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:









Clever (different from funny)


Sense of wonder-y

You can remember this, just by memorizing the handy acronym “FSWSRSBICSS”. I’m sure we could all add additional flavors to the list.

Maybe all of these don’t fit into that one deathbed story, but if the nurse cracked a good joke, or if the dying man’s wife of children said something whimsical or sentimental about his past, those might become assets of the piece. 

We as SF writers most often write with ‘the whole thing’ in mind, the overarching idea, the concept of the story. (A soon-to-come blog post will address SF short stories that are ‘big metaphor’ pieces.) But I think that a reader should be able to consider the work on almost any scale —a paragraph, a couple paragraphs, a couple or even a single sentence — and find something to admire or enjoy or find memorable in the work. Something with some versimilitude. 

I don’t know, these are just my random thoughts that the deathbed piece prompted — these clearly veered pretty far away from standard critique. I think, conventionally, SF writers reach for naturalism and a breadth of moods in their novels, but in short stories, they are more likely to try to make something all-of-a-piece, something that asserts and sustains a single mood.  And often, they are counseled or encouraged to do so. But this seems akin, to me, to writing a piece of music using a single pitch or note. 

Couldn’t hear the flute

Or the big trombone

Ev’ry one was mute

Johnny stood alone.

I get that those big mood pieces work like freight trains – they build up momentum as they’re going, and, if they work, they just crash through all the barriers of composition, pacing, believability, even cause-and-effect. They seem unstoppable, if they’re successful.  The reader doesn’t ask questions, doesn’t  hold the author responsible for anything else, because the mood obtains. 

But I want to underline that the author is giving a lot away — a lot, all those other colors in the paint-box — by driving towards one sustained mood. If you’re going to attempt it, you’d better be sure your story is going to arrive where you intend it to.

Cats and dogs stopped yapping

Lions in the zoo

All were jealous of Johnny’s big trill

Thunder claps stopped clapping,

Traffic ceased its roar,

And they tell us Niag’ra stood still.

(Lyrics from “Johnny One Note”, by Ella Fitzgerald.  Used with reverence but without permission.) 


Two Problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.) Middles, endings, and manipulations – 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Other Things Sentences Can Do (Part 1)

“They are, he thought, the hardest in the world; the hardest, the cruelest, the most predatory and the most attractive and their men have softened or gone to pieces nervously as they have hardened.” Ernest Hemingway, in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.

He’s talking about “American women”, and it seemed pretty clear to me, when I first read it, that the author is speaking ‘over the story’  here, and directly to the reader. He’s flattering a group of his readers. OK honestly, he’s buttering up his readers. When I read it, I felt like this cheapened the whole enterprise, but it’s hard to argue with success.

But this is something a sentence can do — something other than describe a scene, describe a character, advance a plot.  There’s lots of these other things, I’m coming to recognize.  I’m doing a whole different kind of reading now, trying to identify the purposes of even individual sentences. I am going to try to list several of these here, and illustrate each with a quote from an established writer.  Here we go!

“Penguins. Flightless and clumsy on land. You know the feeling.” Jay McInterney, BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY

The sentence I’m pointing at here is the third one, but I wanted you to have the other two, for context. (The bit doesn’t work otherwise.)  This is the opposite of the prior example.  Here, the sentence isn’t flattering the reader, it’s identifying with and commiserating with her.   

“How could they know he swallowed glassful after glassful to comprehend a harsh and private beauty?” E. Annie Proulx, in THE SHIPPING NEWS

This single sentence illustrates the humanity of what is otherwise unlikeable cipher of a character. It reifies him for us. I think it’s fair that even the very minor characters in a novel have names, a line or two of direct quotes, and a few words that confirm their inner lives and make them real. 

“Here we are, Shank thought (or maybe said) outside the hotel, waiting out yet another john delayed by his guilt and his doubts and the time it takes to check his morality at the door, driving north, praying for forgiveness, taking a rain check on his deeper principles while the dull fields fly eagerly past the bug-speckled windows.” David Means, in short story The Spot, in the book of the same name.

I love this sentence because it’s so encompassing, it’s amost a story in itself. Here, this sentence is describing the character, the setting, the situation (really the whole shmear) but this sentence is in no way a neutral observer.  What Shank is doing, and by extension what the sentence is doing, is implicity judging him (the john) and his actions. 

“With so many other forces at work in the world, brutal, sly, deceiving, unstoppable forces, what could be more foolish than staking your life on an ephemeral feeling, no more than an idea really, a fancy, the culmination of which is a clumsy bit of nakedness, a few minutes of animal grunting and bumping, a momentary obliteration of thought, of conscience?” Alice McDermott, in CHARMING BILLY

This sentence is kind of a head fake for the readers.  It’s very passive-aggressive. It’s enunciating exactly the opposite of what we want the character to feel. Love, romantic love, is a fabulous thing to stake your life on, of course — in fact, there’d be no story here without it. 

“As for herself, she felt that she had driven to a grave and gotten out of the car but left the engine running.” Joy Williams, from the short story Congress, in HONORED GUEST

I love this. I just love this. This sentence is describing a feeling for which there is no existing name. It’s scratching an itch I wasn’t aware I’d had, up until the moment I’d read it. Joy Williams rules, by the way.    

“Undressing her was an act of recklessness, a kind of vandalism, like releasing a zoo full of animals, or blowing up a dam.” Michael Chabon, in THE WONDER BOYS

This is one of my favorite sentences ever.  I’d highlighted it in the book many years ago (like several of the sentences here) and never forgotten it.  In a single sentence, he’s defined the character of the speaker and the subject and described their relationship in a unique, thrilling fashion.  This sentence is a killer. 

“As if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. […] Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.” J.R.R. Tolkien, THE RETURN OF THE KING

Horns, horns, horns.  That’s not a sentence at all; it’s a fragment. And then there’s another one, almost immediately after. Tolkien is the consummate grammarian.  Here we are, eight-hundred-some pages into his trilogy, and suddenly he writes a fragment?  But it’s intentional, we realize, and it’s perfect. The narrator is overwhelmed, and we are too, when we get to this point. Sentences can break the rules, if they do so artfully, and in the service of story.  

“Marley was dead: to begin with.” Charles Dickens, beginning A CHRISTMAS CAROL.

I don’t even know what that is.  I’m still parsing that, after all these years. But it seems correct for the narrator, and  it’s hard to forget once you’ve read it.  

“Good deeds are ever-bearing fruit.”  (?)

For completeness, here is an example of a sentence as mnemonic device. Not sure I have ever seen it used in a work of literature, but that just means it’s a tool waiting for the right hand.  (This sentence is used by musicians to remember the order of major scales as one goes around the circle of fifths.  One sharp = key of Gmajor, two sharps = Dmajor, etc.)

Please, readers, feel free to add your favorite sentences in the comments. 

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.