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On Happily-Ever-Afters

It’s strange how certain conversations can stick with you. I was chatting in an online forum years ago, among good friends, when the topic turned to family relationships. A number of forum members shared difficult and distressing experiences from their personal lives. Then someone asked, a little wistfully, “Is there even such a thing as a normal family anymore? Like, you know, a family where everybody is still talking to each other?”

I had one of those rabbit-in-the-headlight moments. “Yes!” I thought. “Mine!” We’re not perfect, not by any means, but we send each other gifts at Christmas and hold family reunions and take an interest in each others’ lives. Those of us who are married are still on our first marriages, and I’ve chatted amicably with all of my siblings during the past year.

But in the context of the conversation, it didn’t feel right to say that. How could I parade my happiness in front of people who were dealing with the horrifying situations we had just been discussing? It didn’t seem respectful. It didn’t seem appropriate. And so I let the moment pass.

And I find, years later, that I am still saddened by the necessity of doing so.

Because there are happy families in this world. Marriages that actually work. Couples who meet and fall in love and really do find a happily-ever-after together. It is possible. Difficult, yes, especially for those who’ve been handed a crapload of emotional baggage. But possible.

And I think, sometimes, that this possibility gets lost in the massive, ugly realities of day-to-day living. And that those most in need of a glimpse of hope are perhaps the very people who seldom get it – because when your own family life sucks, those who have it better tend to make themselves invisible out of a sense of respect for the difficulties you’re going through.

It’s easy to fall prey to the notion that everyone who appears happy is secretly hiding some ugly skeleton of domestic abuse. That every starry-eyed pair of newlyweds is destined for a rude awakening after their honeymoon. That lasting contentment is a silly children’s story, often envisioned but impossible to experience.

But you see, that’s a notion every bit as unrealistic as the belief that life will unfold perfectly just because you’re in love. Both realities are true – the fairy-tale marriage that crumbles to ashes and the romance which blossoms into 60 years of happiness – they both exist. They are both real. And so, at the same time that conscientious authors are understandably working to prevent young girls from rushing headlong into relationships they’ve not yet taken time to think about, I hope we also don’t erase the idea of a happily-ever-after entirely.

“But wait!” I hear concerned readers saying. “Statistically, the likelihood of an unhappy relationship is much higher than the likelihood of happiness. Why dangle an unrealistic dream in front of children who are sure to be disappointed?”

Well, hm. The likelihood of becoming a NYT Bestseller is, quite frankly, very slim. Do we tell aspiring authors it’s just a pipe dream? Do we urge them to set their sights on something more realistic, like selling a couple of short stories to a semi-pro magazine? Or do we encourage them to buckle down, use whatever resources fate and a cruel world have allotted them, and learn the skills that will give them the best possible chance of reaching that statistically unlikely yet infinitely desirable goalpost?

Happiness exists. It is real. It is possible.

It is worth striving for.


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I’ve talked about classy panelist strategies before. But after my latest guest appearance on Writing Excuses, I realized I’ve left out a huge piece of the puzzle.

See, in my last post I focused on egocentric strategies: things you can do – as an individual – to ensure that you make a good impression and offer something of value to the audience. That’s a great starting point for panel etiquette. But if you’ve ever listened to Writing Excuses, you know there’s a dynamic that exists above and beyond the behavior of any individual panelist. There’s a synergy that happens. The podcast isn’t just a bunch of really smart people sharing their thoughts. It’s a group of engaging professionals having a conversation together, building on each others’ ideas, creating a gestalt experience that delights and entertains the listener.

You might think this magical effect is mere slight of hand – that the Writing Excuses cast just knows each other really well, and that’s why they’re able to work so well together. Granted, they are very familiar with each others’ careers and conversational styles, but I don’t think that’s why every episode feels like one of the awesomest panels from my favorite conventions. Because I’ve walked into those recording sessions blind, and felt their camaraderie reach out to enfold me. I’ve sat on convention panels with people who had never before met and watched a delightfully enthralling conversation unfold.

