I currently have very little time to write when I’m not tired. We are staying focused and generally positive following a paycut (at least I currently have a job–that’s the feelgood phrase, right?) and diminishing obvious opportunities. But the tools–at least online tools–that companies have developed to sell or link people are available to all of us (self-begetting selling and marketing tools) to use for commercial purposes, from simple things to selling books on Amazon to helping people market their businesses using social media. Once you start digging, connecting, trying things out, you find more that you can do, and then can start sorting opportunities into things that can generate income now or in the long tail, or things that don’t seem to have income potential but are very interesting and may reveal a new location on your treasure hunt map.

It also may keep you from happy but pointless fantasies of tazering Republican politicians. But that’s not fair–we’re in this mess because we stopped being citizens and started basing our lives on getting the lowest price. There’s no such thing as paying little up front without someone–eventually each of us–losing in the long term. And that’s where we’re at. Maybe this is a good opportunity to learn how to be profitable as citizens.

Did I contradict myself in these paragraphs? I don’t think so–the first is about the need for surviving short term in a way that doesn’t damage other people (I hope), the other involves long term learning, thinking, skills building, and, hopefully, understanding and helpful and meaningful action.


This blog entry linked below thoughtfully describes critical skills needed by the modern writer of near future SF: The Burden of the Modern Science Fiction Writer. And because it’s so articulate, so strained with responsibility, and filled with belief–and so narrow in scope–it’s important to respond (because it pushed a button). Two excerpts follow, only to reflect the tone, not replace reading the entry:

To write fully believable, near future science fiction today, you almost need to be voracious antisocial polymath, deeply conversant in half a dozen technical fields, as well as familiar with ongoing social, economic, and environmental change.


Or—let me clarify—you can write about these things without understanding, but probably not in a believable manner.

And that’s the burden of the modern science fiction writer. If you want to write believable near-future fiction, you can’t choose a single point of advancement. You need to have a good understanding of advances in many different fields, and you need to be able to imagine how these can come together, for good or for bad. And to be really believable, you’ll need to know more than you ever wanted to know about how the world works, economically and socially, as well as where the trends are heading.

It really works if you replace “modern SF writer” with scientist, researcher, or anyone else seriously trying to advance a field or synthesize a body of knowledge. And it may work for a very narrow definition of SF, near future or otherwise. Unless you’re writing technical or science-heavy SF, an intelligent layperson’s understanding is more than enough to tell stories categorized as SF. You may need to research one or two topics in depth and you should have your work checked by sympathetic experts, but the blog writer seems to offer a very limited perspective of near future SF (or he’s splitting genre hairs on what is and isn’t SF, and aren’t we freakin’ tired of that by now.) Trying to gain the kind of expertise he describes will prevent most people from writing–not out of fear (although that, too)–but because they’ll be so busy lookin’ up and learning about (a nerdy twist on preventing the wrong people from writing).

You still need intelligence and a healthy curiosity complex. You still need big chi writing and storytelling skills. You need to be a what-if junkie. And you need to be able to focus on the key ideas and let the rest swirl around you like flotsam (or, depending on the scope of your story, filter most of it out and let the reader’s mind rest on the key elements–often near future stories are big brained blitzkreigs that are a wonder to read, but can also leave you dizzy. 

Are things really changing faster (as the blog writer says) or do we just have more access to change information (perhaps both, but I think the rate at which information is available is increasing faster than change, and that people confuse the two–learning more faster can be a catalyst, but it can also cause people to hyperreact and initiate unhelpful change). Perhaps it’s this increase in awareness that makes detail-rich near-future SF harder to write: because as readers we’re more aware, we expect more detailed accuracy in our stories? But at what level? How many readers know what’s accurate and what’s not? The key word in the excerpt is “believable.” But to who? The person with real understanding of the concepts or things described or the layperson to whom it sounds good. 

I think there’s good karma in trying to get it right–and writers get it wrong all the time, without ruining the story. And no matter what you do, if you write in a manner that appeals to the reader’s sense of belief, they will believe you, for better or worse, even if it’s schlock in a dross. I hold up the insanely profitable Dan Brown as Exhibit A (setting him down now, as wealth and bad taste have made him rather portly). If you’re writing for a younger audience and you get it wrong but make it believable, you can still spark enthusiasm/interest for the real thing(s), with no damage done. (If you’re wrong for an adult audience, you may generate little cults–fortunately, SF cultists usually practice their rituals in the safety of conventions and online.)

No, if you want to blow it, write characters who lack integrity (a sense of wholeness), are mysteriously inconsistent (writer’s puppets), are boring or otherwise fail to provoke sympathy or interest. Everyone but the jackasses will forgive you for screwing up world details–no one but your drinking buddies will forgive you for screwing up characters.

A friend recently posed the question, based on this article about the first sentence in A Chronicle for Leibowitz:

“What’s in _your_ first sentence?”

My smart ass response was “90 days or 90 dollars!” Then I started imagining first sentences, with one starting a riff (on the potential adventures of Nan):

Terrence O’Keefe’s introspective moments were typically inspired by a base reaction: this November morning, his muse was the cold air worrying at his crotch as he waited for the walk sign.


