December 2014: Month/Year in Review

This month I got a lot of work done, but not with much success. I spent most of my time revising my VP18 submission story, and it’s much improved now, though it still needs at least one more draft. I also touched up my fantasy story “Weights and Measures” and sent that out again; my flash fiction story “Custom Made” also got relaunched, and I spent some time tweaking my VP18 Thursday story “The Nursery” (though it hasn’t yet reached satisfying-new-version stage).

I also did a round of edits on “The Wind and the Spark,” my story due out in the February issue of Fictionvale. It was a wonderful process, with lots of good feedback. This piece really needed it, since it was one of the earlier things I wrote: first draft in May 2012, first submitted Feb 2013, submitted to Fictionvale on last new years’, sold April 2014. (They turnaround is not normally so slow: I got a “we want this for a later issue than the one you intended it for” reply). The story has a great core idea, but I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to revise it with all the new skills I’ve gained in the last year.

I’m doing a lot of strategic juggling for deadlines this/next month. I’ve got something lined up for F&SF’s electronic submissions period (with C.C. Finlay’s guest editing) in early January, for the James White Award (due 1/31), and possibly the Roswell Award (due 1/15). I might have something for Crossed Genres’ “failure” theme on 1/31. All of those require slight-to-moderate work, except for the CG one that needs a lot of rewriting.

Mostly, this month was notable for its stack of rejections. I racked up seven of them this month, including my two best pieces that seemed like great fits for their markets. Very disheartening.

But looking at the whole year, it’s been a great one for my writing! I sold my first story, and I attended Viable Paradise; I learned an enormous amount, met lots of awesome authors, and my new material is better and better.

I leave you all with a photograph. My wife has had a “Chanukah bush” for the winter holidays ever since she was a child. We couldn’t easily track down a pine shrub, so we went a different route. I think we’re doing it right!

Chanukah Bush - front

Happy new year, everyone!

Monthly update: November 2014

My last “progress” post was November 6, so might as well make it a monthly feature. That way I’ll have to squirm uncomfortably if I fall behind in my writing.

1) Resubmitted my fantasy story “Weights and Measures,” now to Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I love submitting to BCS – their rejection letters always provide useful feedback about what the reader did & didn’t like. I hear that’s because BCS is run by a Viable Paradise graduate!

2) Revised my VP18 Thursday science fiction story, “The Nursery”, in time for the one-month deadline! I already got the rejection letter, though. One of those so very encouraging “We didn’t even finish reading it” ones.

3) Polished up my flash fiction story “Custom Made”, with the help of various VP folks. I don’t list the genre because it’s… um, Lovecraftian political comedy, maybe? Hard to say. But I am quite happy with it!

4) Touched up an old story, “The Coin of Leadership”, another one from my steampunk setting. It’s off to Buzzy Mag though I think it’s a reach.

5) Revised my old steampunk story, “The Demands of Iron,” and sent it off to Uncanny. This is the one that got shortlisted for the 2014 James White Award, but has yet to find a home. I still have faith in it!

6) Wrote a first draft of a new fantasy story, “The Deceiver.” It’s in pretty crude shape, but I know what the next pass will be.

It looks like I accomplished a lot! But half of these happened over the Thanksgiving break.

Writing plans for next month: revise Deceiver, revise Nursery, rewrite Distant Shore (my VP18 submission piece), grumble over anything that comes back with a rejection letter.

Tryptophan, Turkey, and Sleep

By popular request, an explanation for why tryptophan in turkey does not actually make you sleepy. Neuroscientist Approved(tm)!

The wikipedia article on this is pretty good, and has nice references, but it’s not exactly in layman’s language. Let me try to explain it in my own words:

What is tryptophan?

Tryptophan is an amino acid, a building block of protein. Your brain uses it to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in sleep. So if you eat a food with lots of tryptophan, you should produce more serotonin, and thus get sleepy, right? Well…

Tryptophan in food ≠ tryptophan in brain 

Most things cannot move easily between your blood and your brain. It’s a delicate environment in there! Tryptophan (like all amino acids) needs another molecule to drag it bodily across that blood-brain barrier. However, that transport molecule is already working at full speed, hauling a full load of various amino acids. Unless you’re starving, your blood already has plenty of tryptophan, so a little extra from the turkey will make no difference. When the ferry is moving at full speed, and there’s already a backlog, adding more cars to the waiting list doesn’t get any more cars across the water.

So why do we get sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner?

Part of it’s just meal size — after a big meal your body diverts resources to digestion. But let’s focus on Thanksgiving dinner. It does contain something special, but not the turkey. When you eat lots of carbohydrates, your body produces insulin to pull sugar out of the blood, into storage. Insulin also makes your body pull some amino acids into storage… but not tryptophan. So after a lot of carbs, more of the amino acids in your blood are tryptophan. When a bunch of non-tryptophan cars bail out of the ferry line, you do end up with more tryptophan cars across the water.

