For Your Awards Consideration (And also Story Notes for Everquest)

Nebula awards nominations opened yesterday! If you’re a full or associate member of the Science Fiction Writer’s Association of America, you can make nominations. It takes absurdly few nominations to make the ballot: word on the street is many years only around ten nominations is enough. So if any of you people want to nominate one of my stories for a Nebula PLEASE FEEL FREE.

I have a number of eligible stories this year:

  • In a year when Elon Musk was at the Elon Musk-iest he’s ever been, my short story “The Leader Principle” (my take on the classic Heinlein short story “The Man Who Sold The Moon”) was particularly apropos. It came out in the January / February 2020. It’s about a charismatic billionaire who tries to sell the public on going to Mars and about the weird and off-putting way his personal life appeals to his followers’ misogyny.
  • My short story “I Didn’t Buy It” is coming out this month in Asimov’s. It be good short story, but it’s not gonna win any awards, let’s be real. It’s just a fun tale about a woman who falls in love with another woman’s robot.
  • I had two short-shorts published. One “I am here in, some sense, to destroy you” in Daily Science Fiction. This story is pure fever dream that I wrote five years ago as an exercise for an MFA workshop. And another, “One of the less horrible of the many dystopian futures visited by the Time Traveler” appeared in Nature. Neither of those are gonna win awards either!
  • And finally, “Everquest” appeared in October’s issue of Lightspeed. It’s about a boy-appearing person who exclusively plays as a girl-appearing person in a video game, and how he grows up, puts aside the video game, and is miserable! Then magic happens.

I think “Everquest” is the one you should nominate, if you’re gonna nominate one of mine. “The Leader Principle” is a great story, but it just doesn’t have the juice. So I thought I’d also put down some story notes here for Everquest. I’ve only done these features irregularly over the last ten years, but I currently have up story notes for the following stories:

Story Notes

  • “Everquest” was published in Lightspeed #127 (October 2020)
  • Read it
  • Listen to it
  • 5000 words
  • Science Fiction but also maybe Fantasy
  • Rejected twice before selling
  • According to my notes I started it on May 1, 2019 and finished on Feb 1, 2020. God knows what I was doing for all that time! Feels like a long time to write a story
  • Accepted on April 1st, 2020
  • If it’d been rejected that would’ve been my 1715 short story rejection

First Lines

Gopal knew before he booted up the game—a Christmas present from his dad—that his character would be some form of elf or human, because the other races were all ugly, and he didn’t play games to be ugly. And he knew too, although he didn’t say it, that his character would be a girl. He always played girls online, although he’d be ashamed if anyone knew it, precisely because it played into the online belief that most girls in most games were “really” men, fat and acne-ridden, sitting in their underwear, hands down their pants, leering at that wood elf ass in those hot little leather shorts their avatars wore, and “catfishing” dudes online, pretending to be women to get some sick pleasure.

Other Notes

Clearly, the story comes from a very personal place. I played Everquest, which was a first-generation massively multiplayer online RPG, for about four or five years, starting from the day it came out, when I was about 12. After a year or two, I started playing exclusively female characters. From the beginning, I always pretended that I was a girl in real life too. It was never a conscious decision, just something that I did, and it wasn’t something I really even thought about. I guess I possessed shame over it, but really it existed in a wholly separate walled-off part of my life.

I tried in this story to capture that sort of unconscious quality. The main character never thinks, hey maybe I’m trans, and that’s what’s happening. Instead it’s all about feelings. They feel something different in the game. They like that feeling. They’re drawn to it. But they don’t have a name for what it is. Even now, I’m not sure that feeling has a name, or that it’s fully encapsulated by the transgender identity. In my fiction I try in general, often unsuccessfully, to dig beneath the stories that characters tell themselves and get into the loam that nourishes identity. So much of our experience is unconscious or half-felt or repressed, and it’s only in retrospect that we understand much of it (on a sidenote, Proust’s understanding of this is part of the genius behind In Search of Lost Time). But whereas Proust felt that we can only truly live life in retrospect, I don’t agree. I think the first go-round has value too. And I think our stories and our memories don’t fully capture the things we felt on the first go-round.

