I more or less stopped being a writer in 2020. Yes, there were demands on my time, particularly online teaching and the adjustments it necessitated; yes, there were occasional distractions in my personal life and other excuses. The reality, though, is that I crossed a line at some point at which fiction writing stopped being a stress reliever and became a source of stress.
I've written about this before. The main factor involved is that I have become a better and more professional writer through the last few years of polishing my craft, and the knowledge I've gained has become an enemy to productivity. At the outset, before I knew what I was doing, I could eagerly plunge headfirst into a story concept, driven by unrealistic expectations of what I might achieve at the end, and by unrealistic assumptions about the amount of work involved. I know better now. I am capable of creating a high-quality short story, yes; but doing so requires weeks of painstaking work and editing. This labor may well result in a story that I am not proud of. If I am proud of it, I will likely spend months accumulating dozens of publisher rejections before seeing it in print. Even after it makes the grade, it will be ignored by most reviewers and possibly actively scorned by those who do bother to write about it. All of this has put me in a position where story ideas have come to feel more like obligations than sources of joy. And, as I promised myself at the outset that I would never allow creative writing to become a chore, this means I take the plunge very seldom these days. I last finished a short story this summer; I have one in process at the moment but it's proceeding in spastic fits and does not have the look of quality about it.
That said, the thing about fiction writing is that there's a huge gap between the process of creation and eventual publication, so a lot of the material I produced during my salad days is still emerging into print for the first time. In addition to a pretty substantial number of reprints, I put four new pieces of fiction out into the world in 2020.
The first of these was arguably the weirdest thing I ever wrote, the gonzo grimstick weird western "The Professionals". The story, which reimagines modern professions as tabletop RPG character classes, appeared in the final issue of Broadswords and Blasters in January:
The Googlers came rolling up the road with rage in their eyes, fleece vests zipped tight and keyboards raised for combat, the wheels of their electric scooters bouncing over the cracked and rutted pavement. One of them hurled a slide rule, and Hektor brought his badge up just in time. The badge pulsed, and a blue disc of translucent force—the heritage of two hundred generations of cops—intercepted his assailant’s weapon and jolted it aside. As the mounted tribesman went skittering past, Hektor brought his baton in beneath in a sweeping arc; it caught the Googler in the ribs with a sickening crunch, and he lurched aside just in time for Maxx’s axe to cleave his skull in two. The firefighter yanked the axe free with a grunt, a patter of blood droplets cascading in an arc up across the chest of his yellow rubber coat and spattering the ruggedly handsome features of his half-shaven face. Beside him, Smoky, his Dalmatian, was tearing out the throat of a second adversary.
Two months later, my wayward son finally made it home. After 50 rejections and two full years on the shelf, the Space Amish tale "Prodigal" landed at Planet Scumm in March:
My faith was imperfect. But my memory was excellent. My eyes returned to my husband’s panicked and palsied countenance. I returned the favor he had once paid, and read aloud.
“The quality of mercy is not strained,” I intoned. “It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.” I paused, rubbing at his feet. “On this world, husband, the rains come infrequently.”
In April came one of the more substantial successes of my writing career, as Baen FA finalist "The Laughing Folk", with its insidious cabal of drug-addicted demihumans, made the grade at On Spec. The story wound up being one of the most widely-read pieces of work I ever produced, and was widely and favorably reviewed.:
The stage had been set. The old stories of unfathomable and sinister faerie folk had been cast aside, replaced with popular fiction that portrayed the humanoid races as stalwart allies against dark forces. From the moment they announced their presence, people rushed to embrace them: elves and dwarves, gnomes and pixies, sprites and sylphs and legendary creatures of all kinds. Or, for collective reference, the name they used to refer to themselves: The Laughing Folk.
Their propaganda had preceded them, setting men against one another in virulent factions. In retrospect, we should have recognized their advance agents. The disguises were weak, the glamours paper-thin. The political commentator, her books screaming “Treason!” at the party opposite--her long blonde hair, thin bony features, and icy demeanor all clearly characteristic of an elf. The Congressman, chirping endlessly about how gold would solve every economic problem—his wizened face and stooped posture unmistakably gnomish. The designer of tabletop roleplaying games, assigning noble motives and “good” alignments to non-human races, subtly encouraging young people to respect them--his squat form and long white beard notably dwarven.
Also in April, JJ Outre Review found room for "Shift", an alternate history of the Apollo program with a lycanthropic twist:
The tiny vermin of this planet’s material plane came in endless, swarming multitudes, burying themselves in Ark-arr’s pelt, biting and sucking, sampling her rich, foreign blood. Scratching did little good. Shifting did better. When the itching and the irritation grew too much, Ark-arr flexed her mind, and changed, the blue skies and odd wildlife fading, replaced with a stark, sandy waste under a black sun. Ark-arr’s biology Shifted with her, her blood and breath adjusting automatically to the new atmosphere and environment. The alien parasites, she had discovered almost immediately, could not Shift. It seemed that all this world’s creatures were confined to the material. They had never known the darkside, the mirror reality to which the packs of Luna were native, and which housed the shattered remains of the voidship in which Ark-arr had traveled here. So she stepped outside of these lands, as into a cleansing bath. And under the dancing light from her still-blazing vessel, she found herself purified.
And then came May, in which I actually published, of all things, a poem; "A New Arrival's Guide to the Bottomless Pit" made the cut at Red Planet.
Were you a careless tourist, leaning on wobby railing?
Did a villain push you? Were you are a villain yourself, pushed by a hero?
Were you overcurious? Adventurous? Merely clumsy?
It makes no difference, now that
A new adventure!
How wise you were
to bring this guide along.
For all my unproductivity, there's still more in the queue. In January comes my Coleridge/Joe's Apartment mashup "Warlord" at Flash Fiction Online. This will be my third credit at pro rates, and offers me the opportunity to apply for full SFWA membership, which was the goal I set for myself when I started writing short-form fiction in 2016. I'll return once again to the Australian markets in February, when Aurealis publishes my soccer ghost story "The Redemption of Declan Callahan".
And after that...silence. I have a pretty lengthy fantasy piece which I consider to be one of the best two or three things I've ever written which is still wandering the wilderness, seeking a home. I'm engaged in the research and drafting phase on a piece for an upcoming Ramones-themed anthology; this is pretty much the opposite of "write what you know" for me, as I enjoy the band but have no idea how music works and am pretty much the exact diametric opposite of "punk rock" personality-wise.
So a fallow period looms. But the thing about this game is, you never really know when you're out of it. The Magic Brain Elves are ever looming, waiting to descend with glorious concepts that demand to be written. Perhaps someday soon they will pay me a visit. If they do, I'll let you know.