Archive for SF

Year One: What I’ve Learned About Writing (So Far)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on October 20, 2011 by theclockworm

So it’s been about a year since I really decided to buckle down and write fiction seriously. I still haven’t been published; to catch you all up, I had a near-miss rejection from Clarkesworld for my story The Exploded Manifestations of Ari Ascher, the first story I finished. It was a happy sort of disappointment; cracking the top 10% of that market is an accomplishment in its own right, especially for my first story. Today, I got a rejection for the same story from Asimov’s. In total, I’ve submitted five times.

In the meantime, I’ve written three other stories of considerable length, all of which need some amount of finishing-up/editing, as well as four or five shorter works. In addition, I’ve generated pieces, beginnings, ideas, and have even been working on a collaboration.

So I obviously don’t have any secret wisdom when it comes to getting published, though I’m not sure there is any, really; I’m fairly sure it’s a balance of talent, skill, timing, and luck, with a dash of procedural correctness for good measure. But I can reflect on some of the practical things I’ve learned about the writing process and the other end of doing it yourself – the hunt for markets and the process of submitting.

1. Learn how to use manuscript format. Look at examples from many sources (they differ), learn what publishers in your area (genre/level) really want, and then write in it. I got tired of having to convert everything afterward; it felt like a whole pile of busywork, and it kept me from submitting. Once I got the format down, I started writing all my stories with it in place from the start. In addition to getting rid of that pesky bit of effort later, it gets you out of thinking in terms of “lay-pages -” a ‘nine page story’ might be twenty-six pages in MS format, and that’s the way you’re going to want to think about it.

2. Don’t over-think cover letters. Most places don’t require them, and if you have nothing to include in the way of publishing history, that means you have nothing to mess up, and therefore nothing to worry about. If a market requires one, look at this little guide and keep it brief. A good story speaks for itself (though “active member SFWA helps).

3. Get used to rewrites. That’s everything from nitpicking a story line-by-line to starting from the original idea, again, on a blank page. I wrote Ari Ascher initially in first-person present tense; knowing how unwieldy that can be, I reworked the entire story in third-person past tense. That made certain parts totally useless, and necessitated new things I’d been fine without before. After living with it for a while, I realized it didn’t work, and I converted it back, having to work with both the old version and some of my new changes. I changed the basic premise – twice. In the end, I’m glad I let go of my initial choices, even if I reclaimed them later. It’s a better story now than it was before.

4. Figure out whether your story needs the amount of attention you’re giving it. Some premises are totally solid, and you might think it’s a fully reasonable device for a twenty-page tale. But does it need twenty pages? Some of the ideas I was most excited about ended up being flash fiction when I realized they were basically just neat premises or characters or moments, snapshots instead of tomes. Which leads me to my next point…

5. Write flash fiction- write it regularly, write it at will. It helps to get you into the habit of writing regularly without the looming tension of a big goal. It also outs the fakers – ideas that are good at lobbying for your time, but which might not be worth the investment. You’ll build a nice little collection pretty quickly, which is a boost to confidence – having something to show makes every new story that much more executable – and there are a lot of markets for flash fiction, which means that in theory you could get a few sales in before shooting for a bigger market, padding out your cover letter a bit. Or you could post it for free – it’s a good way to get people reading your stuff.

Prophet Margins: Predictions 2025

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on October 19, 2011 by theclockworm

As we all know, becoming a SF writer means predicting the future. Now, don’t get me wrong; I know that’s not what we actually do. But there are always going to be folks who think otherwise, and they’ll always be there to demand prophecies of us. We’ll bicker and defend and elude, but in the end, we’ll give them a list and hope the universe does something both self-serving and ironic with the information.

I’ve decided to jump the gun. Why wait until I’m published? Here, with tongue planted more or less firmly in cheek, are my predictions for the year…TWO THOUSAND TWENTY-FIVE.

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1. In the wake of the fallout from the First Mormon-Scientologist War, a new religious sect will emerge. Following the teachings of Robert Heinlein, they will practice a rugged brand of survivalism, solving social conflict through handgun-brandishing. Though they will preserve the institution of marriage, they will permit polygamy in all forms, as well as conducting themselves in a generally permissive manner sexually. They will practice a form of eugenics based on the society in Heinlein’s books; the long-term results will never be known, as a tragic explosion on their hand-built spacecraft will kill them all.

