I totally understand why people quit writing short stories.

calvin-and-hobbes-on-writing-3 I’ve only written three stories this year (and it’s half over; also, one of those stories was only 700 words long)! The last story I completed was finished on February 17th. This year I’ve almost exclusively done novel-related stuff: drafting and revising Enter Title Here¸ revising This Beautiful Fever, and, this summer, working on the first draft of a different novel.

Not only have I not been writing stories, I haven’t even been revising them. I have seventeen unrevised stories, with some of them dating back to January of 2012. Normally I take a month or two at the beginning of the year to revise my backlog. I didn’t do that this time. And my submissions pile is showing the damage. Half my stories aren’t out right now, because I don’t really have anywhere exciting to show them. If I had new stuff coming in, then I might retire old stuff, but that’s not really happening.

It’s a bit disappointing. I like to always be in a place where someone could email me with good news RIGHT NOW. And that’s not really where I am at the moment. The effort-to-reward time for a short story is really good. You can get good news within a few months of writing the story. For a novel, it’s very bad. I wrote the first draft of This Beautiful Fever two years ago, and I’m still not in the GOOD NEWS COULD HAPPEN RIGHT NOW phase. Actually, right now, there’s no chance of good news happening on that novel, since I am sitting on a second round of edits from the agent. Good edits. Sound edits. But as long as they’re hanging over me, the novel isn’t going anywhere. Hopefully I can get them done before I go to the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, but if I can’t, then I won’t be able to get them done until maybe mid-August. And the it’ll take him a month to read them. So, best case scenario, the novel doesn’t even go on submission until, like, mid-September–ten weeks from now!

And that’s for something I wrote two years ago.

The stuff I am writing now is even further from being in the GOOD NEWS COULD HAPPEN RIGHT NOW phase. Not actually clear how long their journey is, since I’ve only ever taken one novel from first-draft to submission, and that novel still hasn’t completed its revision lifecycle.

But, on the other hand, the prospect of writing more short stories is not too exciting. Firstly, because the last few stories I’ve been super excited about have gotten nothing but rejection. And, secondly, because the potential reward is so limited. I mean, I like reading short stories and I like writing them. But I also like getting readers and getting paid. And novels are where it’s at for that stuff.

And even though I’m a pretty fast writer, it does take a noticeable change in gears to switch over and write short stories, and I just haven’t felt like taking the effort.

The result is that I am in a different place nowadays, mentally. In some ways, it’s relaxing. I’m not worrying as much about submissions. I’m not tracking them obsessively. I’m not staying up at night wondering if some magazine is going to like my story. But I am also deprived of the pleasure of that kind of hope.

Sometimes I do think, “Wow, actually, the odds of an agented manuscript selling are much better than the odds of a story being accepted by Clarkesworld. So it’s not at all unlikely that something good could actually happen to me.”

But that prospect seems so remote. Any success that is further away than POSSIBLY RIGHT NOW is just too far into the mists of time for me.

Three pretty good stories that were published in April 2012

“Mother Ship” by Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed) – A short, sharp story that is successful based on a single image: that of a jury-rigged, crippled biological ship that’s pregnant with a deformed offspring–a ship that can’t quite come to terms with the strange manner in which it came to be and yet is willing to bestow that same confusion onto its child. As was done to it, so it will do…and yet it hopes that its child will find a way to imbue some meaning and purpose into this sloppy process.

“Area 54” by Hunter Liguore (Strange Horizons) – I was blinded by this story about  father and daughter conspiracy theorists who can hear mysterious transmissions from aliens over the shortwave radio. All the way through it, I kept saying to myself, “Oh, they seem crazy but the aliens will turn out to be real.” It was only after thinking about it that I realized it didn’t matter. Are stories only justified by their ends? Don’t the means matter too? This is a beautiful story. I loved the daughter’s mix of hard-headedness and vulnerability; she’s willing to cut and run and try to make it on her own, but all of her interactions with other people have this unworldliness to them. And at the same time, her narration has an ironic edge to it. I loved the working-class trappings of the story, too. Upper-class geeks futz around with computers and try to sense aliens in the background radiation of the universe; working-class ones hear them over the shortwave. Upper-class geeks picture aliens as beings that are coming to enlighten us; working-class ones picture them as beings who’ve come to kidnap and torment us.

