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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


I don’t know.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Strange Economics: finding my niche

I’m fortunate to be included in Strange Economics.  Edited and produced by Canadian writer David Schultz, it’s a speculative fiction collection in which every story applies at least one economic concept in fantasy or science fiction settings. It’s unmistakably a highbrow piece of work, and as such, it tends to reward attentive, educated, and intelligent readers.

As a writer, I am prone to an unhealthy attitude towards anthologies.  The competitive side of my personality tends to take over, and I wind up comparing my work to the other works included.  This never takes me anywhere pleasant.  If I judge my work to be inferior to that of the other authors included, I wonder if I’m dragging the overall product down; whether I was the last one in the door; whether they’re all snickering at me behind my back.  If I feel my work is among the better pieces included, I wonder whether I couldn’t have sold it somewhere more prestigious.  Long story short: I am a cantankerous, neurotic bastard, and can't be dealt with.

My contribution to this particular work is entitled “The Rule of Three.”  Originally drafted shortly after Terry Pratchett’s death as a tribute piece, it explores a world in which witchcraft has recently come out of the closet as a legitimate scientific discipline with economic and industrial applications—and in particular, the attempts of middle-aged divorcee Hecate Bowersgrove to keep her small-business alchemy shop afloat while under siege from big-box rivals.  It’s a fun piece, but I can't say that it's likely to radically expand anyone's intellectual horizons.

This makes it something of an odd duck where this particular anthology is concerned, because there are some very profound, weighty pieces herein.  For instance:  the anthology opens with Neil James Hudson’sThe Slow Bomb”, which explores the oft-considered question “what is the monetary value of a human life” through a particularly grim and imaginative thought experiment.  Batting third is “Have Icthyosaur, Will Travel” by DK Latta, a sort of Jurassic World for smart people which takes seriously the economic and environmental implications of dropping a bunch of captive dinosaurs into the world.  And in between these two expertly crafted and deeply considered pieces is my own story, featuring the zany madcap antics of imps and trolls.

While I initially felt a bit beyond my depth, the story has been well received to this point, and in seeing that, I think I’m coming to a better understanding of how an editor might choose to construct an anthology of this kind.  Yes, you need strong, serious pieces of work to serve as the weight-bearing elements of the structure.  But even fans of that style of writing (and I’m a huge sucker for stories that test the limits of my thinking) will occasionally want to set down the burden for a while and enjoy something a little lighter. To that end, there’s stories like mine, and also M James’s “The Slurm,” a laugh-out-loud take on monster slaying with a playful style that’s entirely particular to the author, and entirely delightful.

Again, though, I’m mostly into the stuff that makes me think.  And man alive, there’s a LOT of that stuff in here.  I can’t restrain myself to my usual habit of highlighting three particular favorites, because there’s just so many; in addition to the stories listed above, there’s also Jack Waddell’s “The Short Soul,” in which the gods of death cope with the scarcity issues brought on by humans achieving clinical immortality; JM Templet’s “Shape, Size, Color and Lustre,” which introduces a South American-flavored mythology which is unfamiliar to me and may be entirely original, and Karl Dandenell’s “Supply and Demand Among the Sidhe,” in which Queen Titania’s trade embargo sparks a flurry of innovation by the fantastic denizens of her faerie realm.  The line-by-line writing in this last work is absolutely elite and the story itself worthy of contention for the highest awards in the genre.

And even THAT’s not my favorite thing in the anthology, because Jo Linsday Walton’s afterword essay is clever enough, and insightful enough, to leave us mere fiction writers deep in the shade.  I suspect that the essay also contains clues regarding Ms. Walton's involvement in the anthology in a different role, though others may find that take a bit rich.

In the end, in spite of my anthology-related neuroses, inclusion in Strange Economics is honor enough for me to set impostor syndrome aside and just enjoy the ride.  There’s some hardcore writers and thinkers here, and it’s a genuine pleasure to be seen in their company.  I’m glad to have invested myself in it, and I think many of you will want to buy in as well.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Coming Soon!

It's been a while since I've updated my adoring public on ongoing projects, and things are going to get fairly busy soon.

This summer brought a major milestone in my writing apprenticeship as my short story "The Lady of Pain" was awarded third place in the Baen Fantasy Adventure Awards.  The contest is one of the most substantial out there for non-professionals, and involved hundreds of entrants; previous winners include some of the more eminent emerging authors in speculative fiction, such as KD Julicher and Laurie Tom.  This meant a 500-mile road trip east on I-70 to Indianapolis and a stay in one of America's sketchier Motel 6s, but also the opportunity to attend GenCon for the first time and an awards dinner seated at the same table as Larry Correia, Mercedes Lackey, and other authors and publishing professionals whose work has given me a great deal of pleasure over the years. I'm grateful to Baen for the recognition and the opportunity. Combine this with last year's finalist status for the James White Award, and the evidence seems to be mounting that I'm progressing in my craft.

