In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…

 

Setting Pitons

My certificate from UC Berkeley arrived today. With this and two bucks, I can get a nice cup of joe. It was worth it, though. I enrolled in the program when I knew I wanted to write better than I knew how. I read a lot of novels I’d forgotten existed or would never have given the time of day. I picked. I pondered. I asked. I studied. I wrote.

David Rompf’s class was awesome. And Mary Anne Koory’s and Margaret Steen’s. And the venerable Gary Tombleson who found my approach to essay (by god if nothing else, don’t bore yourself!) so refreshing. And the others…except for the execrable “novel writer’s workshop” which shall never be mentioned again. And now I write real good 😉 .

Well, I write better. I’m published and I’m an L Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future winner! Wow. That still feels like I should look behind me to see who we’re talking about. It’s hard to believe how far I’ve come, and yet…

I feel like the little boy who dreams of the distant mountain. Everyone says, be sensible, mountain climbing is for heroes or saints or the strapping lads from better towns where it’s taught as intramural sport and men wear climbing gear to clean out their gutters. Or else they say, “it’s no great thing. I’ve been there myself, see?” And as proof they tell improbable tales or flash hand-drawn sketches pinched in lily-skinned hands that have never known a callous.

So he packs up one day and sets off to see for himself. Along the way, he learns all he can. He practices and soaks up whatever advice seems reasonable. He builds his body and his toolkit and keeps climbing, ever deeper into hills that had been invisible at the start. One day, he heaves himself up onto a good-sized boulder and pauses to see where he’s standing. He realizes he’s been climbing for months–really climbing–up steeper and steeper slopes, and he’s left the naysayers behind. As he stands in the warming light, he hears encouraging voices echoing in on the wind. He smiles at the memory of the many gifts he’s collected, and a few of the strains and the bruises. He strokes his beard with sun-hardened fingers, and turns to take stock of the mountain.

Here it is at last, the gleaming tower of black stone and white snow and icy gold in the sunlight. He could never have reached this spot as a boy, could never have known this grandeur. But he stands here now a man. He looks out over the crevasses, the inclines pregnant with snow, the shear walls of shadow and dangers he cannot imagine. He’s come so far, seen so much, and the summit–that gleaming paragon in the clouds–is more remote, more inviting, than ever. All this, this life, has been but the first halting step.

And what can he do, our hero? He rosins up his fingers, pulls away a crumbling bit of chaff, and swings himself up to the next ledge.

So goodbye Berkeley. The is much yet to learn, and I’m looking forward to the workshop in April. I trust they’ll be handing out ice axes. I’ll file mine as sharp as I can.

And now off to the next chapter.

 

New Earths?

Last year, scientists reviewing the data from NASA’s Kepler satellite revised their extrapolation from the probe’s first tentative look at one tiny swath of our galaxy. They now estimate that the Milky Way may contain 17 billion earth-sized planets. Between half a billion and a billion of these may be “Earth-like.”

Kepler-62f_with_62e_as_Morning_StarThe candidates are already appearing. Kepler-62f and e are two newly discovered planets orbiting inside the habitable zone of a star smaller and cooler than the sun. They are both less than twice the size of the earth and one is inferred to have a rocky composition like the inner planets here. A third planet, Kepler-69c, is 70 percent larger than Earth and orbits in the habitable zone of a star similar to our sun. These star systems are both over a thousand lights years away, but other habitable planets will likely be nearer.

The hunt is on, and it is perhaps not to soon to dream of high-speed interstellar probes, but what do you think? Would finding forests and fisheries on other worlds rock your view of the universe? If you had the chance, would you go and visit such a world? Leave a comment and let me know.

Star Trek Continues

I’ve always been a bit befuddled by fan-produced TV shows–particularly Star Trek. I grew up loving the show, but i’ve never considered myself a “trekker” per se. I just love good sci fi, and for many years, Trek was as good as it got on the small screen.Happy Birthday, Scotty

But fan produced shows? Guys, the show is over. Usually, these fan things amounted to amateurish CGI and corpulent “officers” who spent an inordinate amount of screen time dialoging about, well, nothing.

Then I hear that Grant Imahara of Mythbusters fame is playing Sulu in a fan remake called “Star Trek Continues.” I respect Grant enough to check it out, and it turns out that as fan fiction goes, this show is through the roof. Scotty is played by James Doohan’s son. Kirk is an actual professional actor. The set is both authentic and complete, the effects and cinematography are too.

