Keeping Score: 8 July 2022

This week I’ve mostly been focused on typing up the mix of notes, scenes, and outline from my notebook for the now expanded, gender-flipped, sidekick-to-protagonist science fiction story (whew!).

I’m having to do a bit of expansion and interweaving as I go. I didn’t write the scenes in order, to begin with, and then I’ve also been blending it with what I wrote in the second (typed straight to laptop) draft, so that hopefully the whole thing is coherent.

I’m nearing the ending, which I haven’t written yet, but I’ve got such a strong image for that I think I can just type it out when I get there. Also I’ve got to lay the path for it, so to speak, by weaving in elements in these earlier scenes so the final one feels like a proper payoff, rather than an abrupt turn (though there is a turn, I just don’t want it to jolt a reader out of the story).

One thing I want to pay particular attention to, and change if I can’t get it right, is the (now) main character’s ethnicity. In my mental storyboards, she’s a second-generation Asian-American, and that’s how I’ve presented her in terms of name, etc. But in reading books like Craft in the Real World and The Girl at the Baggage Claim, and novels like Earthlings and The Woman in the Purple Skirt, I’m starting to doubt whether I can properly portray such a character. I’ve been thinking I can use my experience as an internal (and now international) immigrant as a bridge to their worldview, but I think now that that’s not enough. There’s the pervasive racism experienced by minorities in the States, and on top of that the misogyny that uniquely harms Asian-American women (I say harms, not harmed, because it keeps happening: witness the one character in “The Boys” who is introduced as completely feral and whose voice is silenced is the one Asian woman in the cast). And that’s before we get into differing family relationships, unique cultural touchstones, etc.

So I’m not sure if I should change the POV character’s ethnicity or not. I think that during these handwritten drafts I’ve found an approach that can be both representative and respectful. And I don’t want to be the kind of white writer that only writes white people (any more than I want to be the kind of male writer that only writes men). The world is diverse, and I want to represent that in my fiction. But I want to do it well, which means more than just changing a character’s name or skin color.

We’ll see how the draft comes out. And what my sensitivity readers say when they review it.

Keeping Score: 17 June 2022

Gender-flipping one of the characters in my new short story turns out to be the best decision I could have made. Whole new story possibilities have opened up, and I’m following through on them as best I can.

Which is to say, I haven’t made any progress on the horror story I started last week.

I’m basically back to draft zero on the sci-fi piece (now gender-flipped). The story’s going to need to get longer, much longer, in order to capture these new ideas. Somehow I’m going to need to pull off switching POVs inside the short story form, which is usually a no-no.

And it might still be! But I won’t know for sure until I try it out. Maybe switching POV between scenes will be a disaster. Maybe I’ll read the new draft through and find it’s a horrible mess. But then again, maybe I won’t.

So I’m trying to give myself the freedom to explore. I’m still forcing myself to sit down at least 15 minutes a day and work on a story, any story. But I’m not judging the output of those fifteen minutes. If it’s character sketches, great! If it’s brainstorming possible plot twists, also fine. Just so long as it’s effort spent on the story, in whatever form that takes.

This weekend I’m hoping to carve out some time to do some drafting based on the notes I’ve put together over the week. It’d be nice to have a finished draft together, however messy, that I can start editing next week.

Hope your own writing is going well, and that you’re avoiding the trap of judging your work by anyone else’s standards.

Keeping Score: 10 June 2022

Started the first draft of the new horror story this week, but just barely. Managed to bang out a single scene before my brain came to a screeching halt.

At first I was scared, thinking my writer’s block had come back. But after a day to calm down, I figured it out: I still needed to edit the flash pieces I banged out last month. My writing brain — who commutes between my subconscious and Tír na nÓg, I call them Fred — wasn’t ready to move on to a new story just yet. Outline, sure, but draft? No way. Edits first.

So I’ve mostly been editing. Two of the flash pieces I wrote are ready to go. A third is on its second draft, but I think it needs a third major one before any fine-tuning passes. I had an idea for gender-flipping one of the characters that I think will make the dialog more interesting (because it’ll bring out more of each character’s personality) and easier to follow (because the dialog tags will be different).

I’ve also been (kind of) editing my prison break novel. As I mentioned before, I’ve joined a writing group, so I’m using it as my submission — 2,500 words at a time — for each session. We’re using Google Docs for sharing, which I thought would be annoying (ok, it is annoying) but has given me a chance to edit each section before I copy/paste it into the shared doc. It’s mostly cleanup edits: Fixing a typo here, reworking a bit of dialog there. But it’s making the draft stronger, and they’re giving me some very useful feedback on it (like catching that a character didn’t bother to put on a pressure suit before heading out an airlock!).