As for the story in question, The Lady of Pain--which is a sort of pulp-action investigation of the tropes of the fantasy healer archetype--is still on the market. At 7500 words, it's a little long for most markets, but I have a couple of specific targets in mind.

Numerous other projects have been purchased for publication, including:

The Rule of Three.  Written in the aftermath of Terry Pratchett's death as a tribute piece, this comic story of small-business alchemy will appear in Strange Economics, an anthology that's set to drop in the next couple of weeks.

Magic Beans. A dark and nasty fractured fairy tale in which flatulent pixies battle an amoral bioscientist for control of a potentially world-changing crop.  A print-only October release from Outposts of Beyond.

Invincible. Thirteen year-old Pythia's encounter with a god--or, at any rate, with something godlike--locks her into a unique destiny, and puts her on a collision course with history's greatest conqueror. Coming free to the web in November courtesy of Allegory.

Screaming Timmy Must Die.  He just MUST, is all.  To be epublished in January by old favorite Broadswords and Blasters.  

AppropriateA flash piece in which a high school gets serious about the problem of cultural appropriation. A free audio release, probably sometime in the next few months, from The Centropic Oracle.

Wipeout. A story of persuasion, set in the world of high school policy debate. This one is very personal for me; I feel it's the best story I've ever written. Coming in late 2018/early 2019 as a free web release from Strange Constellations.

And we also have a couple of reprints coming to market sometime in the next year, including my comic story of language policing The Princess and the P in Bards and Sages Quarterly (print sales only).  There's also a couple of adaptations of my work for high school speech competitors, including both The Commander and Revolution (a different take on post-mortal Benedict Arnold; I can't seem to let go of the concept) from Mushroom Cloud Press.

And, as always, there's more stories on the market, including Prodigal, a sci-fi biblical retelling set among the space Amish; Cravings, a story of Rawlsian dystopia and BBQ; and the soccer-centric The Redemption of Declan Kavanagh.

The side-hustle goes ever on and on.  Glad to have you all along for the ride.

EDIT:  No podcast of The Commander, evidently, as the market to which I sold it elected to go on hiatus eight months ago and never bothered to inform the writers with whom it had contracts. Editors: I shouldn't need to tell you this, but pulling a stunt of this sort provides an absolute guarantee that the writer in question will never submit work to you again.

Friday, June 29, 2018

American Heart: Haters Gonna Hate

Laura Moriarity’s American Heart—a dystopian YA novel which takes place in a near-future of Muslim internment, and which retells Huckleberry Finn as the story of a teenage girl trying to help an Iranian refugee reach Canada--has been the target of one of the more spectacularly ignorant campaigns in the annals of political correctness.

If you're not already familiar with the controversy, go ahead and read that link. And maybe also the New Yorker's rather savage take-down of Kirkus' behavior. I'll wait here.

Done?  Okay, then.

Young adult literature is near and dear to my own heart, and was crucial to my own development. I’m deeply aggravated to see it turned into a political football. 
And yet there’s some utility in what happened to American Heart. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the Streisand Effect was in play here, as the campaign against the book brought it to the attention of thousands who would not otherwise have heard of it. As one of those thousands, I’ve been waiting for a while for a library copy to come available. This week, I finally had the opportunity to read it for myself.

I find American Heart to be quality, well-plotted YA.  I was surprised to find that the action beats were my favorite part of the book. Sarah-Mary is a resourceful protagonist; there were numerous episodes in which I found myself wondering "how are they going to get out of this one?" and was subsequently satisfied by the resolution. These moments keep the pages turning. Moriarty also has a special gift for portraying anticipatory dread--those dark, ugly moments in which the fate of the characters rests in the hands of a secondary character who may or may not know their secret, or who does know and may or may not choose to help them.

Of the public criticisms of the book, the one which seems to be most rooted in truth is the claim that Sadaf lacks agency. Indeed she does. We live in a world which frequently denies agency to people. I don't think that sanitizing that reality would improve the book. Nor would this be a better novel if the author were to disrupt the structure of the plot in order to create moments in which Sadaf becomes an action heroine. She makes the best use she can of the moments of agency she has, which serves the author's argument that we all should.

As a perspective character, Sarah-Mary is believably the product of her experiences and influences, and also of core qualities which exist in a place beyond society's reach. We watch as that core drives her towards a new set of experiences which lead her to develop new values. The transformation of the misnamed "Chloe" into Sadaf occurs not as an external reality, but within the scope of Sarah-Mary's perspective. This is her story, even if some readers wish it wasn't, and the exploration of her perspective has literary value. Critics of the author's perspective choice are asking for a different book rather than evaluating the one they're reading.

My own major criticism is the ending, which is driven by a deus ex machina involving a secondary character who would better have been left out entirely. Protagonists this clever deserved the opportunity to complete their journey under their own steam--or at least to have made their way to the location of Sadaf and Sarah-Mary's parting on their own.

So four stars for the book as a whole. And then subtract one for the ending. And then go grab that star that Kirkus took away because they chose to value the opinion of a baying mob over that of their hand-chosen Own Voices reviewer, and give it back to American Heart, which deserves it.