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Archive for May, 2017

On Picking Reader Brains for Fun & Profit

We’re now in finals week at IMSA, where I have the pleasure of teaching sf and creative writing courses and working with some of the most interesting students you’re likely to find. Finals week means a retreat to a predictable pattern: long hours of grading, calculating revisions, writing final term comments. Cleaning my office. Drinking tea. Eating at my desk. Wandering in circles gnashing my teeth. More tea.

One of the best things in that predictable end-of-term pattern is my students’ joint blog in Speculative Fiction Studies. For several years, I’ve tapped into the lifeblood of sf publishing — through Twitter, #MSWL, and a growing collaboration of sf publishing professionals — to get my students talking to the creators of the work they’ve been reading, interacting with and contributing back to the sf ecosystem.

This year, I was fortunate to have the cooperation of my agent, Bridget Smith; my editor at Pyr, Rene Sears; and writers Max Gladstone, Carmen Maria Machado, and Naomi Kritzer in furnishing questions for my students to ask. The general theme was, “If you could pick smart, teen readers’ brains, what would you want to know from them that would help you do your job better?” The students’ final assignment was a short essay in blog post form, responding to any of the five pros they chose. The posts went live this weekend, and are up for anyone to read and respond to here: SFS @ IMSA.

You should stop by, whether you are a reader of sf, a writer, an editor, or an agent. These students have a lot to share about what they hunger for in their fiction, from greater diversity in representation of body size and nonbinary identities to more thoughtful pairing of linguistic and narrative style with plot content. They’re picky. They’re insightful. They’re the rising generation of readers who will shape what flies off the shelves in the years to come — and what’s likely to sit there and languish, instead.



Almost Run Out of Town by Penguins: A Post-Nebula Awards Roundup

Late Sunday afternoon, my husband and I returned from a long and very busy weekend at the SFWA Nebula Awards conference in Pittsburgh, and now that I’ve scraped myself together well enough to share some of my impressions, I find a lot of very good writers and writerly-folk have beaten me to the punch. Days behind others in offering insights into writing, being a publishing professional, networking, and otherwise growing in one’s life and career, I see no reason to compete with my betters. So instead, here’s a listing of what the Nebulas leaves me unpacking (and yes, that’s a hat tip to my pre-Nebulas packing post here, in my utter shamelessness).

More in the order of experience than importance, I have learned:

