Category Archives: Writing

October 2015 Update

What a busy month! Victories and defeats aplenty.

  1. My first story came out!
  2. I sold my second story! (Within 24 hours of my first story coming out!)
  3. All four of the stories I had out on shortlists in August/September have been rejected. Boo.
  4. Won second place in the 2015 Codex Halloween Contest1 with an awesome new story about scientist ghosts. This was the super-challenging-to-me story I mentioned in my last monthly update. Man, it is hard to write a first-person scene where the character is not really conscious! But evidently I’ve done a solid job so far, and only better with another revision pass.
  5. Twitch-checking-email with stress because my favorite story is out at an anthology that was supposed to get back to authors by November 1. I’m not naming names because I don’t wanna deadline-shame, but hopefully I’ll hear back soon.
  6. Day job is crazy busy. Crazy SCIENCE busy. I spent a week at a conference last month, and now scurrying to write grants and lectures all due in the next week or two. So I’m a bit behind on writing, but hope to pour myself back in later this month; I have a couple of good pieces begging for revisions.

September 2015 Update

Since I have so much already going on in writing and blog, only the briefest of monthly updates:

  1. I now have 4 stories on shortlists or similar final hold. 3 pro, 1 semi-pro. None of the ones from August have resolved. Aaaaaaaaa.
  2. Archon was awesome! I got to sit on panels and talk like a real writer! Yay!
  3. Still expecting my Fictionvale story to come out this week. Woo!
  4. Working on a new super-challenging-to-me story for a Codex contest. Ever upwards!

Vowels and exclamation points Iiiiiii!

Archon Panel Schedule

I am pleased to announce my first appearance as an official1 convention panelist!

I will be at Archon 39, in Colinsville IL (near St. Louis MO) on the weekend of October 2-4, 2015.

My panel schedule:

  • Technical Tall Tales: Strange and Frightening Tales of the Lab, Friday 7pm, Great Rivers A
  • Big Things on the Horizon: New Tech and Scientific Discoveries, Saturday 10am, Great Rivers A
  • The Martian: Could YOU Survive the Red Planet? Saturday 12pm, Great Rivers A
  • Beginning Writing and the Creative Process, Saturday 6pm, Marquette A

I’m very pleased with this lineup! Two panels where I can talk about neuroscience, one where I can share expertise gleaned from Mars, and one where I can share the pleasures and horrors of life as a newbie SFF writer.

Panel #3 leads to some amusing logistical problems. I doubt I’ll be able to catch the movie version of The Martian before the panel, since the movie comes out right when Archon opens. I’ll try to arrange a special video message from my family Martian, but that may not work out for a host of reasons.

Three Lessons from Patricia McKillip

I’ve spent a lot of my reading time lately going through Patricia McKillip. A year ago, I’d never reead a thing of hers; now I’ve read the Riddle-Master Trilogy (Riddle Master of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, and Harpist in the Wind), A Song for the Basilisk, and the Cygnet books (The Sorceress and the Cygnet, the Cygnet and the Firebird).

I started this quest based on a recommendation, and then pursued it to the bitter end as an exercise to work on my poetry and mysticism. McKillip’s language is amazing: beautiful, evocative, dense with challenging layers of metaphor and elliptical meaning. My own storytelling runs to the linear and direct, or at least it used to: after a year of McKillip immersion, I think I’ve gotten a far better sense for the “beautiful prose” part, at least.

That’s the Zeroth Lesson I learned from McKillip: her astounding skill and craft at writing beautiful, layered prose. I’m calling that #0 because I want to get into three specific lessons from the last books I finished, the Cygnet duology. Minor spoilers follow:

First lesson: “You win, therefore you lose” is an unsatisfying conclusion to anyone’s arc. This is a lesson I first ran into long ago in roleplaying game design, and unfortunately it crops up at the end of Firebird. Rather than the protagonists determining the outcome, the villain succeeds, but his success destroys him, without any further involvement or intervention of the main characters. It’s a bit close to a deus ex machina, sadly: villain summons godlike entity, god turns out not to be villainous after all, sucks to be that guy. Thus Firebird was my least favorite of the six McKillips I read.

