Nonfiction

Prometheus Art…and More

Jeff VanderMeer • June 19th, 2012 • Culture

I have a post up at Omni about the reaction to Prometheus, the art book you can buy, and more. In a nutshell, I liked the movie and my feelings about it are close to those of Caitlin Kiernan, who has posted twice about certain issues. Which isn’t to say I don’t think the movie has flaws, but that it’s far from the turd some people think it is.

That said, I do have some ideas about a version in an alt-universe or a reboot in 20 years, but I’ll save that for another post.

I also will have my ReaderCon schedule soon, and I will be at Stonecoast very soon. Before heading down to Shared Worlds, to teach.

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction

Jeff VanderMeer • June 18th, 2012 • News, Writing Tips

Wonderbook cover--Zerfoss

My WONDERBOOK: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction for Abrams Image is well on its way to being finalized, with publication set for 2013. This will be the first creative writing guide that doesn’t just supplement text with images, but replaces text with image. In fact, its 300 pages will include over 175 diagrams, illustrations, and photographs. The diagrams will be radically different from what you find in most writing books, and the integration of the text with image will also be something you haven’t seen before.

The cover above is a rough, but close to being final—it’s by Jeremy Zerfoss, who is doing the majority of the art, and the design of the book. The image below is an example of one of the ways in which this approach can be useful in teaching creative writing. Writer and filmmaker Gregory Bossert is planning to create an animated tutorial around the prologue fish.

The main text will include chapters on Inspiration, Elements of Story, Beginnings & Endings, Writing & Revision, The Bleeding Edge, and a special chapter on writing exercises that I think will blow most people’s minds visually—and will set out all of the things my wife and I do in our workshops and masterclasses. Elements like Characterization will be woven into the discussion in all of the chapters, since separating out the people from the story seems pointless to me.

In addition, the book will feature short essays on a variety of writing-related subjects by Neil Gaiman, Lev Grossman, Karen Joy Fowler, Lauren Beukes, Charles Yu, Karin Lowachee, Catherynne M. Valente, Michael Moorcock, and several others, as well as a long exclusive discussion about craft with George R.R. Martin. A comprehensive list of over 700 essential non-realist novels is just one item of interest in the appendices. The format of the book will allow annotations and asides in the margins for additional value.

Another unique aspect of the book is that it makes no distinctions between artificial boundaries between mainstream and genre, and it takes as its foundation fantastical literature. Which is to say, Wonderbook will be of use to any beginning or intermediate writer, but assumes a default of the fantastical. On facebook awhile back I indicated I was trying to create a new visual language for teaching creative writing. In retrospect, that was a grandiose claim. But I do think we have accomplished something special regardless.

prologue fish

Friday Writing Advice: Heed Leaf #1

Jeff VanderMeer • June 15th, 2012 • Writing Tips

IMG_1088

Corollary: As a reader, I don’t care what you think about current events or international politics or what you had for breakfast or your hangnail, so get off social media…

and

Heed the Leaf

Toward Prevention of Brain Scarring

Jeff VanderMeer • June 14th, 2012 • Culture

Having had some barricades against the internet for a few days now while I work on deadlines, I’m feeling recharged and refreshed. I think that in addition to the whole idea of having too many open channels in your mind at times because of the e-world, there’s something to be said for not being open to lots of ideas in the course of the day. That may sound ridiculous, for a writer, but the fact is that there is so much contradictory information and advice on the internet, so many emphatically stated viewpoints about issues related to writing, that you can freeze yourself in your writing just by being exposed to too much—by internalizing…everything. As advice also trends toward righteousness and offering up moral judgment, too, a kind of binary us/them rises up that isn’t useful even when you agree with a position. And not only do we have too much writing advice out there, and assign too much authority to the opinions of members of the blogosphere for no particular reason…we also have this seemingly self-destructive need to revisit information and opinions we don’t actually agree with, but that still infect us. And so you wind up wasting a lot of mental effort that could go to the writing circling back over issues that in the grand scheme of things aren’t useful to your writing. While nursing the low-grade fever of a mind-virus that can only fade if you don’t keep re-infecting yourself. You’re not required to do so, contrary to a kind of underlying belief that all of this ephemeral stuff, forgotten in a week, matters.

For those who say we should engage with the world, I would say: I indeed want to engage with the world, but I’m less and less sure I want to engage with the narrow sliver of it represented by the resounding confidence of the majority of opinion pieces out there in the e-sphere, on any side of an issue. Certainty is not useful to fiction, and I am always wary of those who are certain. Fiction writers who are infected by too many received ideas, fed by too many received ideas, tend to turn out clichéd work over time, too. I think all of us, myself included, need to seek out complexity, subtlety, nuance, and associated impulses. (Slow blogging as a concept is beginning to attract me more and more as a result.)

