecurity or need.

The topic also reminded me of turn-offs in query letters, such as writers claiming that they wouldn’t ask for an advance. To the writers, this might seem accomodating, a way of showing that they’re not demanding or greedy. To the agent or editor, though, it seems desperate. Someone who is willing to give their rights of publication away for free doesn’t place much value on those rights, so why should the agent or editor value them?

This business could make anyone feel desperate, so that's normal. As long as we don't show it.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Aliens and Alien Societies

I borrowed Stanley Schmidt's Aliens and Alien Societies (Science Fiction Writing Series) from the library, but I plan on getting a copy of my own as soon as possible. It’s an informative and inspiring read for writers of speculative fiction – and just plain entertaining as well.

The book starts with the hard science and physics, taking a look at galaxies and stars, before drawing closer to delve into the biochemistry of aliens. Then we get into the softer sciences of the psychology and sociology of aliens and how they interact with humans. The entire second half of the book, in other words, would be helpful to fantasy writers.

Although I don’t plan to use many of the concepts in the hard-science part of the book, they were illustrated with references to stories that sound fascinating. For instance, I learned from this book that there’s a short story called “Microbe”, by Joan Slonczewski, that postulates an ecosystem based on DNA arranged in a triple helix. Not sure how that works, but I find it fascinating.

This book also shows why such creatures as the giant spiders so beloved of old-style SF/horror are not biologically feasible unless writers do more than simply making said spiders larger. Or unless we’re dealing with a fantasy world, which makes me relieved that I don’t have to deal with this. Science is a beloved but cruel mistress. On the other hand, the explanations of what you would have to do to compensate might well give writers further ideas of how to make their spiders or giant creatures different.

This book provides dozens of examples of pushing the envelope – races without emotions (which find an evolutionary advantage to this), planetwide single organisms, creatures which evolved wheels (I immediately thought of the Wheelers from “Return to Oz”), jet or rocket propulsion, tripedalism, different kinds of manipulators – e.g. tongues that function like an elephant’s trunk, modifications to eyes.

In my story “…And Comfort to the Enemy”, I took this a step further: the tsapeli, one of the few nocturnal civilizations I can recall, have “searchlights” built into their eyes.

This book is also a collection of what-if questions. What kind of culture might evolve among lions? What if a culture which stressed cooperation over conflict devised a competitive sport? The answer to the last, by the way, is the game of bagdrag, which is original and absolutely fun. There’s also a detailed chapter on alien language, which mentions what kind of language might be spoken by creatures with very flexible lips and mouths – but no tongues.

The chapter on alien-human interactions examines some of the hoary tropes of the genre – taking humans as slaves (what can we do for aliens that their own technology cannot?), taking humans as food (are our biochemistries similar, and do they really want something that’s so bony that carnivores tend to avoid us as meals?) and taking over Earth (does its atmosphere and gravity work for them?).

And in cases where humans and aliens can share a common environment, new questions and problems arise – such as Susan Schwartz’s Heritage of Flight, where human colonists have to deal with aliens which are beautiful and pleasant in their adult stage, but ugly and lethal as larvae.

This was a great read, in other words, and would be a useful addition to any SF writer’s library.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Variations with "only"

This is a fun little game. I don't remember where I first read it, and couldn't find any attribution on the web, so here it is. The word "only" is placed at different points in the sentence "She told me that she loved me" to produce a different meaning each time.

Only she told me that she loved me.

No one else told me that.

She only told me that she loved me.

She didn't show it (and we try to show rather than tell, amiright?)

She told only me that she loved me.

Why did she keep it a secret from everyone else?

She told me only that she loved me.

She didn't invite me up for coffee or anything.

She told me that only she loved me.

"No one else gives a hoot. Sorry about that."

She told me that she only loved me.

She didn't adore me, she didn't look up to me, she wasn't ready to open a joint bank account yet...

She told me that she loved only me.