Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Fractals in a Starry Night or Art + Math = Reality

 Starry Starry Night by Shadoweddancer on deviantArt
Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh
One of the things I enjoy about post-impressionist art is the way it conveys such a feeling of reality, often without looking 'real' at all.  The colors can be bright, the paint heavy with thick brush strokes, and the angles strange and unexpected.  Yet the art conveys emotion that rings true to the subject matter - the feeling of what is depicted - and it is far more 'real' than a camera could ever catch.  

There are many questions about van Gogh and his paintings.  What was the source of the altered 'vision' that allowed for his striking art - was it genius, or a mix of that and something like an illness, affecting the way he painted?  For example, it has been suggested that the swirls and halos in 'Starry Night' may have been a result of mental illness, toxins, epilepsy, or other factors.  Was this curling, glowing world to some extent what he was really seeing?

When I think about fractals, I imagine that van Gogh was seeing far more accurately and 'realistically' than we might at first imagine.

As you know from my previous posts 'Art Imitates Life' and 'Fact, Fiction, and Fractals,' I am captivated by fractals and fractal art.  In spite of years of formal math education, I am still amazed at how we have developed this tool (language) called math, that can describe the world both so comprehensively and so creatively.  When we use math to describe nature we find systems and patterns repeating in strange ways, and yet they seem so recognizable to us, because they are all around and a part of our everyday experience.

Clouds and clusters of stars are both phenomena that share a certain fractal nature.  They possess self-similar (same on all scales), repeating, complex patterns.  Galactic gas and dust are distributed in a manner that is both self-similar and hierarchical.  It is from this material that new stars are born, already clustered in ways that match the original fractal nature of the gas cloud.  Investigating how the fractals change with time gives scientists insight into how stars are formed and how they evolve. [1]  Clouds possess a wide variety of shapes and forms - bumps, curves, swirls, blobs, and filigree - that together form complex, repeating patterns.  Some of these can be modeled very accurately with the right kind of mathematical fractal.  Such models are then used to help both weather prediction and climate modeling. [2]   

The fractal swirls in 'Shadoweddancer's' Starry Starry Night seem strangely familiar.  Of course they bring to mind the piece of art that they honor, but they also reflect the subject of the painting - the night sky itself.  After all, a mix of stars and clouds would have many intriguing fractal patterns laced within one another.  As I look at this fractal art, I imagine I see stars and galaxies glowing through a patchy gauze of clouds.  It is certainly a spectacular night, with clusters of stars and the band of our Milky Way galaxy flowing through the scene.

The similarity to 'Starry Night' is striking to me.  It makes me imagine that van Gogh's painter's eye saw into the patterns of the evening sky and represented them in a way that only a fractal could really imitate.  A stretch?  Probably, but there is no denying the fractals found all around us, and the amazing works they inspire.  I know it motivates me to look for more of the 'hidden fractals' that abound in our environment, both in nature and in art.  And I will continue to imagine that the genius of some artists (and mathematicians) is the ability to see into the patterns of reality in ways that the rest of us overlook.

Image Credits and References:

Starry Starry Night appears with the generous permission of the artist, Shadoweddancer on deviantArt.  "Van Gogh is one of my favorite artists.  This is a tribute to his Starry Starry Night, which I think is one of his most recognizable works and my favorite."

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh is from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

[1] Sanchez and Alfaro, 2010, Galaxy Astrophysics, arXiv:1011.1374 [astro-ph.GA], Cornell University Library, http://arxiv.org/abs/1011.1374
[2] van den Heuvel et al. 2012, JGR Atmospheres, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/1999JD900972/abstract

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fun at TusCon in Tucson - Or Why Cons are Cool

http://tusconscificon.com/index.htmlI'm embarrassed to say I've been to very few Cons, even though I've been an avid fan of science fiction, fantasy, and horror since I was a wee child.  Cons seemed kinda scary for some reason.  Even as someone to whom they are directly targeted, I always felt like I wouldn't really fit in.  This is of course nonsense, but I do sometimes think a lot of nonsense.

So off I went to TusCon 40, primarily to give one of the talks in the science track, and to sit on a writing panel about rewriting/editing.  Since they were on separate days I ended up being there for most of the Con.  It started Friday afternoon, which I missed, because I was having dinner at a friend's house.  But Saturday morning came, and with it my talk.  I hung out to hear about the outer planet satellites from David Williams, and to hear about the Chelyabinsk impact from Carl Hergenrother and Vishnu Reddy.  My talk was "Do Extraterrestrials Really Need Water."  I had a good audience, about 30 people, and some good questions and discussion afterwards.

Then I sat down with one of my colleagues and another person who was a writer and a filmmaker to have lunch and chat about asteroids and such.  That was a great deal of fun, and a good way to stretch one's brain.

But then I had the evening open, and sat around wondering what to do.  Well, I was exhausted, so figured I could go get a nap.  But then I noted that one of the 'art demos' in the art room was paper quilling.  I've been doing paper quilling since I was nine, and couldn't pass up the opportunity to sit for an hour twirling paper.  This was fun, and ended up being almost two hours long, sitting with ten other crafters who unlike me had never tried quilling before.

After that it was time for the masquerade, or the costume contest.  This was also enjoyable, both to see some really great costumes, and to laugh a bit at how completely over the top some of them were.  One favorite was a person dressed up as "2nd Level Fighter" who had an arrow through his neck.  But my 'most liked' was a version of Merida from Disney's Brave, who unfortunately didn't win, but them's the breaks.

The next day dawned, and I needed to entertain myself before my own writing panel at noon.  So I headed over to the movie room to see a screening of "Heavy Metal."  You may recall in my post about "Top Ten Cult Movie Favorites: Horror" I have "Heavy Metal" listed as number five.  Yes, I have it in horror.  I watched it again at the Con and did not change my mind.  That is some gory, scary stuff.  There is of course the humor, sci-fi, and fantasy in there, too.  But overall, the feeling watching the film is one of unease.  And a few of the animated shorts that make up the film are so horrific they skew the whole movie.  Anyway, I was one of only three people watching "Heavy Metal" at 9:30am, but I suppose that's the nature of a Con.

I then took myself on over to the room with the writing panels and sat in on one about writing as both a profession and a hobby, and the overlap of doing things for fun and for profit, both.  That was an interesting panel, since many of the writers had conflicting feelings about how their writing ran into all the other areas of their lives.  Some quotes from that panel were, "Any creative person is always working," "We are the heroes and villains, we are our own best source material," and "When we write science fiction, we are no longer innocent to the nature of stories; as a professional we lose a certain innocence."  People drew the line between hobby and profession not only by if money was being earned, but also by how much time the endeavor took up in any week.

Then was the panel I was on with rewriting and editing.  I've mentioned it before and so won't go into details, but there was definitely a sense overall that rewriting is where the story is truly made.  That that is the point at which the crafting takes place.  I think I'll write up a blog post about my own ideas and experiences from rewriting; there was plenty to talk about.

I spent the next block of time hanging out in the dealers room, buying a book or two, leafing through old paperbacks, checking out some of the art, and basically relaxing.  There was a lot of creative stuff on display, even for such a small con.

By then things were beginning to wrap up, but not before I got to head back to the video room to see number nine on my cult movie horror list, "The Trilogy of Terror" with Karen Black.  I had not seen that movie for at least twenty years.  The first two were no longer scary at all, but that Zuni doll still has some of it's old horror.  Even when it looks like she is being attacked by a plastic doll (which she is) there is enough blood and screaming to get your hackles up.  Then of course the great ending, with all the teeth and all that.  Yeah.  Good times.