  • Pittsburgh has hills. Great and mighty hills. Hills that would likely make a proper San Franciscan snort derisively, sure, but I’m native to Chicago, city of Political Wind and No Topography of Any Kind. Our hills are a Pittsburgher’s speed-tables. A proper mountain range would likely make my capillaries burst on sight. I am  jealous of the amazing churches dotting Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods, and yet endlessly grateful I won’t have to drive their hills iced-over in winter.
  • So, the title of this blog post is actually quite serious business. The Pittsburgh Penguins were playing in the NHL conference finals over the Nebula weekend, which meant that a loyal march of Penguin fans swept up every last hotel room, air BnB, motel room, and room-to-let in the surrounding zip codes. I had a booking with the Nebula con hotel which apparently dematerialized just in time for our arrival, leading to a mad scramble to snatch up two rooms for Thursday and Friday night, and no room in the proverbial inn at all on Saturday. Cue my pale, staring silence. Cue Mr. Townsend sliding into action with the calm only a certified scrum master can affect, ushering me upstairs as I muttered imprecations against myself, hotel, and fate. Behold, the power of penguins, which sent me fleeing to a (mercifully) much higher power…
  • The resourcefulness of Steve Silver and Nebula Con Ops. Remembering that I’d been told if anything goes wrong at a con “Find the Ops people” are words to live by, I went down to the conference floor to ask if anybody knew if there were cancellations for the weekend, maybe a room to let on Saturday? Enter Steve Silver, the Nebula con manager, and his immediate love of my Cubs world series t-shirt (*fist-bumps her fellow Chicagoan*) and desire to help sort out our room issues. He rattled off a half-dozen hotels to call and said he’d be in touch with management at the Marriott. The greatness of Steve under pressure is truly something to behold, in that it doesn’t look like a darn thing. One gets the impression he could match Ginger Rogers step for step at doing things backwards and in heels, if the spirit moved him. I don’t know how he did it, but by the next morning, there was a message on my room phone asking me to come downstairs with my key cards so they could be upgraded with a Saturday night stay. Remember this wisdom, friends: If you have a con problem, GO TO OPS, especially if ops = Steve Silver. He literally saved my Nebula weekend.
  • Sarah Pinsker can pick you a mighty fine con mentor. She matched me with Curtis Chen, author of Waypoint Kangaroo and its forthcoming sequel, Kangaroo Too (bonus points for excellent sequel naming there). This was an amazingly prescient fit, for about a dozen reasons. I’ll spare you and stick to the big three, though. First, Curtis is about a year out from being a debut author, and had to climb the same hill I am now — going from writing at your own pace to writing a sequel under a deadline. Second, I’d had Waypoint Kangaroo on my TBR list for some time, especially since first seeing its query on Janet Reid’s infamous Query Shark blog a few years ago. And third, Waypoint Kangaroo is a comic sf take on the spy thriller genre, and I grew up reading Ian Fleming and John Gardner’s James Bond novels, mixed with a steady diet of Monty Python. Needless to say, Curtis proved to be exactly my kind of people.
  • The Cajun food at Market Square’s NOLA is pretty great, and so is a conversation walking back from dinner with Michael R. Underwood, but be careful exactly how long you go on about the tension between genre romp and genre lit stylings, or you’ll miss two turns and get your whole dinner party back to the hotel late, lost in downtown Pittsburgh. Among the hills. So. Many. Hills.
  • When Sam J. Miller says he wants to help get you exposure, he means it. He’ll mention three times, while introducing you to an sf podcaster, that you’ve got a book coming out and are looking to do promo. He’ll turn that phrase into a form of punctuation. It will be the clause he suborns to half his comments, nudging you physically closer to the interviewer, angling for a bite. The podcaster (clearly very tired from a long Thursday of traveling) won’t get the hint, but you will emerge very impressed by Sam’s persistence, and share little “what can you do?” smiles and shrugs with each other the rest of the weekend when you pass in the halls. And that will feel special enough, you won’t worry about all those hints that buzzed the tower.
  • Sarah Gailey’s much-anticipated River of Teeth released yesterday and I got my pre-order copy on my doorstep, sure. BUT I SAW SWAG BAGS WITH THE HIPPO BOOK AT THE NEBS. Days early! I thoughtmight not have to wait! Why SHOULD I wait? I texted up to our room, where Mr. Townsend was napping to recover from our red-eye flight, and commanded that he COME DOWN RIGHT AWAY WITH SOME BOOKS TO TRADE FROM OUR BAGS. And, patient, good man that he is, he came, armed with a few titles less to our usual tastes, and I dove into the book bayou to search for my very own copy, ready to clean-and-jerk it up and drop something else in its place. To the credit of the seasoned, veteran ops team member who kept side-eyeing me as I crawled over the open swag bags like a Rhesus monkey, she didn’t try to stop me. Equally to her credit, she didn’t grin too much with the schadenfreude of seeing me come up empty-handed, either.
  • If you are down in the bar, and make eye contact with Amal El-Mohtar, having had occasion to meet her digitally and under pleasant circumstances, plant your feet. Go for a wide stance. She has a helluva tackle hug, and we ended up holding it for a breathless time (breathless both for joy and for having slightly winded each other, I think). “It’s really you!” she whispered in my ear. “You’re really real!” I countered. And other somewhat blithery things. Someday, there will be an Inspiring Teacher Movie based on us, starring an actress much lovelier than me taking my role, but actually starring Amal as herself, because one cannot truly be lovelier than Amal. (Sidebar: Amal ultimately won the Nebula for Best Short Story for “Seasons of Glass and Iron,” reprinted here in Uncanny Magazine. So she’s also my first hug from a Nebula winner, too, which makes the whole not breathing thing even more forgivable.)
  • My Office Hours sessions turned out to be very popular, with about half my visitors interested in working fight scenes and writing violence realistically. I’m sure at least a few people signed up just because they spotted me miming all the different ways you could deliver a knee to the solar plexus as a coup de grace and wanted to know what all the fuss was. If the Nebulas will have me again and cares to put Office Hours “on offer,” so to speak, I’ll be happy to oblige!
  • As much as I love my agent, Bridget Smith, and my agency siblings Julie Salmon Kelleher, Alex Yuschik, and Savina Rendina, AND a good hamburger. . . I discovered I don’t actually like spiked shakes. I’m sorry. I suppose I should turn in my author card now, since I can’t quite make myself believe that a stiff shot makes everything better. Fortunately, these lovely ladies DO make everything better. I’m lucky to have them in my life, and especially lucky to have met them all at once, for the very first time.

But of course, the most important thing I learned at the Nebulas was more a matter of relearning. Or maybe, just a reminder, a chance to sit in the knowledge in real time:  the knowledge that sf is my home and always has been. That it’s people are (with few exceptions) smart, caring, interesting, funny, and above all, kind. That they are always looking for new people to gather in among themselves, new branches to graft to the family tree. I’m proud to be one of them, and looking forward to seeing these fine people again soon — some of them, perhaps, at Readercon!

Before I go, though, I should mention (Art of Starving) that Sam J. Miller has a book coming out very soon (Art of Starving) and that you should really pre-order it (Art of Starving).


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Things to ‘Pack’ When You’re Prepping for a Con

This Thursday at dark o’clock in the morning, I’ll be lugging myself and two (hopefully not badly over-packed) bags to the SFWA Nebula Awards Conference in Pittsburgh, PA. Of course, I’ve yet to actually pack those bags, or arrange my house in a state where my children can be left with a sitter who won’t tear the place apart in a perfectly reasonable search for something innocent — say, their clothing — which will end empty-handed, with a side of wailing and gnashing of teeth.

