Archive for category Short Stories

A Look at Hugo Nominees, Part 4

Short stories can be read in one sitting. Often they slip from the brain as quickly as they slipped in. The greatest ones, though, can stick with a reader for a lifetime.

The short stories nominated this year are:

“Carnival Nine” by Caroline M. Yoachim–Clockwork doll people.

“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” by Fran Wilde–An entity of some sort takes your coin and may or may not let you into a weird sort-of funhouse place.

“Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min–The first sentient robot discovers fandom.

“The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata–a monument on Mars created by an architect on a dying Earth.

“Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon–A grandmother gives a magic sword to a grandson.

“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” by Rebecca Roanhorse–Native Americans hire digital version of themselves out to tourists.

When I began this post, I had only read two of the stories. I have since read the other three.

Once again, we have a range, from literary to heroic fantasy to hard SF to AI to social commentary to fable. I note all of the short stories come from online zines: Tor, Uncanny, Apex, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, to be exact. All of them can be read, for free, by anyone. That has to be significant when it comes to Hugo nominations. Only the more dedicated fan, able to spend a little, will have read stories from F&SF, Asimov’s, or Analog, in time for Hugo nominations.

As much as I enjoy reading and voting, a part of me really doesn’t like awards. There is no “best” story, not even a “best” six stories. Any one of us can think of favorite authors and great stories that don’t make the cut. And the field of speculative fiction is the broadest of genres. To compare a high-quality hard SF story to a high-quality heroic fantasy is like comparing a robot to an animated doll. They have speculation in common, but are less similar than they appear.

That said, congrats to all finalists, including those in categories I haven’t discussed here.

 

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I’ll Get a Story out of This

They come in various categories. Like, In an Unpleasant Place. Or, A Fascinating Person. Also, Based on a True Story, It Was All a Dream, Someone Says Something, and finally, Travel Tedium.

All of the above are triggers for stories. Unlike some writers, I don’t mind at all the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” I think it’s fun to think about. Getting an idea–an idea that will work–is one of the great highs of writing. (Then comes the hard part, which is actually making it work.)

Travel Tedium is one of most reliable. Air travel, long car trips, plane trips, taxi rides–all provide a space when there is nothing to do but woolgather. Our ubiquitous digital devices have cut into this space a bit, but the space is still there. I recall a car trip home from Albuquerque with my husband and infant daughter. On the way, I noted the turnoff for Phoenix, and had a road-not-taken moment. What if we went to Phoenix? What might happen? Those questions turned into a time travel story in which the protagonists try to right a wrong, with unintended consequences. (Love those unintended consequences.)

Sometimes, Someone Says Something. In this case, someone said he was guest-editing the December issue of a magazine, and was looking for Christmas stories. “I don’t do Christmas stories,” I said. An hour later, I was riding back to my hotel, and in spite of the chattiness of the taxi driver, I started making up a Christmas story.

Another favorite is Based on a True Story, one of my favorite trailer lines for movies. A crack in the house’s concrete slab became a sentient miasma. A broken watch found in a restaurant became the means for career rejuvenation. A house, under construction, possibly never to be finished, became a window to the future for a young girl.

It Was All a Dream is the most difficult story trigger to work with. Dreams are long on emotion and short on linear logic. The lack of linear logic isn’t necessarily a problem, but the lack of story logic can be. Dreams–however they might knock us for a loop emotionally–tend to fall apart once examined for story logic. My success rate for It Was All a Dream (success meaning being able to craft the story into something with a point to it) is probably less than fifty percent.

Fascinating People, are always attractive as centers for a story. By “center,” I mean focus. Sometimes, this is the protagonist or narrator, but often not. Often not, because then the plot can center on the protagonist’s interactions with this Fascinating Person, who are often difficult to deal with. My favorite fascinating person-who-became-a-character was David, a local homeless person. I’ve also used a terrible pair of parents, a crazy old woman, and my dad (although I transformed him into an heroic alien). I’ve used Jesus no fewer than three times.

Finally, there’s the conflict-on-a-plate one is gifted with when one is In An Unpleasant Place. Undergoing medical treatment, or moving, or faced with a difficult task, or encountering an unpleasant person. I may hate every moment of it, but damn it, I’m going to get a story out of it!

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Not the actual broken watch that triggered the story. A different one.

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The Gendered Protagonist

Recently, I submitted a novella. The writer’s guidelines strongly hinted a preference for a female protagonist, without saying so explicitly. They also said the writer should feel free to submit as he or she saw fit.