So all in all, I'd say success.  I particularly enjoyed giving the science presentation, and am looking forward to offering the talk at other Cons.  Have to start sniffing around and see who is interested ...

Image Credits:  Top, logo for TusCon 40; middle and bottom, my own photos from the Con.

Monday, November 11, 2013

November is Nuts - From Cons to Composition to Comets

Comet ISON
November is nuts.  This one moreso than any previous November because both NaNoWriMo and the Tucson Science Fiction Convention overlapped.  This was the first time I'd been to a TusCon, and even though I had to spend a lot of time working on my science presentation for that venue, I still refused to give up on my yearly encounter with NaNo.  Which means I am way, way behind 'composing' my latest novel.  (In this case, the third in the 'Voidspace' trilogy).  I am writing this at the airport, taking a break from NaNo noveling.

This recent adventure started in October, since I had to spend time getting my science talk pulled together.  And worrying about it on the side, which is a pursuit unto itself.  This meant no prep for NaNo this year.  I was also giving two different versions of the same talk - one for the science institute I call home, and the other for the Con.  And THEN I was also invited to be on a writing panel at the Con.  Wow.  Fun, but a lot of work to get it all done. 

So November started, I traveled to Tucson, gave the firs talk, and then the second.  I am very, very happy to say both went well.  I received a lot of positive feedback from both talks, and generated a lot of questions and good discussion at the Con.  I have to admit I was a little surprised, since I had intentionally taken myself out of my comfort zone and talked about a topic upon which I have done very little study - astrobiology.  I'll be posting a review of the material in another blog post.  Can't really get the whole feel of the talk down unless I post a youtube performance, and I am definitely not going there.  :)

The panel was sort of 'eh'.  I enjoyed the panels I attended but the one I was on was too 'combative.'  It's the first time I've been a member of a writing panel instead of a science panel, and I was disconcerted by how there was no structure.  The panel chair said he would poll the panel with questions, but by the time things would have gotten to me, we were on whole 'nother subject or question.  Once or twice I sort of wedged myself into the conversation so I could make a quick comment or two, but for the most part felt unneeded and superfluous.  Still, it was a very good experience for me.  There always has to be a first writing panel, and it was good to have something of a learning experience.  Hopefully next time it will be a smaller panel with a more definite structure.  They are probably all very different from one Con to the next, and even one subject to the next.

Certainly giving the science talk was my cup runneth over, so I maybe I should focus my efforts on that area when offering my services at a Con.

And of course, one cannot forget that we have Comet ISON in our skies right now, screaming it's way towards the sun.  For the moment, it appears that ISON will survive its close approach with our star.  But it is always possible for a comet, especially one like this, to disintegrate completely as it endures both the heat and the flux of particles.  It might get quite bright, might stay mostly the same, might disintegrate - it's definitely worth watching to see how things evolve.

More posts to come with details about TusCon, my astrobiology talk, and naturally, NaNoWriMo.

Image Credit:  Photographer Michael J├Ąger via Sky and Telescope Magazine

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Mixing Science with Your Art, Planetary Style

"The Artist's Universe" - IAAA
Being both a lover of science and art, I find few things as enjoyable as an art exhibit that includes scientifically inspired pieces.  Planetary landscapes are so evocative - it isn't surprising that a number of planetary scientists are also artists, recording their visions of other worlds not just through their research, but through art.  

"Yelland and Ino"
The exhibit is sponsored by the International Association of Astronomical Artists, and was organized by scientist and space artist Dan Durda.  The IAAA website states "Space art serves the most basic function of fine art, that of inspiration. It directs our focus toward the space frontier, where human destiny inevitably lies."  More than twenty artists contributed thirty four pieces of art to the exhibit in a variety of media including pastels, watercolors, oils, and digital creations.  Some of the art has a traditional 'space art' feeling, while other art moves in a different direction, using unusual materials and perspectives.   

"Jovian Atmosphere"
The piece "Yelland and Ino" by Monica Aiello caught my attention immediately, being so accurate at depicting a planetary surface and so aesthetically pleasing at the same time.  A close examination reveals that this is not a painting at all, but a creation of fiber and acrylic.  The cracks in the surface are created by yarns and threads in straight and arcuate forms.  The whole is covered with a clear acrylic that mimics the icy surface of the satellite.

"Titan's Southern Summer"
I enjoyed Marilynn Flynn's "Titan's Southern Summer" for a number of reasons, one being the depiction of a canyon so like the desert southwest that I adore.  But this is a frozen world of methane and ethane, with a tilted Saturn high in the murky sky. 

One of the few pieces depicting alien life is Dan Durda's "Jovian Atmosphere."  These jellyfish-like creatures remind me of the classic idea of 'floaters' and 'sinkers' in a giant planet's atmosphere.  Many of these pieces have land and sky-scapes inspired by views of our home planet, then translated to appropriate contexts in the rest of the solar system, or universe at large.

The exhibit in question, called "The Artist's Universe" is on display at the annual AAS Division for Planetary Sciences meeting, held this year in Denver, Colorado.  So while the scientists peruse poster presentations of the latest scientific results, they can also stop by the exhibit, and take a moment to remember why we all do this science stuff in the first place. 

Because it is amazing, cool, and amazing.  And very cool.

Image Credits:  Marilynn Flynn, Dan Durda, and Monica Aiello - Space Artists.  IAAA.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Musing About The Talisman Universe

A recent round of the board game Talisman has me obsessing over the game ... again. This is one of those games that seems to polarize people - either you love it or hate it. I conducted a very small and quite unscientific survey to determine what it is about Talisman that is so very appealing, or for many, quite the opposite.

First of all, if you haven't played the game it is worth the time to check it out. No really. A geeky friend (like me) might be hiding a copy. Looking at the box top for the most recent (fourth) edition, you can tell you are going to be in for a good time. You can see a variety of characters attacking a dragon (or perhaps being attacked by a dragon) that is guarding a crown. Naturally, this is completely atypical of how the game play actually feels, and there is no dragon guarding the crown. Still, you can see the fighter being all fightery, the magic users casting spells, the thief ignoring all of this and trying to get the crown on the sly, and the assassin sneaking up to stab the thief in the back. And the sorceress, I think, is there with huge bubbling pot of some potion in one arm and her staff in the other. It can't be easy having to go into combat with a caldron as a a key part of one's melee strategy.

The first version was printed oh, so very long ago, and ended up having a plethora of add on modules, cards, characters, and more.  The setting for the game is a sort of high fantasy realm where encounters on the board can increase or decrease your statistics, such as strength, craft, and number of lives.  Needless to say, when you are out of lives, well, you are out.  (Unless you go ahead and start a new character and jump back in.)  The art from the original game was quirky, whimsical, occasionally silly, and the source of about a million inside jokes in my family.  Of particular note was the art for the "toad" card.  Much more ignominious than getting killed to death in this game is being turned into a toad ("toaded" as we say) by a witch.  The toad card had a rather outraged and startled expression that was certainly apt.

The thief is in for a serious surprise, here.
It became hard to have all the expansion modules open at once without say, three tables and a sizable part of the floor available.  It was so big that you might spend an entire game poking through the Talisman universe and never encounter another player.  The expansions included a tower to the ultimate dragon battle, a catacombs, a full blow up of the one City tile into a new whole board, and a sort of outland futuristic board with strange worlds, aliens, radiation, and bizarre new artifacts.  I'm sure I am forgetting something, because there was so very much.
 
