James Van Pelt

Writing Words Fantastical and Otherwise

Ed Bryant: RIP

Locus has announced that Ed Bryant passed away in his sleep. Damn. Ed was the first real pro writer I met, and his friendship and encouragement has buoyed me ever since.

I met Ed sometime in the early 80s. He was a pro-writer guest at a writing conference at Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs. This was the first writing conference that I had ever attended, and I was pretty nervous about submitting a manuscript for Ed to read. When our scheduled time arrived, though, I felt confident. After all, I was a long-time reader and an English teacher. Surely my short story would shine with my inner talent! What Ed said to open our discussion was, “If I tell you up front that this is unmitigated shit, then everything I say afterwards will sound better, right?”

He decided by the end of the thirty minutes that the story wasn’t quite “unmitigated,” but it still was terrible.

I was miffed by the critique, so I rushed to the nearest bookstore and bought the only Ed Bryant book they had, CINNABAR. My figuring was that when I read his work, I’d find out what a hack he was. But CINNABAR was brilliant. And he was absolutely right about my story.

Once I started going to conventions in the mid-90s, I ran into him all the time. He always bought my latest book and had me autograph it. He even came to a couple of my readings when I was in Denver. When we went to Chicon in 2000, we convinced each other that we both had to have an expensive, black bomber jacket with the Chicon logo on it. I saw him wearing his last year.

Ed was way kinder than he had to be. Like many other people, certainly everyone who attended MileHiCon and saw him regularly, I will miss him. His contribution to science fiction and fandom was huge.

My Hugo Eligibility Post

It has been a good publishing year for me, and I have a bigger list of stories than I normally have that are eligible for awards. Despite the awkwardness of sounding like I might hope that someone maybe could consider something I’ve written for an award, I’ve compiled a list of what appeared in 2016.
 
I really, really, really am proud of all of these stories, but if someone pressed me to say which ones I think are most likely to attract Hugo/Nebula voters, I would say the ones in the better read venues, Analog, Asimov’s, OSCIMS, and Interzone. Of those, the one I have the most affection for (as if I could choose among the children) is “The Continuing Saga of Tom Corbett: Space Cadet” in the Dec. Analog . . . or maybe “Three Paintings” in Asimov’s . . . or . . . damn it!
 
But, really, I’m happy with all of them. For example, I think “The Lies” that appeared in Daily Science Fiction is one of my best works, sentence by sentence (and don’t you think it’s possible one day that a story from DSF will show up on a major award ballot?).

“In Memoriam,” Abyss & Apex, Jan. 2016.

“Orphaned,” Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show #52, Sept. 2016

“Maybe if One Person Less,” Daily Science Fiction, Oct. 21, 2016

“Zoo Hack,” Perihelion, May 2016

“Mars, Aphids and Your Cheating Heart,” Interzone #264, 2016

“The Silk Silvered Skulls of Millen Mir,” Triangulation: Beneath the Surface anthology, 2016

“No One is so Fierce,” Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, 2016

“The Lawn Fairy War,” See the Elephant, 2016

“Titan Descansos,” Alien Artifacts, Sept. 2016

“The Continuing Saga of Tom Corbett: Space Cadet,” Analog, Dec. 2016

“Writing Advice,” Daily Science Fiction, July 22, 2016

“We Have Always Lived in the Hamlet,” Lightships and Sabers, 2016

“Falling Out of Downey,” Grand Valley Magazine, 2016

“Death of a Starship Poet,” Analog, July/August 2016

“The Heated Door,” Silent Screams, 2016

“The Lies,” Daily Science Fiction, Jan. 19, 2016

“Neoteric Urban Archaeology,” The Best of Both Worlds, 2016

“Three Paintings,” Asimov’s, April/May 2016

First Person Narration

LEARNING FROM THE MASTERS: THE USE OF “I” IN FIRST PERSON NARRATION: About every third story of mine is in first person. It’s good for voice pieces, and sometimes making the character the narrator feels like the best choice, but when revision comes around, my manuscripts are flooded with “I”s. Ton of them, which bothers me, so the first revision step is to cut them down. Really, five “I” uses in a single paragraph is amateurish. So, tonight, while preparing for tomorrow’s 9th grade class, I reread Truman Capote’s beautiful “A Christmas Memory,” which is 4,800 words long and written in first person. In all those words, the narrator only refers to himself with “I” about twenty-five times. He’s 163 words into the story before it appears the first time. Some student papers will have twenty-five “I”s in the first 250 words, and my own first drafts are hardly better.