It’ll take us (as a group) a while to get through it all, but I’m hoping at the end of it I’ll have a firm sense of what needs to be updated in one more editing pass before I can start sending it out to agents. Then maybe I’ll start (finally) editing the novel previous to that one, and so on and so forth, till they’re all edited and all out on sub. Meanwhile, I can keep churning out short stories, and work to find each of them a publishing home.

Wish me luck!

Dune: Part One

There’s a moment in Jodorowsky’s Dune where the titular director, discussing how Hollywood canceled his version forty years ago, pulls a fist of euros out of his pocket and shakes them at the camera. “This system makes us slaves,” he cries, “With this devil in our pocket. This paper…It has nothing inside. Nothing!”

In the moment, the gesture feels melodramatic. A bitter cry from a man who was denied his chance to ascend to greatness. But after watching first Lynch’s Dune, and now Dune: Part One, it seems prophetic.

Where Jodorowsky’s version of Dune sought to change the consciousness of its viewers, and Lynch’s Dune tried to convey the weirdness of a future as far from ours as we are from the inhabitants of ancient Sumer, Dune: Part One is seeking to…tell us the story of Dune.

Yet even with this lowered ambition, the film is a failure. Dune the book fascinates in part because of its many colorful factions, all vying for power. But Dune: Part One doesn’t have enough ambition to be a Game of Thrones in space. Mentats here are just bland, faithful servants, denied even their name to let the audience know how special — and central — they are. There’s no mention of the Space Navigators’ Guild, leaving Spice’s centrality to space travel just an abstract thing, a line a character says while standing in the right spot wearing the right clothes, and nothing else. The Spice itself is barely present, looking more like someone turned a glitter filter on than a thing worth killing over.

The result is a film with no depth and no stakes, the world of Dune flattened to something completely mundane. It is a clockwork universe, made with stunning special effects and actors moving in expensive costumes.

In his past films, Villeneuve’s lack of interest in the human was an asset. Both Arrival and Blade Runner: 2049 benefit from a style that is distant and alien, the former because it seeks to convey an alien perspective, the latter because it centers on an unfeeling android. But Dune doesn’t work unless the galactic stakes are connected to the personal, the planetary drama interlocked with the familial. Dune: Part One leaves the galactic stakes mostly untethered, and the family drama unexplored. We get an adaption that is faithful in every sense but those that matter.

If only there was something human at the heart of it all, some emotion, some sense of life and purpose. But Dune: Part One is content to just let events play out, with no rhyme or reason behind them, just toys — beautiful toys — going through the motions, propelled by money, and rewarded with the same.

Keeping Score: June 11, 2021

Got another short story rejection today. This one was personal, at least; not a form letter, but a description of an historical error that threw the editor out of the story.

It hurts a little less, I guess? To know I got close enough to being accepted that the magazine’s editor read the story, and rejected it themselves. But it’s also frustrating, to have such high hopes for a story, only to see it constantly fail to get published.

And now, of course, I’m diving into more historical research, and thinking of ways to fix the error they called out, while keeping the heart of the story intact. Yet another revision to make before sending it back out.

Or perhaps it’s time to let this one go. Sometimes I think I need to take these rejections less personally. To treat them as less of a challenge, and more like little slips of paper slipped under my door while I’m working. So long as I’m producing more stories to send out, does it matter that much if one of them doesn’t work as well as I’d like? Or to flip it around: If I’m happy with a story, does it matter so much that any particular editor isn’t?

Of course I’m never completely happy with a story. There’s always something to change, some phrase to tweak or scene to re-think.

That’s the thing: I’m always ready to revise. I crave feedback, and once I get it I honor it by making changes. But is that the best way to improve as a writer? Am I making things better, or just delaying working on something new, something to which I can apply all of my lessons learned afresh?

What about you? When you get a rejection, does it spur you to keeping editing? Or do you march on to the next project?

Post-Game: Writing Science Fiction in a Post-Colonial World

So the Clarion West online workshop was…interesting.

The instructor, Fabio Fernandes, seems like a fantastic person, one I could easily sit and talk to for hours. I feel this because that’s basically what he did for two hours: talk to us.

Well, I exaggerate. We spent the first hour hearing having everyone in the class introduce themselves.

