I appear in the latest edition of the Writing Excuses podcast (MP3), recorded live at Westercon in Salt Lake City last summer, with Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells and Howard Tayler, talking about why we care about characters.
James Scot Brodie is a teacher at Presidio Middle School in San Francisco, where Jen Wang and I spoke last month on our tour for In Real Life; prior to my arriving, he assigned my book Little Brother to his students, and produced some curricular materials that he’s generously given to me to publish.
I was thrilled when the librarian announced that Cory Doctorow was going to make an appearance at our school. As an English teacher, aspiring writer, and complete nerd — I find author visits a nice perk to the job. The students too, like to get out of the classroom whenever they can and author visits are a rare treat. I’ve been teaching for about five years and I’ve met two authors. It then dawned on me that we seldom read the books of the authors that come to visit our school. Mainly because our closets are filled with tons of dead people. Maybe five percent of our class sets are from the living, although Mr. Gomez somehow scored 40 copies of The Fault In Our Stars (he must know someone).
Nevertheless, it was early September and Doctorow was set to visit on October 16. I was determined to have my students read the book, but we only had ten copies from a box on loan from the public library. Now, Doctorow is super generous with his stuff and offers a lot of material to educators and students for free via his website, so I figured I would tap into this and download the book. At the same time I didn’t want to print up 102 copies for my 3 English classes. That would take forever, cost a lot, and kill too many trees. So, long story short, this is what I did: I purchased the audio book, and two copies of the text. I read the book, making “marginal” and underlining vocabulary words, slowly sculpting it into a “teacher’s edition.” I also came up with questions for each chapter. Most the questions are simple guided questions (who, what, when, where and why), but I also made sure that each chapter has a question where the students can relate the reading to their own lives — these inquiries were also great springboards for interesting classroom discussions. I printed up these sheets and students completed them as we listened to the audio book. This is where the second book comes into play – I used the unmarked version of the text to display on the white board at the front of the class via my ELMO projector for all the class to see. I was surprised at how huge I could get the book — it was roughly four feet by six feet and I didn’t know this but the little orange button on the left is for focusing (a student pointed this out to me). I’ll have to say it was one of the most positive reading experiences I’ve ever had with a class. It may be psychological but the minute I projected the book on the board and hit the play button on the audio book — students were enthralled as if watching a movie. Of course it may also have something to do with Mr. Doctorow’s book — there is a lot in there that the modern day teenager can relate to.
The entire unit took about six weeks. Students gathered all their vocabulary/question sheets into a portfolio. I purchased card stock and brass fasteners for students to make covers for these portfolios (which they decorated themselves) and this turned out to be a great boon for students that couldn’t afford to purchase their own copies of the book, because when the big day came — Doctorow autographed copies for his admirers. And this is how the lesson plan ended up here, Cory signed a few, thought they were cool and offered to post them. There are a couple of other activities that I’ve thrown in, but the above is the real meat and potatoes. Use them as you like, put your own personal spin on them and hopefully it will save you some time.
James Scot Brodie
Last month, I sat down for a long conversation (MP3) with Ken Jones for the Between the Covers at Portland, Oregon’s KBOO community radio station, talking about my book Information Doesn’t Want to be Free. They’ve posted the audio so people from outside of Portland can hear it too!
Huxleyed Into the Full Orwell is a new short story I wrote for Vice Magazine’s just-launched science fiction section Terraform, which also has new stories up by Claire Evans, Bruce Sterling, and Adam Rothstein.
“Huxleyed” is a story about the way that entertainment companies’ war on general purpose computing could lead into a horrible mashup of the surveillance tyranny of Orwell and the entertainment tyranny of Huxley.
The First Amendment Area was a good 800 yards from the courthouse, an imposing cage of chicken-wire and dangling zip-cuffs. The people inside the First Amendment area were weird. I mean, I include myself in that group. After all, I vacuformed my own Guy Fawkes mask mold. That is not the action of a sane woman. Shandra was weirder, though. She’d thought up the whole demonstration, socialed the everfuck out of the news, rallied a couple hundred weirdos to join her in the chicken-farm, shouting impotently at the courthouse, ringed by cops scarily into their Afghanistan-surplus riot-gear.
“Shandra, how is this supposed to work again?”
“Like this,” she said, and powered up her—weird—device. It started life as a compact projector, the kind of thing you use for screening dull-ass presentations in school auditoriums. But then she’d added a hydrogen-cell that she wore in a backpack, and a homebrew steadicam rig that she strapped to her front, making her look like the world’s most overburdened suicide bomber. I could tell that she was already freaking out the cops on the other side of the chicken wire, and they snapped into palpable alert when a beam of light emerged from the projector. I could only imagine how many tasers, sniper-rifles and gas-grenades were trained on her at that moment. But she didn’t give any sign that she noticed or cared.