So no, I don’t think the magic comes because the panelists know each other. I think it comes because they mutually understand a fundamental truth: that consummate conversations are far more than the sum of their parts.

That’s what I want to talk about today. Panelists as part of a greater whole.

(By the way, even if you never anticipate being on a panel, this post may still be relevant. Because good panelist etiquette is, conveniently, also an excellent set of protocols for basic social interaction at, oh, you know, parties and business meetings and evil overlord convocations and suchlike.)

So how does one go about creating a consummate conversation?

It begins with an awareness of the entire discussion, rather than one’s own part of it. A solid conversation is balanced. No one person does all the speaking. And generally, for most topics, there’s an ample supply of interesting information accompanied by entertaining witticisms, relevant insights, and a smattering of tasteful humor.

The most engaging panelists I know are actively aware of the shape of the conversation. They offer other panelists an opportunity to speak. They don’t drop a joke on top of someone else’s stirring emotional confession. They speak at length only when no one else has anything to say, and they know whether the other panelists have a contribution to make because they watch for subtle signs in their peripheral vision. Intakes of breath, slightly uplifted hands, or sudden shifts in facial expression can all notify the speaker of someone else’s desire to speak. And the panelist who is watching the shape of the conversation, rather than concentrating on her own bundle of words, will gracefully leave half her brilliant ideas unspoken because she knows the panel is most interesting when speakers swap off often.

The best panelists I know build off each others’ ideas. If panelist A postulates a fictional story in which scientists discover life on Venus, panelist B notes that fact. Then, when panelist B gets ready to discuss characterization he will demonstrate his point by using one of the scientists from the Venusian expedition rather than inventing a new scenario from scratch. Afterwards, panelist C will refer to completely unrelated material – a novel by a famous author – in a way that further illustrates panelist B’s point. Near the end of the session, Panelist D may decide to throw in a joke about Venusian biospheres.

Do you see what is happening here? The conversation begins to take on a structure, with running plot threads and recurring themes, not unlike a short story in microcosm. The panelists build this structure together, with a running awareness of mood and narrative tone. They are creating an integrated project, not a mish-mash of individual presentations. They are manufacturing a joint experience in which the audience shares.

Do all panelists manage this all the time? Heck, no, not even the experienced ones. I know I’ve certainly got a lot of room for improvement. But I’ve noticed that the panelists I admire most are extremely aware of the other people at the table and of the overall path of the conversation.

Pay attention the next time you listen to Writing Excuses. You will see all these techniques in action, and the results are spectacular.


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Crowdspeak

So it’s been a while since I blogged regularly. Quite frankly, ever since Movement was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula in 2012, the internet has intimidated me.

When I was writing for two people, or ten, or twenty, it was easy to keep track of my readers. I knew who they were; I had a pretty good sense of which topics they were comfortable with and which would touch off unpleasant emotional triggers. We shared a common vocabulary and a common set of online friends. Blogging felt like a comfortable luncheon with a group of trusted companions.

It’s not quite that way anymore. I’m thrilled at every reader, I truly am! But the sheer number of you these days means that my capacity to track all of you has evaporated. There are 100+ people listening and each of you has your own inner landscape and I can’t do justice to all of them. I’m no longer aware of all the trigger points. I can’t predict which words and phrases – innocuous in my own mind – might set off unwanted emotional reactions in the mind of someone with different life experiences. I mean, I can predict some of them. But I can’t predict all of them. Human experience is too individual and too complex and too extraordinarily unique for anyone to foresee how every person in a random sampling of listeners will respond.

So I am left with two choices: (a) avoid topics of significance and prattle only about banalities. (b) accept the fact that no matter how hard I try, I am always going to unwittingly cause discomfort to some subset of readers.

The first option seems pointless. The second is largely incompatible with my psyche. (You can see why I’ve kind of pulled into my shell and just focused on writing fiction lately.)

I miss the internet, though. Or rather, I miss chatting with the people who inhabit it. So I’m going to poke my nose out of the shell and try to discover a nebulous option (c), in which my blog posts are useful and relevant without becoming burdensome.

