Monday, January 6, 2020

The Glory That Was Broadswords and Blasters

Broadswords and Blasters is probably done. Editors Matt Gomez and Cameron Mount have announced a hiatus following the release of issue 12, and indications are that the stresses of putting out a quality magazine, on top of their other full-time jobs and family lives, have proven too much of a strain to endure.

We're losing a lot of fiction markets these days. A lot of ink has been expended on pro markets like Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, Compelling Science Fiction, and Apex, which went under as their editors faced the same brutal grind--and unworkable balance sheets--that Matt and Cameron did. But the loss of BS&B hurts more, at least for me.

Matt and Cameron were rare among editors in that they always went out of their way to make writing fun for everyone who came into contact with them. Facing down the usual barrage of hundreds of submissions per issue, they prided themselves on offering actual reasons for rejection to everyone who didn't make the cut--a standard which virtually NO market meets. Their social media feeds, both as individuals and as the BS&B entity, were always full of appreciation for authors and for other markets, as well as grim honesty about the downside of the job--the scads of submissions from people who plainly didn't read the guidelines, the impossibility of meeting Amazon's formatting requirements, the pain that comes from laboring mightily to put out a quality issue and seeing less than a dozen people pay for it. Following their feeds was an education, and a reminder that I would never have had the gumption or the work ethic to do what they did.

But following them was also a joy. There were the Follow Friday promotions, with shout-outs to their published writers that sparked weekly GIF wars.  There were the posts on the magazine's blog celebrating the best of mass-market pulp. And there was that greatest of all joys for a writer-seeing one's work in print, seeing the quality of the other stuff that made the grade, and knowing that keeping company of this quality meant you'd achieved something.

I reviewed a couple of initial issues of BS&B because I felt that was an appropriate gesture of thanks to a periodical that had taken a chance on my work. I liked those issues. I liked them so much, in fact, that I ended up purchasing, reading, and reviewing them all, except for the ones in which my writing appeared. It was a market marked by rock-'em sock-'em action, stylistic experimentation, diversity of setting and concept, and often by just full-on WEIRDNESS. I think I was the first reviewer to call Matt and Cameron the "mad scientists of modern pulp," and they were that in the very best sense of the word.

The high points for BS&B were very high. If you want an introduction to the mag, I'd recommend Issue 5, which includes L Chan's "Petals, Falling Like Memories," one of the best stories every to appear in New Pulp, along with several other excellent stories and what was probably my favorite of the trademark cover illustrations created by the talented Luke Spooner.  A second high point is, actually, the new issue, number 12.  Although I can't post reviews of it as per my personal policy, there's some STOMPIN' pulp herein, including J. Rohr's magisterial "Riding The Rails", a mortal lock for my year-end best-of list.  You'll find my own work in Issues 4, 8, and the aforementioned Issue 12.

The mad scientists will be moving on now to other pursuits.  But in our hearts, and on our shelves, the beautiful monster they created shambles on.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

For Your Consideration: My Published Short Fiction of 2019

I wrote some pretty kick-ass stuff in 2019, if I do say so myself.  And I do, indeed, say so.

January kicked off with "Screaming Timmy Must Die", my take of prepubescent supervillain hijinks, in Broadswords and Blasters:

Calvin, Dennis, and Nancy watched from atop the jungle gym. “I would run any risk,” Calvin intoned, “to be rid of this vermin. I swear this vow: from this day forth, no smile will crease my lips, nor shall my voice be raised song, while Screaming Timmy’s heart yet beats.”  
“Would that I had a knife, that I might open his throat!” Dennis exclaimed. 
“To class, my boys,” Nancy muttered, as the three of them clambered down.  “And be watchful. Be ever alert to the arrival of the maiden called Opportunity. And should she grace you with her presence, do not hesitate to strike...”


Strange Constellations published "Wipeout," a tale of perfect persuasion and human extinction set in the world of high school policy debate:
The debate final is underway, the arguments unraveling under flickering fluorescent lights, and Connor’s shirt sleeve is unraveling with them.  His clothing is threadbare, the sleeves of the suit he outgrew two years ago riding up his forearms, revealing a frayed left cuff, a missing button.  Whenever his hands are left idle, they return to the cuff, picking and plucking nervously.  It’s amazing, over time, how the wear accumulates, how much thoughtless damage is done.


My flash piece "Appropriate," a reflection on what it might for schools of the future to take cultural appropriate seriously, hit the airwaves via the Centropic Oracle podcast:

The poster bore an image of a tiny kitten dangling from a clothesline, hind legs kicking desperately against the abyss.  HANG IN THERE, the caption read.  Horatio Salazar, Westside High School Appropriations Officer, had hung the poster in an attempt to reassure the students who were summoned to his office.  Occasionally, it even worked.  Xinyu loved that poster, Salazar thought, back when she was Consuela.  Back before her third strike.  A sweet girl.  But she should have known that piƱatas originated in China, and that they only became “Spanish” through cultural appropriation.

The Arcanist picked up "Kill the Umpire," in which Little League Baseball goes transhuman:

The pitcher for Watkins Widgets must have had parents with actual honest-to-god paying jobs, because he’d had some splicing done.  The thing dangling from his shoulder was more tentacle than arm—it had suckers on it and everything--and when he brought it around in an arc, the ball shot forward and dipped over the outer edge of the plate at the knees. The umpire’s laser marked the ball’s path, and on the back end of its titanium carapace, the red light lit up with a buzz. Strike one.


