Friday, May 20, 2016


This is from a facebook discussion:
Why does one write? I loved stories when I was a kid, and I told madeup stories to my brother before I could write. When I could write, I wrote stories, and I have kept doing it.

I guess I think archy the cockroach's answer is the best one: "Expression is the need of my soul." Though I would add a love of stories.

I lose my passion for telling stories fairly often. I continue either because I have something to finish or because I get an idea that strikes me as neat and funny, and then my interest in writing is back.

Thinking about it, the story of mine that best expresses my attitude toward writing is "Telling Stories to the Sky," published in F&SF and reprinted only once -- in Chinese. There's a wish fulfillment element, because the heroine gets a powerful patron: the North Wind, who lives in a cold and windy palace in the sky. She can visit there in dreams, but she can't stay, because her body back on earth would die; and because the palace -- though very splendid -- is too cold and windy and uncomfortable. She needs her life on earth to stay alive and to get material for her stories -- as well as good meals that aren't cold, the way food in the palace always is.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

More Cleaning

We are doing more housecleaning. Three days ago, Patrick and I took apart the two bedrooms and vacuumed everywhere. I actually opened a box that I haven't opened in ten years and began going through it.

It's been a lovely spring, mostly cool and bright, though with some nice rainy days. A good time for spring cleaning.

Back when I had a job, I rode buses a lot and wrote poems about my rides. Here are a couple of examples, with flowers in honor of spring:
21 A East

“Let a thousand flowers bloom .”
Mao Tse-tung

Che smokes a cigar
on Lake Street posters,
but the scent
entering the open bus windows
is flowers.

Oh, week of perfect blossoming!
When lilacs, tulips, apple trees, irises, poppies
all open together,
arguing for a new agenda
with a thousand colors.


94 D West

All along the freeway, lilacs --
blooming, blooming!

Bless the bureaucrat who decided to plant them
twenty years ago or more.

If he’s alive, may his yard or window ledge
be full of flowers.

If he’s dead, may his spirit be as sweet and pure
as a whiff of lilacs on the cold June air.


Writing and Landvaettir

This is from facebook. Why use a post only once?
It's a bright, lovely day outside. I have exercise this morning and a grocery run this afternoon. Aside from that. I'm going to work on writing. I lay in bed last night and worked out plot problems. Now I have to hope I can remember the solutions. I'm going to have go through the story after it's done and fill in emotions and motivations. Right now I mostly have an outline of the action, with some ideas of why people act the way they do. I have to explain my hero/villain.

I figure I will use the Iceland landvættir in the final magical battle. These are the four spirits that guard Iceland. They are on the Icelandic coat of arms and present-day Icelandic coins. A dragon, a griffin (or eagle), a bull and a mountain troll. They ought to be impressive when conjured up.

I ended meeting friends at the local coffee shop, while Patrick did the grocery shopping. After the friends left, I worked on the current story. I am pushing ahead as quickly as possible and don't intend to type the scribbled first version until it's done. I'm afraid if I type it, and thus read it over, I will decide it's awful. The energy I have going now will vanish. I'm not sure I'll use this technique -- a handwritten first draft -- again, though I used it for decades. What I usually do now is compose on the computer, then print out sections and edit on paper, then input the changes and make more changes as I input. So it's a looping process: I write, then go back and revise, then go forward again. It means I never read the entire story until it's done. Then I print it out and make final revisions on paper. This means I don't give up in the middle.

Friday, May 13, 2016

SF (not sci-fi!) and Diversity

Another quote from facebook.
I am clearly suffering from Adult Oppositional Disorder today. I keep reading comments and thinking, "I don't agree." There is a lot of SF (not sci-fi!) that is not about diversity and still has a point. I think Frankenstein is about the industrial revolution and the French Revolution -- and technology, of course. It's also about huge male egos, which is something Mary Shelley knew about. You could argue that it's about diversity because it has (I would argue) a female vision, though all the women in it are dips. The Time Machine is about evolution and class warfare. War of the Worlds is about biology and imperialism. These are all interesting topics and worth writing about. Yes, diversity is important -- especially right now, when we can talk about human diversity, but not -- in any meaningful way -- about class warfare and revolution. SF (not sci-fi!) is a complicated field with more than two centuries of history. I don't like sweeping statements about it.

I also don't like what I hear as a heroic tone, as if the speaker is declaiming a brave and original opinion.

There were people writing about diverse characters and cultures long before the present, including the entire 1970s wave of women writers that hit the SF community like tsunami -- and met with a lot of hostility.

There are more writers doing diversity now. But the current generation did not invent diverse science fiction.