Other things I tried to capture: I was a phenomenally bad Everquest player. I never got past level 24 despite spending thousands of hours in the game. Everquest was extremely punishing: you lost hours of progress each time you died, and it was possible to lose all your gear too! When I was a kid I don’t think I really understood that it was possible to have strategy and get better at game. I mean I knew that on some level, but I was just so uninterested in ‘getting good’. The whole competitive aspect of games left me cold. Now when I play games, I’m always min-maxing, looking for the best gear, learning new techniques. But this is a relatively recent development for me. Back then I just wanted to immerse myself.

As a result I’d say I was a much worse than average EQ player. A friend of mine in high school got into the game years and years after I did, and he maxed out the level cap in under a year! I was appalled.

Not captured in this story: for some insane reason I played on Everquest’s PVP server, where players could kill each other (which they couldn’t on most other servers). This meant that you’d quite frequently just get ganked by some jerk. I never enjoyed killing other players or even tried to; I just felt like the PVP server had more character than the others.

A mea culpa for my intemperate comments about the classics

Have been reading Sarah Shulman’s Conflict Is Not Abuse. Great reading experience, strongly recommend. The book is about the cultural tendency to perceive opposition as abuse. It’s clearly written with the cancel culture, trigger warning crowd in mind, but it’s not limited to that. It also writes about how dominant peoples’ can perceive opposition as abuse, and how they can use that rhetoric to lock up and harm marginalized people.

Anyway, the book has given me food for thought. It argues that in a lot of online arguments people are speaking from very emotional places, rooted either in past trauma or in feelings of entitlement, and this leads them to misinterpret and mischaracterize what people are actually saying. The example Shulman gives is that during a talk when she was advocating, essentially, more due process for campus sexual offenders, a woman raised her hand and said, "So you’re saying that when I was ten years old and being beaten by my dad, someone should’ve said, oh you’re misunderstanding him, his offenses are rooted in inequality and patriarchy."

Shulman responded, "No, I was not saying that. I think someone should have stopped your father. But I don’t think that, for instance, expelling a campus sexual offender, releasing them into the crowd of women who aren’t in college and don’t have the protections afforded by privilege, is a solution either." (I’m paraphrasing).

Shulman can come off idealistic, implying that most conflicts can be worked out through better communication, but she does give examples of people who weren’t willing to engage in good faith, and of times when it’s better to just leave people alone or cut them off. I think there is an extent, which she does not underline, to which conflict can become abuse. And then calling out the resultant abuse as abuse is warranted.

But I was less interested in the societal implications of her hypotheses and more interested in the personal ones. I personally hate fighting online, but I also routinely find myself making intemperate remarks. Most recently (yesterday) there was a blow-up about the classics, again. The conversation was about overrated classics that shouldn’t be taught in school, but I instantaneously misinterpreted it as being a conversation about why the classics in general are overrated. To be fair, many people do believe in that. But there are also gradations of the point: some equate the classics with the Western Canon and can’t look past the racism and sexism of some of the works in the canon.

In general though the conversation was about high school, and to be honest I do not care what, if anything, students learn in high school. I have absolutely nothing invested in that point. So there was really no reason for me to weigh in.

However I just have complex feelings tied up in loving and not loving classic literature (which I’m essentially calling every literary work that’s not from the here and now, whether it’s The Mysteries of Udolpho or Fantomas or Tale of Genji or even obscure books that never really broke out, like Belchamber).

When I was a teenager I was a kid who had no time for the classics. I didn’t do basically any of the assigned reading in school, from 10th grade on. I read only science fiction and fantasy, and I found it very frustrating that my teachers didn’t respect what I was interested in.

After college, when I decided I was going to seriously pursue writing, I was like, I cannot do this if there is anything about this subject that I don’t understand or am scared of. So I bought one of those self-education manuals that were so popular in the 20th century (in this case it was The New Lifetime Reading Plan) and I worked my way through a lot of its recommendations (I still occasionally refer back to it when I’m looking for a new adventure).