In more recent times, the game was rebooted without all the expansions (as I said, it is now up to a fourth edition) and this one seems to have the charm of the original without quite so much of the crazy.  Although I really liked the crazy.  It is hard to explain how crazy the game could get, actually.  Each of those old expansions added an entire new piece of board space.  Little words to wander around in.  I'd forget there was an objective to the game and get lost in exploring and seeing what cool stuff I could find.  Getting distracted was a good way to lose, but I always had fun. It was a wonderful romp through all kinds of speculative goodness - fantasy, horror, and even a bit of sci-fi thrown in for the canonical good measure.

This new version is more palatable to those of my friends and family who do not have an affinity for the game, in general.  But by more palatable I mean they will play under extreme duress, instead of not at all.  Alright, I can see that any game that regularly goes over two hours can be a drain.  When you have more than three people playing Talisman, you can probably guarantee a three hour play time or longer, unless someone has a whip and a timer.  But there are many involved strategy games that have long play times that are not as divisive as Talisman.  So I'm tabling the play time as "problematic, but not a show stopper."

So what is?  My survey suggests that the unguided nature of the game - without specific benchmarks on the way to the final objective - is the real issue.  The game moves forward in a very free form fashion.  You can move in either direction on the board, wandering wherever you want, encountering the spaces of the board themselves or drawing cards.  Over and over and over.  The point is to get yourself tough enough with increased stats and/or great stuff and/or followers and definitely a mule early on or you can't carry all that stuff so you can fight your way to the center, grab the Crown of Command, and basically command all the other players to die off.
The sorceress is about to splash
some stew or something on
this dragon.  Note toad.

In addition, there is a random element to the game that means you might lose your nice high stats, or some of your followers, or - flying spaghetti monster forbid - you could lose your mule which is carrying all your stuff.  This means you can spend the entire game getting nice and buff, only to have it all taken away at the last, most heartbreaking moment.  I sort of like this aspect, since I like the fact that anyone can win the game.  You don't know however many turns in advance that you have no chance at all.  There is always a chance.

The final aspect of the game that seems to rankle the unbelievers is the rules.  There are not actually too many rules, but the complexity of the game means that they are always being checked and rechecked.  Then when you realize there is no official ruling for the situation you are in, you either have to make up a new house rule, or take a break from the game to go surf the intarwebs for possible solutions, or at least other people's house rules.  Yes, you guessed it, I kind of like this.  I enjoy when strange situations come up and we have to deal by a sort of community vote on what "makes sense" or what goes with the spirit of the rules, or what seems fair, or whatever will keep the game going.

So there is my Talisman game breakdown.  It's a game I love and long to play, while others whom I know want to play pretty much anything else.  At all.  Please.

What's your take?  Have a talisman experience to share?

Image Credit:  Me and my Talisman game.

Friday, August 23, 2013

On Failing in Games and Going Back for More

I read a provocative gaming article over at The New Inquiry called Born to Lose by author Christian Brown.  It is about the inherent ability of gaming to give the player the true experience of failure in a very lifelike fashion. (Actually, it's about a lot more than that, go give a read, I'll wait here.)  Brown notes that this feature of games is distinct from movies or books - "We can let the protagonist lose and force them to try again. The cycle of dying and starting the level over forces players to empathize with the character who toils in spite of certain failure."  Brown goes on to say that in some games "... the difference between “winning” and “losing” is obliterated ... we are forced to confront the personal experiences of the characters involved.

As an avid gamer, I found this article to be really interesting.  This is unquestionably a feature that draws me to this kind of gaming - it requires determination and resiliency to continue when you've already died a million times, and when you are not even sure you are doing the right thing.  No matter how hard you try, there is no guarantee things will turn out well. 

For example (Spoiler Alert - Dragon Age II) there is a scene late in Dragon Age II where one of your party members (Anders) appears from nowhere, rants a bit about his personal crusade, and then blows up a very important building with a lot of people in it.  That action forces you to choose between two sides, instead of finding a way to forge a peace.  The first time I played the game I actually screamed in pain and outrage.  Both because the guy blew up a church, and because the character had taken my options from me.  Feeling indignant and betrayed, I played the game several times trying to get the "good" ending where I was able to make peace between the sides.

If you know the game you know that ending does not exist.  Anders always appears and always blows up the Chantry.  I was stunned when I realized this really was the conclusion - that the game was written so that so many of your choices become moot.  In spite of this, I kept on playing the game.  I played it even knowing the ending, just for the experience of really exploring all the moral ground and ideas the game offered.  Had the ending been more black and white, I doubt I would have spent the time.

I feel similarly, although less strongly about Mass Effect (Spoiler Alert - Mass Effect 3).  This is a game in which you become quite invested.  First of all, as the author of the above mentioned article notes, you can become quite empathetic to a character that has died and come back a million times, through three entire games.  Some battles take a dozen tries, especially when the game is on harder difficulty settings.  Then there is the ambiguous ending to the whole series.  Three choices are offered - none of them good.  The canonical "best" choice is one where you force a change on every person in the entire galaxy without their consent.  Yet, I was not as impacted as I was by Dragon Age II.  I simply didn't feel the characters had enough life of their own, and the final choice was too divorced from every other choice made in the game.

Other games I've played have toyed with this concept.  Say like the Fable Series (Spoiler Alert - Fable 2 and 3.)  Fable 2 has three endings, one patently evil, but two that are good and bad in different ways.  The first has you saving everyone, but losing your family and truly beloved dog that has been with you the whole game.  The second has you saving the family and dog, but losing everyone else.  Fable 3 puts you in a position where - unless you play very well - your nicey-nice decisions can leave you without the resources to defeat the final onslaught of bad guys.

These were nice twists, and I enjoyed the tension.  But to really get it "right" - like how I feel about Dragon Age II - a game has to have a suite of characters with deep motivations and personalities, it needs to be very internally consistent, and it needs to make you feel as though you just might be able to win.  You have to have this sense that if only you'd made that one certain choice, it all would have come out differently.  This hearkens back to the article that got me thinking about all this, where the author says, " ... let us experience trying to unravel the betrayals and corruption ourselves and letting us fail and fail again. Letting loss and failure sluice over the viewer until they know there is nothing else that could be done."

For some reason, this works at creating a truly compelling gaming experience.  Well, at least it does for me.  Gives me a hankering to play Dragon Age II again.  Surely I can save the world this time, right?

J.A. Grier

Image Credit - photoxpress.com

Monday, August 5, 2013

Matching Your Story to the Perfect Market

Finding a good home for your story can be a challenge.  Doing a good job when looking for the right home can mean saving a lot of time and grief for everyone involved.  In the end, a good match means happiness for writers, readers, and editors. 

1.  Know the Genre of your Piece
This seems easy at first, but genres can merge and blend.  Additionally, the publishing world is always coming up with new genres and sub-genres.  Do you know the basic definitions for your genres?  What makes a story a sci-fi story?  What are the types of fantasy?  How much romance makes for a Romance?  What is Slipstream?  After you've identified the genre(s) and sub-genre(s) of your piece, consider the style or tone in which it was written.  Perhaps it is humorous, surreal, dark, technical or some combination.  It may be helpful to write out the words that fit your story to have on hand as you are considering markets.  As an example, a recent story I finished has the "classification" Horror, Monster, Apocalyptic, Romance, Dark Humor. 

2.  Find the Markets 
You are probably already reading many of the publications in which you'd like your work to appear.  Finding new markets is petty straightforward, since most in our genres are listed with either ralan.com (free) or duotrope.com (charges a yearly fee).  I've also found markets by checking out the tables at various conferences, looking at the publication history of stories in anthologies, and looking at author bios for where they have previously been published.

