Cross-Training: The Piano

In which Tom Waits breaks practically every rule of good piano-playing and vocal technique, and creates an amazing piece of music that just wouldn’t be the same if he DIDN’T break practically every rule of good piano-playing and vocal technique. (This is probably one of the best songs ever written, if you ask my humblest of opinions . . . )

Lesson to be garnered: Rule-breaking can be an Incredibly Effective Technique when used correctly. And carefully. By someone who really, REALLY knows what they’re doing.

Like a blowtorch.

Know the rules before you break them. And be careful and deliberate in your choices.

And maybe you can create an amazing piece of art.

Maybe.

(And I’m just putting this video up because it’s also one of my favorite songs EVER:)

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Published in: on February 28, 2011 at 8:10 pm  Comments (1)  

I’m Waiting For Spring To Come To My Kingdom

Published in: on February 26, 2011 at 10:34 am  Leave a Comment  

We Meet Again.

Why, hello, sir! Welcome back from the ICU! I’m so happy to have you on my team again.

My voice? Oh, no worries. It’s just a little scratchy from when you GAVE ME THE SAME FLU THAT SENT YOU TO THE ICU a week ago. (::grumble.::)

Yes, I did incubate it, succumb to it, and recover almost completely from it in the same amount of time that you spent intubated. Yes, I only lost one day of work.

That’s what I buy by not smoking.

(Care to cough in my face again, sir?

Yeah, I thought so. ::grumble.::)

Feel better soon, dude.

And it’s never too late to quit.

Published in: on February 23, 2011 at 10:29 pm  Comments (3)  

Oscar Predictions

Few, as I haven’t had much time to see movies.

But.

I have a blog. And I have opinions.

Therefore I shall now run my mouth off about stuff I am only partially familiar with.

Predictions:

The King’s Speech will sweep the Oscars. Best Picture, Best Leading Actor, and Best Supporting Actor. If it doesn’t, then I have no idea what I’m talking about. But I already said that in not-so-many words, didn’t I? Forget it. Just watch the freaking movie. It’s excellent.

The Social Network, despite being another example of the line-by-line exemplary writing that anyone who has seen Sports Night or The West Wing or Studio 60 has come to expect of Aaron Sorkin, Totally Blew Chunks. However. Since it’s one of those movies that wants SO DESPERATELY TO WIN AN OSCAR THAT YOU CAN FEEL IT IN YOUR SOUL WHILE YOU’RE WATCHING IT (see also: Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind), it will do much better than it really should.

Inception will not do as well as it really should. But it’s nice that they let it play with the other kids in the sandbox. It’ll grow up to be everyone else’s boss.

Um….and since those are the movies I had the time to see……that’s kinda all I got.

What do you think?

Published in: on February 21, 2011 at 10:49 pm  Comments (4)  
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Teachin’ Stuff

One of my med students is named D’Artagnan.

Is. That. Rockin’. Or. What.

Published in: on February 17, 2011 at 1:47 pm  Comments (6)  

Leah Cypess – Codex Blog Tour

Greetings, fellow blogospherians! This is Leah Cypess!

Hi! I’m Leah Cypess, author of two Young Adult fantasy novels: MISTWOOD, published by HarperCollins in 2010, and NIGHTSPELL, to be published in May 2011.

I happen to be married to a doctor, to whom I often address such questions as, “So if someone is stabbed in the shoulder, and then he pulls the dagger out and does a quick wrap-up of the wound, would he be able to continue fighting without fainting from blood loss?” To which he often replies, “Can you ask me what would happen if he was injected with insulin? Because that I could answer.”

Tell us about your work!

Mistwood is a high fantasy novel about an ancient shapeshifter bound by a spell to protect the kings of a certain dynasty. And of a confused girl found in a forest who is told she is that ancient shapeshifter, even though she can’t remember anything about her past.

Possibly they’re the same story… possibly not. She’ll have to figure it out while protecting the current prince, navigating his intrigue-filled court, and making sure nobody finds out that she has lost both her memory and her powers.