But it ain’t Star Trek…except…it sorta is. I keep waiting for the story to bog down into dialoging–it doesn’t. The first episode is a sequel to a TOS episode, and a rather good one, I must admit. The attention to detail is impressive. Oh, I’ve seen nice looking set pieces before, but these guys have the cadence,  the mannerisms, the timing and the pacing–all down right to the level of tension at each “commercial break”.

So, okay. “Continues” isn’t going to put J.J. Abrams or Chris Pine out of work, but I have to say, If you liked Star Trek the original series, you should check these guys out. It won’t be entirely just for nostalgia’s sake. http://www.startrekcontinues.com

Meet the WotF Winners: Anaea Lay

This week, our interviews of 2013 Writers of the Future winners brings us to Wisconsin’s 1st quarter winner, Anaea Lay.

Stuart: Welcome, Anaea, and congratulations! Tell me something about you that those who know you might fiImagend surprising.

Anaea: My favorite color until I was eleven was pink. I have a visceral aversion to pink now, but it has more to do with getting burned out on the color because everything was pink for the first eleven years of my life than my distaste for “girly” things.

Stuart: Ha ha! I used to be that way about watermelon! What got you into writing?

Anaea: I was born. A few years later I’d developed enough fine motor skills to hold a pencil and manipulate it over a sheet of paper. There was no looking back from there.

Stuart: Lest anyone suspect you’re kidding, I can remember “writing a letter” by copying my mother’s hand movements and being very disappointed that she couldn’t read it. In what ways have you evolved creatively?

Anaea: From where I started? Developing literacy skills was a big step – the squiggles I started with were really raw, intense expressions of my inner life, but they were too opaque to make good literature.

Stuart: Caligraphic expressionism. I don’t know; that could be a thing.

Anaea: Lately I’ve been branching out by experimenting with characters who are actually more or less happy. Strangely, I’m less comfortable with the idea of my family reading the stories about happy people than my usual stuff which I didn’t expect.

Stuart: What? No “man’s inhumanity to man?” I’ll tell you a secret, most people I know like happy endings. Conflict, yes, but hopeful–you know? Are you a pantser or plotter?

Anaea: Pantser all the way. Half the fun of writing is trying to figure out how to resolve things when I’m done screwing them up for my characters.

Stuart: Yeah, I’m struggling to balance that discovery mode with productivity. I think that’s something we’ll be discussing in April. Tell me about your association with the podcast?

Anaea: I’m the Podcast Editor for Strange Horizons, which means I carry out my precepts of benevolent dictatorship by ruling over all things podcast with an iron fist. They publish three or four fiction stories a month and I read and produce podcasts for each of those. The week the fiction department takes off gets a podcast for all the poetry Strange Horizons publishes. We have a staff of two fabulous readers, and as of January of this year we’re hiring external voices for the poetry readings, too. It’s pretty nifty, and if you think you’re not interested in poetry, it’s a really great way to find out you’re wrong.

Stuart: Too late, I’ve already discovered Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”. Hard not to love work that impressive. Where’s your writer’s cave ?

Anaea: I write pretty much whenever the mood strikes me unless there’s something else I have to be doing. Most of the time that means I’m either in my office at home, which takes multi-purpose to a whole new level (it’s also the guest bedroom, and my recording studio, and my indoor garden, and the cat’s third favorite lounging spot, and my third library annex and…) or at Jade Mountain, which is a Taiwanese tea shop here in Madison that stays in business by feeding my aggressive tapioca addiction with the best bubble tea I’ve ever had anywhere – and I’ve had a lot of bubble tea.

Stuart: (“Bubble tea” for those who don’t know, is that milky, colorful drink sold in a thousands variations in many Tai restaurants and food courts, usually in a clear plastic cup with a large straw and tapioca balls at the bottom). Do you have any unusual talents or hobbies, Anaea?

Anaea: My friends accuse me of collecting jobs as a hobby – and I do have a tendency to accumulate jobs without really meaning to – but I think that’s probably a symptom of a psychological condition more than a hobby.

Stuart: I don’t know, that could be a valuable form of research.

Anaea: Does writing irreverent business plans count as a hobby?

Stuart: Umm…I’m going to say, Yes? 😉 Moving on…If you had a superpower, what would it be?

Anaea: Telekinesis.

Stuart: In Larry Niven’s, Flatlanders, the main character has a telekinetic “imaginary arm” he uses to perform the “floating cigarette trick” and pick up girls. I wish I had though of that when I was singe–and lived in a universe where such things are possible. When you were a kid, what was your favorite toy?

Anaea: My Dad’s computer. I learned to touch type when I was eight and there was no looking back.

Stuart: Early adopter, eh? I actually learned to type just to avoid being kicked out of typing class–where all the school’s computers were, and where I spent my days programming games. If, like Doctor Who, you adopted a unique wardrobe tag (scarves, fezzes, bow-ties), what would it be?

