Finding the strength to create

A Young Woman Writing a Letter, Frans van Mieris, from The Leiden Collection

In my last post, I talked about the statue of a sad angel that I saw on a walk, sitting on a wall, mourning someone or something.

Well, recently I’ve wondered if the little angel was sad because they were a writer.

There are writers out there who become early successes, who are adored by thousands, if not millions, and who have the skill and talent and, yes, luck to be able to produce a steady stream of popular, or critical acclaimed (or both!) fiction.

And there are the those who are able, through talent, skill, and perseverance, to acquire a fair number of followers and to make a good name for themselves as solid, interesting and eminently readable authors.

And then there are the rest of us.

The literary world — and by “literary” I include all facets of literature, not just that recognized by academia — is full of writers who have worked hard, are reasonably skilled with words and imagination, and who have never, for whatever reason, been able to become recognized beyond a few friends and colleagues, and perhaps a reader or two.

There can be many reasons for this. They may have family responsibilities that take up most of their time, or a day job that is exhausting. They may have a disability that makes things more difficult, or a medical issue that cuts into their life, or emotional issues that create barriers. They may not have the financial advantages that offer them the chance to do the work, or they may not fit into society’s (and publisher’s, and agent’s) ideas of who can be a writer. They may not be good at making friends, or at taking advantage of possibilities that arise. Or they may simply not be in the right place at the right time.

And so every once in a while, you hit that abyss of I’m not good enough what was I thinking of trying to be a writer I’ve wasted my life damn damn damn. And you shut the keyboard.

If you’re a writer — or a creative of any type — you know what I mean.

I recently had a few days like that. It took me a while to come out of my funk, and I can’t tell you what helped. Perhaps because I saw a film that cheered me up, or read a book which inspired me, or talked with a friend who made me feel more valued. Or perhaps I simply said to myself “Screw it,” and went back to the keyboard. Because, at this point, it would be almost as hard to give up writing as it would be to give up eating.

I have at least one friend who is going through something similar, and I’m sure there are many creatives right now — successful or not — who, because of circumstances, need to forgive themselves for not producing the kind of prose or poetry or music or animation or other art that they think they should ge, or for not being able to impress the kind of people they hoped they would.

All I can say at this point is — you have all my best wishes. Keep trying. Keep producing. Because in the end, it’s what we do.

Short musings on community

Erewhon reading
Left to write (uh, right): Liz Gorinsky, Nicholas Kaufmann, Ilana C. Myer.

Last night, I attended a literary salon sponsored by Erewhon Books, a new independent specfic publishing house headed by Liz Gorinsky. The salon took place in their Manhattan offices, a nice open space that seems to be a combination office and living room. It featured writers Ilana C. Myer and Nicholas Kaufmann (both of whom turned in great readings, by the way; as a result, I have just started reading Last Song Before Night, the first book in Ilana’s trilogy).

About halfway through the reading, while I was listening, I let my eyes wander around the room. There were about 30 or 40 people present, sitting on chairs, couches, and the rug; listening, occasionally nodding, and sometimes laughing at inside jokes that we all got. Everyone seemed comfortable, easy, and happy to listen to some excellent prose by people whom they knew and liked.

cofAnd I realized that I was also enjoying the evening, relaxing despite all the various stresses that I (like so many of today’s adults) deal with. That even though I didn’t talk to many of the attendees on a day-to-day basis, this was my community, the people with whom I felt the most comfortable. And that it was nice to know they were around.

We all need communities, and most of us are lucky to have one — and often, several. It could be a community made up of our families, of neighbors, of college friends, of people at work, of people who share our interests, of the people who we meet every day walking their dogs in the park. These days, very often, these communities can be made up of people whom we never meet in person, but who we know from the back-and-forth of online social groups.

But whether online or in person, communities are important. And I am very grateful for mine.


Getting up to date

Greetings all!

