Category Archives: Writing
It’s a gate. It’s a place to start, whether you’re describing a character or a place or an action. And you know more than you think.
Especially if you write science fiction or fantasy. Because then you’re free to make up the things you know from whole cloth in a few spots, maybe many. That’s a privilege other genres don’t have like we get in SFFPHM (Science Fiction, Fantasy, Paranormal, Horror, Magical realism). Other writers might make up a town or something, but their worlds are expected to act totally like the real world.
Settings aside, writing what you know also doesn’t mean every character has to be a writer or a retail person or a middle manager or whatever variety of things it might be that you do with your lifetime. Doesn’t mean all your aliens need to know what it’s like to poop or vomit. Doesn’t mean that your orcs need to be the orcs you know from all those movies with the really short dudes and a jewelry fetish.
Write what you know is great for writing the human bit of your story, though it’s a damn good thing to remember that if you’re writing about a culture or subculture you’re not familiar with, it’s best to consult members of that culture. Unless it’s elves. You’re not going to find any real elves to consult about your fictional ones, I’m afraid. HOWEVER that said if you’re going to base your elves’ culture strongly on the culture of southern Spain, you’d better be familiar with southern Spain in some significant way.
’nuff said. I’ve already harped on that enough and I hope you were listening.
Write what you know means the practical simple things around you, sure. Do use your memories, your pain, your joy, things that happened to you, places and people you’ve met (though tread lightly when writing a person who’s close to you lest ye complicate yer relationship).
Use the things that made you grieve. Use the things that made you weep with joy. You can choose not to reveal that those things came from within yourself if that’s what you want or need to do. Do use your writerly skills to file the serial numbers off them.
Write things you know you can feel. Because feeling (Hemingway would say, did say, bleeding) on the page speaks to readers. It can reach into your readers’ hearts where mere skill can only titillate their minds.
There are plenty of successful authors who do the latter. But the stories that do the former are remembered. They change minds and sometimes lives.
Don’t think it’s easy, though. No author succeeds at that every time. In fact, I think it’s an ideal that is rarely reached.
Do reach for it.
Things are already getting worse climate-wise. We’ve had a string of hottest years ever. The average global temperature is rising. Polar ice and mountain glaciers are waning. Tundra is melting, and releasing more greenhouse gases. The complex weather systems of Earth are becoming chaotic and less predictable–as climate change theory predicts (a theory is a evidence-supported premise and proposed set of conditions and results to be tested and changed according to new results, not a wild-assed guess as the “climate change is a Chinese hoax” crowd would have it).
Maybe the world will find the will to take the drastic action needed to keep things from getting much worse, or out of control forever leading to a greenhouse Earth that looks like a second Venus.
And maybe it won’t and Earth is already dead–we just don’t know it.
The next 500 years will tell the tale.
But, if the option is to flee, settling the Solar System WILL NOT save the bulk of humanity, though it may save the species.
Barring totally amazing technological developments like Blish’s “spindizzy” in his Cities in Flight series that can lift whole cities off the planet, there’s not a way to evacuate billions of people.
More likely is a The Expanse-type world in which there are settlements all across the Solar System, but they’re limited in carrying capacity and reproducing on their own. There won’t be a hell of a lot of room for Earthers.
Most of them, if things go badly wrong, will die desperate deaths.
Agitate for climate action if you want to avert that future.
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Not Your Gramma’s Grammar
The default view of our own language (I’m speaking from the US as a monolingual—feel free to chime in with experience of other native or second languages) is of a rigid thing. A structure. Strict boundaries. Even a trap, sometimes. Penalties may apply.
There’s some justice to that view. Mistake “your” for “you’re” in a post online and you’ll soon hear about it. If you Capitalize random Things as you write—maybe for “emphasis” as our barely-literate President Trump has put it—you look like a fool who doesn’t know the language. Even worse, quotation marks for emphasis. NO THAT’S NOT WHAT THEY’RE FOR STOP IT.
Some things are fairly rigid. But.
Language is made out of thin air. It’s a figment of our imagination, shared. And it changes. It changes all the time. The Latin of the beginning of the Roman republic was different than the Latin of the late Roman Empire. Old English is literally a foreign language for a speaker of modern English, yet the latter evolved from the former (along with a crapload of loanwords from a bunch of other languages, to be sure). And then there’s slang. Notice how fast slang terms come and go? Not many stick around for more than five or ten years. But some do. “Cool” is the biggie, somewhere near a century old at least. A fair number of people still know what World War 2 era FUBAR means. How long has a kissass been a kissass? That’s slang if I’ve ever seen it.
