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.  

Short Stories – dessert island list

Yes definitely, if I’m going to be stranded on an island, I want it to be a dessert island, not a desert island. Why does everyone else get this wrong?  Here are the short stories that I’d most like to have there. (Several of these are major influences, some are recent discoveries.)

The Winter Market, William Gibson – oh man, when I first read BURNING CHROME, the book of William Gibson short stories in which this appears, it lit me up.  The economy and directness of the language are laser-like.  This story, despite its sheen of cyberpunk imagery, has a rawness to it, an open-wound acknowledgement of suffering, that is really quite affecting. 

Hinterlands, William Gibson, BURNING CHROME – another story from the same volume, this one built over the antique but still road-worthy SF trope of a first alien contact, but handled in a way that highlights its protagonist’s humanity.   Honesty prevents me from mentioning one of these stories but not the other. It pains me that Gibson has worked seldom in the short story form since this early collection was completed.  It’s really some of his best and most honest work.

Story of Your Life, Ted Chiang.  Every word in this story shines. There’s never anything in a Ted Chiang story that feels rushed or unconsidered. It’s a time-travel story, sort of, and again a first-contact story, and also a letter between mother and daughter. 

Spar, Kij Johnson – not sure if this constitutes a story complete, but it represents a kind of boundary case – a primal scream of sex and science fiction.  Reading this really felt like getting peened in the head with a hammer made from some previously unknown space-age alloy. AT THE MOUTH OF THE RIVER OF BEES is the collection I found it in, but there is also a Clarkesworld podcast that is notorious.  (Her story “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” is terrific, and a heartbreaker.)

Underfed, Susan Steinberg, in her collection SPECTACLE. The incantatory, streamlined language here is itself a revelation. Ms. Steinberg could write a banana bread recipe with this voice and reading it would make me cry.  Honestly this whole book is maybe too much of a good thing, but Underfed is a marvelous artifact proving that new modes of writing are still waiting to be discovered.

Slow Tuesday Night, R. A. Lafferty.  An SF classic. At first I thought this might have ‘borrowed’ its surreal compression of time from The Swimmer – the (rightly famous) John Cheever story.  Cheever’s story was first published in 1964, in the New Yorker. Slow Tuesday Night was first published in 1965. It seems unlikely to me now, rereading both of them, that the stories are at all related.  They’re very different – Lafferty’s story is meant to be taken at face value, it’s literal, its how life is going to be, it’s not metaphorical in the same way Cheever’s is.

I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, Harlan Ellison – another boundary case.  Ellison couldn’t have produced a more nasty or horrific end-state for humanity, this is it, this is our just rewards for getting stronger smarter faster but refusing to ever get wiser, to ever grow.  I read this during college, and maybe everyone should.  Don’t make machines to hate humans.

Night of the Quicken Trees, Claire Keegan, in her collection WALK THE BLUE FIELDS. This is an unabashed fantasy, written with intelligence and sincerity. Not wish fulfillment or escapism – this story, richly imagined, is a tangible proof that fantasy can address the concerns  and the full emotional range of realistic literary writing. 

Birds of America, Lorrie Moore, in her collection of the same name.  Humane, generous, fiercely felt. Her writing feels more honest than almost anything else.  Also, it’s hard not to recommend everything in this collection.

Hardfought, Greg Bear. This is surely one of the pieces that altered my own writing, and my thinking about SF.  It is a war story, but without a clear hero, and with a sharing of POVs that makes us better humans.  If I ever meet Greg Bear, I will shake his hand and thank him for pulling me out of my Starship-Troopers ignorance.  I owe him a debt of gratitude. 

Smith of Wootton Major, J. R. R. Tolkien – his program entire as a writer is etched into this beautiful miniature.  I come back to this again and again, at intervals of time, drinking in the beautiful exact language and feeling for the ghostly residue of his assertions of the purpose of fantasy.  It pains me that so many so well-read fantasy aficionados have never held this book in their hands.   I was reading this to my children (then ages 5 and 8) and my wife stopped me, saying That’s not a book for children! Well, I disagreed, and still do, but even so, it must be a book for somebody.

