I surely wasn’t expecting to be writing this, but the news is, my short story “Monstrance of Sky” is online now at Escape Pod. So it is, at least technically, eligible for awards for the year 2016.
This is my first fiction sale, and a pro sale at that. I am as thrilled as if you’d thrown me from an airplane. I’ve joined Codex, and I’ll be sending an application to SFWA some day soon.
More importantly, please go over to Escape Pod and give it a read, or better yet, a listen. The reader for this story, Alethea Kontis, just crushes me, her reading is dead-on, it grapples with all the nuance and competing emotions, I couldn’t have asked for a better reader. I’m very fortunate.
I was trying to sum it up, blurb it, encompass it somehow, but I felt like anything I came up with was selling it short. But the tags Escape Pod applied to it are terser and more immediate — I think that, cut free of surrounding context, they give a better sense of the themes and the emotional desperation Evelyn, the point-of-view character, is falling through: “aliens, clones, God, love, ocean, post-apocalyptic, religion, science, sex, war, women.” And pie, I should add. Please go read it, I’m very proud of it.
Thanks to Divya Srinivasan Breed, at Escape Pod, who edited and championed my story. Thanks also to Benjamin C. Kinney, the reader at Escape Pod who (bravely) first pulled this story from the slush. Thanks surely to Alethea Kontis who gave what will undoubtedly become the definitive reading of this work.
Extra thanks to all the first readers and critiquers who slogged through various unpolished versions of this work, and all contributed thoughtful suggestions and comments. Jeremy, Karlo, Sherry, Doug, Becky, Kat, Dave, Gail, Neal, Mike, Meg, Sarah, Terry, Eric, and my wife Olga. You know who you are. Forgive me if I’ve forgotten anyone.
Finally, thanks to the Baltimore Science Fiction Society, and especially the BSFS Writers Circle. Without them, I would have had no inspiration, no place to read my work, and surely not had such fine people to share it with.
I was fortunate to interview Lesley Conner and Jason Sizemore, editors of Apex Magazine, on the eve of their current subscription drive. Read on, to discover all their fabulous secrets (well, probably not all) and — spoiler! — find out when the next open submission periods will be!
Curiousful: First of all, let me congratulate you both. Plenty of speculative fiction magazines fold after a handful of issues. Apex Magazine is more than a survivor, it’s flourishing. It’s publishing excellent stories that people want to read, new material is coming out every week, there’s a podcast, poetry, wonderful artwork, and fans who really care about Apex. And, you’re rounding on publishing your 100th issue.
Did you envision all this when you started Apex Digest? To what degree has what’s happened with Apex been consonant with your initial vision for the magazine, and what has been a surprise?
Jason: I started Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest way, way back in 2005 as a print publication. It wasn’t until 2007 that I recognized the oncoming digital tsunami that would take out most print periodicals. At that point, I transitioned our business plan toward a goal of being online and eBook only.
In a way, the digital paradigm has enhanced my initial vision for the zine. I wanted to do something that would make a positive difference in the world. Being online opens channels to virtually all potential readers, casting a wider net of individuals for Apex Magazine to service.
The biggest surprise is how much the publication has grown in the last two years. A big part of that can be tied directly to the current boom in online publications. But a little part of me believes it is because we might be doing a few things right!
Lesley: Haha! I hope we’re doing a few things right! More than a few!
I wasn’t lucky enough to know Jason when he first started Apex Digest, so I came into the Apex fold a little later – first working on the book side of the company and then expanding my role to include managing editor of Apex Magazine. During that time my goal has always been to make sure we are publishing the best magazine possible: from the stories, to the cover art, to making sure that every piece has been proofed and polished to a shiny gleam.
It’s not exactly a surprise, but the most thrilling part of working on the magazine is when readers get just as excited about certain stories as I do. I love all of the stories that we publish, but sometimes there comes a story that really gets me excited. Stories that have me texting Jason at 5:30 in the morning, saying, “Just read a story that made me cry! It is gorgeous! Read it now!” – which is ridiculous because I can tell you that Jason Sizemore is not up at 5:30 am. When we publish those stories and readers comment about how wonderful they are, I get a little thrill. A recent example of such a story would be “The Gentleman of Chaos” by A. Merc Rustad. I’m absolutely in love with that story.
Curiousful: When I look back through issues, I see that there were editors in prior years – Catherynne Valente, Lynne Thomas, Sigrid Ellis. Those are some big names. Do those editors’ choices then influence the magazine today? Or is Apex now strictly your own thing?
Jason: Absolutely. Cat, Lynne, and Sigrid all played important roles in shaping what Apex Magazine has become. As far as influencing my choices, that’s a less concrete connection. I have my own tastes and style (as they did, too), and I want the zine to reflect my vision as editor as much as possible.
Lesley: When reading stories, there’s a certain something we’re looking for that says Apex. It’s hard to describe exactly what it is, but when I find it, I just know. This is something that has been cultivated and built over years – through every editor-in-chief that Apex Magazine has had. The perfect blend of dark, surreal beauty.
That being said, the zine is definitely Jason’s vision. He has this history to build off of – a history he started as editor-in-chief of Apex Digest – but he’s selecting stories that are steering the magazine toward his vision of what we’ll be years from now.