In other words, tryptophan in your brain can make you sleepier — but you get more tryptophan in your brain from eating the potatoes and the stuffing, not the turkey.

On top of all that, turkey doesn’t even contain more tryptophan than chicken, pork, or cheese. Anyone know where the heck this urban legend comes from?

Plausible Failure Modes

Last night I saw Interstellar, my first Hollywood movie since Viable Paradise. It allowed Kelly and I to try out our new Plot X-Ray Glasses.

One-sentence review: I thought the movie was okay; some great stuff, but also a lot of terrible stuff. But this post is not about Interstellar; the movie is just here to provide today’s example. (Minor spoilers ahead, however.)

What makes a threat feel real?

Early-ish in Interstellar, we have a scene where Mr. Sidekick tries for the first time to dock the launch vehicle with their mothership. The music swells and pounds… but if you ignore the emotional tug of the music and think about what’s happening, there is no tension here. You know the heroes cannot fail; what’s more, you know exactly how they will achieve their goal. What’s missing?

The missing element is a plausible failure mode. What happens if the astronauts fail to dock successfully? Then they never get on their spaceship and the movie ends. The story cannot progress unless the heroes succeed. Worse yet, there’s no tension* about how they will succeed. If something goes non-catastrophically wrong, the astronauts will pull back a couple of feet and try again; but that won’t happen in the movie, because it would make boring and repetitive viewing. While in-story the characters could fail (novice astronauts could crash and die), this is a movie about interstellar travel, with no backup ship or crew. Failure would end or derail the story. This is a challenge with no plausible failure mode.

Contrast with a later spaceflight challenge in Interstellar: their attempt to rescue the spinning and half-destroyed mothership. When that ship exploded, I thought, “I guess they need to get the heck away from the flying wreckage, and the movie’s next act will put them in Dr. Mann’s shoes of isolation and survival.” But instead we have an awesome spaceflight rescue scene! This scene (like most of the stuff on the ice planet) worked very well for me. We had a plausible failure mode, which made me legitimately curious how things would turn out. That curiosity greatly increased my interest in watching the scene unfold.

Moral of the story: a threat will be more believable, and thus more compelling, if it includes a plausible failure mode. Readers will be less afraid of a threat if they realize the writer cannot follow through.

If your threat risks ending or ruining the story, then the heroes cannot fail. If your reader/viewer is sufficiently engrossed that they aren’t thinking about the outcomes, you can get away with this. But if you really want to put the reader/viewer on the edge of their seat (proverbially or otherwise), give the threat a plausible failure mode.

 

 

*: This isn’t the only way to create tension, of course. For instance, inevitability can create tension. To stick to Interstellar examples, consider when Cooper and Dr. Mann** go out on the ice together. However, this generally requires inevitable failure/danger, not inevitable success.

**: While I really liked all the stuff with Dr. Mann, I have to say: they called him “Mann?” For the brilliant driven confident flawed self-preserving person who embodies the best and worst of humankind? Might as well have given him the first name Hugh.

Progress post-Paradise

Since Viable Paradise XVIII I have:

1) Revised my steampunk story “Machines in Motion” and submitted to Crossed Genres. This one I think is well worthy – the first two pages appeared at a reading at Viable Paradise and got a great response, and Victoria Sandbrook helped with the revised post-VP version. Of course now I feel like I left a niggling-but-hateful conceptual flaw, but (A) probably nobody else will notice, and (B) too late to change it!

2) Revised my fantasy story “The Grasp of the Waves” and submitted to Crossed Genres. I got Scott Lynch to critique this one at VP, and and got some good feedback from Shveta Thakrar too, but this perhaps needed more work than I could accomplish before its 10/31 deadline. I decided to give it a shot anyhow, because it’s a very good fit for that theme/deadline; CG is a rare market that allows 2 submissions at once.

3) Revised my fantasy story “Weights and Measures” and submitted to Strange Horizons. I got Elizabeth Bear to critique this one at VP, followed this week by a delightful #VP18edits Twitter swarm-critique of a single troublesome sentence. This story is *awesome* and I cannot wait for someplace to buy it so I can show it off! Hands-down my best work so far.

4) Submitted my science fiction VP-Thursday story “The Nursery” to my online critique group, and gotten feedback from two people. The major issues seem to be the ones I already know about. They are fixable, but it will take some major finesse and craft to resolve. Not sure I can accomplish them before the 11/16 deadline, what with traveling 12th-21st to attend the Society for Neuroscience conference. I will risk the wrath of the jellyfish and aim for the end of the November.