More on Writing

This is a quote from Amy Poehler, which I found on facebook.

I have mixed feelings about it. Everyone does not lie about writing. A lot of writers describe it as slow and awful, and it isn't always slow and awful. I've had stories that came quickly and with such ease that it seemed as if the muse had descended and handed me the manuscript. Other stories were difficult to write, and I was aware the entire time that I was chipping at granite. No muse. Just hard work. I would agree that -- for me -- writing is often boring. The story I'm working on right now is not boring, and I am pushing through it comparatively quickly, though I wouldn't call it easy to write. Writing varies. That's the end conclusion.

A lot of writers have rituals -- to ward off anxiety or to create the right mood. I often write in coffee shops. Right now I am writing in a notebook with a nice, rather fancy pen. The result is a godawful scribble. I am reluctant to move to a computer on this particular story, mostly because I don't want to input what I've written for fear I will realize it's awful. Better to keep scribbling.

Friday, May 06, 2016


I have gone back to my old way of writing: carry a notebook with me everywhere and write whenever I have time and the impulse. It seems to be working well, so long as I keep track of the notebook. I spend a lot of time thinking about stories, more than I realized, niggling at plot problems, revising scenes in my mind. I might as well write down what I'm thinking about. I don't how long I will continue doing this, but it's pleasanter than the formal sitting down in front of a computer, and it seems to be more productive.

Why not carry a computer with me everywhere? Even a light computer is heavier than a notebook. Setting up a computer and making sure I can find an outlet is more complicated than opening a notebook. Also, I have some really fine pens and ought to use them.


My new collection got a very nice review from Gardner Dozois in Locus:
One of the most criminally overlooked and neglected of living science fiction authors, Eleanor Arnason has been producing a wide variety of first-rate stuff for decades, from the space opera of her Lydia Duluth stories, to the space age fabulism of her Big Mama stories, to her quirky and eclectic fantasy stories set in Iceland (recently collected in Hidden Folk: Icelandic Fantasies). In SF, though, Arnason has done most of her best work in her long sequence of hwarhath stories, unusual in science fiction for being stories told by aliens (the humanoid, space-travelling hwarhath) about aliens, with human characters rarely appearing and humanity often not mentioned at all. The sequence started with the unjustly forgotten novel A Woman of the Iron People in 1991 (one of the best SF novels of the '90s, and winner of the first James Tiptree Memorial Award) and has continued since through to the present day in novellas, novelettes, and short stories that have at last been gathered together in a collection, Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens. This is anthropological science fiction at its best, with only Ursula K. Le Guin rivaling Arnason in cultural insight and in the sophistication, complexity, and evocativeness of her worldbuilding. The hwarhath serve as a distorted mirror in which we can clearly see our own follies, foibles, peculiarities, and the inequalities of our society; the hwarhath, meanwhile, see humans as a distorted mirror in which they can see the peculiarities and inequalities of their own society. Arnason does her best work here at novella length, and I consider ''The Potter of Bones'' and ''Dapple'' to be among the very best novellas of their respective years, and as having an honorable place amongst the best SF novellas ever written. ''The Hound of Merlin'', ''The Actors'', ''The Lovers'', ''The Garden'', and ''Holmes Sherlock'' are also very strong; in fact, there's really nothing here that isn't worth reading. Coming as it does from a small press, you may not see Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales By Aliens included on many lists of the best collections of 2016 as the year comes to an end, but believe me, it's one of them. It may even turn out to be the best collection of the year.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Show and Tell

This is from a facebook discussion. The original comment was:
Genre fiction is always seeking to spell it out, more or less clumsily. From bad fantasy to World Fantasy Award winners, the tendency is to tell the readers what they have just been shown.
I replied:
I always tell young writers to both show and tell. Showing isn't enough, at least in my experience. I got so tired of editors not understanding what I was saying in my fiction that I spent 50 pages at the end of my second novel having my characters explain what they thought the meaning of their experiences was. Nobody ever objected to that discussion. And since it was the characters talking, I felt no responsibility for the explanations...

Terry Carr never got any of my stories. I used to think I ought to underline key sentences or put arrows in the margin. "Here. This is what this story is about."

Anyway, always show and tell...

One difference between literary and genre fiction is -- literary fiction is often set in the real world. There is a lot the reader already knows about the setting and the social rules. If it's a classic work of fiction, written in a previous era, there is a foreword and footnotes to help. SF readers are trained to figure out a setting from hints, but they are not trained to tease out meaning. This is the advantage of a genre plot, a space opera or murder mystery: the meaning the reader wants is built into that kind of plot. The author doesn't have to worry about explaining and can working on the interesting parts of the story.