“The Sympathy” by Eric Gregory (Lightspeed) – Halfway through the story, I realized that I’ve met Eric Gregory. He was one of the students in NC-State’s MFA program, and we had a long talk when I visited. Anyway, I enjoyed his fairy story quite a bit. It has a line very early in the story–“Lauren had expected some frisson at the threshold, a shiver as she shrunk from a we into an I.”–that is great in exactly the way that I can appreciate. It’s simple, clever, and doesn’t require me to visualize anything. Most of the story takes place along a stretch of highway that runs between Louisiana and Tennessee, and the story is great at conveying some of the heat and brightness of the open road. The road has a timeless, illusory quality. You get frenzied when you’re driving. The outside world stops mattering and the inner world starts to matter way too much. The plot of the story had to do with a waifish hitchhiker who’s on the run from some evil fairies, but that hardly matters. The heart of the story lay in those long stretches of road. It’s another story where the ending was less important than the destination.

P.S. Has anyone else noticed that Clarkesworld almost never publishes Fantasy? What’s the deal with that? They came close in April, but the story was still set on the moon.

February 2012 Short Fiction

 All The Young Kirks And Their Good Intentions (Clarkesworld) by Helena Bell – Earth is being ravaged by some kind of disease. It responds by sending a few brilliant men and women to a moon colony where they try to recreate Earth’s (often extinct) ecosystems. Meanwhile, the town of Riverside, Iowa, has gotten caught up in this interplanetary fervor: it starts naming all of its children after a mythical hero from the past, James Tiberius Kirk.

I am normally very suspicious of fan-service stories, because I think they have a tendency to try to glamour their audience by namedropping nerdery instead of creating interesting characters, situations, and settings. And perhaps that’s what is happening here, but if that’s the case, I am thoroughly beglamoured. I love this story.

It’s just a story about kids, jostling to be special. Ostensibly, they all want to grow up and go to the moon and be heroes. But right now, they’re sitting in Iowa, playing status games with each other. The story is slow, but implacable. All of its pieces resonate with each other, and obey some unseen internal logic.

 

Bear In Contradicting Landscape (Apex) by David J. Schwartz – An author finds that a character from one of his early (terrible) short stories has come to life. In most hands, this story would be really playful and silly and insubstantial. But Schwartz just keeps throwing stuff in there. He spends all this time detailing the really dystopian story that the character came from. Then he starts describing the author’s girlfriend, a woman who is having her whole life story tattooed on herself. Then he’s writing about the character’s wife and her fascination with Elvis. And then the character’s cats corner a rabbit and the author saves the rabbit.

There’s really not a wrong note in the whole story. I’m just reading and reading and I’m never thinking–as I usually am, for most stories–“Okay, how is all this crap going to cohere.” No, because it’s cohering and agglomerating as we go. Even the everyman schlub narrator manages to avoid being just another everyman schlub. He has an engaging, fox-quick voice that’s full of wonderment and understanding (rather than the usual self-pity and neuroticism that I’ve come to expect from everyman schlubs). Anyways, I liked this story alot.

 

Aftermath (Strange Horizons) by Joy Kennedy-O’Neill – The zombie plague was averted after only a year by an airborne cure that turned the zombies back into ordinary human beings. A former literature professor struggles to live with a husband who succumbed to the plague and spent several months as a flesh-eater.

I love zombie stories. And I love that zombie stories are so versatile. They’re not just about titillation, like vampire stories, or about scaring you, like most monster stories. Zombie stories are about how we relate to society: the blank mass of strangers that we see around us everyday. And I love this story’s twist on the zombie tale: in this story, the zombies come back to life and try to live like ordinary people (they don’t remember any of their former atrocities). It has a lot of resonances with many modern situations in which people have to live with situations that they were not fully responsible for: Slavery or the Civil War (in America) or The Partition (in India). But it’s also a story that fully engages with its own premise. This is a story about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. It’s rigorous and it doesn’t provide easy answers to the dilemmas that it raises.

 

In addition to the stories mentioned above, I also enjoyed Genevieve Valentine’s “The Gravedigger of Konstan Spring” (Lightspeed), Brooke Bolander’s “Tornado’s Siren” (Lightspeed), and Justin Howe’s “Shadows Under Hexmouth Street” (Beneath Cease Skies)

November’s Short Fiction

As I mentioned yesterday, I just finished reading every original short story published by Apex, Clarkesworld, Fantasy, Lightspeed and Strange Horizons in November 2010. Let’s pretend that there’s some kind of transition sentence right here.

The biggest surprise for me was Lightspeed Magazine. Its editor John Joseph Adams has spent the better part of a decade as the assistant editor at the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (to which I subscribe), so I guess I would have expected the fiction in Lightspeed to be something like that in FSF. However, I would have been pretty surprised to read either of last month’s stories in FSF.