Jack Daw’s Pack, Greer Gilman, in Clouds & Ashes. I’m attracted to the things (and people) I can’t quite understand.  I’ve read this story through a dozen times, and the first pages many more times.  The Jacobean language is stunning and an intense pleasure to read (try reading a page out loud!) I have no idea if the story rightly has any meaning.  The ambiguous referents for pronouns seems calculated, leaving me to hunt through a hall of mirrors.

The Balloon, Donald Barthelme. How could this not be taught everywhere? It shows how art can be a very arbitrary thing, that people are compelled to find their own meaning of and uses for it. I want my kids to think about art this way.  The shear force of this brilliant metaphor wins one over.

Alice, Donald Barthelme – what is going on with this story? It reads like you’re drunk, even when you’re entirely sober.  This reminds me of driving fast, at night, and staring through a windshield at a big city lit up with colorful lights. Somehow the uncertain smear of it intensifies its beauty.  I really need to go back and read this more carefully, make an effort to understand what he’s doing here.  I love how the power of ellipsis energizes this story – we are dragged into it bodily, forced to make interpretations under the weight of an unstable narrative.

Sticks, George Saunders.  Surely the most effective piece of flash fiction I’ve ever read.  Maybe a little sentimental.   Punching way way over its weight – a whole story built around a single metaphor.  Makes me think of my own Dad.

ACK, Joy Williams, in her collection Honored Guest – this all builds to one gorgeous tragic paragraph near the end.  It’s brave; the preceding pages are fair nonsense and I nearly didn’t finish the piece.  When you arrive at the end though, you’ll know exactly why you’re there.  The piece Charity, in the same collection, was a close runner-up.

Some Zombie Contingency Plans, Kelly Link – two things distinguish this piece: the beautifully matter-of-fact language and the didn’t-see-it-coming ending.  It’s difficult to pick one Kelly Link story over another – several other stories in MAGIC FOR BEGINNERS are also excellent.

The Bread We Bake in Dreams, Catherynne Valente – gorgeous prose and a surprising shift in sympathy.  

Flyers of Gi, Ursula K. Le Guin. This story is the best analogy to writing that I’ve ever found – it just rings for me. This story could have been written a hundred years before, without any difference, and I believe people will be reading it a hundred years from now, to same effect.

a thought on genre

My own comment is that science fiction is unique among genres in that we are all of us growing into it.  Few of us will go on to a life as a cowboy, or a hard-boiled detective, or even, unfortunately, a grand romance.

But all of us are living in a world where the future is increasingly poaching on the lands of the present.  Science fiction gets its power, some of it, from its views of the future, but its hidden purpose is to prepare us for the accelerating present, and to help us make some ragged peace with that.  – CMR

Some notes on “A Thousand Solomons”

First, let me say that there may be spoilers below. But secondly, let me suggest that you may not want to know any of this. It always seems to me that an author diminishes his own work, by showing what it was built from, how it came to be. It’s up to you, if you want to know any of this stuff. But I would say it’s, at a minimum, worthwhile to have read the actual piece first.

I wrote several short stories in a minor frenzy, in late spring 2015, in a search for one that might be competitive for the BSFS amateur writing contest. Really, it was a huge relief, to allow myself a break from working on the novel, so initially it was a lot of fun. I felt I was suddenly off the leash I had put myself on. “Talking to Robots about Fairies”, “Emerging Grammars”, and “Superheavy” all tumbled out of me during this period. 

“A Thousand Solomons”, or ATS, was meant to have some kind of happy ending, but to be grim all along the way there. “Ruthless Valentine” was my own descriptor for the project. I had had several rejections of stories from different SF journals by this point, and in every case, it seemed unlikely to me that the editors or slush-readers could have read very far into the pieces.  I thought (perhaps erroneously) that, for a contest, the readers would be obligated at least to read the piece through once. I wanted to take advantage of that.

