Mirror fun

Kevin Jaako via Creative Commons

Have you seen this Hemingwrite thing? Basically it’s a dedicated word processor with an typewriter design aesthetic but some modern technology touches like cloud-syncing and an e-Ink digital screen.

I’ll be honest, I think the thing is sexy as can be. I have a certain fetish for typewriters to begin with, so this preys directly upon that sensibility while neatly sidestepping the fact that, romanticism aside, writing on such a device would require a huge sacrifice in the convenience department. But I can’t lie and say it’s not alluring to be presented with the opportunity to have some of that nostalgic cake and digitize it, too.

But then I read the kickstarter page, and I realize this is a product that is being sold to fix a problem it can’t reasonably be expected to address. And it’s not the first product to take aim at the hapless writer this way, either. Continue reading

2014 Winner NaNoWriMo

Used with permission from National Novel Writing Month

Well, I managed to finish the NaNoWriMo project—from their 50,000-word guideline perspective anyway—once again at or near the midnight hour. I have been terribly off pace since early in the month and it’s taken a lot of gritted teeth to power through to the finish line. I think, more so than anything else, the challenge this year has been simply that there are other things I would have rather been working on. At no point did this novel ever really capture my imagination and demand to be written down. But as I said going into the month, that’s probably a good thing. Having the luxury of working on the latest inspiration isn’t something it would be wise to come to expect. So I set the goal and I stuck with it, even when it was difficult. Because this year, more so than the other two where I participated, there were times that I really wanted to just call it off. To pack it in and shrug it off. It’s just a silly self-directed contest, after all.

Right?

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OR gate

Martin Kenny via Creative Commons

About two months ago I began volunteering as a first reads editor for a small semi-pro science fiction magazine. If you’re a writer who regularly submits fiction to publishing markets, you’ll recognize this role as the “slush reader.” If you’re not a writer, the short explanation is that unsolicited submissions are collected into what is called the slush pile—a stack of stories sent in cold for publishing consideration. The editor-in-chief is usually the person responsible for purchasing stories they want to publish, but in a lot of cases the number of submissions overwhelms the time an editor-in-chief could reasonably devote to reading and making a decision upon.

Many markets use slush readers, almost always volunteers, who comb through the submissions and reject the ones they feel have no chance of being approved by the decision-makers and passing along only those that pass first inspection.

Slush reading has a reputation of being something of a thankless job. Aside from being unpaid, it can take a significant amount of time, depending on the volume of submissions and the current number of active first readers. Plus, there is the perception—true or not—that slush reading means reading a lot of really awful stories.

My reasoning for undertaking this endeavor is that, having spent a year and a half having my writing read by these pre-screeners, I wanted to get a taste of life on the other side of the submissions queue. I have some designs of doing editorial projects in the future and I felt this was a good way to get some experience in editorial-adjacent work. The other factor, and not an insignificant one, is that I heard from a few writer friends who slush read on the side that doing so was beneficial to their own writing. Seeing common mistakes that got stories rejected was good, they said, for helping them avoid similar mistakes in their own work.

So I answered a call for first readers from Plasma Frequency Magazine. My experience with them was fairly limited; I had read a couple of issues as part of my research project to get a sense of what certain markets accept. I submitted one story to them which passed their first two reading tiers and was, eventually, rejected by the editor-in-chief. I had thought about submitting other stuff to them, but decided to see about the position first (volunteer editors are not allowed to submit to PFM).

Once I was brought onboard I began reading through the submissions queue and making decisions. To be honest, at first I didn’t think too closely about it and just tried to be fair about what I thought had a chance at being picked up by the editor-in-chief.

But over the following couple of weeks I started seeing certain things happen that opened my eyes to what might be going on behind the scenes at markets where I had pending submissions. Obviously I can’t assume that my observations map to anyone else’s, or even that the processes of doing first reads are all that comparable (I have only this experience—and a very small sample of it at that—to go on), but thinking about how this plays from both sides of the fence has been interesting at least, and possibly instructive.

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Halfway House Cafe BBQ

Andrew Morrell via Creative Commons

Just a quick check in today to update a few things.