Curiousful: Let me say, Apex issues have had some killer cover art over the years. They’re really gorgeous, and the website is also. How are these decisions made? There’s nobody on the masthead whose job is ‘make the magazine beautiful,’ but it’s true.
Lesley: Thank you! I guess we could add ‘make the magazine beautiful’ next to my name in the masthead. At least as far as selecting cover art is concerned. I find 95% of Apex Magazine’s covers. It’s a job I sort of fell into because right after I stepped into the role of managing editor I realized we didn’t have many planned out beyond the issue we were working on. I asked Jason if he’d be alright with me searching for more and he said yes. Luckily for me, Jason seems to like the pieces that I select and he keeps letting me find more!
A lot of different thoughts go into my selections. I never want our readers to begin to get bored with our covers. I don’t want them thinking, “Mmhmm, that’s nice. It looks exactly like last month’s cover and the month before that.” So I look at things like color palettes, technique, the focus of the image. It’s an interesting balance to come up with pieces that consistently get a “Wow! That’s gorgeous!” reaction, but that are all striking and unique. It would be very easy for me to continuously select similar images, ones that I know our readers enjoy, but that isn’t what I want to do. I want to find new artist to work with, experiment with different art types, and maybe – just maybe – push the boundaries of what people think is beautiful
Curiousful: What can you say about the relationship between Apex Magazine and Apex Publications? Are they entirely separate, or are there fruitful connections between them?
Jason: The fruitful connections are plentiful!
But to back up … Apex Publications, LLC is comprised of two entities: Apex Magazine and Apex Book Company. I think the book side benefits the most from the relationship. The magazine functions as a wonderful platform for promoting our books. Having said that, the magazine benefits by grabbing stories from our many anthologies and contributions from our family of authors.
Curiousful: My favorite Apex Publications books are the Apex Book of World SF series [There are currently four volumes.] What is Apex Magazine’s take on diversity and inclusion?
Jason: Lesley and I both share the idea that diverse fiction makes for more entertaining fiction. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror are about presenting ideas that appear to be impossible and dealing with consequences of these ideas being possible. Bringing in fiction from all over the world, from different nationalities, race, gender, etc. means encountering ideas outside the boundaries of our specific sphere of life.
Diversity and inclusion makes the world a better, smarter, and more interesting place.
Lesley: I completely agree! We want to publish stories from around the globe, written by people from all walks of life, people with different perspectives, different voices, and different styles. How boring would it be if we limited ourselves to reading/publishing stories only from one group of people! I’m not interested in that.
Curiousful: Has the kind of story that succeeds at Apex Magazine changed over the years? What are you looking for now, in terms of new material?
Jason: We have always liked stories that question our morality and the choices we make. Recent examples of stories that hit on these themes are Sam Fleming’s “She Gave Her Heart, He Took Her Marrow” and “Lazarus and the Amazing Kid Phoenix” by Jennifer Giesbrecht.
Lesley: And I get really excited when I come across a story that has a huge emotional impact. Stories like “The Old Man and the Phoenix” by Alexandria Baisden, “I Remember Your Face” by E.K. Wagner, and “Aishitero Means I Love You” by Troy Tang. If I finish a story and either immediately want to read it again or have to text Jason about it, then I know it will be a hit in the magazine.
Curiousful: Are there opportunities for slush readers at Apex?
Lesley: Not at this time. We currently have 26 slush readers who do a great job of keeping up with our submissions. That being said, we are currently closed to submissions. Typically when we’re closed for a while, I will have a few slush readers contact me to let me know that they aren’t able to come back when we reopen. Which is completely cool. Reading slush is not for the faint of heart. It takes time and dedication, and after a while even the best slush reader can get burned out
My suggestion to anyone interested in slush reading for Apex would be to follow the Apex Magazine Twitter account (@apexmag). Hopefully I will know by January if we’re going to need new readers and that will be where I put out a call
Curiousful: This isn’t a question, but I wanted to thank Apex for its commitment to publishing poetry in the magazine.
Jason: Thanks for saying so.
Bianca Spriggs deserves the love. She’s the poetry brains.
Lesley: Yeah, Bianca is the best! She finds amazing poetry month after month!
Curiousful: It must have been gratifying to have two Nebula winners published in Apex recently – “Jackalope Wives” by Ursula Vernon, and “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky. Had you known, at the time, that these were going to be special?
Jason: The first time I read “Jackalope Wives” I knew it was award worthy. We put it as our podcast fiction and placed it in our 2014 sampler issue to give it maximum exposure. Rachel Swirsky’s story caught me by surprise. Its speculative elements are light, and it is a very short piece. But the story is so powerful and speaks to so many, that it works.
Curiousful: People I know love Apex, and are so excited to participate. Any word on when fiction submissions might be open again?
Lesley: That is a hot question right now! One I hear repeatedly any time we close to submissions. Luckily, I have the answer!
Maurice Broaddus is guest editing the April, 2017 issue and he would like to have an open submissions period. We will be open December 1st to December 16th exclusively for his issue. If you have ever wanted to work with Maurice, this is your chance! Don’t miss this slim window! His submissions will go through our online submissions system, just like all other submissions.
For all the poets out there, Bianca Spriggs will be reopening poetry submissions beginning in December! More information about that will be coming out in November.
