Voted for the Hugos!

Earlier today I submitted my ballot for the Hugo Awards, which are annual awards for the best works of science fiction and fantasy, given out every year at the World Science Fiction Convention. I made a concerted effort to read as many of the nominated works as I could, and I’m glad I did, because there were many fabulous stories, authors, and artists nominated. By and large, I enjoyed the works of all the nominees, and will offer my hearty congratulations to whoever wins.

But, because these awards are still about choosing winners from among the best, here’s what I picked.

Best Novel: Feed, by Mira Grant. It’s a zombie novel, which makes a lot of people groan these days. (Har.) But Feed isn’t really about the zombies– here, the zombies have already come, and they’re now part of daily life as humanity struggles to adapt to a changed world. In Feed, the zombies are the backdrop for a near-future political thriller. And it’s probably the best near-future, “realistic” science fiction book I’ve read in years.

Best Novella: Troika, by Alastair Reynolds. This was a tough category to pick; all of the stories were great, and each had a unique hook that drew me in. But Troika, a near/alternate future story about the discovery of an alien object orbiting the Sun, and set amidst the backdrop of a second Soviet Union, won me over. I suspect The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang, about artificial intelligences being raised as “pets,” will end up winning the category– no complaints there, either.

Best Novelette: The Jaguar House, by Aliette de Bodard. Another tough category to pick– there were three or four stories I could have easily voted for, but I went with The Jaguar House because I really liked the Mexican flavor to the story, and also because kick-ass female assassins have a special place in my heart (those who’ve read parts of my novel will understand).

Best Short Story: Amaryllis, by Carrie Vaughn. I liked the depiction of family life in a near-future world, and also the happy ending. Happy (or at least, satisfying) endings seemed kind of few and far between amongst all the short fiction categories; many just had a hanging ending that left me feeling kind of haunted. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, I felt a bit beaten down by the time I read all the stories, even though my reading was spread over a couple of weeks.

Creating a satisfying ending that doesn’t feel orchestrated or sappy is very difficult to do in short fiction. And I wanted to encourage it, because those are usually the stories I like best.

In the end, it was a tough call between Amaryllis, or For Want of a Nail by Mary Robinette Kowal. I suspect the latter is going to win, so my top choice went to the former because I’m like that.

Best Related Work: Writing Excuses Season 4. Regular blog readers will have seen my previous posts raving about Writing Excuses, a writing podcast by Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, Dan Wells, and Mary Robinette Kowal. They’ve already won two Parsec Awards, and I was pleased to be able to vote for them in the Hugos.

Best Graphic Story: Schlock Mercenary. If you haven’t been reading the webcomic, you should start. Epic space opera, with a deep story, great characters, and still manages to be funny every day.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: Inception. It was a tough call between that and Scott Pilgrim; in the end, I went with Inception. Most sci-fi that Hollywood churns out these days is along the lines of Franchise: The Reboot-ening, Superhero Movie #37, or Lousy Film Version of Great Novel. Inception was none of these, and while Scott Pilgrim was quirky and fun, Inception was my favorite film last year, hands down.

Also, I’m a total Christopher Nolan fanboy.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form: Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury. If the title offends you, don’t watch the video. It will most likely give you a fatal aneurysm, and I don’t want that on my conscience.

Best Editor, Short Form: John Joseph Adams. A really tough call here, but I went with my gut on this one. John Joseph Adams edits two magazines, Fantasy and Light Speed, and has also put together a ton of great anthologies.

Best Editor, Long Form: Moshe Feder. I’ll admit some potential bias here, since Moshe Feder edits two of my favorite authors, Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells, both of whom have put out several awesome books in the past year. (They’re both also Writing Excuses podcasters.) It was a tough call between Moshe Feder and Lou Anders, but I suspect Lou has a better chance at winning the category, so I voted for Moshe. (Did I mention I’m like that?)

Best Pro Artist: Dan Dos Santos. All the artists in this category are great, but I’ve been a big fan of Dan Dos Santos ever since he did the cover art for Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker. Check out the video below to see him at work. I’m not an artist, but it’s still inspiring to watch.

Best Fan Artist: Randall Munroe. Randall draws the popular nerdy webcomic XKCD, and I don’t really consider him so much an “artist” as a “commentator”. That said, he has a gift for visually conveying information in really neat ways. And even after familiarizing myself with the other artists in the category, Randall still gets my vote.

Campbell Award for Best New Writer: Dan Wells. In addition to being a Writing Excuses podcaster, he’s also put out a great trilogy of psychological thrillers over the past year or so, told from the point of view of a teenage sociopath. If you haven’t yet, you should totally read I Am Not a Serial Killer.

I can’t wait for WorldCon in two and a half weeks! Hopefully I’ll get to meet and congratulate most of the nominees and winners in person. Is it possible to increase the awesomeness of one’s own work via osmosis? I hope so.

Clarion West Write-a-thon: Complete!