For a long time I felt a sense of insecurity when it came to the classics. I thought other people understood much better how to read, and that they were better educated than me. It wasn’t until I started my MFA, four years after finishing my undergrad, that I realized this was false. To get an English degree, you need to take thirteen courses (under a quarter system). Each course might involve reading ten books. That’s it. All a degree means is you’ve read 130 books and sat in a classroom for 500 to 600 hours. By the end of my first year of self-directed reading, I’d surpassed that. By the time I started my MFA, I’d read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust, much of Shakespeare, Willa Cather, Euripides, a substantial amount of Nabokov and much more. I realized I had nothing to be ashamed of or insecure about.

But none of this explains why I react angrily when I perceive an attack on the canon. The uncharitable notion would be that I’ve invested quite a bit in the canon, and when someone treats it as a false god, they’re undermining my self-image. There might be some truth to that, I think. But it also doesn’t go far enough.

My relationship to the canon is a rare one, and it’s also a little old-fashioned. People don’t buy the five-foot shelf anymore and work their way through from Aeschylus to Zora Neale Hurston (okay she probably wasn’t on the five-foot shelf, but I needed a Z name). My reading has shaped my tastes, and it’s shaped my work, and my perception of what is new and worth doing. But I think because my reading is idiosyncratic, my aesthetics are also idiosyncratic.

The way I am and the way I read is the way I assumed all serious and ambitious writers were. But it’s not like that. Some immense proportion of writers stopped reading anything but contemporary literature the moment they left college. They are very au courant. Most of what they read in a given year came out in the last five years. And it just leaves me feeling very cold.

There’s no harm in reading only contemporary work, but that’s not me. That’s not what I do. I write with a knowledge of what has already been done. I don’t know if there’s a way to say that without sounding snobbish. There’s certainly a value judgement therein. I’m not sure how it’s possible to talk about fiction without making value judgements: what is interesting, what is not, what is worth doing, and what isn’t. I don’t think it’s a worthwhile project to write books that treat their subjects without nuance, that have stark, Manichean views of right and wrong, and that are often written in an ornate style that is clunky and uninteresting.

But these are views that you cannot agree with if you don’t have the (self) education that I do. If you’ve only read contemporary fantasy, then you can’t know about the complexities and ambiguities of the Mahabharata, where bonds of loyalty keep Bhishma and Drona tied to a king they hate, and where caste prejudice and transgression against the social order ultimately results in Karna’s death. If you’ve only read contemporary YA, you can’t know about the strange morality of A High Wind In Jamaica, where a group of kids is captured by pirates, adopted by them, goes native and joins their crew, and then ultimately commits murder, only to cheerfully and effortlessly reintegrate into British society when they’re found.

To me an attack on the classics, in any form, feels like an attack on everything that is timeless and complex in literature. And I know that is not how people mean it. But I also know that when people criticisms of the canon, they often conclude "I have nothing to learn from anything written before the current moment." And I deeply believe that this isn’t true, and that it’s impossible to write good literature unless you understand more than the preesent moment, because the literature of the moment (any moment) is, well, kind of shallow. It flatters modern prejudices. What survives is what has the ability to speak to a different moment, a different people.

I guess I just feel alone. The world is not what I thought it would be, and I’m left with a sense of aesthetics that isn’t really shared by most people, not even most writers, whom I encounter.

But there’s no reason for me to channel that feeling into anger at a bunch of random people on Twitter who hate The Catcher In The Rye.

Have recently read or am reading books by Anthony Horowitz, Sofia Samatar, Hamdi Abu Golayyel, and the world’s most popular author, Anonymous

Hello friends, did you guys know that I really enjoy reading? Here are some books I’ve read recently (or am currently reading).

The Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz — I was really impressed by the inventive plotting of his previous novel in this series, The Magpie Murders. The protagonist of both books is a book editor whose name I can’t remember, who is forced to investigate a murderer in which a (now-deceased) author of hers has some mysterious involvement. The fun of the books is that each has a novel inside a novel. The frame story is a contemporary detective tale, while the novel inside the novel, which was ostensibly written by the now-deceased author, is a golden age detective story about a German Poirot-style detective named Atticus Punt. If this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. You read the book constantly wondering how the two novels are going to come together, and eventually they do, though for the life of me I can’t remember anything about the murder or its resolution in the first book. It’s odd how sterile this sort of cleverness can sometimes be. But I still highly recommend.

Thieves in Retirement by Hamdi Abu Golayyel – A (relatively) contemporary Egyptian novel in translation, I’m gonna pat myself on the back for finding this one because it came out from a university press, not even a mainstream indie publisher. It’s a tale, essentially: the interlocking narratives of a number of dwellers of an apartment building in Cairo. I don’t say this often, but I think it would be fair to say that there is no plot, aside from some stabs at metafiction where the first-person narrator tries to shape the story consciously. But on a page by page level, the story is interesting and detailed. Its residents hover around the demimonde or underclass of Cairo: they’re the middle of the lower, let’s say. The book is filled with crime: bribery, prostitution, drug smuggling. And it’s got a fair amount of sexual adventure and misadventure too. Its earthy style and discursive structure reminded me strongly of the Arabian Nights.

Life of Lazarillo de Tormes by Anonymous – A 16th century Spanish novel, it predates Don Quixote, and the claim is that this novel essentially invented the (picaresque). I don’t know how true that is (I am always suspicious of claims that a book invented anything). But this is an excellent example of a picaresque. A boy is given into the service of a blind beggar, and they victimize and try to cheat each other. Then the boy slips from master to master–a priest, a squire, a seller of indulgences–and the book satirizes each. Told with a lively and humor-filled first-person style. Also very short, only 120 pages. Of these three I’d probably recommend it the most strongly.

Tender: Stories by Sofia Samatar – So now that I’m writing more stories, I decided to read more too. I started with an old edition of Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy that I had bought at a discount, but none of the other stories were as good as the Sofia Samatar story at the beginning (a fantastically complex and inventive story about a dystopian world where girls are pulled away from their parents and sent to a summer camp to prepare them for their future lives). So I decided what I really wanted was to read more Samatar. What gives her stories their impact is her beautiful, humane voice. Or rather, her beautiful, humane way with voice. I’m only a few stories in, but there’s one at the beginning, called The Walkdog, about a high school girl writing an essay, with footnotes, about a local myth made up by a real Nerd, a guy who really stinks of total nerd gas, who happens to be in the same class as her. Some might read the story and say the voice is off, that it feels too young for the age of the protagonists, but I actually think it’s true to life, which is that many teens do actually have young voices. Just as there are teens who are more sophisticated than their age, there are teens who are less so (and a lot of sci-fi and fantasy fans happened to be the latter). It’s that sort of fine eye that makes these stories shine. They’re not JUST inventive and full of haunting, mythic images: they’re also funny and terribly human and specific. It’s a great combination. Can’t wait to read further.

Today I am just loving being a writer

Have been feeling great about writing lately! I think getting into new areas, where I feel more allowed to fail, has been good for me. Writing can be a gloomy life. You’re alone. There’s rejection. Constant criticism. People misunderstand you, and when they do understand you they don’t appreciate you. It’s not really a craft, the way making a chair is a craft. Writing involves a lot of time being stymied. A lot of time sitting back, trying to figure things out.

But it’s also fun! I think writers often portray what we do in these very epic terms. We’re driven to get out some set of truths. Lately, writers from marginalized communities also feel driven to get their stories out there, to blaze trails for the next people of their community who come along. Personally I’ve never felt nearly so strongly about the whole business. I’ve always written more from ego than from political or aesthetic necessity. I just wanted my thoughts to be out there. Wanted to be read. Wanted to be important.