The kills keep coming, as Tell-Tale Press published "Killing Time," a flash take of postmortal ennui:

Hal lounged on, the clock marching towards lunchtime, a fading ache in his hip where the rifle had kicked.  His eyes flitted to the ever-expanding freeform statue Ro Radhakrishnan was welding out of what had once been the corner streetlight; to the ornate stucco mural spreading lazily across the Mendozas’ south wall, and to the gaping hole in the curb where the neighborhood’s last hydrant had stood before somebody’d uprooted it for scrap.  At length he stood and gripped the porch-rail, gazing up and out at the limitless sky, free of clouds or contrails.  At the marginally-functional remains of suburbia.  At the slow, steady deterioration of the elaborate infrastructure that had once been necessary to keep people alive.  At an intricate spiderweb that had become a cobweb.

Arguably my highest-profile sale to date was "Cravings," which landed in Compelling Science Fiction in December. It's a futuristic police procedural, an investigation of distributive justice, and a love letter to my hometown:

Ninety miles an hour down 435. Sleek, compact, self-driving vehicles on every side. In the middle of it all, me wrestling a police cruiser into any gap I can find, with the grumblings of my partner’s stomach almost drowning out the electric motor.
          I sometimes feel like I’m the only remaining human in Kansas City with a driver’s license. Every time I take manual control of a car, it’s worse. The comp-cars adjust seamlessly to the ebb and flow of traffic, but no algorithm prepares them for Lieutenant Max Simmons. Horns blare as I lurch down the road, and to hell with them; the day I can’t out-drive a circuit board is the day I turn in my badge. Everyone in this town has become a passenger, post-Rawls. I’m entitled to feel, every now and then, like there’s somebody at the wheel.

There’s more to come in 2020. January brings the grimstick weird western “The Professionals” from Broadswords and Blasters and the demi-human totalitarian fantasy “The Laughing Folk” from On Spec. In February, experience life among the Space Amish in “Prodigal” from Planet Scumm. In April, discover the extraterrestrial origins of the werewolf legend in “Shift” from J.J. Outre Review. Plus, my story of rogue climatology “Don” will be free to the public for the first time at Silver Blade, and the aforementioned Centropic Oracle will be putting out the audio version of “Wipeout”.

Point is: I rule and you should nominate me for all the awards. And Happy New Year, everybody!

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

For Your Consideration: My Favorite Pulp Stories of 2019

You can't handle the New Pulp.

There's just too much of it, for one thing. There's something like a dozen publications with a pulp focus, and new ones springing up like weeds, all of them churning out action-focused stories in a zillion different subgenres, from crime fic to cyberpunk to sword-and-planet. That's to say nothing of the novels prominent genre authors churn out, or the free-floating stories on blogs or subscription sites.

At one point there was an embryonic movement to create a jury prize for modern pulp. As far as I'm aware it never gained traction. How could it? I mean, who reads a sufficient fraction of the genre output to serve as a juror? And how do you compare a Burroughsian retro-fic novella to a tech noir flash piece?

I can't make any reasonable claim to speak for New Pulp as a whole, but I do think that I read more widely in the genre than do most reviewers. In 2019 I purchased and read over a dozen issues of seven different publications, as well as assorted pulp stories at sites that don't offer up their pulp in chunks. Having followed the movement for a while, it's apparent to me that all involved are getting better at producing quality fiction. Editors are cranking out issues that blow their offerings from a couple of years ago out of the water. Reports from multiple markets suggest that the number of submissions is increasing dramatically. As a result, bad stuff doesn't make it into print nearly as often anymore; the ceiling in terms of story quality is rising, but the floor is rising faster. The core authors in the movement are doing their best work ever; new stars are emerging, and established authors from other genres are dropping in for a piece of the action. It's a great time to be a pulp reader.

This is my celebration of the best short-form pulp fiction I read in 2019. Call it a year-end awards post if you like. My influence is minimal, but I genuinely believe that every story on this list is worthy of any award anyone would care to throw at it.


CAVEATS:

1.  I'm defining "New Pulp" as fiction with a visceral focus. Stories with a strong literary element are not excluded from my definition of pulp, provided that the visceral part of the story is foregrounded; Poe, Lovecraft, and Doyle would be considered pulp authors under my definition.

2.  This list considers short-form fiction only and independent publishers only. Baen and Tor don't really need a pat on the back from me.

3.  As mentioned above, I read only some of the New Pulp that was published this year. I don't call this "The Best Pulp of 2019" because I'm not in a position to make that judgment. I don't thing anybody is.

4.  All decisions are subjective. My tastes run strongly towards speculative fiction. There was, for instance, a lot of gritty crime fiction that I read this year which I could recognize was of high quality, but which didn't ring my bell, because I just don't swing that way.

5.  If your story isn't on the list, that doesn't mean I disliked it! Even my issue reviews tend to leave out fiction I enjoyed, as I focus on three or fewer stories per issue. This list is several degrees more exclusive even than that, and cutting it to a manageable size was excruciating.

