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Intellectual property and wills

Every once in awhile something brings this to mind again, so consider this your annual-or-so reminder:

Please, please, please make a will. Please, please, please make a medical decision-making/power-of-attorney document. Discuss these things with your near and dear so that they know what you want. If your lives aren’t terribly complicated, they don’t have to be expensive. In many states you can do legally binding ones for free if you do them in your own handwriting or other stipulations–I am not a lawyer nor do I play one on the internet, please look up the details for yourself and/or consult an actual attorney such as this nice man–but please, please get them done. They aren’t just for rich people. They aren’t just for “important” people. You are important people. Make a will. Make your health care wishes clear. Do it today, do it tomorrow, wait until next week if you must. But please do it.

And the thing that brought it to my mind was this:

If you do substantial creative work. If you are a writer with a substantial body of work–novels, several short stories or poems–if you are a visual artist, anything that is that type of copyrighted intellectual property, please, please take the time to do this so that you establish who will be your literary executor*. This person does not have to be an heir. Sometimes family members who have been very dear and supportive of your career, who would want your work to be protected and perpetuated, are not people who have the background or the time to navigate the business of publishing. This doesn’t have to require malice! You can say, “Oh, my next of kin would be my sister Alice, and she loves my books!” But Alice has five children and a thriving practice as a cardiologist; if you are killed in a tragic meteor shower tomorrow, in five years, learning what she needs to know to do well by your work may not be Alice’s top priority. Or it might be! Alice might be awesome that way. But at least think through the personalities and skill sets involved.

The other thing I would like to say about this is: if you’ve already done this, hurrah! I salute you! But if you’ve already done this twenty, twenty-five, thirty years ago, please consider whether the people you selected are still the right people. Right now, my godchildren and my nieces are not the right people, and right now I have no children and don’t know whether I ever will.** In twenty or thirty years, my parents and my godchildren and my nieces will be in very different places in their lives, and we will know about the child hypothesis for sure. So: reevaluation. We used to joke about how upsetting it would be if something happened to Tim’s parents, not only because of losing them themselves, but also because they hadn’t changed their will, and we would miss Tim when he had to go live with his aunt and uncle. Obviously the guardianship of minor children goes away when those children reach majority. But designating a sibling instead of a child or a younger friend to be the literary executor does not. Sometimes that’s still the right thing. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes putting an extra layer of conditional statements into place–“my friend Chris if still available, my cousin Pat if not”–can help make everybody more comfortable with the situation.

I know, I know, this is one of my hot buttons, and I keep harping on it. But I think one of the things that happens is that our work sneaks up on us. We don’t think of ourselves as major authors, because major authors are always going to be the next rungs up. Even if you’re regularly making the New York Times bestseller list, even if you’re regularly winning major awards in your genre of choice, you’re always going to be able to say to yourself, “Yes, but I’m no Octavia Butler, a major author is someone like Octavia Butler.” But the thing is–well, two things. One, Octavia Butler probably didn’t think she was a major author when she wrote the stories I just read in Unexpected Stories, and I’m still immensely glad that she had the procedures in place so that people could get those stories published after her death, so that the rest of us could have them and love them. And two, it doesn’t matter if you’re major. If you make things, please let the rest of us protect your things. Please let this be the lantern glass around your bright spark, even if it’s a tiny spark.

*I’m going to use the language of literature from this point forward, since that’s the terminology I know, but if you’re another kind of artist, please look into protecting your work post mortem in the way that suits your type of work also. It’s still important–it’s just not the language I’ve got immediately to hand.

**I would like one. If it becomes possible, I will tell you. Until then, please don’t ask questions about it. Thanks.

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Robert Heinlein today and reaching for the world

On this day in 1988, Robert Heinlein died. I was ten; I hadn’t yet read any of his books or realized that the label “science fiction” was going to sort out a lot of the books I wanted to read. I’ve run into blog posts lately either claiming that Heinlein couldn’t win a Hugo today (apparently because of the bad bad liberal politics of the field?) or refuting that claim pretty effectively (either on the grounds of non-uniformity of politics of the field or on the idea that Heinlein would not have stood still as a writer or both).