2. The Occupy movement of the 2010s eventually becomes totally ubiquitous. Out of public spaces in which to make a stand, people begin to occupy their own houses, making it very difficult for authorities to determine who is involved. Presidential candidate Bristol Palin concludes that Anonymous must be growing, perhaps bolstered by their victory in the war. However, she is unable to continue her campaign when she is reminded that the office of the president no longer exists.

3. As genetic re-programming becomes affordable and safe, a whole new lifestyle/art movement will arise. Combining performance art, cosplay, and socio-political activism, genomorphic groups will recreate various fictional worlds and stories, with varying degrees of success and commitment. Of special interest will be the Gethenians, a group of people who choose to adopt the un-gendered state described in Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness. They will buy up land in Alaska, utilize the systems of time and culture described in the book, and attempt to eradicate non-Gethenian ideals. Ignored initially, they will be the focus of much media attention when a break-off sect of evangelicals, the Neuter the Earth movement, begin re-infiltrating the mainland.

4. The most popular of the genomorphic groups will be the Vulcans. Recognizing that Vulcanism is a practicable, attainable state, this group will spread over much of the globe, extending far beyond Star Trek fans. By suppressing certain mental functions, Vulcans will be able to control their emotions to a degree unavailable to un-morphed humans. The cosmetic differences will be considered comparatively minor, and will be shunned altogether by some. Many non-religious Jews will join the movement, as it offers a focus on tradition, contemplation, and ritual without religiousness.

5. The majority of divorce papers filed will cite Dream Linking as a major factor. The practice, which will allow two or more people to “meet” in a non-corporeal world, will allow for an explosion in infidelity. The state will involve full nervous system arousal, making it experientially equivalent to sex, but it will be difficult to trace, often anonymous, and will not carry the risk of disease or pregnancy. The birth-rate will drop for the first time in years after the service hits the market.

6. While searching for survivors from the war, workers will discover the secret underground lair of what will become known as the Cabal of Child Actors. A secret society of supposedly inactive, drug-addled, or dead child stars, the CCA will be suspected of controlling everything from the banking system to the military. Haley Joel Osment, having ousted the ruling duo of Coreys Haim and Feldman, will warn officials “We are your Dennis the Menaces. We are your Kevin Arnolds. We bring your rom-com leads together, and turn Hugh Grant into a nice guy. We see dead people – ALL THE TIME. We are your Malcolms, in the middle and otherwise. Do not fuck with us.”

7. In a coup unrecognized until much later, a heavily-bearded Wil Wheaton will single-handedly dismantle the CCA, saving the entire ship. I mean world.

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Thanks to io9 for the idea about Vulcanism. Thanks to Wil Wheaton for saving the entire ship. I mean world.

The Golden Age of SF is However Old You Are When You Die In An Alien Invasion

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2011 by theclockworm

The columns of light striking the soil informed him of his condition. He was inside a SF story. Obviously.

His room appeared no different than it had before; the bed he woke up in, from which vantage point he witnessed this impossibility of aggression, was comfortable and worn and sagged near the center where he tended to resolve in his nightly rotations. But however familiar the setting seemed, he knew it could not be real, that this was no longer his real life – if indeed he had ever had one. In real life, green shafts of unknown energy did not smash into fields and streams, sending floods of muddy frog-water and whole stalks of corn careening through the morning sky. In the real world, one could not sense the fissuring of the crust below through the foundations of a house, the disconnection of plate from plate as the earth itself buckled. Since these things did not happen in the real world, this must not be the real world.

Assuming he had entered a fictional universe, some very basic questions begged an answer. First, what sort of story was it? SF isn’t without its own inner lines of demarcation, after all. Looking around, he set about trying to determine the parameters of his condition. Maybe if he could guess whose story he was in, he could figure out his role, a way to survive.

He narrowed his view, tried to look beyond the obvious. After all, perhaps this was a pastiche inside a dream or on a television show, itself occupying a less Golden Age-type tale. Maybe he should start small, think creatively. What criteria could he use? He looked away from the window, from the glaring blaze of heat-death; from the walls, blank and simple, devoid of clue or genre marker; past the empty nightstand, the mundane closet, the boring things strewn and hung here and there. Looking down, he saw the bed. Ah ha.