6.  List is alphabetical by story title. Ranking them proved impossible for me.



MY FAVORITE PULP STORIES OF 2019

*THE BOOK HUNTER'S APPRENTICE by Barbara Doran (Cirsova v2 i1)*

There's different ways to approach cultural diversity in literature.  I've read some modern work, especially YA, in which authors attempt to shoehorn a pastiche of superficially diverse characters into the narrative as if they were casting a 1990s Benetton ad. I'm also told, by writers both famous and obscure, that there's a real fear among mass-market authors that to engage in representation of cultures other than one's own is to risk one's career, that the safe thing to do is to "stay in your lane."  I find New Pulp's attitude far healthier. Writers are expected to research thoroughly and to represent respectfully, but exploration is encouraged. Readers are invited to experience the world as a place full of wonder, and to value the many different ways of being human. The atmosphere is one of bridge-building, of imaginative empathy.

I don't know a thing about Barbara Doran's ethnicity, but a glimpse at her Amazon author page reveals that she traveled the world as the child of a military parent, and her catalog is full of modern and historical fantasy exploring the interaction of East Asian and American perspectives.  Here she offers a tale set in pre-modern China, wherein a kitchen slave with an inexplicable talent for teleportation accompanies a mysterious bookseller in a quest to steal a tome of wondrous power. The story is an intricate puzzle-box with more twists than a dragon's tail. Her familiarity with, and respect for, the storytelling traditions of the culture echoes in every sentence. Doran has taken me to a world I would not otherwise have a chance to visit, and I'm grateful the experience.


*CAMERA OBSCURA by Rex Weiner (Broadswords and Blasters #9)*

Rex Weiner has been to the mountaintop. He has published work at pro rates in national periodicals and has even had his stories adapted as a major hollywood movie. I'm sure I'm not the only writer who's felt validated by his active participation in the indy pulp scene this year. If a writer of Weiner's stature feels like hanging in our company, we must be doing something right.

Weiner published widely in New Pulp this year, including a number of noteworthy crime fic pieces featuring police inspector Skull Snyder. To my taste, though, this was his best work of 2019. "Camera Obscura" sends a hotel developer to a decaying former plantation on the Baja coast of Mexico, then charts his degeneration as his perception and principles slowly become backwards and inverted. A literary piece with a deliberate pace, the story offers subtle flavors of Stephen King and Edgar Allen Poe.


*THE ELEPHANT IDOL by Xavier Lastra (Cirsova v2 i1)*

A fascinating authorial experiment--a story told entirely from the perspective of a blind character. The master thief Auger invades an opera house in pursuit of a diva’s love trinket--but in seizing it, arouses the supernatural wrath of her would-be lover.  Having unraveled his own reality, Auger will require all of his skills to escape—and will discover that in a realm full of sights unfit for human eyes, his disability may prove an advantage. Lastra's ability to portray action without using visual imagery is impressive. He takes his readers on a fascinating journey into unexplored realms of human perception.


*HER NAME WAS LARCENY by CW Blackwell (Pulp Modern v2 i4)*

I mentioned above that, in general, I'm not a fan of gritty crime fiction. Part of the reason is that I often feel like authors pack the grime into the story in order to serve audience expectations or as a sort of internal competition to see Who Can Get Nastiest. I have never felt that way about the work of CW Blackwell. In his work, the ugliness isn't a prop or a patina; it flows outwards from the motives and decisions of his characters. And in Larceny, the story's antagonist, Blackwell has crafted the character of the year, a tornado on two legs who tears through town after town, committing transgressions small and large,  leaving a trail of dumbfounded cops and chintzy statuary behind her.  Blackwell is always great with dialogue, but he exceeds himself here; the story is propulsive enough on its own merits, but the repartee adds a welcome note of levity that keeps the pages turning.


*THE LIVING TEXTS OF SILDEEN by Benjamin Chandler (Broadswords and Blasters #11)*

An antique dealer's principles are tested by an encounter with a young fugitive. The moral arc of the protagonist makes for an interesting story in itself, but there's two other major reasons to love this one.  The first is the author's ability to string together beautiful sentences; the prose is just gorgeous.  The second is the story's magic system, or rather, its lack of one.  I often find that fantasy stories both inside and outside of the New Pulp genre are confined by reliance on the tropes provided by magic systems in existing properties.  When I encounter a new magic system, as in Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicles or Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon, I'm often impressed.  Chandler has done these authors one better by more or less throwing out the rules entirely.  Marosh's shop is a carnival of exotic wonders in which any item--a needle, a comb, a tattoo--may hold secret properties accessible to a knowledgeable user. I want to read more stories set in this world.


*MODESTY by Albert Tucher (Pulp Modern v2 i4)*

One struggle pulp writers sometimes face is how to make a protagonist simultaneously formidable and vulnerable.  We know that our mythic swordswomen and steely-eyed space rangers are going to overcome most obstacles, so how to convey a sense that the odds are stacked against them?  Well, by golly, Albert Tucher's found a way.  In "Modesty", hard-nosed and sharp-witted sex worker Diana Andrews finds herself on the run from serial killers. While naked. As in: completely bare-ass naked, from start to finish.

