News and Nebulas!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eligibility 2016

I surely wasn’t expecting to be writing this, but the news is, my short story “Monstrance of Sky” is online now at Escape Pod. So it is, at least technically, eligible for awards for the year 2016.  

This is my first fiction sale, and a pro sale at that.  I am as thrilled as if you’d thrown me from an airplane.  I’ve joined Codex, and I’ll be sending an application to SFWA some day soon. 

More importantly, please go over to Escape Pod and give it a read, or better yet, a listen.  The reader for this story, Alethea Kontis, just crushes me, her reading is dead-on, it grapples with all the nuance and competing emotions, I couldn’t have asked for a better reader. I’m very fortunate. 

I was trying to sum it up, blurb it, encompass it somehow, but I felt like anything I came up with was selling it short. But the tags Escape Pod applied to it are terser and more immediate — I think that, cut free of surrounding context, they give a better sense of the themes and the emotional desperation Evelyn, the point-of-view character, is falling through: “aliens, clones, God, love, ocean, post-apocalyptic, religion, science, sex, war, women.”  And pie, I should add. Please go read it, I’m very proud of it.

Thanks to Divya Srinivasan Breed, at Escape Pod, who edited and championed my story. Thanks also to Benjamin C. Kinney, the reader at Escape Pod who (bravely) first pulled this story from the slush. Thanks surely to Alethea Kontis who gave what will undoubtedly become the definitive reading of this work.

Extra thanks to all the first readers and critiquers who slogged through various unpolished versions of this work, and all contributed thoughtful suggestions and comments.  Jeremy, Karlo, Sherry, Doug, Becky, Kat, Dave, Gail, Neal, Mike, Meg, Sarah, Terry, Eric, and my wife Olga. You know who you are. Forgive me if I’ve forgotten anyone. 

Finally, thanks to the Baltimore Science Fiction Society, and especially the BSFS Writers Circle. Without them, I would have had no inspiration, no place to read my work, and surely not had such fine people to share it with.

Story4November

I get my best ideas when I’m not thinking. There’s a great paradox to hang a theory on, hey? 

I’m entirely serious. I’ll sit for an hour, staring at a white, blank screen, trying to solve some not-overwhelmingly-thorny problem with a story that I’m writing.  How do I get the hero and the heroine into the elevator together? Who really stole that diamond? Somehow, committing all my mental resources and time and attention to one problem seems to be the worst, least productive way to arrive at a good solution. I sit. And I stare. I type ten plausible answers, and end up hating and discarding them all. 

Then I get dragged away by regular life, the normal stuff we all gotta do.  Some time later, the door of a medicine cabinet will slam, or I’ll drop a fork into the garbage by mistake, or I’ll turn the radio on really loud, accidentally, and something will jar itself loose from my subconscious and I’ll find I’m holding the answer — the one, real, good, genuine answer I knew I was looking for all along. Ahh.

So the theory is that, somehow, you can surprise yourself into writing well. 

This hedges towards many much deeper questions, deeper than I mean to address in this little blog post: how memory works, how creativity happens, whether the subconscious is where all the good ideas actually come from, and if so, why should we ever be conscious at all… 

I don’t want, right now, to understand the process fully.  I want to harness it. 

And we’re rounding on November, and NaNoWriMo, which I’m not participating in this year (or, like, ever.) So this is my initiative instead, this and every November going forward — to attempt some new writing method or process.  This year, I’ll be trying ‘Story4’, which is a entirely fabulous, unprecedented, powerfully creative writing technique (that I just made up.)

Story4 is a technique where you start with four blank sheets of paper (or files) and write four separate stories in parallel, in a state of constant transition between them.  As long as you’re writing, with fingers actually pushing down keys and making words, you keep going. Any time you are stalled for more than, I don’t know, fifteen (ten?) seconds, you flip to the next story and start writing. You don’t reread any more than is absolutely necessary to continue with the story that’s on the page in front of you.  You don’t do any research at all. You can take a brief break every ten minutes. The four stories are, intentionally, as different as your writing talents can make them. 

The goal is to continually jar yourself into a higher level of awareness, to cross the boundaries between subconscious and conscious creation fluidly, to get into ‘the zone’ and once there, not allow distractions to pull you out of it. 