A writer would start here, and so he, being written, started here. Whose bed could this be?

He recalled the massive, luxurious beds featured so prominently in the works of Robert Heinlein. These beds were central to the galaxy-wide Red-Headed League that Lazarus Long had spawned. More action took place between sheets in the typical Heinlein book than ever happened between enemies, who usually dropped after a single shot. Looking left and right, he noticed the absence of even one, let alone two, people there with him. This was not Heinlein’s bed.

Could this be Le Guin’s bed? Was this the place where brilliant scientists crashed with manic irregularity, to dream up a fiery addition to some foreign physics? Was it a strange bed on a frozen world, a friendly posh bed or a simple warm bed in the territory of doubtful allies? He checked beneath the sheets, found the familiar things; the beam hadn’t left him genderless. Looking at his arms, he found that they too retained their usual hue. The beam had not rendered him colorless and gray. Alas, this was not Ursula’s bed.

Was it William Gibson’s bed? Was it a lonely rack in a shoddy motel, where a broken and lost relic of the filthy future might be consumed by a figment of someone else’s imagination? Was it a mere cubby hole, the ultimate symbol of minimalism and badass-ness, a claustrophobic cubicle where one might be ridden by a girl with sharp claws? Well, it was a bed; that alone seemed to disqualify it. He checked about for ratty plastic interfaces, or “decks;” none were apparent. Inside the bedside table, a lack of stimulants, weapons, or eyewear of any sort. No go for Gibson.

He tried to remember a bed in the works of Philip K. Dick, but came up empty. Maybe this was reflective of the man’s life. Other than one terrifying scene of domestic paranoia involving a teenage narc, he could remember not one example. Dick seemed to steer as clear of rest in his writing as he did while writing. If this was Dick’s bed, surely it was a mere pretext, a trap-door he would soon fall through into a hell of perceptual doubt or esoteric cosmology. More likely than not, in Phil’s universe, there were no beds at all.

He scrolled through the traitorous royal chambers of Herbert, the Freud-laden psychopathic millionaire mattresses of Bester, the horribly heavy beds of Lem, newly populated by the very old. He considered the lonely corporate-funded suites of Tiptree. He came up blank.

Outside, the beams moved steadily closer to the house, sending ancient trees up into wisps of smoke and ash. Time was running out, and so were ideas. A strange thought struck him from the corner of his mind. There was a new writer, he thought, whose stories had been showing up over the past few months. He liked to play with tropes, to layer allegories, to explore transcendence and iterative identity. He was also quite fond of literalizing, and considered SF to be a dialogue, carried on by SF writers in a constant interpretive cycle. He didn’t mind sacrificing a nameless, faceless character to make a point, either. There was a bed in one of his stories, and it was filled with the copied forms of a whole history of lovers. Maybe this is his bed, he thought, the heat now palpable as the beams moved across the lawn. He couldn’t recall his name.

The Word for Write is Open

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on September 15, 2011 by theclockworm

Ursula Le Guin’s anthropological SF has been a big inspiration for me. Her novel The Left Hand of Darkness is basically a fictional ethnography; without it, the world of Ari Ascher in my as-yet unpublished story would not exist. As I progress through various avenues of approach in writing SF, I find myself knocking often at the door of anthropology. The other doors I have moved through thus far are: the door of cognitive plasticity, the door of psychological manifestation, the door of literalization, the door of strange gifts, and the door of doctors of artifacts not limited to the human.

Here are some things Le Guin has said that I like quite a bit. Her introduction to LHoD, in the paperback edition, should be on everyone’s list of essential essays about SF.

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“I am struck by how much we talk about rebirthing but never about rebearing. The word itself is unfamiliar to most people. Yet both women and men are capable of rebearing, women literally and men metaphorically. A door opens just by changing the name. We don’t have to be reborn; we can rebear. This is part of the writer’s job, either to rebear the metaphors or refuse to use them.”