Placing the reader perspective squarely in Diana's shoes (stiletto heels, natch) keeps the prurient elements from overwhelming the story, and keeps the reader's focus on the action and character beats. I was reminded of the mid-sixties film "The Naked Prey," which places an African safari guide in Diana's position.  As with that film, I walk away impressed with the protagonist's resourcefulness and a bit curious as to how long I'd last in the same situation. Best guess: roughly sixteen seconds.


*THE SPIRIT OF ST. GEORGE by Damascus Mincemeyer (Storyhack #4)*

World War One fighter aces battle dragons over Colorado.

I will repeat that.

WORLD WAR ONE FIGHTER ACES BATTLE DRAGONS OVER COLORADO.

One of the great things about pulp is that sometimes an awesome story concept is enough to elevate a story all by itself. This is, needless to say, such a time. Mincemeyer doesn't merely rest on his core concept, though. He has painstakingly researched 1920s aviation and fills the page with fascinating detail. He lards the text with alt-historical references and inclusions of figures both famous and obscure.  He stacks the odds against his protagonists, then delivers a thrilling action climax, while layering the whole thing with subtle wit.  This is adventure pulp at its finest.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Winter Wonderlands


For a guy who writes sporadically at this point, I still seem to be landing a fair number of publication deals. There will be a number of stories both new and old landing in print and podcast form this winter, with more pending.  Here's the lowdown on what's set in stone so far.

The biggest news is that my first sale to a periodical recognized by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America will hit the net in December.  CRAVINGS, a tale of forbidden barbecue and distributive justice set in a near-future Kansas City, will appear in Compelling Science Fiction in December of this year.  This is one of my most-revised stories, starting life under a different name as a tossed-off submission to an obscure literary contest and wending its way through eight drafts and 20+ rejections before finally selling to probably the highest-profile magazine I ever submitted it to.  I don't understand what happened with this story, but I'm grateful it did.  As is commonplace for magazines that pay pro rates, this one will be paywalled, but keep an eye on social media for news of its release.

DON, in which a climate-scientist Don Quixote does battle with modern windmills, made the cut at Andromeda Spaceways earlier this year and has since been chosen for their Best of 2019 anthology.  I've also reached agreement for a free version to be published on the web, but the publisher went silent almost immediately after accepting. We'll see what happens there.

KILL THE UMPIRE, a very short piece which explores Little League baseball in a posthuman future, will be posted for free viewing at the Medium site The Arcanist in November.  The Arcanist was also the venue for my cyber-cowboy piece Finger last year, and is in my opinion one of the most underrated fiction sites on the web; in terms of quality they hit WAY outside of their weight class.

PRODIGAL...ah, what to say of Prodigal?  A biblical allegory set in an Amish space colony, this one was my wayward literary son for a long, long time.  It was rejected with scorn and laughter by every venue you've heard of and some you haven't...and then, when I thought hope was lost, it was picked up by Planet Scumm for release this winter.  You'll have to pay to read this one, but you really ought to.  PS is a pure delight, a sort of literary-pulp hybrid with an absolutely fantastic sense of humor about itself, and a quietly dazzling list of author credits.  If I were editing an indie, I'd want it to be very much like Planet Scumm.

And then there's WIPEOUT, which I still regard as the best short story I've ever written.  A deep dive into the worlds of high school debate and voluntary human extinction, it was first published under a creative commons license and is freely available on the net.  And yet, suddenly, everybody seems to want a piece of it...the subscription site The New Accelerator picked it up for distribution in mid-September, and the ultra-professional podcast The Centropic Oracle has purchased the audio rights, with publication date pending.

There's more in the quiver as well.  Those wonderful indie pulps are all opening their doors to submission in October, and I'll be sending them a couple of pieces of which I'm very proud, including a Baen Adventure Fiction Contest finalist.  I'm also marketing a dark fantasy piece about soccer, an utterly insane piece of paranormal fiction inspired by the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11, and I'm investigating possibilities regarding a certain YA novel long thought to be dead.

It seems that the game keeps pulling me back in.  And who'd have it any other way?

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

On not writing

When an author concludes a story with the words "The End", it rarely means THE END, at least not from a reader's perspective. The reader is going to read more stories. And in almost all cases, the writer's gonna write more.

The words "The End" signal an interregnum. An interruption. The sad, sweet finale to a particular adventure that the author and the reader shared.

It's too early to know for sure. But it seems increasingly likely that I have reached an end where semiprofessional writing is concerned, at least for a while.


*


I don't know if most readers fully understand exactly how long the delay between the creation of work by an author and the publication of that work can be. My own stories have, in some cases, spent more than two years on the market before hitting print. It's like starlight. When you look into the night sky, you are examining the light that was produced four, or ten, or fifty, or a thousand years ago. It may well be the case that the star that you are looking at burned out decades or even centuries ago; yet from your perspective, it still shines. And the "new release" you read from your favorite author might be last year's work, or the work of five years ago. People change in that amount of time. The author who wrote that story is gone.

I've got good work hitting the market in the weeks and months ahead. Soon I will be posting here about the most deeply personal short story I've written, which will be published on a prominent free internet site. I will also be breaking the news of my greatest single professional success as a writer, both in terms of dollars earned and in terms of likely readership. Other new stories will be appearing in periodicals where I've seen print before, and some in new markets entirely.