As for short fiction, we are reopening to submissions on January 15th. I know that seems like it is very far away, but it gives Jason and I a chance to catch up on all the stories held for further consideration from our last open submissions period and gives our slush readers a much deserved break.
Curiousful: Are there any changes or new projects in the works for Apex? Do you have anything special planned for issue 100?
Jason: Two exciting projects are our guest editors Maurice Broaddus and Dr. Amy H. Sturgis. Maurice will be taking the reins in April. Dr. Sturgis will edit our August issue (a special Native Peoples/Indigenous Peoples themed issue). We’re always looking to bring new voices to our readers and Amy and Maurice are up to the task!
Lesley: We’re currently running our annual subscription drive – subscriptions fund future issues! Plus, our flash fiction contest will be open to submissions November 1st to November 30th. This year we’re taking on Valentine’s Day and letting our readers loose to see what sort of twisted romantic flash pieces they come up with. Both the subscription drive and the contest have been very popular with our readers in years past.
Like Jason mentioned, we have special issues guest edited by Maurice Broaddus and Dr. Amy H. Sturgis lined up for next year. Other than that, we’re going to focus on continuing to publish amazing fiction month after month. And who knows what we’ll cook up for issue 100. I’m sure we will do something memorable.
Curiousful: Thanks to you both! I appreciate that you took the time. Best wishes for continued success!!
Born the son of an unemployed coal miner in a tiny Kentucky Appalachian villa named Big Creek (population 400), Jason fought his way out of the hills to the big city of Lexington. He attended Transylvania University (real school with its own vampire) and received a degree in computer science. Since 2004, he has owned and operated Apex Publications. He is the editor of five anthologies, author of Irredeemable and For Exposure: The Life and Times of a Small Press Publisher, a three-time Hugo Award loser, an occasional writer, and usually can be found wandering the halls of hotel conventions seeking friends and free food.
Lesley Conner, Managing Editor
Lesley Conner is a writer, social media editor and marketing leader for Apex Publications, and Managing Editor for Apex Magazine. She spends her days pestering book reviewers, proofreading, wrangling slush, doling out contracts, and chatting about books, writing, and anything else that crosses her mind on the @ApexBookCompany Twitter account. Most of her nights are spent with a good book and a glass of wine. Her alternative history horror novel, The Weight of Chains, was recently published by Sinister Grin Press. To find out all her secrets, you can follow her on Twitter at @LesleyConner.
I get my best ideas when I’m not thinking. There’s a great paradox to hang a theory on, hey?
I’m entirely serious. I’ll sit for an hour, staring at a white, blank screen, trying to solve some not-overwhelmingly-thorny problem with a story that I’m writing. How do I get the hero and the heroine into the elevator together? Who really stole that diamond? Somehow, committing all my mental resources and time and attention to one problem seems to be the worst, least productive way to arrive at a good solution. I sit. And I stare. I type ten plausible answers, and end up hating and discarding them all.
Then I get dragged away by regular life, the normal stuff we all gotta do. Some time later, the door of a medicine cabinet will slam, or I’ll drop a fork into the garbage by mistake, or I’ll turn the radio on really loud, accidentally, and something will jar itself loose from my subconscious and I’ll find I’m holding the answer — the one, real, good, genuine answer I knew I was looking for all along. Ahh.
So the theory is that, somehow, you can surprise yourself into writing well.
This hedges towards many much deeper questions, deeper than I mean to address in this little blog post: how memory works, how creativity happens, whether the subconscious is where all the good ideas actually come from, and if so, why should we ever be conscious at all…
I don’t want, right now, to understand the process fully. I want to harness it.
And we’re rounding on November, and NaNoWriMo, which I’m not participating in this year (or, like, ever.) So this is my initiative instead, this and every November going forward — to attempt some new writing method or process. This year, I’ll be trying ‘Story4’, which is a entirely fabulous, unprecedented, powerfully creative writing technique (that I just made up.)
Story4 is a technique where you start with four blank sheets of paper (or files) and write four separate stories in parallel, in a state of constant transition between them. As long as you’re writing, with fingers actually pushing down keys and making words, you keep going. Any time you are stalled for more than, I don’t know, fifteen (ten?) seconds, you flip to the next story and start writing. You don’t reread any more than is absolutely necessary to continue with the story that’s on the page in front of you. You don’t do any research at all. You can take a brief break every ten minutes. The four stories are, intentionally, as different as your writing talents can make them.
The goal is to continually jar yourself into a higher level of awareness, to cross the boundaries between subconscious and conscious creation fluidly, to get into ‘the zone’ and once there, not allow distractions to pull you out of it.
Is this idea any good? I have no clue. But I aim to find out. It think it’s at least as good as William Burrough’s cut-up methods, as good as using a Ouija board to prompt you, as good as a game of Exquisite Corpse. In fact, it’s close to doing an Exquisite Corpse with yourself.
Ah, but will it work, you ask? Well, check back to this blog, and I’ll try to let you know.
Even if it doesn’t work, I might learn something by comparing the four stories that came out of such completely similar writing circumstances — like scientists studying identical twins over the stretch of their lifetimes.
