Tuesday, August 31, 2010

THE VIRTUAL PROFESSOR

I graduated from high school in the age of dinosaurs, when English teachers took their jobs very seriously. They forced their students to work their little fingers to nubbins diagramming sentences and set young brains a-spinning trying to sort out the difference between a dangling modifier and a misplaced pronoun. But, by golly, if you managed to get an “A” in English in those days, you could put together a competent sentence in a variety of styles, with all the words in the right places, spelled correctly and punctuated properly.

That explains how a working journalist could advise me to major in history or government in college, rather than English, to prepare for a career in news. “You already know how to write,” he said. “You need to know how the world works.”

So I took an interdisciplinary major in International Relations (heavy on the history and government) and ignored the English Department. And it was good advice, overall, seeing as how I needed flexibility once I graduated into that mid-Seventies recession. (That’s the one no one seems to remember now.)

Little did I know that I’d need something from those old guys in the tweed jackets years later. Who knew I’d want to write fiction, of all things, and competent sentences, with stuff in all the right places, is just not enough. (Though, you know, it does count for something, after all.)

Now I could spend a lot of money and go back to school for another degree. Heaven forfend. Or I could fork over some more cash along with a pound or two of flesh and try to get accepted to a prestigious writers’ workshop or two—Clarion, say, or Iowa. Is it wrong of me to envision those classes full of 23-year-old grad students with little life experience and a high opinion of themselves, plus one or two thirty-something alcoholics with plenty of dissolute life experience but no life, and one housewife whose sold her car to be there but gets no respect because she wants to write commercial fiction? Well, at least I’d have one person to talk to.

Fortunately there is a wonderful alternative to these depressing options. I can learn about almost any aspect of the writer’s art through online classes taught by professional writers who are themselves at the top of their game as authors of commercial fiction. I can focus on a very specific topic—fight scenes, for example, as I did in a course with paranormal writer Angela Knight—or I could take a whole I-want-to-be-writer independent study course with writing gurus Jacqueline Lichtenburg and Jean Lorrah of SimeGen fame through the Worldcrafters Guild (http://www.simegen.com).

A two-week workshop can provide a lifetime’s worth of information and insight into the world of creative fiction, from someone who is involved in the process every day. That’s something that money could never buy. But the best part of these workshops is that they range from free (at Worldcrafters, for example) to very cheap ($15 for local Romance Writers of America chapter members for the typical two-week course; $25 for non-members).

At RWA Online (a relatively new chapter of the national organization), a $25 one-year chapter membership buys unlimited free access to online courses for the year. Woo hoo! Sounds like unlimited fun to me. I peeked in on a course run by Leigh Greenwood the other day just because I’d met the author of 40-plus Western romances at the National Conference. The topic was gender-specific language—what would guys say or talk about that gals wouldn’t and vice versa. Fascinating! Did I mention Leigh is a guy?

Many local and online RWA chapters (such as Fantasy, Futuristic & Paranormal) offer workshops as a service to their members and a way of generating income for the chapters. Information about what courses are coming up can be found on chapter websites and are shared widely on chapter loops. (Though if you are not an RWA member, well . . .)

I just finished a course (“Prune Your Prose”) at RWA Online with Linnea Sinclair. Yeah, that’s right. I schmoozed with the Queen of Science Fiction Romance. Exchanged homework and emoticons. Clinked virtual martini glasses. We all had a blast in that class, though I must say we worked our little behinds off. I was reminded of some of those English teachers of yore.

Like the best online courses, Linnea’s class offered all of us—from the rawest newbie to the most polished professional—the chance to interact with a writer who loves her craft and puts it to work every day. She assigned tasks (every freakin’ night!) and gave us individual feedback to help us hone our skills in a very personal way. And though that could be challenging (and difficult for some), it was also inspiring, even intimate. I find it amazing that someone with Linnea’s schedule and commitments would take the time to give us that kind of individual attention.

Linnea may be unusually patient, but the online course format seems to encourage close interaction. I’ve experienced it in courses I’ve taken with Angela Knight and with writing/marketing expert Bob Mayer, and I suppose now I’ve come to expect it. I’m spoiled. It would be awfully hard to pay good money to sit at an actual desk in a real classroom only to be ignored because what I write isn’t “real literature”. Forget that. Let me learn from the people who know. And thank God they’re willing to teach me.