  • Halfway through the NaNoWriMo month and … well, I’m behind. I don’t think it’s yet at the point where all is lost, but I should be at the 25,000 word mark and I’m about 7,000 words off the pace. Now, that’s not something I can’t overcome: I’ve written 3,500-4,000 words in a day plenty of times. But it’s a daunting place to be in. Looking back on last year, I see that I was woefully behind around mid-month then as well and I ended up rallying and coming through with a strong second half. I hope that’s the case again. I’m still struggling to get into this story the way I would like, which worries me because at least last year I was enthusiastic about the problem, even if I was struggling with having been laid off right around the beginning of the month. Most days this time around I feel like it’s a chore to reach the standard 1,667 words. But I’m still plugging away as best I can, hoping I can find some inspiration somewhere and finish strong.
  • A small part of my NaNo struggles also come down to the number of other related tasks I’m dealing with. I’ve been trying to keep this blog more frequently updated, and part of that involves doing some reading for the Short List series that I’m still enthusiastic about. Plus I’m reading a really good book right now and a lot of my friends keep getting really great stories published which are piling up on me. I’ve also been reading chapter books (not picture books) to my oldest daughter at bedtime, which has been fun and I want to write some new reviews of these children’s books based on the new readings and the conversations they spark with her, but finding time is so challenging. Not to mention I’m still trying to check in on the slush reading gig regularly. And, of course, there are non-literary issues to contend with including a baby who’s teething and not sleeping well, illnesses that keep nagging our family, and a renewed effort on my part to fix some of my health issues by eating better and exercising. These are things every person—and particularly every writer, I’m sure—contends with, but sometimes they seem to pile up a little higher and this month feels like one of those periods.
  • On the bright side, some writer friends of mine turned me on to QuarterReads, a new site for writers and readers that operates a little on the microtransaction model that was sort of hot a number of years ago. Basically you drop $10 into the site and that gives you 40 reads at twenty-five cents. The stories are all under 2,000 words and most of the money goes directly to the author. If you like the story, you can tip up to another seventy-five cents. They do read and vet each submission which gives some quality control to the site so you know you’re not getting unfiltered, unedited garbage. And there are some pretty heavy hitters posting work there now, such as Ken Liu, Cat Rambo, and a couple of people I know and can personally vouch for: Alexis A. Hunter and Natalia Theodoridou. Anyway, I think it’s a really interesting model, and I genuinely hope it succeeds. I even have a story up there now, Corkscrew, which you may recall appeared on the Toasted Cake podcast earlier this year. This is the first print version of the story available, so if you missed it first time around, here’s another chance to catch it.
  • Speaking of publications, it seems that October ended my rather unlikely streak of publications. From April through September of this year, I had a new publication come out every month. I have one publication pending, an anthology I’m thrilled to be a part of and can’t wait to see come out. But even my most optimistic hopes for it wouldn’t permit the streak to stay alive; the publishers are putting out an advance review copy (ARC) and only finalized the contributors list in September. Not too much chance of a one-month turnaround there. Still, I’m amazed and humbled by this past year’s small step forward. Six stories this year was more than I could have hoped for, and in the meantime I’ve continued to write and (hopefully!) improve, so I’d like to say this is only the beginning. For those who have supported me by reading or signal boosting—in particular my ever-patient wife who also manages to make time to be my biggest cheerleader—I thank you. I write for me, but I try hard to be better for you.

NaNoWriMo

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month

I’m doing National Novel Writing Month again this year. I started in 2011, where I completed the challenge by rambling 50,000 words of useless nonsense about a reluctant Djinn and … a guy? …Who wishes for his wife’s boobs to be bigger? I think? I’m not sure. It got weird.

Anyway.

I skipped 2012 intentionally, as I had a lot of other projects I wanted to work on and didn’t want the disappointment of failing. Turns out the disappointment of not even trying wasn’t much of an improvement. So I resolved to go for it again last year, and barely squeaked out my 50K on a fantasy/detective hybrid thing. Again, I didn’t outline the plot (though I did a ridiculous amount of world building prep) and it turns out writing a mystery/noir thriller without a very clear idea where the plot is going is Not A Good Idea. So I finished—from a NaNo perspective—but, as with the Djinn story, it didn’t get any further than that. I may revisit the fantasy/noir later; it’s shelved for now.