Anaea: I already have one – cargo pants. Generally men’s cargo pants, with pockets big enough for my phone, wallet, and a mass market paperback. They’re getting hard to find, though, so I may have to learn to sew so I can start making them for myself. Given the effect I have on sewing machines when I get near them (they seize up in fear and stop functioning) this may not end well.

Stuart: Aren’t those retro sheik yet? May something in a military flight suit? Well thanks Anaea. It’s been a pleasure, and I can’t wait to see your wardrobe in person at the workshop in LA.

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Anaea Lay lives in Madison, Wisconsin where she writes, cooks, plays board games, spoils her cat, runs the Strange Horizons podcast, and plots to take over the world. More at httpanaealay.com

Meet the Winners! Oleg Kazantsev

This week, our interviews with 2013 Writers of the Future winners veer back into the international arena with fellow fourth quarter winner Oleg Kazantsev.

Stuart: Welcome, Oleg, and again, Congratulations! Tell me who you are, good sir.Image

Oleg: I was born and grew up in Eastern Siberia, in the city of Khabarovsk, just several miles away from the Chinese border. Life there taught me a lot of things – some more and some less useful – such as: boxing, ballroom dancing, potato farming, Calculus III, and video game journalism. After I got my first degree in Computer Science, I decided I wanted to try something new in my life, so I went to Columbia College Chicago to study fiction writing in English. Two and a half years later I was tutoring college students and teaching classroom in an intermediate school in South Chicago. Great experience as it was, teaching writing (unlike the actual writing) wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, so my next step after graduation was to zigzag back to IT consulting, to free up some time for my passion. That’s where I am right now, but there’s no guarantee that in a year or two my life won’t change completely yet again.

Stuart: What stirred this writing passion?

Oleg: Sublimation.

But jokes aside, I think my desire to write first took its shape when my dad suddenly started reading A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov to me. This cold and brilliant piece of classical literature turned out to be such a great bonding experience for us that I couldn’t help but try to replicate this bonding, this soul-mate hunt in my own naïve, awkward teenage writing. Finally, writing became a habit, and at some point, as Hegel has it, quantity transformed into quality.

Stuart: I like that. I believe it too. So in what ways have you evolved since?

Oleg: I’m an author and illustrator of my own stand-alone comic book, called With You (look it up on Amazon, it’s a fun read). I still have a lot to learn as an illustrator, mostly because I really didn’t have as much academic experience in drawing as I wish, but with my love for sequential art I’m sure I won’t let this skill grow rusty.

Poetry is another skill I try to sharpen. To be completely honest, I don’t write often enough to claim to be a poet, so I just let my characters steal my poems complete with all potential credits and criticism. Switching from Russian to English was quite a challenge, but the rare poetic attempts that I made turned out to be surprisingly legible.

Stuart: I can see how that might actually be an advantage, a unique angle, if you will. Pantser or plotter?

Oleg: Definitely a plotter. I respect people who can just let a story tell itself to the page, but I’m not one of them. Before I start writing, I always have a plan of a chapter or a story or a scene – sometimes mental, sometimes written, sometimes a diagram. Sure, I let some details or characters surprise me, but, in my mind, surprise in writing is just like a proof of a theorem in math: it helps you discover what already is and has always been in the story, it just wasn’t obvious for you the writer and you the reader.

Stuart: I don’t believe anyone really can do without the plotting, there are just more and less efficient ways of going about it. And where do you write?

Oleg: Late night in any room with a laptop. As long as it’s quiet, dark, and I can drink hot tea, the place and surroundings do not matter. Also, I can’t stand writing on paper. I can if I have to, but it seems so slow and ineffective…

Stuart: Can you imagine Tolstoy sitting in red square with his pencil? Do you have any unusual talents or hobbies?

Oleg: I think I’ve already mentioned some of them. I do boxing, even though I gave up on pursuing any sort of career in sports. I used to do video game journalism, but stopped following the video game industry as soon as I moved to the States.

Stuart: If you had a superpower, what would it be?

Oleg: Always liked being able to see into the future. Like that cup of tea that I knew I was going to drop from my… arghhh, goddamit…

Stuart: Do you dream about writing?

Oleg: No, not even in the most erotic of my dreams.

Stuart: Ha ha. When you were a kid, what was your favorite toy?

Oleg: Illustrated books about cars. Including catalogs. I imagined car chases, dubbed them with sound effects and cheesy quotes from action movie stars.

Stuart: Interesting. You know I think I did sonething like that, myself. Is there a quotation you’d like to share?