The pronoun shows up more often than that in Capote’s piece, but the other uses are in dialogue from the character’s “friend,” his elderly cousin. It’s admirable restraint, and a true lesson in handling first person narration.

Writing a Biography

fullsizeoutput_558Most of the time when I sell a story, the magazine asks for a bio to go along with it. Writing a bio sucks, so I have a sort of harmless, generic bio that I’ve used a bunch of times. However, I’m doing a reading for the Colorado Mesa University Poet’s and Writer’s series next week, and the coordinator asked for a bio. I almost sent him the generic one, but a mood swept me and I sent this instead. I wish I could get into this kind of mood more often.

James Van Pelt grew up watching Sci Fi Flix and Creature Features Friday and Saturday nights. He gave literature a chance when he discovered Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” in the middle of the 4th grade literature textbook, a tome that was otherwise filled with the most forgettable prose ever contained between two covers. No wonder so many kids don’t like reading. He wrote poetry first because he heard Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill” read out loud. He took his love for language and the fantastic to the University of California at Davis where he earned a masters degree in Creative Writing. His mentor’s parting words to Jim were, “I don’t think you’ll have any luck in publishing. You’re too literary for the popular magazines and too genre for the literary ones.” Since then, Jim has sold 140 short stories to the literary and genre magazines and published four short story collections and two novels. He’s been a finalist for the Nebula Award and been nominated for Pushcart prizes. All Jim can conclude from this is that his university mentor didn’t understand the publishing world very well. He semi-retired from teaching high school English two years ago and has since devoted himself to really trying to get the hang of this writing thing.

Imagery Carries the Weight

WHY I LIKE A WELL-WRITTEN SONG LYRIC: When I teach Creative Writing (actually, almost all writing), I often preach the primacy of image. Most kids don’t get it. They want to talk about abstractions with abstractions. Every sentence they build contains a linking verb in its weak heart. Their utterances are vague and pallid and sickly. When I show them the good stuff, they don’t see it.

Bruce Springsteen brought these thoughts up today. Look at how imagery carries this song, one of my favorite pop pieces. Start the video and read along. He gets a ton of mileage from bicycle spokes, a rubber ball, the various lights and a bit of dialogue.

GIRLS IN THEIR SUMMER CLOTHES

Well, the streetlights shine down on Blessing Avenue
Lovers they walk by, holding hands two by two
A breeze crosses the porch, bicycle spokes spin ’round
My jackets on, I’m out the door
And tonight I’m gonna burn this town down

The girls in their summer clothes
In the cool of the evening light
The girls in their summer clothes, pass me by

A kids rubber ball smacks
Off the gutter ‘neath the lamp light
Big bank clock chimes
Off go the sleepy front porch lights
Downtown the stores alight as the evening’s underway
Things been a little tight
But I know they’re gonna turn my way

And the girls in their summer clothes
In the cool of the evening light
The girls in their summer clothes, pass me by

Frankie’s diner, an old friend on the edge of town
The neon sign spinning round
Like a cross over the lost and found
The fluorescent lights flick over Pop’s Grill
Shaniqua brings the coffee and asks “Fill?” and says “Penny for your thoughts now my boy, Bill”

She went away, she cut me like a knife
Hello beautiful thing, maybe you could save my life
In just a glance, down here on magic street
Loves a fool’s dance
And I ain’t got much sense, but I still got my feet

The girls in their summer clothes
In the cool of the evening light
The girls in their summer clothes, pass me by

The girls in their summer clothes
In the cool of the evening light
The girls in their summer clothes, pass me by

Grand Junction Public Library Comic Con

I will be speaking on the “Panel of Geek Gurus” panel from 2:00 to 3:00 on Saturday, Oct. 8 from 2:00 to 3:00.  Last year was the first time for this one-day event, and it was a lot of fun!  Tons of people in costumes.  I’ll need to add this to my resume: James Van Pelt, Geek Guru.

