October 15, 2014
This gig is always changing, and sometimes I can’t decide if that’s good or bad. Good, I think — if it’s changing then I’m changing which means that maybe I’m evolving to keep up, which would be nice. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how the way I send out short stories and pursue publication for them has changed.
In almost ten years of being published novelist, I’ve figured out that while I’m writing novels I can also write about 5-6 short pieces a year. That includes anything under about 12,000 words. Before about 2007, I wrote short stories and sent them to magazines (online and print) on a regular basis. Quite a few sold. Quite a few didn’t. When the novel-writing really picked up, I wrote fewer shorts, sent out fewer, and eventually only sent stories out sporadically because something strange was happening: I started getting invited to submit stories. This was a weird and wonderful thing — it meant I could write a story and pretty much be guaranteed that it would have a home (maybe with rewrites, but still). Some of the uncertainty went away. Huzzah!
For a few years there, I said yes to just about every anthology invitation that came along. This is pretty normal — as a newish writer, it’s really awesome getting asked to write for anthologies. Plus, there’s a common neophyte worry that if you say no, you’ll never get asked again.
After I hit the NYT bestseller list for the first time in 2008, the anthology invites increased — it turns out editors look for authors with “NYT bestseller” in front of their names when they pitch anthologies because it’s a selling point. Turns out, the sale of an anthology to a publisher can depend on having a couple of NYT bestsellers in the table of contents. I felt a huge amount of pressure when I first found this out, like I would be letting people down if I didn’t say yes to anthology invitations.
But remember that 5-6 stories a year? That includes all the stories I promise to anthologies. This is one of the reasons that around 2007-2008 I stopped sending things out to magazines almost entirely. Magazine editors were asking me for stories (and wow, was that a shocking switch after some 10+ years of collecting rejection slips), and I simply didn’t have anything to send them because all my new work was going to anthologies.
I found this to be a frustrating situation. The anthology invites are most often for theme anthologies with specific guidelines — like, say, werewolf Christmas stories — that I would never have written about if I hadn’t been invited. Meanwhile, I was collecting a whole stack of story ideas I just didn’t have time to write.
Short stories can be a playground. It’s where I can experiment and try new things and explore ideas I can’t do anywhere else. Novels are a big investment of time and energy, but short stories? Not so much. A few years ago, I decided I wanted to have more time to work on my story ideas instead of writing to assignment, so I started saying no to most anthology invitations. Remember, I only have a few short story slots per year, and I wanted to keep some of them for me, because that makes me happy.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that over the last 3-4 years I feel like I’ve written some of the best short stories of my life. Since 2010, I’ve landed stories in “Best of” reprint anthologies for the first time and got a Hugo nomination. Harry and Marlowe came to life and are going like gangbusters. I think this strategy of making sure I reserve a few of my short story slots “for me” is paying off, and it feels really validating. (I’ve also collected more rejection slips in the last couple of years than I did in the couple of years preceding, but really, that’s okay.) At the same time, I’m pretty sure that those years of writing “on assignment” probably helped make me a better writer as well, because they taught me how to better craft and structure a specific idea into a story that will stand out.
So, what does it take for me to say yes to an anthology invitation these days? 1) The theme is something I already have an idea for and I’m looking for motivation to write said story, 2) I want to work with the editor, or 3) Some other undefined really good reason.
I’m at a place now that would have astonished me 10-15 years ago: I can be picky. I have options. And I wonder what changes are going to happen over the next 10-15 years?
October 13, 2014
Books in the Basin was a hit, I believe. Next up, in two weeks: MileHi Con, which sometimes feels like it doesn’t really count as travel because it’s the local “hometown” convention. But it’ll be the last big gig of the year — promotion for Low Midnight starts in January. Until then, I’ll be able to kick back for a little while.
Hey, have I mentioned recently that Low Midnight is out on December 30? Just in time to use the gift cards you get for Christmas!
A couple of other things are due out before the end of the year: I’ll have a Wild Cards story up on Tor.com in a week, and the next book, Lowball, will be out in November. Oh, and the re-release of Wild Cards 4: Aces Abroad will be out in January, it looks like — I have a story out in that one, too. An embarrassment of riches!
A couple of other short stories should be making their way to the world soon. More news when I have it.
I may also have a couple of surprises. We’ll see if I can make it happen. (This has been a busy year, but I’ve spent much of it in a holding pattern, waiting for news, waiting for delayed releases to happen. But progress is happening. Excelsior!)