A Thousand Solomons is built around a question, and the piece is primarily a set-up to get the reader to that question. I’m proud that, at the end of the whole process, that question is still there, shining, confronting whatever readers reach it. 

But also, there were influences. I had been dipping into Donald Bathelme’s 60 Stories, and thinking that some very basic structure would add backbone to this piece, and alleviate some confusion about which Solomon was which. Hence the numbered passages. 

Also, I had read, when fairly young, the terrific Greg Bear novella, Hardfought. It won a Nebula award, well-deserved, and appears in his collection The Wind From A BurningWoman. There is a section in the middle, a kind of futuristic dogfight in space, where several cloned human fighters are killed by aliens. But the thing that stuck with me was that they each were killed in a unique and interesting way, the tension ratcheting up with each, until the final clone is simply translated into “sound and pure light”, which I thought then was an awesome and poetic way to die. I enjoyed giving myself the opportunity to emulate this – with a thousand Solomons, I could kill off several of them in different ways, without sacrificing the plot to do so, and underline the meager and desperate nature of his existence.

The limit of 5500 words worked both for and against me. I think every reader so far has commented that the story feels sketchy, unfinished, that they wished for more detail. I take that as an encouraging sign that what’s on the page is working, engaging readers. “No fan service,” said Michael Moorcock, and in Roger Zelazny’s collection The Last Defender of Camelot, he says something quite similar. It’s the set-piece scenes that SF authors are writing towards – minute details about the imagined technology that allows them to happen are really distractions. By omitting unnecessary detail (and particularly technical detail, in SF) an author invites the reader to become a more active participant. The story becomes our story, writer and reader together, when the reader feels compelled to imagine some details in order to make the suspension of disbelief work for her. 

But there’s a lot of other details about Solomon’s life, Eight-Colony, and the whole human history leading up to this story, that are tremendously engaging. Without the hard limit of 5500 words, I very likely would have spun out into this world indefinitely, maybe not even finding my way back to the other novel in progress, at least for a while. So I’m grateful for the limitation of the word count, and it’s a constraint I will try to impose on myself in future projects.

Project Icarus is the name of the effort to plan or design for a Helium-3 gas mine on Uranus, and use the results, potentially, for interstellar travel.

There is no asteroid named Sagan. Depending on where such an object were located, I don’t believe the current naming rules would allow for it.

When I started to write the soup scene, I was surprised at how easily I found the voice of this mysterious older woman. For a while I puzzled at this, and then I discovered where that voice arose – I had recently heard Ursula Le Guin’s scorcher of an acceptance speech, for her National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to Anerican Letters. That speech really resonated in my mind (and I had read The Lathe of Heaven and also the excellent Wave of the Mind, within the prior year, so, no surprise there.)

So why not just let that woman be Ursula Le Guin, or let her inhabit her persona? As soon as I thought it, I couldn’t not do it. I watched some videos of her speaking, re-read some passages of her writing. But the biggest aid to nailing down her speech patterns was the Paris Review interview. There’s some residual tinge of 70’s dialect in her speech – she uses “man” interjectively.

But I felt it wrong to just appropriate her name and persona – she’s a real person. So I didn’t name her in the story (though she refers to Omelas, her most widely-taught work). I did write a dedication to her, and put it after the body of the story itself. Some readers make the connection from that, and others don’t, and that’s OK.

I did write a letter to Ms. Le Guin, at some point in the process, and ask for her permission, or at least her tolerance. I tried to make the letter (enclosed with a copy of the draft story) sound engaging enough to get her attention:

Dear Ms. Le Guin, 

I wrote a story in which you appear as a character. I feel it’s only fair to give you an opportunity to say whether anything you do or say in the story feels out of character, so I’m sending you a copy.  