The meat world at least regulates the flow of Too Much to something manageable, while providing useful additional context. This also seems to me more conducive to building community and mutual respect, having a balance, because unfortunately, as we see in politics and basically all areas, the expression of beliefs on the internet seems to be dividing us and emphasizing our differences more and more, sharpening our ideological edges so that we often cut ourselves while trying to cut others…which makes it harder to actually get things done and to be proactive…often on the very issues everyone is so passionate about.

And with that, I’m gone again!

SF in the Mainstream at BEA: The Panel and the Coverage

Jeff VanderMeer • June 7th, 2012 • Culture

BEA Signing

Updates:

Ed Champion has responded in a very odd and offensive way below, along with a tweet that, well, I don’t know what it has to do with the inaccuracy…i.e., I guess I was supposed to just let it pass. He’s beginning to creep me out.

The New Yorker’s Sasha Weiss also contacted me and apologized for the errors, and corrected them. Which I thought was classy.

So Ann and I just got back from BEA in New York City, where we were promoting the Tor edition of our massive new The Weird anthology. We had a wonderful time and met so many great people. I wish I had more time to blog about it, but you know who you are—thanks for making our trip so great. Thanks too to Tor—everything ran smoothly, and it was great to hang out with our editor there, Liz Gorinsky, and our publicist, Alexis Nixon.

In addition to the autograph session pictured above, we were part of a panel on SF & the Mainstream hosted by Ryan Britt that also featured Walter Mosley and John Scalzi. The panel was quite interesting, and the only regret I had is that it was over so quickly—it seemed like we were just getting into the meat of the issues brought up. Ideas about genre, about the meaning of perfection and technology, diversity in the field, etc. (I’m hopeful I can convince Mosley to spend the time answering some follow-up questions for an Amazon feature.) Back-stage had been a lot of fun, too, since both Mosley and Scalzi are incredibly entertaining people. (Indeed, Scalzi’s “need a hug” comment to me during the panel cracked me up.) I was also quite chuffed that Mosley, whose novels helped influence my own Finch a bit, told me he’d enjoyed City of Saints & Madmen.

But there’s the panel and then there’s the coverage of the panel….and the coverage has veered from accurate and objective to completely incorrect, and I’d like to talk about that just a little bit because it fascinates me how something that would seem so simple as coverage of a half-hour panel can vary so drastically.

Ann and I concur that the most accurate account comes from Ron Hogan at Tor.com. Ron’s got the quotes right, and who said what correct as well. There’s the least attempt to editorialize just a genuine effort at straight-on reporting. It doesn’t include everything we talked about, but you have to pick and choose.

[UPDATE 6pm: Rose Fox's account at Publishers Weekly was just posted. It is also very accurate, and taken with Hogan's gives a complete picture.]

The New Yorker blog’s coverage, on the other hand, is pretty shoddy, and I reproduce the full entry here since I’m about to give them corrections, and this version may change: [NOTE: They've now corrected the errors--and very graciously, I might add.]

Back at the Uptown stage, James VanderMeer, the editor of the “The New Weird,” an anthology of science fiction, was talking about the composition of the B.E.A. It’s “mostly white, mostly featuring writers from the U.S. and the U.K… In ‘The Weird’ we wanted to show, yeah, there’s this stuff, but there’s also so much other amazing stuff, from Japan, from Nigeria, from all over the place. In the period from 1910 to about 1930, people all over the world were thinking about the same things.” Walter Mosley, a sci-fi elder dressed like a beatnik in a black leather jacket and cap, reflecting on the capacious world of contemporary genre fiction, remembered his early rejections from publishers. “They told me, ‘White people don’t read about black people, black women don’t like black men, and black men don’t read, so who is going to buy this book?’ ” Sorting books into rigid categories, VanderMeer said, is “neither how it’s always been, nor how it should be.” Mosley: “One Hundred Years of Solitude—it’s a great fantasy novel, but also a great work of literature.”

What’s wrong with this description? Just about everything. Let me break it down. (1) My name is Jeff VanderMeer not James VanderMeer. (2) I coedited The New Weird with Ann, not by myself. (3) The book we had at BEA was The Weird not The New Weird. (4) The book is not science fiction. (5) The mostly white comment about BEA was from Walter Mosley, not from me. (6) The mostly white comment is then shoehorned in with my “mostly featuring writers from the US and UK”, which was about some prior compilation anthologies, not about BEA. (7) Walter Mosley is definitely NOT a “sci-fi elder” but someone who is mostly known for his great mystery series, while also having written some SF. (8) Scalzi said the quote about “neither how it’s always been nor how it should be.” (9) Ann is not quoted at all and erased from the panel entirely, as is John Scalzi.