Back in mid-June, I signed up for the Clarion West Write-a-thon, and set myself a goal: add at least 1,000 words a day to my novel. Now, 41 days later, I’ve added 41,653 words, for an average of 1,016 words a day. Success! There were a few individual days where I fell short of 1,000, but it averaged out to over 1,000 a day– plus, every day, the thousands digit of my word count ticked up by 1, according to my daily tracker. All in all, I’m calling it a win.

I did not, unfortunately, meet my secondary goal, which was to finish and submit a short story for the Writers of the Future contest at the end of June. That story just needed more brainstorming. As I wrote in my last Write-a-thon status update, it may yet become my NaNoWriMo novel… or maybe not. I have a hankering to write an urban fantasy this year. Anyway…

As for my current novel, the total word count now stands at 163,772– almost 600 double-spaced pages in Microsoft Word. What makes me even happier is that I think I can finish the entire first draft before I go to WorldCon in August! I’ve actually written all the way to the end; now I’m going back now and filling in a couple of holes in the story which I skipped over earlier. A couple weeks from now, I hope to post a blog entry saying that the first draft is, indeed, done. At which point I can start on the second draft. But that’s another story (no pun intended).

Writing these 41,000 words over 41 days has actually been harder, I think, than the 60,000 words in 30 days that I wrote when I originally started this novel for NaNoWriMo 2009. Starting fresh in NaNoWriMo, it’s easier to be flexible, and change things up if you get stuck– here, I more or less had a set path that I needed to follow, and if I got stuck, I had no choice but to power through whatever scene was holding me up. I still did get stuck once– namely, in the climax, which needs some judicious editing. I was reluctant to tackle that during Write-a-thon, since editing 3,000 words out of the climax would have meant I’d need to write 4,000 more words that day in order to keep my word count up.

But now that Write-a-thon is over, I can delete and revise to my heart’s content. That said, I do plan to keep up one part of Write-a-thon: namely, I plan to continue writing at least 1,000 new words every day. I can edit all I want, but I still have to write 1,000 new words– whether on the novel, or a new short story, or a mix of both. Luckily, I tend to have 4 or 5 projects going at once, so if I get stuck on one and need to spend time brainstorming, there’s still almost always another story that I can still write 1,000 words for. One thousand words also seems to be a good number because it’s substantial, but not overwhelming. If it’s 1 am and I’m sitting at my computer in a zombie-like trance, I can still usually bang out 1,000 words before bed, even if they’ll need substantial editing later.

That, perhaps, will be my biggest takeaway from Write-a-thon: confidence that I can write consistently over a sustained period, and make good progress, without feeling pressure to hit NaNoWriMo-like levels of word count (2000+ a day).

Also, thanks to everyone who donated! It’s not too late to sponsor me (or any other author)– click here to go to my Clarion West author’s page, or click here to see the full list of participating authors.

It’s been a fun experience, and so have the weekly author readings. Next year I’m planning to apply to the Clarion West Workshop itself, which would entail one of the most awesome and educational six weeks ever. There’s a great line-up of teachers next year– they announced the full list at the final author reading of 2011, and while I wasn’t able to write fast enough to get them all down, two names stuck out in my mind: Connie Willis and George R.R. Martin. Next year’s gonna be an awesome Clarion West.

Congrats to all the other Write-a-thon participants, and of course, the workshop graduates! I’m looking forward to meeting y’all at cons and workshops and author signings to come.

Clever Title Goes Here

It’s been a while since I’ve done a post on the nuts and bolts of writing, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Today’s topic, inspired by recent struggles, is: Titles.

On the surface, titles seem simple, right? Come up with a few words that describe the story, slap it on the top and that’s that. But a lot of writers have a surprisingly hard time coming up with titles. For my own part, either I’ll know the title from almost before I put the first word on the page, or I’ll be still agonizing over it months after I finish the story. There is no in-between.

Yet despite the headache that titles can be, they don’t get much discussion time on writing podcasts and blogs. I suppose there are more complicated issues of storytelling to be discussed, which is true… but despite being an outwardly simple topic, titles are incredibly important. After all, the title will be what gives any potential reader their first impression of your story.

This is particularly true for short stories– with a novel, the cover art may fill that role, but for short stories (and many novels as well), the title will almost certainly be the first thing the reader notices. A catchy title can make the difference between a potential reader and an actual one. It’s the first, best advertising for your story.

Yet advertising isn’t all a title is, either. A good title can, in some cases, be what ties the story together. Title can be short and catchy, or long and poetic; they can set up a mystery that hooks the reader; they can make the reader laugh; they can be a metaphor that sums up the entire story in a few words; they can use language to craft an image that the reader simply must know more about. If the title ties in to the end of the story, it can create that satisfying “loop” that’s so important for short stories. But a title doesn’t need to be all of those things; in fact, some of those things are inherently contradictory.