P.S. If you too want to try Story4November (or Story3November, or Story5November, or Story4SomeOtherMonth) please be my guest. I’d love to hear about your experience, in the comments below or otherwhere. Happy November.
I read a set of submission guidelines the other day that included this: “We want stories with atmosphere, where mood is an important element.” I bet they do. Everybody since Lord Dunsany has wanted stories with atmosphere.
But I did a little critique the other day, of a friend’s short story. The story was all a single scene: a death scene in a hospital room. I’m sure the setting and the content of the scene circumscribed what could be done there, with regard to mood.
But in the vast majority of stories, we readers should be rewarded with (this is just my theory, other will dispute) several different flavors or experiences in reading it. It shouldn’t all be rendered in a single emotional shade. If you open up a New Yorker fiction piece, this is often true (I read “Papayas” by Thomas McGuane in a recent issue, for instance. It’s pretty good!) You find a bunch of different stuff, some sad, some funny, etc. And I feel like this is most often true to our own life experiences – in every day, we get something funny, something weird, something beautiful, something scary. So I think we should make this a goal we are explicitly working towards in our fiction, in the name of naturalism, to whatever limited degree we can, that doesn’t make the piece feel mechanical or predictable, and that doesn’t undermine the believability of the piece. Here’s a list I’ve been assembling, of some basic ‘flavors’, that are all pleasurable, or at least memorable, to read:
Clever (different from funny)
Sense of wonder-y
You can remember this, just by memorizing the handy acronym “FSWSRSBICSS”. I’m sure we could all add additional flavors to the list.
Maybe all of these don’t fit into that one deathbed story, but if the nurse cracked a good joke, or if the dying man’s wife of children said something whimsical or sentimental about his past, those might become assets of the piece.
We as SF writers most often write with ‘the whole thing’ in mind, the overarching idea, the concept of the story. (A soon-to-come blog post will address SF short stories that are ‘big metaphor’ pieces.) But I think that a reader should be able to consider the work on almost any scale —a paragraph, a couple paragraphs, a couple or even a single sentence — and find something to admire or enjoy or find memorable in the work. Something with some versimilitude.
I don’t know, these are just my random thoughts that the deathbed piece prompted — these clearly veered pretty far away from standard critique. I think, conventionally, SF writers reach for naturalism and a breadth of moods in their novels, but in short stories, they are more likely to try to make something all-of-a-piece, something that asserts and sustains a single mood. And often, they are counseled or encouraged to do so. But this seems akin, to me, to writing a piece of music using a single pitch or note.
Couldn’t hear the flute
Or the big trombone
Ev’ry one was mute
Johnny stood alone.
I get that those big mood pieces work like freight trains – they build up momentum as they’re going, and, if they work, they just crash through all the barriers of composition, pacing, believability, even cause-and-effect. They seem unstoppable, if they’re successful. The reader doesn’t ask questions, doesn’t hold the author responsible for anything else, because the mood obtains.
But I want to underline that the author is giving a lot away — a lot, all those other colors in the paint-box — by driving towards one sustained mood. If you’re going to attempt it, you’d better be sure your story is going to arrive where you intend it to.
Cats and dogs stopped yapping
Lions in the zoo
All were jealous of Johnny’s big trill
Thunder claps stopped clapping,
Traffic ceased its roar,
And they tell us Niag’ra stood still.
(Lyrics from “Johnny One Note”, by Ella Fitzgerald. Used with reverence but without permission.)
I’m really looking forward to Balticon, not the least reason being I’m taking a writing seminar with Sarah Pinsker. She’s a thoughtful writer and critiquer (if that’s a word) and she’s got severalstoriesout that I love. Her workshop is specifically about writing literary SF short stories.
The workshop participants are supposed to bring with them “two problems” to share and discuss. In the interest of having a coherent set of ideas when I show up, I wrote them down early. I’m pasting them in below. Reader, if you have any comments, please add them below! I’ll try to make a follow-up post afterwards if the discussion yields insights.
1.) How can I ‘set the table’ so that genre readers will be able to recognize and appreciate metaphor?
I wrote a story where a POV character’s significant other broke up with her, and then later had a romantic relationship with an alien. I tried to illustrate how this made the POV character feel. I think that SF readers I had were so credulous and immediately curious about the details of the alien, that they ignored the possibility that the alien was there to show how this experience of seeing an old lover take up with someone new made the POV character feel.
Finally, exasperated, I added this paragraph to the story:
“Probably it’s a more common feeling than I imagined then — that your former girlfriend’s new lover is alien, incomprehensible, her feelings absolutely inexplicable. Maybe everyone has felt this way.”
I feel like this kind of ‘signposting’ adulterates the work, but if I didn’t lead genre readers by the hand to this, many wouldn’t consider it, where it might be the very first thing a crit partner at your local MFA program would say.
A lot of spec fiction readers, hearing about an alien, immediately say, “Cool! What planet are they from? How do they eat?” Do you, the writer, just abandon these readers, or try to drag them along? This is a classic problem with trying to span literary and speculative audiences. There are surely a lot of literary writers now exploiting spec fiction tropes for the freedom and expressiveness they can offer.
I want to add that the handwringing that we hear now about “why do we have so much dystopia in SF” is probably related to this. Writers always are trying to express how they feel. The state of speculative fiction can be understood to be a barometer of national mood, I believe.