Is this idea any good? I have no clue. But I aim to find out.  It think it’s at least as good as William Burrough’s cut-up methods, as good as using a Ouija board to prompt you, as good as a game of Exquisite Corpse. In fact, it’s close to doing an Exquisite Corpse with yourself. 

Ah, but will it work, you ask? Well, check back to this blog, and I’ll try to let you know. 

Even if it doesn’t work, I might learn something by comparing the four stories that came out of such completely similar writing circumstances — like scientists studying identical twins over the stretch of their lifetimes. 

P.S. If you too want to try Story4November (or Story3November, or Story5November, or Story4SomeOtherMonth) please be my guest.  I’d love to hear about your experience, in the comments below or otherwhere. Happy November. 

Two Problems

I’m really looking forward to Balticon, not the least reason being I’m taking a writing seminar with Sarah Pinsker.  She’s a thoughtful writer and critiquer (if that’s a word) and she’s got several stories out that I love. Her workshop is specifically about writing literary SF short stories. 

The workshop participants are supposed to bring with them “two problems” to share and discuss.  In the interest of having a coherent set of ideas when I show up, I wrote them down early. I’m pasting them in below. Reader, if you have any comments, please add them below! I’ll try to make a follow-up post afterwards if the discussion yields insights.

1.) How can I ‘set the table’ so that genre readers will be able to recognize and appreciate metaphor?

I wrote a story where a POV character’s significant other broke up with her, and then later had a romantic relationship with an alien.  I tried to illustrate how this made the POV character feel.  I think that SF readers I had were so credulous and immediately curious about the details of the alien, that they ignored the possibility that the alien was there to show how this experience of seeing an old lover take up with someone new made the POV character feel.

Finally, exasperated, I added this paragraph to the story:

“Probably it’s a more common feeling than I imagined then — that your former girlfriend’s new lover is alien, incomprehensible, her feelings absolutely inexplicable. Maybe everyone has felt this way.”

I feel like this kind of ‘signposting’ adulterates the work, but if I didn’t lead genre readers by the hand to this, many wouldn’t consider it, where it might be the very first thing a crit partner at your local MFA program would say.  

A lot of spec fiction readers, hearing about an alien, immediately say, “Cool! What planet are they from?  How do they eat?” Do you, the writer, just abandon these readers, or try to drag them along? This is a classic problem with trying to span literary and speculative audiences. There are surely a lot of literary writers now exploiting spec fiction tropes for the freedom and expressiveness they can offer. 

I want to add that the handwringing that we hear now about “why do we have so much dystopia in SF” is probably related to this.  Writers always are trying to express how they feel. The state of speculative fiction can be understood to be a barometer of national mood, I believe.

2.) Middles, endings, and manipulations – 

Here’s a tweet from someone attending a fiction seminar given by Claire Keegan.  Claire is a short story writer whose work I admire a lot – it’s tough-minded, beautiful in an austere way, extremely sharp in its details.  

“Chekov had such a light touch but always nailed the detail.  Dont worry about PLOT.  A middle & end: hugely arrogant thing[s] in short stories.”  Claire Keegan, transcribed and tweeted by June Caldwell, Irish Writers’ Centre, November 21, 2015.

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

Is Ms. Keegan trolling writers here? I feel like this tweet is a clue to a whole different mode of fiction-writing than (most of) what’s going on in genre fiction.  I don’t think a lot of stories by Hemmingway or O’Connor are going to agree well with this tweet.  But maybe I can begin to see what she’s getting at – that story-writing should or could be more reportorial than manipulative.  SF stories are in general hugely manipulative of their readers. They remind me of billiard tables specially laid out for trick shots – these setups are never going to occur naturally.

There’s also the old story that for many years the New Yorker would consistently edit stories it was to print by simply removing the final paragraph from them.  I don’t know how true that is, but I’ve heard it more than once. 

A parallel to this is a bit I heard in a Kelly Link say in a podcast (“The Drunken Odyssey with John King, Episode 187- Kelly Link!”)  She said that her stories don’t have just one thing going on in them, because life never happens one thing at a time.  This speaks to a kind of naturalism in writing, and honest observation. It agrees with my own philosophy about story writing, but I would say it’s quite different from what the corpus of SF stories generally does.