The third account, from Ed Champion, trades outright inaccuracy for suspect editorializing, and some rather bogus attempts to get inside of the panelists’ heads. It all starts to go wrong when Champion writes in a completely tone-deaf new journalism way about moderator Britt’s “gray vest insinuating some classy authority” and then states that the two big questions are (1) “How do the glories of ‘weird’ in any form get self-respect,” given that “plenty of us have experienced ‘weird’ moments in our lives without having to cleave to genre.” and (2) “…whether Walter Mosley would attempt to rile up the crowd with an outlandish and unsubtle statement.” Neither of these questions were on my or Ann’s minds, and I dare say they weren’t in the minds of most of the gathered crowd—although I did in passing address the first question during the panel (not reported on by Champion). Immediately following these… questions… Champion writes that “But before Mosley opened his mouth, Jeff VanderMeer” spoke up. The clumsy transition makes this read to me as the false assertion that I interrupted Mosley at some point during the panel.

Later in the account, Champion includes Mosley’s comment (paraphrased, I think—this doesn’t strike me as his exact wording) that “One of the things walking around this place is how many white people are. And it’s another weird moment. Maybe it’s a weird moment for me, not for other people in here.” In response to which he writes “I did observe Jeff VanderMeer, dressed in a white suit and seated next to Mosley, sink further into his seat. Ann VanderMeer attempted to return the conversation to the human factor that Scalzi had set up so well…. Jeff VanderMeer attempted to respond to Mosley by pointing out that the duo had selected stories “from Japan, from Nigeria, from all over the place.” Mosley spent much of the time after this puffing up his cheeks.”

This is a very odd and inaccurate interpretation of that sequence of events. First of all, it attributes a physical reaction to me that I don’t recall and as an implied reaction to Mosley’s comment, which is definitely false. What I was thinking as I possibly innocently shifted in my seat, unaware my every movement was going to be parsed from afar, was “fair point” and then was thinking of how this was a good entry into discussion of how when we’d looked out on the vast majority of previous compilation volumes like The Weird we saw mostly UK/US white male writers, and how we wanted to show what was missing from the equation by including work from other countries, etc. Ann, meanwhile, wasn’t trying to redirect anything—she was just answering the moderator’s original question. Finally, I have no recollection of Mosley figuratively or literally then “puffing up his cheeks” for most of the rest of the time. I certainly at no point thought he was trying to “rile up” the crowd, and I didn’t find his comments to be anything other than interesting and useful.

Champion also writes that “Then Mosley tried to pass off Scalzi’s anecdote about the Star Trek communicator as his own.” This is another odd statement. Why would Mosley have to have some kind of bad intent even if he was repeating something already said? In any event, although I don’t recall that particular exchange, I can say that this attempt to parse intent seems totally off-base.

The inaccuracies in the New Yorker account and the kind of banal tyro-novelist attempts at sussing motivation on Champion’s part seem somewhat unfortunate, given that we had a lively and interesting discussion. The fact that all of the panelists were coming at the subject from different angles created some fascinating exchanges. I’d be on a panel with these same participants in a heartbeat, and I really enjoyed meeting Mosley for the first time.

Interviews and Advice

Jeff VanderMeer • May 31st, 2012 • Writing Tips

Furious fiction interview with me above, and Jenn Brissettinterviews me for the Gotham City Workshop, with questions about writing advice. I want to spotlight this bit, since these people were so important to me as a beginning writer:

“I had a creative writing teacher, Denise Standiford, in high school who introduced me to Angela Carter and who took me seriously. That was more important than any advice. In college at the University of Florida I was fortunate enough to fall under the wing for three very well-published writers. The first was Jane Stuart, the novelist daughter of Jesse Stuart. She also took me seriously, even when my work didn’t perhaps merit it, and she critiqued it, too. At the same time, the novelist Meredith Ann Pierce allowed me to be part of a workshop she ran. Pierce really looked at my work and offered great comments. And also during that period, the poet Enid Shomer critiqued my work and was very kind to me. All of these women during my formative years as a writer made it clear to me that I had some talent and that I should pursue my writing. I’m sure they all gave me great advice as well, but you can find advice anywhere. What you can’t always find is faith.”

Bad, Bad Cover for Carnacki, Ghost-Finder

Jeff VanderMeer • May 29th, 2012 • Culture

Carnacki the Ghost Finder

More than moderately bad….