Oleg: Genius is an African who dreams up snow. – Vladimir Nabokov

Stuart: Brilliant! I love it. How about we end with a short sample of your writing?

Oleg:

“And so the marine says to the Captain,” Mishka Karasenko is chortling with his shrill laughter. “This music is called bloos and in our country only black negroes play it, black as devils in hell!”

The gray overcoats listen to him, giggling in their collars and giving me quick glances.

“What does this bloos mean? the Captain asks. And the American answers: Bloos is when a good man feels bad.”

The trench exploded with laughter like a land mine.

“Is that so, sir?“ One of the gray overcoats asks me. “Is that what the American said? When a good man feels bad?”

“Blues…” A cloud burst from my mouth and swam up to the dim sun, like a bubble to an ice-hole. “Blues is when good people run out of ammo.”

We stopped talking. Frost crackled in the silence.

This is a piece from a historical novel set in early 1920s, during the Russian Civil War. What intrigues me is that in this scene two worlds come together. A world of an American Marine talking to the Russian White Army officer about blues, and the world of the officer interpreting his words for common soldiers, a cannon fodder of every war.

Stuart: Very compelling. Well thanks Oleg, I can’t wait to meet you in person in LA!

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You can read one of Oleg’s short stories at Oleg http://www.everydayfiction.com/frost-by-oleg-kazantsev/ or check out his book “With You” on Amazon.com.

Meet The Winners: Amanda Forrest

This week, we continue meeting our 2013 Writers of the Future winners with Amanda Forrest.

ImageStuart: Welcome, Amanda, and Congratulations! Why don’t you start by telling us a little about yourself.

Amanda: I’m claustrophobic, afraid of failure, scared of heights, and a rabid hypochondriac, but by far my most satisfying accomplishments were those that scared me the most.

Stuart: That’s half the battle, isn’t it? Just putting yourself out there. What got you into writing?

Amanda: Many writers say that they’ve “always written”. I’m not one of them. In the third grade, I started a SF novel called Venture to Venus, but I gave up on it after a few days and (as far as I can remember) wrote no other fiction for decades.

But while I haven’t always been a writer, I am and always have been an obsessive, insatiable reader. Sometime in my twenties, I started dabbling with writing. I joined an online critique group, and once every month or so wrote a snippet. My first writing was rarely formed enough to be called a story, and I didn’t put much thought to submitting or being published.

Despite my haphazard and rather unfocused approach, I did improve. When my daughter was born, I put my career in software engineering for video games on indefinite hold so that I could stay home with her. The choice was the right one, undeniably, but it left me without an intellectual outlet, and so I started writing more. And discovered that I loved it.

As for the moment that I knew that I wanted to pursue writing as more than a hobby—that I’d found the undertaking that will shape my life from here on out . . . that’s very clear in my mind. I was sitting on the porch while my daughter napped, working through the final scene in a longer short story. She woke up, and though I put the story aside for the day, it didn’t leave me. I tried to read that night and the experience felt flat. Two-dimensional. Grayscale compared to the immersion I felt in my own creation.

A reader lives many lives through the books they read. A writer lives them in high-definition.

Stuart: I know that feeling exactly. I know I try to be careful to make sure I’m bringing the reader in at the right “definition”. So you made the jump, and how have you evolved since?

Amanda: I came from a software background, and I think that difficult problem solving in any discipline demands a lot of creativity and activation of mental processes beneath the conscious mind. (Such as sleeping on a difficult math problem only to wake up with the answer).

Stuart: Yeah, I once dreamed that I’d transposed a hexadecimal number on the thirteenth page of a machine-code listing–and I had!

Amanda:With writing, however, I’ve had to learn to let the outlandish notions blossom, whereas an oddball idea for an algorithm might have gotten the chop early on due to implausibility. It’s a challenge to follow the strangeness, but my best stories seem to come from just letting my subconscious cough up whatever it likes and editing it later.

At first, I found it much easier to do this with fantasy, letting go of the constraints, but I’m now turning this to near-future science fiction, something that really calls me. I still get stopped in my tracks sometimes, too afraid to follow an idea due to concerns of correctness, but I’m learning. It’s okay to be wrong in a first draft, and some of my best work comes from revisiting my foundational ideas and applying actual research to correct and strengthen the story. And heck, as for the extrapolation portion . . . we’re all just guessing, right?

Stuart: Right. Anne Lamott warns not to fear the “shitty first draft”. Are you a pantser or a plotter?