2.) Middles, endings, and manipulations –
Here’s a tweet from someone attending a fiction seminar given by Claire Keegan. Claire is a short story writer whose work I admire a lot – it’s tough-minded, beautiful in an austere way, extremely sharp in its details.
“Chekov had such a light touch but always nailed the detail. Dont worry about PLOT. A middle & end: hugely arrogant thing[s] in short stories.” Claire Keegan, transcribed and tweeted by June Caldwell, Irish Writers’ Centre, November 21, 2015.
Is Ms. Keegan trolling writers here? I feel like this tweet is a clue to a whole different mode of fiction-writing than (most of) what’s going on in genre fiction. I don’t think a lot of stories by Hemmingway or O’Connor are going to agree well with this tweet. But maybe I can begin to see what she’s getting at – that story-writing should or could be more reportorial than manipulative. SF stories are in general hugely manipulative of their readers. They remind me of billiard tables specially laid out for trick shots – these setups are never going to occur naturally.
There’s also the old story that for many years the New Yorker would consistently edit stories it was to print by simply removing the final paragraph from them. I don’t know how true that is, but I’ve heard it more than once.
A parallel to this is a bit I heard in a Kelly Link say in a podcast (“The Drunken Odyssey with John King, Episode 187- Kelly Link!”) She said that her stories don’t have just one thing going on in them, because life never happens one thing at a time. This speaks to a kind of naturalism in writing, and honest observation. It agrees with my own philosophy about story writing, but I would say it’s quite different from what the corpus of SF stories generally does.
“They are, he thought, the hardest in the world; the hardest, the cruelest, the most predatory and the most attractive and their men have softened or gone to pieces nervously as they have hardened.” Ernest Hemingway, in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.
He’s talking about “American women”, and it seemed pretty clear to me, when I first read it, that the author is speaking ‘over the story’ here, and directly to the reader. He’s flattering a group of his readers. OK honestly, he’s buttering up his readers. When I read it, I felt like this cheapened the whole enterprise, but it’s hard to argue with success.
But this is something a sentence can do — something other than describe a scene, describe a character, advance a plot. There’s lots of these other things, I’m coming to recognize. I’m doing a whole different kind of reading now, trying to identify the purposes of even individual sentences. I am going to try to list several of these here, and illustrate each with a quote from an established writer. Here we go!
“Penguins. Flightless and clumsy on land. You know the feeling.” Jay McInterney, BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY
The sentence I’m pointing at here is the third one, but I wanted you to have the other two, for context. (The bit doesn’t work otherwise.) This is the opposite of the prior example. Here, the sentence isn’t flattering the reader, it’s identifying with and commiserating with her.
“How could they know he swallowed glassful after glassful to comprehend a harsh and private beauty?” E. Annie Proulx, in THE SHIPPING NEWS
This single sentence illustrates the humanity of what is otherwise unlikeable cipher of a character. It reifies him for us. I think it’s fair that even the very minor characters in a novel have names, a line or two of direct quotes, and a few words that confirm their inner lives and make them real.
“Here we are, Shank thought (or maybe said) outside the hotel, waiting out yet another john delayed by his guilt and his doubts and the time it takes to check his morality at the door, driving north, praying for forgiveness, taking a rain check on his deeper principles while the dull fields fly eagerly past the bug-speckled windows.” David Means, in short story The Spot, in the book of the same name.
I love this sentence because it’s so encompassing, it’s amost a story in itself. Here, this sentence is describing the character, the setting, the situation (really the whole shmear) but this sentence is in no way a neutral observer. What Shank is doing, and by extension what the sentence is doing, is implicity judging him (the john) and his actions.
“With so many other forces at work in the world, brutal, sly, deceiving, unstoppable forces, what could be more foolish than staking your life on an ephemeral feeling, no more than an idea really, a fancy, the culmination of which is a clumsy bit of nakedness, a few minutes of animal grunting and bumping, a momentary obliteration of thought, of conscience?” Alice McDermott, in CHARMING BILLY
This sentence is kind of a head fake for the readers. It’s very passive-aggressive. It’s enunciating exactly the opposite of what we want the character to feel. Love, romantic love, is a fabulous thing to stake your life on, of course — in fact, there’d be no story here without it.
“As for herself, she felt that she had driven to a grave and gotten out of the car but left the engine running.” Joy Williams, from the short story Congress, in HONORED GUEST
I love this. I just love this. This sentence is describing a feeling for which there is no existing name. It’s scratching an itch I wasn’t aware I’d had, up until the moment I’d read it. Joy Williams rules, by the way.
“Undressing her was an act of recklessness, a kind of vandalism, like releasing a zoo full of animals, or blowing up a dam.” Michael Chabon, in THE WONDER BOYS
This is one of my favorite sentences ever. I’d highlighted it in the book many years ago (like several of the sentences here) and never forgotten it. In a single sentence, he’s defined the character of the speaker and the subject and described their relationship in a unique, thrilling fashion. This sentence is a killer.
