Q&A: Catherine Lundoff, Queen of Swords Press

Queen of Swords is an independent small press specializing in swashbuckling tales of derring-do, bold new adventures in time and space, mysterious stories of the occult and arcane and fantastical tales of people and lands far and near.

Catherine Lundoff is its founder and publisher, as well as an editor and a vital writer in her own right. Her debut collection with QoS, Out of this World: Queer Speculative Fiction Stories, is some sharp fun, and you owe it to yourself to get a copy!  When she graciously agreed to answer my questions here, I was thrilled —

Curiousful: Why “Queen of Swords?” Is there a connection to the tarot card, or is there a broader meaning?

Queen of Swords Press Logo

Catherine Lundoff: It is connected to the tarot card in the sense that the Queen of Swords is “my” card. It’s generally the one I get as a signifier card when I get or do a reading and it’s certainly the one that I relate to most. In many interpretations, this card signifies a woman who is not to be messed with, one who is smart, strong and straightforward. In short, all the things I like to think of myself as being! I will also admit to a certain fondness for a TV show of the early 2000s about a female Zorro, also called “Queen of Swords.” That said, the Press will not be focused on tarot-themed fiction or how-to books on the tarot, just FYI. I do, on the other hand, hope to publish lots of books with interesting and complex female characters, so I like to think of the name as inspiration for that too.

Curiousful: What prompted you to start your own press?

Catherine Lundoff: It was a combination of factors – some issues with my previous publisher that led me to move on, a near miss on a three book deal with the now shuttered and infamous erotic romance publisher Ellora’s Cave (unlike a lot of unfortunate authors, I had a lawyer look at their contract and declined the offer), not seeing some of the kinds of stories I wanted to read and so forth. It went from being a fantasy that I was going to try to start my own small press “some day” to entering the planning stages about two years ago. Planning encompassed everything from getting a lawyer, an accountant and a bank account to having logo designs done to getting edits and a cover completed for the first couple of books.

I had been planning to launch in 2017, but after the election in November, I decided that it might be now or never. So in January 2017, I released my first book, Out of This World: Queer Speculative Fiction Stories. As of June, QoSP released its third title, a new edition of my novel Silver Moon: A Wolves of Wolf’s Point Novel.

Curiousful: What do you envision QoSP will become? Will it branch out, or keep to its initial focus?

Catherine Lundoff: In the short term, I’m releasing my backlist in new editions, as well as some of my new work, as a combination of learning to be a publisher and financing the press. So far, that’s three books this year, with four more in various stages of planning or creation for the rest of 2017 and 2018. By next year, I’m also planning on putting out an anthology with a co-editor. We’re in the very early stages of planning and discussion, looking at crowd funding options and the like.

In a perfect world, I’d like to publish an additional title in 2018, one by an author who is Not Me, along with the anthology, but we’ll see how my learning process and sales go. I really want to make sure that I have a reasonable idea of what I’m doing and that the Press is viable before I start pulling other folks into it. I’d rather err on the side of caution, all things considered.

My long term plans for 2019 and beyond are to focus on science fiction, fantasy and horror with historical elements: mannerpunk/fantasy of manners, steampunk, alternate history, time travel, etc. I’m thinking of works like Panshin’s Villers novels, Carey’s Kushiel series, Wrede and Stevermer’s alternate Regency books, Kushner’s Swordspoint novels, Shawl’s Everfair, just to name a few titles I’ve enjoyed reading. I am anticipating multiple imprints, however, since some of the work I’m publishing now doesn’t fall into these categories; I’m hoping to publish diverse and interesting voices in Gothic horror, fantasy and sf as well as some erotica and some romance. So we’ll see how all of that goes.

Curiousful: Genre fiction is always in need of places for new voices to be heard. Is there any chance Queen of Swords might someday publish anthologies with open calls?