It’s been a while since I actually updated this website, and a lot has happened — and is happening. So I thought I’d do a quick rundown of recent and upcoming activities:

  • The Nebula Awards weekend has just ended, and it was a wonderful and inspiring experience. I got to meet and talk to a lot of friends (and writers whom I greatly admire) and sat next to 2017 SFWA Grand Master Jane Yolen, which was definitely one of the highlights of the weekend — she is not only a wonderful writer, but an incredibly nice person. Once again, I would like to congratulate all the Nebula Award winners, and express my thanks for being one of this year’s finalists.
  • There was a large layoff at IDG last Tuesday, May 16th, and unfortunately I was one of those affected. So I am now an ex-Computerworld reviews editor.  I’m going to be looking for freelance and/or full-time editorial work. This is the first day I’m actually dealing with it — I left for the Nebula Awards weekend the day after the layoff — so I’ve got a long list of people to contact and things to do. Thanks to everyone who has offered info and advice thus far.
  • I’ll be reading this Sunday at the Queens Book Festival with Jennifer Marie Brissett, hosted by Jim Freund. It will be at 4 pm on the Resorts Fall Plaza stage. Come on by if you’re free.

Yes, I’ve also got an award eligibility post

I’ve been going through several of the posts recommending genre work that has been published throughout 2016 and promoting their own, and I’m really impressed with the all the great stuff out there. (And getting ready for a reading frenzy.)

For example, I’ve just finished rolling through A. C. Wise’s commodious What Have You Done, What Have You Loved? 2016 Edition and Fran Wilde’s Things To Read While Rebooting posts, both of which are musts if you want to find something good to read.

So I thought I’d contribute my own, much shorter list of my own eligible works and a few of the works that I’ve read and enjoyed over the past year.

Eligible Works

Sabbath Wine
Clockwork Phoenix 5
This story, about a father trying to put together a Sabbath meal for his daughter and her new friend during Prohibition, is one that I’m especially proud of.

Unfortunately, it’s not available to read online. SFWA members can find it as a PDF attachment in the Short Stories 2016 area of the SFWA forums. Otherwise, there is a video of me reading it at a recent NYRSF Readings session. (Or, of course, you can always buy the book! <g>)

With Triumph Home Unto Her House
Abyss & Apex
Near-future science fiction with a bit of social politics thrown in. A middle-aged middle-class woman tries to work her way back after a series of financial disasters and learns that following the rules doesn’t always work.

Recommended works

Unfortunately, it’s been a busy year, and I haven’t done nearly as much reading as I’d like, but here are some that come to mind. (Hopefully, I’ll add more over the next few days.)

Short stories

El Cantar of Rising Sun by Sabrina Vourvoulias
Uncanny Magazine #13
A lovely, poetic and tragic story. One of my favorites of the year.

Wilson’s Singularity by Terence Taylor
People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction! / Lightspeed
I have to say that I’m prejudiced in favor of this one because it was workshopped in my writers group. It’s a great story of how change can have society and personal effects.

Breathe Deep, Breathe Free by Jenn Brissett
People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction! / Lightspeed
Two kids text each other in a world that is uncomfortably possible.

A Handful of Dal by Naru Dames Sundar
People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction! / Lightspeed
A recipe changes through the generations but still helps keep descendants rooted.

The Book of May by C. S. E. Cooney and Carlos Hernandez
Clockwork Phoenix #5
Not going to say anything except this one made me cry and smile at the same time. Really.

Things With Beards by Sam J. Miller
Clarkesworld #117
A wonderful, frightening and touching follow-up to The Thing (1982 version).

Novels and Collections

Bone Swans by C. S. E. Cooney
A lovely collection of stories; it won the 2016 World Fantasy award.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
I’m not usually a fan of novels where “apocalypse” is part of the story description, but I’m glad I made an exception for this one.

The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria by Carlos Hernandez
Fabulous (in both senses of the word) stories with a nice sense of humor behind many of them.

Clockwork Phoenix #5 edited by Mike Allen
I’m sorry to be repeating myself here, but besides the story mentioned above (and my own), there is some really fine writing in here. Very worth checking out.

Thoughts from a porch

From the porch of a seaside house on the Isle of Palms, South Carolina, near the end of the Starry Coast Writers Workshop:

From a porch

The sound of the waves against the shore is constant and changes only slightly with the tide. Unlike the waters north, the waves are smaller, quieter, perhaps appropriate to the South.