Wish me luck.


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Death, Birth, Rebirth and Brainbending

In honor of LTUE, my metaphysical/magic realism/alternate future collection is on sale for $2.99.

This collection includes my highest-paid story to date, The Cyborg and the Cemetery, which incidentally was also one of the stories that caused me the most grief. I’d just finished a Heinlein reading spree and desperately wanted to write something with that one-two-punch effect on the intellect, where you come away wondering whether the world you thought you were inhabiting is in fact the same world that actually exists. I’m very proud of the way that story turned out, and rather fond of the somber, vision-impaired teenager who features so prominently in it.

The collection also includes the title story, one of three written by request for Daily Science Fiction’s Numbers Quartet series. In it, a young girl discovers the truth about her childhood hero, loses respect for her father, nearly loses her life, and discovers an unexpected source of hope all within a few thousand words. Its companion story, All or Nothing, follows the life of a man cursed from childhood to become the living instantiation of the number zero, with outcomes rather different than one might expect.

The collection also includes a tale of unrequited love on an island where wood grows by magical command, an unusual take on therapeutic intervention, and a space opera retelling of the opening scenes of a familiar fairy tale.

Overall it’s a fine batch of stories. Each one stretched my skills as a writer, and each of them taught me something new about myself and the world I inhabit. I hope they’ll do the same for you.

You can purchase the e-book or just admire the pretty cover art over at Amazon.com. I do apologize to those with non-kindle reading devices. The book is scheduled for release at other online outlets within a few months.</a>


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Dark Expanse Tie-In Anthology

I’m pleased to announce that the Dark Expanse editorial crew has selected three of my stories for inclusion in their upcoming tie-in anthology. These are epic space opera adventures set in the Dark Expanse game universe, replete with alien races, interstellar battles, conflicting loyalties and a dark vanished race of self-appointed demigods.

I’ve read some of the other fiction slated for this anthology, and it’s going to be awesome. I’ve seen work by the cover artist. Also awesome. The official press release announcing the book later this month will be… you guessed it… absolutely awesome.

I’ve written four — no, five — stories for Dark Expanse over the last year, and it’s been a fabulous experience. There’s something paradoxically liberating about knowing that you’re not allowed to tinker with the alien races or basic world setup. I have a tendency to second-guess myself when writing fiction. I’ll go back and tweak alien cultures or planetary details that would be best left alone. Tie-in writing forces me to deny myself that little vice. The worlds aren’t mine, and I’m not allowed to fiddle with them. Instead, I get to interpolate, creating a hidden history within the pre-existing structure, focusing on characters caught up in brutal interplanetary conflicts rather than on the details of the conflicts themselves. Also, I get to blow things up.

It’s been fun writing in a game universe. I look forward to doing similar work in the future. But mostly, I look forward to sharing those stories with readers who may never have heard of the game, or might not be in its target audience. I really like some of the characters I created. I can’t wait to see what happens when they meet a new set of readers.


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Convention Schedule – LTUE

I will be attending the 32nd annual Life, the Universe, and Everything symposium on February 13-15, 2014. The event will be held at the Provo Marriott at 101 W 100 N, Provo, Utah. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll stop by to say hello!

Thursday, 1:00 PM
Effective Book Covers
How to choose what to depict on your book cover, from the scene and character to emotion and theme. How to make book covers intriguing, marketable, and accurate to the story.

Thursday, 6:00 PM
Scene or Summary
Is it better to create a scene and work through it, or just give a summary of what happens? This panel discusses when to use each option (if ever), along with the advantages and disadvantages of each method.

Friday, 12:00PM
The Curse of the Jungle/Ice/Desert Planet
Even Venus isn’t perfectly uniform. The basics of how different climates and biomes arise and how to give your planet some variety.

Friday, 4:00PM
Short vs. Long Fiction
How long should your book be and what are the appropriate lengths for each genre? This panel also deals with the pros and cons of short works as opposed to long works, and vice versa.