Nightspell isn’t available yet, but briefly: It is about a kingdom where the living and the dead uneasily coexist… until the balance of power between them is shattered by the arrival of a barbarian princess who thinks the dead should be allowed to move on.

And now for the interview questions:

Tell us something about you that would surprise us.

Well, since all you know about me is what I’ve written above, I guess one surprising thing would be: at a certain point in my life, I vowed never to date another doctor. (Obviously, I have recanted. Don’t be offended.)

(I’m not. 😀 )

What’s the best writing advice anyone has ever given you? What’s the worst?

The best writing advice I’ve ever seen is actually a quote: “The only way to write is well and how you do it is your own damn business.” — A.J. Liebling

This is related to the worst writing advice I ever received, which was when I was 14 and trying out this new “internet” thing. I logged onto a bunch of writing forums and tried to get involved in the discussions. For the most part it was a positive experience, until I made the mistake of disagreeing with someone who said that if you want to be a “real” writer, you have to sit down at 9 a.m. and write until 5 p.m. every day, just as if it was a regular job. I said that I couldn’t imagine writing that way, and was immediately subjected to a storm of invective to the effect that I was an amateur (quite true, at 14) and that I would never, ever make it as a real writer with that attitude (well, HA, I say!)

I still don’t force myself to write at times when it’s like pulling teeth, and rarely write for more than two straight hours at a time, and that works fine for me. Obviously, other people like a more structured approach; see “best writing advice” above.

How far/tightly are your stories planned?

I’m not much of a planner. With Mistwood, I started with a first scene and began writing with no idea at all of where I was going. I didn’t even know if I was writing a short story or a novel. With Nightspell, that approach got me into trouble… about a third of the way in, I was so bogged down in unnecessary complications that I gave the project up, only to revisit it almost ten years later. I did do a little more planning that time around, because the skeleton of the plot was already there, and I had to figure out where it had gone wrong.

In regards to backstory – how much is too much? I have read about some agents and editors who wish to be plunged into a narrative with no setup, while others seem to think that a world building introduction is key.

Although I originally thought of both Mistwood and Nightspell as adult fantasy novels, they were eventually published as Young Adult, and there are different expectations there. My editor was fairly ruthless in pulling out any worldbuilding that didn’t serve the story. That doesn’t necessarily mean minimal worldbuilding – Nightspell, for example, has much more than Mistwood, because the story requires it. But I think because Young Adult books are expected to move quickly, you won’t see much extraneous world-building in that genre. (I’ve seen people comment on this as a difference between Paolo Bacigalupi’s two books, one of which is adult and one of which is Young Adult.)

How much research do you do on a subject you are sketchy on? (For instance, medical stuff. I’m an electrician, not a doctor, so the extent of my knowledge is my CPR and AED certification.)

It depends on how much I need. I’m the kind of person who can feel like she has to read all 50 available books on a subject if I’m going to include one line about it in a manuscript; obviously, this is not a good way to get anything done, and at that point the research is coming from fear of making a mistake rather than from trying to get things right. For some things, all I need is a simple answer (i.e. what would a knife sound like as it plunked into a door?) – and let me tell you, the internet, especially youtube, is priceless. For other
things, i.e. medieval hunting, you need to get more in depth, but there’s also a limit to how much information you’re going to be able to find.

Do you have any non-writing-related projects going on in your life? How do you balance them with each other and with your writing?

I have two kids. As for balance, I’m not sure I do. I find the most important thing is to try to be flexible. On some days my kids will discover some new activity and be completely involved with it for an hour – then it’s time to write. On other days they’re doing nothing but fight with each other and demanding my attention – then it’s not time to write, even if I have a great idea that’s pulling at me, or if I’m on deadline.

I’m also trying hard to prioritize those two “projects,” and let other projects – like, you know, having clean clothes or being able to see the living room floor – fall by the wayside.

