January 2015 Update

January is over! Time for another monthly update! Oh boy? Gather round, kids, and let me tell you about REVISING.

First off, I’m excited for my first publication coming out a month from today. Fictionvale Ep. 6 due March 1st!

But wait, what about last month? A month of editing, that’s what.

1) Another round of edits on “The Wind and the Spark” for Fictionvale. So excited! My first publication is coming out a month from today!

2) “Weights and Measures” (banker-priestess fantasy) got a disheartening rejection. My favorite piece, back from most suitable market, with personal comments criticising a totally minor issue. Bah! I touched it up and sent it out to Writers of the Future, where it will destroy all opposition.

3) “Machines in Motion” (steampunk engineer character piece) got some good feedback from fellow writers, then off to the 2015 James White Award. I am super-excited about this one. Last year I made the JWA shortlist with a different piece in the same setting, let’s see if I can do even better this time!

4) “Custom Made” (Lovecraftian humor flash fiction) off to F&SF, after one minor but critical tweak. A skill I am working on improving: signaling the story’s mood and theme. In another week or two I’ll know whether I got it right!

5) “The Coin of Leadership” (steampunk military adventure) I just relaunched to Intergalactic Medicine Show tonight. Very satisfying to reread a piece and not find any major flaws with it. This one isn’t earth-shattering, but he’s definitely solid and exciting.

6) “Shiplight” (political science fiction) got some good help from a new beta-reading friend, and now off to Crossed Genres.

Accomplishments! Productivity! Woo! Now I’m digging back into my VP submission story (conquistador dragon story, name currently in flux), looking at feedback people sent me in late December. There’s one paragraph that multiple beta-readers loved, so in my unseemly pride, I want to share it with all of you:

“A new scent spread through the palace. Still the rich earthy spice of sandalwood, but now sharp and bitter. Not wood, but smoke. When the dragons [with muskets] met a squad of guards, the smell gained the sulfurous bite of powder, and then the coppery foulness of fresh death. Human blood and dragon blood shared the same reek, but this was all human.”

Happy winter, everyone!

Misleading Advice

I’d like to talk briefly about a misunderstood piece of advice that seriously limited my early writing. And, heck, still affects my writing.

Don’t give lots of internal monologue (an instance of Show, don’t Tell)

Don’t tell us a million things about what the character is thinking; instead, show through POV and actions. Sounds sensible for a 3rd-person POV, right? Even third-person-limited is mostly outside the character’s head. Don’t bog down in the character’s stream of thought, but instead let us see the world.

So, I tried to follow that. I showed my characters’ internal lives through their actions. I provided their habits and fidgets, the physical sensations of their actions and reactions, the things they did and felt as they went about their various (mis)adventures.

And in came the critiques and rejection letters.

The fine editor of Fictionvale laid this out for me most helpfully: “We can watch a movie faster than we can read a book, and get the same things out of it if the book isn’t giving us the *inside* of the character as well as the outside.”

So that little third-person-limited POV needs to stick its eyes inside the character’s head more often. Narrate the world from their point of view. Stick their thoughts right in there alongside the physical things they see. Your narrative doing a bit of telling can serve to show the character’s mind. By doing so, you bring your reader right where you want them to be: in that character’s mind alongside you.

In most genres and situations, if the reader ever has to guess what the POV character is thinking, then you’re doing it wrong.

December 2014: Month/Year in Review

This month I got a lot of work done, but not with much success. I spent most of my time revising my VP18 submission story, and it’s much improved now, though it still needs at least one more draft. I also touched up my fantasy story “Weights and Measures” and sent that out again; my flash fiction story “Custom Made” also got relaunched, and I spent some time tweaking my VP18 Thursday story “The Nursery” (though it hasn’t yet reached satisfying-new-version stage).

I also did a round of edits on “The Wind and the Spark,” my story due out in the February issue of Fictionvale. It was a wonderful process, with lots of good feedback. This piece really needed it, since it was one of the earlier things I wrote: first draft in May 2012, first submitted Feb 2013, submitted to Fictionvale on last new years’, sold April 2014. (They turnaround is not normally so slow: I got a “we want this for a later issue than the one you intended it for” reply). The story has a great core idea, but I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to revise it with all the new skills I’ve gained in the last year.

I’m doing a lot of strategic juggling for deadlines this/next month. I’ve got something lined up for F&SF’s electronic submissions period (with C.C. Finlay’s guest editing) in early January, for the James White Award (due 1/31), and possibly the Roswell Award (due 1/15). I might have something for Crossed Genres’ “failure” theme on 1/31. All of those require slight-to-moderate work, except for the CG one that needs a lot of rewriting.