Sunday Writing: Every “Rule” has Exceptions

marqueeOne of the many fascinating aspects of English and writing is that anything that sounds like a rule has exceptions.  The only real rule in writing is this: IT HAS TO WORK.  If it works, it’s good.  I’ve written stories in the past just to show that a “rule” can be broken.  My latest story at Daily Science Fiction does exactly that.  It’s called “Writing Advice.”

So, a lot of the standard wisdom writing teachers hand out is challengable, if you know what you are doing.

–    Write what you know.  This is intuitively wrong, or at least poorly stated.  I prefer “Don’t write what you don’t know,” because that implies you can find out stuff (and should).  Too vigorously applied, “write what you know,” produces a lot of belly button gazing.  At the college that means I get a ton of dorm stories, filled with drinking and teen angst.  Maybe an even better way to phrase this might be, “Write what you can imagine, and imagine with gusto (and detail).”  At least for science fiction and fantasy writers.

–   Don’t shift point of view.   In general, this is good advice.  A writer who slips around willy nilly with point of view just confuses the heck out of the reader.  I responded to a story the other day that dipped into the cat’s point of view for a sentence, and then, catastrophically, into a house plant on the fireplace mantle for another sentence.  The better advice, at least to stronger writers, is Control point of view.  If you know what you are doing, a story that shifts point of view can be the only way to tell the story, if it works.

–   Show, don’t tell.  This rule is what I had in mind when I started this post because yesterday I said the weakest way to reveal character is by the narrator directly telling the readers what the character is.  What I had in mind was the writer who puts something like this down on the page: “Leslie was witty and clever,” and then Leslie never does a single witty or clever thing.  That’s telling without confirming showing.  But some of the most memorable characters in fiction are revealed partly through the narrator directly telling the readers what the character is like.

For example, here is one of the most famous character introductions in all of English literature:

Oh!  But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.  The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.  A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin.  He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dogdays; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge.  No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him.  No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty.  Foul weather didn’t know where to have him.  The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect.  They often “came down” handsomely, and Scrooge never did.

I think that nice bit of telling works, don’t you?  All right, it’s a bit of a cheat as an example, because there is some effective showing in there too, but the mode is mostly telling.  Look at how much milage Dickens gets out of mixing showing and telling.  Remember, too, that the very first time we see Scrooge in the story, his character is revealed through dialogue:

“A merry Christmas, uncle!  God save you!” cried a cheerful voice.  It was the voice of Scrooge’s nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.

“Bah!” said Scrooge, “Humbug!”

So, for me, the better advice is “Show, don’t tell, unless you earn the right to tell by doing a lot of showing.”  It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easily as the first piece of advice, but it seems closer to the truth.

Sunday Writing: Creating Believable High School Characters

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The FMHS class of 1986 held their 30th reunion this weekend.  That’s my wife’s graduating class.  We perused the photos and videos that the class posted on their FB website.  The don’t look that old.  I can still see the teenagers in them.

Almost ten years ago, I wrote this article about characterization using the high school classes I was teaching as my examples.  Since I’ll be starting a new school year in another month, I think I’ll do the exercise again.  Has anything changed that I can notice?  How different are they from the class of ’86?


Creating characters must be hard because I read so many unconvincing, thin or cliched characters in fiction.  How high school characters are portrayed often bothers me because so many people default to a handful of stereotypes.  Since I teach high school and really, really, really respect high schoolers as people, it’s particularly upsetting to see them boiled down into predetermined niches.

We administered the ACT test to all of our juniors today.  I proctored for two hours, which involved walking back and forth among the desks for the whole time, I took notes on what I saw.

If you’re interested, here’s raw data from Fruita Monument High School in western Colorado, a predominantly white student body that draws about 2/3 of the kids from upper-middle class suburban neighborhoods and 1/3 from rural ranches and farms.  We have 1,200 students in three grades.