The second hour — and beyond? he wasn’t done when I had to hop off to get back to work — was him telling us stories, making reading recommendations, and…that’s it. No real writing advice, other than to write what we want to write, rather than what we know.

But his personal stories were fascinating and eye-opening. Like the one where he picked apart a scene in Ian McDonald’s Brazil (which he translated into Portuguese) involving a group of black men and a white woman, talking us through how the race relations displayed in that scene were not Brazilian, but American. Or how he’s considered to be White in Brazil, but in the US or UK he’s Latino, but only to people in those countries who think of themselves as White, because to other South Americans, Brazilians are not Latino, because they don’t speak Spanish!

And he did in general give me confidence (permission?) to write about cultures other than my own. He said we have to find things in our experience that can bridge the gap between the culture we grew up in and the culture we want to write about. And to remember that we are all both insiders and outsiders: insiders for our native culture, outsiders to everyone else (and vice-versa).

So I guess my experience was positive? If a bit less focused than I’d like. And less organized; they said they’d have the recording link sent to us, but it’s been over a week now and so far, nothing.

So I’m not sure I’m going to sign up for any more of the Clarion West online courses. Apparently fifteen minutes is more than enough to get some excellent feedback on a story draft, but not even two hours is enough time in which to give some general writing advice and techniques.

In conclusion: I really cannot wait for the pandemic to end, so we can go back to learning and sharing in person.

Short Fiction Review: Apex Magazine Issue 121

Apex Magazine is back!

Apex went on what looked like permanent hiatus while editor-in-chief Jason Sizemore dealt with multiple surgeries for serious health issues (see his editorial in this month’s magazine). But he’s thankfully recovered, and after a successful Kickstarter, he’s re-assembled the Apex editing team, and resurrected the magazine!

Issue 121, then, is their first new issue in almost two years. It’s a double issue, as all of them will be from now on, released every two months. You can grab your own copy here

So let’s dive in! (no spoilers, I promise).

Root Rot, by Fargo Tbakh

Jesus, this story.

Reading it is disorienting at first. There’s a good reason for that, for why the narrator’s voice seems jumbled and confused. But as I read, more and more pieces fell into place, until the very last scene broke my heart.

I wish I could write something this powerful. This moving. An inspiration, and a bar to shoot for.

Your Own Undoing, by P H Lee

Second person, represent!

I usually hate stories told in the second person. All those “You”s feel like commands, and I instinctually kick back against those, and out of the story.

Not so in this case. Lee’s story wove a meta fairy tale around me, a story that was itself an illustration of the conflict at its heart.

If it sounds too clever for its own good, don’t be put off. It’s not. It’s a fantastic story, first and foremost. It’s only afterward, when thinking about it, that its clever structure reveals its shape. Just amazing.

Love, That Hungry Thing, by Cassandra Khaw

This one….this one did feel too clever for its own good, for me.

Not in structure, but in the way it leans so far into the modern (well, post-2004) tendency to leave readers out on a limb. Being confused can work — see the first story, above — for a while, but I (being very careful here, as I know not everyone shares my tastes) tend to get very frustrated if there’s no payoff at the end.

And there’s no payoff in this story, for me. In fact, there’s very little action at all, or even dialog.

A lot of beautiful description, though. Evocative words and phrases that promise glittering insight into this future, but then never cohere into a stable image. Nothing falls into place. It’s an exquisitely described place, though.

Mr Death, by Alix E Harrow

My favorite of the bunch.

I don’t want to say too much, lest I give anything away. Let me just say that this is what I wish the movie Soul had been. Read it. You won’t regret it.

The Niddah, by Elana Gomel

A short story about a global pandemic. Yes, really.

Grey Skies, Red Wings, Blue Lips, Black Hearts, by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor

Had an allergic reaction to this one. Something about another story that drops the reader into a confused space, with no explanation, and calls its main environment “The City.”

All I Want for Christmas, by Charles Payseur

Short, powerful flash piece. Made me shudder.

Keeping Score: October 9, 2020

It’s done! The edits are done!

Well, this round of edits, anyway…There’ll be more, down the line.

But the third draft of the novel is finished!

This is the first draft that I feel can be seen, so I’m sending it out to beta readers, hoping to get some good (meaning: useful and thorough, not merely positive) feedback.

I’ll also need to send it to sensitivity readers, because some of the characters are from ethnic groups outside my own. I think I’ve done them justice, but I know I’m not the best judge of that. So I’ll ask some friends of mine to be additional readers, letting me know if I’ve messed anything up.