“What I was doing there is playing with the idea of our present growth technology from the Industrial Revolution on through the present the last 200 years. We don’t know when this period will end, but it
will. We tend to think of our present historic era as representing the highest evolution of human society. We’re convinced that our exploitive, fast-growing technology is the only possible reality. In Always Coming Home, I put people who believe this into one little capsule where the Kesh could look at them as weird aberrations. It was the most disrespectful thing I could do, like wrapping a turd in cellophane.”

(Above quotes are from this interview.)

“As for the charge of escapism, what does “escape” mean? Escape from real life, responsibility, order, duty, piety, is what the charge implies. But nobody, except the most criminally irresponsible or pitifully incompetent, escapes to jail. The direction of escape is toward freedom. So what is “escapism” an accusation of?”

(from her blog, speaking of fantasy)

To think that realistic fiction is by definition superior to imaginative fiction is to think imitation is superior to invention.

Waiting

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on July 29, 2011 by theclockworm

Six days “under review” at a certain short-story market which shall remain unnamed so as not to tip off the search-bots and spoil the whole thing. My head is about to explode.

If this story gets published here, it will really be something. First of all, it’s a notoriously difficult market to crack. Secondly, this is only my third submission, and only the second story I’ve submitted; beyond that, it’s also the first story I finished.

Beyond that, it also breaks a small handful of cardinal rules. It features an unnamed protagonist, and it’s written in first-person present tense. The latter lends credence to the former – I didn’t leave him nameless as a ‘trick,’ but rather because there was simply no good reason to name him. I tried it; it fell flat.

In other news, I’ve been reading G.K. Chesterton’s “The Defendant.” It’s funny, smart, and all-too applicable. I’m planning to do my own collection of defenses starting soon.

UPDATE: Aaaand waiting no longer. I got the “hope that you’ll send us another story soon” rejection. Which is actually pretty awesome, but it doesn’t really feel that way at the moment. Anyone have a suggestion where to go next?

Virgin Submission (Not as Sexy as it Sounds!)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on June 22, 2011 by theclockworm

In less esoteric news, remember that story I told you I was submitting a week ago? Well, I did it last night. I was waiting for a final read-through from someone whose opinion I trust, but she’s simply too swamped at the moment, and the pressure was irking both of us. So I checked it for spelling, made sure my formatting was solid, slapped a cover letter on it, and sent it off through the ether. I should know within the next day or so. If it isn’t accepted, hopefully I’ll at least get some constructive criticism.

I think,  regardless of the response, it’ll be easier for me to keep going now that I’ve broken the ice.

Cross your fingers for me.

 

Something strange happened on the way to my first Hugo…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2011 by theclockworm

Part of my intention in starting this blog was to talk about the process of “becoming” a writer – learning to write, learning to present pieces for publication, and hopefully, one day, actually getting published. So far, I’ve neglected this aspect of things, and I intend to remedy the situation, starting now.

I’ve been writing regularly for about five months now. Wait, back up; I’ve been writing regularly for most if not all of my semi-adult life. I’ve been seriously writing planned, constructed pieces of fiction regularly and to completion for about five months now. As a younger person, like many others, I wrote mountains of material, most of which was some sort of Burroughs-esque journal/poetry/lyrical hybrid – in other words, so totally different from writing fiction that it scarcely even counts toward it. As a beginning fiction writer, this history has worked against me much more than for me, more often than not serving as a heap of rubbish I must unlearn before I can get to anything of quality. But it’s also what led me to my current state of balance; what was, in my youth, a prolific but unfocused flood of verbiage is now, like the person it runs through, older, more paced, more focused. I have an outlet for analysis, criticism, and pseudo-academic writing, right here; I have a place for the stripped –down descendants of that older gibberish in my musical endeavors, especially Secret South; and I have the real beginnings of a fictional outlet, something I never thought I would accomplish, and something that is more satisfying than almost anything.

Harlan Ellison said, when talking about his public writing appearance, that people think writing is done by wizards on high mountains, and that he wanted to show people the truth: that it’s work – not magic. I fell victim to that fantasy for many years. While I never doubted that I could write a good song or a good poem, or draw a good picture, I assumed I couldn’t write a good novel. I’m still not sure how this happened. I think I was also lazy – too lazy to undertake such a task, such a monumental learning process. And it’s still daunting; the road from my first few short stories to my first finished novel is long, and most of it is still ahead of me. But I’m on the road.