But along the way I’ve learned to enjoy the act of writing. I like figuring things out. I like developing my ideas. I like researching and exploring new areas. I like the feeling of new capacities opening inside me: a newfound ability to appreciate different parts of the word and of the sentence. And I love being in conversation with the rest of human thought. Reading and thinking and existing in the world is like standing on a mountaintop, staring out at a beautiful vista. Being a writer is as if someone granted you the power to somehow alter that vista: to erase certain things or enhance others. Putting forward your own ideas and writing work that emphasizes your own priorities is an incredible power, and it’s not something you necessarily appreciate when you’re just starting out. It’s only after fifteen or twenty years in the game when you think, you know what, these other people don’t know more than I do. They’re not better read than me, and I believe I can see things they can’t.

Which is not to say that young writers can’t have confidence or ambition, but there’s something a little foolhardy about it. They don’t know, as I do, the full contours of what is out there.

Now all of this has been very non-specific: what is it that I’m trying to impress on people? What am I trying to accomplish? I hate when people are vague in this way. But I don’t know how to be less vague! I’ve just been having so many ideas lately. There is so much to do and to say. I’ve just felt a lot freer in how I express myself. I don’t know how it all adds up to a voice or to an authorial persona, but that’s the fun of it.

For instance I’ve been having lots of ideas about how to structure stories to make them tighter, more energetic, and thematically compelling. It’s not the kind of thing you can write down, you just need to do it. My short stories, too, have started to gain a tale-like quality–lots of narrative summary, fast-moving, as I’m just relating events that happened. I’ve started to eschew the practice of ending on a heightened image: it hits too hard, like the crash of a set of cymbals. But at the same time I have lots of other things going into the stories too! It’s very pleasant to sit down and feel like you’re doing something, like something is happening. And it probably won’t shake the foundations of the world, but it’s interesting and conscious and worthwhile.

Getting back into reading books

Last year (2019) I read 290 books. That includes a number of individual plays, novellas, graphic novels, and works of poetry, but it still strikes me as rather a lot: almost one work per day. This year I have, so far, read about…ninety books. Not nearly as many. There’s been a pandemic, and we’ve had a baby. And I’ve had a tumultuous year when it came to my own writing, and I just haven’t felt as excited about reading new work as I did last year.

But hopefully that’ll change soon. I find that I can’t write for long without wanting to read again, and conversely I can’t read without wanting to write. They’re very connected. I’m a terrible egotist, the worst sort of writer, in that the moment I start reading a certain sort of thing, I think, “I want to write something like this.” Hence once I started reading poetry, I started writing it. When I started reading literary essays, I started writing them. Often my initial efforts aren’t much good, but there’s no harm in that. Why be precious and pretend that I have something to lose?

If anything, it’s nice to feel like a beginner again. When I was starting out as a fiction writer, I wrote frantically, I had so much to write, so many ideas. They dried up eventually. I got more serious, more self-critical. It’s nice to be bad again. Nice to not be so fully-formed, nice to be able to imitate a little bit.

At the same time, it’s also nice to start reading more broadly and start to develop some ideas of my own. For instance, I’ve been reading a lot of lyric poetry lately, and I came across a poem lately that had such a classic lyric poem ending. God, I should’ve made a note of it, I’m not sure I can find it again. But the poem was mostly an imagist poem, but at the end it suddenly got very grave. The effect was if you were reading a poem that as like. It was like if the Red Wheelbarrow ended by saying, “And death came for us that fall.” It was much more beautiful than that, but so clunky. Such a heavy-handed ringing of a bell.

Anyway, hope you all out there had a happy thanksgiving

Going to do an ever-so-tiny bit of Renovation To the blog

This blog has been in business for more than twelve years now, and it’s still going strong! Not a lot of blogs out there still actively detailing the writer’s life, and I am proud of that. I’m going to be tweaking some of the pages over the next few weeks, make it a little more attractive. You might’ve already seen that I’ve updating my bibliography, adding sections for my poetry and non-fiction and moving those to a separate page. I also want to revise the “About Me” page so it’s a little prettier. Maybe mess aroud with the theme and layout a bit, so people are able to delve into the archives if they want to.