Amanda: Over the last year, I’ve landed upon the highly inefficient process of writing a first draft with no plan until I get stuck. Then I go back and construct a high-level outline, rethinking that opening as necessary. Then I rewrite the opening and finish the story. Unless I get stuck again, which probably means my outline sucks and I need a new one. (repeating as necessary, which is rather slow for a novel)

I’d like to convince my ideas to arrive *before* I begin, but for now they don’t seem to come until I sit down and start churning out paragraphs.

Stuart: You can sit next to me at the workshop. On the one hand, I know the outline-first method is the only way to be productive. Inside, though, I hold on to the idea that the iterative plan-write-plan-write is the only way. Perhaps we just need to find the right balance.Where do you do your writing?

Amanda: Anywhere that I don’t have my (beloved) four year old demanding something.

Stuart: Do you have any unusual talents or hobbies?

Amanda:Unusual, I dunno. No interest in cat orthodontics or anything. I love outdoor adventure sports. Long ago, I was the first woman to do a few things in the big wall rock climbing world. These days, rather than heading out alone for a multi-day rock climb, I feel blessed to get out with my family on a thirty foot cliff that a preschooler can get up or pulling my daughter in a bike trailer around on our beautiful Colorado roads and trails.

Stuart: Star Trek or Star Wars?

Amanda: All of the above

Stuart:Windows or Linux?

Amanda: In prehistoric times, I dual booted and worked on both platforms. Somewhere down inside, I still have a soft spot for Linux, but it’s been years and years. Anyway, about all I do on my computer now is word process and browse the web. My fear is that I’m one step away from becoming a mac user.

Stuart: Oooh, Burn! Yeah, I’ve pulled my netbook apart about twenty times. I understand the appeal of the monolith, though. If you had a superpower, what would it be?

Amanda: I would manufacture time. I only do about a tenth of the things I’d like on any given day.

Stuart: Excuse me a second. I have to go write a short story, er…novel. Okay, I’m back. Do you dream about writing?

Amanda: I do. I dream in narrative now. I read Gone with the Wind last year and had the weirdest dream that put almost the whole story into a science fictional framework. It was probably terrible, so I’m glad I’ve forgotten the details.

Stuart: Well, at least it wasn’t an algorythm you were rendering in narrative (yeah – I have – and I think it scorches the brain). When you were a kid, what was your favorite toy?

Amanda: Math workbooks. Yup.

Stuart: Fair enough. “Algebra is the mind of God” — so said Johannes Kepler. If you had a wardrobe tag like Doctor Who, what would it be?

Amanda: I do like aviator goggles. Plus I have sensitive eyes, exacerbated by living at high altitude in a very sunny place. So maybe I should think about it.

Stuart: Hey, that’s not bad. You could get some jodhpurs and do the whole Emilia Earhart look from Night At The Smithsonian. How about a quote you like?

Amanda: Do or do not. There is no try.

Stuart: Ah, Yoda. Good one. Well thanks, Amanda, I look forward to meeting you in April.

Amanda: Thanks so much for hosting me! Happy writing and reading everyone!

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Find out more about Amanda, including the latest news that I’m not quite sure I’m allowed to tell you just yet, at aeforrest.com

Meet The Winners: Leena Likitalo!

Continuing our interviews with 2013’s Writers of the Future winners, this week we have third quarter winner, Leena Likitalo.

Stuart:  Welcome, Leena, and again, Congratulations! Why don’t you start off by telling us a little about yourself.

Leena:  Well, hello there! I hail from Finland, the land of thousands of lakes and at least as many untold tales. I have a delightfully twisted imagination and a real talent for breaking things – I earn my living by doing quality assurance for computer games.

Stuart:  And how did you get writing?

Leena:  I think I skipped the phase where one is supposed to stop listening to the chattering of one’s imagination – stories come to me and demand to be told. I started writing “seriously” only about four years ago. That is, I decided that I really, really want to see my work published one day. Now I’m addicted and there’s no turning back.

Stuart:  So how have you evolved along the way?

Leena:  First there was no patience, only persistence. I used to think grammar and correct spelling happened to other people, not me. Through piles and piles of rejection letters, I’ve come to realize that I have to nail both, lest my super-awesome stories remain unread.

Stuart:  Do you plan out those stories or go the organic route?

Leena:  After an epic fantasy novel that after 800 pages still wasn’t ready, I realized that I should try to control the creative chaos. I’ve learned from my days in the software industry that agile methodologies work quite nicely. These days, I create a detailed outline for both novels and short stories and then divide the work into tasks. I also set myself achievable deadlines.

Stuart: Tell me a little more about  that.