With age, I grew more confident; I saw myself doing most of what I sought to do with some amount of success – mostly personal, internal satisfaction as opposed to financial gain, but still success. I realized that my ideas, my ways of thinking, my tastes, were usually fairly good, and sometimes, just maybe, truly interesting. And I started to see people from every walk of life as people. I gained a sort of no-nonsense view of human beings that told me my heroes were just ordinary Joes and Janes who were good at their jobs, and that I was good at my job too – the only difference being that I wasn’t being paid for doing it. And in the end, I thought, why not? Why shouldn’t I write?

The world of SF has an especially wonderful way of disintegrating castes. There is a long tradition in SF of readers becoming writers. There is no clear and solid line between fandom and professional contribution. SF is, above all else, a kind of meta-dialogue – about life, about human experience (psychology), about society and government and history (sociology), about the nature of the universe and of life, about technology and the impact it can have (science), and about SF itself. Reading SF is an act of engaging in this dialogue.

A few days ago on TotalDickhead, David Gill asked an open question about Philip K. Dick’s loopy and incredibly detailed descriptions of clothing in Ubik. This is one of my favorite examples of this phenomenon. As a lifelong SF reader, though I don’t claim to know his exact intentions, I got a sense when reading them of how Dick meant these descriptions. If I were unfamiliar with SF as a field, I would probably not recognize the humor, the sense that he was lovingly teasing his own, the pastiche he was employing. I would probably think he really meant it – which might very well turn me off to the whole business. This can be problematic for SF, depending on your goals; it does have a way of keeping new readers out. But as an “insider,” I see this as part of a conversation. Every work of SF helps to define, or redefine, or undefine, what SF is. And it doesn’t end there; take Dick’s story “Null-O,” which is a critique of  “The Players of Null-A” by A. E. van Vogt. Or take Fritz Leiber’s stunning, chilling, prophetic “Poor Superman,” a harsh indictment of Scientology by someone who shared Hubbard’s original line of work. The list is endless; SF writers were “battling” long before Nas and Jay-Z. SF has been at the forefront of “remix culture” since Gernsback, since Verne – hell, since Lucian, whose “True History” is an intellectual take-down of Homer and his ilk. It’s a formidable lineage.

But it’s not mean-spiritedness that usually compels SF writers to engage in this kind of “response;” I’m fairly sure it’s more often love, and respect, and a sense of freedom and permission – to play with ideas, to test for structural (and philosophical and ethical and scientific and literary) integrity, to riff and reinterpret and “cover.” This sense of inclusion, of permission, permeates SF. It’s not just for the already successful. It’s for us, the living, as Lincoln would say (and Heinlein would co-opt – the dialogic act is not constrained to SF alone), those of us on the other side of the fence who know it’s just a matter of time, and luck, and effort before we can join the ranks of our heroes. This spirit of equity is so much of what makes SF the place to be. It’s why Scientology didn’t catch on in the SF community, with a few notable exceptions; we’re not so easily taken, even by those we respect (see this very interesting thesis on Scientology and SF for more). And even if a lot of us end up being wrong – delusional, even – it’s still a nice feeling. And sometimes, one or two of us are right.

Wanting to be the next ________ is a crappy reason to do something. But wanting to explore the same playground of ideas as Philip K. Dick or William Gibson or whoever – thinking, “hey, I bet I could do some pretty cool stuff on that jungle gym” – that’s a pretty good reason to give it a shot. Doing it with a sense of reverence, but also with a sense of equality: that’s what it’s all about.

The supportive foundation of SF was a big part of what made me decide to jump in and tackle writing. But in the end, there’s one simple question I asked myself, and the answer is what made the difference between jumping in and running like hell. The question was this:

True or false: After much earnest self-searching and scrutiny, doing my best to remain objective, I have come to the conclusion that I have something to offer as a writer.

The answer was True.

Now I’m waiting on one last set of eyes before I send off my first two finished stories. They are labors of love, products of my past; they are the end result of the strange and useless tomes I used to write; they are alive with the wonder I felt reading the imaginative works of others, and they are alive because of that wonder. They’re a first salvo in a new stage of my creative life. And they’re pretty good, too. When I win my first Hugo, you’ll be the first to know.