Twenty-one students took the test in the room I proctored, 17 girls and 4 boys, an imbalance caused by the randomness of assigning kids to rooms alphabetically.

–   14 carried cell phones (they couldn’t have cell phones on them during the test, so we had to collect them.  Some of the kids remembered this and didn’t bring a cell phone–clearly I have to buy a cell phone for my 11th grade son!)
–   3 wore hats
–   1 wore a school sweatshirt
–   1 wore a university sweatshirt
–   1 wore a Tigger sweatshirt
–   9 sweatshirts total–none of them were dressed in a style we normally call “preppy”
–   2 Hispanic students, no Black or Asian ones
–   1 facial piercing (a small diamond stud on the side of a nose)
–   2 unnatural hair colors
–   2 wore glasses (lots of contacts?)
–   1 male with an earring
–   6 females with hair below their shoulder blades
–   4 in shorts.  The rest in long pants, mostly jeans.  It’s been a cold spring.

They were all cooperative, quiet and industrious.  Once again, the luck of the draw.  I taught a sophomore class here a couple of years ago that was phenomenally bad.  I took three of the worst out to work on a paper with them alone while my student teacher tried to handle the rest.  The three I had were supposed to be working on a paper about influential people in their lives.  They all wanted to write about their probation officers.

The teacher who teaches in the room I was proctoring in today had the kids do an “I” poster for an assignment.  The kids are supposed to make a collage of who they are.  It reminded me a little of the writing assignment in The Breakfast Club, where the kids who were serving a Saturday detention were supposed to do an essay on who they thought they were.  I broke the posters down into categories:

–   2 pictured guns, one in a hunting context, and the other in a redneck context (to use a stereotype; the poster was hunting rifles and pickups)
–   4 agriculturally centered (livestock, John Deere machinery, etc.)
–   6 sports
–   10 fashion
–   7 music
–   1 overtly religious
–   5 travel
–   6 hunting
–   3 environmental
–   1 sort of disturbing one, that included the phrase, “Every killer lives next door to someone”

So, where am I going with this?  First, when a writer wants to write about high school, he/she has to decide first which high school.  FMHS is like the proverbial elephant being described by a bunch of blind men.  Who your character is determines the high school in the story.  For some individuals, high school is scary.  For others it is fun.  For many, they don’t have much of an opinion about it one way or another.

Here’s something to think about: the very best high schools in America have some kids who are deeply disturbed, lost to drugs, victims (or dealers) of violence, potential psychopaths or profoundly unhappy.  The very worst high schools in America have some kids who are academically excellent, love their classes, are kind to their friends, have good relationships with their parents, and are moving forward into fulfilling and happy lives.

I guess what I’m arguing against here is simplification and stereotypes.  High school students are not simplified versions of adults.  They are not driven by only a single motivation (any more than some adults are driven by a single motivation).  They are complicated, contradictory, fully faceted human beings, capable of cruelty, tenderness, cowardice, bravery and every other emotion you can think of.  They can be clear visioned or confused (sometimes several times in the same day, just like you or me).  Their hurts and their passions are as deep and profound to them as they are to people in their thirties.

If you want to be honest in your portrayal of them, keep in mind that every individual is . . . well . . . individual.

Selling a Small Press Book

pandoracampaigneYesterday, Patrick Swenson asked me how my Goodread’s ad that I started in October for PANDORA’S GUN was doing. I hadn’t tried any kind of advertising campaign for any of my books before, so this was new territory for me. The Goodreads program was pretty simple. They gave me a template for the ad which I designed (it took five minutes–most of that time was deciding how to word the text to go along with the book cover) . Then I chose how much money to put into the ad buy. What I’m buying is Goodreads placing the ad on the side of pages that Goodreads users who have indicated an interest in books like PANDORA’S GUN could see. I’m charged fifty cents when someone clicks on the ad. As of this morning, the ad has been displayed 413,675 times, and I’ve spent $57.50 of my budget.