Leena:  Oh my, how to explain all this without resorting to a plenitude of buzzwords…

Basically, it’s all about managing my writing time and maximizing my productivity. I build iteratively around an existing outline. This helps me to concentrate on one part of the story at the time. It’s so much easier, so much faster, to polish one chapter than a whole novel. And this way, I know how much I still have to go before a story is ready for submission!

To begin with, I try and plan how I use my writing time. Then, I chop my work-in-progress into pieces of manageable size (chapter, section, paragraph) to see what I can get ready in the given time frame.

All my chunks go through three passes: design=outline/plot, implementation=writing, qa=poke holes into the stories, check spelling, etc. I repeat the cycle as many times as necessary to make the chunk shine.

Stuart: I see. Just like software. And where do you apply these principles? Where do you do your writing?

Leena:  I can write practically anywhere. Me and my darling dear husband live in a rather tiny, positively crammed apartment where table surface is scarce. We had a party at New Year’s Eve and we haven’t quite got around to properly cleaning afterwards. As a result, my sacred writing spot at the kitchen table is occupied. Right now, I’m writing in the kitchen with my laptop propped atop of a box of champagne glasses!

Stuart:  Ha ha. Kind of appropriate! Do you have any unusual hobbies?

Leena:  For some reason, I always end up picking up the strangest hobbies – at the moment, my favorite sports are underwater rugby and polocrosse.

Stuart Underwater rugby? That sounds like a scene from a James Bond film!

Leena:  Ha ha haa! Underwater rugby is a lovely team sport played at the deep end of the pool. The objective is to take the ball to the opponent’s basket at the bottom of the pool. The ball sinks slowly and the opposing team will do their best to stop you. We wear fins, masks, and snorkels. And swimsuits of course. And yes, you have to hold your breath. And no, I’m not a terribly fast or good swimmer! I love the sport nevertheless!

Stuart:  Sounds like fun. If you had a superpower, what would it be?

Leena:  Who says I don’t have one already? It’s been whispered behind my back that I have a destructive Midas touch.

Stuart:  Ha ha. If, like Doctor Who, you adopted a unique wardrobe tag (scarves, fezzes, bow-ties), what would it be?

Leena:  Give me a set of merino wool garments, waterproof boots, and a jacket that keeps me warm and I’m good to go anywhere! Also, pen and paper would be nice.

Stuart:  Practical wins every time, in my book! Any closing thoughts?

Leena:  Thank you for the interview, Stuart!

Stuart:  Thanks for being here, and I look forward to seeing more of your work.

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You can learn more about Leena and read some of her work at www.leenalikitalo.com.

What is Success?

Recently, a writer friend asked how I define success as a writer. After all, anyone can write, and these days, anyone with a credit card can publish. But not every putative writer can get others to pay for her work. And let us be clear: the numbers here are crushing.  Most literary agents consider only a fraction of a percent of the submissions they receive. Only a fraction of those are ever published, and only a fraction of those could possibly be stocked in the ever shrinking bookstore market. And if you think ebooks are a solution, consider the steep competition from public domain and pirated works and for reader’s time and attention.

Further, if you’ve ever read slush or critiqued, you know that Christopher Hitchens was right: everyone has at least one book in him, and for most, that’s just where it should stay. How then is the poor aspiring writer to know if he’s wasting his time and energies?

Well, let’s start with a sample size of one:

I started out doing technical writing because, well, the world needs good technical writing. I got better and better and did a stint writing for an online magazine. Then I resumed my childhood love of storytelling purely as as a lark with no real expectation of being published.

36,000 words later, I realized I had several novels in me that had been knocking around for years and more coming to mind. I started one of these, and 300,000 words later, realized I wanted to write, to be published, and to be read, and that to do that I would need to be a lot better at a great many things.

I went back to school. I wrote another half million words, pantsing through progressively tighter, better drafts of my novel. A few short stories. A few essays. I won a small award. Earned almost all “A”s. An instructor who’s taught at UC Berkeley for forty years told me my essays were among the best he’d ever had. And with that and $3, I can get a cup of jo.

But my writing is truly leaps and bounds better than it started. I still have much to learn, areas to work on, and I’m working on them.

And as I started learning about the business, I learned that an anthology I had enjoyed as a kid (L Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future) was a contest I could enter. I figured I had as much chance of winning as of being Pope, but I entered, hoping to get some feedback. I got none, but earned an honorable mention on my second try. I kept learning. I was long listed for the James White award. I made my first sale. Then in December came the call that my third submission to Writers of the Future had finaled. Then that I’d won.

Sweet. Heady stuff. People try for years and never win WotF. People get close for years and never win. Unbelievable? Yes. Fortunate? Yeah.  Lucky? Surely. Vindication for hard work? That to.