Now this year I’m back at it. If you’re following along on Twitter you may have noticed me griping late last month about trying to come up with a project idea. I had a few concept seeds that seemed like they might be worth exploring in a longer format, but I had a hard time making them mesh in any cohesive way. I toyed with crime story frameworks, science fiction trappings, angsty YA-lit variants, all sorts of things to make something click. Eventually I settled on a horror/supernatural story and set out trying to outline the thing.

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Fireside

(OvO) via Creative Commons

For more information about this feature, check out the original post.

Fireside
Issue 16, October 2014
Edited by: Brian J. White
Cost: Free to read online

Because my traipsing through short fiction venues is designed to be one-stop, it’s necessary to note that I won’t be bothering with serialized content. I say necessary in the case of Fireside’s October 2014 issue, because the bulk of the issue seems to be devoted to Lilith Saintcrow’s serialized She Wolf And Cub, including a prologue, and then Chapter One. Which is fine because it makes this inaugural edition of The Short List a rather breezy one, consisting of just three stories to read and a short note from editor Brian J. White. That is absolutely not an indictment of She Wolf And Cub—but if I get hooked on every serialized piece I stumble across, I’ll end up doing nothing but catching up on those by the third or fourth Short List. I’m intentionally avoiding it. And that’s actually something worthwhile to note about reading short fiction publications: feel free to skip over anything that doesn’t grab you right away or that just doesn’t sound interesting. With so many other stories to choose from, there’s no sense getting stuck on one that you won’t finish or that isn’t working out for you.

Anyway. Fireside.

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Reader

Hartwig HKD via Creative Commons

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years trying to improve my writing skills by focusing on short fiction. Along the way I’ve read a ton of it, both to learn from what was out there and to see what was selling as I tried to align my submissions to markets that were (more) likely to buy my work. And in the process I developed a love of short fiction.

I could easily say that liking short stories isn’t particularly a recent development. But considering how well short work scratches the reading itch without the commitment inherent in choosing a new novel, it’s kind of surprising that it took me this long and this particular circumstance to get me truly invested in it. It simply didn’t occur to me earlier to seek out short fiction—other than the occasional author collection or intriguing theme anthology. I certainly never thought about subscribing to or buying fiction magazines.

I recently had a conversation with some other writers in which it was observed that sometimes it feels like short story readers have a 1-to-1 overlap with short story writers. That basically the only people who care about literary or genre magazines which run less-than-novel-sized pieces are people who are writing in that format. Maybe that’s untrue or unfair. But what I don’t think is controversial is the idea that short stories could be getting more attention than they are from pure readers.

My hypothesis is that maybe these publications just don’t get enough non-writer-y attention. Perhaps if someone explored some of the available options with a focus on their value to readers; if there was a concerted effort to get conversations started the way they’re started about books—with the added benefit of more inclusiveness since it’s much easier to get a group of people to read a ten-page story than a 300-page book—the short fiction community might not feel so insular.

Enter The Short List. This will be an experiment. For as long as it feels fun and engaging, I’ll choose a different publication for each installment and offer mini-synopses, reviews, and essays about the selected issue. My intent is to spread the focus around: professional-paying, high-profile publications will sit alongside indie and niche collections. I want to do genre magazines and eclectic anthologies. But more than anything I’m going to focus on these selections from a reader’s perspective. What’s the value like? How fun are the stories to read? How likely is it readers will find themselves sharing their favorites with friends? I specifically won’t be talking about the publications’ submission process or pay rates. Cover price may be a factor, art design might come up. What won’t be discussed are topics like the ease of working with the editors, what kind of submissions they’re looking for, or how frequently they respond with personal feedback.

The format may change and evolve over time. I do want to consider this a somewhat critical evaluation of each selection, but I don’t really care to fixate on ripping apart stories (and authors) I don’t care for. I also don’t have much interest in carefully curating my selection of a given publication based on issue or theme. The way I see it, any reader should be able to pick up any issue and be well-rewarded for their time and money. So I won’t be cherry-picking too much.