What is your superpower?

The ability to ignore an amount of mess that would send other people (i.e. my husband, my mother) screaming into the night.

Thanks, Leah!

Guess what! We’ve got another case of lurking-author syndrome! Join us in the comments!

And visit the official Codex Blog Tour page for more interviewey goodness!

Published in: on February 15, 2011 at 6:25 pm  Comments (2)  

The. Most. Perfect. Metaphor.

Have you ever felt rather masochistic and wondered exactly what it feels like to be a resident in Internal Medicine?

It’s like doing this……..

……for three years straight.

Except you don’t get a stuffed bunny at the end.

Published in: on February 10, 2011 at 8:13 pm  Comments (4)  

Gareth Powell – Codex Blog Tour

Howdy, folks! This is Gareth L. Powell!

Gareth L. Powell is a science fiction author, copywriter and journalist from the UK. He is the author of two novels and an acclaimed short story collection. His second novel, The Recollection, will be published by Solaris Books in August this year. You can find out more about Gareth at his website.

And now for the interview!

-What is your theme song? (if your life was a movie, the song that would play the first time you appeared onscreen)

I’ve always had a fondness for ‘Paperback Writer’ by The Beatles. It’s got a great skuzzy guitar riff, and wickedly scathing lyrics.

-What’s the best writing advice anyone has ever given you?

The best advice anyone ever gave me was not to try to eat an entire elephant in one sitting! If you’re going to eat an elephant, you have to do it one mouthful at a time, and take plenty of rests to aid the digestion.

In the same way, you can’t write an entire novel in one go, so you have to break the narrative up into a series of important incidents, and then write a scene describing each incident. Some people call this process “chunking”, as it involves reducing the book to a series of bite sized “chunks”, with plenty of room left between each for recuperation and digestion. This approach also helps you focus on the key events in your plot, and how those events link together.

-Have you ever had the occasion to vehemently disagree with your editor about a change to the MS, and if so, how does that sort of thing get settled?

I have never disagreed with anything an editor has asked me to do. I have the attitude that the editor knows their own market; they know the house style of their magazine or publishing house, and the tastes of their readers. They know what works and what doesn’t because they have a great deal more experience in these matters than I have.

However good you are as a writer, there will always be small things in your manuscript that could be improved upon; rough edges that need sanding down to make the whole thing shine with a richer luster. And so I’m always grateful to an editor who has taken the time to read my work and then gone to the trouble of suggesting changes.

-How do you keep the pace and interest going when you also need to showcase your world?

This seems to be a particular problem in fantasy and science fiction, where I have read many stories which open with several pages recounting the long and tedious history of some mythical kingdom or far-flung planet. This is the equivalent of opening a stage play by having a narrator recount the biography of the main character. It can be tedious and off-putting, and while the writer may think they are setting the scene, often all this exposition does is barrage the reader with a blizzard of (often barely pronounceable) names.

If you want people to read what you write, you have to write about people. The world-building should always be secondary to the human story. If you concentrate on your characters and the interactions and relationships between them, the rest of the background will fall into place.

In The Recollection, I try to describe the world as economically as possible, using one or two telling details to suggest the larger context, rather than dumping the reader with scads of unnecessary and potentially confusing detail.

-How far/tightly are your stories planned? Do characters ever show up midplot and steal the scene? Do plot developments ever get forgotten–or become much more important than anticipated?

For The Recollection, I wrote a 3,000 word synopsis outlining the major events of the plot, which helped me stay on target as I wrote the book. It had all the major events listed, but I wasn’t completely sure how the characters would react and interact within that framework, so there was still plenty of scope for discovery as I went along.

A good synopsis (or outline) should be like the map of a foreign country: too vague and you run the risk of getting lost, too detailed and you lose the spontaneity of chance discovery.

-Do you have any non-writing-related projects going on in your life? How do you balance them with each other and with your writing?