Cheers, Donna

Friday, August 20, 2010

SEX, CHEAP LABOR AND FTL DRIVES: THE “ECONOMICS” OF INTERSTELLAR SLAVERY

Mars Needs Women! And apparently half the planets in the galaxy are out for the rest of humanity. Read (or watch) enough SF/SFR and you quickly learn that the institution of slavery is alive and well in the galaxy.

Remember the Orion traders in Star Trek? One green-skinned slave girl in a single episode of that classic series has expanded to an entire evil empire of slave traders in fan fiction novels. Jess Granger’s Beyond the Rain and Beyond the Shadows feature a galaxy where slavery is an accepted practice. Countless erotic SFR novels use the master/slave “relationship” as the setting for, um, adventure.

And, frankly, who can resist the intergalactic slaver as a villain? Not many of us, I guess, myself included. My own Interstellar Rescue series follows the spunky heroines and sexy heroes who fight those slavers across the galaxy. And I’m in good company. The website SciFi Fan lists some 975 titles in the genre dealing with slavery, slaves or servitude, beginning in 1888.

But many readers who will gladly ride along with you as you babble on about faster-than-light drives or jumping through wormholes or encountering and communicating with silicon-based aliens from Planet Moronia want to exit the spaceship when you begin to suggest that there might be aliens willing and able to enslave us noble humans.

“That’s ridiculous!” they exclaim. “Aliens are going to come all the way across the galaxy to pick us up in their spaceships and take us somewhere to work in their mines ( or their bordellos or wherever). If they’ve got that kind of technology, they could just use it to replace physical labor. That doesn’t make economic sense!”

But, of course, that argument reveals a number of cultural, economic and even technological biases. It assumes that human life is valuable, above and beyond whatever labor humans can provide; that transportation is expensive and interstellar transportation next to impossible; that extraction (or agricultural or specialized production) technology is less expensive than cheap and easily replaceable labor; that other special circumstances don’t exist.

Even here on Earth, those assumptions sometimes don’t hold up. Historically, Europeans sailed halfway around the world to steal Africans from their homes, take them to another continent and sell them for profit. Slavery was a booming business in the American South in the years leading up the Civil War. The cotton gin had made it even more profitable to own large numbers of slaves. It took a bloody war to disabuse slave owners of the notion that slavery didn’t make economic sense.

Today we have excellent extraction technology, but the gold and diamond mines of Africa are nothing more than slave pits. Children are used for cheap labor and sex in dozens of countries around the world, even though it is against the law and denounced from every pulpit and televised forum on the planet.

Now suppose that our evil aliens operate from a similar cultural and economic set of assumptions. (This is not such a stretch—most of our SF/SFR aliens look a lot like us.) They get around the galaxy using a known system of wormhole-like jumpnodes that take them from place to place in no time (literally). And suppose that Earth happens to be located almost on top of one of those jumpnodes. Bad for Earth, good for our aliens. Sure saves on transport costs.

We can surely assume that the aliens are going to believe we are inferior, perhaps something less than sentient. So there goes the “value of human life” argument. Now throw in a few twists. Say, there’s some barrier to the use of their own labor in mines or fields (psychotropic fungi in the crystals in my story Unchained Memory, for example, or simply dangerous work). Or maybe humans are interesting for a completely different reason (we’re sexy, or we’re just plain yummy, according to my co-blogger Laurie Green’s story P2PC).

Imagine that our alien slavers steal not whole villages full of humans, dragged off in chains, but isolated households, individuals, groups. How many people go missing in this country every year? How many in the world that are never even reported? Rather than thinking of the slave trade as it really existed in Africa (as ongoing warfare between tribes, with Arab traders a common, terrible sight), think Kunta Kinte being snatched up by unknown assailants (A myth, by the way; The Gambia was on the crossroads of the early Portuguese slave trade.) Would we know we were being taken?

Then there are the ones that are somehow mysteriously returned—probed, prodded, tagged for study and sometimes cruelly used for breeding programs. (At least, this is what the abductees tell us.) Is someone helping us? Is there an intergalactic abolition society out there fighting interstellar slavery?

Well, that was the line of questioning that led me to Unchained Memory and the Interstellar Rescue series. After all, judging from what has happened here on Earth, it’s not so crazy to think we might be slave-bait for a species whose technology has advanced beyond their morality. And I sure hope there is someone who will come to our rescue if that’s true.