The story that got me thinking about this was a 5,000 word science fiction short story that I’ve been doing some final rounds of editing on. As a general rule, I prefer short and catchy titles. The working title of my novel, In a Land of Wind and Sky, is an exception because I like the poeticalness of it. (Is “poeticalness” a word? If not, it is now.) As for the short story in question, here are some titles I’ve gone through:

Family Tree: Short, but not very inspired. It does tie together the main metaphor in the story (the story revolves around the main character’s niece, who’s a botanist), but it probably doesn’t make anyone go, “oooh, I want to know what that story’s about!”
The Gatebuilders’ Daughter: I like the rhythm of the words here, and there’s a little more mystery in the title (who is it referring to, and are the gatebuilders?), but the phrase “the gatebuilders’ daughter” is actually used on the second page of the story. As a general rule, I’m not a fan of titles which are literal lines in the story– although opinions will certainly differ on this.
Memories of Persei: More evocative, although any mystery it has is lost by the fourth line of the story, in which in becomes clear that the main character is reminiscing about the years she spent at a place called Persei. Also, on first reading, the word “Persei” takes a second to figure out how to pronounce– as a result, that may lessen the title’s impact.
The Girl Who Planted Seeds: This is the title I’m going with right now. It works on a literal and metaphorical level, it has rhythm, it flows easily off the tongue, and hopefully has a little bit of mystery to it as well. Admittedly, there’s nothing about it that screams “science fiction”, but if it appears in a science fiction magazine (fingers crossed), that’ll hopefully take care of any need to broadcast the genre in the title.

For short stories in particular, I suspect that a good title, if it’s intriguing and retains its mystery well into the story, can be one factor that keeps an editor reading, especially if they’re in the middle of going through a huge slush pile and are sort of looking for reasons to move to the next story. Is this actually true? I’d be interested to know… I’ll have to ask some editors next time I’m at a con.

Of course, an awesome title also sets the readers’ expectations for the story higher, and if the title is more awesome than the rest of the story, or if the story does not live up to the title’s promise in some other way (for example, if the title is funny but the story isn’t), then the reader will feel let down. In short, come up with an awesome title if you can, but make sure your story is even awesomer. (I’m making up all sort of words today.) And whatever you promise in the title, make sure the story delivers it.

Do you have any favorite book titles? Maybe a title that made you laugh, or evoked an image that you just needed to know more about? What do you look for when you’re reading and writing story titles?

Clarion West Write-a-Thon Midterm Report

I’ve gotten through twenty-one days of the Clarion West Write-a-thon– precisely halfway. It’s been mostly successful: after 21 days, I’m sitting at 21,199 words, which means that so far I’ve hit my goal of 1,000 words a day. I’ve dropped below 1,000 on a few individual days (see the Write-a-thon tab for daily progress), but as long as I can maintain that 1,000 word average I’ll call it a win.

Unfortunately, I didn’t make my secondary goal, which was to submit a fantasy short story to the Writers of the Future contest. I think that particular story needs more time to simmer in my head. I false-started writing it about six times, mainly because I wasn’t sure how to get from the beginning to the really cool ending I had envisioned. I like the setting, but the characters and the plot were a little threadbare, and I could never make everything mesh the way I wanted to. The setting is complex enough that I think it could support a novel, so that story may yet become my NaNoWriMo novel this year.

Maybe it’s for the best. The short story needed to take a back seat to the novel anyway. I’m still hoping to have the whole first draft of the novel complete by WorldCon, and those 21,199 words (with at least another 21,000 to be added during the rest of the Write-a-Thon) are an important step.

In the course of these 1,000-word-a-day spurts, I’m coming to terms with an important fact: the first draft of this novel is a long, long way from finished. In fact, it’s closer to an outline than a finished novel.

When writing passages for a novel (or any story), there’s a lot to keep in mind: realistic and consistent voice and motivation for each character; a fully-realized, consistent, and deep setting; a plot that’s interesting and complex without being convoluted. You need good dialogue, good descriptions, prose that reflects the pace of the story, among many other things, and it’s easy to get bogged down or overwhelmed.

As I near the end of the first draft, I’ve basically shelved all concerns except for two: (1)figuring out how to progress the plot toward where I want it to go, and (2)examining character motivations. Often this takes the form of long, introspective sequences that have no place in, say, an action scene, but which I need in order to get a grip on what the characters would be thinking and doing in the situation. If I can get the characters feeling right in my head, and ensure that I know what’s going to happen next, then in the next draft I can excise a lot of the rambling, and put in better description, and ensure that all the little setting details are consistent, and make sure that everything I’ve put into the ending is foreshadowed in the beginning, and…

Man, who knew that writing a novel was this hard?

In all seriousness, though, I’m really enjoying the write-a-thon, and I’m hopeful that in addition to bringing me much closer to finishing my first novel, it’ll help me establish a more consistent daily writing routine. If you’d like to sponsor me, for any amount (all funds go to the Clarion West Writers’ Workshop), I’d really appreciate it. Just click on the Paypal link on my Clarion West Writers Page, located here. Or, if you look at the directory of Write-a-thon writers and see any other writers you’d like to sponsor, you can make one donation and split it among multiple writers.