Saturday, 9:00AM
Writers on Writing
Join these successful writers as they discuss their craft: Elana Johnson, L. E. Modesitt, Jr., Mette Ivie Harrison, Nancy Fulda, Shallee McArthur, Sara B. Larson

Saturday, 12:00PM
Writing Hard Science
Science fiction without the doctorate degree. Ever felt you weren’t smart enough to write hard scifi? Learn the tricks of the trade from these futuristic leaning authors.


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Gender trends in book marketing

So I ran a little survey on Facebook this evening. I placed the covers for the original and expanded versions of Movement side by side, and asked readers which cover image they’d be most likely to pick up in a bookstore. I expected that due to different interests and life experiences, women would tend to prefer the left image while men would tend to prefer the right.


I was only partly correct. 13 men and 25 women responded. 12 of the women preferred the leftmost image, while 13 preferred the one on the right. All 13 men preferred the image on the right.* One respondent could not be easily classified as male or female. This respondent preferred the image on the right.

The point of this experiment was to determine to what extent men and women react differently to ebook covers. It seems clear that men and women DO respond differently, although the difference is not as drastic as I’d expected. There remains the question of why.

The comments offer some clues. One woman reported preferring covers with people on them. Several respondents observed that the cover on the right has more color and contrast, and therefore draws the eye more. And of course the ballerina on the left gives the impression that the story is exclusively about dancing: not a topic that will necessarily draw people’s interest. The rightmost image is also somewhat wider.

All of this was valuable information for me. When I released the expanded edition of Movement a few weeks ago, I deliberately tried to design a cover that would appeal to a male audience. The original cover image, I felt, was too strongly geared toward women. The story’s content is science heavy, and its most outspoken fans have been male. The dynamic young dancer on the cover did not, in retrospect, seem like the best way to reflect those truths.

I suspect that my original cover choice is representative of a common newbie publishing error. I selected a cover image that (1) was drawn directly from the story’s events and (2) appealed to me, personally.

On the face of things, (1) doesn’t seem like such a bad thing to do. We’ve all seen book covers that bear no resemblance to the story’s content. We all know how annoying that is. So what’s wrong with drawing an image directly from the story?

In this case, the problem was that the image I’d selected, while accurate in every detail, was not representative of the story as a whole. It falsely implied that the story was primarily about ballerinas, and quite possibly lost me a lot of readers. The second image is far less specific, and yet the rushing lights and emphasis on technology are a good representation the story’s core elements.

Perhaps more importantly, cover design is clearly affecting men and women differently. The geeky-researcher part of my brain wants to compare a few more images. I’d like to see what happens when covers with roughly equivalent color compositions focus on different structural elements — one with a character portrait, for example, and the other with a technological emphasis. I’d also like to track recently published SF novels to see whether cover designers are subconsciously taking the author’s gender into account when creating cover art, and whether the resulting variation in covers (if any) is correlated with a difference in sales. It would be interesting if the disparate sales rates for male and female authors could be traced to the layout and conceptual emphasis of their respective book covers.

Would any of that research turn up measurable results? Honestly, I’ve no idea. At this point, it’s just a thought experiment. But it’s one heck of a thought experiment, if you ask me. And one that I may follow up on at some later date.

*A couple of control respondents on google+ suggest that this was not the result of the order the images were presented in. On google+, the image of the dancer was on the right with the image of city lights on the left. The gender trends still held.


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ConFusion Schedule

From January 17-19 I’ll be in Detroit for Legendary ConFusion, where I’ll be hanging out, being a guest on panels, and meeting lots of awesome people. If you’re going to be there, feel free to come up and introduce yourself!

Follow @nancyfulda on Twitter for live updates during the convention.

Here’s my schedule:

More Dumb Questions
9pm Friday – Michigan Room
Myke Cole, Jacqueline Carey, Nancy Fulda, Sam Sykes, Laura Resnick

Myke Cole has volunteered for a second stint moderating the panel where the sillier the question, the better. Please show up ready to try to stump the panel with goofball queries, or just set up a good joke to see what is done with – or to – it.