My submission had a male first-person protagonist. It was promptly rejected. I don’t know if my male POV was why, if my synopsis made it sound too much like a “he” story, precipitating a quick rejection. I’m not all that curious about that, though. The editor has every right to decide whatever he or she decides, for whatever reason.

The rejection did make me think about writing from a female vs. a male POV, however. I employ a female POV a good deal of the time, but I use male protagonists too, as well as a few that aren’t one or the other. What’s more, the gender (or not) of my protagonist is one thing I don’t dither over. I know, right from the get-go, whose story it is, and where they fall on the gender spectrum.

Here are my personal statistics: Of a total of forty-five short stories (forty published) and two unpublished novellas, twenty-seven (57.4%) are written from a female point of view. Eleven (23.4%) are from a male point of view. Three are neither male nor female (6.4%), and six stories (12.8%) are from multiple points of view. Leaving out the “neither” and “multi” categories–in other words, when I chose either male or female–71% of my protagonists are female, and 29% are male.

My choosing a female protagonist/narrator is the most natural, the expected. Multiple points of view could be seen as a way of covering my bases. “Neither” points of view are kind of special, and quite specific. One of those was a non-gendered narrator commenting on the sex-based gaffes of gendered individuals. The other two were things, not beings. One was an evil ceramic patio fountain, and the other (actually another multi) was serially a cake, a food magazine, and a supermarket magazine rack.

That leaves the men. Why do I choose a male protagonist? Much of the time it’s that I’m writing  a character who is used to being in control of situations, but finds himself in a situation he can’t fix. He underestimates those around him–especially women, but men, too. He thinks he controls more than he does. He is a man of action, but this time, his actions don’t work. I have an abundance of female characters on hand to give him helpful advice, which he does not take. (To be fair, sometimes their advice isn’t all that great.)

My remaining male protagonists are, save one, passive. One is a statue. He is clearly male though, so I haven’t put him in my “neither” category. One is grieving. One is tired. One is clueless. The only one who isn’t either overly confident or overly passive is superhuman.

I choose my protagonist’s gender without much thought, but not without reason. Is the gender choice inevitable? Could my male or female characters be written as the other gender, or no gender at all? I don’t think so.

My goal is not to write “she” stories or “he” stories, but human stories. That said, gender is a big deal when it comes to how we see ourselves, and how our culture sees us. Usually, a story rests more easily in one gender, rather than the other, or none, or both.

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When Characters Surprise Me, I Am Happy

I’ve found another way we can divide people into two groups. Well, writers, anyway. The first is, writers whose characters behave only in ways previously described in an outline the author has written. The second (mine) is writers whose characters do the equivalent of jumping out of closets, surprising and scaring them, and rarely doing what their author had planned for them.

Nine years ago, I was at a Tim Powers Guest of Honor speech at Loscon. Wonderful speech. He spoke of his writing process, which involved spending a year or so writing a whole bunch o’ stuff down on 3 x 5 cards and arranging and rearranging them until he had a detailed roadmap/outline to work from. Only then did he begin to write. He had to do this, he said, he had to know what each character was going to do, because he hated having to throw drafts away.

At question time, I raised my hand and asked, “Don’t your characters ever behave in ways you hadn’t planned?”

He appeared somewhat shocked. No, he said. What, I asked, if they just got up and started walking around, going places you didn’t expect them to?

“I wouldn’t let them,” he replied.

Huh. I know he was telling the truth, but I’m baffled. My characters don’t even begin to come alive until I begin to write. 3 x 5, even 4 x6, cards won’t do. I need 8-1/2 x 11. Even then, by the end of the first draft, only one or two of the main characters will be at all interesting. I require subsequent drafts to fill in the holes of the other characters, sometimes to take them in a different direction entirely. This happens. I am currently working on my almost-readable draft of a novel, trying to turn it into a rough-but-readable draft, and just became aware that the murderer isn’t who I thought it was. Another character revealed him/herself in the clearest and most unmistakable way. I must go with that gut feeling. I can’t help feel this is a good thing, and not an inconvenience at all, because if I can surprise myself with my tale, perhaps I can surprise my reader as well.

The thing about Tim Powers: his work reads as anything but pat and predictable. His work is smooth, original, darkly humorous, and quirky, as if it had sprung spontaneously and fully-realized from his brain. The year or so of index cards strewn all over the place has been crafted into a seamless piece. Here is what I conclude: His first draft is really his fifth draft. The first four are squeezed on all those little index cards.