5) Not even touched my VP submission story. All those lovely notes are still sitting on the corner of my desk, wrapped in a ziploc bag. I did get a brilliant plot suggestion from a friend when I read it to my secret post-VP party, so I have some general ideas how to rebuild it. Probably not until December though.

6) Read all kinds of other wonderful post-VP wrap-ups. So nostalgic already! I need to live in a place with more SFF authors around. Twitter is an all-too-timesinky replacement. At least I’ll get to see a few classmates when I travel this month!

Viable Paradise summary

I have returned from Viable Paradise! I’m not going to try to describe it in detail, at least not anytime soon. I’m still in a stage of overwhelmedness (real word!), and I hardly know where to start. But in brief: I learned vast amounts of writing theory, practice, and tricks; I met two dozen fellow young authors, all of whom deserve to become the Next Big Thing; I got fantastic feedback on three of my pieces; I was fed and shepherded by the most wonderful staff imaginable; I learned and sung and hung out with masters of SFF; I received a very sweet gift from our predecessors; I drank lots of whiskey and all kinds of other troublesome beverages. I swore a most portentious oath, and also a least portentious oath. And, of course, I survived the Horror That Is Thursday.

Honestly, we more than survived the Horror. We mastered it, all twenty-four of us. And now we wield the dread power of the Lord of Jellyfish, Rider of the Steam Duck of the Apocalypse. Ia, ia.

I think KJ Kabza said it best when he tweeted, “They say workshop = transformative. Not sure that’s true, especially b/c I’m now a space brontosaurus that can see thru time.”

And now I have 30+ more people to miss. But oh, what I have gained in return! As the saying goes: it was a bittersweet tapestry of life itself.

Viable Paradise prep #3 – Reviews, Part Two

Continuing from last week’s post, here are more reviews from my Viable Paradise reading list!

Lovely writing, with lots of implied world-building in the city and history and theology surrounding the Wizards of Messaline. An enjoyable read, though very short. My only real problem came in the ending, when one of the three perspective characters (Emeraude) ends up being totally irrelevant to the resolution of the story.

I liked this a lot. Wonderful language and metaphor, and a cosmology with clear layers of myth and meaning beyond the explicit stuff. I found both of the main characters, Temur and Samarkar, very compelling and engaging. Temur may be the grandson of the Great Khagan, but the things he actually wants are very straightforward and ordinary, he’s only pushed into great deeds by enemies who expect him to be a rival. For Samarkar, the best thing about her is her challenges and weakness (in potency, not personality): she is a Wizard of Tsarepeth, yes, but being a weak one is so much more interesting than being a strong one. It gives us so much more to root for. And with the way the Wizards were set up, her initiation was fascinatingly tense: they can have successful careers without any magical talent, so when it’s time to find out if Samarkar has any talent, I felt like the story really could’ve gone in either direction (as opposed to a “heroes will succeed somehow” situation).

Again, though for different reasons, the ending left me a bit disappointed. Some of the plotlines end well (Edene’s epilogue is awesome), but there’ a big climactic battle that feels a bit random. Why did the villains attack there, inside a fortress containing hundreds of soldiers to back up the heroes? I’m not sure if it’s “stupid on demand” or “lucky break”, but both are a let-down from an otherwise great book.

At first I liked this; a very interesting and well-realized setting, and some good characters. But over time my interest really waned, and I had to force myself to not just set the book aside and skip the last quarter. The book felt too episodic to me, largely because of the main character’s uninteresting and late-breaking motive. When the main character’s adventures are driven by the motive “hates crimes”, I just don’t care that much about each new assignment he receives. There were little hints about a story arc resolving the mysteries of the setting, but unfortunately that ended up secondary to Kimble dismantling with the criminal organization of the week.


I am currently reading Elizabeth Bear’s Shattered Pillars, and have M.J. Locke’s Up Against It and Steven Brust’s The Book of Jhereg to go. Unlikely I’ll get through them all by VP, but that’s what airplanes are for!

Viable Paradise prep #2 – Reviews, Part One

Lately I’ve been trying to learn how to read a novel more critically, to really figure out what I liked or didn’t like about them. So this is an exercise for me, on top of whatever meager value it may have for my readers! It’s a little weird to do this when I’ll be meeting all these authors, but I figure I’ll be the target of plenty critiques of my own.

Books are listed in the order I read them. Minor spoilers only.

I definitely enjoyed reading this, but I’d say it was my least favorite of the three Gentleman Bastard books. The dialogue was still great, witty and funny, with the characters to back it. I know some people didn’t like Sabetha, but I had zero problems there. She came across to me as a character of hidden depths, of density: we only get the barest hints of her recent years, but those hints certainly sufficed for me. Some people didn’t like the ending, but I was… torn. It wasn’t entirely believable, given how easily he accomplishes things that ought to have been impossible; but it was propulsive and exciting and I loved reading it.

