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.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

All That Glitters...

"All That Glitters" is a mere 1000 words long and features the most original story idea I've ever had. It's available now in the July issue of Bards and Sages Quarterly.

As the title suggests, it's not gold. But it has other merits. Keep your mind on the money, and the money on your mind...

(Edit:  the link now takes you to the Amazon page for the issue)

Sunday, June 3, 2018

"Don" and the perils of accidental plagiarism

I'm very proud to have my short story "Don" in the June edition of Andromeda Spaceways. The original version of the story was drafted almost three years ago, and was inspired by the research I did into wind energy generation as a high school debate coach, as well as my lifelong fondness for the Broadway musical "Man of La Mancha". The story retells Don Quixote as the story of a rogue climatologist, and offers a sci-fi take on his struggle against the windmills.

It was a fun story to write. Any author learns to love the moment at which they find themselves in possession of a wholly original idea--those visits from the muse are few and far between, and inspire a white-hot burst of writing energy as one pours the idea out onto paper.

So the story emerged, and was revised, and revised again, and submitted, and submitted again, as stories are. I never doubted it would land somewhere; the idea was just too much fun not to see print.

And then, about six months after writing the story, I ran across this XKCD cartoon:

Huh. Well, that's...awkward.

This provoked no small amount of disappointment in me (NOOOOO! MY ORIGINAL IDEAAAAA!!!) as well as a mini-crisis of conscience. Because my inspirations for the story, and my research into its plot points, were exactly as I said.

But, on the other hand...I do read XKCD on occasion. And this strip tracks the plot of the story pretty closely. While I had no specific recollection of reading this particular strip, it seems very likely to me that it influenced me when I wrote the story, at least at a subconscious level. Which raises the question: is it possible to be a plagiarist without intending to be one?

I've served as a reviewer of other people's stories at a couple of sites, and I occasionally run across examples of plot points or even character names which I've run into previously in mass-market fiction. I'm not talking about Tolkein pastiches, so much; I'm referring more to things like referring to your main character as "the Bloodless," ala Patrick Rothfuss. And researching the issue, I discovered it happens to professional authors fairly frequently--and that some of them go so far as to avoid reading within their genre for fear of "idea contamination."

I have, in the past, re-read an old favorite only to find a section of text that's suspiciously close to something I've written myself--I've inadvertently taken copy from Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Harry Turtledove, and others. Whenever I've come across an instance of this, I've removed the relevant text from my own work. Using another author's words, intentionally or unintentionally, is plagiarism, full stop.

Story and plot concepts fall into a more ambiguous space. For instance: both my YA novel Axis of Eternity and my short story "Monsters in Heaven" involve an extraplanetary afterlife not altogether dissimilar to the one Phillip Jose Farmer explored in his Riverworld novels. AoE also involves a plot concept which had been previously explored by Ivan Stang, inventor of the Church of the SubGenius, and which I later discovered as the central concept of still another author's story in Broadswords and Blasters. Where this sort of thing is concerned, I think some allowance has to be made for good faith on the part of the author, provided that he or she is acknowledging his or her influences and giving credit where it's due. And there's also going to be some instances of two different people just having the same idea. Great minds think alike, and occasionally, even my mind meanders into those realms normally reserved for the truly talented.

In the end, I elected not to kill the story, and the editors, having been made aware of the issue, elected not to kill it either. I do think, though, that it's appropriate to give xkcd's Randall Patrick Munroe a shout-out and a thank you for his subliminal inspiration. His stuff is so great that it ends up making my stuff better. And if he's reading this, I hope he won't have me killed.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

*erilous *rincesses

CBAY Books has just released its latest anthology for middle-grade readers, *erilous *rincesses. As the title would suggest, it’s themed around stories in which the *rincess is the source of the danger as o**osed to the victim thereof. Readers who love heroines with agency will find no shortage of them herein, ranging from fairy-tale ty*es to modern s*ies. My *articular favorites from the anthology are “Aurora in the Dreaming,” Alison Ching’s account of Slee*ing Beauty’s secret adventure, and Madeleine Smoot’s “Redem*tion,” which successfully marries the flavor of a children’s classic to altogether original content.