I’m happy with the place! It’s not setting the internet on fire. I have no idea how many readers it’s got, but there is no way the number is higher than two thousand. Probably closer to a thousand, and most of those are on Facebook. But a thousand isn’t bad. And there’s lots of stuff out there for people to stumble upon. I know my MFA advice still strikes people as helpful. WHO KNOWS. You do your best.

Have been feeling super creative lately, and that extends to the blog. It’s been a bit fallow this year, but the posting has ramped up in the last month, and my ambition is for next year to involve a better posting schedule.

I’ve recently gotten very into writing essays. I think this is a direct result of me starting to read all the book review journals and such. I am awful–no sooner do I start reading something than I start wanting to write it as well.

‘Placed’ a story in Gulf Coast

Hey friends, I’m just doing some writing on my electric typewriter doohickey while I wait for my baby to hopefully fall asleep in her crib. Thanksgiving week, and the nanny is out Monday, Thursday, and Friday, so it’s gonna be a bit of a hectic week, but I’ll live. The electric typewriter is great, but I have discovered its limits! Recently I was trying to work on a long, complex essay (working title "Am I being discriminated against? Or am I just not good enough?") and I just had to switch to the computer, because the electric typewriter wouldn’t let me hop around enough.

Anyways I’m trying to get into writing literary non-fiction, I read the most recent volume of The Best American Essays. The guest editor was Rebecca Solnit, and she did a fantastic job. I’ve read a few years of BAE, and some times it is filled from cover to cover with lyric and personal essays. This volume had a better mix. No reported stories, really, since the book isn’t really meant to showcase journalism, but many of the pieces went beyond the personal, and most were written in more pared-back language.

I’d say the essays fell into three rough themes: a) racial inequity; b) the male backlash against feminism; and c) climate doom!

At this point, the question of whether it makes more sense to be fatalistic about climate change or not seems largely mooted. Humanity must do everything it can to reduce emissions, and those efforts probably won’t be enough. America, as far as I can tell, is going to do absolutely nothing, and other nations rightly wonder why they should do anything when the world’s largest economy won’t.

I think the human race will probably survive, but I also think life will be an ever-expanding series of catastrophes, and that amidst the chaos we will be hard-pressed to maintain our standard of living, much less improve it. But what can you do? If the recent election has proven anything, it’s that although the individual isn’t powerless, their power is quite limited.

Recently I thought about pitching an article about millennials and retirement. Given that we don’t have stable careers and often don’t own our own homes, how can we prepare for retirement? It’s a good article in theory, but the problem is you can’t really do anything. You can’t prepare.

Oh well. It really puts things in perspective: as I think Lynyrd Skynyrd put it in their classic ballad "It’s Getting Hot In Herre":

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may

I think that means gather the rosebuds in may, because they probably won’t be around any later.

ALSO, wait, I meant to write about this. I placed a story in Gulf Coast. Pretty happy about this! I have terrible luck with literary journals, but with this and the recent West Branch ‘placement’ maybe my luck is turning.

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Hello friends, I still haven’t ended my love affair with my electric type-writer doohickey. I don’t expect this to last forever. All things lose their charm eventually. Or, as John Cougar Mellencamp would put it:

life goes on
long after the thrill
of living
is gone

Do I owe him money now? I’m still not sure if I’m allowed to quote lyrics or not. They say you can’t do it in published books, but blog posts must be fine, no?

I’ve been on a writing and submitting tear lately, but my consumption of writing hasn’t really kept pace. My last ‘serious’ book was John Dos Passos’s 42nd Parallel. The novel is great, really interesting, I love the characters, but you know my secret sneaking thought: "Stand on Zanzibar is better…" For those who don’t know, SoZ is a science fiction novel by John Brunner. He essentially lifts all of the USA Trilogy’s collage techniques wholesale and applies them to a dystopian science-fictional world. But that world is so alive and interesting that I think it honestly works better.

I meant to immediately start the next book in the trilogy, but instead I’ve sort of faffed around. I’ve read a bunch of volumes of Adam Warren’s superhero spoof Empowered, about a young woman superhero who loses her powers whenever her suit gets torn. Yeah, she ends up bound and gagged a lot. The comic started, I think, as a bunch of commissions for soft-core bondage comics? Or something? The superhero spoof is old hat, but the characters in the book, the eponymous Empowered, her roommate Ninjette, and her boyfriend Thugboy, are all just really sweet and human. It’s like a much lighter version of THE BOYS.