But I was thinking about Heinlein’s life influences, and look. If Heinlein was of an age to still be reasonably alive and writing today–say, if he was my age, even–he would have gone to an integrated Annapolis. His Navy would have been racially integrated, and it would have been gender integrated, not as an event, but for his entire life. As something he would have taken for granted. And for all the back and forth about how enlightened he was for his time, or was not, depending on which side you take, it changes a person to have their formative educational/professional experience segregated that way. He managed to fight against those assumptions some, as good people of his generation did. But the formative experience was like that.

I just keep thinking about this stuff as a young friend of mine approaches her physics undergrad degree, nearly twenty years after I started mine. At the good liberal arts colleges around here, the places where she applied, physics majors are pretty routinely a third women now. A third! Can you imagine? I can’t. I honestly can’t. I get a lump in my throat thinking about all the other varied young people she’ll have around her while she learns. Why, it’ll be like…it’ll be like….

Shit, it’ll be like being a science fiction writer.

That’s amazing.

I look back at my early writing, when I was coming out of that life, and how natural Smurfette casting still felt. I look at how often I wrote just one significant female character not just in short stories with small casts but in longer works–not all the time, but often. Because that was my life. Not all the time. But often. And I was the girl. Smurfette was me. Princess Leia was me. Think how much easier it would have been not to bounce back from it, not to reach for the women influences from the rest of my life, the entire tapestry of influences from the rest of my life, if I had been in that environment as a guy. If I’d lived that life and come out of that life and when there was only one girl in my class it was someone outside my own skin. And then think if there were no girls at all, inside my own skin or not. I think people often misread this as “I want to have a message to have X women in things as a quota,” when in fact I mean: it was really broken to have things draw from that lopsided a pool, and the rest of life is not that broken, and I don’t want my stories to feel that broken. I want to be able to reach for the world and have the whole world there to reach for. And when you’ve been in that segregated an environment, you’re reaching for the world with only one arm, and that arm’s got a pulled muscle in the shoulder and a broken wrist.

The Naval Academy is still 4:1, male:female. But when there was no ratio, it had to have affected him. Had to. The idea that “if Robert Heinlein was writing today” would result in anything even remotely like what we saw–I mean, even aside from the Great Depression, World War II, the existence of SF as a maturing field, anything like that. Just thinking about where and how he did his education. Guys, you can’t change just one thing. You can’t pick people up and put them down in history. “If your grandfather was alive to see this,” we say, and with our grandfathers, with the artists who are the ages of our grandfathers or our great-grandfathers, we have the delusion that we could just keep them going as they were, without having them change with the triumphs and the setbacks and all the things that happen in a life, because their lives were somewhat close to ours. We don’t bother to say, “If Rembrandt was alive today, could he win a Chesley Award?”, because we’re more aware of the remove. But the remove is still there. It doesn’t make excuses. It does make changes. It does make differences.

It’s up to us to make them good ones. It’s up to us to build on those differences. My God, a third of her classmates women! I think that’s an expanded universe we can all believe in, regardless of what we think of Robert Heinlein’s Hugo chances.

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Narrative conventions from a different angle

A couple of weeks ago, Mark and I went to the symphony, and we heard Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, Opus 34. It’s available here, with just a still image on the Youtube link, not any kind of montage as far as I’m aware (I didn’t watch all the way through). It’s like the soundtrack to the nonexistent fourth Indiana Jones movie. (No, they didn’t make a fourth Indiana Jones movie lalalala I can’t hear you no magical anti-radiation fridges lalalala what.) It’s just a lovely little piece, just over 15 minutes, adventure and excitement, one thing after another.

It also sounds deeply conventional in some ways, and there’s a reason for that. Ever wonder why modern movie soundtracks sound like they do? One of the reasons is because Rimsky-Korsakov wrote the book. Literally. The book is called Principles of Orchestration. He wrote it. He said, “here’s how it’s all supposed to sound and what you use things for,” and it’s a very useful book indeed, setting down how this particular Romantic style of orchestral composition goes. So now when you listen to a movie and the violins swell at the right emotional moment, thanks Nikolai, that’s what you told them to do.

This is bad? This is good? Well, no. This is a tool. If Rimsky-Korsakov hadn’t written the book, people would still have fumbled around figuring out what the heck the Romantics, particularly the Russians, were doing with their orchestras, and we’d probably still be able to listen to a piece like Capriccio Espagnol and point out what the story’s doing, because it’s culturally embedded. It’s just kind of fun to play spot-the-theorist sometimes, and what he’s doing when he applies his theories, or what he’s doing before his theories congeal.