In addition to being an author, with all that entails, I am also a self-employed freelance copywriter; a music journalist for Acoustic Magazine; a parent of two young children; and I work two days a week providing publicity and media relations for a local disabled children’s charity.

I get up each morning, get the kids dressed and give them their breakfast, and then after I’ve taken them to school, I fit my writing in between freelance assignments and CD reviews until it’s time to collect them again, and then if I’m not too tired, I might try to bang out a few hundred words in the evening after they’ve gone to bed, instead of watching television.

It can feel like a juggling act, and it takes a lot of energy and self-discipline in order to stay productive, but it’s worth it.

Thanks, Gareth!

So! Gareth is also going to lurk and converse!

Join us in the comments section!

And visit the official Codex Blog Tour page for more interviewey goodness!

Published in: on February 8, 2011 at 5:19 am  Comments (3)  

The Best-Laid Plans

Two nights in a row of adequate sleep have revealed that I am currently acting on a non-sleep-dependent baseline of general physical weariness.

My next day off is on Sunday. I think I will spend Sunday in bed.

Except for laundry.

And dishes.

And apartment cleaning.

And bill-paying.

And cooking for the week.

And. . . . . . .

Crap.

Published in: on February 3, 2011 at 10:57 pm  Comments (3)  

Aliette de Bodard – Codex Blog Tour

Hi, everybody! This is Aliette de Bodard!

Aliette de Bodard is a half-French, half-Vietnamese Computer Engineer who moonlights as a speculative fiction writer. She has a particular interest in non-Western cultures, particularly Ancient China and Mesoamerica. Her short stories have appeared in markets such as Interzone, Asimov’s and Realms of Fantasy, and her series Obsidian and Blood, Aztec fantasy mysteries, is published by Angry Robot. She has been a finalist for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and for the British Science Fiction Association Awards.

And now, the interview!

-Tell us something about you that would surprise us

I’m a computer geek first and foremost, but you’d never guess that by reading my stories (which tend to be pre-Industrial fantasy or low-science SF).

-I’d love to hear whether you advocate wholesale slaughter in your novels or see it as a sign of weakness? “How To Kill Your Imaginary Friends” is helpful with keeping injuries, death and dismemberment plausible, but sometimes I think they’re unnecessary. What do you see as the difference between necessary injury/illness/death and a weak attempt to kick start a poorly-thought-out plot?

I think that, like any tool, wholesale slaughter can be effective. The trouble is that it can be very effective, which means that you have to be careful to use it sparingly.

Death and injuries (especially in my novels, which are set in pre-Industrial societies) are serious matters, and if you have a character being injured every two pages, of course the reader is going to be bored soon, and counting body parts… (it’s slightly different if you posit a society where violence is all but the norm, such as Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy–but then you have to go over the top if you want the violence to have a genuine emotional effect).

-What’s the best writing advice anyone has ever given you? What’s the worst?

The best writing advice I got was from Orson Scott Card, about writing rules: he said that the rules were there for a reason, and that you had to understand what those reasons were. Once you’d done that, you could then start breaking the rules–as long as you were aware there was always a price if you did choose to break them.

The worst writing advice was several people telling me to check Strunk and White’s Elements of Style–as no self-respecting writer would ever want to be without the book. I dutifully checked the book out from the library, read it from cover to cover. And all of that advice looked awesome–except none of it seemed to apply to my writing. It wasn’t until much later that I worked out that The Elements of Style was actually written as a guide for writing academic texts, and that I shouldn’t ever have thought of applying it to fiction.

-In regards to backstory – how much is too much? I have read about some agents and editors who wish to be plunged into a narrative with no setup, while others seem to think that a world building introduction is key.

I wish there was a hard and fast rule, but I think it’s more a question of instincts, and of knowing how much the story can bear. Without any backstory, the world is going to feel flat, as if it didn’t exist outside the confines of the story. On the other hand, a story that has more backstory/worldbuilding than forward story generally gets bogged down in flashbacks (there are ways to make this work, but they require a different structure than a simple chronological narration of incidents).