I’m watching the fifth season of David E. Kelley’s legal drama, The Practice. I loved this show as a kid, and I watched most of it during its original run. What I hadn’t fully appreciated at the time was how deftly the various relationships are handled. The show has an office sit-com element, with the characters having various tensions and difficulties with each other, but in contrast to say, The Good Wife, where after a while it seemed like everyone hated each other, the people in The Practice never quite cross that line. They really do seem to like each other. I think it helps that they are all misfits: overweight, perpetually single Eleanor; PI-turned-lawyer Eugene; Jimmy "fired from his last job for fraud" Berluti; Bobby "chip on his shoulder from going to a bad law school" Donnell. They can only work with each other, and they know it.

What isn’t good is the absurd plotting. The show is a bit like SCANDAL (but not as bad) in that they up the stakes way too quickly: stalkers, murders, stabbings–at one point Bobby has a guy killed!–it’s just way too much, it strains believability and it harms the narrative fabric of the world.

On the other hand I am impressed with their season-long arcs, and how they managed long-form storytelling on a network show in the early 2000s! Nobody was asking for that, and they handle it thoughtfully and with courage.

The pandemic is worsening. Yesterday two thousand people died, and we had 187,000 cases. It is appalling. I think people are basically on their own for this one. It’s like the AIDS crisis: something is happenng and nobody cares. But…it’s happening to everyone. The whole thing perplexes and depresses me.

I genuinely don’t know what the literary world will look like when this is over. Imprints have been shutting down, editors losing their jobs. The company that owns PRH is trying to buy Simon and Schuster, which will turn what used to be the big Five into the Big Four. At that point it’s hard to imagine that two of the remaining three won’t figure out how to merge. We’ll see what happens. There will always be books, but it’s a depressing time to be an author. But you know what? 2008 was MUCH WORSE. So at least there’s that.

Why is the writing in literary essays so turgid?

I wrote a really silly essay. It’s called “Is it possible to write a great novel about cats?” It’s a swirling meditation on parenthood, cuteness, narrative stakes, and KITTIES. In the manner of all good literary essays, it references Edmund Burke, Proust, Garfield the Cat, Mari, Elmyra from Looney Tunes, Natsume Soeseki, and probably a bunch of other crap too.

Having written a literary essay, I went looking for places to which I can sell a literary essay…and I feel like I must be missing something. Why is the writing in literary essays so turgid? I mean the literary reviews are fine: LARB and NYRB and LRB rarely make me cringe. But even in those venues, I usually avoid the personal or lyric essays. In other magazines, it feels like that’s all there is! Does anyone really want to read this stuff?

Of course that is a criticism that can be leveled at most modern literary output. But what gets me is that what people usually say about literary fiction (and, I assume, non-fiction) is that it is well-written but lacks narrative momentum. The problem is that it’s usually not even well-written! Oh my god, it’s so frustrating. So much of this stuff is just meaningless detail.

Recently I was reading a Palestinian novel called, apropriately enough, MINOR DETAIL, and it was such a relief to read a book that practiced some sort of selectiviy when it came to visual description. There is no need to throw in a dozen details for the sake of verisimilitude. Just use one! In my ideal paragraph, there’s one sentence of visual description, two sentences of narrative summary, and one sentence of reported thought or emotional reaction. Then a brief exchange of dialogue, followed by a longer paragraph, again mostly narrative summary, and so on! What need is there to describe the jacaranda trees that weep blooming petals like the tears of a ghost–the ghost of my past, and of all my ancestors–the ghost of Mario, who sat in the rocking chair in the corner, whittling on sticks that piled up beneath his feet. It’s so frustrating.

All the description also really chokes the fun out of the writing. Not everything needs to be SO SERIOUS. Like, even Proust, who can spend ten pages discussing a hawthorne bush, spent most of his time describing parties where people gossipped and made fun of each other. Some of these books and stories and essays are just hawthorn bushes all the way down.