Mostly, this month was notable for its stack of rejections. I racked up seven of them this month, including my two best pieces that seemed like great fits for their markets. Very disheartening.

But looking at the whole year, it’s been a great one for my writing! I sold my first story, and I attended Viable Paradise; I learned an enormous amount, met lots of awesome authors, and my new material is better and better.

I leave you all with a photograph. My wife has had a “Chanukah bush” for the winter holidays ever since she was a child. We couldn’t easily track down a pine shrub, so we went a different route. I think we’re doing it right!

Chanukah Bush - front

Happy new year, everyone!

Monthly update: November 2014

My last “progress” post was November 6, so might as well make it a monthly feature. That way I’ll have to squirm uncomfortably if I fall behind in my writing.

1) Resubmitted my fantasy story “Weights and Measures,” now to Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I love submitting to BCS – their rejection letters always provide useful feedback about what the reader did & didn’t like. I hear that’s because BCS is run by a Viable Paradise graduate!

2) Revised my VP18 Thursday science fiction story, “The Nursery”, in time for the one-month deadline! I already got the rejection letter, though. One of those so very encouraging “We didn’t even finish reading it” ones.

3) Polished up my flash fiction story “Custom Made”, with the help of various VP folks. I don’t list the genre because it’s… um, Lovecraftian political comedy, maybe? Hard to say. But I am quite happy with it!

4) Touched up an old story, “The Coin of Leadership”, another one from my steampunk setting. It’s off to Buzzy Mag though I think it’s a reach.

5) Revised my old steampunk story, “The Demands of Iron,” and sent it off to Uncanny. This is the one that got shortlisted for the 2014 James White Award, but has yet to find a home. I still have faith in it!

6) Wrote a first draft of a new fantasy story, “The Deceiver.” It’s in pretty crude shape, but I know what the next pass will be.

It looks like I accomplished a lot! But half of these happened over the Thanksgiving break.

Writing plans for next month: revise Deceiver, revise Nursery, rewrite Distant Shore (my VP18 submission piece), grumble over anything that comes back with a rejection letter.

Plausible Failure Modes

Last night I saw Interstellar, my first Hollywood movie since Viable Paradise. It allowed Kelly and I to try out our new Plot X-Ray Glasses.

One-sentence review: I thought the movie was okay; some great stuff, but also a lot of terrible stuff. But this post is not about Interstellar; the movie is just here to provide today’s example. (Minor spoilers ahead, however.)

What makes a threat feel real?

Early-ish in Interstellar, we have a scene where Mr. Sidekick tries for the first time to dock the launch vehicle with their mothership. The music swells and pounds… but if you ignore the emotional tug of the music and think about what’s happening, there is no tension here. You know the heroes cannot fail; what’s more, you know exactly how they will achieve their goal. What’s missing?

The missing element is a plausible failure mode. What happens if the astronauts fail to dock successfully? Then they never get on their spaceship and the movie ends. The story cannot progress unless the heroes succeed. Worse yet, there’s no tension* about how they will succeed. If something goes non-catastrophically wrong, the astronauts will pull back a couple of feet and try again; but that won’t happen in the movie, because it would make boring and repetitive viewing. While in-story the characters could fail (novice astronauts could crash and die), this is a movie about interstellar travel, with no backup ship or crew. Failure would end or derail the story. This is a challenge with no plausible failure mode.

Contrast with a later spaceflight challenge in Interstellar: their attempt to rescue the spinning and half-destroyed mothership. When that ship exploded, I thought, “I guess they need to get the heck away from the flying wreckage, and the movie’s next act will put them in Dr. Mann’s shoes of isolation and survival.” But instead we have an awesome spaceflight rescue scene! This scene (like most of the stuff on the ice planet) worked very well for me. We had a plausible failure mode, which made me legitimately curious how things would turn out. That curiosity greatly increased my interest in watching the scene unfold.

Moral of the story: a threat will be more believable, and thus more compelling, if it includes a plausible failure mode. Readers will be less afraid of a threat if they realize the writer cannot follow through.

If your threat risks ending or ruining the story, then the heroes cannot fail. If your reader/viewer is sufficiently engrossed that they aren’t thinking about the outcomes, you can get away with this. But if you really want to put the reader/viewer on the edge of their seat (proverbially or otherwise), give the threat a plausible failure mode.



*: This isn’t the only way to create tension, of course. For instance, inevitability can create tension. To stick to Interstellar examples, consider when Cooper and Dr. Mann** go out on the ice together. However, this generally requires inevitable failure/danger, not inevitable success.