This is a great thing to do if it works for you.

Alas, it seems not to work for me, and I accept that. My methods have their inefficiencies, but they hold benefits as well. It may be my brain’s limitations. One of those limitations may involve controlling tendencies that rein in imagination. That is, I want to write something good. I don’t want things to go wrong. Therefore, I must make my characters behave as if they are my children and I’m taking them to a nice restaurant. My characters have to dress nicely, and I don’t want them bothering the other diners.

I have to remind myself my characters aren’t people. They need to bother people. Unfortunately, they often don’t. Not enough. Fortunately, I am good at criticizing my own work. I can look at my characters after I’ve written a full draft, and say, “These people are boring. Can’t you make them do something interesting?”

Aha. Yes I can, indeed. Almost immediately, they start bothering the other diners, behaving immorally, and dressing inappropriately, and the entire project improves greatly.

(By the way, for anyone who likes outside-the-box dark fantasy and hasn’t read Tim Powers, do check him out. He has a new book out, Hide Me Among the Graves, which I’m looking forward to reading. Last year’s collection, The Bible Repairman and Other Stories is a dark hoot. I had never heard of Bible repairmen before, and now I’m glad I have.)

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Words, Pictures, and Music, Part 2

Words are no easier to discard than music. Getting rid of books can be tough, but what about magazines?

I have a shelf in a walk-in closet which, until a few days ago, held a bunch of copies of Interzone, Science Fiction Age, Weird Tales, Realms of Fantasy, and Pulphouse. About half had never been read. About ten percent are still in their plastic covers. I don’t know what to do with them. I don’t think there’s much of a market–we’re not talking vintage here. And, while libraries will take anthology-type zines, the kind that look like books and can stand up on a shelf, flat floppy ones are less attractive.

Here’s the thing: I have stopped reading paper periodicals almost totally. My exceptions being Locus, Bird Talk, Sunset, and The New York Review of  Science Fiction. No fiction. None. And I don’t do too well on the non-fiction, but I at least look at each of these.

These old magazines are weighing on me. The other day, though, I had occasion to pull them all out. I was looking for an extra copy of Interzone #184, in which my story, “Just A Number,” appears. I wanted to send it to my friend and editor, Eric Heideman, as he is helping me put together a couple five-story collections I plan to publish online. (Thank you, Eric!:)) Okay, so: found the extra copy and sent it off to the great city of Minneapolis along with another issue, then looked at the stacks I had pulled out, and thought, It’s time to let go of these.

I began to go through them, looked at all the authors’ names, and empathized with the joy and pride that comes from seeing one’s work in print. I felt the same for the editors and publishers. I knew that publishing and editing these magazines was loads of work, never glamorous, and often thankless. I grieved, though, at how of their time most of these publications are. Non-fiction articles wear much less well than the fiction…I saw pieces on how to read about science fiction on the newfangled Internet. I saw a quite dismissive review of the original publication of Game of Thrones. (Just another sword & sorcery, we are told. Very violent. Shallow female characters.)

What was clear above all was that few of these items in my closet were of any interest to anybody any longer, other than, perhaps, the authors appearing therein.

I wrote last time of music I haven’t gotten rid of. This is different. This time, I will let go of anything I can, giving it to the library if they’ll take it, or giving it to someone else. Worst-case scenario, they’ll go into recycling. I know that word-history weighs me down in a way music-history never could, and these magazines take up psychological space in a way old LPs never could. I feel I will write new material more freely if I remove these old items from my personal space.

It also has to do with the nature of memory as it attaches to each thing.

Words and music both hold memories, but music–even in the MP3 era–holds shared memories. We listen to music together, even now. Books and magazines, on the other hand, make up  a series of solitary memories, and I believe this is true, even if we talk about them, or discuss them in a book club setting. There is simply something very private about reading and memories of reading. Some of these memories have aged well, some not. None of them, though, can be replayed like a three-minute song. They are over, and it is time for them to go.

Yes, there are classics, stories that won’t go away, that will be published and republished. There are classic, vintage issues of magazines for collectors to collect. I’m not a collector; it’s the content, not the package, that does it for me.

So off they must go, leaving me to contemplate my newly emptied shelf.

 

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If I Set Them Free, Does That Mean I Rewrite Them?

How wise is it to rewrite old work?

