Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Count is the Kingdom

Chrysina optima. Gold variant
Image courtesy of the Generic Guide to New Word Beetles
My story, The Count is the Kingdom is up at Electric Spec. This quarterly eZine has been publishing for six years, which is like forever on the Internet. If you want to know more about them, you can read their interview with the W1S1 people here.
I can tell you it was a real pleasure working with David Hughes the co-founder at Electric Spec, who edited this story and really helped  make it shine! If you want to know more about the inner workings of a successful online publication check out their blog, where the editors keep readers and writers apprised of what they're up to.

*     *     *

The Count is the Kingdom is the kind of story where a lot of dispirate ideas came together as I worked on it. I remember starting out with the image of a walled city that was actually a honeypot trap, collecting more and more people. To what purpose I had no idea, at least I didn't when I started writing. The first draft was actually a failed flash piece, so I started playing with some more ideas.
15th century Catalan mappamundi

I got to thinking about cartography and map making, and about how early explorers imagined the world. I had the thought that a census is a kind of topography of numbers that draws a map of a different kind inside our heads.

I can't remember what got me onto beetles, besides the fact that I'm raising a pair of tomboys and bugs are a constant topic of conversation. Ninety percent of the time a bug that wanders into our house is the subject of rescue not squashing. I spent a couple enjoyable hours researching scarabs and beetles while writing this story, especially how they figure in mythology. 

I hope you enjoy reading it, I thoroughly enjoyed writing it.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Slow Reader

Young Girl Reading a Book on the Beach by Picasso
I'm a slow reader.

Everyone in my critique group knows it, because I'm always the one still reading when everyone finally gives up on me and starts talking - and that's me trying to read fast. I do usually manage to finish the story under discussion, comment and scribble a few notes before we move on to the next one.

Reading fast is a useful skill, and I've worked on improving my speed, without, I'm afraid, much success. Compared with speedy readers, I'll never be well read. I've given up on the dream of being a prolific reader. Even without the distractions of job and family, it is unlikely that I will ever devour an epic novel in a week or a series in a month. I have never read the whole back catalog of any of my favorite authors, as much as I would like to.

Instead I content myself with reading deeply. Turns out slow reading is a thing, proven by the fact that Wikipedia has an entry for it. It's because I love reading so much that I tend to wallow around in whatever is in front of my eyeballs.

What I'm reading today.

Reading isn't a linear process for me. Some of that is just me being highly distractable, but often I'm slowed down by the crowd of thoughts and connections that my brain is making with the text as I wade through it. I double back and circle around, covering and recovering the ground I just crossed to reaffirm a tangential link to something I read somewhere else, or to just savor a beautiful phrase.

This is why I  love poetry. Slow and repeated readings reveal layers of insight and meaning as well as beauty. Subvocalizing (hearing a voice in your head while you read, which is discouraged if you want to read fast) is good, vocalizing is even better. If you want to really read a poem, read it out loud.

Patrick Kingsley at the Guardian talks about how the Internet has effected our reading habits in general and Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows in particular in his article The Art of Slow Reading
"The words of the writer act as a catalyst in the mind of the reader, inspiring new insights, associations, and perceptions, sometimes even epiphanies." And, perhaps even more significantly, it is only through slow reading that great literature can be cultivated in the future. As Carr writes, "the very existence of the attentive, critical reader provides the spur for the writer's work. It gives the author the confidence to explore new forms of expression, to blaze difficult and demanding paths of thought, to venture into uncharted and sometimes hazardous territory."
Books like The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains and the The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age are less about reading slowly and more concerned with the cultural impact of the electronic age and the sea of information that the wired elite swim in. There's a lot of talk about how all this fast and careless reading degrades the way we think. But, to me, these arguments often start to sound a little henny penny the sky is falling. While I may have a hard time reading fast, we can all chose to read slowly.

And the Internet is a great place to read fast. I don't linger over instruction manuals either. I'll even jog through a good popcorn novel with all the alacrity I can muster, but mostly I read slow because it's my default setting. Like the philosophy behind the The Soup Peddler's Slow and Difficult Soups: Recipes and Reveries, I want a challenge when I read, a depth of experience that cannot be achieved quickly - a rich stew. 

To read is to cross time and receive the world through the strange and archaic words, to struggle up a long hill and arrive at a new vista of understanding, to scale and plumb the topography of emotion. Most of all, I love the feeling of epiphany when reading, and you don't get epiphany skimming.
Man reading a book

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Art of Waiting

Waiting for the Mail by Grant Wright Christian (WPA mural)
Waiting is hard.

Any writer that is submitting stories is in a constant state of waiting to hear back. That's just life. Some markets are quick (Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Daily Science Fiction to name a few), but once I've collected my rejections from them, it's time to get on the slow boat and submit to the markets that take 30, 60, even 90 days -or more- to respond to that precious story I worked and slaved over.

For me, the only way to stay sane about this process is to keep stuffing stories into the machine.
One thing about writing more stories is that each story becomes a little less precious, which helps. Sure, it's the most important thing while I'm writing it (you know, love the one you're with), but then it's on to the next.
In order to keep the hopper full, I can't just focus on writing things, I have to finish them. The key here is to know when you are finished.

In the introduction to her book Two Worlds and In Between, Caitlin Kiernan describes looking back at her earlier stories and seeing a kind of snapshot of herself at a certain point in time. Saying that, in her stories,
 "I see the procession of me."
I love that! After I've taken a story though drafting, revision, critique, final changes and proofing, I have to be able to look at it and say, this is the very best story I can write today. 