It will seem like I've been productive. But I haven't completed a story since July 23. It's possible my star has exhausted its fuel.


*


It's not writer's block. The problem isn't that I don't have ideas. The problem isn't the lack of a plan as to how to do the work. It's no longer a matter of me not knowing what I'm doing. On the contrary. The problem is that I know too much.

Over the last five years, I have learned what it takes for me to write a high-quality short story, and I have learned what happens when I expend less than my best effort.  I've seen, through interaction with professional writers, what "the writer's life" actually entails, in terms of daily input and output; in terms of grinding at the keyboard and in terms of schmoozing with other human beings.

I can no longer lie to myself about the nature of my talent, or about the requirements of being a real writer. The evidence is accumulating that I'm reasonably good at this, and that I'm improving with practice. But the inputs that good writing requires are also becoming more clear. To produce really good work, one must sit down and wrestle with the material for a matter of weeks (in the case of a short story) or years (in the case of a novel). There are no shortcuts. Anything less, and the work will be less than the best version of itself.

In the beginning, I enjoyed cranking out short stories at what some writers call "pulp speed", and watching them find markets. I still feel that sense of pride when I receive those acceptance letters.  But the rejections produce more shame and guilt than they did before--because having experienced success as a professional writer, I know that I'm capable of it. And now I know that the failure of a story is frequently the product of my failure to commit to it; of my having settled for "good enough".

Good enough isn't good enough anymore. I can't accept it from myself, or look forward to it. If I'm in, I have to be all-in.

Now when I contemplate the prospect of sitting down at a keyboard, I find myself seeing the task not as a joyful outpouring of ideas, but as a commitment. I know that I'm going to have to sweat and bleed to make the story what it's supposed to be. I know that my best efforts are still going to get it sent back at me, sometimes with disdain and sometimes with apathy, by people whose judgment I respect. I sit down at the keyboard with a clear view of the mountain in front of me. And the task intimidates me in a way it didn't when I started, when I could just grin about the crazy idea the Story Elves put in my head and go charging merrily up the slope.


*


What a privilege to be able to write fiction as a hobby, instead of for a living.

Hunter S. Thompson, a genius with a thunderbolt in his pen, once wrote of the pure hatefulness of having to meet a certain word-count in order to get paid. Almost everyone who's produced fiction, from Gutenberg's day to this, has been reliant on the success of that fiction in order to eat. What a nightmare that must have been! For a growing and developing writer to have faced hunger and privation as the cost of imperfection, with no realistic hope that things would ever be different!

I'm blessed to live in an era in which even dilettantes like myself can achieve a measure of success while doing the work part-time.  I can sit down at the keyboard and write at my convenience. As, indeed, I have. As I hope I still will, someday, when I can work up the gumption.

But the writers of a previous generation were driven in a way I don't have to be. When failure means starvation, you work or you die. For every Charles Dickens or Joseph Heller, there must have been thousands who went hungry, sick, and dead in pursuit of artistic success.We will never know how much human wreckage was produced in order for us to read A Wrinkle In Time or Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. I'll never have go through that meat grinder, thank God.

When I confront the amount of commitment it takes to turn an idea into a story, I don't experience it as a necessity of survival. I experience it as a choice. I could write today, or I could play a video game on Steam, or to grade papers, or read something someone else has written.  And regardless of what choice I make, I will be employed tomorrow, and I will live a climate-controlled, antiseptic-surgery-secured existence in conditions that the richest men on earth a century ago would consider luxurious. The luxury of laziness is available to me, as it is to many of us. It's the gift of our foreparents, the product of generations of pain and toil. I embrace it gratefully. But I also recognize that, for lazy bastards like myself, it does rid the creative process of its urgency.

There are people who are DRIVEN by art, who MUST CREATE. And there are others who can create, or can choose not to, on a daily basis. I'm one of the latter, thank God. But the creative process rewards those with the drive to chase it. And it may be the case that I simply lack that drive. Or that I have misplaced it somewhere along the way.


*


I wrote some time ago of the professional inadequacies that led me to write Axis of Eternity. I wrote about not being a great teacher, and about hoping I might be great at something else. I have, in the years since, discovered that I am the same sort of writer as I am a teacher: a good one, with moments of greatness. But I am probably too interested in too many other things to ever fully realize my potential in either venue.

In the last year or so, I've gotten back on the beam, teaching-wise. I have new goals, and a plan to achieve them, and I'm seeing results. I'm getting more daily joy from the craft of teaching and from the small victories. Younger Me would not in any way understand the sort of educator I've become. But Younger Me didn't always understand things as fully as he thought, and was kind of a dick besides. At any rate, a lot of the creative energy that I once reserved for my side-hustle is instead expended on my day job.

I have a couple of cool story ideas, and a pretty clear idea of what the finished product would look like. And I stare up the slope at what really bringing those worlds into existence would require of me if I did it in the right way. And my mouth screws into a grimace. And I close MS Word, and I open Steam, and I vanish into one of those convenient worlds somebody else created for me.

I haven't completed a story since July 23. And it feels like maybe I won't for a while.