**: While I really liked all the stuff with Dr. Mann, I have to say: they called him “Mann?” For the brilliant driven confident flawed self-preserving person who embodies the best and worst of humankind? Might as well have given him the first name Hugh.

Progress post-Paradise

Since Viable Paradise XVIII I have:

1) Revised my steampunk story “Machines in Motion” and submitted to Crossed Genres. This one I think is well worthy – the first two pages appeared at a reading at Viable Paradise and got a great response, and Victoria Sandbrook helped with the revised post-VP version. Of course now I feel like I left a niggling-but-hateful conceptual flaw, but (A) probably nobody else will notice, and (B) too late to change it!

2) Revised my fantasy story “The Grasp of the Waves” and submitted to Crossed Genres. I got Scott Lynch to critique this one at VP, and and got some good feedback from Shveta Thakrar too, but this perhaps needed more work than I could accomplish before its 10/31 deadline. I decided to give it a shot anyhow, because it’s a very good fit for that theme/deadline; CG is a rare market that allows 2 submissions at once.

3) Revised my fantasy story “Weights and Measures” and submitted to Strange Horizons. I got Elizabeth Bear to critique this one at VP, followed this week by a delightful #VP18edits Twitter swarm-critique of a single troublesome sentence. This story is *awesome* and I cannot wait for someplace to buy it so I can show it off! Hands-down my best work so far.

4) Submitted my science fiction VP-Thursday story “The Nursery” to my online critique group, and gotten feedback from two people. The major issues seem to be the ones I already know about. They are fixable, but it will take some major finesse and craft to resolve. Not sure I can accomplish them before the 11/16 deadline, what with traveling 12th-21st to attend the Society for Neuroscience conference. I will risk the wrath of the jellyfish and aim for the end of the November.

5) Not even touched my VP submission story. All those lovely notes are still sitting on the corner of my desk, wrapped in a ziploc bag. I did get a brilliant plot suggestion from a friend when I read it to my secret post-VP party, so I have some general ideas how to rebuild it. Probably not until December though.

6) Read all kinds of other wonderful post-VP wrap-ups. So nostalgic already! I need to live in a place with more SFF authors around. Twitter is an all-too-timesinky replacement. At least I’ll get to see a few classmates when I travel this month!

Virgil Magus: The Echo of a Story

I recently began reading The Phoenix and the Mirror by Avram Davidson, inspired by someone-or-other’s list of all-time best SF. Despite some frustrations with an occasionally jumpy writing style, I’m enjoying it immensely. Rich with detail and mystery, it’s a font and spectacle of ancient myth. The main character is Virgil Magus — the poet Virgil as warped and retold by medieval myths about his sorcerous wisdom. I’m only halfway through, but the plot seems interesting thus far.

But that’s not why I wrote this post. My edition of this book has a preface wherein Davidson said he planned to write more Virgil Magus books, so I glanced at Wikipedia to confirm whether this happened. Not only did he, but in those links, I found mention of a story I half-remembered from 1998! I had only remembered the second half of the title Virgil Magus: King Without Country, but it was enough to trigger the memory when I saw it listed. That (along with ) is story has been echoing in my head for years. VM:KWC is a story of Davidson’s that was posthumously finished by Michael Swanwick, possibly my all-time favorite author. If you want a slew of info and spoilers, read through the first link in this paragraph. Suffice to say the general tone and a few specific tricks in that story (e.g. the sword) inspired me in many ways throughout the years since.

This is the second time this year I’ve managed to identify a short story that inspired me >10 years ago. The other culprit was The Hydrogen Wall by Gregory Benford. That one was less serendipitous: I was thinking about it one day, and the near-closing line that stuck in my head: “The answer does not lie within your conceptual space.” That and a bit of google-fu eventually led me to a copy I could read (without having to shovel through back issues of Asimov’s in my highschool bedroom).

If I ever write a story that makes someone think, ten years later,: “Wow, I remember the story that had X and Y, that made me think about Z. I wish I could remember its name or author.” — if I write one story that accomplishes that, I will call my writing a success.

JWA final results

The winner of the 2014 James White Award was “Beside the Dammed River” by DJ Cockburn. I am sad that I did not win, but still very excited that I made the shortlist. I look forwards to reading his story when it comes out, and/or eating his brain to absorb his talents!

James White Award shortlist!

My short story, “The Demands of Iron,” has made the shortlist for the 2014 James White Award! I am extremely proud to have made it this far. The winner will be announced this weekend, so stay tuned.

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