I knowingly took one liberty, making your eyes blue in the story. This is for artistic reasons. Also, your character is living on the planet Uranus. […]

Alas, she never replied, and I pressed on without her blessing but at least having made an honest attempt to contact her. I do hope she feels, if she ever reads A Thousand Solomons, that it was meant as an homage to someone I truly admire.

Solomon’s unusual grammar – I was desperate for a distinct voice, not just for the sake of having one, but to underline how far away, in time, in space, and in culture, Eight-Colony is from the Earth of the current time. I had been scratching though parts of Clouds & Ashes, Greer Gilman’s exquisitely-voiced Jacobian fantasy, looking for something glittery that I could steal. But every time I attempted that, it felt less like a grand heist, and more like a shameful act of petty theft. Moreso, I didn’t want something that sounded historical, nor futuristic – I wanted some third thing.

The answer came to me in the name of a certain James Bond villainess. You probably can think of the one, though I won’t repeat her name here. How she obtained or lived under such a moniker is unimaginable to me.

Tell me something interesting. The arrangement of putting the adjective after its object is called postpositive. It’s rare in English, a little more common in French(?) Once I found this, it became the defining mechanic of speech on Uri. I just had to build sentences around it – it became easy to hear sentences once I had this in my ear. Even so, I must have made fifty passes over the text, looking for and debating the ordering of adjectival phrases. Sometimes it was just easier to omit combinations of adjectives, or the adverb modifying an adjective. “Solomon read a book interesting very.” “Solomon read a book very interesting.”

Actually Solomon is illiterate – we never see him read anything. Also, though he is deeply spiritual, we never see him go to to a religious service (he was conceived as being ambiguously Muslim.) We never find out if he had parents – he’s clearly unsure about that himself. There’s a lot we don’t know about him, honestly.  The sad truth of it is, given his status as a NASA servant on Uri, I don’t know how much there actually is to know.

bad idea file – a good idea

I got no chops.  No special going-in talents or tricks, nothing more than the average careful reader’s intuition of what might work on the page.  No mantic procedures to generate astonishing, beatific text.  Never been to Iowa.  Never been to Clarion.

I stole a lot, in terms of writing advice.  If you saw my secret “how to write” files, they would be boringly predictable and familiar (though, the one thing that might be interesting is the set of common-sense advice that I’ve discarded.)

“Everything belongs to the creative and resourceful thief.” – William Burroughs

I think the one trick I have that’s good, and perhaps novel, is this:

Make a Bad Ideas file, and use it. 

Often I produce some great thought (or so it seems), or sentence or paragraph in an ongoing work, and I’m conscious that it’s good, but also that it doesn’t fit – that it has no business being where it is, perhaps doesn’t belong in this piece, at all.

My urge is to not discard any useable material – I get so little time to actually write.  Some might argue that that has been an essential part of my process – more on that in a later entry – but the painful and correct thing to do is cut it out of the piece that it just appeared in.

If you have a Bad Ideas file, you’ve immediately got a place for those fragments to go. Killer sentences like “The banjo is the loneliest instrument,” that you can’t bear to throw out, immediately have some other place to go.   You don’t have to stop and think what file they might usefully belong in – in fact, performing that calculation can be a big distraction, it can drop you right out of the head-space you were in when you produced such a gem. Just dump it into the Bad Ideas file and move on, and reassess later.

In editing, using a Bad Ideas file might seem like a kinder and thus easier solution, rather than just deleting your stuff wholesale.

And then, later, you can look back at all the Bad Ideas there, and confirm that the filtering and editing that is essential to any piece of good writing has actually happened for this piece.  If you work on something for a while, and at the end, you still have nothing that qualifies as a Bad Idea, you’re probably not being honest with yourelf.

I told my wife about this, and quipped that I wished I also had a Good Ideas file, full of stuff I could pull from. She wryly said that then I could just make a link between the two files (Good –> Bad, I’m guessing) and save myself a lot of time.  My wife.  That’s why I married her.

Now you’ll be curious what’s in that giant Bad Ideas file I keep adding to every day.  Or maybe you won’t.  But either way, I’m not showing it.