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.

Baltimore Science Fiction Society Amateur Writing Contest 2015

I’m thrilled to report that my short story “A Thousand Solomons” has won first place in the Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s Amateur Writing Contest! Congratulations to fellow awardees T. Eric Bakutis and Michael B. Tager, and sincere thanks to everyone who makes the contest happen each year.

Information about the Baltimore Science Fiction Society and the contest can be found at the BSFS website.  I’ve been going to the Critique Circle there for upwards of a year now, and feel like I’ve made some good friends there and gotten a lot of good advice and feedback on my early work, which has been a mixed bag in terms of quality.

The prizes were awarded at Capclave this prior weekend – Capclave is a convention that focuses on short form fiction, put on by the Washington Science Fiction Association.  I was truly disappointed not to be able to attend.  Wow, the programming looked interesting to me – I’d like to go in future years, surely.

“A Thousand Solomons” will be printed in the program for Balticon, which will be held at the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel, Memorial Day Weekend 2016. I will be reading the story there as well. My experiences at the Crit Circle, and the process of reading bedtime stories for my kids, have transformed my initial fear of reading my work to others, and now it’s something I really enjoy doing.  No one can be a better advocate for your own work than you can when you read it out loud.

I think BSFS intends to put the story up on the web for some period of time also.  If that happens, it will surely be linked here.

The Guest of Honor for Balticon 2016 will be George R. R. Martin. OK I have to admit I’m a little starstruck.  I have read all the GoT books through at least once.

As it is the 50th year of Balticon, many of the prior Guests of Honor have been invited to return.  Just the living ones, I’m guessing.  I’m excited to be in attendance with so many talented writers and real figures in the field (and a little apprehensive that I’m not familiar with a lot of their work!)
Info and registration for Balticon are at

www.balticon.org

Hope to see everyone there!