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Cooking vs. gardening

I’m still working on revisions. I have two kinds of writing process. This kind is cooking. The other kind is gardening.

When I’m cooking, I have one project that I am working on, and I will work on it until it is done, and most of the work (vast majority) I am doing goes towards it. I will still sometimes open a file and write notes or even sometimes complete scenes on another project, so that I don’t lose those ideas (/complete scenes). Sometimes when I’m working on a novel, I write short stories in the middle of it. The longer it takes to write a novel, the more likely it is that I’ll write short stories in the middle of it. The longer it takes to write a particular short story, the more likely it is that I’ll write another short story in the middle of it. Or a novel. Things happen. But when I’m cooking, I might do bits of side project–I might finish chopping the rest of the broccoli that I’m not using in this particular stir-fry, so that it’s ready next time I want broccoli–but I’m not going to start cutting things up for stir-fry and suddenly find that I have chopped everything in the kitchen. Cooking is about knowing the task and working steadily towards the end of the task, which is the meal. Yum.

When I’m gardening, I’m not writing any less, but it’s less focused. I will write a thousand words on one idea and a thousand words on another. Sometimes less–sometimes it’ll be 500 words on a project, or 200. For some people this is a really bad sign. It means that you’re completely unfocused, that you will never get stuff done, that you’re just noodling around with things and enjoying the idea of being a writer without ever finishing anything. At this point I think I can stop worrying about that. I have the assurance from long experience that while some stories never reach the point where they get finished, many to most of the stories that I work on this way do. Most of the stuff I work on in “gardening” mode gets to the point where it’s ready to be “cooked”–it reaches a critical mass where I’m ready to just work on it until it’s done. So it’s not actually something I should feel bad about. It’s not pointless, it’s practice. It’s weeding, tending the soil, picking off aphids. Keeping the whole garden growing.

The weird thing about how I’ve been writing lately–other than the fact that it’s been a lot for months now–is that I haven’t been having to tell myself not to stress about what comes next. That’s…totally unlike me. It’s totally unlike me in general, and it’s not like I am going through a period of less stressing/fussing just now in particular. (Hahahaha no. Seriously, um, no. Nearly everyone who has vertigo ends up with at least some degree of anxiety, and I’ll tell you why. Because it is somewhere on the spectrum from stressful to producing of clinical anxiety to not have a reliable sense of the vertical and to fall over and stuff. Seriously, just on a physical level: your body wants a vertical. And to not fall over, and to not throw up, and stuff. Your body has opinions on that stuff. If you haven’t had vertigo problems, your body might not have made them known. But trust me, they’re there.)

So anyway: it’s not like I’ve generally become a more laid-back, chill person. I’m just…feeling like, yep, there will be a thing that I write next, and nope, I don’t have to be absolutely certain whether it’s Wielding the Stars or King of Flowers, King of the Sea or The Winter Wars or something else on the list or something I think up tomorrow in the shower. A few years back I was asking people to remind me that I didn’t have to figure out what book to write next, and apparently that’s become an automatic function for the time being. Which: cool, okay, plenty else to worry about, thanks, brain. The part of me that can’t resist poking things with a stick is kind of going, “But…why are we…?” But never mind, that part! We’re fine. We will write something else next. It’ll be fun. So okay then.

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Bad movies: doing just one thing at a time

I have had a long string of days with no specific time commitments earlier than late afternoon (because things are quite frankly pretty really difficult right now with the vertigo and the meds). As a result, I have the flexibility to try out movies that are in my Netflix queue on an “oh why not, let’s see how it goes” basis, because if they run over the amount of time I need for my workout, or if I have to stop one because it’s no good and move on to another, it won’t screw up the rest of the schedule. I have this theory that if I never run into bad movies (or TV or books or music or restaurants or or or or), I am not casting the net wide enough and am probably missing things I would like that don’t look like things I would definitely totally like.

Lordy there are a lot of bad movies out there. It is hard work to make a movie, and the sheer quantity of terrible ones out there–just the ones on Netflix–just the ones on Netflix that do not immediately trigger the “no, that one will be terrible, do not watch” buttons–is staggering.

One of the things that’s come up a lot about movies that have talented actors in them and come out terrible anyway is that a lot of them start out only trying to do one thing at once. They are doing setting. Not even setting plus gorgeous camerawork, which I could forgive. But look! Here is a solid seven minutes of setting! We are in this particular location! It has buildings! Sometimes a tree or two! (If there are lots of trees I am also more forgiving. Me and trees, you know. Also water. But no, mostly buildings.) Here are some people who are not shot in such a way that you could possibly get to know them, so: still setting! Yep! Setting! No theme here! No characters! Just setting! Seeeeeeettinnnnnng!