*


I tell myself that I need not close the door entirely, that I can come back later. My brain rebels, knowing that it's necessary for a writer to write every day, that the muscle slackens when you don't use it. I think about the quality of the writers with whom I'm competing for publication space--and instead of inspiring my competitive urge, I find myself intimidated. I look at my catalog of twenty published stories--and the pride doesn't drive me on, it makes me complacent.

So, maybe: The End. I don't know. We'll see. But, just in case: thanks to all of you who have put up with this little side-hustle of mine. To those who've published the stories. To those who've humored me by reading them. To those who've even enjoyed them a bit. To those who've given me a pat on the back, or who've merely resisted the urge to piss on my parade.

And if it's The End, well...there's a couple of cool postscripts coming your way. Several stories yet to drop, including my favorite. More stories still on the market. And my greatest professional success is, as I mentioned, yet unannounced. So keep watching this space. Even if the last rockets have left the ground, there's still one last burst of fireworks coming.

*

[Update:  within three weeks of writing this, I completed two more stories.  So much for the melodrama.  The Magic Brain Goblins are some weird and unpredictable little bastards.]

Friday, October 12, 2018

The sad place

Today my reading made me sad.

I've been blessed to have crossed paths with a number of personalities in the New Pulp movement over the last couple of years.  The expansion of cheap online publishing has recently made it possible for a variety of talented editors to create new publications in which they make available the work of new authors.  On occasion, I've been one of those authors.  My work has been deemed acceptable by publications such as Storyhack and Broadswords and Blasters.  In every instance, I've enjoyed working with the publishers of these periodicals, and found that my story has been surrounded by work of authors like me.  Semipros, mainly.  A bit rough around the edges perhaps, but eager to please, and reasonably skilled--many of them better at the craft than I am.

One of the pleasures of being a writer, and a pulp writer specifically, is that I get to hype the work of my fellow authors and of the publications in which they work.  Reviews at sites like Amazon and Goodreads can lead to increased referrals by the sites in question to new readers, and real revenue for the publishers. They're also a pleasant ego boost to the artists in question, who in most cases struggle for recognition.  So, when I can, I post a review.  I do this both for publications which have bought my work (though I never review any issue or anthology in which I was published) and for those other publications which also lurk at the margins of the market, looking for a big break or, at minimum, for some respect.  For instance: I recently posted a favorable review of the debut YA novel of a real-life acquaintance, who landed a contract at a small press.  It was fun to do so.  People who put themselves on the line should know that they did a good job.

I made a promise to myself at the outset, though:  I would, in all cases, be honest in my reviews.

Being honest does not prevent me from emphasizing the positive.  If I review a magazine or anthology, I'll focus the review on my favorite stories and identify the authors by name, but I won't hammer the stories I disliked.  If I read a book, I'll hype its best attributes and avoid mentioning the weaknesses.

But I do not OVER-hype work, even if I appreciate the impulses that led to its creation.  I do not say something is good if I think it was bad.  Nor do I say something was great if I think it was merely good.  If, one day, I give a five-star review to a pulp periodical or a self-published book, it will mean I think that the work is of elite quality in all respects and can stand with the very best stuff in print.  I've felt that way about individual stories I've encountered in pulp markets--Shannon Connor Winward in Storyhack #0, Misha Burnett in Cirsova #5, L Chan in Broadswords and Blasters #5--but I've never quite been able to drop five stars on a complete issue of a pulp periodical or of a self-published book.  I hope I do so soon.  I haven't done it yet.  I'm saving that review for something truly amazing.

Four stars, to me, means that a piece of work is really, really good, and stands alongside stuff by people who do this for a living full time.  Three stars means that I genuinely enjoyed it, even if I felt that parts of it were flawed.  Two stars or less...

Two stars or less is a rating I have never assigned to semipro work.

I have been known to give two stars or less on Amazon and Goodreads to PROFESSIONAL work, because people who are asking me to pay pro rates for their work are held to a higher standard, and if they're not good at what they do, other readers deserve to know it before they drop twenty bucks on the book.  But it's just plain wrong to watch a person labor in obscurity to improve their craft and entertain an audience, and then tell the world, "This is substandard, and everybody should know that."

Today I had that experience with a pulp periodical.  Not a periodical where I've been published or am under consideration by, but a magazine that I've heard about, and had my eye on, and wanted to float a couple of bucks towards, just to see how they were doing.  I ,bought an issue and gave it a look-see.  And it was...okay.  Everybody involved clearly put in their best.  Their efforts were honorable, and commendable, and I hope they all improved as artists in the process of producing it, and derived pride from the experience of publishing and being published.

But I couldn't call it good.  Not publicly.  It was two-star stuff.  Ambitious, but messy.

I've put in some two-star stories over the last few years--a few of which even made it to print--so I don't think I'm better than the people I'm critiquing. But I remember what it was like to "labor mightily, and bring forth a mouse." And for that reason, I don't post two or one star reviews of semipro work.

I think of it as the lesser of two evils: to say nothing at all is less nasty than to say "meh".  But in truth, it's more accurate to say that it's the least of THREE evils--because to read something I thought was "meh" and praise it to the skies would be worse than either of the above.  I'm a harsh grader and a mean bastard at times, but at least I'm not a quote-whore.

And if you share my outlook, and you happen to be contemplating work by me that you consider less than my best, and are wondering whether to be honest about that fact...