Catherine Lundoff: Why, yes! I’m anticipating that we’ll be doing an anthology next year. There is a Queen of Swords Press monthly newsletter, as well as a Facebook page, Twitter feed and webpage, so the call will go out there, as well as to some of the standard options like Market Maven and some Facebook groups. My hope is that we can do one anthology a year. Stay tuned for details!

Curiousful:  I want to say, I’m enjoying Out of this World immensely! The writing is brilliant, and especially the varied range of voices is making for a tasty read. Congratulations on creating such a rewarding collection. Is there anything distinct about your writing process that brought these stories forth?

Out of this World

Catherine Lundoff: Thank you so much! The book is something of an archive of my writing life because the pieces in it were written over the course of 12 years or so. Each one was written for a specific market (some of which no longer exist or are long out of print). I didn’t start writing fiction until I was in my early 30s, but once I did get started, a lot of my work was deadline-driven. I got into a position early on where I started getting anthology invitations, so I had a lot of incentive to practice writing short fiction and try to get better at it.

I will note that I am somewhat jealous of authors who wrote novels when they were starting out, thus getting a lot of practice writing in long form. Even if those books never saw the light of day, learning how to structure a novel length work is pretty critical to one’s writing career these days. I love the craft of short fiction but I’m definitely trying for longer work more often now.

Curiousful: Any news about Queen of Swords going forward? Are there new releases in the works?

Also, can we plan to see a QoS presence at future events? (It would sure be great if Queen of Swords could appear at World Fantasy 2018 in Baltimore, for instance.)

Catherine Lundoff: Definitely! I’m working on a sequel to Silver Moon, my werewolf novel, as well as a couple of new collections of short fiction. There’s a new Emily L. Byrne novel in edits, and the anthology that I noted above is in the planning stages. There’s a monthly Queen of Swords Press newsletter that folks can sign up for on our website: http://www.queenofswordspress.com to hear about new and forthcoming books, events, author news and soon.

I’ll be attending Diversicon 25 in St. Paul as a returning Special Guest, Worldcon 75 in Helsinki as an attending author, Sirens Conference in Colorado and World Fantasy in San Antonio this year. Queen of Swords Press will have a table at the Twin Cities Book Festival as well as an upcoming event later on this year at Quatrefoil Library in Minneapolis. I haven’t started to plan much for next year yet, but I hear good things about Baltimore conventions. I haven’t been to one yet, so I will definitely take a look at WFC in 2018.

Thank you so much for all your great questions!

Queen of Swords Press:

Website: https://queenofswordspress.com/

Email: info@queenofswordspress.com

Twitter: @QoSPress

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/queenofswordspress/

Catherine Lundoff

Catherine Lundoff is an award-winning writer, editor and publisher from Minneapolis. Her stories and articles have appeared in such venues as Respectable Horror, The Mammoth Book of the Adventures of Professor Moriarty, The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper Stories, The Cainite Conspiracies: A Vampire the Masquerade V20 Anthology, Nightmare Magazine: Queers Destroy Horror and SF Signal. Her books include Silver Moon and Out of This World: Queer Speculative Fiction Stories, both from Queen of Swords Press.

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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! 

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.

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.) 

the A-word

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.

There are author interviews written every month, in Locus, Uncanny, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. Some of the SF greats (though far too few) are interviewed in Paris Review – and those interviews are all available online at no cost

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. 

imagine a machine

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

Something about this Margot Livesey quote really rings for me. It’s taken from her essay Shakespeare for Writers, in THE WRITER’S NOTEBOOK, Craft Essays from Tin House. It’s a knowing and inspiring essay, and I encourage writers to find and read it entire. (Also, I can’t recommend Margot Livesey’s fiction strongly enough.)

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.

writing lessons from second grade

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

– character

– setting

– plot

– voice

– point of view

– pacing

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-self

– Text-to-world

– 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?

unattributed examples of several rhetorical terms 

Catachresis – “I shall speak daggers to her.”

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.