Words are coined to fit new things. Automobile was coined to describe the new motive invention, but the old car which was used for some horsedrawn vehicles survived side-by-side and is used in preference. Laser passed from an acronym used in specialized sciences to an everyday word. Watergate, due to association with Nixon’s scandal, stopped meaning a specific hotel and took on the general meaning of big ass scandal. And then there’s Shakespeare who coined a new word when he felt like it. What a bold display of artistic power that was.
Language may change as we move about the country. As a boy in Wisconsin I’d go down by the store to buy some pop. As an adult in Virginia I go TO the store to buy some SODA.
And language has a sneaky way of shifting for no apparent reason as you watch. I’ve noticed an example.
Even a decade ago, you’d go to the gym to work out and when you got home you’d say “wow, what a workout.” A two part phrasal verb (verb + a different type of word) is/was two separated words BUT ONLY FOR CERTAIN WORDS, but the noun form of these linguistic weirdos would be a compound word (it can also vary by tense). The airplane will take off shortly, so buckle your seatbelts for takeoff.
For some reason I can’t see, for a few words the construction has shifted for some of these phrases, and I have no idea why. All I know is it looks weird when I see them, but it doesn’t seem to look weird to Millennials or younger folks. Do you want to workout? I need a good workout. It looks weird to me, and it probably looks weird to you if you’re over 30ish. Or maybe 40ish. My fingers are not quite on the pulse of bleeding edge English linguistics.
People love to bitch about grammar and spelling mistakes, and talk about “kids these days.”
Some of those mistakes are just normal change, and kids have always shaken things up, linguistic or otherwise. It’s what they’re for.
…and I’m starting to write again. Healing has occupied a lot of my energy over the last couple of weeks, just as contemplating major surgery sapped a lot of my mental energy for a few weeks leading up to it.
There’s a big wad of post-surgery slacker inertia to overcome, but I’m starting to break it up the last couple of nights with some decent prewriting.
I’ve been keeping track of the Saga Of The Hip Replacement over on Twitter. The tweet below leads to the thread I’ve been keeping. There are a few tweets above and many below the one I chose to link. I chose the one I chose because holy crap look at those 29 staples I still can’t believe it.
I’m healing up nicely, though. And lots of folks have tweeted good vibes at me as I’ve been healing, which is awesome and every one of you rocks.
This is a little bit especially for people in the early days of their sending-their-writing-to-total-strangers-and-asking-them-to-publish-it careers. Which is daunting. It was for me. It was every time I did it, and so far I’ve chalked up around 200 rejections for 4 acceptances, only two of which are still in print (in the sci-fi world, small mags can come and go fast).
Rejection sucks no matter where you find it, but it’s worth it. And it’s just part of the game. An editor gets hundreds of stories for every one they print. Rejection might mean you need to do more work on your story or your writing in general — but it also often means a story isn’t a good fit for the mag, the upcoming issue, or the editor just likes another story a smidge more. Just part of the game.
But anyway, I had this little exchange. Maybe you can take something away from it.
If you’re going to submit stories, and you might have more than one in circulation — and that’s likely if you’re steadily writing. It can take an editor a day or two to reject a story (Clarkesworld, in my experience, was always quick to reject me, and that’s not only because my stories didn’t do it for the editor, but because they have notoriously fast turnaround in general probably due to hard work and fast reading). Or it can take two weeks, or two months for some markets, sometimes even more. Take a peek at the bottom of the landing page of the Submission Grinder — they keep a running list of response times reported by writers. They also maintain a great list of markets to send stories to if you’re doing that.
It’s very easy to end up with multiple stories in play at once.
So you can use a tracker sheet like I do (below). Or keep a digital record on a spreadsheet. Or something else that suits you.
The advantage of the simple little one-story-per-sheet tracker is it’s very easy to see where a story has been so you don’t send it back to the same place twice (which is a no-no 99.9% of the time).
The weakness of this sheet is that you have to look over all the sheets for all the stories that you have out at a time to make sure you are not submitting a second story to the same market that hasn’t yet decided on the first story you sent them (also a no-no 99.9% of the time).
Personally, I can live with that. You may not be so excited, in which case I’m sorry I wasn’t more help!
The notes section gives you a place to write “send more” if the editor says send more, or anything else you think is relevant. It also gives you a place to note the exclusivity period on the story if you’re accepted so you know when you can resubmit it to a reprint market or self-publish it (which, of course, is my personal game).
Here’s the tracker sheet I use. I wanted simple, so I made simple. I just copy-pasted it here — I don’t know if you can copy it and use it in this form. If not, drop me a comment and I can email you the .doc file.