...then DON'T, for God's sake.  Get to Amazon and LIE YOUR ASS OFF about how awesome I am.  Because those five-star reviews are CANDY to me, my friend, and I can't get enough.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

I don't know


Some of the most terrifying research of which I’m aware relates to the nature of human cognition, and the question of how we make decisions.

You and I assume that we are rational organisms, which is to say: when we are faced with contradictory data, or with a complex choice, that we consider the facts involved, weigh probabilities and consequences, think things through, and then come out the other end with what we think is the best answer.  The implication of this is that our decisions are perfectible, which is to say: if we get something wrong, it’s because we misjudged the data, or had bad inputs, or there was something wrong with the mechanism of calculation.  If we just do a better job of screening out irrelevancies, or consult better sources, or work on being smarter, we can make a better decision next time.

All of these pleasant possibilities are thrown into chaos by the neuroscientific research of Benjamin Libet, and the subsequent work which builds on his.  To greatly simplify (and maybe oversimplify) his conclusions, Libet claims that, through measuring the electrical activity of the brain of a person involved in making a decision, it can be proved that the portions of the brain governing action activate prior to the portions of the brain responsible for cognition.  The implication is:  the conscious “thinking” we do is not decisionmaking.  It is post-facto justification for a decision that is being made by some other, more opaque part of ourselves.  We will never get better at making decisions, because the part of us that makes decisions is beyond our understanding or control.  We will remain idiots forever.

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It’s possible to read too much into Libet’s work.  Not all decisions are necessarily made in the same way, and clinical trials that measure one type of decision-making may not accurately account for factors present in different decision contexts.  And some of the successor studies are sketchy, and a number of the media accounts of these studies are very obviously massaging the data to justify an ideologically convenient conclusion.

Ah, but there's the rub.  What keeps popping up, in Libet’s work, and in the later work, and even in the indictments of the later work, is that we believe what we want to believe.  Which is to say:  we are good at rationalizing in support of our pre-existing world-view, and equally good at rationalizing away inconvenient evidence. 

Scientific American posted a terrific article full of examples of this.  The ability of vaccination opponents to continue to justify claims about autism that were based in a study which has been revealed to be an outright forgery.  The ability of UFO Cults to preserve their beliefs even in the face of having specific predictions of specific events on specific days empirically falsified. The resilience of 9/11 Truthers or of people who believe that Barack Obama was an Indonesian Muslim agent.  I would add certain beliefs prevalent on the left to this list, for instance: the belief that testosterone affects every aspect of human development that occurs below the neck but nothing that goes on above it, or that human behavior is almost entirely the product of environmental influences, with the exception of sexual orientation, which is carved in stone in the womb.  If any of the above statements alienate you, fine: choose the irrational predilections of your preferred outgroup, and pretend those are the only ones I referenced. 

My point is:  we are good at building up walls against facts and narratives which challenge the core of who we are.  I’m no exception.

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I increasingly worry that my life as a high school debate coach has been lived in the service of a lie.  Specifically: people in my profession like to believe that we train young people to think.  If Libet and his cohorts are correct, it might be more accurate to say that we train young people to rationalize. Good debaters are skilled at marshaling data and anecdotes; GREAT debaters are skilled at framing arguments, which is to say, they learn to leverage data to activate the core narratives that govern the behavior of the people listening.  But these skills have little to do with the critical investigation of ideas.

Being good at saying “that guy over there is wrong and here’s why” is a useful skill for a variety of professional applications.  Persuading neutral observers of the truth of a proposition is probably less so; there seems to be very little communication these days between parties who genuinely and fundamentally disagree, and precious few neutral observers to be found.  Still, I can see how that skill might conceivably be valuable in a pinch.  But I’m increasingly convinced that the most important dialogue in which we can engage is internal: a process of calling into question our own deep-seated narratives of how the world works in a spirit of true openness to change.  Personal improvement must, by definition, begin with a single assertion:  I might be wrong.

And debate as an activity, and debaters as individuals, are terrified of those words.  “I might be wrong” is a statement fundamental to the building of successful relationships, but it has no utility in the context of a competitive argument with a designated winner and loser.  Perhaps the ugliest habit debate coaches build in the young people under our care is the cultivation of certainty at all costs.

I have long trained my first-year debaters to respond to questions asked in cross-examination that they don’t know the answers to by saying, “I don’t know”.  Don’t lie or bareface your way through it, I tell them. If the question is unimportant, point that out.  Write the question down.  Bring it to me after the round and we’ll see if we can’t reason our way through it together.

The community of debate judges—experienced competitors and laypeople alike--decisively repudiates my advice on this issue.  When my kids say “I don’t know,” they lose, and the fact that they said it is cited as a primary reason why.  In this way, the community reinforces the idea in my students’ minds that while intelligence is useful, certainty is essential.  If you don’t know, they are told, pretend that you do.

It’s terrible advice. False certainty is poison.

As a child, I thought my parents knew everything.  I assumed that knowledge would descend upon me in a cloud, possibly slowly in stages, but certainly that by my eighteenth birthday I would have attained what children’s author David Wisniewski called “The Secret Knowledge of Grown-Ups.”  I suspect that the dawning awareness that my parents were not omniscient, and the resulting horror at the fact that maybe nobody in the world had any idea what they were doing, may have had something to do with my teenage petulance.