In the meantime, I’m working on a third Golden Age book. It passed 50,000 words last week. Now is the part of the writing when I’m trying to tie all the threads back together. Fingers crossed that I can make it happen.
October 10, 2014
This is Terry Gilliam’s latest. Gilliam is his own genre, and a new film from him is always cause for celebration. This is probably not one of his best, but it is fascinating, with some incredible performances from some of my favorite actors. (“Wait, who is that guy?” I asked. “That’s Matt Damon.” “WHAT?! WAAAAAAAH!” He’s so great!) Visually, like all Gilliam films, this thing is splendid. But I could have wished for an ending that more resembled an ending and not the petering out that it was.
What really fascinates me about this movie is that it’s cyberpunk. Maybe one of the better cyberpunk movies there’s ever been. Through the first half, I rather suspected it was cyberpunk — but then there’s that Matrix reference smack in the middle, that totally cracked me up, and yeah, this is cyberpunk, full stop. A great chunk of the movie is about how much of life is mediated by technology, and how abstract and sometimes baffling that technology can seem. There’s a party where everyone is dancing and smiling and having a great time, and holding a glowing tablet. Everything from dates to therapy sessions happen via computer, and main character Qohen’s job as some kind of mathematician/programmer is pretty much incomprehensible, except that it looks very much like a video game. Everything looks like a video game, and everyone’s being watched. Qohen definitely doesn’t feel a part of it all — but he also doesn’t ever really want to leave his claustrophobic world. This is cyberpunk without the adventure/messianic tropes that usually show up in cyberpunk, and I think that’s cool.
October 8, 2014
I’m back in Texas for the Books in the Basin Festival in Midland and Odessa, Friday and Saturday. My schedule’s on the website.
After this, I just have MileHi Con, and then I can take a bit of a break. Which is good, since I’ve decided I want to finish the novel I’m working on by Thanksgiving. It’s about 3/4 done now, so I think I’ll be able to make it.
Maybe I’ll see some of you in Texas! In the meantime, have a good rest of your week.
October 6, 2014
Back in the dark ages, the mid to late 80’s, there was something of a revolution in comics and the depiction of superheroes. Watchmen came out, along with The Dark Knight, and even Wild Cards, which all posited variations of the same idea: if real people in the real world really had superpowers and/or donned costumes to fight crime, they would be neurotic at best, psychopathic at worst, and definitely some level of flat-out crazy. These stories were dark, nihilistic and–everyone said, comparing them to the 50 years of gee-whiz adventure that had come before–more realistic.
In hindsight, politically and sociologically the 80’s were just awful, weren’t they?
Along with this new embracing of “gritty” realism came a rejection of anything that was too nice, too idealistic. It was seen as immature, and the expression of idealism was considered naive, a glossing over of harsh worldly realities. Yeah, I blame the 80’s. For twenty years, a lot of storytelling seemed to get darker and more cynical. Robin died. Superman died. Everybody died, and came back so they could die again. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire made unrelenting terribleness in epic fantasy mainstream. The term “grimdark” came into use, with much gleeful rubbing of hands.
A few years ago, I read Erikson’s Deadhouse Gates. Now, Erikson does grimdark with the best of them — this book features a mass exodus of refugees who are being harried by an enemy, people are dying by the thousands, and when they finally reach the city, the gates are barred, and the survivors are all crucified by the side of the road. The story ends with a group of characters searching for one man among the survivors. Two other characters, immortal travelers, chance upon them when they have just found a dying dog. Now, this dog and his pack have been running around the whole book providing a bit of comic relief through all the terribleness (no, really). And now he’s dying no!!!!!! One of the immortals has a healing potion, and a discussion ensues: Should we use it on the dog? Probably not. The dog’s probably too far gone, better not waste it. So the immortals walk away.
And then they turn around, go back, and give the healing potion to the dog, who survives and has many more adventures throughout the series.
I absolutely fell in love with Erikson’s Malazan series in that moment. They saved the dog. For no other reason than it was a good thing to do. The Malazan series has some of the most brutal fantasy writing I’ve ever read, but it’s also filled with Save the Dog moments. Characters who dearly love each other, without cynicism. I need that. Since the 80’s, so much SF&F and comics and superhero stories seemed to be about putting good people in awful situations and seeing how horrible they can be to each other, and how unrelentingly bad the world can be. (And I was really into that for a time — I mean, I read all of Wild Cards, which got just as brutal as the rest.) Those moments of idealism stand out like spotlights in the night.
