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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Deborah Beale: The Arc of Life

Deborah Beale was born near Birmingham England. She attended Manchester University, graduating in 1981 with an honors degree in English and American Literature. She spent 15 years working in London publishing, much of it devoted to SF and fantasy, including time at Pan Books, running the Legend imprint at Century Hutchinson, and later co-founding the Orion Publishing Group and the Millennium imprint.

With her husband Tad Williams, she is writing the "Ordinary Farm" YA fantasy series, with first book The Dragons of Ordinary Farm released in June 2009, and A Witch at Ordinary Farm and several others forthcoming.

She married Williams in 1994. They have two children and live in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Excerpts from the interview:

“I was brought up with a notion that was battered into me that anything to do with ideas or creativity or the imagination was inconsequential; not only inconsequential but massively suspect, and the 'upstanding nail' (as the Dutch say) had to be hammered down. I had young parents, and they were lost: couldn't make sense of their own lives. And it was a very 1950s childhood -- Birmingham was in the '50s until about 1977 -- very conformist, very right-wing. It killed me from the start. There was a dark side to things whereby I just went down a long, long tunnel, and it was hard. I had to learn to fight off the family depression and that was extremely painful and time-consuming. There are some things that have taken me a long time to sort out.

“I am a product of the socialist education programs of England in the 1960s. The socialization of fine education happened, and it gave kids like me -- lower-middle-class, never on the edge, but we were always on the edge existentially in my family -- a chance to escape an oppressive home town, which I duly did. I passed the Eleven Plus, which was the big class barrier when one was 11 years old and of my generation. You passed the Eleven Plus and you went to the grammar school, and the grammar school gave you a classical education. It was phenomenal: pure sciences, pure arts, Greek, Latin, the world of ideas. It was absolutely brilliant. And it saved my soul.”


“When I got into publishing, I had a brief period (thankfully) when I wanted to work with literary fiction. I read for Sonny Mehta when was the head of Pan, and when he was acquiring for the Picador list, and I quickly learned that not very good literary fiction is just really bad fiction, and that by contrast, I was really interested in stuff like young adult fiction and popular fiction. I was the lowliest of a number of editors working on So Long, and Thanks For All The Fish, and that was a trip. It was actually the first Douglas Adams I'd read, and I literally fell out of my seat laughing, and then all these anxious sales people, plus Sonny, came to cross-examine me about how funny was it really, and was it truly going to work.”


“That old childhood haunt was back, wanting to write and not having a clue how to do it -- that old secret self that hadn't found anything to hook onto. From the start, I didn't want to be a writer; I wanted to write, and there's a crucial difference. When you start out writing, you dream, 'I can have this life, and I won't have to work in an office, and it will solve my life problems.' Well, that's the actual antithesis of what happens. What you have to do first and foremost is write. And continuing to do it will shape everything in your life. You have to put it at the center. You have to follow it. While I was publishing, I put writing aside. I couldn't figure out a way with it. But I started again as soon as I had a little bit of success in publishing.


“When I write, I'm in touch with the mystery. In a New Yorker piece about writing that I quote in my blog, Ian McEwan describes it as slipping into a timeless zone. All of it -- writing, science fiction, fantasy, contemporary physics, child rearing, the experience of life over a large arc of history, or a series of arcs of personal history -- all of it comes back to this mystery, and I think about it every day in one form or another. Sometimes it's a bit like it is thinking me.

“Another aspect of the mystery for me is the question of identity. There's mystery external and there's mystery internal. Of course they're the same, but it takes you a lifetime to discover that. And that's like the interaction of character and plot. Character has to evolve out of plot, but plot has to evolve out of character, and resolving the two of them is an external/internal process. When I'm actually doing it day by day, and I'm working in things that not only just sort of come up from my mind but that I source from my everyday -- from my conversations with Tad, and from my own reading -- then it becomes this living thing that's really beyond me. That's what we're writing for: it's the connection with the mystery. And it's the arc of life.”

Comments are welcome...

Photo by Amelia Beamer


Tad Williams: Things Go Away, Things Come Back

Robert Paul "Tad" Williams was born in San Jose, California, and grew up around Palo Alto. He has worked as a rock 'n' roll singer and songwriter, talk show host, paperboy, shoe salesman, insurance agent, journalist, technical writer, teacher, illustrator cartoonist, and employee of Apple computers.

First novel Tailchaser's Song appeared in 1985. Williams is best known for his series novels: the "Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn" trilogy The Dragonbone Chair (1988), Stone of Farewell (1990), and To Green Angel Tower (1993); the "Otherland" quartet City of Golden Shadow (1996), River of Blue Fire (1999), Mountain of Black Glass (1999), and Sea of Silver Light (2002); and the "Shadowmarch" epic fantasy series Shadowmarch (2005), Shadowplay (2007), and the forthcoming Shadowrise (2010).