My own contribution is “The *rincess and the *.” Fans of modern *hilosophy are well aware that the language we use not only reflects our reality, but also creates it in many ways. In the Kingdom of Lexico, that’s even truer than elsewhere. When *rincess Mynda determines that a *articular letter of the al*habet (I won’t say which one) is the source of all her nation’s *roblems, she engages in a *articularly aggressive form of s*eech-*olicing which *roduces disastrous consequences for all involved—and is forced into a des*erate scheme to undo her handiwork.

More than that I dare not say, exce*t that I have seldom had more fun writing a story, and less fun editing one.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Ayn Rand for Gay Teens

There’s no Hollywood trope that’s further from reality than the “hero teacher” story.  Movies love the idea of a Jaime Escalante or a Joe Clark dropping out of a clear blue sky and turning around a classroom or building full of troubled youth.  Teachers—myself included—know better.  We’re useful and helpful people, and we need to be competent or better for a school to be the best version of itself.  But any school that achieves anything does so because its STUDENTS are heroes.  Every high-achieving school I’ve ever been involved with (and I’ve been part of several) has risen on the tide of its students’ drive and talent.

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is…well, it’s many things, isn’t it?  An astonishing break with the moral orthodoxy of its day, for one.  Prone to interminable passages of purple prose, for another.  One of the more interesting things about Atlas Shrugged, for me, is its transgressive attitude towards labor relations.  It asks the question: what if capital went on strike, as opposed to labor? Rand posits that the people putting in the important work all along aren’t necessarily the people you’d assumed.  But she also posits a unique strike strategy.  Rand’s “men of the mind” don’t march with placards; they aren’t directly defiant in any way.  Instead, they disappear into the woodwork.  They stop innovating.  They remove themselves from the occupations in which they have talent and do menial labor, working only with their muscles.  They aren’t noncompliant, they’re hyper-compliant.  In enacting this strategy, they reveal how important their volunteerism has been all along.

As a teacher, I’ve often wondered what would happen if the uncelebrated innovators responsible for a high school’s success—the students--implemented Rand’s strategy. What would happen if a group of kids decided their efforts were being taken for granted, and took an educational approach based on the idea of doing exactly what was required of them and nothing more?  In truth, this is every teacher’s nightmare.  The power of students is in many ways invisible to them; they have no idea just how little authority over their behavior teachers really have, how much of our power is a function of willing partnership.  With the events surrounding the Stoneman Douglas shootings, students are awakening to the realities of how much power they actually hold.  If anyone ever successfully organizes them as a unified block…

I knew early on, when I made the transition to short stories, that I would at some point make an attempt to rewrite Atlas Shrugged as a story of teen rebellion.  The final product, enhanced by romantic and science fiction twists, is “Been There, Done That,” which you can read in this quarter’s issue of TheColored Lens.  I generally workshop my stories with other writers before seeking to have them published, and edit based on the suggestions I’m given.  Among these beta readers, BTDT is by far my best-received story.  I hope you’ll enjoy it as well.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Love of Craft: An Appreciation of Cirsova #5

New Pulp has no flagship. No Admiral on Earth could keep these particular frigates from sailing joyously off in whatever direction they please. But…if New Pulp DID have a flagship, it would probably be Cirsova. Under P. Alexander’s leadership, the magazine has acquired a wide enough following to lock down a Hugo nomination, and will soon publish its seventh issue. 

Issue #5 is seen by many as a particular bright spot for Cirsova, with stories nominated for both the Planetary and Ursa Major awards.  Recognizing the opportunity to achieve a wider readership, the editors elected to make the issue free via Amazon for a week.  I like New Pulp, for the most part.  I like free things even more. I jumped at the chance.