But, long story short, I have an essay about whether it’s possible to write about cats without coming off twee and pathetic.

I am story-writer now

Hey friends, here I am typing away on my digital typewriter doohickeymobile. It’s pretty cool. I’ve been writing a lot on it. Mostly short stories. Oftentimes VERY short (though I did write a 7,500 word one yesterday). Hope the typewriter isn’t making me write shorter. I do think it might just be my temperament; these days I have less and less tolerance for the interstitial stuff inside a text–descriptions, action, etc. I still do like dialogue though.

I don’t know where I was going with this.

Okay I set this post aside for a day, and now I’ve come back to it after writing ANOTHER short story. Writing some weird stuff, some really weird stuff, guys. 

I don’t know how novelists–people who spent their whole writing careers working on novels–ever learn to write short stories. I mean, people ask you to. If you’re a successful novelist, people are always asking for short stories for their anthologies, or soliciting them for their magazine. It’s a real problem. A short story usually starts wrapping up right around the point a novelist is getting ready to type Chapter Two. The two forms are completely different, from their aims to the sentence-level writing. Or at least they are when I do them.

Writing short stories is significantly easier than writing a novel. People say it isn’t. Do not believe them. I started off writing short stories. I’ve been writing and submitting them for seventeen years. The story I just finished is the 254th story in my records. I am approaching 1800 short story rejections (though am not quite there yet) and I have 61 short story publications, though at least twenty of those are publications I would not readily admit to. It’s possible to write a decent story in ninety minutes. I mean it doesn’t happen often, but I’ve had a few stories come out that way. Salable novels don’t often work that way. At some point you lose control and need to take stop. A novel also just has fewer ways to be good than a story does. A novel’s number one objective is to keep you reading. Everything else is secondary. And you end up expending a lot of effort just keeping the book interesting. Short stories don’t face the same problem. It’s, just, I don’t know, it’s very different.

As an aside, there is a certain momentum to a story writing career. I read a story recently that was in a semi-pro zine (as part of my Nebula campaign, you gotta read other peoples’ stories), and this was a great story. Easily the match of most stories in top sci-fi zines (Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, etc). In contrast, I have a story coming out next month in Asimov’s: “I Didn’t Buy It” is a story I almost didn’t submit, because I thought it was a little slight. But it has a stylish voice, and it’s a fun story, so I was like why not. I don’t think Sheila thinks it’s the world’s greatest story either, but it’s only 1500 words long, and it can pad out the magazine. I do not think I could have gotten an editor to take that story as my first-ever sale.

There is also a downhill side to a story-writing career. Eventually you become old hat and can no longer sell to certain publications that once used to be excited about you. I remember when Charlie Finlay took over F&SF there were a bunch of Gordon Van Gelder’s faves who he no longer published. Nothing personal, their work just wasn’t to his taste. Now I see that Finlay is stepping down and Sheree Thomas is taking up the editorship. On the one hand this is great; I don’t think there are any other major sci-fi publications with Black editors. But on the second hand, I just started selling stories to Charlie! Now I’ve gotta start all over again.

It’s okay, that’s how it goes. I’ve recently been making an effort to NOT send my best stuff to the science fiction journals anyway. It’s a very tempting thing to do, because: a) they read and accept work comparatively quickly (within 1-2 months)_ and b) people actually read them, so you feel like the story doesn’t entirely disappear (though it still mostly disappears). But I do want to publish in some of the bigger literary journals, and that won’t happen if all my best stuff is coming out in Lightspeed.

I do write a fair number of stories that are on the cusp, that could appear in either type of journal. But I also write a fair number of stories that could ONLY be in sci-fi journals or ONLY be in literary journals. I don’t know, I’m not as much of an interstitial writer as are many of the writers with feet in both camps. I like straightforward mimetic realism. 

Oh well, who knows. But the point is, I am a story writer again. Maybe I’ll take a year and write only stories, and all the editors will get completely sick of me