3.  Know the Markets
You probably know the publications you read pretty well.  You know the tones, genres, styles, and subjects they like to publish.  Do the same for other markets that interest you.  The best way to familiarize yourself with a publication is to buy a copy and read it.  Online journals make this part of the research very straightforward, since the material is right there for the reading.  You also protect yourself this way - you might reconsider submitting to a publication where the stories have a lot of typos and grammar mistakes.

4.  Follow the Guidelines
Read the guidelines for each publication carefully.  The submission guidelines probably have details about what the journal is looking to publish.  There may be special issues, themes, or anthologies open for submission, individually or at the same time.

5.  Know the Editors
Check the "about" page of any journal, and find the editors.  Do some research on them.  See where they have published, for example.  This can be challenging, since not all publications make it clear who will be handling your submission.  Still, if the Editor-in-Chief is known to dislike vampire stories, it is probably a waste of time to submit them to the mag, even if the mag does not specifically prohibit vampire stories.  Keep an eye out for editor's notes or interviews.  For example, Duotrope has posted some interviews with editors that give a bit more insight into what they are seeking. 

6.  Other Issues
Along with concerns about genre and content are issues related to compensation and rights.  Some markets pay more than others.  Some markets buy more rights than others.  Be sure you know what obligations you incur whenever you submit piece of writing.  Such concerns may have you choose one market over another, as a better home for your work.

And there is it.  Hopefully these suggestions will help us both identify good homes for our stories.  Of course, the submission process itself is the food for an entirely different blog post.

Image Credit:  Magazines, photoxpress.com

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Reviews - To Tell the Truth, Or Not

So one thing I am certainly slacking on is reviews of the publications I read.  I had told myself at the beginning of the year that I wanted to post more reviews.  I enjoy reviewing poetry and stories, I want to give a boost to the publications I read, and I like learning more about authors in the field.

BUT, and here is the but - what happens when something you read is perhaps not terribly impressive, or even (gasp) maybe something you don't actually like at all? 

I've often held back from reviewing material because I can't give it an honest two thumbs up.  Being a very modestly published writer and poet myself, I am sensitive to the fact that not everything I've written is composed of gorgeous and stunning prose with fascinating characters and a plot no one's ever conceived before.  I understand that it can be rough getting any exposure at all for one's writing, and then getting a ho-hum or even negative review would be disheartening.  Still, I would vastly prefer being reviewed in a constructive fashion that would allow me to improve, rather than to receive no notice at all.

But what has ended up happening is this sort of double standard - if I know someone is a well established, best-seller-type author, I write reviews that offer a 'What I Liked' and 'What I Didn't Like' sort of thing.  For authors that (seem to me to be) newer or are looking for exposure - I don't tend to write anything because I don't want to be dishonest or discouraging.  (After all, there are few pieces that are so universally fabulous that a review will be utterly positive.)

Wait.  Did you catch that?  So I am not writing about the people and publications that need it the most.  This conundrum needs a solution.  I'd like to spend more time on lesser known authors and smaller publications than anything else, but that's not what I'm doing.  Mostly out of fear.  I don't want to discourage or upset another writer, and I don't want to damage the reputation of a publication.  And I don't really know where I'm being a bit overly sensitive, and where I'm being really just the right amount of sensitive.

So what to do?  Well, research, naturally, being the geek that I am.  I just read a pile of posts on how to do online reviews of fiction, poetry, etc.  Many point out that one shouldn't be 'cruel' and that all criticism should be 'positive' - which is obvious enough.  But no one addresses the issue of how to write up honest reviews of newer writers and smaller pubs that actually help to boost those people, rather than bring them down.   (Maybe this means I should figure how how, and then write that post, hmmm?)

Oh, and by honest review I mean the bad with the good.  I could just write reviews about 'What I Liked' and leave the rest out.  But then someone might read an issue based on my review, not like the issue, and think my reviews are pretty useless.  Which they would be.

So what is your opinion, and your experience, with writing and receiving honest reviews?  Would you prefer an honest review of your work to no review at all?  How do you like to see critical comments framed?  Do you have a set of guidelines you follow when doing reviews, a creed, a statement of intent or some such?

Send some thoughts my way.  This is your chance to chime in - since I'll probably plow ahead with reviews to the best of my ability, and your stuff might be in there, ya know ...

Image Credit - photoxpress.com

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Vonnie Winslow Crist and When Opportunity Knocks

Vonnie Winslow Crist
I've been neglecting the blog in a most woeful fashion.  Didn't even get that last poetry post up.  But to make up for it, I've some tidbits of wisdom from speculative fiction writer and poet Vonnie Winslow Crist

Vonnie was the guest speaker at my local writers club meeting this last Thursday, and entertained us all for an hour with anecdotes from her career and practical insight into writing and publishing.  Her works include:  Essential Fables and River of Stars, both poetry collections from Lite Circle Books, fantasy novel The Enchanted Skean - Book 1 of the Chronicles of Lifthrasir from Mockingbird Lane Press, as well as The Greener Forest and Owl Light, collections of short stories and more from Cold Moon Press.  She has also edited much, volunteered much, and produced many columns and articles.  Her talk was titled "Be Ready When Opportunity Knocks and How to Find Those Hidden Opportunities."

Her first piece of advice is to always be writing.  She underscores the fact that you can't respond to any publishing opportunity unless you have appropriate work ready to go.  Keeping a backlog of poems, stories, and manuscripts means you have something in your pocket when you see a notice, hear a rumor, or find a great contest - and the deadline is coming up fast - like tomorrow.  Don't stop writing as you wait to see if your entry wins or if your submission is accepted.  Write something new while you wait.

Along with 'always be writing' is keep improving.  Vonnie points out that every piece of writing we do, no matter how brief, helps us improve our craft.  She emphasizes the importance of finding a critique group, and making sure it is one where all the members have the same level of writing expertise.  Read articles, magazines and books about the craft.  For fiction writers she recommends The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.  You might want to take workshops, courses, or even go back to school (as she did) and earn an advanced degree in writing!

Vonnie suggests we be creative about finding publication "homes" for our work.  She reads the bios of other writers to see where they've been published, and checks out directory style websites appropriate for our genre (I happen to use ralan.com and duotrope.com)  Don't neglect local outlets such as newsletters and bulletins, and keep an eye open for anthologies in your genre.  You can't underestimate the library, either.  Use your community (below) as a source of information on unique places to publish.

She emphasizes the importance of staying connected with the community.  This includes other writers, editors, and publishers.  Staying connected can mean:  attending writers' conferences, joining societies, attending conventions, volunteering to edit pieces or write articles, helping out with local meetings, etc.  Some of these opportunities will cost money and others will be free labor at first, but all can have payoffs down the line.

Vonnie points out that one opportunity can lead to another, so leverage opportunities.  For example, she won a poetry chapbook contest, and used that as the means to get a publisher interested in a full sized book of poetry.

Finally, she says, "When you see an opening, jump!  You can't fear rejection - say 'Yes' then work hard."

Actually, she said a great deal more, but you'll have to be lucky enough to catch her in person for the whole talk, and to enjoy her entertaining style.

Image Credit:  Vonnie Winslow Crist from her website.