Don’t do this.

Or character: here is this guy doing stuff! Boy, is he doing stuff! He is folding his laundry! Hee, what a quirky guy, with the way he folds his laundry! It is what we call stage business, the laundry folding! And this can be great. This can be really good, the stage business, the introducing us to the character. But you can’t let it drag. Because if your actor is talented enough to show us who he is with the folding of his laundry, he’s talented enough to show us who he is with the folding of his laundry in a few minutes. And then more of it…is not actually giving us more backstory of who he is and who his Uncle Carlo is and what his Uncle Carlo did in the war and all that. Not just with the laundry. You have to give us another character, you have to give us more setting, you have to give us something more than just the one thing.

I’m not saying everything has to be fast-paced. I’m saying that even in leisurely pacing, even in a loving slow and gentle buildup like you often get with the hour and a half BBC mysteries, you’re generally doing more than one thing at once…and if you’re not, you lose audience attention, because you have to earn it, you don’t get to just call names when it slips away.

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Dealing with the potential wrongness

I was out with a few writer friends having tea yesterday afternoon, and I mentioned my unexpected pirate story from years back. And one of my friends, who is pretty new at writing, said, “See, that would scare me, because I would think, what if someone who knows a lot more about pirates than I do read it and said I got it wrong?”

And the more I thought about it, the more I had some responses to that question.

1. Yep, that’ll happen. Let’s say that you’re one of the very very most knowledgeable people in the world about something. Pine forest ecology. The role of George of Denmark in the reign of Queen Anne. Pirates. Whatever. If there is knowledge, you know it. And you sit down to write a story that prominently features your area of Rully Great Knowledge. What happens?

Kate happens. (Unless you’re Kate. Then That Other Kate happens.) Who is Kate? Kate is one of the other Rully Greatly Knowledgeable people in your field of expertise. And Kate disagrees with you. She thinks that you’re weighting various factors a little off, or that you trust a source that is not quite trustworthy or don’t trust one that is quite trustworthy, or something. Or Kate is your closest colleague and you trust her opinion on work–but when it comes to translating this field into fiction, she thinks you’ve changed something important, where you think it’s something trivial. Or that you haven’t explained enough for the layperson.

Kate is not wrong. She’s not always right. But she’s not wholly wrong, either, because this is not arithmetic. You can both be wrong and both right.

And then there are the people who know less than you do about whatever you’re putting into your fiction, but they think they know more, or it just doesn’t feel right (see the Tiffany Problem), or another thing.

Point is, yes, it’s important to get stuff right. But it will not save you from people looking at your story and saying, “You did that wrong!” Because nothing will save you from that except putting it in a drawer and never letting anybody see it. So you have to come to terms. Comforting, I know. But seriously: come to terms with people thinking you did stuff wrong. Learn to listen and occasionally say, “Oh gosh, you’re right, I screwed that up, I’m sorry,” or else, if you don’t feel that you screwed that up, provide a discreet bibliography on your webpage for your story, then go write something else.

2. Kind of story matters. My friend has not read my pirate story, or she would know that it is not the kind of story that leans heavily on accuracy. (Heh. Heh heh.) It is…a bit gonzo. But also it leans on what kinds of things have been legends of piracy over the ages rather than actual piracy, and it’s structured so that that’s clear.

Obviously not every story can be like that. Or should. You want to leave your comfort zone sometimes. But sometimes–especially if you’re just starting out and crazy amounts of busy–using the stuff you know really really well as a springboard into the unknown is fine, actually. Or using one of the styles that does not invite biographical criticism. Daniel Pinkwater, for example: I expect Daniel Pinkwater gets letters from time to time trying to correct his books, monkeys being what they are, but most people know that they are wacky, zany, and not attempting to provide a road map to reality. So if somebody says to him, “You know, there isn’t actually any poultry themed restaurant in Weehawken,” well, was that his point? It was so not his point. So onwards, Daniel Pinkwater.

3. Steep yourself like a fine tea. To tell the truth, I read a lot of nonfiction because I like reading a lot of nonfiction, and also because I like reading a lot, and leaving out nonfiction cuts my potential reading list significantly. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s good for me. Blueberries are incredibly healthy stuff. They still taste like blueberries, which is to say: awesome. You don’t get negative health points because they taste good.