Butterflies On either side of the boardwalk that leads from the house to the beach, there are bright yellow-orange flowers at which butterflies, usually at least five to ten at a time, stop and drink before proceeding along their migratory route. The butterflies, dark orange wings lined with black and with black spots, flutter to each, stop, pump their wings slightly as they drink, and then travel on.

Small sandcrabs, the same color as the sand in which they live, wait until the humans pass, and then scutter from their holes, quickly scuttering back if there is any noise or vibration to alarm them. One has fastened onto a smaller black crab and drags it along the sand; the black crab struggles uselessly. Food? A mate? I’m not sure. The predatory crab is the only one that doesn’t move when I shift my stance; it has its prey and is reluctant to let it go, even when danger threatens.

SanderlingFive Sanderlings skitter across the sand just at the point where the water occasionally flows into their path. They completely ignore the humans walking around them in a way that I’m not used to; it’s as if they were pigeons in Washington Square, so bored by the presence of humans that we’re no longer part of their landscape. They only dance a short distance away if our feet get too close. The birds pick at the surface of the sand for food; when the tide comes in, they probe a little deeper in the wet sand. One obviously thinks of himself (assuming it’s a male) as the alpha Sanderling; he occasionally chases the others away from a treat he wants, and they hurry away, looking a bit like actors in a silent film that has been accidentally sped up.

The beach is lined with large houses, big enough for a family, or for a group of friends. Two people alone wouldn’t be enough; they would rattle around like marbles in a can. People wander along the beach, either alone or in pairs or groups; walking their dogs or walking their kids. A few yards into the water, people stand on surfboards and paddle themselves along, only occasionally riding a slightly more enthusiastic wave into the shore.

I love porches. I love sitting on a porch and writing (and occasionally grabbing my binoculars when a Brown Pelican flies by, and no, I haven’t been able to get a good photo and probably never will). I wonder if I would get bored if I could spend the rest of my life like this.

Trying a novel: An outline? I don’t need no stinkin’…. Yes, I do.

I just realized something about this novel that I’m supposedly writing.

I need an outline.

A woman writesThis evening, I went to the Word bookstore in Brooklyn to hear N.K. Jemisin read from her latest novel The Fifth Season, the first book of her new Broken Earth trilogy. The reading was wonderful (not surprisingly; since she is high on my list of the best specfic writers around today), and I enjoyed it thoroughly. But what struck me was something that was said during the Q&A session, when Nora mentioned that she had started with one outline and eventually realized she needed to drastically change it. All the long-form writers in the room nodded knowingly.

And I thought to myself, “Oh, hell. I need an outline, don’t I?”

Now, you have to understand that I’ve never worked with an outline before. When I write a short story, I usually do one of two things: I either start writing and wait to find out where it’s going to take me, or I start with an ending in mind and build the story to reach that ending. Very often, the story that develops has little to do with what I started with — but if I’m satisfied with it, that’s fine.

Now, however, I’ve realized that I may have been doing the whole novel-writing thing all wrong. I’ve been approaching it as if it’s a short story: Begin at the beginning with a general idea of where it’s going and then start writing. If I hit a wall, move to a different part of the story and write that, and then see how (or if) I can connect the two.

But that won’t work in the long form. For example, if I create a character in the third chapter that will disappear until the 15th chapter, I’d better damn well track what that character’s name is and what they’ve been doing in the meantime. And there’s the whole world-building thing; if I’ve established a society that’s just discovered the combustable engine, I can’t have somebody pull out a smartphone four chapters later. And by the way — if characters change by the end of the novel, shouldn’t I figure out how and why?

In fact, it may be a good idea to have a vague idea of where I intend to end up — especially if I’m going to have a workshop full of writers reading (and critiquing) it.

So, despite my increasing desperation about getting this thing actually done — or, rather, getting enough of it done — I’m going to have to take at least an evening or two and make myself an outline; some kind of textual map of where I’m going with this. I may end up going totally off that map, but at least I can pretend I have some idea what I’m doing.

A short story writer tries to get the long form habit

I’ve never succeeded in writing a long-form story. Oh, I’ve got several unfinished might-have-been novels sitting in file folders — some old enough that we’re talking about real, cardboard file folders — but I’ve never actually been able to finish one.