Nan tucked her parents into their drawer, kissed their noses, and turned off the light.

Funny how just one or two words changes can shift the meaning of the sentence; here, from creepy cute to bizarre to psychopathically creepy cute:

Nan folded her parents into their drawer, kissed their noses, and turned off the light.


Nan backed her parents into their corner, kissed their noses, and turned off the light.

Do we go on to learn, in the case of tucked or folded, that Nan is actually tucking a photograph into a drawer, that her parents are no longer with her–dead or missing? Is it a horror story, a missing parents mystery, a tale of freeze-dry cryo suspension? Or a loving suburban monster? It’s a nifty sentence, but if I were to go on with it, I’d better alert the reader fairly quickly unless I wanted to dance around the plot–then I’d better be sure I’m doing enough to keep them interested instead of annoyed.

If this woman was Nan’s next door neighbor, the story might start with:

Every afternoon, Nan turned her sprinkler on high to paint a rainbow above the fence, just to hear the neighbor lady scream.

(I need to work on that sentence. But I love the idea.) 

There are some authors, Graham Greene was one, who can set the tone and let you know what kind of story you were in for, in just a few short words. Other writers (in control of their prose) may intentionally use that first sentence to mystify; perhaps to set a mood or make you feel what the character’s feeling.

The first sentence in Walter J Miller’s A Chronicle for Leibowitz is: 

“Brother Francis Gerard of Utah might never have discovered the blessed documents, had it not been for the pilgrim with girded loins who appeared during that young novice’s Lenten fast in the desert.”

Miller might have been carefully satirical in his opening sentence and also struggling with the text, eventually deciciding to just get on with what turns into a great post-apocalyptic story. Only he would have known, and it probably doesn’t matter. That first sentence is done in the comical, humble, exploratory voice that matches the story and characters. It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough and doesn’t really distract us. Or maybe it is perfect for the right reader.

This morning, on our way to drop me off at the MAX stop, Sophie says from her back seat, “Sheesh, I need a third hand! Maybe four.” She was trying to coordinate drinking juice with playing her Leapster and apparently adjusting her tights.

She’s a bright kid, interested in science. Fear for the future.

Deborah just called to tell me that Sophie won the 4 yo and under category in an “art” (coloring) competition at our local Value Village (first prize a $10 gift certificate, which they quickly spent on a “dancing princess rug” and some articles of clothing Ms. S apparently had her eye on).

While it’s kind of silly, when your child wins a contest, you gotta tell someone. This also transfers bragging rights in the form of “I knew her when…”

Restrictions apply.

Downtown, vines of white light are creeping cheerfully up our trees, chasing off the rust and golden leaves in stop action animation: one day they’re six feet up the trunk and twisting into the lower branches, the next, as you’re waiting for the commuter train, you notice they’ve crept up another foot, atropical artificial vines cheerfully thriving in crispening weather. You whistle goodbye willingly to the leaves, who had their time. You’re ready for twinkling trees and hot cocoa. You, and the homeless guy asking for change.

A tangle of lights (or luminous eyes) blink ferociously in an eloquently coded rail against illiteracy. You blink back. Ferociously. The lights snarl. You snarl. You know they’re wrong, or not right, you know this in your gut. You try to make your case to friends, not for the defense, but for clarity. Your small, limited supply of words fall golden on the ground and, in the rain, turn to cornflakes. Your tree stripped to a bare trunk and twigs, you thrash about trying to expose the major flaws, the short circuits, the damage done. Your lack of literacy confounds your purpose. You and the other writer, two howler monkeys chasing each other around a denuded festival tree, each with beautiful fur, tangled in the lights. The homeless guy finds leftover kettlecorn in a bin and settles down to watch.

Vandana Singh, an author out of Delhi, Portland, Austin, and leaf country (and incremental points between), has written six rich essays on writing, cognition, colonization, publishing, animal communities, and our biosphere at Jeff Vandemeer’s blog, Ecstatic Days

all in the form of smart conversation starters (and more). She’s moved on, a blog sitter while the owner was out of the country, and while she has her own site, she seldom sits still long enough to update it (leaving it in charge of her technologically capable daughter).

Our physical and virtual bookshelves house her non-Euclidean YoungUncle stories for “kids” (and people like me), and other large and small press collections with her short stories and novellas (Delhi, Of Love and Other Monsters, Thirst, The Room on the Roof, and much more). More importantly, she’s active in the health of this planet and its inhabitants, is a proactive parent, and a science teacher (professor of Physics at a Vermont college). In 10 fast years, from our first meeting in Portland through a mutual writer friend, I’ve watched her grow from a surface timid but interesting writer to a frequently published author whose work often sets me back in my chair and keeps me delighted, curious, and invested. I’m very proud to know her, even if geography keeps our friendship limited to correspondence, am inspired by her achievements and results, and am hungry as a pirate in a punt to obtain her first complete story collection, The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet and other stories.