Freelance Editing with Nancy Fulda and Saladin Ahmed
9am Saturday – Rotunda

What does a freelance editor do? What can one expect when working with an editor, and how can you make sure to get the best out of the experience? Come in, ask questions, and demystify the process.

Everything I needed to know about writing I learned by reading slush
1pm Saturday – Erie
Ferrett Steinmetz, Sarah Gibbons, Elizabeth Shack, Nancy Fulda, Patrick Tomlinson, C. C. Finlay

One of the most instructive thing that an aspiring writer can do is read as wide a variety of other writing as possible. Generally this is done by voraciously consuming all the words one comes across, but there is another way. Slush readers weed out submissions for publication, and generally have a highly tuned grasp of what in writing patently DOES NOT WORK. Here are some of the lessons learned. Remember, they read them so you don’t have to.

What does rejection mean?
5pm Saturday – Rotunda
Ian Tregillis, Elizabeth Shack, Mike Carey, Amy Sundberg, Nancy Fulda, C. C. Finlay

Rejections are a part of the business when writing, but few of us understand what a rejection is – beyond the soul crushing part. We discuss what a professional rejection is and isn’t, and try to help shed light on both the why? and the what now?

 


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Guest Appearance on Writing Excuses

The Hugo-award-winning cast of Writing Excuses has invited me for a guest appearance. Well, technically, they’ve invited me for four guest appearances, subbing in for Dan Wells, who is currently in Germany not-being-a-serial-killer.

This is not the first time I’ve been on Writing Excuses, but it’s the first time I’ve been on the show at the same time as Brandon Sanderson, thus demonstrating conclusively that we are not actually the same person.

We did the recording a few weeks ago, and the episodes will air within the next few months. Expect lively conversations about artificial intelligence, how to create engaging characters, un-teaching the reader, and other writing-related stuff.


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Latest Audible Books

Ok, so, um… I’ve been a little busy lately. Please don’t be mad at me for not posting this sooner.

I’ve got new audiobooks out. A Starscape Slightly Askew is about sibling rivalry, extraterrestrial linguistics, and the archaeological remnants of a thousand-year-old alien civilization. The Man Who Murdered Himself is about a guy who undergoes an illegal treatment to cure a hideous illness. Blue Ink is about the effects of cloning technology on a colonial planet.

Blue Ink and The Man Who Murdered himself are older stories which have gotten a lot of positive feedback.  A Starscape Slightly Askew is pretty recent, and one of my personal favorites. You can get them free at Audible with a 30-day Trial Membership.


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Profile

nancyfulda
nancyfulda

Publications

Nancy Fulda -- Hugo and Nebula Nominee

Web Site | Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn | Google+






That Undiscovered Country
Jim Baen Memorial
Award Winner


paperback | kindle | nook | PDF | Other





Movement
2011 Nebula Nominee

Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, March 2011

paperback | kindle | nook | smashwords





The Breath of Heaven
Stories from Distant Worlds

paperback | kindle | nook | smashwords






In the Halls of the Sky-Palace
Jim Baen's Universe, June 2009

kindle | nook | smashwords





Backlash (novelette)
Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, 2010

kindle | nook | smashwords





The Man Who
Murdered Himself

Phobos Award Winner

kindle | nook | smashwords





Dead Men Don't Cry:
11 Stories by Nancy Fulda


Paperback | kindle | nook | smashwords | DRM-free






Nothing This Fun Could be Good for You (article)
Available at:
Clarkesworld Magazine





Like Rain From Silver Skies
Available at:
Basement Stories





Knowing Neither Kin Nor Foe
Available at:
Beneath Ceaseless Skies


Nancy Fulda is a 2012 Hugo and Nebula Nominee, a Phobos Award winner and a Vera Hinckley Mayhew Award recipient. She is the first (and so far only) female recipient of the Jim Baen Memorial Award. Her fiction has appeared in a number of professional venues.

Nancy Fulda is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com

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