Archive for category Short Stories

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!


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The Pain of Reading Old Work

Toss old ms. into flames--what a quaint idea!

Inspired by David Gaughran’s Let’s Get Digital I am exploring the pros and cons of self-publishing my novel (when it’s finished) as an e-book. My post today isn’t about pros and cons, or even about the process of formatting, marketing, and so forth. It’s about the basic issue: content.

My novel is months away from being ready. I don’t know how many months, but less than a year, I hope. I would love to test the waters with something now, say some short stories. I have some already written–two dozen or so published since the late 1980s, and a handful of unpublished works. The published ones are somewhat obscure. Most were in the very excellent Tales of the Unanticipated, and five were in the British semi-prozine Interzone.

I’m in the middle of reading them all now, to see what kind of mini-collection I could put together.

Reading old work. Whoa. Scary. Weird. Some concerns emerge.

#1: Anachronisms. Oddly, this affects the science fiction and the fantasy equally. In the 1990s, I utterly sucked at foreseeing what techno marvels would come to wow us a mere decade later. Oh yeah, I’d read Phillip K. Dick while listening to a compact disk, and sneer at him for having his characters listening to their music in 1990-something on reel-to-reel tape. I never saw the mp3 player coming. My idea of an up-to-date modern household in 2050 is a big-screen flat TV and robotic vacuum. Pathetic.

My fantasy fares no better. A single cell phone can collapse an entire plot line, and a lack thereof can seem really weird in a story that’s meant to be happening in the present, turning it into a really nebulous no-time period piece. Giant shoulder pads and big hair lurk offstage.

#2: It’s old. Those handful of readers who have read my work (most of whom I hope would want to read more) want to see something new from me. It would seem cheesy to slap some old thing up on Amazon, etc., that they’ve read before and ask them to pay money for it. There has to be some previously unpublished work up there, which means I would have to write some new material, short stories, to be specific. Darn. I was hoping to have something to sell without actually having to write something.

Before I toss those old mss. into the flames, there is one other consideration: Some of this earlier work is pretty good, and I would like to see it out there again.

Possible solution: Find a way to combine old and new material in such a way, like a themed mini-collection, that would appeal to old and new readers alike. Yeah. Guess I have some work to do.

For now, I’ll keep reading.

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More Kept Books, Perhaps to be Set Free

My previous post did me so much good that I’ve decided to keep going. It is time to be honest about books, to get real about what I am going to actually, honestly want to read. My reward will be bookshelves that can breathe.

Aqueduct Press ( always snags my interest with their classy offerings. I have two from their Conversation Pieces, a short story collection by Carolyn Ives Gilman, Aliens of the Heart, and a Sue Lange novella, We, Robots. I also have a a third from them, Eleanor Arnason’s Tomb of the Fathers. Each one is clearly worthy of my time and effort. As to why I have not gobbled them up yet, I have to think it’s the form issue. Two of these slender volumes are novellas; one, a short story collection.

Novellas and story collections can be treated as stepchildren, simply not big enough to count as “what I’m reading now.”

Reading has been my principle, number one, way to relax for as long as I have known how to read. Science fiction, kids’ series (The Black Stallion, The Bobbsy Twins), historical fiction, fantasy, detective fiction, lit fix, satire…but mostly novels. Novels of between 200 and 550 pages are the most approachable size. (Note that, if you substitute calories for words, you could say that a novel is a nice, dinner-sized plateful of reading.) 1085 pages (Against the Day) is too much reading-food; 93 pages (We, Robots) is too little to make a meal. So, while I’ve always liked short stories and novellas, they are more like a side dish or appetizer, not my main course.

This is, of course, ridiculous. Literature is more that its word count. I can remember short stories that have had as much effect on me as any full-length work. And I’ve always maintained that the novella is the perfect length to adapt for stage or film, a length at which you don’t have to leave out plot lines or characters.

So, what about these three?

Tomb of the Fathers, is blurbed as a “…witty romp of planetary romance…” I have read Eleanor’s romps in the past, and they are wonderful. She may be the most carefully intelligent writer I know. She is able to make me believe nearly anything, because she has set it up so well, and because she has so clearly thought out all the implications. Of course I’ll keep this.

Aliens of the Heart is a short collection of “…stories of the heartland.” The heartland is something of a mystery to me, socially, politically, and spiritually, and Carolyn is another wonderful writer (Halfway Human) who I expect will illuminate it. Keep.

Sue Lange is a writer I don’t know. I must have purchased We, Robots because of the the subject matter: the story of robots becoming more intelligent than humans. I have a similar issue as a subplot in the novel I’m working on; I need to read this.

Uh oh, I’m sounding like those folks on Hoarders.

Another sweep of the shelves last night revealed two more titles from Aqueduct: one more each from Eleanor Arnason and Carolyn Ives Gilman. Ordinary People is an Arnason short story collection, and Candle in a Bottle is a Gilman novella. And yeah, I’m keeping them all. All five books go back on the shelf. Well, they are skinny.

Well, okay, this second post on unread books hasn’t helped me get rid of anything. What it has done, however, is bring these books to my attention once more. These slender trade paperbacks were overwhelmed by larger volumes around them. That shouldn’t happen to any book.

Maybe I’ll give them their own special corner of the top shelf, so they won’t get lost again.

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