Monday, April 15, 2013

NaPoWriMo Week Three - Time is on Your Side

The trail seems long when you are in the middle.
"On A Quest" by Ehecod
Week Three of NaPoWriMo is always the hardest week of the month.  Two thoughts come to mind - first, that the middle of the trip always seems the longest part, and second, that time limits can seem so restrictive.  But time is on our side in this month-long quest.  That's because with a limit in mind, we know that there will come a time of rest.  We know that our journey will eventually end, and then we can put down the pen (for a short time) and bask in the glory of our accomplishment.

For inspiration and more insight into our themes of journeys and time limits, we have this compelling piece of art: "On A Quest" by Ehecod on deviantArt.com.  It depicts a scene that certainly appeals to me right now - a small person, a long path, and in the distance there is perhaps the end of the trail, way up high.  It isn't just the content of the image that appeals, it is knowing that it was done quickly.  This image might be termed a "speed painting" as it was done in about an hour.  It is amazing what can be conveyed in such a short time - the sense of distance, space, longing, weariness, determination, beauty, and so much more.  Putting a time limit on our work can be highly motivating, challenging us to see exactly what we can do if we focus, concentrate, and really apply ourselves.  The time limit means we know that the end is always in sight, and so we feel more free to really go all out with our effort.   

This is the week to use time limits as a powerful tool.  If you've fallen behind, time limits can be the key to catching up, and getting back on the trail.  Here are the prompts and exercises for week three, starting with this evocative art. 

Monday, April 15 - Monday is, of course Art Day.  Take another look at "On A Quest."  What emotions does it bring up?  What is the story of of this person, and what will they find when they finally reach the city on the mountain?  Use some of these words and phrases to form a draft poem, but give yourself a time limit - fifteen minutes at most.

Tuesday, April 16 - Tuesdays and Saturdays are Pick a Prompt Days.  Visit the archive of speculative fiction prompts on this blog entitled "Prompt the Muse."  For this prompt, pick something that you can do with a time limit - say twenty minutes from start with the prompt to finishing the draft poem.  Don't think about it too hard, just get the words down.

Wednesday, April 17 -  Choose a hobby that you enjoy, and answer these four questions, with four words each.  Do this fast, two minutes total, and don't feel the need to stick to the questions too closely.  Hobby consists of?  It makes me feel?  Sensing it is?  It provides?  It relates to?  I chose my hobby of origami, and my lists are:  Hobby consists of - origami, paper, crafts, folding.  It makes me feel - satisfied, frustrated, accomplished, entertained.  Sensing it is - beauty, symmetry, smooth, light.  It provides - soothing, escape, perfection, controlled.  It relates to - creation, birth, new, real.  Use at least two words from each section to draft a poem.  For this you get eight minutes, for a total of a draft poem in ten minutes.

Thursday, April 18 - Thursday is Camera Day.  Take some pictures with your camera, and choose one to use as inspiration for a draft poem.  In keeping with our themes, find one that makes you think of a journey/quest, or something that brings up the concept of time and deadlines.  Feel free to take photos all week, and then pull out your favorite for Camera Day.  (If you don't have a camera, draw a picture of the scene, and then use that for your inspiration.)

Friday, April 19 - Think of a time you were confronted with a deadline.  It can be a work project, trying to catch a plane, an upcoming holiday, or anything that had a hard and fast limit.  Think of this subject and your deadline in two ways.  First, write out negative words and phrases that come to you about your subject and its deadline.  Then, write out positive words and phrases about this subject and deadline.  Use this material to create a draft poem in two stanzas.

Saturday, April 20 - Tuesdays and Saturdays are Pick a Prompt Days.  Visit the archive of speculative fiction prompts on this blog entitled "Prompt the Muse."  Find a prompt that makes you think of a long trek, quest, or trip.  Do the writing, and then choose images, phrases, or sensations from your writing to include in a draft poem.

Sunday, April 21 -  Short poems can take longer to write than long poems, but for this week, we are going to form a set of haiku on a schedule!  Give yourself four minutes to write down words that evoke the four seasons.  Don't be too restrictive, feel free to associate as you like.  Now, pick a subject that exists in all four seasons - sports, holidays, events, or even yourself or your pets, for example.  Give yourself four minutes to write four sentences, each with your subject and some of your seasonal words.  Give yourself another four minutes to go back and try to reform each of these sentences into the 5-7-5 syllables per line pattern associated with haiku.  It does not need to be perfect, go with the flow and the sense of the tension in the lines.

If you are behind, you can use these four haiku as four separate poems.  If not, you have a nice set of poems for your 21st day of NaPoWriMo.

Image Credit: "On A Quest" used with the generous permission of the artist, Lassi, Ehecod on deviantArt.com.  

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Daily Astronomy Poetry for NaPoWriMo 2013

Rising to the challenge of NaPoWriMo
Sky Pirates No. 8 by quartertime
Several friends and colleagues have risen to the challenge of NaPoWriMo by posting a poem a day about our favorite subject - space.  Each is putting their own personal spin on the topic, and I'm sure that over the month some real gems will surface from the intense rush of creative writing.

Here's a taste of some of the interesting writing that has already appeared ...

On Imperturbable Music, the author muses about his seeing Saturn through a telescope:

The first view was a jolt.
It really looked like they said it would,
pale and perfect, ansa to ansa.
A platonic ideal of itself
even today. 


Taken from Planet's Above, we are led to consider the line between our dreams and reality:

So hide, obscure, amongst the fading wings
of Icarian ice, now stripped and set ablaze -
but know; our sleepless eyes will find you there,
unless ... unless you are just myths, of course.


From Tycho Girl's blog, we are inspired to keep on going, like a rocket:

watch the blue line
trailing from my candle
’cause I’m getting there.

 
So if you enjoy writing, astronomy, NaPoWriMo, and especially all three, you'll want to check out the following blogs this month (twitter handles also noted):

Tycho Girl http://tychogirl.wordpress.com/ @tychogirl
Imperturbable Music http://imperturbable-music.blogspot.com/ @asrivkin
AstroPoetAmee  http://astropoetamee.wordpress.com/ @AstropoetAmee
Bizzare Lag Phenomena http://iyzie.wordpress.com/ @iyzie
Sue Couch NaPoWriMo2013 http://sylvanellenapowrimo.wordpress.com/ @suzifulham
Planets Above http://planetsabove.blogspot.com/ @Alex_Parker

Image Credit:  Sky Pirates No. 8 by quartertime on deviantArt.com in the public domain.

Monday, April 8, 2013

NaPoWriMo Week 2 - Time to Shake it Up

Time to embrace the unexpected and uncomfortable.
"METAVERSE" by Robert Steven Connett on deviantArt.com. 
Week Two of NaPoWriMo is the time when the difficulty moves up a notch and the motivation moves down one.  It is harder to be enthusiastic.  After all, week one is behind us, but there are three weeks to go.  Ideas are more scarce, time seems to be more pressing, and things aren't going quite the way we planned.  You know - this is the usual way with writing projects, but it doesn't make it any easier. 

So I think of Week Two as the time to shake it up a bit.  Time to try things you haven't considered before.  Time to pull in some new influences and move out of the comfort zone.

And if today's Monday Art Day doesn't shake you up, nothing will.  This is "METAVERSE" by Robert Steven Connett on deviantArt.com.  I thoroughly enjoy this sort of art - the kind where my mind and emotions will not settle.  The artist comments "I thought it would be interesting to create a "stage like" outer environment with which to gaze in at inner world I created. This "outer world", like an opening in a cave, is something I have not done before."  The outer frame provides the context from which we view this strange new place.  There is so much happening here - wild colors, a mix of organic and industrial imagery, motion, and EYES everywhere!  The image is teeming with a strange sort of life filled with wires and light.  Creatures are spawning, swimming, hunting, and crawling.   