The Science of Difficult Topics

Jeff VanderMeer • May 29th, 2012 • Writing Tips

Athena Andreadis has an interesting and useful post about rape over on her blog, which also includes a re-posted Evolutionary Psychology bingo card that I found quite illuminating. I think my favorite one was “Believes women out-talk men but keeps talking nonstop” since I’ve seen that one in action many times before. (I’ve also been guilty of the over-talking myself.)

(more…)

Entry Points into Fiction: Text Shows You How to Read It

Jeff VanderMeer • May 12th, 2012 • Writing Tips

This post was written in solidarity with Booklifenow, which has been publishing lots of wonderful and unique content—check it out!

I’ve been thinking a lot about the protocols of fiction in terms of story and novel beginnings, in part because of my own recent resurgence in writing fiction but also from reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 (more on that later). Inherent in the idea of a beginning is a sense of what kind of story or mode of fiction you are about to enjoy (or hate). Some approaches to this riff off of the idea of formula, not necessarily in a bad way—it’s just as a shorthand to guide the reader to the right set of precepts for what the writer intends. Examples include prologues or first chapters of noir novels that contain certain elements—down-and-out detective, beginnings of a case—that create expectations. There will be a mystery. The main character will operate within certain constraints of opinions and options. Constraint can be a great way to write an amazing and original character, the original cliché become simply…original.

Other types of fiction require different approaches. A sloppy opening to a mystery still more or less serves the function of letting you know what you’re reading, whether the writer intends to support or subvert that expectation. But what if you’re not working off of a common pattern? For fiction that aggressively wrenches the reader out of existing patterns and modes it is even more important that the writer show the reader how to encounter the story. This is not to say that the writer is trying to straitjacket the reader, but that without an idea of the reading protocols, the reader may well feel adrift and the intended effect or effects of the story will not be part of the reader’s experience of the story. For example, take the beginning of “No Breather in the World But Thee,” a story I wrote recently and which is out in submission at the moment:

The cook didn’t like that the eyes of the dead fish shifted to stare at him as he cut their heads off. The cook’s assistant, who was also his lover, didn’t like that he woke to find just a sack of bloody bones on the bed beside him. “It’s starting again,” he gasped, just moments before a huge black birdlike creature carried him off, screaming. The child playing on the grounds outside the mansion did not at first know what she was seeing, but realized it was awful. “It’s just like last year,” she said to her imaginary friend, but her imaginary friend was dead. She ran for the front door, but the ghost of her imaginary friend, now large and ravenous and wormlike, swallowed her up before she had taken ten steps across the writhing grass.

What does this opening accomplish? Well, in some ways it may provoke whiplash in the reader, so there’s a risk involved in the approach, but in terms of an expectation set for readers it tells you that this is a story that will travel from point of view to point of view. Indeed the narrative then opens up after this paragraph into several connected set pieces from different perspectives, although at a more leisurely pace. The story is also telling you what it is and what it is not. It is a story of the weird, but it is not a traditional story of the weird. Giant birds, dead fish staring, imaginary friends, etc., all could be deployed in fairly conventional fashion in a story. Here they are not. Yet, you probably want to know what happens next.

In other cases, like my story “Komodo,” which will appear in the next issue of Arc magazine, the opening takes the opposite approach, in that the teaching to read will take place across the entire narrative:

Child, standing there in your flower dress considering me with those wide dark eyes while the mariachi band plays out in the courtyard…I’m going to tell you a story. It doesn’t matter if you can’t understand me—they can, and they need to trust me, need to know I’m telling them this for a reason. But I need you, too, because every tale requires an audience, and you’re mine. So I hope you’ll stay awhile. It won’t take long. I don’t have long, anyway.

It starts in a strange place, I’ll admit, inside of a giant green plastic alien head. I was all dressed up. I was on my way to a party. Let’s say the party celebrated something like the Day of the Dead, and that I was in a hurry to get there not even because of looking forward to the party but to the after party. The after party is always where it’s at—if you can get an invite.

I use a whole two paragraphs from the opening of “Komodo” as an example because the story is constantly redefining itself, in part because the narrator is acutely aware that too much information too soon will only confuse the issue and erode suspension of disbelief in those she is telling the story to. Thus, she is constantly finding comfortable analogies or lies to feed said listener to contextualize the story she is telling in familiar elements. Her hope is that as the story becomes stranger and stranger this approach will serve to keep the listener from becoming confused. Perhaps sneakily, perhaps not sneakily at all, this approach also saves the reader from discomfort in terms of concepts and context—especially since not only did I want to write a story that was continually unpacking and redistributing its context but also use the idea of rich nodes of exposition as tiny but satisfying explosions of micro-story within the main narrative, all framed by an engaging and energetic narrator with a personal stake in the described events. Which is to say, a more conventional approach that simply gave the full context in the first couple of paragraphs of the story would, in this case, have made the story less accessible; it also would not at all support the central conflict nor the narrator’s role in it.