What I didn’t like was the main (present-day) plot. It had no tension and no stakes; nobody cared if Locke and Jean won or lost. They barely even cared themselves. Furthermore, there was no big interesting scheme, only a bunch of trivial back-and-forths between them and Sabetha. The actual election got only cursory attention most of the time (“Dot all the i’s, cross all the t’s, leave no bribe unbribed!”), aside from a clever but brief con at the end, which only made it clearer how unimportant the election was. The backstory plot from their younger years, which I didn’t like in Book 1, had all the fun tension missing from the election plot: there was danger, there was reward, there was a big con that took many tense scenes to pull off.

  • Sherwood Smith: Inda

This book helped me articulate one of the reasons why I usually don’t enjoy YA novels. The stakes were plenty high, but the motivations were all childish. The primary motivations of the princes and warrior-kings were things like old crushes, schoolyard jealousies. Affairs of state took back seat to these teenage-level personalities. There was also a distinct, literal “cleaned-up” nature to the society, which seemed to tie into the history/cosmology/plot for future books, but it wasn’t to my taste as a reader.

I had some more specific problems in the front half of the book. Tons of characters, each with a surname and a given name and a nickname. There were whole scenes that I simply could not follow because I could not tell who was who. (For example, I knew the nicknames of the main 6ish characters, but then a teacher rattled off 20 surnames and I had no idea which group contained which names-I-knew.) Those sorts of problems disappeared in the second half, though.

This story had a wonderful prologue: the MC gets a mission, which relies on the existence of her internal conflict, and hands her the external conflict. Bam, goals and stakes are go! Overall, this book was very fast-plotted and fun, and I enjoyed it much more than I expected.  The book played in fun ways with identity, acting, cover identities, though I kept expecting even more. There was no antagonist, which was not as big a problem as you might think. I may try to track down the sequels.

So, I made a strategic error. I was in the library, looking for a Brust book. They didn’t have anything on my list of good starting points, so I had to choose on the fly. “Hey, this one says it’s the first book of a set (The Viscount of Adrilankha), so it should be a good place to start.”  Alas, not so much. If I had checked the internet, I would’ve learned it’s also #3 of another set (The Khraaven Romances, I think). The plot truly did stand on its own, but the characters did not; there were many references to past places and actions, including explicit stuff like “The reader should be familiar with this character!”, which made me feel like I was listening to someone else’s inside joke.

As for the book itself: A fun read, plot that kept me going, very distinct characters. The players and stakes of the series conflict are very clear, even though many threads remain hanging at the end of this book. It was also quite funny, but some of that came from the weird courtly speaking style. Which unfortunately really started to grate on me after a while, because everyone used it, even servants. Effectively, the author voice was so strong that it muffled a lot of the character voice in dialogue. The Omnipresent Style was also very fluffy and roundabout, which meant you spend way too much time reading exchanges like this:

“There is something important!”

“What is that thing?”

“Why, I will tell you that thing this instant.”

“Please continue, I am waiting for you tell me that thing.”

It’s much funnier in Brust’s words, of course. But after a few dozen times it really wore thin on me.

More book reviews to come!

Viable Paradise prep #1 – Reading List

So in anticipation for Viable Paradise XVIII in mid-October, I’ve been trying to read a good sample of books by all of the workshop’s instructors. I figured that tnowing more about their writing should help me appreciate and contextualize their awesomeness!

As background: I was so excited to apply to VP because I already loved Scott Lynch’s work from Lies of Lock Lamora and Red Seas under Red Skies, and Elizabeth Bear’s short work from 30th Annual Year’s Best Science Fiction (which included her In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns and The Wreck of the “Charles Dexter Ward”). I also read some of Stephen Brust’s Taltos novels a looong time ago, details fully faded from my memory.

So here’s what I have read thus far as my VP “homework”. I chose these books via a mix of what I wanted and what was available in my local library. Listed in order I read ’em.

  1. Scott Lynch: The Republic of Thieves
  2. Sherwood Smith: Inda
  3. Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald: The Price of the Stars
  4. Steven Brust: The Paths of the Dead
  5. Elizabeth Bear: Bone and Jewel Creatures
  6. Elizabeth Bear: Range of Ghosts

And yet to read:

  1. Steven Gould: Jumper
  2. Steven Brust: The Book of Jhereg (Taltos #1-3)
  3. Steven Gould: 7th Sigma

Next post: reviews!

Twitter!

I now have a twitter feed! Not that there’s anything of interest on there yet, but I’ll give this thing a whirl. Once upon a time I tried it for my professional science life, and gave that up straightaway due to a lack of interesting science to say (or read) in 140-character chunks. I’ll watch and learn and hopefully find more things to chirp about on this side of my life?

@BenCKinney

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