And my subsequent adult petulance, as well.  Because it is readily apparent to me that the world is run by adults who 1. Get selected as leaders because they’re marvelously good at pretending that they know what they’re doing, and at denying any possibility that they don’t, and 2. That these people are lying through their teeth. 

The best of them may have the advantage of good personal judgment, or an intelligent willingness to surround themselves with people who have strong knowledge bases in one field or another and to defer to those people.  But specific recent evidence would suggest that the sort of person who is best at projecting an aura of absolute certainty is, in fact, a person who IS absolutely certain, which is to say:  a fool.  And that the more insistent we are that our leaders project certainty, the less likely we are to wind up with leaders who defer to intelligent subordinates, or who…and here’s a radical thought…dispense with central control entirely, and instead respect the ability of individual citizens to make decisions in their own interest.

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I think it is urgently necessary to rediscover the beauty of the phrase “I don’t know.”  I think we need to learn to respect intellectual humility as a virtue. 
I think we need to think about all of those elaborate, carefully constructed systems created by the most intelligent people, with the purest of intentions, which produced spectacular misery and utter catastrophe, and which could not be abandoned because to admit a mistake would have been to un-do the core not just of the leaders’ authority, but of their reasons for existence.

I think we need to reflect on all those juries, who evaluated the evidence presented to them by skilled advocates, and the testimony of witnesses credible and incredible, and who retired to review the evidence collectively, and who emerged with carefully considered unanimous verdicts that subsequently turned out to be 100% objectively wrong.  We have shielded ourselves with the belief that those people were emotional idiots and that we ourselves, rational beings through-and-through, would do differently. But us rational beings keep wandering into jury boxes and fucking up spectacularly, over and over, and I think it may be time to contemplate the possibility that those jurors might have been people very much like ourselves who were as certain in their decisions as we are in our own.

I think we need to understand that we ourselves, like other people, are inclined to buy into narratives that support our own, and to treat as “facts” stories which support those narratives.  And I think we need to do a better job of policing ourselves in situations where our core beliefs are being activated.

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For instance.

Let’s say you are confronted with two very different narratives, both of them concerning the events of a night thirty-five years ago.  The narratives are incompatible.  One of the parties involved says: I was at a party, and I was accosted by a pair of young men who intended to rape me and possibly to kill me, and that’s one of them right there.  And the party accused says:  not only was it not me, but the party never happened and I have never engaged in behavior remotely similar to that which is ascribed to me.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there is no actual physical evidence of any sort presented, and that no contemporaneous reports of wrongdoing were produced.  Instead, you are presented with emotionally intense testimony by both parties, and a parade of character witnesses.  Who do you choose to believe?

If your core narrative is that sexual assault is an American epidemic, that men in America wield power capriciously, treat women as a means to the end of their own desires and are never held to account, and that the political party of which the accused is a member is interested in extending and indeed doubling down on that pernicious reality, then you will tend to believe, and to treat as credible, the views of the accuser.  You will believe that the accused is at best engaged in willful denial enabled by alcohol-induced amnesia and at worst just straight lying through his teeth.

If your core narrative is that public concern about sexual assault has transformed over time into a witch hunt, in which evidence is considered irrelevant and the presumption of innocence inconvenient, and that the Democrats have their backs to the wall and will at this point say literally anything to perpetuate the blindness of the legal system to the butchery of one million babies every year, then you will believe, and treat as credible, the views of the accused.  You will believe that the accuser was perhaps assaulted by someone else and has subsequently, over thirty-five long years, superimposed the face of the accused over that of an assailant whom she couldn't identify.  Or instead maybe you decide that she is part of a broad-based conspiracy to bring down an innocent man, and that the ever-wilder accounts we're hearing of the accused’s misbehavior by an growing list of accusers are proof of this conspiracy.

You'll believe her.  Or you'll believe him. You will believe so strongly as to be certain. But your certainty will be unjustified.  In neither case will you be reasoning based on physical evidence or specific facts about the night in question.  You will be superimposing your favorite narrative on that event, and placing the two very real human beings involved in this horrific public drama in roles within that narrative.

And if somebody reacts to the whole spectacle by saying that they don’t know what happened on that night in 1982, you will perhaps revile them even more than people on the opposite side of the debate, because it will seem that they are abdicating even the basic level of moral responsibility involved in taking a side; that they are using waffling as a cop-out for their utter lack of any principle whatsoever; that they are willfully blind and trash humans and of no use to anyone, not even worth the trouble of engaging with.

But it will remain true that the people you watched on television today were actual humans.  They are not paid actors.  To them, this was real.  And to reduce them to placeholders in your narrative is to dehumanize them entirely.

And to pretend certainty about events of which there is no physical evidence, and to which there were no witnesses, is to tell yourself a soothing lie: the lie that your narrative is correct on all occasions, and that so long as you cling to it, you are a soldier on the side of righteousness.

The worst monsters in history were people not very different from you and me.  And the belief that their narrative was always correct, and that there could be no incorrect action congruent with it, was the elixir that they drank that transformed them into monsters.

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I don’t know.