Cirsova #5 is divided more or less evenly between standard tales of pulp adventure and a thematically linked series of stories from Misha Burnett’s “Eldritch Earth” universe.  The editor describes the concept as a sort of Lovecraft-Burroughs fusion:  the setting is the Earth during the Triassic era, at the tail end of its occupation by squamous alien entities who have not yet retreated to their slumber beneath the glaciers. The Great Race are still hanging around their back porches, where they shake their pseudopods irascibly at the kids in their yards, while various subject races of their creation squabble for control of the primordial world. One of those subject races is humanity, and it’s on that basis that the writers seek to wed the “sword and planet” heroic fiction concept to the Lovecraftian milieu.

I struggle with this idea, and Mr. Alexander’s own notes at the outset of the issue anticipate my objection:

“I have found cause for gripe about a lot of fiction that’s labelled ‘Lovecraftian’—the biggest being that it is not particularly Lovecraftian at all. To a large extent, ‘Lovecraftian’ falls into the same rut as Steampunk, only instead of gluing gears to everything, it’s tentacles.”

This begs the question:  what IS Lovecraftian fiction?  For me, the defining characteristic is a cosmic horror born of the sudden realization that humanity is not, in fact, at the top of the food chain; indeed, that from a universal perspective, we’re not even insects.  Lovecraft posits that entities exist whose motives are not exactly malevolent, but so far beyond our understanding that to even encounter them is a sanity-shattering experience.

Bluntly, I don’t know that this leaves much room for the heroic.  I don’t think Lovecraft’s stories would have been improved if Randolph Carter had been handed an SMG and he’d started mowing down shoggoths.  New Pulp is a celebration of human ability and potential.  Lovecraft’s message is “your abilities are irrelevant in a cosmic context, and you are potentially something’s dinner.”  I don’t think, in short, that heroic fiction can be made Lovecraftian by gluing some tentacles to it.

All the stories of Cirsova #5 are well-written on a line-by-line level, but there are times when the conceptual tensions show. The stories work least well when they try to transplant Robert E. Howard to the Triassic, with brawny iron-age heroes mowing down scads of enemy henchmen and advancing towards boss fights.  Additionally, the whole Eldritch Earth concept is still in an early stage developmentally, and as with other such experiments (notably Baen’s Grantville) there are times when the authors involved seem to be proceeding from fundamentally incompatible concepts of how the story’s world works.  I can just about buy that humanity was designed as a slave race by Mind Flayers, but what’s up with all these other late-Pleistocene mammals popping up all over the place?  The horses?  The dogs?  The tapirs?  Or even Cretaceous critters such as birds, for that matter?  These aren’t story-killers, but they’re anti-atmospheric and destructive of reader immersion, and the Eldritch Earth stories will become more fun for readers once the authorial community leaves the tropes of iron-age Earth behind.

Now, all that aside, there is some damned good stuff in here.  In fact, in spite of my conceptual misgivings, the Eldritch Earth stuff is as a whole the better half of the issue.  Three stories in particular stood out to me.  My favorite is actually not one of the two award nominees; rather, I’d opt for the Eldritch Earth creator’s own contribution, IN THE GLOAMING O MY DARLING by Misha Burnett. Burnett’s tale is, for me, the most Lovecraftian of the bunch, in the sense that it places its two young protagonists in a helpless position at the mercy of alien enemies with inhuman agendas. The pathos of their situation is well-conveyed; both characters pop as individual personalities and earn the audience’s rooting interest. In addition to being a skilled crafter of characters, Burnett shows a willingness to abandon the conventions of heroic fantasy when doing so serves the story.

