No, I'm not talking about New York City as it is today - as far as I know, 50 feet of water won't come washing it away anytime soon. But this is the idea behind Kim Stanley Robinson's new book, New York 2140.
I was lucky enough to attend the Science Friday event last night at the Strand bookstore with Kim Stanley Robinson and Ira Flatow. Although I've loved Mr. Robinson's writing since I first read his novel The Years of Rice and Salt over a decade ago, it was great to finally hear him speak about his work and some of the ideas and motivations behind it.
Mr. Robinson's new book focuses on a New York in the future that has come to resemble Venice because of the dramatic rise in sea level. When Mr. Flatow asked the native Californian why he picked New York, Mr. Robinson's answer got a cheer from the crowd: "New York is more interesting."
A lot of the questions centered around social commentary of things that wouldn't just be relevant in the future, but are also important today. For example, there was discussion about the American class system, which Mr. Robinson jokingly called "income inequality," since most Americans don't like to draw attention to the fact of a class system here. Mr. Flatow pointed out an interesting tidbit in the book about a woman who operates a dirigible to save endangered species, and that sparked a whole discussion about land reclamation, conservation, pollution and the effects of globalization.
Having read several of Mr. Robinson's earlier books, it came as no surprise that he had very decided ideas about the social and political landscape of today. However, he had the audience laughing throughout the talk with his dry humor, which contrasted with the outrageously opinionated things he would say.
For example, Mr. Flatow brought up Margaret Atwood's controversial take on science fiction writers - namely, that she would not label herself as one. Mr. Robinson's response: "I hate that crap. I hate it! It's science fiction - any writer who writes science fiction and says it's not because you think you're a genius... I hate you and I'm not going to read you anymore," he added, garnering another chuckle from the crowd. He said he's proud to be a science fiction writer, that this was the genre that best defined who he was growing up: "I started writing science fiction because I grew up in California," a place that started out as heavily agricultural when he was a kid and quickly became the tech capital it is today. "Science fiction is the best literature in describing what reality feels like."
Mr. Robinson also talked about his writing process, both during the initial interview and when he took audience questions. Mr. Flatow asked if he knew the ending of a story when he began writing it. "Yes, sometimes," was the answer. Mr. Robinson spoke about his work-in-progress, a novel where China takes over the moon, and how he already knows the ending. But that's not always the case.
When asked by an audience member about the increasing politicization of his work from the first novel to his most current, his response was for people NOT to go back and read his first book, which got a laugh from the crowd. But he also talked about his day-to-day writing process. He always writes outdoors, for about three hours a day, but then he spends a lot of time gardening, which allows him to, "Get my hands dirty and sit out there in the sun and get antsy and think." As to the idea of writer's block, he said he hated the idea of it and would rather write something unusable than not write at all. "I do write a lot of crap, but I'm a big reviser."
His advice for a new writer? "Gather with a group of like-minded friends... don't do it in classes." Also, "Let things hang around for a while and revise them. And then let go and move onto something else so you don't get hung up on one project." For the aspiring J.K. Rowling, "It is an absolute accident that people make money at fiction writing." If you love writing, do it because you love it - don't expect riches.
A final note about his process, which I thought was interesting, was when he was asked about how he came up with his characters, many of whom are wildly different than him. "I love the idea that novels are not personal testaments. ... I don't want to be there. ... Novels are not about personal expression, they're about being the voice of the community."
And for fans of Mr. Robinson's Mars trilogy, an audience member asked if it would finally make it to television, since it's been picked up several times by networks, but never actually made it to the small screen. His response was positive: "Hope springs eternal."
For all of Mr. Robinson's fans out there, I think we can all agree that it does. I'm excited to read New York 2140 - keep an eye out for my review of it soon.
I love short short fiction - it's so much fun to read and write. So I was happy to hear that my story "Penalty" is being published today at 50-Word Stories, whose motto is "Brand new bite-sized fiction every weekday!" This story is for all of you out there who are dreading the approach of April 18th this year. Hope you enjoy reading it!
I'm about a month late posting this, but I'm a bit behind on things in general. At the end of January, I attended a Pitch Party and Contest hosted by the Fairfield County Writers' Studio. If you were pitching, you had a three-minute window to read a blurb about your novel – for most of us, it was our query letter. The three judges - literary agent Marilyn Allen and writers Tessa Smith McGovern and Carol Dannhauser - then gave us a couple of minutes of feedback. At the end of everyone's pitches, they chose three winners whose books would be sent on to editors at Penguin Random House and Sourcebooks, Inc. Alternately, if a winning manuscript wasn't ready to be sent, instead it would receive a free edit. The fee to pitch was $30, to observe $15. Names were drawn randomly from a jar for the order of the writers pitching.
They capped the pitching to twenty participants, and it was a full house in terms of both pitchers and observers. Ms. Allen gave us a little bit of information about the process of publishing, as she worked in publishing for over twenty-eight years. Her advice was summed up as: "Be positive and be professional." She said, as an agent, she sees about 200-300 queries a week, but most of them aren't salable – only a handful each week require careful consideration, since the rest often failed to follow her submission instructions for one reason or another.
And then we dove straight into the pitches. Like last year, the majority of the pitches were memoirs and/or nonfiction, with only a handful of fiction entries. And, like last year, the majority of the pitchers were women, with only a handful of men.
There were certain themes that kept on showing up in the pitches, and also certain comments that reoccurred in the feedback by the judges.
For the pitches themselves, there were several memoirs having to do with medical battles, including against alcoholism, cancer and mental illness. One theme that showed up a lot was problematic marriages. In terms of the fiction pitches, more were genre rather than literary.
There was some common positive feedback about the pitches:
- Personalized introductions to the judges/agents, including how the writer knew the agent or had met her before,
- Comparisons of one's book to other books similar to it.
- Having a great hook.
- Having a unique idea.
- Having a great voice and/or humor in the query.
There was also some common negative feedback:
- Having too long a query letter.
- Having an unfocused query.
- no tension
- no hook
- no clear goals for the characters
- no focus on marketability or audience
- Having a confused plot synopsis.
- A letter lacking the author's personal voice.
I pitched last, like I did last year – of course, being a very nervous speaker, my hands were shaking as I stood up in front of the judges and read my query letter. I had some great feedback, though, and I felt good about the experience afterwards. During - not so much. I thought I was having a heart attack.
The three winners were Anya Liftig for her memoir Irretrievable Breakdown, Kathryn Haydon for her self-help book If School Sucked for You, You're Probably a Genius and Vanessa Mickan for her self-help book Touchstones (Emotions of Cancer). The two runners-up were Gina Ryan for her memoir Brokeback Marriage and me for my romance novel, The Impossible Guy.
Again, congrats to Anya, Kathryn, Vanessa and Gina, and also congrats to everyone who participated! As a white-knuckled speaker, I know how hard it can be to stand up in front of even a friendly crowd of people and talk about one's writing, so it was quite an accomplishment for everyone involved. And I'll see all of you next year!
Who the heck is Alison McBain?
I am a freelance writer and poet with over a hundred short pieces published in magazines and anthologies. If the Walking Dead isn't on, I draw pictures and do origami meditation in Connecticut, where I live with my family. If the Walking Dead is on... shhhh! The Walking Dead is on! For more info, please check out my "About Me" page.
© Alison McBain. All rights reserved