Cheers, Donna

Sunday, August 15, 2010

For the Love of a Horse

The Cloning of Scamper

The legend of Scamper is well known in the rodeo circles of the Southwest. A female barrel racer named Charmayne James from Clayton, New Mexico rescued a rather ordinary looking Quarter Horse gelding from a feed lot when she was 12 years old--a problem horse who was tagged "unrideable"--and the pair went on to win the World Pro Rodeo Championship ten years in a row, from 1984 to 1993, making Charmayne James a millionaire, and the all-time leading money earner in the sport.  An amazing story in itself, right?

Just wait, it gets better...

When Scamper (registered as Gill's Bay Boy) was retired, James longed to continue the legacy of her long-time friend through his progeny, something that isn't possible for a gelding.  So she ante-upped the $150,000 fee to ViaGen, Inc. and had Scamper cloned.  It wasn't a flawless procedure.  The first four attempts failed.  Finally, a fifth attempt to clone the champion succeeded, and Scamper's clone, whom James named Clayton after her home town, was born on August 8, 2006.  Clayton now stands at stud with the hopes he'll produce more talented barrel horses.  (Although his offspring can't be registered as Quarter Horses according to AQHA rules, registration isn't a requirement to compete in barrel racing.) 

But wait...

Clones are supposed to be exact carbon copies, right?  Clayton isn't! 

Although he looked very much like Scamper, and even 'bristles' when touched on a certain spot by his ears--just like Scamper--his markings are different.  Scamper didn't have white markings on his face.  Clayton does! Wait.  How can this be?  Because even a clone can't be an exact copy of the original.  Differences in development, temperature, environment, nutrition, injury or a million other factors can have an effect on the clone that makes him or her a unique individual.  This is explained more fully on Clayton's web site.

Okay, cool. So what does this have to have to do with Science Fiction Romance?

Think of the twists a clone character could throw into your romance or the suspense elements of your story.  A clone is basically a maternal twin who isn't the same age.  He may be raised differently and have different experiences than his original copy.  He might have scars or imperfections that identify him--or he may not.  He might be evil, where his original copy was good. Or vice versa.  He might commit a crime where his DNA evidence convicts his original.  Or vice versa.

In one of my Science Fiction Romance novels, a secondary character is a clone who became such a rival to his original that the two, who are raised as brothers, have a falling out over a love interest--the original's fiance'.  The original disowns his betraying brother. Years later they are thrown together in an uneasy alliance against a terrorist who is trying to destroy the original's vessel--and find they must overcome their differences and become allies with absolute trust in one another if they hope to survive. In the process, they discover the true strength of their genetic bond.

But the clone doesn't necessarily have to be human.  Think of Jurassic Park, or the real-life plans by Japanese scientists to clone Woolly Mammoths to create an Ice Age Zoo.  (I wrote a paper on this five years ago when the news broke and updates have been conspicuously absence since that time.)

The prospects and implications of cloning can create wonderful fodder for the muse and imaginative conflicts in the speculative universes we create in SFR.  Got clones?


The Clone -- Clayton



The "Original" -- Scamper -- with James.

Links: Wikipedia page for Scamper
NBCsports: World Champion Barrel Racing Horse Cloned

Thursday, August 12, 2010

WISH YOU'D BEEN THERE:SNAPSHOTS OF RWA 2010

My fellow ‘Freighter Laurie Green has already given you a great rundown of events at this year’s Romance Writers of America national conference in Orlando (“When You Wish Upon a Star”, Monday, August 9). If you’re curious about all the workshops and speakers and truly excellent career-building information that was pumped out during those four days in the Florida heat, I urge you to check out the RWA website, join if you haven’t already and dig in.

Urging Each Other On

I found myself in the position more than once in Orlando of being a cheerleader for RWA, for science fiction romance and for our (relatively) newly formed Science Fiction Romance Brigade. As new as I am at this game, I even found myself mentoring one or two newbies through their first conference. But that’s the way it’s supposed to work. You climb one step with a hand up from those above you, then you turn around and offer a hand to those behind you. In no other professional organization of which I’ve ever been a part has this been so true as it as of RWA.

You need examples of how those “above” are still reaching down to those of us “below”? Authors Linda Howard, Suzanne Brockmann, Angela Knight, Kerelyn Sparks, Jessica Andersen and others gave workshops at the conference sharing their writing and business secrets. New York “mega-agent” Donald Maas spoke to the PRO retreat, an audience consisting almost entirely of writers whose major accomplishment has been completing a manuscript and sending it off to an agent or publisher (often to receive a rejection in response). Other agents gave up their time to critique real queries (a very instructive two-hour panel ) or discuss other thorny aspects of the writing business.