I think it’s starting to change. Saving things, unsarcastic idealistic characters — good people doing good — are coming back. As Daniel Abraham has explained, when “dark and gritty” becomes the norm, it’s no longer shocking, it’s no longer radical. So what then becomes shocking and radical? Idealism. Optimism.
My favorite comic to date is Warren Ellis’s Planetary, which is explicitly about saving things. Captain America was not supposed to work. Some people insisted that modern audiences would never buy the lawful good, earnest, idealism of that classic character. And yet, it’s one of the best, most popular superhero movies of the last 20 years. The whole Avengers sequence is filled with uncynical heroism — and I think people have been starved for that. Guardians of the Galaxy — the climactic moment involves all the main characters saving the world by coming together and holding hands. And no one’s complaining.
I really like stories about people coming together for the greater good, disparate folk who have a common cause and rise to meet great challenges. Who save things. Turns out, I’ve always liked that kind of story: Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Captain Power. Some would like to see this kind of story as childish — the people making the DC movies, for example. Grimdark isn’t going to go away.
But what I think it would be helpful to recognize is that grim and gritty isn’t any more realistic than idealism. It’s a choice. Sure, Wild Cards can get really dark — but I’ve chosen to write Wild Cards stories about friendship. My upcoming story in Lowball is an outright comedy. Terrible things happen in the world. Really great things happen, too. When someone tries to tell me that grim is more realistic because people are generally awful, I point them to stories like this: during the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, firefighters stopped to save one homeowner’s chickens. They saved the chickens, for no other reason than it was a good thing to do.
We makers of fiction, we’re not doing realism. We’re making choices. And I know what kind of world I’d rather be spending my spare time in.
October 3, 2014
My brain’s a bit scattered today, so this is going to be a post of random things. Like, how I’ve spent the last couple of days dipping my toe into MRA and PUA screeds, in the interest of “know thine enemy,” and I’m really really glad I grew up expecting to make my own living and support myself in this world, meaning I would never need to depend on finding a guy to do it for me, and how that may be the real triumph of feminism right there.
Anyway. I’ve had Ookla the Mok’s song “Doctor Octopus” stuck in my head since FenCon (“Boom-shalaktopus!”). I got to meet and hang out with the band at the convention. They’re really great and you should check them out.
I have a million errands I’m going to try to get done today, like: new passport photo, flu shot, and putting together a Wonder Woman costume for my niece. Because that’s the kind of aunt I am.
Have a great weekend everyone!
October 1, 2014
So, I taught a workshop last weekend! And it went pretty well, I think. I talked about a lot of stuff, and I promised my students I would post one of the checklists I mentioned, but didn’t have a print out for. (See, every workshop I learn a lot about what works, and I incorporate that into the next one. I’m really getting to like slide shows and handouts.)
This is a character checklist, but a much more useful one that the one that goes “What is your character’s favorite food?” Because I worry that the “vital statistics” type checklists I’ve seen in some “how to write” books trick us into including information in our stories that isn’t actually necessary, while forgetting more pivotal details like Why is your character doing this stuff in the first place. So yeah, I’ve never really done “What is your character’s favorite color?” type characterization surveys, and instead think a lot about “How did my character get into this situation and what personality trait is going to get her out?”
So, here’s a character and plot checklist I’ve adapted from the course materials from the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop, by Jeanne Cavelos. (Yes, sixteen years later I still have all my course materials from Odyssey and I still use them.) Jeanne has put a ton of writing information and resources on the Odyssey website — and Odyssey even sponsors online workshops, if you’re interested in more in-depth work. So, without further ado, a character checklist:
Character Checklist (from Jeanne Cavelos & Odyssey):
- Does your character grow out of the setting in which he was raised? What is his relationship with the setting? Does he have any effect on it?
- Is the reader “shown” the character through powerful, concrete sensory details that allow him to visualize the person and his actions?
- Are small and large actions, appearance, and dialogue the main sources of revelation of character?
- Is what you tell us about the character consistent with what you show about the character?
- Are all the details included significant, or is there extraneous detail or information?
- Are there any generic elements in your character? If this character is an archetype, have you made him individual and specific?
- Does the character have some “consistent inconsistencies?”
- Have you researched necessary areas to be able to write about such a character?
- Does the character’s personality have an effect on the plot?
- Does the character have a clear central desire? Why does he want this? Is this desire integrated into the plot? Do we know what set this desire off, and how it is finally resolved? Does the character have something important at stake in the conflict?
- Does the character have clear opinions about what’s going on around him?
- Does the character enhance or embody symbols or themes in the story?
- Does the character change?