But here’s my hope: if you love to read, I hope you’ll read along with me, at least sometimes. I want to start conversations, introduce people who love to read to stories they might not otherwise have seen, connect new fans with new favorite writers, and get people excited about short fiction publications for the joy of reading bite-sized stories.

Stay tuned for the first edition of this feature coming very soon.

d-221 books

az via Creative Commons

It took me over nine and a half months to get through a single novel this year. To put that in perspective, I read 59 books last year, and 44 the year before.

To be fair, I did spend the first four months of the year unemployed and looking for work. Just as I began to zero in on a job prospect, my wife gave birth to our second daughter. So for a lot of the year I’ve been busy and somewhat sleep-deprived. And then there is the fact that I’ve been reading a ton of short fiction. Some has been for research purposes as I comb through samples of various magazines and sites that accept unsolicited submissions; some has just been because most of what I’m writing these days is short fiction and it feels worth it to study the form. And I recently became aware of a big gap in my literary headcanon as I have little to no exposure to poetry, so I’ve read a bunch of that lately, too.

But none of this quite explains my sudden decline in reading books.

I think a big part of it has been that I’m very routine-oriented when it comes to some things. Over the past few years I did a lot of commuting on public transportation, and it became a reading haven for me. Once I no longer had that job, reading needed to be carved out of different time periods. Other activities like writing, exercising, chores, they all competed with reading. It isn’t easy for me to adjust activities from one niche in my day to another, especially when a previous slot seemed to really work. Ask me how good I’ve done at exercising since I stopped being able to squeeze it in alongside my lunch break at work.

Another part of it may be that I tried to tackle two large novels right around the time my regular reading time disappeared. One was Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, which I picked up because I wanted to read a romance novel to expand my horizons and I thought some of the speculative elements I’d heard about in the series might make it easier to digest. And I was enjoying it, but it didn’t have that stay-up-all-night-reading hook to it. I gave it too long before dropping it. Then the other was the fourth book in the Song Of Ice And Fire saga, George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series. The first three books, despite being rather hefty in size, took me a month or so each. But this book is a slog. It’s not bad, necessarily, but it’s kind of a series reboot and it ignores a lot of my favorite characters from previous books and adds a bunch of new ones I have a harder time caring about. So it’s been tough to get into the groove with it, and I still haven’t quite given up on it, mostly because it’s hard enough to keep all the characters in my head when I read a chapter a week. I’m afraid if I tried to come back to it, I’d never finish.

And really that is the thing that has kept me from finishing books, and it’s a lesson I had learned a few years ago. The more aggressive I am at putting books down that don’t hold my interest, the more I read.

The book I finally finished was John Scalzi’s Redshirts, which I listened to on audiobook while I did chores around the house. It’s a neat trick, but it turns out it only works for a certain kind of breezily-paced book. I’ve been trying to do the same with Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier and Clay” and while I’m very much enjoying the book (and the narration!), its literary style and fairly somber tone and pacing makes it less effective at helping me simply pass the time.

Hopefully I’ve broken the seal, though. A couple weeks after finishing Redshirts I tore through Octavia Butler’s Dawn and decided to give A Feast For Crows one more push and I actually made pretty significant progress. Maybe I’ll finish it and somehow this year won’t be a huge reading disappointment after all.

I received the following challenge from a writer pal of mine:

But Twitter is a terrible medium for such an undertaking, so I thought I’d post my response here. Note that I’m interpreting “moved” here to be any book that caused a strong emotional response from me, excepting a strong dislike for the book or a particular part of it. I could probably fill another list with books that have annoyed or frustrated me in some grand fashion, but that’s not what I’m discussing right here.