Standard Loneliness Package by Charles Yu kind of resists any sort of stolid, extrapolative, futurism-type reading of its central conceit (call centers in India that experience negative emotions for rich Americans). If emotions can be repackaged and transferred, why is it necessary for anyone to feel them? But who cares about that? The story is totally sweet.

I was particularly captivated by one passage:

I am feeling that feeling. The one that these people get a lot, near the end of a funeral service. These sad and pretty people. It’s a big feeling. Different operators have different ways to describe it. For me, it feels something like a huge boot. Huge, like it fills up the whole sky, the whole galaxy, all of space. Some kind of infinite foot. And it’s stepping on me. The infinite foot is stepping on my chest.

The funeral ends, and the foot is still on me, and it is hard to breathe. People are getting into black town cars. I also appear to have a town car. I get in. The foot, the foot. So heavy. Here we go, yes, this is familiar, the foot, yes, the foot. It doesn’t hurt, exactly. It’s not what I would call comfortable, but it’s not pain, either. More like pressure.

Deepak, who used to be in the next cubicle, once told me that this feeling, which I call the infinite foot—to him it felt more like a knee—is actually the American experience of the Christian God.

It’s sort of a throwaway bit of the story, but it’s a great science-fictional effect. The veil of solipsism prevents us from asking these kind of questions ordinarily. How is Christian grief different from Hindu grief? Not the theology, we know that’s different…but does that different theology result in a different feeling deep down underneath your heart?

 

Although we’ve never met, I sort of know Alice Sola Kim. At least, we’re friends on Facebook. She graduated Stanford when I was a sophomore. I am sad we did not really know each other, because Hwang’s Billion Brilliant Daughters is totes awesome, starting with the title.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, when the word “daughter” is preceded by an adjective in a title, that adjective is “beautiful” (e.g. The Scale-Hunter’s Beautiful Daughter, The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, etc…). It can’t be accidental that a different ‘b’ adjective chosen here. One that seems, to my eyes, so ugly, so out of place, so wrong.

The story is filled with beautiful, slightly awkward lines, like:

It turns out that everyone has been uploaded into virtual space, but a few people still have to stick around to make sure that buildings stay up and the tanks are clean and operational.

Later, everyone comes back, because it turns out that no one really likes uploaded life.

Or:

In bare feet, Hwang was half an inch shorter than his wife, which seemed within the bounds of acceptability. But the world conspired to tip this delicate balance, with slanted sidewalks, with Italian heels, with poor posture. Hwang and his ex-wife each thought that the other cared more about their height discrepancy.

And, of course, the enduring mystery of the story is the identity of the narrator. Personally, I assumed that it was the son. But that doesn’t precisely fit. Read it and get back to me with something better.

 

A lot of the November stories I read had kind of tricky structures. They were nonlinear, or told in journal entries, or written in books, or interspersed with historical apocrypha. At first glance, Sigrid Ellis’ No Return Address isn’t really like that.. Well, I mean, it was told as a series of letters. But epistolary format is not tricky. It’s kind of the oldest structure for prose fiction. But the story is thematically complex. It’s brimming with all kinds of resonant elements that maybe didn’t really need to be there, but click together in interesting ways.

The mother in the story is writing letters to her daughter, but she does not send the letters because she does not know her daughter’s address. Her daughter is backpacking through Europe, fighting evil faeries from the Unseelie Court, and sending textless postcards to her mom.

That’s kind of fun. Who doesn’t wonder what happens to the parents of teen heroes? Like to Hermione’s parents, or to Bella Swann’s mother, etc. I think the typical solution is to make the parents kind of evil and abusive so you don’t care about them any

But there’s a lot more in this story. The daughter’s trek through Europe is mirrored in three generations. The mother is taking care of the grandmother, who is currently going senile, and recounts shady circumstances in Europe in ’68. The mother herself got into something in Seattle in 1990.

The story brims over with characters, with elements, with walk-ons. I don’t know, it’s kind of what you’re not supposed to do in a short story, but it gets done so artfully that you hardly notice.

The ending is what it has to be, but I found it disturbing. In stories of generational angst, it seems like the elder generation always comes to realize that the younger generation was right to pursue its heart. But the mother’s realization is wrong. Her daughter abandoned her, and it’s inexcusable. Both the mother and grandmother were scarred by their own rebellions, and the daughter will be too.

 

There’s not so much to say about Aidan Doyle’s Hokkaido Green, and I’m not even really sure it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the above stories. But there’s something brief, and momentous, and disarming about this story. It’s like someone sucking in a titanic lungful of air, and then letting it slowly hiss out from between his teeth.