Recently a young friend told me that she was trying to increase her vocabulary to impress people with (I paraphrase here) her erudition. And I did not tell her, “Honey, nobody will be impressed by you knowing big words,” even though that’s true in my experience–the people who don’t have large vocabularies themselves do not tend to value it, and the people who do often take it for granted and cannot always identify which words they use are the “big hard” words–because I couldn’t really conceive that she would look back and say, “Darn it, I wish I had a smaller vocabulary! Knowing a broader range of ways to express myself is such a waste of time.” She’s not doing anything crazy like spending hours a day drilling herself on it. She’s just trying to pay a bit more attention.

And if you do that on the larger scale with fiction, there’s more stuff that will be in the comfort zone I mentioned in #2. The novel I’m working on* has a setting I’ve been getting background on since I was, oh, six. Or possibly since I was born, depending on what you want to count as background. So even though this is the first time I’ve written something in this particular setting, when I have to describe a detail of what someone is wearing, it feels a lot more like, “Please tell me how your grandparents dressed when you were a child” than like “Please make up a thing completely from scratch and then keep track of the thing you made up,” just in terms of how I process it. Not everything is going to be like that. But eventually you’ll get comfortable because you’ll have added a particular area to your wheelhouse. The details will just be there when you reach for them. Then when you do get an idea that works with the setting or concepts, you won’t have to be looking up every last little thing and worrying about it, because you’ll have at least some of a knowledge base to work from. A knowledge base is a very, very nice security blanket.

*Not the same as the novel I wrote in September. You gotta move with the times; it’s not September any more.

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Critiques and completion

Before I get back to my Farthing Party panel notes, I wanted to talk about why I prefer to critique completed works rather than excerpts or partially finished drafts. Recently I did a crit as a Kickstarter reward for Daily SF, and the promised crit had been on “a short story,” but the person sent me the first few chapters of their novel instead. I want to hasten to add that I am not upset with them about this–I just feel they got less value for their dollar.*

Here’s the thing: there is hardly ever such a thing as good writing in a vacuum.** You can show me, say, a really beautiful sestina about a moth.*** But you can also show me a hard-boiled detective story for which plunking the sestina down in the middle would not improve the story in the slightest. Context is all.****

So I can tell someone what is or is not working for me about the first few chapters of a book. I bounce off the first few pages of a great many books (two just this morning!), so it’s a lot easier to hit the “this is bad writing in a vacuum” buttons. There are plenty of those. But–for example, if my thought at the end of Chapter 3 is, “I really want to know what happened to Maud,” that doesn’t mean that you screwed up by not putting Maud’s fate in Chapter 2. It will depend on what comes after. If Chapter 4 starts, “Maud wiped the blood from her sword and considered her options,”***** then wanting to know about Maud at the end of Chapter 3 is a feature, not a bug. If you wait for Chapter 27, when I have long since ceased caring, or worse, Book 3, then it’s important that I was wondering what happened to Maud from the end of Chapter 3 on.

Everything ramifies forward, but it also ramifies backward. You can say that you want to read onward, or that something is bothering you, or that the whole thing smells of unwashed socks. But a wonderful beginning can be completely undone by an ending that does not follow its implications and ramifications. This is even true at the series length. This is why series that don’t have midpoint endings are so problematic: you are cantilevering a greater and greater weight of story, and eventually it all goes crashing into the river.

And we are once again reminded of what we have said about me and metaphors when I’m tired. But still: the more complete, the more I can turn over the ramifications and see how they fit together, and this is a good thing for me as a reader, but it’s an even better thing for you as a writer, because one of the best things about being a writer is that you can get help from the smart people you know to make your stuff even better. It is not a live-action art form. It can be fixed later. Hurrah for that.

*I get that not everybody has short stories in the first place, so the person may have gotten the most possible value for their dollar. Let’s say, then, that they got less value compared to a hypothetical other person who was giving me the same number of words to critique but in a finished short story instead of a novel partial.

**When Alec said this on Twitter earlier this week, I agreed that there are not at all enough stories with speculative science set in hard vacuum. Pls to be getting on this; kthx.

***Please do.

****If you write me a hard-boiled detective story in which a really beautiful sestina about a moth is crucial, I will love it forEVAR.