Second lesson: Your twist can be as meta as you want, as long as it rings true. I’ve long since recognized that an ideal twist (climactic or otherwise) is one that makes the reader say, “I never noticed that before, but now that you say it, it’s so obvious.” The first Cygnet book accomplishes this so wildly, I had to come back and reread the climactic scene the next night. At the moment when the external plot (action in the world, as opposed to character development “internal arc”) comes to a head, when the cruel gods/constellations are about to overthrow the Cygnet, the plot reveals itself to not be an external plot at all. It’s been there to serve as story and metaphor: not just to the reader, but to the characters themselves. McKillip twisted not just the plot, but the structure and nature of narrative itself. It took me some real work to wrap my head around it, but after it sunk in, you can be sure I’ll never forget it.

Third lesson: Never give a character a plot-stopping power. In both Cygnet books, one character is the Gatekeeper, with a deep-rooted mystical power over who comes and goes in the citadel where he works. Yet he fails at his job regularly! In fact, I don’t think we ever see him successfully noticing or keeping out a trouble-maker. Of course, there’d be no story if he kept the villains from coming in and mucking with the lives of our protagonists. But that’s precisely the problem: if his power works, there is no plot. Therefore his power has to fail, and he’s going to look like a loser. Unless you want your character to seem like an incompetent, better to avoid giving people plot-halting powers at all!

This post might sound critiquey, but only because I’m trying to distill specific writing lessons from a pair of her books — to find the rare bits of rough amidst the diamond. Let there be no doubt: I loved my McKillip Immersion Experience, and would recommend it wholeheartedly for anyone who wants to read or write amazing, gorgeous fantasy.

August 2015 Update

August was another month of chaos and travel, not to mention my day job finally spinning up. But I still got a fair bit of writing done!

  1. Ten stories currently out on submission, of which at least 3 have made it onto a shortlist. I’m pretty enthusiastic for all three, but at this point I just need to think of them as dice-throws.
  2. Currently juggling two revisions: Evil Prophecies and Fairy Gentrification.
  3. Long-term plans currently center around one smaller-scale revision (Banker Priestesses) and one deep rewrite (Conquistador Dragons).
  4. Apparently I like two-word Compound Nouns for my working titles. I do have actual/tentative titles for all these stories, but those have much less descriptive power for my blog-readers.
  5. As of this past Friday, I can officially start my “The Martian’s Husband” autobiography. Being married to a Martian is an amazing and terrifying thing, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

Part of me wants to post something about the Hugo results. However, I haven’t been active in fandom since ~college; I’ve never been to Worldcon or had a friend go to Worldcon. So while I have opinions1, I’d rather clear the airspace for people more invested in the struggle.

But speaking of engagement in fandom:

6. With luck, I should be participating in Archon as a guest! I can’t be 100% sure until the panel schedule comes out, but I’ve gotten a “first time guest/panelist” questionnaire, so things are looking likely. I’ll be doing mostly/entirely science panels, since my writing credentials are still fairly meager (unless #1 above turns out real lucky real soon).  I’m very excited about this: I’m slow to engage in communities because I’m a hermit at heart, and this will help toward my goal of pushing myself out there and joining in.

Surviving the Shortlist

Right now, three of my stories have been shortlisted for publication: two pro markets, and one semi-pro. This is great! But it’s also incredibly stressful.

One of the major sources of stress is uncertainty. Short story submissions are always uncertain, but being on the shortlist means the stakes are higher. Obviously there’s nothing I can do now to increase my odds, but is there something I could’ve done, should’ve done? Some element of my story that makes it more or less likely than its excellent competitors?

The two pro markets have each given me an estimated acceptance rate from their shortlist: one is 30%, the other is 50%. No data from the semi-pro, but based on my experience with the market, I’ll guess a rate of 33%. (Remember, these are rates for already-on-the-shortlist. Total acceptance rates run about 1/4/15%.)

Why bog down so much in the probabilities? Because for me, it helps to look at this stage of the process like a numbers game. From the editor’s side, it’s not stochastic; they’re making judgments based on all kinds of factors. Some are even semi-quantifiable: if you had to rank a set of stories by “prose quality” you probably could (even though your list would differ from the next reader’s). So, in theory, it’s possible to know which story is more likely to get selected.

