Annihilation: The Questions a Translator Asks

Having been involved as a publisher and as an editor in commissioning translations, I know what a difficult job it can be—and how the best translators are seeking a kind of truth about the words and the work so that they can convey it properly.

Every once in a while I’ll get questions about my novels from a translator commissioned by a foreign language publisher. I value these interactions because translators have to be careful readers. I tend to learn something about my own work. Sometimes, too, a translator will find an error, which I can then correct in the English-language editions.

Recently, Cristiana Mennella, the translator for the Italian edition of Annihilation, emailed me a series of questions. She needed, she said, to “make sure that I got everything right to do justice” to the book. While completing translations “all sorts of doubts come to mind…I don’t know if other translators do the same as me (meaning: are a nuisance like me), but I really need to get attuned to your writing as much as I can, also in anticipation of Authority…”

It’s not a nuisance at all, but a blessing—as it is any time you get to correspond with someone immersed in something you’ve written.

But I did think it might be interesting to readers to have a sense of what questions translators ask. So, with Mennella’s permission, you’ll find the bulk of her questions and my replies set out below.

Mennella has previously translated works by Edgar Allan Poe, Kathy Acker, William Vollman, George Saunders, Doris Lessing, and many more, so I believe I’m in good hands.

Annihilation and the rest of the Southern Reach trilogy will be published by Einaudi in Italy.


(Mennella)

[Read more...]

Haunted by Rabbits: the Southern Reach and Authority–What’s the Big Idea?

Authority--Southern Reach

Over at John Scalzi’s blog, I’ve got a Big Idea post talking about how you haunt a novel. Apparently, it involves Stanley Kubrick, thousands of white rabbits, and you. You can also eyeball a great original piece commissioned for the feature: a bunny experiment diagram by Jeremy Zerfoss of Wonderbook fame.

The conspiracy theorists in Room 237 so firmly believed their version of the truth that I began to think at times that their ideas might have merit. But my own personal obsession with the documentary mostly concerned perception and technique. For example, in Kubrick’s slow fades as he cuts away to the next scene you often see characters and places coming into contact for a brief moment…hauntings created by juxtaposition. There’s also a scene in the movie with a television playing in the middle of a room…but the television has no cord, impossible for the time period. Watching The Shining, you may not consciously notice the lack of a cord, but your subconscious goes on red alert. Something is wrong, even if you can’t put your finger on it.

anigif_original-grid-image-6678-1394903791-15

Wonderbook Contributors Redux (yes there are more)

DSCN1915

Well, you’ve seen the table of contents for my forthcoming Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction and I’ve also shared the list of artists and illustrators. (I should also note that the mighty John Coulthart stepped in and provided necessary expertise, balance, and stability for the page layouts. Matthew Cheney served as a consultant on the text, although any errors are mine and any enhancements are his…)

Now I thought I’d share additional information on contributors to the book. The fact is, the coffee table format allows for a lot of layering effects. So in addition to the material found in the main text—quotes and whatnot—there are things like Disruption Dragons and Revision Snakes…about which you’ll find more information below. The website will also have exclusive content, as noted by the website symbol found throughout the book.

Contributors to the Main Text

The main text, written by me, is about 90,000 words. The Appendix includes features on LARP and Games in the context of fiction by Karin Tidbeck and Will Hindmarch respectively, in addition to a 7,000-word exclusive interview on craft with George R. R. Martin.

Here’s the full list of writers who have short essays (sidebar articles and spotlight features) interwoven into the layout. Most are original to Wonderbook.

Joe Abercrombie
Lauren Beukes
Desirina Boskovich
Matthew Cheney
David Anthony Durham
Rikki Durcornet
Scott Eagle
Karen Joy Fowler
Neil Gaiman
Lev Grossman
Ursula K. Le Guin
Stant Litore
Karen Lord
Nick Mamatas
Nnedi Okorafor
Kim Stanley Robinson
Peter Straub
Catherynne M. Valente
Charles Yu

I also conducted a lot of interviews for Wonderbook, and also used some material from interviews I’d done for other venues and quotes from conversations with writers who saw various parts of Wonderbook in a beta version. One advantage of the longish gestation period for the project is that I could discuss sections with various people and then change the text if I thought something had been left out or could be better expressed.

So within the book you’ll find wisdom and experience from the following writers, listed below. Some interviews for the book, like ones with James Patrick Kelly, Stant Litore, and Leena Krohn, will appear exclusively on the (in progress) Wonderbook website. (I also made use, with permission, of substantial material from lectures by Karin Lowachee, Nick Mamatas, and Ekaterina Sedia.)

If someone has an asterisk by their name, Wonderbook interview Q&A that didn’t make the book will probably be posted to the website.