almost crying

Paula Silva via Creative Commons

  1. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green
    Yeah, okay, it’s maybe a little hokey for a thirty-something person to be crying over a book about teenage cancer patients. But I blame the remarkable talent of Kate Rudd, who read the audiobook version I listened to. Her vocal characterizations of Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters brought those characters to life. By the inevitable tragedy toward the end of the book I realized I had handed each and every one of my heartstrings to Ms Rudd, who then let Mr Green’s words yank on all of them with both hands. I regret nothing and I feel no shame.
  2. Where The Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
    Granted, I read this book in fifth grade and haven’t gone near it since, so saying it’s the only other book (aside from TFiOS) that actually caused me to cry is maybe over-selling Red Fern a bit. But this book did a stealth move on me because it was an assigned reading book that I expected to hate, found myself wrapped up in, and did not see the end coming until it was too late. Whatever it was, it worked on me at the time.
  3. The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes
    This slim novel covers so much ground and draws such a gripping portrait of adulthood versus childhood in the context of just a few remarkably well realized characters, I spent days after finishing it trying to get others to read it so I’d have someone to talk to about it. This book stayed with me, and continues to inform the way I think about memory, truth, the effect of my actions and decisions on others, and the craft of a story. The process of reading the book felt very emotional, but not in an obvious wiping-away-the-tears fashion. I finished the book with a sense of awe and thoughtfulness, both for Mr Barnes’s talent and the ideas that frame the remarkable story inside.
  4. Beloved by Toni Morrison
    This book was moving to me because it was the first experience I ever had that brought a level of humanity to the abstract horror of slavery. And I mean that in the downward direction, in the way it highlighted the necessary self-deception and surrender to a base and selfish cruelty for a person to treat another human like an animal or a non-entity. Beloved is a profound and powerful book that pulls absolutely zero punches. The rewards are like hard-learned lessons. This isn’t candy-coated emoting, it’s abrasive and scarring. But it’s also beautiful in a sickening manner, and impossible to forget.
  5. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
    A non-fiction book that explores food and the food industry from a journalistic and historical perspective. The way this book affected me was less on an emotional level (although a lot of the discussion of the treatment of animals on corporate-run farms was upsetting and disturbing) than on an intellectual one. It prompted me to try vegetarianism, made me shop differently, and altered my perspective on how food is thought about and discussed in this country.
  6. The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
    Wise, uplifting, funny, and incredibly touching with such a pitch-perfect finale, this transcribed lecture is even better on video, but the messages are clear and the point Pausch makes about time being the only thing we really need to be concerned with is sobering.
  7. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
    It’s not really a novel full of a lot of heavy emotion, but I’m being a bit literal here when I say this book transported me into its setting. I live relatively close to Monterey, and it’s one of my favorite places to visit. My wife and I have spent quite a few of our anniversaries in Monterey. So maybe I was predisposed to liking this book, but I fell in love with the characters, the low poetry of Steinbeck’s prose, and the titular place he brings to life in these pages. It’s a short, easy read, but one I never wanted to end.
  8. Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson
    I laughed myself to the point of tears so many times while reading this book. Unfortunately, I did a lot of reading of it on public transportation, so a bunch of strangers got to watch me struggle to retain my composure while Lawson riffs on her eccentric family and assorted tales from her life, all told with her switchblade wit.
  9. Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
    If you can consider being pulled to the last centimeter of your seat’s edge “being moved,” then this book has to be on the list. Sanderson’s metals-based magic system is clever and cool by turns, and his action, pacing, and sense of conflict are hitting on every cylinder in this book. However, it’s the strength of the characters he draws that makes this heist-novel-in-a-fantasy-world book really work. It’s certainly escapism, but it’s the kind that makes you care to the point where you’re practically cheering the victories and shouting warnings to the pages when things get grim.
  10. The Shining by Stephen King
    I like other books in King’s catalog better, and there are specific parts of several other books (not all by King) that scared me more, but The Shining managed to drown me in its atmosphere of paranoia and mystery better than any other book so that I was constantly on edge the whole time I was reading this. Now, some of it may be that I was in eighth grade when I read it, but it’s still the book I think back on and remember trying to read it late at night and deciding, “you know what, I better just put this down and try again when it’s light outside.”

who are you?

Bianca de Blok via Creative Commons

…and Ellie groaned against the quickening contractions.

“It’s funny, right?” Barry said. “In labor on Labor Day.”

“Right,” Ellie said, “hilarious.” And it was funny, in its own predictable way.

But the hospital parking lot was full. The admissions desk drowned in scared and angry women, all suffering from violent wrenches of pain in their lower abdomens.

“It’s not possible,” Ellie heard the sweating receptionist say.

A doctor squeezed past and climbed on a table. “How many of you are actually pregnant?” His words quieted the crowd.

Only Ellie raised her hand.

“Okay, we’ll start with you.”