Clearly, this is success by a certain measure. All of a sudden I have momentum and followers and I’m meeting people who can help me learn more and go further than I’d ever imagined. I get to blow my vacation this year flying to LA to soak up all I can learn about a profession filled with moonlighters and paupers. And at the end of the day, chances remain good that I will NOT be the next JK Rowling, but will retire doing just what I’m doing now and be grateful for it, and maybe a little less satisfied than I was when I spent my weekends goofing off watching the squirrels instead of plotting out my next novel and studying dramatic structure and writing short stories that I cannot possibly sell for enough to recoup the time I have in them.

Which gets, finally and with apologies, to the crux of the question. How do I define success? Doing what you love well enough that you can continue doing what you love.

And by that standard, I’m one successful son of a bitch.

Apples For Teacher

As she stood in front of her 5th grade class on the very first day of school, she told the children an untruth. Like most teachers, she looked at her students and said that she loved them all the same. However, that was impossible, because there in the front row, slumped in his seat, was a little boy named Teddy Stoddard.

Mrs. Thompson had watched Teddy the year before and noticed that he did not play well with the other children, that his clothes were messy and that he constantly needed a bath. In addition, Teddy could be unpleasant. It got to the point that she almost delighted in marking his papers with a broad red pen, making bold X’s and then putting a big “F” at the top of his papers. She was required to review each child’s past records, though, and she had put Teddy’s off until last. When she reviewed it, she was in for a surprise.

Teddy’s first grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is a bright child with a ready laugh. He does his work neatly and has good manners… he is a joy to be around.” His second grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is an excellent student, well liked by his classmates, but he is troubled because his mother has a terminal illness and life at home must be a struggle.” His third grade teacher wrote, “His mother’s death has been hard on him. He tries to do his best, but his father doesn’t show much interest and his home life will soon affect him if some steps aren’t taken.” Teddy’s fourth grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is withdrawn and doesn’t show much interest in school. He doesn’t have many friends and he sometimes sleeps in class.”

By now, Mrs. Thompson realized the problem and was ashamed of herself. She felt even worse when her students brought Christmas presents wrapped in beautiful ribbons and bright paper, all except for Teddy. His was clumsily wrapped in heavy, brown paper taken from a grocery bag. She opened it along with the others, and the children laughed when she found a rhinestone bracelet with some of the stones missing and a half-empty bottle of perfume. To stifle the children’s laughter, she said how pretty the bracelet was, put it on, and dabbed the perfume on her wrist. After class, Teddy stayed long enough to say, “Mrs. Thompson, today you smelled just like my Mom used to.”

She cried for what seemed like an hour.

On that very day, she stopped teaching reading, writing and arithmetic, and instead, began to teach children. She paid particular attention to Teddy. As she worked with him, his mind seemed to come alive. The more she encouraged him, the faster he responded. By the end of the year, Teddy had become one of the smartest children in the class and, despite her lie that she would love all the children the same, Teddy became one of her “teacher’s pets.”

A year later, she found a note under her door — from Teddy — telling her that she was still the best teacher he ever had. Six years went by before she got another note. He had finished high school, third in his class, and she was still the best teacher in his life. Four years after that, she got another letter, saying that while things had been tough at times, he’d stayed in school, stuck with it, and would soon graduate from college with honors – and she was still his best and favorite teacher.

Then, four years later, a letter explained that he had decided to go a little further. It was signed, Theodore F. Stoddard, MD. Another letter arrived that spring. Teddy was to be married. His father had died a few of years earlier, and he wondered if Mrs. Thompson might agree to attend the wedding and sit in the place usually reserved for the mother of the groom.

Of course she did, and she wore that old bracelet, the one with the missing rhinestones. She even dabbed on a bit of the perfume that had reminded Teddy of his mother. After the ceremony, Teddy gave Mrs Thompson a hug. “Thank you,” he said, “for believing in me, for making me feel important and showing me that I could make a difference.” Mrs. Thompson whispered back, with tears in her eyes, Teddy, you have it all wrong. You were the one who taught me that I could make a difference. I didn’t know how to teach until I met you.”

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This story, reblogged from www.facebook.com/pages/Apples4theteachercom, is a total fabrication, originally broadcast by Paul Harvey on April 4th, 1998. The following story is true:

My mother was a third grade teacher her whole adult life. She said there was a child like Teddy in almost every class. Most of them you missed or simply couldn’t reach. Every once in a while, you had one you thought maybe, just maybe, you’d made a difference for, but the odds were stacked so high against them, you tried not to think of their futures. The years wore on, and you did your job as best you could, and you tried not to let the bureaucracy or the complaining parents wear you down. And soon, despite the Mayberry stereotypes and your own best intentions, you could no longer remember their names.