Schuyler Hernstrom decidedly does not abandon the conventions of heroic fantasy. But why the hell would we want him to? Some people are just right for their role, and Hernstrom is unmistakably right as an author of New Pulp.  The Planetary Award-nominated THE FIRST AMERICAN is a story born of a genuinely brilliant twist on the Eldritch Earth formula, the nature of which is foreshadowed in the title. Unmistakably Barsoomian in its approach, the story is action-focused in the extreme, the plot not so much advanced in stages as shot out of a cannon.  And only a fool would wish it to be otherwise. In the passages above, I’ve been dismissive of the “slaughter henchmen en route to the boss” formula, but damnit, we NEED that sort of story sometimes, and there’s a huge difference between seeing that sort of story done well and seeing it done badly.  Hernstrom does it so well that I worry he may have been born seventy years too late to find his audience. Hernstrom is potentially the paradigm-defining author of New Pulp.

I was also a big fan of S.H. Mansouri’s Ursa Major-nominated BEYOND THE GREAT DIVIDE, the title of which describes the author’s daring decision to adopt the perspective of the insectile Slagborn, one of humanity’s rival races.  Looking at humanity through segmented eyes, Mansouri successfully conveys a very Lovecraftian sense of human fragility and impossible odds, but succeeds nonetheless in conveying a sense of hope. In particular I respect Mansouri’s judgment in rejecting the obvious authorial decisions—rather than going with the “hive mind” concept, he adopts a more interesting perspective that fuses individual identity with collective reasoning, and rather than rejecting emotional influences on his perspective characters, he permits them to be influenced by them in insidious ways, with full awareness, as if anger were a drug.

Cirsova #5 is, above all else, a reminder of what wonderful days these are to be an author and a reader. Even five years ago, these authors would have been scrambling to shape their unique visions to a corporate audience, and those who enjoy their work would have been subsisting on inferior scraps from other sources. Technology truly has proven liberating for both creators and their audiences. Here’s hoping that Cirsova’s still around to scratch its readers pulp itch for a long, long time.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Sneetches of Sexuality

"The Book That Turned Me Gay," a story which could well prove career-ending for me, is up at The Overcast.  Podcaster JS Arquin absolutely crushes the narration, providing wonderful character distinction and a narrative spirit entirely faithful to my vision of the story.  There's also an audio postscript to the story, narrated directly by me, which 1. explains why I wrote it, and 2. demonstrates that I really, really need to buy a new mic.

In that postscript, I reference the situation at the library at the school which employs me.  The real world version of the story has no villains, and certainly no counterpart to Weston Munsch.  The school library--er, the "learning commons"--is in capable hands, and everybody involved, from administration on down, is operating from understandable motives.  But I make no apologies for being bothered by it.  I'll always push back against the sentiment that a high school can be made a better place by having fewer books around.  God bless librarians, Little Free and otherwise.

A secondary theme of the piece, which I don't discuss in my postscript, is the fundamental futility of wondering why people develop same sex attraction.  There's a bizarre maze of arguments and agendas wrapped up in the question.  Progressives who believe in virtually no prenatal component to cognition, who would be desperately offended by the assertion that other aspects of character or ability are largely determined in the womb, suddenly assert that non-traditional sexual orientations are ENTIRELY prenatal--that kids are "born this way" and that environment plays no part at all.  Meanwhile, conservatives who believe that government is utterly incapable in every other area of human life suddenly convince themselves that government affirmation is the key to civic virtue, and moreover, that gay kids can be trained like dogs.  These intellectual contortions are amusing.  The problem is the idea that it's necessary to make these arguments in order to justify or dejustify homosexual orientation or behavior.

But it isn't necessary.  The question of where sexual attraction comes from is immaterial.  Nobody else has the right to tell you who to love.  This is equally true in a world in which nature makes people gay, in which God makes people gay, in which people become gay because it's fashionable, or in which aliens are creating homosexuals as a labor force to build landing strips outside Des Moines.  The question "why are people this way" blinds us to the more important question of "what should we do," the answer to which is, "treat people with respect regardless of how they use their genitals."  We make it more complicated than it ought to be.

The other question which readers will ask is:  who the hell am I, a straight white guy, to write about gay kids?  The short answer to which is: a human with an interest in the welfare of other humans, which is all the qualification I need.