(Image: Koren Shadmi)
Here’s an MP3 of the audio from the Reigniting Society’s Ambition with Science Fiction event that I did with Neal Stephenson and Ed Finn at Seattle Town Hall on Oct 26, to promote the Hieroglyph anthology, designed to inspire optimistic technologies to solve the Earth’s most urgent problems. I had a story in it called The Man Who Sold the Moon.
My latest Locus Magazine column is Stories Are a Fuggly Hack, in which I point out the limits of storytelling as an artform, and bemoan all the artists from other fields — visual art, music — who aspire to storytelling in order to make their art.
There are other media, much more abstract media, that seemingly manage to jump straight to the feels: painting, photography, poetry, sculpture, music. Not always – all of these things can tell stories, but they don’t need to in order to make you feel things. Instead, they seem to reach right inside your skull and tickle the feeling parts of you, triggering cascades of intense emotion that are all the more powerful for their inexplicable nature.
Now, this stuff is all very primal and non-rational and is hard to taxonomize and rationalize and turn into something repeatable. If I can’t tell you why ‘‘Guernica’’ makes me feel Guernica-ey, then how are you supposed to improve on it in a future iteration to fine-tune the emotive effect? At least with stories, you know that if you tell a scary story, and it works, the audience will experience fear. But the emotional oomph of non-narrative art is much more mysterious, more of an art, really, and though it may be harder to systematize, when it gets in the groove, look out.
Which is why, as a ‘‘storyteller,’’ I sometimes get a little impatient with people who are really good at those other media – none of which I have any talent for, incidentally – when they rhapsodize about storytelling as a way of practicing their art. That’s not because I want to jealously guard my preserve here in storyland, but because making someone feel something without all that tedious making-stuff-up is a hell of an accomplishment and it’s heartbreaking to see brilliant artists turn their back on it.
Stories Are a Fuggly Hack [Cory Doctorow/Locus]
(Image: Großmutters Geschichten 19Jh, Public Domain)
Amanda Palmer’s new book Art of Asking is a moving and insightful memoir of her life performing music while making personal connections with her fans; I wrote a long, in-depth review of it for The New Statesman.
There’s a litmus test for how you will likely feel about Palmer’s Kickstarter: Palmer invited local musicians in each city on her tour to come onstage and jam with the band. She asked that they come by for an afternoon’s quick rehearsal, and offered them beer, t-shirts, and gratitude and recognition. This move – something that Palmer’s bands had often done on previous tours – enraged her detractors like nothing else.
The inaccurate headline: “Musician raises $1 million from fans, asks her band to play for free.” (Palmer’s band was paid, it was the jamming local performers who were volunteers.) Even after it was corrected, even after Palmer relented and offered the volunteer musicians $100 to come on stage with her, she was still pilloried for “not valuing the hard work of fellow musicians”.
But in truth, the practice of letting fans jam with the band is an honourable and widespread one. I once spent a night on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, hopping from bar to club, listening to the always-excellent house-bands performing blues and rock and rockabilly and jazz. And without fail, during each set, someone would walk in off the street, a musician on holiday from some much-less-exotic city, perhaps in a state that began and ended with a vowel, with a guitar or sax or even an accordion, and that person would take the stage with the band and jam in. It was a gift – from the band to the vacationing musician, from the musician to the band, from the crowd (who would cheer on the newcomer with real zest), and to the crowd. It wasn’t a market transaction, though sometimes a beer or a t-shirt or a CD would change hands (and in any conceivable direction).
As Palmer points out, other bands have run successful Kickstarters in which they charge their backers for the privilege of performing on stage during the tour. No one bats an eye at the idea that musicians should pay to perform, nor do they balk at the idea that they should be paid to perform. But let no money change hands at all and all of our reactions are disordered. Art without the market is a terrifying thing, a frank admission that the alleged “music industry”‘s most indispensable components – the musicians – never really had a realistic chance of earning anything, and the ones that do get paid are statistical outliers.
Standing naked in front of an audience: Amanda Palmer and a new way to make art [Cory Doctorow/New Statesman]
I’ve just come back to the UK from my US tour for In Real Life, the New York Times bestselling graphic novel Jen Wang and I made; I’ll be launching it in London at the incomparable Orbital Comics, near Leicester Square, on the evening of Weds, 12 Nov.