So here are the prompts and exercises for week two, starting with this evocative art. 

Monday, April 8 - Monday is, of course Art Day.  Take another look at METAVERSE.  Spend some time checking out the details in the piece, and how colors and lighting are used.  How does the art make you feel?  Disturbed, energized, anxious?  What genre would you give the piece - horror, science fiction, fantasy, or simply science?  Write a poem in that genre, using some of the emotions you feel looking at this art.  As an additional challenge, write from the viewpoint of a creature inside the art itself.

Tuesday, April 9 - Tuesdays and Saturdays are Pick a Prompt Days.  Visit the archive of speculative fiction prompts on this blog entitled "Prompt the Muse."  Pick weird ones for this week in keeping with our "Shake it up" theme.  Do the writing, and then choose images, phrases, or sensations from your writing to include in a draft poem.

Wednesday, April 10 - Find a word that rattles you and shakes you up in some way - good, bad, or a mix of feelings.  The word could be anything, since words and experience are so personal.  A few that I might pick are: blood, mother, crash, god, and hate.  Pick one and write out ten related words or phrases than include it, like goddess, godhead, godliness, ungodly, etc.  Write a poem using at least three of your related words, trying for that feeling of being rattled or shaken up.  An additional challenge - after you draft the poem, remove all the lines with your related words, and reform the poem.

Thursday, April 11 - Thursday is Camera Day.  Take some pictures with your camera, and choose one to use as inspiration for a draft poem.  Try to find a subject or scene that makes you feel something in a new way, or even makes you uncomfortable.  Feel free to take photos all week, and then pull out your favorite for Camera Day.  (If you don't have a camera, draw a picture of the scene, and then use that for your inspiration.)

Friday, April 12 - Find a poem that takes you somewhere new, or out of your usual mental space for writing.  You don't need to know why, or to explain it.  Something about 20 lines long is just about right.  Do the classic exercise where you write out each line of this poem with an open space in between.  Now fill in the missing lines with your own work, responding to what comes before and after.  Remove the lines of the original poem, leaving behind only your responses.  Take ten or so of these lines and reform them into a draft poem.

Saturday, April 13 - Tuesdays and Saturdays are Pick a Prompt Days.  Visit the archive of speculative fiction prompts on this blog entitled "Prompt the Muse."  Pick weird ones for this week in keeping with our "Shake it up" theme.  Do the writing, and then choose images, phrases, or sensations from your writing to include in a draft poem.

Sunday, April 14 - Look through your books and try to find one that rattles you, either because it is horror, is on a difficult subject, or is connected with a time in your life when things were in motion.  Flip through and copy down at least ten words or phrases that strike a chord in you.  A few I found from my chosen book are: compulsion, fix yourself, silence, body all bent, convalescent, and obsess.  Use five of these words or phrases in a poem.  Additional challenge, remove the lines with your specific words and reform the poem.

Image Credit: "METAVERSE" used with the generous permission of the artist Robert Steven Connett on deviantArt.com

Monday, April 1, 2013

NaPoWriMo Week 1 - Writing the Inner Music

"Forest spirint" by sparrow-chan on deviantArt
Russian artist Yartseva Marya

There is a lot to celebrate over the last week, not the least being Easter, Passover, April Fool's, and of course, NaPoWriMo!  The one-poem-a-day madness has begun. 

It is time to unlock the door and let the words flow forth.  The act of creation is imagined here in this compelling artwork by Russian artist sparrow-chan on deviantArt.com.  Of this piece the artist comments, "Mystic creature sits quietly between ancient trees in dense forest. Marvelous harp with strings made of spider web produces calm, wonder sounds from elder times. Who knows if time itself means something for this mysterious harper? But as long as she plays the heartbeat of nature will be strong."  So in that vein, what we are called to do this month is keep on writing.  

Try not to think about if it is 'good' poetry or 'bad' poetry.  The job for this month is to write drafts of poems and edit them later.  I know from experience that some of mine won't be salvageable, most will be okay, but not great, and then a few will be rather interesting.  Those, with some good editing, will end up making the whole month worthwhile.

So with all the other distractions, don't forget to tap into the inner music.  Here are some prompts and exercises to keep things flowing over the course of the week.

Monday, April 1 - Monday is Art Day.  Each Monday I'll have a piece of art here on the blog to try to jog your imagination.  Take a look at today's art.  What is the music being played on this harp?  Are there lyrics to the piece?  What gives the music its power?  How does it make you feel?  Answer those questions, and then write a draft of a poem about this magical song.

Tuesday, April 2 - Tuesdays and Saturdays are Pick a Prompt Days.  Visit the archive of speculative fiction prompts on this blog entitled "Prompt the Muse."  Do the writing, and then choose images, phrases, or sensations from your writing to include in a draft poem.

Wednesday, April 3 - Think of a myth that inspires you.  It can be any kind of story, ancient or modern, with a mythic or fairy tale quality.  Write a short bit of prose being as descriptive as you can, telling about this myth.  Take out seven adjectives from your writing, and draft a poem.

Thursday, April 4 - Thursday is Camera Day.  Take some pictures with your camera, and choose one to use as inspiration for a draft poem.  Try to find a subject or scene that speaks to you emotionally.  Feel free to take photos all week, and then pull out your favorite for Camera Day.  (If you don't have a camera, draw a picture of the scene, and then use that for your inspiration.)

Friday, April 5 - Think about a time when you were really frightened.  It might have been watching a scary movie or reading a thriller novel.  Perhaps it was when you were worried about monsters under the bed, during a storm, or something far more serious.  Write down phrases expressing how you felt.  Use five of those phrases to draft a poem.

Saturday, April 6 - Tuesdays and Saturdays are Pick a Prompt Days.  Visit the archive of speculative fiction prompts on this blog entitled "Prompt the Muse."  Do the writing, and then choose images, phrases, or sensations from your writing to include in a draft poem.

Sunday, April 7 - Take a walk and go word/phrase collecting.  Write down any interesting words you see in print, or phrases describing what you see.  After you have twenty, head home choose five, and create a draft poem from these (if you can't leave the house, then tour your home for a word collection.)

Image Credit:  "Forest spirint" by sparrow-chan on deviantArt.com - Russian artist Yartseva Marya

Saturday, March 30, 2013

NaPoWriMo is Coming Right at You - Five Tips to Be Prepared

NaPoWriMo is coming at you.
It's not too late to get some preparation done.
April is a busy writing month, especially for poetry.  I love the challenge of NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) where I pound out a draft of a poem each and every day.  Inevitably, it forces me out of my comfort zone and into a place where new and different becomes the norm.  I've been working for some time on my chapbook of poems of childhood horror, and it needs a few more gems.  NaPoWriMo is pretty unpredictable, but I do usually get a handful of good drafts out of the experience.

I am never adequately prepared, since there isn't really a best way to prepare for poetry madness except to go crazy.  But this year I did manage to come up with a few tips for myself.  I thought I'd share them here since others might want some ideas for how they might inspire themselves.

1.  Find some good prompts and exercises.  Find blogs, journals, and books with good prompts.  I'm going to post a selection of ideas right here at the start of each week of NaPo, using some new thoughts I've had as well as prompts from my "Prompt the Muse" archive.  Check places like deviantArt for people who do things a little more off the wall.

2.  Surround yourself with poetry.  As always, the best inspiration for writing is reading.  Get your favorite poetry books down, and then find some you haven't read yet.  Start each writing session with a little reading, and your creative flow will, well, flow.