But I have been thinking about packing a lot, and not just because it’s Tuesday.

I’ve been thinking about the things I’ll be bringing to the Nebulas that don’t exactly fit in bags. The things in bags are on the whole pretty easy. Clothes, toiletries, ibuprofen, and Pepto Bismol, and I’m basically good to go. But you pack your self – your actual Self – differently with every professional con you attend, I’m learning. Here’s what I’m having to make space for this year:

  • Complicated anticipation. Not just the anticipation of attending the conference, or attending as someone with a book on contract (my super-sekrit status last spring), but attending as someone with a debut book to talk up, a project to publicize, a face to put forward. And yet, without ARCs to thrust into anyone’s hands (…yet) or other projects to sign at the mass autographing, I know I have to be ready to balance coming onto the scene with absorbing the scene. Balancing authenticity with networking is hard, but easier when you remember that if you’re doing the first thing well, the second naturally follows.
  • Amusing anecdotes! [insert audio of bustling, chatter-y cocktail bar] “Oh, yes, I read that! In fact, when I was on a train going into Chicago, there was this guy sitting next to me, and he kept trying read over my shoulder, but my Kindle screen was too glare-y, and so–  Wait, where are you going?” Okay. Probably a good idea to have a better one than that. Fortunately, I have both small children and students, so I have a ready supply of ways to share my daily embarrassments, for the good of the order.
  • Some gorram good ideas. Did I mention I am doing Office Hours at the Nebulas? Did I mention that I’m signed up for three time slots on Thursday and Friday, and I’m available for both walk-ins and appointments? And that I’m a pretty fast draw with a story concept brainstorm, flash critique, workshopping advice, and all other kinds of shinies? Of course I did. And trust me, I’ll have a handy haversack full of things to talk about, if you’re coming and keen for a chat.
  • Confidence. Not to turn into a motivational poster on you (to my students’ chagrin, the hall leading up to office is papered with these guys, so that should tell you my general opinion of potable affirmations), but confidence matters. I am, by nature, a deep introvert with performative extrovert skills. Most people I know through various social engagements don’t believe me when I say I’m an introvert. They’re too used to seeing me tell jokes, take bizarre risks in my classrooms, talk freely to strangers, and gather people into social circles to understand that these are actions I value and are pretty good at which run fundamentally counter to how I’m wired. I have to militate against the urge to seep into the wainscoting. One way I do that is by channeling false confidence, projecting exactly what I don’t feel in the presence of others. But just like I tell my students, both as advice and as a warning, if you tell yourself the lie enough times, you can make it become real. You just have to choose the lies that improve you.
  • Curiosity. Nobody wants to hang around with the person who can talk about themselves and their work endlessly but can’t be bothered to take an interest in others. That’s a cynical reason to cultivate curiosity, certainly, but the case for curiosity improves when you consider there’s no reason to show up to anything — a conference, a museum, a new job, a first date — that doesn’t in some way boil down to curiosity, the desire to explore an unknown and see what it holds for you.

Perhaps I’ll see you at the Nebulas in a few days — or at Readercon this July. I’ll be sure to pack a little extra of all of the above for you; we wouldn’t want to run out.

Oh, and I’ll be packing my banquet dress. If anyone has any advice about packing a satin, chiffon, and lace mermaid ball gown so it’s not a wrinkled mess, I’m all ears.


The Hive Mind of Book Recommendations

We’re in the final three weeks of the semester now, which means my mind has turned toward final assignments, and of course, final grades. Like a lot of schools, mine encourages teachers to write mid- and end-of-term comments, but let’s be honest: those end-of-term comments are hard, especially for graduating seniors. There’s typically little more to say than an Edward R. Murrow-style “Good night, and good luck.” Such gestures always strike me as pat and hollow.

I hate that, because if there’s one thing I’m good at in my teaching, it’s developing a rapport with my students. By the end of a semester, I want them to know I’ve been actively thinking about who they are and what makes them stand out in my mind. I want them to know they matter to me as an individual, enough to warrant some words meant just and only for them.

But still. End of semester, man. My drawer’s out of spoons.

So, to avoid mouthing platitudes at kids who deserve better, I’ve turned to ending Speculative Fiction Studies with a comment in the form of a science fiction or fantasy book recommendation. The rules are simple: I have to be able to articulate why I believe this particular student would like this book, and I’m not allowed to give any repeat recommendations.

One year, I had to write ninety of these.

This year will be easier, with just forty-five in total. And yes, I read a lot of sf, but I’m a big believer in the power of the sf fandom hive mind.

That’s where you come in.

In the comments section below, pitch me a science fiction, fantasy, or other speculative book you’ve read and loved and would happily recommend to another reader (particularly, perhaps, a precocious teenager). What jumped out to you about this book? Is there a particular type of reader it would appeal to?  Does it remind you of anything else you’ve read, fit into any genre sweet spots of yours?

Who knows — you may help me find, or remember, just the right fit for a student who’s a little hard to peg, or whose reading interests are very different from my own. And even if you don’t, we’ll get into a good discussion here.