Tobias S. Buckell
Matthew Cheney
John Chu
John Crowley*
David Anthony Durham*
Matt Denault
Junot Díaz
Brian Evenson*
Jeffrey Ford*
Lisa L. Hannett
Will Hindmarch
Jennifer Hsyu
Stephen Graham Jones*
Caitlin R. Kiernan*
David Madden
Michael Moorcock
Ian R. MacLeod*
Kate Maruyama
Haruki Murakami
Cassandra N. Railsea
Thomas Ligotti*
Johanna Sinisalo*
Vandana Singh*
Catherynne M. Valente
Kali Wallace
Charles Yu*

In addition, many writers’ work is quoted from, including that of Amos Tutuola, Brian Evenson, Elizabeth Hand, Greer Gilman, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Lisa Tuttle, Premendra Mitra, and Lewis Carroll.

Not including dozens of brief references and mentions (prominent amongst them, Carol Bly, Samuel R. Delany, Vladimir Nabokov), there is more extended analysis of works by:

Ian M. Banks
John le Carre
Angela Carter
Tamas Dobozy
Brian Evenson
Leena Krohn
Mervyn Peake
Joyce Carol Oates
Kim Stanley Robinson
Amos Tutuola
Colson Whitehead

Wonderbook--SF Signal

Also, in terms of analysis, Wonderbook includes an extensive masterclass on the opening of my novel Finch, which lays bare the entirety of the decision-making process, including several false starts.

Not to mention other elements in Wonderbook…

Disruption dragon

Disruption Dragons

Basically, after there was a rough draft of the entire book in a near-final layout, I sent a PDF to various writers and asked them to create a “yes, but” statement for sections where they thought additional interrogation was needed or where they disagreed with the text in some way. This, to me, begins the necessary process for readers of thinking about what’s being read and reacting to it, not simply accepting what is put in front of them. So you’ll find very wise and useful Disruption Dragons in the page margin from:

Nathan Ballingrud (x2)
Kelly Barnhill
Matt Bell
Desirina Boskovich
Kij Johnson (x2)
Brian Francis Slattery
Sofia Samatar
Karin Tidbeck

DSCN1920

Revision Lizards

For the revision chapter, I thought I’d ask some writers about their specific experiences revising a particular novel. The results are capture on two pages of somewhat whimsical Revision Snakes, with their eyes showing the number of revisions. You’ll find accounts from:

Daniel Abraham
Aliette de Bodard
Tobias S. Buckell
Jesse Bullington
Jim Hines
Simon Ings
Stephen Graham Jones
Richard Kadrey
Nicole Korner-Stace
Karin Lowachee
Ian R. MacLeod
J.M. McDermitt
Nene Ormes
T. A. Pratt
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Patrick Rothfuss
Sofia Samatar
Pamela Sargent
Delia Sherman
Peter Straub
Jeffrey Thomas
Lisa Tuttle
Carrie Vaughn

Editorial Roundtable—Website Only

Finally, I must also mention one feature meant to be in Wonderbook that couldn’t be added because layout-wise it just wasn’t working, and we were also running out of pages…It’s an entire editorial roundtable, with some of the best editors in the field making specific and general comments about a promising but flawed short story: Ellen Datlow, Paula Guran, James Patrick Kelly, Nick Mamatas, Ann VanderMeer, and Sheila Williams. In addition, Liz Gorinsky and Gardner Dozois provided general comments.

Ed_Round--graphic

(This feature will be available on the Wonderbook website in the fullness of time.)

Wonderbook--appendix1
(Sample page from the appendix…)

Editors, Influence, and You

SF Signal just posted a podcast dealing with the aftermath of the writer Genevieve Valentine being harrassed at ReaderCon, which included the fall-out from ReaderCon not following its own zero tolerance policy. The panel consisted of Stina Leicht, Mur Lafferty, Jaym Gates, and Carrie Cuinn with Patrick Hester asking the questions. Hester didn’t do the best job in the world this time around, in my opinion, but the input from the interviewees is excellent.

One thing not related to Valentine or ReaderCon that came up during the podcast discussion was a report from a prior World Fantasy Con about an editor trading off of his influence to hit on women writers, especially up-and-coming writers where the power imbalance is very severe. The suggestion being, put up with this because I can help your career.

I mention this because I think it’s important that every writer, beginning or otherwise, know that this is absolutely, terribly, awfully wrong and no one ever should have to put up with this kind of behavior. Or any lesser variant of it. And also that no one editor out there has enough influence to have a dampening affect on your career if you have to tell them where to go. And that most all editors out there will be horrified and pissed off to hear of such behavior by a colleague and want to punch their teeth through the back of their face.