“As if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. […] Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.” J.R.R. Tolkien, THE RETURN OF THE KING
Horns, horns, horns. That’s not a sentence at all; it’s a fragment. And then there’s another one, almost immediately after. Tolkien is the consummate grammarian. Here we are, eight-hundred-some pages into his trilogy, and suddenly he writes a fragment? But it’s intentional, we realize, and it’s perfect. The narrator is overwhelmed, and we are too, when we get to this point. Sentences can break the rules, if they do so artfully, and in the service of story.
“Marley was dead: to begin with.” Charles Dickens, beginning A CHRISTMAS CAROL.
I don’t even know what that is. I’m still parsing that, after all these years. But it seems correct for the narrator, and it’s hard to forget once you’ve read it.
“Good deeds are ever-bearing fruit.” (?)
For completeness, here is an example of a sentence as mnemonic device. Not sure I have ever seen it used in a work of literature, but that just means it’s a tool waiting for the right hand. (This sentence is used by musicians to remember the order of major scales as one goes around the circle of fifths. One sharp = key of Gmajor, two sharps = Dmajor, etc.)
Please, readers, feel free to add your favorite sentences in the comments.
I want to say a word that I haven’t heard much since I started writing genre fiction: art. Literary writers aren’t afraid to cast their own writing tropisms and sensibilities in terms of their service to art. In my experience, this is never done among SF or fantasy authors or aspiring writers.
I’ve listened to podcasts interviewing Ted Chiang, Kelly Link, Margaret Atwood, Neal Stephenson, Jeff VanderMeer, Jo Walton, China Miéville, William Gibson, and plenty of others. But I’d be hard-pressed to cite a single instance where any of these used that A-word in reference to their own or others’ works. I’ve heard Gibson talk of Naturalism (though in speaking, he may not have capitalized it.) Ursula Le Guin often writes about Craft, as does Stephen King. Most SF authors talk very specifically of Story, which is the closest and most hardworking surrogate I’ve found.
Here is something that really stood out for me: an essay in the SFWA bulletin entitled Ten Reasons to Write Short Stories Even Though the Pay is Peanuts, by Daniel H. Williams and John Joseph Adams. It’s declared intention is to list reasons why – why you should do it, why you should stay up late nights, or rise before your family does, just to bang away at the keyboard. The word ‘art’ is used exactly zero times in the entire essay. (Neither do the authors say that ‘short’ is the natural and correct size for many stories – that’s a separate question.)
This incensed me – and I’m a pretty easy-going guy. Maybe the authors thought it was obvious, yeah, sure, “art”, or maybe that it was assumed by all thereaders already, but I felt the essay and the list were incomplete.
What is art, and why could it be valuable to think of your own work in such terms? I don’t have the answers here, and it’s clear that any set of them would be incomplete. It has something to do with struggle, it’s clear by the necessarily open-ended nature of it. It has something do with glimpsing or capturing in some way the relationships between people, between a person and the world. It has something to do with aesthetics, about making judgements about what is beautiful or pleasing, and this brings us around again to what is common between people. What has been ringing for me lately is this DFW quote: “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.”
Maybe saying it out loud, “I’m making art,” is a step towards clarifying goals, and opens up a richer toolbox for thinking about the qualities of your work. What its intended effects are, how it should address the reader, what emotions its meant to evoke, or could, if that’s part of it. What it says about the world.
I get the sense that this is too specific, too emotionally open or touchy-feely for some writers to just blat out. “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.” That’s Stephen King, and he wasn’t talking about zombies (probably). SF writers want to tell you about the goblin invasion, or the armada from Rigel, and not think too much about what it all means, or how it might make you feel.
Entertainment, you’re thinking, what about the entertainment? Even a Matisse water-lillies painting has to have some power to entertain viewers, at least for the duration of a glance. Art could also have something to do with getting to the root of understanding what is entertaining, and why. Readers want to be surprised, they want to be amused. They want something new to think about.
Contra to that, they want to solve mysteries or anticipate answers that the characters will come to in the text — in some sense they want the text to flatter them, for them to be able to encompass and navigate it. They want the stuff they read early to have some value or meaning later on. They want the world they are reading about to have some coherence, some rules, to be believable. They want those worlds to transport them away from their own. Fictions have to be more believable than real life, for some meanings of the word believable. And on and on. Some of this bleeds over from art to craft.
At every level from selecting individual words right up to the choice of whether to write at all, art is the underlying current, the sea itself we float on, in selecting among courses (it’s really hard to escape Le Guin’s boat metaphors.)
Maybe contending that art is being made is useful to the genre vs. lit arguments that will continue grinding on for far longer than this blog will exist. Maybe if you were writing earnestly in SF, you could apply for an get an art grant, maybe even a MacArthur Genius Grant! Probably not – there have been, as of this writing, something like fifty writers who have won that award (exclusive of poets) and none of them has written science fiction, by my reckoning. These maybes lie outside of my interest in writing this.
Saying what we are doing approaches art gives it the dignity it is due, it makes clear what our goals are, and that they no less honorable than those of realist writers and artists of other media. It shows we are engaged with the larger world as well as what is going on in our own heads. Ultimately, when we say that what we do is art, we are telling a truth, maybe one that is not so obvious or widely agreed to. A writer should strive to unveil the truths hidden in their own experience.
Edit: I discovered later that Octavia Butler was awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant, in 1995. I’m embarrassed at this oversight. Her work is surely worthy of that level of recognition.