A somewhat longer answer:  I'm a believer in imaginative empathy.  I believe that fiction can help us to appreciate the humanity of people who may not be exactly like us in terms of ethnicity, income level, or sexual orientation. I recognize that representations of experiences that aren't our own are likely to be imperfect, but I don't think that's a good reason not to write.  If our identities are defined intersectionally, then NOBODY'S experience is like our own, and memoir becomes the only legitimate form of creative expression.  The fear of imperfect representation is valuable if it causes us to try to write more accurately, but poisonous if it keeps us from writing at all.

For this reason, I choose to take risks.  I imagine life from the perspective of people who aren't me--women, LGBTQ individuals, Congolese child soldiers.  I research as thoroughly as possible and check my work, when I can, with people whose lived experiences are similar to those of my characters.  And then I turn the work loose, and subject it, and myself, to judgment.

This week I re-read A Wrinkle in Time in anticipation of the movie.  I was struck, as I did so, at the utter fearlessness of Madeleine L'Engle.  She opens the book with "It was a dark and stormy night."--the exact line Charles Schultz has Snoopy use when he's up on his doghouse being a hack writer.  L'Engle's characters are colorful in ways which other writers wouldn't dare, sometimes successfully (Charles Wallace and Meg) and sometimes less so (has any human being in history ever spoken the way Calvin O'Keefe does in this book?).  She ladles the Christianity and the techno-magic on in heaping helpings, and dares the reader to disbelieve.

I'm no Madeleine L'Engle.  I can't match her writing chops or purity of spirit.  But I can try to be more like her.  I can choose to write without shame, and to set aside my fear of judgment in order to tell my stories. 

And I do so choose.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Giving you the Finger

Greetings, readers of The Arcanist.  I promise that, despite that story, I'm not a horrible person (or a horrible anything else).  Plenty of more cheerful stories are linked in the banner at right.  And I've got another one on the market that has an adorable baby goat in it, so there's that.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Let's Talk About Six, Bay-bee.

I began writing short fiction in 2015.  In my first two years polishing my craft, I sold two short stories total.  In the ten weeks since Thanksgiving, I have sold six short stories.  Either I’m getting better at this or the literary world’s standards are collapsing.

A brief summary of the work I’ll be hyping in the months ahead:

“BEEN THERE, DONE THAT:”  This story began as an attempt to rewrite Atlas Shrugged as a high school romance, took a detour through a Bill Murray movie, and wound up as…well, as whatever the hell it is.  Already released in print form by The Colored Lens, the free online version will be out any day now.

“FINGER:”  Horrible people doing horrible things to people to determine whether those other people are people.  Coming in March from The Arcanist.

“THE BOOK THAT TURNED ME GAY.”  A tribute to libraries and librarians.  Presented in podcast form, featuring shifting narration by seven characters, all portrayed by The Overcast's fearless narrator, J.S. Arquin.

“ALL THAT GLITTERS.”  A desperate thief invades a dragon’s lair to discover an even deadlier enemy within.  A July release from Bards and Sages Quarterly.

 “MAGIC BEANS.”  Evil bioscientist battles flatulent pixies for control of a world-altering crop.  Coming this fall from Outposts of Beyond.

“APPROPRIATE.”  A school goes the extra mile to ensure that its students resist the lure of cultural appropriation.  Soon to appear in The Centropic Oracle.

And, in addition to these recent sales, an older sale which will hit the shelves soon:  “THE PRINCESS AND THE P.”  The heiress to a magical monarchy discovers that controlling problematic language can be…well…problematic.  In the midsummer release Perilous Princesses, from one of my first and favorite partners in publishing, CBAY Books.

Needless to say, it’s been a successful couple of months.  Looking forward to sharing these with you.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Leroy Jenkins of American Liberty

In a world without Benedict Arnold, the United States as we know it would not exist.