Beyond the harrassment, Valentine also was on a panel during which she was heavily condescended to by the male moderator. This is also not okay, should never be okay, and I don’t think it’s entirely out of bounds for audience members to address such an issue as it comes up—or other panelists to do so. The other general issue being men talking over women panelists, not listening to them, etc. Also not okay. Which should be obvious. (For my part, I tend to get into manic modes that sometimes coincide with being on a panel, and I will happily shut the fuck up if told to shut the fuck up, should I forget to stop going on and on. Although I also do try my best to self-regulate and be a responsible member of all panels I’m on—a good moderator is always appreciated in this regard, too.)

***

In a different context, I got to thinking about the editor-writer power balance in general, outside of toxic situations. Which is to say, although I personally am beginning to enter the Old Fart stage of my career, I still often feel like an up-and-coming outsider—and that is certainly the vantage from which I usually conduct my conversations, whether in email or in person. I do not see much distance between myself and some writer in their twenties. If I drop a newbie writer a line, it’s generally in a relaxed and informal mode, for instance. But what I’ve come to realize is that no matter how I might see things, some beginners will attach more weight to your words than you yourself expect. And this, quite frankly, horrifies me. I love that people enjoy the books we put out, but please don’t give too much authority or…whatever the word is…to any editor or writer. Seek out those who produce books you love, learn whatever you think you can from them, and that’s it. (Besides, it has a calcifying effect on Old Farts…we tend to turn to stone much sooner, babbling out of our rapidly solidifying mouth-parts ridiculously boring anecdotes from the old days.)

This blog post feels as if I only kind of got at the meaning I wanted to convey, but hopefully it’s good enough.

Notes on Writing: The Perfection of Imperfect Comprehension

0473-12
(Photo by Taylor Lockwood—all rights reserved.)

The following short essay was originally presented as part of a longer powerpoint presentation given in various forms, including at a London architectural conference and at the Stonecoast MFA program in Maine.

Sometimes it’s useful to think in abstractions to more clearly see the effects we are trying to achieve in fiction. For example this idea: Everything we see around us, whether functional or decorative, once existed in someone’s imagination. Every building, every fixture, every chair, every table, every vase, every road, every toaster. The world we live in is largely a manifestation of many individual and collective imaginations applied to the task of altering reality.

If this is true, then nothing we see is entirely inert. Everything around us has, to some degree, a point of view. Thus, it may be useful to think of objects and other things embedded in your narrative as characters, too. Which is to say, that they have their own stories and agendas at the micro level of narrative. Paying attention to the possibility in these stories can be closely allied to characterization generally.

In extreme situations, these points of view become powerful influencers of behavior and history. This is the case in the imaginary city of Ambergris as described in my novel Finch, which I offer up as an example. In the novel, the subterranean inhabitants of the city, the gray caps, have Risen and taken over the city, occupying it and trying to maintain power over the human inhabitants through what can only be described as thought viruses given flesh. Their version of the city can be seen as an operational reality in competition with the reality of the original, indigenous peoples and the settlers who supplanted both them and the gray caps.

These operational realities do not play well with one another and the Rising brings everything to a boil. For a long time before this, the majority of Ambergris’s population—the descendants of Manzikert’s whaling clan, and new settlers—had the luxury of forgetting that they live in one of three possible versions of the city. This is something you see often in our real world, and this is also why you see the sparks of seemingly “new” conflict in some cases—because there is something there that has never been resolved. People on the ground have to live with that, and the dissonance it creates. (This is somewhat comparable in some ways to the more personal conflict and interpersonal dynamic between two individuals. It could be said to be a type of macro-characterization when applied to fiction.)

[Read more...]

Rose Lemberg on Feminist Characters

I’ve been meaning to link to this post by Rose Lemberg for awhile, about not “limiting the range of female characters to the kick-ass heroine,” although that description reduces it down too much, so go read it. The comments are also insightful and interesting. I have to say—this is what I thought it was always supposed to be about. Creating individual, unique people in terms of your characters, attempting as much complexity and inconsistency and strength and weakness as we all have.

***

A tangent: I think to at least some extent, we’re also seeing a kind of push-back against the kind of shrink-wrap, pre-packaging of cliche across several fronts, in part because the commodification of fiction, the reduction of it to just one aspect of the publishing process–as commercial product—is often incompatible with dealing in nuance, complexity, and individuality. This affects many aspects of a novel but is most noticeable, of course, in the context of the characters.

Cliche, stereotype, thinking in terms of types rather than individuals, not putting enough thought or imagination into our decisions…these things don’t just create bad writing, they diminish us as writers because it means we either don’t care enough about really exploring and investigating human nature or we simply aren’t capable of doing so.

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction

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

Interviews and Advice

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.”

The Science of Difficult Topics

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.)

[Read more...]