This is the first time I’ve reviewed a short story here. I’m pretty sure, anyway. At the very least, it’s the first time I’ve done it with the intention of doing them as a regular feature of my blog-slash-authorpage. (Note: this first appeared on my Patreon page 8 days ago — become a patron and see blog posts a week-plus early, even if you pledge just ONE dollar.
So, before I begin, some notes.
I think I’ll always lead with a spoiler warning, just in case. Like this: there may be spoilers in here, because 99% of the time I just don’t care about spoilers.
And that’s true. I’m one of those weirdos who can have the ending and twists of a movie, book, or story revealed to me and fully enjoy the thing anyway. I’m kind of a fan of spoiling as a device in fiction, in fact. Stephen King loves to do that. He’ll tell you someone is going to die a hundred pages before they die, and the story of how they die is still delicious. More delicious, I think. The flavor is in the telling.
And I’m not going to give stars. Screw grades, especially when they’re nothing more than my opinion. I always feel awkward trying to give a numerical value to how much I like a thing. I’m also the person who says “well, I don’t really have a favorite, but I do like (names five things)” when asked what their favorite whatever is.
I don’t think less of you if you give stars to things, though. Or have favorites. You do you – and I’m not saying that in a sarcastic way.
Now, the actual review:
Elves of Antarctica by Paul McAuley, found in Drowned Worlds, editor Jonathan Strahan. It’s the kickoff story.
My experience: it was easy to read, but also easy to put down and finish tomorrow, which I did. Neither of those traits, speaking of “put down,” is a putdown. I didn’t find it highly impactful, but it was still worth my time.
Standout features: the worldbuilding was excellent and detailed, as was the backstory of the main character. The story is a fine tour through the state of ecological affairs in the next century, and I found it much in the tradition of Hugo Gernsback with his worldbuilding-heavy “look! It’s the future!” stories. McAuley, however, has not built Hugo’s cardboard cutout characters. While the other characters aren’t fleshed out any more than their cosmetic roles demand, protagonist Mike Torres is a deep and rich character – if the worldbuilding wasn’t so significant to current climate change events, I’d take it for an excuse to plumb the depths of his angst, hope, and his curious entanglement with the phenomenon of the elf stones scattered across the partially uniced landscape of coastal Antarctica (which are inscribed in “elvish,” though are we talking Tolkien’s elvish? How else would people recognize and read Elvish? Maybe I missed the mention of Tolkein – or maybe not. The estate is famously litigious. I was reading this part at three in the morning jotting notes sideways in bed, so who knows what I might have missed in a moment of fatigue.
The stones are mysterious, or not. It’s hard to be sure, and that’s a fine note of humanity in the story. They’re probably placed there by humans, but the “stoners” (distracting name for elf stone enthusiasts, by the way) are happy to muse about mystical origins anyhow. They’re kind of a stand-in for stories in that way – we all know Star Wars is fiction, but there’s a Jedi church anyway. Two of them. Maybe more.
I wasn’t terribly excited to discover that this was a “something happened” story. Don’t come for the wrapup or a hint of conclusion. It’s not there. Which is a thing in the short story world, and there’s still plenty to be had in the reading. I’m just one of those people who favors a more concludey conclusion, even a “let’s just hint at what happens next” ending.
The writing is pretty spare for the most part, definitely in the “just tell the story” tradition – except when it comes to describing the natural world. There, the descriptions become more literary (if maybe prone to cliché phrases like “snow-capped mountains”), a bit closer to poetry, definitely richer and more emotionally evocative. I appreciated it as a touch that created focus on the heart of the story without dragging the reader over and rubbing my nose in it.
Overall, I found it a good read and an excellent way to start an anthology as it takes the reader through a lot of potential developments that are likely to come with a changing climate.
There are a lot of book bloggers reviewing books. But it’s rare to see them review a short story collection, and a review of a single short story is practically a unicorn.
So maybe as a short story writer I ought to step into the vacuum and review some short stories?
On the con side, I have long shied from writing reviews. I have a past of avoiding conflict and writing a review, especially if I’m not impressed with the story, has the potential to create conflict.
Sometimes that kind of conflict has gotten over the top and bizarre.
But people have probably been hunted down over tweets and I don’t pull a lot of punches as @Tao23.
I haven’t written a ton of reviews. But on the other hand I’ve picked apart plenty of stories, in constructive ways and adversarial, as a reader, as a gabber with fellow sci-fi fans, and as a student while working on my English MA.
And, on the pro side, I do have the qualifications of writing and reading a crapton of short stories.
What do y’all think? If there a place for this kind of thing?