One of the most important skills for anyone making any kind of art is the ability to really see what you've made. To be able to make a clear-eyed critical self-assessment of a story not only allows me to write the best story I can, it also gives me an understanding of my current skills and talents that will allow me to improve. Since I'm an optimist, I am going to assume that, with hard work, I will  be a better writer next year than I am today. 

But, I'm not going to go back to a finished story and rework it because it is what it is. My job is to write better NEW stories. Reworking old ones is chasing a kind of perfection that is not only impossible but, I believe, irrelevant. 

When I'm constantly working on something new, striving to write my best story, waiting on my submitted stories is still hard, but just the business that goes on in the background. I keep my focus on making today's story the best it can be.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

When do I get to read it, you ask?

Detail of man reading "The Three Kingdoms"
After reading my post about finishing the first draft of my novelette Izzy Crow, my brother asked, When do I get to read it? I'm afraid the answer is, not for a while. I think of a story idea, sit down and write it out, and that's really where things are just getting started. I followed my own advice with this story and wrote fast and let it be a big, bountiful mess, which will need a lot of taming before it resembles a finished story. 

One of my favorite short story writers, George Saunders talks about about his approach to story being an iterative process. He explains that even if he doesn't know exactly what a story is about when he starts it, if he keeps returning to it over and over again through revisions, the true meaning of the story kind of accretes (Check out the article and listen to the whole interview here). I think this is true. In any creative pursuit, it becomes apparent that while you can work faster, there are no shortcuts.

Here are the steps in my process as it is today. It may change and evolve as I continue to push myself to become a better writer.
    First is the idea of course, usually followed by a little preliminary research. I don't factor this into the time it takes to produce a finished story. I keep a collection of ideas simmering in my journal, and when I have a spare minute or two I'll poke around the Internet for information that will help grow a particular idea until I've got enough to start writing. For example, for the story I'm working on this week (remember a story a week!): I'm reading about the different kinds of environments tidally locked planets might have. I am actually doing this concurrent with writing the first draft.
    • First draft. "Ground Zero" can mean either the point directly below an exploding nuclear bomb, or a starting point for some activity. In writing, I think both definitions are apt. This set of half formed characters and events have to go from my brain to the page and even when I start with something, it feels like starting from nothing. The process can be quite disfiguring, in that what you end up with can be pretty unrecognizable when compared with the original idea, but that's not always a bad thing.
    • First read through with notes for big changes. This is where I assess what I got with my first attempt. Theoretically I could abandon a story at this point, but I haven't done that yet. I usually do a little additional research here, filling in missing information and searching for specific, vivid details to add.
    • Second draft. Here I implement all the stuff I got from the first read, making big changes. Reshaping by cutting big swaths out and chunking in new material including said detail (from a hopefully brief trip to the land of research). At some point around here, my understanding of the themes of the piece usually come into better focus, which may cause another sub-round of cutting and chunking.
    • Third draft. These are smaller adjustments, smoothing it all out, paragraph and sentence level work, style, tone, tweaking metaphors and language to highlight said theme. This can take a long time. Writing a good sentence is hard.
    • Critique. Now I'm ready to let a few people see it. Slugtribe, my in-person critique group meets the 2nd and 4th Tuesdays of every month, or I can send it off to the Online Writing Workshop, crits usually take about a week to come back from that site. I find getting feedback from others essential to the process. This is also a chance for me to step away from this story for a few days. It's amazing what I'll see when I look at it after a break. 
    • Final revisions. Assessing all the critiques and incorporating the useful comments AND a final proofing read through (yup, still finding typos).
    first read through
    Each of these six stages can take a week or more, and that's a minimum, what with hubby and kids and the dog and life intervening and all. Some stories are harder than others, they put up more resistance, require more revisions to really get at the nut of the thing. This year I am trying out drafting a NEW story every week, so I am working on the new thing in the morning and revising older stories in the afternoons and evenings. I expect I will be writing more flash fiction (stories under 1,000 words) and probably some poetry on weeks when I want to devote more time to revising a longer story.

    So, finally the story is finished. Time to start submitting it.

    Notice I didn't say "time to submit it" I said "time to START SUBMITTING it." So far, all of my published stories have been submitted to a minimum of 3 markets and a maximum of 15. That's 15 rejections before an editor said yes. Some markets will respond very quickly, within a week, but many take a month or two or three. Zombie Envy, just published this month, and another one that is forthcoming (which I will get to announce soon!) were finished in EARLY 2012. Maybe as I get more story-writing skillz, I'll get on a faster track here. But I know that plenty of great stories also get rejected because they don't fit the theme or aesthetic of a given publication. The only thing to do is send it out, forget it, and get back to work on the current story.

    So, I hope to finish Izzy Crow by the end of February or early March, then I'll start sending it out. When it gets accepted for publication, believe me, you'll be the first to know!

    Friday, February 1, 2013

    Zombie Envy is up at Flashes in the Dark

    A member of staff at the Angels Fancy Dress shop works in their Shaftsbury Avenue branch 
    in a Halloween costume, Oct. 28, 2011 in London, England. (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
     I got the word rather late last night that one of my stories had been accepted, so here's the official announcement that my story Zombie Envy up at Flashes in the Dark along with a lot of other great, short horror fiction.

    Since zombies are pretty overplayed right now, I wanted to try to write a story that came at the subject from a little different angle. I got to wondering about how much the undead might retain as far as, if not memory, perhaps old habits. That and the idea that old relationships can sometimes kind of shamble on in our hearts in an undead way. I really had fun writing this one. Be warned, it's a little gross because - zombies.