Maybe the meaning isn't built into a genre plot, but there is a satisfying ending: the murder is discovered, the bad guys are defeated. There is a solution.

Monday, April 18, 2016


I have a story in a feminist anthology titled Sisters of the Revolution, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. It came out in June of 2015. The idea for the anthology came from Jef Smith, an anarchist and very sweet guy who handled the PM Press table at Wiscon every year. He did a kickstarter to raise money for the book, hired the VanderMeers to edit and got PM Press -- an anarchist publisher in the Bay Area -- to bring the book out. Jef had chronic health problems and died recently, way too young. I think of the book as a memorial to him.

This brings us to a review of my story, "The Grammarian's Five Daughters," which came out in Jonathan McCalmont's blog Ruthless Culture. I don't know how he liked the anthology in general, since I did not read past his review of my story. He really didn't like it.

I'm not going to defend my story, except to say it's a fable or fairy tale about parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions.

Instead, I am going to list the things McCalmont said he didn't like in the review. All of these are apparently connected to my story in some way, though I am not always sure how.

1. He doesn't like the VanderMeers as editors.

2. He doesn't like deconstructed fairy tales. (I don't entirely understand this, since I don't really know what deconstructed means, though I checked several online dictionaries.)

3. He doesn't like stories about the magical power of stories.

4. He doesn't like creative writing programs.

5. He doesn't like the term 'mundane' and the slogan 'fans are slans,' both of which (according to him) are derived from the A. E. van Vogt novel Slan, serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in 1940. (The slogan clearly comes from the novel. I am less sure about 'mundanes' and 'mundanians.')

6. He doesn't seem to like science fiction fandom much.

7. He doesn't like books that flatter the readers or fiction that tells ordinary people they are special. (I would argue here. I think ordinary people are as special as anyone, and fiction should always say that all people are important. The culture all too often tells folk they are third rate and deserve the crap they get. Flattering the reader is another question. I would probably be against that.)

8. He doesn't like stories that say authors are special because they tell stories.

9. He doesn't like adverbs.

10. He seems to have problems with language, literacy and literature, which he sees as tools of capitalism and imperialism. (Yes, they can be. They can also be tools used in the struggle against capitalism and imperialism. I'm not willing to give them up.)

11. He doesn't like capitalism.

12. He doesn't like imperialism.

13. He seems to have problems with SFF feminism.

14. He doesn't like fantasy.

I feel like the person who handed Mr. Creosote the fatal after-dinner mint.


Patrick reminds me often that I can't let go of things that upset me. He is right. However -- and this is an example -- two things about the review really angered me. The reviewer accused me of defending capitalism and imperialism. No. Really no. And the reviewer kept saying my story was about stories and story-making. NO. It's about parts of speech. In particular, it's about prepositions. Grammar is not literature.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Cleaning More Bookshelves

I finished cleaning the Icelandic bookshelves. That ended me close to tears due -- in part -- to all the books inscribed to me by my father. So many of the books are old and fragile, books Father must have bought in Iceland during WWII. My passion for Iceland is kind of a joke, but also real -- and a fantasy. I am a Midwestern American, who grew up surrounded by Scandinavian Americans. That doesn't make me in any way an Icelander. My Iceland is a dream, as the Old Country is for many Americans. There's a lot wound up there, including a sense of loss and distance.

Fortunately I am moving on to science and dinosaurs. I love dinosaurs, but they don't bring me to tears.


I am posting a lot. It must be the end of winter's darkness.

This is off facebook, in response to a new study of income from writing:
Like most surveys of writing income, this one seems inadequate. But my own experiences, and those of my friends, suggest that there is little money in art. Most writers I know either have a day job or a spouse with a day job. Most are not making a living from writing. I have made very little from writing. It's a catch 22. I have always had to work close to full time, because my writing brought in little money. (I once told an editor that the money I got from writing was enough to keep me in SF conventions and Laura Ashley skirts.) (It certainly did not pay the rent.) The day job sucked my time and energy, making it difficult to publish enough to make a living at writing. And so it went in a circle...

I think I could have done better, if I'd had more determination and discipline and paid more attention to the business aspects of writing. But I'm not sure. I know writers who have been far more determined and practical than I am and who still saw their writing careers hit a wall. (I need to remember this when I get angry at myself for not working harder at being a writer, not paying enough attention to business, not learning to be popular...)

It's not too late. Maybe I could write a wish fulfillment epic fantasy in one month in November... But I think I'd need to turn my sense of humor off. Could I do that?