I’ve been thinking recently about how languages change over time. I think of the movie Ladyhawke, which had a setting that was something like France during the Middle Ages, but was marred by a kind of modern, low-register dialog delivered by a post-Ferris-Bueller Matthew Broderick. People very easily percieved that the dialog didn’t fit with the setting — it was jarring and unbelievable.
And this is something I war with, specifically when I write science fiction, which is for the most part set in the future? A future, a possible future. When Tolkien wrote about his imagined, alternate past, he chose or created a language specific to it. How can we presume to write about any future, without also considering the kind of English that will be spoken then?
You can pick up any English-language book, open it to any page, read randomly from it, and make a fair guess as to when it was written. Chaucer reads differently from Jennifer Egan, Hemmingway from Mary Shelley, Junot Díaz from The King James Bible. It’s not only style, it also has to do with the underlying language being used. Language isn’t static — it’s a living thing, it’s changing all the time. It has to.
I think people generally appreciate when an author pulls off the feat of writing something clearly separate from her own time. It aids in setting and the suspension of disbelief; it contributes to voice. Language well-rendered from some other era can strike us as beautiful simply for its strangeness.
At the same time, I sense that editors, agents, MFA teachers, writing coaches nearly universally counsel against attempting this. They all want the language a writer uses to be clean, modern, functional, easy to read, free of artifice.
But there’s something more, something beyond imitating the language of a different time or culture. Certain writers advance our language, they push it forward into new function and expressiveness. They become some of those forces that cause language to evolve.
Certainly Shakespeare did this; long lists exist of the words he invented, the idioms he created. The consensus is that Hemingway did this also, cutting away a lot of the florid overgrowth that preceded him. To this list I’d be inclined to add the Beats, specifically Burroughs and Kerouac, and also Renata Adler and Susan Steinberg. My knowledge of literature is probably neither deep nor broad enough for me to make a very complete list.
But is this something that is reasonable to aspire to in one’s own writing? I would like to argue that, when writing about the future, naturalism requires it of us. Perversely, perhaps, but there it is. We can’t see it, but we’re meant to reach blindly for it.
“The notion of a painter who isn’t interested in paint is baffling, but many writers (I exclude poets) don’t actually seem that interested in language. They are convinced that the interest of their work lies in characterization, plot, and theme. But the plays I’m discussing have survived, in large measure, due to the language Shakespeare invented and put in the mouths of his characters.” – Margot Livesey
Writers coming out of MFA programs, and those holed up in garrets in Brooklyn, might have good reasons to reach for novel language, but they’re writing now, about the Now, and probably hoping to write broadly appealing works that earn them a living wage. We amateur SF writers, working on the fringe, perhaps even on the frontiers of our own fringe, are writing of the future(s), and may perhaps even be resident in a future, in some sense. It’s our particular responsibility to be the explorers and the pioneers of new language.
I’m imagining a machine, a very elaborate machine, that would read and comprehend every extant work of English fiction. It would probably need to be fairly large, even if it were distributed in ‘The Cloud’. It would reply to verbal questions, with a British butler’s understatement and submerged amusement.
It would analyze all the paragraphs, the sentences, and the word choices, of everything that had ever been written in any English-language story ever, and graph the results over some multi-dimensional space relevant to writers and their choices. And then it would regress a series of average points over all those dimensions, one point for each calendar year, with each work of fiction contributing to the point corresponding to the year of its creation. Then, this machine would draw a smooth curve through all those points, from oldest to most recent. It might need to perform some further averaging in order to do this, but it has a degree in statistics from Stanford, and its judgement is good about such things.
Then, most ominously, it would employ some trusted method to extend the curve, extrapolate from this year forward, out into the future. What points would that curve intersect? What could we divine about the writing and speech of future English-users, as a result of this frightful amount of analysis?
We might imagine a future in which English were streamlined, made simpler and more compact.
Writers, particularly short story writers, are always pitched up against word count limits imposed by editors, publishers, by their own time, and by the wavering attentions of readers. I wonder how much of Hemingway’s economy is attributable to limits imposed on his writing by external forces?
“I am going to the store.” (Usually when people say this, they haven’t yet left for the store – what they really mean is “I am going to go to the store.” Let’s overlook this for now.) This sentence seems straightforward, lacking in any embellishment. On the surface, it seems atomic.
But I is the implied subject of every am. The word to would be unnecessary if going were transitive. The word the imparts no new information about which store is meant. “I am going to the store.” could become “Am going store,” maybe even “Am go store,” without giving up any content at all. (What value does the present participle add here?)
This sentence is an existence proof that there is a lot of space in current English that could be streamlined, reorganized. The result sounds alien but that’s not immediately a reason to dislike it if its meaning is unambiguous. It has a certain pleasing spareness to it.
The idea here would be not (just) to squash all the unnecessary stuff out of each utterance, for brevity’s sake, but rather to reduce the distance between the beautiful, the tangible, the fateful bits. The parts of what you’re saying that actually matter.
Also, it strikes me that a lot of grammar — all the declensions and agreements — serves, at least in modern use, no purpose other than to make distinctions between speakers: who is a native speaker, who is an outsider, who has had what kind of education. I think of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. When this first occured to me, I was revulsed. Try to imagine a future where this kind of gate-keeping weren’t built into the very language.