In my previous post, I set free a half-dozen or so psychologically abused, frustratingly passive women I had authored. Just as I tapped out the final words, the question of should-I-rewrite-them arrived unbidden.

All of us have moments in our real lives–perhaps longer time periods–we would like to have another crack at, but as any writer of fiction knows (particularly writers of speculative fiction), to change the past is to invite unintended plot consequences. Either hilarity or mayhem will ensue, but we might not be laughing. We’ve thought out the ‘what if’ and know we’re probably better off with our lives as they are and have been, warts and all. We believe in the butterfly effect, and know there are a hoard of those bad butterflies waiting close by for us to do something stupid like invent time travel. Then they’ll swoop in and show us how incapable we are of directing events. (Yeah, I wrote one of those stories, once.)

Needs warning label!

Changing a story I’ve already written (and published) is less dire than changing my life, but still not recommended. As I type this, I’m tempted to try it, nonetheless.

Character is at the center of fiction of any genre. My sad housewives’ characters drive their tales; if changed, the entire story changes. This could be cool, or would be cool if the plot complications weren’t ninety percent the result of my protagonists’ own stupid character defects. And maybe, maybe, that’s what bugs me about these stories. If those character flaws aren’t entertaining to me…if I neither sympathize with them nor find them amusing any longer, the tale begins to bore me, just like a party I’ve stayed too long at.

So that’s it. I typed a little longer, and came up with my answer. No. Anything I reprint will appear as it did originally. Other than a comma here or there, or some formatting problem, I won’t touch it. If I can’t present it with enthusiasm, I won’t present it at all. Period. End of subject.

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Goodbye to the Unhappy Housewives

Another Pain of Reading Old Work I’ve discovered is that a shockingly large number of my protagonists are unhappy, verbally and emotionally abused housewives whose reality is melting around them. No one believes them. Everyone (especially the husband) thinks they’re crazy.

On Sunday night’s Mad Men, Don Draper was trying to control his new wife, picking at her, making her feel like garbage, insinuating she was the crazy one. Exactly how he treated Betty when they were married. Remember Don’s late-night phone calls to her psychiatrist to discuss her progress (or lack thereof)? Betty Draper, the crazy housewife.

What many women thought they wanted. Really.

I was a child in 1960, but old enough to notice, observe, and study. I lived through it, and I learned the wrong lessons. I liked the clothes. They were restrictive and artificial, but very cool. The panache, the glamour, even the relative rigidity of the social rules, the Eisenhower placidity of the time, didn’t strike me as artificial. I didn’t think a lot about artificiality vs. authenticity in those days. I looked upon it instead as a dance one needed to learn, and if one learned the steps well, one would be happy.

By a mere half-dozen years later, everything had changed. I don’t know what will happen between Don and Meghan, but I suspect he won’t be dialing up her psychiatrist to consult on her progress. He might want to, but he will no longer be allowed to.

This highlights an important difference between my protagonists and Don’s wives; his “act up,” but mine are shockingly passive. Victims. I read them and want to scream. Worse, I read them, and am bored with them.

I’m not certain why I fixated on this sort of situation. In real life, I went through and benefitted from the sexual revolution like everyone else. I have not shared the situation of these characters. I have certainly listened to other women talk of their situations, and have been outraged. I am aware that even a highly intelligent, outwardly successful woman can be shockingly passive when it comes to protecting herself from abuse from a loved one. I consider the very real lives of women today in countries where a abuse is codified into law and custom, and am horrified. Because I write SF & F, I crafted housewive’s stories into dark fantasy short stories. The horror of them comes as much from within as from without. I avoided depicting physical abuse; none of my characters’ husbands would hit them or kill them, but oh, could they be mean-mouthed and stupid as turnips!

My short stories of mad and unhappy housewives are well-written and authentic, if a bit repetitive. I could have written half as many and done the job. I acknowledge them, but to remain any longer with them would be to wallow. I have lost sympathy with them. I must move on.

I will not reprint these stories. Nor will I be writing an unhappy, reality-is-melting-and-my-husband-doesn’t-believe-me housewife protagonist in any future work. I say goodbye to all those poor, sorry, fictional women, and leave with some advice: Get out of the house once in a while. Do something. Stop isolating. Ask for help. Call Dr. Phil if necessary. Or Ghosthunters. Whatever. This is not the Middle Ages. As your author, I hereby set you free!

Photo: Flickr.com

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