3.  Fill your toolbox.  Inspiration can come from anywhere, so give yourself some room to bring new ideas to the surface.  Your toolbox might include paper, markers, paints, camera, computer, favorite pen, clay, music, picture book, or whatever.  When you are stuck, go to your toolbox and let yourself play.

4.  Connect with the community.  Don't let the unrelenting pace of NaPo drag you down.  Make a list of others participating in this madness so you can stay in touch via twitter, blog comments, facebook or even in real life (heavens).  Your poetry pals are your best source of support when things are going slow, and greatest fans when you have a banner day!

5.  Take Care of Yourself.  Now is a good time to consider what you'll need over the next month to stay at your writing best.  I'm a big fan of nutritious food, good sleep, and moderate exercise (even if I don't actually do what I should, when I should).  I know perfectly well that taking care of myself will result in more stamina and energy for writing.  I'm thinking right now of what I need to do over the next month to increase the chances that food, sleep, and exercise won't be missed.

Good luck with NaPoWriMo!  Check back in here for daily prompts and writing exercises, hopefully to be posted at the beginning of each week (that starts tomorrow, yikes!)

Image Credit:  Pink Sherbet Photography Flikr via Creative Commons CC 2.0

Monday, March 18, 2013

Grabbing The Golden Fleece of Writing: What's Your Great Prize?

Grab your writing treasure and run with it.
"Colchian" by "MO-ffie" on deviantArt.com
 
A small, bold figure grabs a glistening prize right out from under a malevolent beast, and then makes off with it.  What is this amazing treasure that is worth such a risk?  What is the true nature of the monster?  When can our hero pause, panting, heart pounding, and regard the reward in their hands?

This fantastic image has been a favorite of mine for some time now, as I've been contemplating the questions above within the context of writing.  Writing is a tremendous risk, and each of us has a different idea of what is worth that risk, and what the true "prize" can be.  Consider for a moment - what are the greatest challenges or barriers that you face regarding your writing?  What treasures do you hope to gain?  When will you have time to sit back and enjoy what you have earned, or do you feel you have to keep on running?

As a writer with mental illness issues, I often find my greatest challenge and my greatest treasure are exactly the same thing.  That is - writing itself.  I love writing, it is its own reward.  At the same time, writing is scary, even terrifying, and seems to dog my heels with its fangs and fiery breath.  In my image, writing is both the fleece and the monster.

I'm working on a short story right now that I can't finish.  My mind, as is often the case, is filled with self-doubt and even self-sabotage.  I can't get the negative "voices" to give it a rest.  They act as if they know so much more than the positive voices.  "This story is dumb.  Why did you want to write about this in the first place?  This one isn't any fun to read.  Are you sure you want to deal with 'that' issue in this piece?  This story sounds trite.  You don't know even understand what you are writing about, what are you trying to do here?  This is a waste of time.  You aren't doing anything important by writing this story."  And on and on.  These are the "voices" of writing for me, borne from a history of anxiety and depression disorders.  These are the voices that follow me like a angry monster.

In the scenario of me and my short story, the beast has managed to get its teeth into the fleece.  I am in a tug-of-war trying to retrieve it and make off.  I feel like the tiny figure, and the monster seems so huge.  I have to continually prompt the positive voices, and keep fighting.  I need to be bold, to continue to take risks, to ignore the dark ideas that would kill every story before it even gets half-made.  I need to yank hard, grab my fleece and run like crazy, not looking back for an instant.  Take another look at that piece of art.  That beast is scary.

It's possible that if I thought the beast would stop chasing me if I dropped the fleece, that I would do it.  You know, give up, toss the prize away into the monster's mouth, and be free of it.  But I know that isn't true.  That monster follows me no matter what treasure I seek, however small.  So I might as well try to grab the biggest and the shiniest - writing - and run like crazy.

So what were your answers?  What is your goal, your great treasure to be found in the context of writing?  What is the monster chasing you and trying to snatch your prize away?  How do you win this race, and finally have your moment of glee, throwing your fleece about your shoulders and dancing in the sun?

Image Credit:   "Colchian" by "MO-ffie" on deviantArt.com
My comments:  I have always loved this piece of art.  There is an intense sense of motion and urgency.  Along with that, there is a hint of humor, since the hero is so very tiny - a stick figure with a fleece running for their life from a gratuitously massive monster.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Building Audience for Speculative Poetry: Overall Goals

Euterpe - Muse of Poetry
In my first post on this topic "Definitions," I talked about the initial steps I would take to expand the audience for speculative poetry.  My thoughts were "first to define terms, and then to plan initial assessment.  I can't do anything without assessment - too long working in science and science education."  It's good to know thyself :)

To that end, I started my foray into definitions in that post (and I will continue to work on definitions throughout the whole audience-building process), and now I am going to start thinking about assessment.

By assessment I mean the suite of tools, data, and procedures that let you know if you are succeeding, and if not, what you need to change to put yourself on the right path.  Assessment helps you define your goals and then lets you know if you've actually achieved them.  Like definitions, it is something that goes with you throughout a project.

In considering what assessment I would develop for my little (har) project here, the first thing I need to know is, what do I really want to accomplish, what does that mean, and how will I know when I've done it?  Trying to frame an overarching goal into words is tough ... so instead, here are some of the markers one might look for as they go forward.  This is just a brainstorm at this point - I'm looking for input from you.

  • More people writing spec poems (also could be more poems being written)
  • More people reading spec poems (also could be more poems being read)
  • More journals and mags publishing spec poems
  • More general buzz about spec poetry (more blogs with spec poetry and related topics, more tweets, more general literary news about spec poetry.)
  • More spec poetry events like readings, talks, panels, etc.
  • More spec poetry education opportunities like IRL or online classes
  • More spec poetry by POC, queer, marginalized, people-we-historically-miss authors
  • More spec poetry awards
  • More spec poetry groups, organizations, societies
  • More spec poetry resources, such as bibliographies, Who's Who lists, etc.
  • More interaction with spec poetry and other fields such as science, visual art, music, etc. 
  • More general respect for spec poetry as a genre
  • etc.

What would you like to see on such a list?  What changes in the area of speculative fiction would really fire you up, make you happy, thrill you, etc.?  What would success look like for you? (And here is the question to tip off the next blog post - how would you go about measuring it?)

Image Credit:  Euterpe, Muse of Poetry by Guffens, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Five Recommended Reads That Subvert Culture Tropes

Recommended by
the panel as an example
of "Culturewin"
As I mentioned in a previous post (Ten Ways to Help Avoid 'Culturefail' in Speculative Fiction), I attended a panel at Arisia about how to avoid "culturefail" when writing about cultures and peoples that are not one's own.

The panel suggested some similar features in novels that presented other cultures in interesting and authentic ways. - The books subverted common tropes and negative stereotypes.  They included confrontations with the difficult issues of power, privilege, and oppression.  They included characters in those cultures with their own plot arcs, friends, family, and context.

I asked each person on the panel to recommend a novel that, for them, was an example of "culturewin" - a story where a writer presents another culture with authenticity.  The following were books recommended (some with controversy) by panelists:

The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson
Thirteen by Richard K. Morgan
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Tropic of Night by Michael Gruber

A fifth book was mentioned, but I only caught the title, "Who Fears Death?"  I believe this is by Nnedi Okorafor. 