These are just some ideas. I don’t know where they lead, and whether many readers wouldn’t be entirely put off by having to follow an author through a grammar partially (or entirely) invented and different from their own. Surely there must be some precedents in the corpus of existing SF (to be explored in a later blog post.) But I put this here as a reminder to myself, and as part of my effort to try to capture my writing ideas while they are still fluid.
Believe me, I’ve read a fair lot of books about writing fiction – writing novels specifically. Moseley’s book is a fair example, as is Stephen King’s, as are Le Guin’s. Most of them talk about
– point of view
These kinds of things constitute an anatomy of the novel, and are surely useful to consider in writing one.
But I was really taken aback when I read a handout that was sent home with my daughter Rachel, who was then in second grade. The handout didn’t mention any of these. It instead discussed things we parents should be doing with our children as they improve as readers, and the kinds of intellectual or cognitive tasks that readers learn to perform as they grow. They called these ‘strategies’ for reading, but I feel like this is a misnomer.
It was a real revelation to me that we could enunciate or classify different mental tasks that readers of story perform. How is it that the cognitive or behavioral side of reading a story is ignored (largely) or de-emphasized when teaching fiction writing? Shouldn’t it be the primary focus?
It has become a goal of mine to try to exercise readers in this way – to hold their attention by pushing or encouraging them to perform these kinds of tasks as they read my stories.
Here below is the list of ‘strategies’. I may have edited a few. I hope I still have the original handout,somewhere, but moreso hope I remember to keep these in mind while writing. The quoted sections below are directly lifted from the xeroxed pages my daughter brought home to me. At the bottom, at least one of these pages says “(c) L. Malorino, 2012”. (I contacted Lauren Malorino, and she very graciously allowed me to quote from her work.)
1.) Making Predictions. “Making predictions motivates readers to find out what happens in the story.”
2.) Inferring. “Clues to Prompt Inferences – characters’ behavior, picture clues, facial expressions on characters in pictures, cause-effect situations, unanswered questions, reader’s own experiences, reader’s background knowledge of a topic.”
3.) Asking Questions.
4.) Visualizing. My own strategy is to describe something that I cannot visualize myself, and to not provide excessive specificity. Invite the reader to fill in details, add something of themselves to the mental images they’re assembling.
5.) Synthesizing. “Synthesizing is when a reader’s thoughts evolve throughout the course of a book or text.” This I would say should be a goal of nearly any good writing.
6.) Making Connections. “There are three types of connections that your reader is learning about and practicing.
– Text-to-text.” I think this is great to explicitly state!
7.) Determining Importance
To this list I can add one item of my own:
8.) Assessing Moral Choices. Surely all kids, and to some degree most adults, read what characters think and do, and cannot help but make comparisons to the characters’ own avowed moral system, that of the larger culture surrounding them, and the reader’s own.
I invite readers to contribute to and comment on this list. Does this make any sense to you? Are there big obvious omissions to this list? Is it wrong (or maybe just insufficient) for the writer to be explicitly concerned about how the reader is thinking as he is reading her work?
Charientismus – “If you stay in Beverley Hills too long, you become a Mercedes.”
Chiasmus – “Anyone who thinks he has a solution does not comprehend the problem and anyone who comprehends the problem does not have a solution.”
Apocope – “Oft in the stilly morn”
Epenthesis – “Lie blist’ring fore the visitating sun”
Ellipsis – “And he to England shall along with you”
Mezozeugma – “And now a bubble burst, and now a world.”
Metalepsis – “Virgil by ears of corn signifieth harvests, by harvests, summers, and by summers, years.”
Synecdoche – “All hands on deck!”
Taxis – “As the ox has his bow, sir, the horse his curb, and the falcon her bells, so man has his desires”
Erotema – “Do you hear this, O God?”
One of the most mysterious books in my library is A HANDLIST OF RHETORICAL TERMS, by Richard A. Lanham. Mysterious it is, not only because I have no real training of or interest in rhetoric (other than having once dated a self-described rhetorician) but mysterious also because no one writing fiction, or instructing others how to, seems aware of this fabulous resource. Even if you or your characters are never in need of a persuasive and well-ordered argument, this book names and describes a richness of different writing figures I was otherwise unaware of (or at least unaware they had names.)
It’s hard for me to believe that it’s a lapse in my own education that makes this book feel like such a series of revelations. I think it’s generally a lapse in liberal education that makes this book and its subject so inaccessible and underappreciated.
I admit I seldom if ever use this book for its intended purpose – it’s not like I’m sitting up at night classifying Cicero’s arguments. Most often I use it like a magic book – I hold a writing problem in my mind and then open the book randomly, seeing what shows up that might help. It works far better than I might reasonably expect. But also, over time, I’d like to believe I’ve absorbed some useful knowledge from it, even using it haphazardly.
I think there’s a useful parallel that can be drawn between writing and the various crafts (carving, potting, sculpting, etc.) The best way to arrive at a distinctive result is to start with novel tools.
I don’t think every writer needs to own this book; but, if you’re looking for ways to enrich your writing or achieving a unique voice, you could do worse than pick up this underappreciated resource.