Real live editors from all the major publishing houses made themselves available at meet-and-greet events throughout the conference. A highlight for those of us in the SFR business was the enthusiasm shown by the digital and digital-to-print houses Carina Press and Samhain Publishing and the woman-owned Sourcebooks toward science fiction romance. Their editors are all interested in acquiring quality manuscripts for publication in our sub-genre. What was even more exciting, from a writer’s perspective, is that their writers are all happy with them and the digital royalty model. No advance and a higher than traditional return on sales seems to be working just fine for the Carina and Samhain authors I talked to.

The Next Big Thing

New ways of getting books to readers was, of course, a topic of conversation at nearly every lunch and dinner table. The phenomenal growth of digital publishing and the success of fledgling Harlequin offshoot Carina Press was on everyone’s mind. Just how to take advantage of that new market and the opportunities it offers is not clear to everyone, however. In that, I believe SFR has one of its few true advantages. We have a built-in, tech-savvy audience, already familiar with e-publishing and various forms of online promotion.

But, aside from the format of publication, in nearly every workshop I attended one question was asked over and over, of agents and editors, authors and marketers: What is the next big thing? What are the trends, as you see them? Are vampires dead? Are werewolves done? Are historicals making a comeback? Is it angels or steampunk or YA or something we’ve never seen before?

As much as everyone would like to be able to answer these questions, the response went something like this: Nobody knows the Next Big Thing until it hits. And unless you already have a complete, polished YA steampunk manuscript languishing in your desk right now ready to go, you’ve probably already missed the trend. Find your voice. Write your own story. Forget about catching any sort of wave.

That said, I do think SFR has a chance at being at least the Next Interesting Thing. The folks at the small presses, at Carina and Samhain and other digital presses are eager for manuscripts. Agents can’t help but perk up their ears at that. A lot of unpublished writers I spoke to are intrigued by the idea of writing science fiction romance and were encouraged by the fact that there is an organization (the SFR Brigade) out there dedicated to promoting the sub-genre.

At the first informal face-to-face meeting of the SFR Brigade at the conference the idea was broached of presenting a workshop of SFR at next year’s conference in New York City. I think there would be a lot of interest in a panel discussion of what SFR is and what editors might be looking for in an SFR manuscript. More writers might be willing to let their imaginations fly with a little encouragement. And we might create a buzz that more editors and agents would pick up on.

Inspiration

Last year I skipped the big awards ceremony at the end of the conference. I’d had plenty of inspiration from the keynote and luncheon speakers and I had only just met Golden Heart nominee Sharon Lynn Fisher (now my co-blogger here). But this year, of course, Sharon was a nominee again, along with fellow Brigader Kylie Griffin (who won!), so I made sure I was in the audience.

And what I learned in listening to the wonderful women who’d worked so hard to earn their awards could fill another post. Many of these authors had to overcome any number of obstacles to get that book on the page: illnesses, deaths in the family, unsupportive husbands, no husbands, no paychecks, the loss of friends and mentors in the business. And yet they were standing there, accepting the acknowledgment of their peers. They had done what they set out to do. Just by being there, they were stretching out a hand to the rest of us.

The day before I’d been searching for a seat in a very crowded cafeteria at lunch time and asked a teen-aged girl if I could share her table. She was on vacation at Disney World with her family and asked what all fuss was about. Specifically, she wanted to know what all these women were doing at the hotel. When I explained that we were all writers (or in the writing business), her eyes began to shine and her face to glow with an excitement usually reserved for rock stars. I was peppered with questions about what romance writing consisted of, exactly, and did people actually make a living at it, and ohmigod you actually wrote a book that is so cool!

By the time she left to find her family I was feeling pretty good about myself. Inspiration. Works both ways, I guess, and I had the distinct impression I’d just reached out a hand to the future.

Cheers, Donna

Monday, August 9, 2010

When You Wish Upon a Star

Impressions of the 2010 RWA National Conference

During the RWA Golden Heart ceremony at the end of the RWA National Conference in Orlando, a very magical song from this very magical place began to play--and although the music was instrumental, I could clearly hear the lyrics in my head.