So now I have some new books to add to my reading lineup for the year!  Have you read one of these books?  What did you think?  Did you feel the books helped to break down old tropes and subvert them in unique ways?  Were these compelling reads for you?  What books would you suggest as "culturewin"?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Building Audience for Speculative Poetry: Starting with Definitions

I've been following an interesting discussion (or twelve) on twitter about speculative poetry - specifically why there are so few people who seem to be interested in spec poetry and then how to go about changing that situation.  Since I do my thinking by writing, it's no surprise that a blog post (or twelve) has/will result.  I've decided to put together the parts of such a scheme here, and see if it goes anywhere.  If not, at least in the process I will certainly have educated myself on some issues that are of interest and import to me, anyway.

If this post is the so called "start" then my inclination is two fold: first to define terms, and then to plan initial assessment.  I can't do anything without assessment - too long working in science and science education.  But doing both in one post would be too long, so here is the definitions post.

So, what is the definition of "Speculative Poetry" anyway?  Definitions abound, of course, since for every person there is a spin or angle unique to them personally.  I'm going to take the very broadest definition of the word "poetry" since I want to be as inclusive as possible.  It is largely poem content that makes a poem speculative or otherwise, generally speaking.  Though there are exceptions.  Of course.

For a plethora of definitions, one can always start with Wikipedia.   Bruce Boston discusses speculative poetry in an interview, Mike Allen has an Introduction to Speculative Poetry, Suzette Elgin posted About Science Fiction Poetry, and several other folks have blogged about it, including Sofia Samatar and a post by Mae Empson in Inkpunks. (Okay, what have I missed?  What works/does not work with these definitions and discussions?)

In my mind, speculative poetry includes the range of subject matter within sci-fi, horror, fantasy, slipstream, the weird, and all the places in between.  It also includes poetry about science, which is something of a deviation, on the surface, anyway.

I think what sets speculative poetry apart is the emphasis on the strong imaginative element, even the "science" poetry.  These poems seem to take us someplace else, before bringing us back to the truths we already know, and now see through a new perspective, thanks to the poem.  Here's an excerpt from one of the very first speculative poems I ever read ...

Among the hills a meteorite
Lies huge: and moss has overgrown,
And wind and rain with touches light
Made soft, the contours of the stone.

Thus easily can Earth digest
A cinder of sidereal fire,
And make the translunary guest
'Thus native to an English shire.

- C.S. Lewis
excerpt from "The Meteorite"

It is entirely "scientific" but also speculative.  This is fiction - the speaker is not referring to a meteorite that exists "in fact."  (If it did, it would have been retrieved for study or sale, no doubt, and not continue to erode in said shire.)  The journey of this meteorite and its final resting place exist within the head of the poet.  I also find the personification of Earth as 'digesting' to have a kind of mythological feel, i.e. Earth as a powerful force or deity.  (What do you think of this example?  What is your first or favorite speculative poem?)

Having now created a sort of cloud space of ideas that loosely form the definition of speculative poetry, I can now blog further about what to do with that.  Building audience for this genre of poetry might mean revisiting the definition later, or realizing that a targeted audience might only be interested in some subset of these poems.  But again, that's for later.

Ideas on definitions?  I would love to hear them.

Image Credit:  Wikimedia Commons, public domain, Writing Desk

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Small Presses to Keep an Eye On

I mentioned in my first Arisia Con post that I attended several interesting panels.  One of those was a panel focusing on the "Small Press."  The first thing I asked was for the panel to define "Small Press" since the term can be a bit gray.  From the point of view of the panel, there were a few shared traits amongst the small presses:
  • Carries fewer titles than larger presses, say 12-24 titles, or even less
  • Has print runs for their titles in the 100's to 1000's, not tens of thousands, or much more
  • Often focuses on a niche market or specific genre
  • Often run for little or no profit
  • Often staffed by volunteers or those paid a minimal sum, run by people who have additional employment
With these thoughts in mind, the panel named a number of small presses that they thought were good ones to keep an eye on.  These included:

Dark Quest Books
Crossroads Press
Entangled Publishing
Bards and Sages Publishing
Pink Narcissus Press
Crazy 8 Press
Spencer Hill Press
Crossed Genres Publications
Plus One Press
Merry Blacksmith Press

In addition, the panel also called out a handful of titles from these and other small presses that they believed deserved a read.  Note, some of these are young adult titles.

Jemma 7729 by Phoebe Wray
Obsidian by Jennifer Armentrout
Rituals - Rhapsody of Blood (series) by Roz Kaveney
Touch of Death by Kelly Hashway
Red Sky Radio by Matt Howarth
Salsa Nocturna by Daniel Jose Older

Have you read any of these titles?  What did you think?  Are there other titles from small presses on your (e)bookshelf?  How about these small presses, themselves?  Which publishers are in your sites right now?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ten Ways to Help Avoid "Culturefail" in Speculative Fiction

Be prepared to include all
kinds of people, places, and
cultures in your speculative fiction.

One of the panels I attended at Arisia 2013 was "Avoiding Culturefail."  This expert panel hoped to express to its listeners how to "win" when writing about another culture.  In other words, when writing about "the other" (which in some sense we do every single time we write), how can we avoid propagating negative tropes and stereotypes?  How can we ensure that our writing becomes part of the solution, rather than continuing the problem?

Here are some of the main ideas I gleaned from the panel.  I distilled them into ten points as a reference list when starting and then working through a new story.
  1. Commitment.  Commit to yourself to doing the best that you can when addressing cultural issues in your work.  You may not succeed in a "culturewin" but only a commitment to try will give a writer that opportunity.
  2. Know Thyself.  Ask, "Who am I?  Where am I coming from?  What is my perspective?  What are my biases?  How does the nature of privilege in my life influence my approach to that "other" I am writing about?"
  3. Research is the beginning.  The canonical phrase "do your research" still stands.  Intellectual knowledge of your subject, including cultures represented, is a necessity.  
  4. Community Contact.  Research is only the beginning.  After reading up on your topic, don't stop there.  Research is only the very first step.  Deep knowledge and understanding requires engagement with the culture in question.
  5. Be Thorough.  Research and community involvement need to be carried out on multiple levels.  Engage with more than one person of the culture you are writing about.  Use all the senses when doing research, i.e. looking at photos, listening to music, touching artifacts, and eating the cuisine.  Absorb stories, myth, and other literature.
  6. Subvert the Tropes.  When writing, subvert the common tropes, cliches, and negative stereotypes.  Tell an effective counter-narrative.  
  7. Be Uncomfortable.  Allow yourself to go to the uncomfortable places and "tell the harder truth."  Do not ignore issues of privilege, power, and oppression in your work.  Humble yourself.
  8. Conduct a Diversity Survey.  Conduct a diversity survey of your manuscript that includes the statistics of who and what is represented, and how.  Such numbers may surprise you, and may lead you to change aspects of your work.
  9. Get Feedback.  Ask for constructive criticism of your manuscript from people who are a part of the culture groups in question.  Be prepared to accept feedback that is emotional, since some issues are highly charged.  Be gracious to reviewers and consider their input carefully.
  10. Be Prepared to Make Changes.  Feedback and community engagement may lead you to reconsider your topic and/or how it is presented.  Be prepared to make major shifts in the work, if necessary.
I think of all the points here, I was most struck by my number seven, Be Uncomfortable.  I so often try to avoid discomfort, I think we all do.  As a writer, setting up tension and then resolving it is part of the process.  This point suggests to me that I shouldn't be over anxious to rush to a resolution, but instead I should abide in that space and allow the discomfort to remain a while.  There is clearly much to learn there.

Image Credit - Photoxpress.  Isolated pencils drawing.  Colored Pencils.