With wife Deborah Beale he is writing the "Ordinary Farm" YA fantasy series, with first book The Dragons at Ordinary Farm released in June 2009, and A Witch at Ordinary Farm and several others forthcoming.

With Nina Kiriki Hoffman he co-wrote Child of an Ancient City (1992), and his other standalone novels are Caliban's Hour (1994) and The War of the Flowers (2003). Some of his stories have been collected in Rite: Short Work (2006), and he has written several comic books, mostly for DC Comics.

Excerpts from the interview:

“I don't set out to write long books, and the next set of books is expressly meant to be much shorter. But in the big fantasies (I consider Otherland to be another big fantasy, even though it's nominally science fiction), I tend to write lots and lots of characters. I have my own reasons for that, but one of the results is I feel honor-bound to give them all arcs. If you're going to make readers invest in these smaller characters, you have to give them a payoff as well, so instead of having one or two major character arcs I have 25 or 30 character arcs in my books. People are not just spear-carriers. I like to do that, because it gives me a much more kaleidoscopic view of these big, world-changing events.

“The other reason my books tend to be long is that I have my own ideas about how you make people immerse themselves in an environment, and one of the ways is that you have to give the environment a certain amount of credibility in itself, and that means you have to spend a certain amount of time introducing it and acquainting people with it as you go along.

“But, as any writer knows, if you just stop and say 'blah blah blah' and dump a bunch of description (it's called the expository lump), that doesn't work well, and if you do this all the time it gets irritating. The scenic or historical expository lumps have to happen in the background of interactions between characters. So instead of writing a ten-page chapter with a paragraph explaining where they are, you end up writing a 12- or 15-page chapter that digresses from the foreground action to give you some feeling of the background. And maybe it introduces an extra small character into the scene who can help lead the reader to understand certain things about the environment, so you're adding more complexity.

“If anything, that's my greatest sin. I'm not afraid of complexity, and there are probably times when some readers just throw my books across the room. To them it feels like self-indulgence, and to me it's how I want to tell the story.”


“A long time ago, I realized the only reader whose reactions I can actually rely on is me. Anybody else, I'm just creating an 'average reader' and trying to guess what they'd like. But I know how I feel, so what I'm essentially doing is gambling that there are a certain number of people out there who are similar to me in my reading. I may want more detail, more subtlety, more complexity, or have more patience for the irritating sides of those things than the average reader. I may have more patience for my own long-windedness than the average reader would. So I have to find readers who are patient with long-winded writers!

“One of the big revelations I had in the field when I began to meet people is that while some of them may seem to be doing cynical commercial writing, they're usually not: this writer is totally sincere, writing the best book that he or she can write. It's just that to my way of thinking, what they're interested in is very middlebrow. Jacqueline Susann was not cynical; she was not going, 'Oh, this will get the dummies all worked up.' She was writing the books she wanted to read, and it just happened that what she was interested in coincided with a huge part of the market who wanted thinly veiled allegories about Hollywood stars and starlets on drugs and raping each other. That was her idea of fun, and you could see that in her work. Maybe the publishers were cynical, but the writers were not!”


“One of the things I'm most interested in is games, and one of the places where I would love to be able to influence a game even more in the long run than I have already, is beginning to work with the idea of how you incorporate story or storyline values into a gaming situation. The reason this fascinates me is not simply the nuts and bolts mechanical problem (although that's interesting too), but how you tell a story in an environment much more present than a book. In a sense, you've got fewer options. You can write anything in a book, but you have to program it if you're going to make a game out of it.

“That fascinates me by itself, but it fascinates me even more because I think it's probably one of the great next creative frontiers. Everybody knows how phenomenally popular gaming is, but where it's going to be really interesting is as it expands, as gaming begins to impinge more and more on the territory of film and written fiction and things like that. It can only do that if story becomes a greater part.”

Comments are welcome...

Photo by Amelia Beamer


Sunday, July 5, 2009

Cory Doctorow: Cheap Facts and the Plausible Premise

I was 15 when I got my hands on a grubby copy of Steal This Book, Abbie Hoffman's classic how-to manual for dropping out, living for free, and "ripping off the system." It was chock-a-block with fascinating tidbits like how to generate the tone that would get you free long-distance calls, how to organize a co-operative store, how to recycle tires into sandals and how to dumpster-dive dinner from your local supermarket. I was hooked — I read that book a dozen times that summer.

Steal This Book began my life-long love affair with secret knowledge: from texts on con-artistry like Maurer's seminal The Big Con (the basis for the film The Sting) and Lovell's How to Cheat at Everything: A Con Man Reveals the Secrets of the Esoteric Trade of Cheating, Scams, and Hustles to dubious demolitions manuals like The Anarchist Cookbook, to the streetlore that explained how to short out the contacts on the back of a payphone speaker to get an open dial-tone and what magic words will cause a collection agent to stop calling you for fear of prosecution for harassment.