Despite the complexity of these various elements, “Komodo” is still focused on just a couple of effects repeated multiple times in an order that provides a hopefully pleasing and continually eureka-ing effect. But what if you are telling a story that wants to do several diverse things, achieve more than one effect? How do you establish reading protocols for the multi-various? The most effective technique almost seems like indecision: it requires not committing immediately to any one set of protocols, with the danger that the reader may find your story at first adrift, unfocused, even if the individual scenes are quite precise and effective. But it’s all about not creating the distinctive tell in the reader’s mind that this is a particular type of tale.

In this case, there has to be a compelling reason to continue to read even as you’re not quite sure what kind of story you’re reading…and here we come back to Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312. It is an epic science fiction story on the one hand, a character story of the person Swan on the other. It is a love story between Swan and a man named Waltham, but also a tale of interplanetary intrigue. Robinson could have started with any of these things. He could have started with Waltham meeting Swan. He could have started with the first disastrous attack that sets off the intrigue. But he doesn’t. Instead, we start with Swan by herself, engaged in an interesting activity. From there, we are gradually are clued into the various elements of story and how they will work in combination. This serves the useful and obvious purpose, too, since it is an SF novel, of acclimating the reader to Robinson’s vision of the future. However, this inclination not to choose a position, so to speak, to foreground neither love story nor intrigue allows Robinson the space to privilege both strands, to make the novel somehow deeper and more real, less like fiction. The risk (slight in this case) is that a few readers may indeed be confused as to the point of the story for a few chapters, not to mention reviewers. At least one reviewer wrote all about the interplanetary plot and mentioned the relationships not at all, even though close to one-half the book may be said to be about Waltham and Swan. But this issue is irrelevant next to the more important point that 2312 is a better novel because of this approach.

This relates, too, to the ways in which writers sometimes destabilize their fiction to provide a more comfortable entry-point for the reader—you see these kinds of suggestions often from editors or agents, and they are not without validity; even the pushback against these ideas can provide interesting third options, or help strengthen other parts of a novel. To another writer reading such material, the destabilizations can read like deformities of structure or character; to many readers, it’s invisible and all they notice is that the launch-point into story is easy. Some would thus argue that the deformity is actually an enhancement and I’m not going to take issue with that here, in part because I think it also marks an ideological difference of opinion on what the beginning of a story is supposed to do. Some writers will argue that distortion is worth it if it provides a more efficient and readable delivery system for weirder/less conventional material embedded later on. (I personally find it irritating and disappointing more often than not.)

Sometimes the very genre creates an expectation that is more commercial—Alistair Reynolds’ early novels in particular are very, very strange, but the subgenre of space opera and the expectations the words “space opera” conjure up provide a smooth entry point for the reader, who once engaged finds themselves in marvelously weird territory indeed. So this smooth launch-point can come naturally as a function of the writer working within a recognizable and established genre, and thus it is an integrated element of the approach. I’m not arguing that the only difference between, say, China Mieville and Michael Cisco is the entry point, but if you look at Mieville’s beginnings as opposed to Cisco’s, you will note an easier time being had reading Mieville. There is no time to acclimate to Cisco. He’s not particularly interested in reader comfort levels and his idea of audience is probably very different from Mieville’s. (Yet, would Cisco’s novel The Narrator have reached more readers more easily with a different entry-point?)

I think about this issue more and more, in part because I’m working on so many different kinds of novels right now. This is nothing new for me. I had pieces of Veniss Underground and all three Ambergris novels done well before I completed them, and I can no longer tell where one started and another began. The new batch is accumulating much the same way, and in contemplating their effects, I need to think about beginnings, and where one approach makes more sense and where it doesn’t, where an easier way is a deformity as opposed to simply an enhancement, and so on and so forth. In all of it, too, you must think about what affects the reader and how, within the context of your idea of the ideal reader for the work. This is separate from the Reader that permeates the internet, the Reader that is generalized and for whom we are told all sorts of things that may or may not be true about their tastes, their wants, and what may or may not interest them.

Beginnings, then, are about levels of commitment—to the text, to the reader, to yourself. The possibilities are endless, and important.

Taylor F. Lockwood’s New Death Cap Ale

Jeff VanderMeer • May 4th, 2012 • Culture

Death_Cap_Ale

Mushroom expert Taylor F. Lockwood has new plans afoot…

Death Cap Ale…it only kills ye if you ye want it to…