When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you

If your heart is in your dream
No request is too extreme
When you wish upon a star
As dreamers do

Like a bolt out of the blue
Fate steps in and sees you through
When you wish upon a star
Your dreams come true

Those words resonated with me in so many ways. 
 
It spoke of the many hopeful Golden Heart finalists, including our own co-blogger Sharon Lynn Fisher--finalling for the second year in a row (woot, Sharon!)--striving for and achieving the recognition that their manuscripts have made the cut in the toughest of all writing competitions for unpublished authors.
 
It spoke of the RITA finalists, published authors who have poured all their skill, talent, creativity and experience into their novels and now have the chance to be given the nod as the best novel of their category for 2010. 
 
It spoke of the many attendees still pursuing their dream--on their own time and at their own expense--because they believe they will someday have the chance to introduce the world to their stories and the characters who, for now, exist only in their minds. 
 
It spoke of the amazing work done by the RWA staff when the original site--The Opryland Hotel in Nashville--was flooded earlier this spring and it appeared that cancelling the 2010 conference might be one possible outcome.  But these are writers.  They're programmed to problem solve and overcome obstacles.  Instead they got to work on drafting a new ending to this story, relocating the 2010 conference to the Disney World Magic Kingdom in Orlando at last minute and not only carrying off a wonderful conference--but a SOLD OUT conference!  Amazing.
 
Yes, this was a conference to remember.
 
Orlando was my second RWA National and it was every bit as head-spinning as my first, held last year in Washington DC.  This time around, I had a better grasp of what to expect, and the excitement of meeting many of my peers from the SFR Brigade--as well as the chance to see and chat and scheme with my friends and co-bloggers here at Spacefreighters Lounge--Sharon and Donna--face-to-face.  Like Sharon said at our first get-together in the BlooZoo Lounge, it felt like we'd just seen each other yesterday, not over a year ago.
 
How did it go?  It was mahvahlous--and the hotel and grounds were gorgeous--but it all went so fast the days and events are a virtual blur. 
 
Sharon and Laurie
 
 
On the first morning, I had breakfast scheduled with NY Times bestselling author Sharon Sala and RITA finalist Colleen Thompson.  This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came about via my winning bid in the Brenda Novak Online Auction for Diabetes Research earlier this spring. Yes, I was nervous, but got over my case of jitters almost immediately. The wisdom these two warm and witty veterans shared was priceless for a still-struggling-to-break-in writer and an experience I'll never forget.  They also gifted me with signed copies of their novels as a super-duper deluxe added bonus!  (My one regret?  No pictures!  What was I thinkin'?)
 
Then it was off to a three-day whirlwind of workshops including an excellent workshop by Colleen Thompson (more details to follow), an invitation to the Golden Network event by Sharon where other Golden Heart finalists and several of my LERA local chapter members were in attendance, a long chat over drinks with Sharon and Donna at the Cabana Poolside Bar, amazing talks by keynote speakers Nora Roberts and Jayne Ann Krentz, more workshops, the Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal Chapter "The Gathering" Steampunk Costume Ball where Brigaders swept the costume contest, a search for kareoke (still in costume) and more drinks at the BlooZoo, more workshops including Donna and I witnessing the last ever presentation of Linda Howard's Twelve Steps of Intimacy (she announced she was retiring from public speaking at the conclusion!)...Donna is pictured with Linda Howard above...
 
 
Steampunk Costume   Donna at our table at The Gathering
Contest Winners                                                    
 
...exciting news and meetings swapped with peers in the lobby and corridors, and finally the Golden Heart/RITA Ceremony at the conclusion and witnessing fellow SFR Brigader Kylie Griffin win the Golden Heart.
 
SFR Brigaders at the Golden Heart (left to right): 
Erica Hays, Kylie Griffin (winner of the GH for Paranormal),
Sharon Lynn Fisher (GH finalist and co-blogger),
and Laurie Green (that would be me).

And then it was over.  Time to pack up the clothes, experiences, memories and head home to digest the calvacade of information, tips, advice, industry news and brainstorming sessions...and start planning what I want to achieve and where I want to go with my career in the coming year.

So long, Orlando.  It was a blast.   

(You can see the full collection of pictures in the SFR Brigade web site photo album.)
 

About Spacefreighters Lounge

Hosted by 5 Science Fiction Romance authors with 8 RWA Golden Heart finals and a RITA final between them. We aim to entertain with spirited commentary on the past, present, and future of SFR, hot topics, and our take on Science Fiction and SFR books, television, movies and culture.