So, what to make of that? Has the ad resulted in $57.50 of sales so far? I have no way of telling. It certainly has not translated into hundreds of books being sold.

Would I have stronger results with a Facebook or Amazon ad? Do online ads work at all? Would I just do better by compiling a newsletter list (which often feels spammy to me)? These are questions I don’t have answers for.

My feeling is that in the small press world, the only things that truly sells books is word of mouth. In online terms, that would be people reading a book, liking it, and then sharing it with their online friends. If some of those friends also share the book, then you get the equivalent of a sustainable reaction. Lots of people are talking about the book and getting other people to read it.

Right behind word of mouth are reviews. Not just reviews in PW or Locus, but also on Amazon, Goodreads, B&N, etc. A well-planned signing can move books too, but in small batches.

The next tier of actions I could take: book marks, custom pens, flyers, tee-shirts, etc. strike me as a waste of money (although fun to do).

Unfortunately, word of mouth and the reviews are mostly beyond the author’s control. Author’s can’t make people talk about their books, and they can’t control the reviews.

So, to answer Patrick’s question, I don’t know how the ad buy at Goodreads is doing or whether it was worth it. All I can say is that I controlled buying the ad. Once the book was out, it was one of the few things I could control, and that felt good.

MY WORLD CON SCHEDULE – 2016

MAC_II_Robot__40154.1452620897.1280.1280-871x871What Ever Happened to Young Adult Science Fiction?

Sunday 10:00 – 11:00, 2502A (Kansas City Convention Center)

At one time, YA Science Fiction was a hot field, but in more recent years the Young Adult field has been more filled with dystopian and fantasy fiction.  What ever happened to YA SF?  Is there room for it or are kids just not interested in science fiction?

Mr. Jeffrey Cook, Sage Blackwood, Fonda Lee, Ms. Jane Ann McLachlan M.A. (M), James Van Pelt

Balancing the Creative Life

Saturday 15:00 – 16:00, 2503B (Kansas City Convention Center)

Finding balance is a trick nowadays. How do you keep a day job, AND read AND go to galleries AND network AND absorb enough of the world to keep your brain well fed inspired and energized enough to create? Panelists discuss what keeps them going and engaged in their work and life.

Kelly Robson, Joelle Presby, Mark W. Tiedemann, James Van Pelt (M), Deirdre Murphy

Latchkey Kids in Fiction

Friday 10:00 – 11:00, 2206 (Kansas City Convention Center)

Parents are often missing (or at least sidelined) from today’s young adult fiction. With the emergence of these latchkey kids who come home to empty houses and who have very little (if any) parental supervision, what message is this sending to today’s readers? What purpose do these absentee parents play in the larger story? Sure, it ratchets up the tension, but why is it such a common theme? Moreover, what resources are available to these latchkey kids and what dangers should they keep in mind when operating without a parent?

Greg van Eekhout, Tina Connolly (M), James Van Pelt, Tamora Pierce, Sarah Beth Durst

Magazine Group Reading: Analog

Friday 12:00 – 13:00, 2202 Readings (Kansas City Convention Center)

Our Magazine Group Reading Series continues with a special group reading that features authors from Analog.

Trevor Quachri (M), James Van Pelt, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, Ken Liu, Stanley Schmidt, Mr. Alec Nevala-Lee

Notes

In an effort to highlight live author readings, we are trying something new at WorldCon. These special group readings are designed to maximize exposure for all of the readers involved as well as for the magazine itself. Each group reading is 50 minutes long (max) and includes 5 readers who each receive approx 5 minutes to read a portion of a story that was published by the magazine. Ideally, the introduction and readings should take 30-35 minutes max, which leaves time for a short Q&A session at the end. This format worked really well at Boskone this year and generated nice sized audiences that were very engaged with the reading.

Ready, Steady, Flash!

Thursday 17:00 – 18:00, 2502A (Kansas City Convention Center)

Four authors are each given five minutes in order to write stories based on a theme given by the audience, who then vote for their favourite.

Deirdre Murphy, Vivian Trask, James Van Pelt, Chris Phillips (M), Mr. John Wiswell

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