But there are also a host of factors that are completely unknowable. Is your story too similar to another one? Or do they have parallel themes in a way that’ll make the issue/anthology stronger? Have they read too many robot romances lately? Or do they crave something more science-fantasy this week? All these things depend on the whole suite of submitted stories, and the editors’ tastes and moods. From the writer’s side, unpredictable. Might as well be stochastic, really.

So at this point, forget worrying about how good your story is. Doesn’t matter anymore. It’s all blind statistics, inside the black box of the editorial world/brain.

I find it quite liberating to know that I have a 73.05% chance of getting at least one of these three published soon.

July 2015 Update

I now have more stories out on submission than ever: 10, of which I’m very confident about two or three, particularly for the Hidden Youth anthology. Now I have to sit and wait for months! Aiee!

I got a lot of work done on the “hilarious new story idea” from my last two posts. The Fairy Gentrification story is about 90% of the way through its second revision, but I got sidelined by…

A Codex writing contest helped me pound out two great little pieces of flash fiction. I have to be vague because the contest is still ongoing, but I’m proud of them both. One is full of ridiculous black humor, and needs only a quick little revise before it’s ready for submission. The other one is so dense it deserves to be expanded to 2-3x the length, if not a whole dang novel. I got bit by the worldbuilding bug, and that infection plays badly with a 1000-word limit!

Writing resolutions for next month: submit flash-1, rewrite flash-2 as short story, get Fairy Gentrification to the outside-critiquer point. If I finish all those, it’ll be back to Conquistador Dragons for a fresh disemboweling1.

Personal notes: Going to Boston this weekend to see friends! I also have some more HUGE news, but I’m going to save that for its own post on Monday. Of course, anyone reading this blog has probably heard me crow about it already 🙂

Inspiration via Twitter

Inspiration comes from the strangest places. My current WIP 1 was inspired by an exchange on twitter. At first I thought it was a throwaway bit of silliness/sadness, but a day later the outline burbled up in my brain while I was on a bike ride.

The story is currently in Draft 1.5; I’m midway through the first rebuild, paused the last week or so while I worked on other stuff. But for the record, here’s the Twitter conversation that inspired the story, tentatively titled “The Gentry.”

Fourth Street Fantasy and June 2015

June was a busy month for me, in many ways other than actual writing: I moved into a new house, started a new job, and so forth. I also got sick… well, I’m sick now, but it started on the 30th so it still counts as June! Blame the illness if this post is some combination of short, rambly, and/or incoherent.

1) Attended Fourth Street Fantasy! This was my first time attending a convention in 8-10 years, and my first time as a writer. I learned a lot of things, had a lot of great conversations, saw a lot of great friends. Way too many folks to name: Viable Paradise classmates, folks I’d only seen as twitter thumbnails, professional writers and editors, new friends. I attended some fascinating panels, had thoughtful conversations on writing craft, got great advice, shared homemade pálinka, drank plentiful whiskey, talked neuroscience with Elizabeth Bear, and had a practically-jumping-up-and-down excited conversation with Max Gladstone. (Theological fantasy! Concepts made form! Behold the power of our genre!) So, yes: awesome con, would attend again; awesome people, can’t wait to see again!

2) Revised the banker-priestesses, conquistador dragons, posthuman romances, and sent them all out to markets and/or readers. Current count of active submissions: 7.

3) Very promising personal rejection from Strange Horizons on the story with Jews in the Hungarian revolution. I got a good strong reaction from the editors, very positive, even if it didn’t sell. And one of their critiques was actually useful (“oh, I hadn’t realized that would be a problem, good point”). Going out to Lightspeed as soon as they’ll take another story, and from there probably to Hidden Youth.

4) Not sure what’s going to happen with my story in Fictionvale. I still hope to publish as part of its final issue, and I had a great experience with the editor, but as of midnight tonight my contract is expired.

5) Got a hilarious new story idea. It started as a twitter joke, and then I found myself outlining it. Started putting pen to proverbial paper on it yesterday, but that was exactly when the sickness hit. Soon, though! Faeries and gentrification!