The critical event that preserved the American Revolution was French intervention.  The French intervened as a result of the colonial army’s crucial victory at Saratoga.  And the colonial army, under the command of the overcautious general Horatio Gates, who never left his tent during the fighting, should at best have fought the battle to a draw.  But at a critical moment, General Benedict Arnold—who had been relieved of his command by Gates and who was very possibly drunk at the time—came storming out onto the field in defiance of his commander’s orders, and led an entirely unauthorized assault on the British right that broke their lines and sent them scurrying off the field, leading ultimately to the surrender of General John Burgoyne’s entire invasion force. 

Leading his troops from the front, Arnold had his left leg shattered by grapeshot and then crushed under a falling horse; subsequent medical butchery left it two inches shorter than his right leg, leaving him in agony for the rest of his life.  Had he been shot in the head instead of the leg, Arnold’s face might today adorn our currency.  Instead, to his great misfortune, he survived.

The story of Benedict Arnold has long fascinated me; it reads less like the tale of a founding father and more like that of a loose-cannon cop in a bad action movie.  He attempted to join the colonial militia at the age of fourteen, motivated by the sound of a regimental drum and an overwhelming desire to kill Frenchmen.  A successful businessman who enriched himself via Caribbean trade, he unaccountably insisted on captaining his own trading vessel and wound up fighting duels with random people he insulted on his journeys.  As a smuggler in the days of the Stamp Act, he was considered to be so headstrong and violent that the Sons of Liberty were forced to throw up their hands and back away slowly.  His Revolutionary War service consisted essentially of a list of ill-planned attacks on heavily fortified targets, some of which, such as Fort Ticonderoga, wound up being caught with their pants down and surrendering—it simply had not occurred to them that anybody would even consider attacking them.  As often as not, Arnold's commanding officers were as surprised to learn of his victories as his enemies were; his general method seems to have been to spot a target, spend a couple of hours rounding up the most psychotic set of volunteers he could find, and race towards it screaming with bayonets fixed.

For some unaccountable reason, people in positions of authority found Benedict Arnold difficult to get along with.  Beloved by his men and subordinates, he was nonetheless passed over repeatedly for command assignments, denied credit for important accomplishments, and besieged by creditors for debts he accumulated in the army’s service.  Had he been a wiser man, a man less consumed by self-serving and manichean concepts of right and wrong, he would have sought some form of accommodation.  But had he been a wiser man, he would not have been Benedict Arnold.  So he made one last headfirst plunge, this one into outright treason, and wound up spending the remainder of his life in exile, excoriated by the nation in whose service he had crippled himself.


My young adult novel Axis of Eternity (available for free; the chapters are posted in one of the menus on the right side of the page) places Benedict Arnold in command of a community on a post-mortal planet inspired by Phillip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld.  This version of Benedict Arnold is formal, disciplined, and consumed with shame for his earthly misdeeds.  It’s not a very historically accurate version of the character.  It doesn’t quite work, but that’s okay, because based on the 130+ rejections the book accumulated from agents and publishers, the novel doesn’t work either.

It occurred to me, as I observed the growing popularity of the New Pulp movement, that Benedict Arnold deserved a more accurate literary portrayal—one which treats him as the man of action and skilled soldier he was, and which also acknowledges the crippling lack of foresight and addiction to outrage that would up undoing him.  “Monsters in Heaven,” available in Issue Four of Broadswords and Blasters, returns to the world of Elysium as portrayed in Axis of Eternity—a world in which free-floating souls rebuild their earthly bodies, seeking a second shot at life beneath an alien sky.  It’s a world full of historical personages, both famous and unknown, to make allies and enemies of.  And for those who got it wrong the first time, it's a world that offers a shot at redemption.

I enjoyed writing "Monsters in Heaven", but in retrospect I'm not sure that it fully works as a stand-alone story—it’s too clearly a fragment of a larger narrative, one unusually dramatic snapshot in the afterlife of a man with a tendency to create drama for himself and everyone around him.  Maybe one day I’ll choose to return and tell more of Benedict Arnold's story.  If not, I take some comfort in the fact that I’m sending him off as the man he was, not as the man Axis made him out to be.