My mother was a bit of a recluse, with a dog and a garden and a large cache of books — and only a few close friends. When I delivered her eulogy, I only recognized a handful of those in attendance, and the fellow teachers and aides were mostly recognizable by their dress and time-worn demeanour, so I asked by show of hands how many had been her students. She taught for thirty-three years. There were at least that many hands.

Before I left, I was handed a thick binder stuffed with notes and clippings from well-wishers all over the country who had not been unable to attend. Each had a story like Teddy’s. To this day, I’ve never made it past the first few pages.

 

 

Meet the Winners: Liz Colter

I’m just getting to know my fellow winners in this year’s L Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest, and it seemed natural to facilitate the process with a series of blog interviews. Last week, the 2012 Gold Pen Award winner, Tina Gower, was kind enough to drop by. This week we get to meet 2013’s second quarter winner, Liz Colter.

Stuart:  Welcome, Liz, and thanks for joining us. To start us off, why don’t you tell me what got you into writing?

Liz: Genetics, I suspect. I already knew that my maternal grandfather (a doctor and Church of England minister) wrote and had a novel published, and that my brother wrote non-fiction. It wasn’t until I was partway through my first novel, though, that I found out my aunt had published, my brother secretly wrote fiction as well as non-fiction, and my mother had written stories just for herself off and on much of her life (she’s since been published as well). I am, however, the lone speculative fiction writer of the family.

Stuart: Deep roots! Now I’m curious to look up this Grandfather.. So you got started, and now you have the considerable validation of the Writer’s of the Future win. Along the way, how have you evolved creatively?

Liz: I set out to learn writing as a craft part way through my first novel due to some feedback from a local author. I joined a 10-week online workshop and have continued to learn ever since, brazenly utilizing better writers than myself as mentors and beta readers.

Stuart: Good writers borrow, great writers steal, eh? And the best learn from everyone and everything. So are you more pantser or plotter?

Liz: Definitely pantser! Can’t write an outline to save my life, especially on longer material. I start with an image more often than not, then get a rough idea of a setting, character, beginning and ending. At that point I have to start writing. Unless I set the characters in motion, the creative process just puts on the brakes. The characters more or less write their own story from there, I just transcribe for them. I’m glad I’m a pantser. I love being surprised by the story elements that evolve as I write.

Stuart: I hear you. I was very much the same way at first. So when you are out their discovering, where do you do work? What’s your writer’s cave like?

Liz: A small spare bedroom where my desk and my husband’s desk are so closely adjacent, they almost touch. I daydream of a property with a writing studio separate from the house. A little one-room, cabin-style cottage with a kitchenette, a gas fireplace, and large desk. And, yes, I’ve wasted a lot of valuable writing time thinking about this.

Stuart: Ha! I deny that a writer’s thinking time can ever be wasted – by Grapthar’s hammer I say! I know the draw though. Once I saw a London attorney who works in a tiny “sphere” in his backyard. So aside from writing, what’s your background?

Liz: I have a pretty varied work history, including being a paramedic, attending the San Diego fire academy and farming with a team of draft horses. I’ve also worked as an athletic trainer, Outward Bound instructor, dispatcher for a concrete company…hmm, what else?

Stuart: What? No warp drive mechanics? That’s a pretty robust resume, and you know, I just read one of L Ron Hubbard’s writing essays in which he proposed going out and getting a job just to gain material for writing. You may be further ahead than you imagine.

Star Trek or Star Wars?

Liz: OMG, both. I’m such a geek. Watching the original Star Trek series with childhood friends along with reading The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy at 10 were what got me started down this life-long path of loving speculative fiction in all its forms – movies, TV, and prose. Have to say, though, that some of the later incarnations of both disappointed.

Stuart: Well, now we have the chance to infuse the genre with out own ideas, don’t we?

Speaking of which, do you ever dream about writing?

Liz: Not often, but I do get daydream-like flashes of odd images, which frequently become the genesis for a story. I also occasionally dream really great speculative plots that I think “wow, that would be a great story” when I half-wake, and then can never remember them later.

Stuart: Oh I HATE when that happens! When you were a kid, what was your favorite toy?

Liz: Stuffed animals. Never was into dolls.

Stuart: Interesting. I’ll bet those animals went on some wild adventures! Well thanks, Liz. I can’t wait to meet you in person in April, and I know we’ll all be watching your career.

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In addition to her short stories, Liz has two completed novels out making the rounds and a third still in progress. She blogs at http://ecolwrites.blogspot.com/