Woman writingAnd I’ve been very resistant to even trying one. More than once, I’ve been told that a short story was actually not finished, that it was only the beginning, that it should be pulled into a novel. My reaction was always, “No, that’s the end. It’s done. Time to go on to the next thing.”

I’m not sure why. I’ve joked that I simply don’t have the attention span to finish a novel; and that may not be far from the truth. Or it could be that, as an editor, I am simply too picky to be able to complete a long first draft. Or I’m just so damned insecure about my own work that I can’t write for more than about 4,000 words without giving up on the whole thing, and so I simply limit it to that.

Or whatever.

Well, I’ve made what may be a very good move — or may be a huge mistake. I’ve committed myself to a week-long workshop this coming September in which several writers will be getting together to work on and critique novel-length works. And as a result, I’ve got to have something novel-length — or, at least, something partially novel length — to offer up for critique.

So I’m forcing myself to learn to write quickly. Without going back as I write and tweaking each phrase, each paragraph, and then going back again. Without telling myself every other sentence, “God, this is awful; I’d better start over — no, this isn’t working — that is so incredibly miserable;  try again — oh, hell, she wouldn’t do that, delete that… Maybe I should try this other story instead…?”

Because I’ve got a deadline. I’ve got to get a lot of coherent words down on the page. And if I keep stopping and trying again, it will never happen. And I’ll end up sitting in a workshop where several other people have managed to put together manuscripts made up of several thousand words and will have expected me to do the same — and feeling like a complete and utter twit.

Wish me good luck. I think I’m gonna need it.

Okay, 2014, no more — we’ve lost enough good people

The year 2014 has been, so far, a real bastard. There have been too many people lost to death, most too early — some so far before their time that it makes me ashamed.

There was my cousin Jennifer Greene, a wonderful singer and the mother of a vibrant little boy named Ari, who found out she had cancer before her baby was even weaned.

There was the incandescent Margot Adler, one of the most talented and generous spirits it has ever been my privilege to know. With Margot, I’m still in a vague sort of denial and sometimes find myself thinking, “We should call Margot and ask if she wants to meet and see that weird new movie” a second or two before I remember we can’t. (And I still miss her husband John Gliedman, who died several years ago, a friend and colleague of mine.)

And there have been the writers whom I didn’t know well, or didn’t know personally, but whom I admired for what they wrote and who they were — authors such as Lucius Shepard, Jay Lake and now Eugie Foster, who died this morning at the age of 42.

There is nothing that can be said. Losses like these are both sad and incredibly infuriating. All I can do is extend my sympathies to their friends and families, and try to live a life worthy of their memories.

Writers group: Moving to the new paradigm

I’ve been wondering lately what the purpose of a writer’s group is — or should be. It appears that there’s a new paradigm of what the purpose of a writer’s group is, and I’m realizing that (to my extreme chagrin) I haven’t been keeping up with the times

I’ve belonged to three over the course of my writing life (not counting college). The first two took place before the Web as a basis of social interaction was fully formed. As a result, my idea of a writers group was formed at a time when they were meetings where people read each other’s work, met to critique it, and discussed among themselves various markets and strategies. And that was pretty much it.

But today, things are different. In these days of self-publishing and online social networking, a writers group — especially one made up of experienced writers — needs to do more than simply offer critiques and moral support. It also has to actively support its members, online and off, by helping them become known within the genre community (and, hopefully, outside of it); to help them hone their stories for self-publishing (if that’s the way they want to go) or help them meet and work with editors and publishers. At least, that’s what I’m starting to understand.

And I’m also starting to realize that, even if I wanted to stick with a more old-fashioned view of the group, it may not be possible. A writer’s group is not a static entity; people move away, become ill, have to care for children or elderly relatives, or just have life changes that get in the way. So for a group to maintain its usefulness and vitality, there also has to be a influx of new people with new styles, new ideas about writing. (For some reason, I’m picturing in my mind a sort of amoeba, constantly moving and shifting, with bits of it breaking off and new bits being absorbed.)

And to attract new people? Especially those who would work well with the existing members of the group? You have to do more than simply be a good place to discuss writers’ work.

At least, that’s what I’m starting to learn.