News and Nebulas!

Sorry, I can’t believe this blog has been in stasis for so long. Some news:

My story “Emerging Grammars” was accepted for the anthology CAT’S BREAKFAST. I’m thrilled, because that was among the very first stories I wrote, back in 2015, in an attempt to write something for the BSFS Amateur Writing Contest.  I’m glad it found a good home!

CAT’S BREAKFAST is a tribute anthology, published in memory of Kurt Vonnegut on the tenth anniversary of his death.  I’m a big fan of Vonnegut! (without exactly having read very many of his novels.) I think as a writer you grow up with Vonnegut out at some middle distance, and a lot of his quotes from outside his novels serve as street lamps and signposts.  Especially, his rules for writing are trustworthy tools and instruments that have seen a lot of use. I’m grateful to have the chance to contribute to such a volume. I didn’t write “Emerging Grammars” with  Mr. Vonnegut in mind, but when I read the story to myself in his voice, in his cadences, it made a new kind of sense to me. 

Pre-orders for CAT’S BREAKFAST are open already, here.

Also, the May-June issue of Interzone is out, and oh, it looks gorgeous:

  
(I have to wonder though, if the face in profile there doesn’t look somewhat like a very familiar contemporary political figure. I’m sure it’s just my imagination.) That’s my name, right there, on the cover! (Squeezing, Muppet-flailing, general cavorting about.)  I can’t wait to have actual copies in hand, to share with lots of great folks who helped out with the story, as well as those who expressed interest.  They should be here soon!

Jeremy Gottwig, friend and fellow writer, interviewed me about the Rushford story, and was totally indulgent about letting me blather all over his blog about my internal issues and mess-of-a-writing-process.  The results turned out pretty great (all due to him) and I strongly encourage you to take a look on his website, here. Many thanks to Jeremy, and I hope to be able to return the favor on his next publication. 

Last up, I’m going to Nebulas! Very excited to be carpooling to Pittsburgh with a bunch of BSFS friends.  It will be my first time, and I’m looking forward to meeting so many fine folks that I hold in such esteem. If you spot me there, please introduce yourself! 

BSFS Amateur Writing Contest

Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s Amateur Writing Contest is open for entries!The contest is open to residents of Maryland ages 18 and older who do not yet have a professional writing credit to a speculative fiction market. Current students at Maryland colleges and universities aged 18 or above also may enter.

There are cash prizes and perks for winners. The contest is free to enter. The deadline for entries for this year’s contest is June 16, 2017. Winners will be announced at Capclave 2017.

Each entry should be an original short story that includes some speculative element. Science fiction, fantasy, horror, slipstream, weird, cyberpunk, steampunk, and your fabulicious uncategorizable imaginative fictions are all welcome!

Further details and instructions for entering can be found in the link below. We’re looking forward to reading your story!

http://www.bsfs.org/bsfsssc.htm

Campbell Award Anthology is up!

Just a quick blog post to say that the Campbell Award anthology, EVENT HORIZON 2017, is available in paperback (for a limited time, I gather.) Shirtsleeve Press is the publisher, and the editor is the amazing Jake Kerr!

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Copies can be purchased here:

EVENT HORIZON 2017

The cover art looks amazing! This will be the first time a story of mine will be in hard-copy print (or close to it, depending on when the Interzone story comes out.) Also in this same edition are stories by my colleagues at the Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s Critique Circle: Karlo Yeager Rodriguez, Jeremy Gottwig, and David Vaughan.

Please tell your friends! I will send a copy to the public library in the town where I grew up, as someone there suggested it.

Galactic Owl

So I feel guilty for ignoring this blog for so long — I apologize to readers having dropped by hoping for thoughtful writing, for slapdash updates or even just signs of life. The new political regime has conspired with my own busyness to keep me away. So I apologize.

First, I’m extremely pleased to announce that my story “Rushford Recapitulation” (beta readers may remember it as having an even longer, more awkward title) will be published by Interzone! Andy Cox, the editor, thought that if all went well, it would appear in the May-June issue: #270.

I’m thrilled and humbled. Interzone is Britain’s longest-running speculative fiction magazine. It has published an astounding list of talent: J. G. Ballard, Ian M. Banks, Angela Carter, Greg Egan, Tanith Lee, William Gibson, Gregory Benford, Stephen Baxter, Brian Aldiss, Terry Prachett, Charlie Stross, Aliette de Bodard, and on and on. Also, the physical magazine is gorgeous — hands-down the most handsome SF mag being printed today. 

My story may get an illustration! That would be a first for me — though, I can’t imagine what the image likely would be (somebody cradling a bloody cellphone?) Thinking further, maybe the ring-of-fire scene? The confrontation at the clinic?

Second, I’ll be joining a carpool of BSFS Writers-Circle folks headed to the Nebula conference, in Pittsburg, early in May. That’s another first; hopefully more to come. (It’s definitely a different sort of conference than the Balticon that I’m familiar with.) I’ve volunteered through SFWA to help assemble the Nebula Awards website — I’ll get to interact with a lot of great writers that way, I figure, and/or vastly annoy at least a few of them. Here’s hoping for the former.

Oh, I’m a member of SFWA now! So that’s cool.

Also, I’ll be going to a critique group of Codexians, in DC next month, if I can line up kidsitting (or if I’m gutsy enough to drag my son along. I’m sure he’d be bored before too long — there don’t seem to be other kids expected there.) 

I put up a story on Codex to be critiqued, and got back some pretty fabulous and insightful (and candid) comments. I will surely do that again.

Finally, I had a bunch of ‘business’ cards printed for my writing persona. Maybe ‘cards of introduction’ is more accurate. It seems as though you’d want something, when you meet someone interested in your work, that you could hand them, to direct them where to look for it.

I can’t tell, subjectively, if these are cool or just embarrassin, but I like them. I actually met the owl that’s pictured, not at the center of the Andromeda galaxy, but at a kind of Chesapeake Bay awareness day field trip I went on with my daughter’s second grade class. The “Galactic Owl” has a kind of a Roger Dean proggy feel to it, and I hope it will stick in people’s heads. But also, I did it as a kind of a writing challenge to myself; I promised myself I would write a story for which this would be an accurate and literal illustration. 

Anyway, you’re welcome to leave your impressions of it, good or bad, in the comments! 

Eligibility 2016

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.

Apex editors, interviewed!

 These guys rock. 
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!! 

Jason: Thank you.

Lesley: Yes, thank you! This has been a blast!

 Here below are bios of Jason and Leslie. Please give Apex your support! 

Publisher and Editor-in-Chief
Jason Sizemore

 

Jason Sizemore – Publisher and Editor-in-Chief

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.

Managing Editor
Leslie Conner

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.

Story4November

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. 

Mood is the Story-Killer

Couldn’t hear the brass,

Couldn’t hear the drum,

He was in a class 

By himself, by gum! 

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:

Funny 

Sexy

Whimsical

Surprising

Repulsive

Sentimental

Beautiful

Informing

Clever (different from funny)

Scary

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.) 

Two Problems

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 several stories out 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.

There are a whole series of tweets from the same seminar, here.

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.

Some Other Things Sentences Can Do (Part 1)

“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.