At one point, I had quite a collection of this stuff: anarchy files from BBSes; grubby Paladin Press paperbacks on creating new identities and urban caching techniques; ancient phone-switch manuals from the old Bellcore research outreach department; and catalogs like Amok and The Whole Earth Catalog, which promised bottomless "access to tools and ideas." (It's a good thing I only dabbled in conspiracy theories, UFOlogy, and cryptozoology or I would have gone bankrupt).

Apart from prurient interest, this stuff is pure gold for science fiction writers — it lets you fake a pretty good spycraft, spin interesting scenarios that hatch in the crevasses of straight society, and provides texture and background on the woo-woo edges of reason and sanity.

I also grew up on science fiction novels that were full of this stuff: competent heroes and lovable rogues who worked the angles, solved the cons, and uncovered the truth that the shadowy forces of conspiracy wished to keep us mortals from discovering. These two literatures — the fiction and the how-tos — fed one another, because it wasn't enough to read about something being done, I wanted to find out how to do it. Not because I had any interest in blowing stuff up or hacking the phone company, but because it made the story better, and it gave me that frisson that genuinely forbidden knowledge can convey.

These facts were a currency in my social circle. We'd trade them like baseball cards. I'd show you my payphone trick and you'd show me your gag for turning the cellophane on a cigarette pack into a smoke-ring machine. Social capital accrued to everyone who could show or explain something that gave you power and insight into the mysterious workings of the world.

Like all currency, these facts were scarce. They were expensive. You needed access to esoteric books, secret BBS file-depositories, shady characters who knew knife-tricks and could roll joints one-handed (drug lore was a big part of secret knowledge, of course, our own version of the sacred rituals of a secret society).

Well, the market for facts has crashed. The Web has reduced the marginal cost of discovering a fact to $0.00. And that means that the two literatures — how-to and fiction — have effectively merged into one master story, the "plausible premise."

New warfare expert John Robb coined the term "plausible premise" to describe the new reality of  "open source insurgencies" ("insurgency composed of many small groups without any hierarchical leadership or organizational structure that typifies 20th century practice"). Open source insurgencies don't run on detailed instructional manuals that describe tactics and techniques. Rather, they run on a master narrative about how insurgency may be conducted — as screenwriter John Rogers put it:

What you really need is a plausible premise. i.e. "You can kill US soldiers with IEDs." and then the new Interconnected Marketplace Of Shitty Evil Ideas will solve the problem for anyone looking to kill US soldiers with IEDs.

Or, more succinctly, in order to get the marketplace off its ass to solve the impossible, you have to just pull off the highly improbable and make sure everybody knows about it. Show it can be done, show how you did it, and watch the "marketplace" attack because you've made the "premise" "plausible."

But this doesn't just work for insurgents — it works for anyone working to effect change or take control of her life. Tell someone that her car has a chip-based controller that can be hacked to improve gas mileage, and you give her the keywords to feed into Google to find out how to do this, where to find the equipment to do it — even the firms that specialize in doing it for you.

In the age of cheap facts, we now inhabit a world where knowing something is possible is practically the same as knowing how to do it.

This means that invention is now a lot more like collage than like discovery. Bruce Sterling's new Imaginary Inventions project is seeking to catalog the imaginary inventions of fiction, hucksters, failed entrepreneurs, and other imaginers. I sent him some excerpts from my forthcoming novel Makers (Tor, HarperCollins UK, Fall 2009), which concerns hardware hackers whose principle activity is thinking up stuff that would be cool, then googling to figure out how to build it, and Bruce replied,

There's hardly any engineering. Almost all of this is mash-up tinkering. It's like the Burroughs cut-up method applied to objects. These guys are assembling hardware in the same crowd-pleasing spaghetti at the wall approach that Web 2.0 web designers use in assembling features and applications.

That's exactly right. That's the plausible premise right there — spaghetti-at-the-wall hacking that assembles, rather than invents. It's not that every invention has been invented, but we sure have a lot of basic parts just hanging around, waiting to be configured. Pick up a $200 FPGA chip-toaster and you can burn your own microchips. Drag and drop some code-objects around and you can generate some software to run on it. None of this will be as efficient or effective as a bespoke solution, but it's all close enough for rock-n-roll.

Plausible premise invention is everywhere. Look at the incredible games flying out of Seattle's Valve Corporation: Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Portal, Left 4 Dead — all built on the same engine with radically different narratives and play mechanics and atmosphere, a GURPS approach to game design that shrugs off the macho business of creating your own 3D engine from scratch in favor of pulling something down off the shelf and remixing it.

What does this all mean for science fiction? Well, it probably means that SF writers are going to get credited with a lot more invention than we're accustomed to. The formerly rare occurrence of technology jumping off the page and into the world (Heinlein's waterbeds, Clarke's geosynchronous orbits) are about to become a lot more common. When readers can download or mail-order off-the-shelf components and instructions for integrating them, it becomes much simpler to turn fiction into reality.

For better or for worse.

From the July 2009 issue of Locus Magazine


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