Basically, what you need is to keep up enough interest in the current narration, one way or another (it can be interesting characters, it can be cool plot twists, it can be neat details of world building). While the reader’s interest is engaged, you can pretty much slip in all the not-so-interesting bit under the mantle.

There is also another way to handle this, which is to make the backstory interesting in and of itself: for instance, if you set up a character’s past activities as some kind of mystery throughout the beginning of the book, when you finally get around to explaining that, chances are the reader will be so impatient that they’ll swallow without flinching a big block of what would otherwise be infodump.

-How do you keep the pace and interest going when you also need to showcase your world?

Pretty much as above: the key is to grab the interest, but a story doesn’t need to be full of twists and/or fast-paced to be interesting. Anything that’s out of the ordinary will grab the reader’s interest: it can be cool worldbuilding, it can be awesome characters (and again, awesome doesn’t necessarily mean sympathetic. For instance, Darth Vader is easily the coolest character in Star Wars, despite being bad to the bone), it can even be a great narrative voice. All of those create and sustain interest.

The other thing to consider is that the world can be showcased in very small and subtle ways that reveal its underlying cultures: for instance, if you consider my books, I have a character who is sick and in the throes of delirium, and who says he is feeling as if “someone were scraping the maize from my stomach with a knife”. I could have merely said that he was in pain, but using that particular reference tells you something about the culture, about what it considers painful (taking food from within someone’s belly), and by way of it, what it considers essential. Small details like those don’t cost much, generally don’t interrupt the flow of the story, but easily bring tons of atmosphere to a story.

-How much research do you do on a subject you are sketchy on? (For instance, medical stuff. I’m an electrician, not a doctor, so the extent of my knowledge is my CPR and AED certification.)

If I’m sketchy on a subject, I’ll work out how much I need to know.

Sometimes, it’s just for a scene: one of my novels had an autopsy, where I needed medical knowledge, but of a very limited kind. I read a couple websites and articles, and had the scene checked by a doctor friend of mine.

On the contrary, there are times when I need to know a lot–my novels are set in an Aztec city in 1480, and I obviously need to know a lot more about daily life, economics, politics and religion than I needed to know about medicine in my previous example. And I do have a sizable stack of books that deal with life under the Aztec Empire (as I type this, the stack composes most of the underside of my desk).

So I guess the answer is that it all depends on the story and on what it needs.

-How far/tightly are your stories planned? Do characters ever show up midplot and steal the scene? Do plot developments ever get forgotten–or
become much more important than anticipated?

My stories tend to be fairly tightly plotted: I write historical mysteries with magic, and it’s easier to deal with those if you already have a good idea at the outset of who committed the crime and why (I tried improvising once. Suffice to say it didn’t work). My plotting has become looser with time: with every novel I write, I get less obssessive about detailed outlining, but I still need a good skeleton before I can start writing the story.

That said, there is always room for surprises. In my original outline for Servant of the Underworld, the main character’s sister, Mihmatini, had no more than a bit role–but when she showed up in the story, she had this great, no-nonsense voice as well as this great talent for magic–and I just took that and ran away with it, to the point of giving her an increasingly important role in the following books.

Similarly, I hadn’t anticipated that a minor antagonist in Servant of the Underworld would turn out to be so much fun to have around that he’d come back in the subsequent novels (though I did learn one very important lesson with that guy: namely, do not give minor characters tongue-twisting names because you think they’ll never come back. Chances are, the character with the longest and most hideous name is just going to be the guy that sticks around forever and ever).

Thanks, Aliette!

By the way . . . I’ve asked Aliette to lurk around for a bit and participate in any conversation that might pop up. And she’s going to! Isn’t that awesome?

Questions? Comments? To the discussion thread!

And visit the official Codex Blog Tour page for more interviewey goodness!

Published in: on February 1, 2011 at 5:48 am  Comments (9)