While I wait (and lean into my reading, to unwind a bit), I’m going to work on a short story or three.

Or five.

I found a horror anthology that’s accepting flash fiction on five different subjects through December. The topics are broad enough that I’ve brainstormed a few different story ideas for each.

Since they’re flash pieces, I thought I’d write one up for each topic, and submit them all (which they allow). Five little stories for my brain to chew on while I take a break between editing passes.

What about you? What do you do, between revisions of a longer work? Or do you take any sort of breathing room between them, at all?

Galaxy’s Edge: Black Spire by Delilah S Dawson

I turned the corner, and my soul left my body.

My wife says I walked around slack-jawed, not speaking, not noticing anyone or anything else.

It was our first trip to Galaxy’s Edge, at Disneyland.

We’d been walking around the other areas of the park all day, in the lingering heat of early October, 2019. I’d wanted to go to Galaxy’s Edge straight away, but our friend had insisted we wait till the sun went down. When the crowds would thin, and the lights and special effects on the buildings would come out.

She was right.

Because when we finally made it there, the park was perfect. Not empty, but not crowded. Cool enough to walk around, but not yet cold.

And everything was lit up.

I’ve been ambiguous about a lot of things Disney has done with the Star Wars franchise. But that day, in that park, I forgave them everything.

Because they nailed it.

The streets, the buildings, the design of the doors, the mother-fucking Milennium Falcon sitting right there, looking every inch a hunk of junk that’s ready to race around the galaxy. They even got the sound of the floors in the Falcon right, our shoes click-clacking on the floor panels exactly as if we were being followed around by a foley artist from Lucasfilm.

It was…uncanny.

And I wanted to go back the very next day.

As you can imagine, though, we haven’t been. We told ourselves we could return in the spring of 2020, just in time for my birthday.

What naïve summer children we were.

Thanks to the pandemic, there’s no return trip in my near future. No immersion in the world of Black Spire Outpost.

Except through fiction.

So I picked up Dawson’s book set on the world the park is meant to represent. I wanted to go back there, even for a moment, to let her words guide my imagination in invoking the spirit of the place.

Too much to ask, perhaps. But I had high hopes after reading Dawson’s Phasma, where she introduced two new characters — Vi Moradi and Cardinal — while building out Phasma’s backstory. That turned out to be a Mad-Max-via Star Wars tale wrapped inside a spy story; an incredible balancing act.

And once again, Dawson pulls it off, weaving a high-stakes story with a small-scale focus. She brings back both Vi and Cardinal, filling out more of their arcs and letting both of them shine.

But.

Something bothered me all throughout the book. I didn’t know what it was at first, just a vague unease in my mind as I read along.

It wasn’t until halfway through the novel that I realized what it was: the colonial attitude of Vi and the Resistance towards Batuu (the planet on which Black Spire Outpost is located).

Let me explain. No spoilers, I promise.

When the story begins, Batuu is not involved in the conflict between the Resistance the First Order. It’s too small, too unimportant. The war has passed it by.

Which is one reason Vi is selected to go there, as some place the First Order won’t be paying attention to.

Logical on the face of it. But it’s the start of my problems with the story.

Because no one on Batuu invites the Resistance there. No one on Batuu wants to be involved in the conflict, at all.

The Resistance just assumes they have the right to build an outpost there, regardless of what the local population wants.

Which means they assume they have the right to bring the war there. To bring violence and death with them. Because they know the First Order is going to eventually discover said base, and when they do, they will respond with oppressive force.

And throughout her stay there, Vi repeatedly acts like a colonial officer sent to a “backwards” place:

  • She quickly makes a deal to steal an ancient artifact and use it to bargain for supplies (instead of leaving it alone, as she has no rights to it)
  • She assumes the right to squat in ancestral ruins that the people on Batuu consider sacred
  • She receives medical care from a local elderly woman, which saves her life, and her thanks is to rip the woman’s only help — her grandson — away from her. She thinks she’s right to do so, as it’s “for the greater good”
  • She’s constantly saying things like “Don’t they realize I’m doing this for their own good?” every time she can’t bend someone to her will
  • When she finds herself using local expressions and greetings, she doesn’t think of it as being respectful, but as “going native”

I could go on.

It’s a frustrating flaw in an otherwise fantastic book. I like Vi, I like the other characters, I like the story, I even like the ending.

But the constant attitude of Vi and the Resistance that “we know better than you, so we’re going to make these choices for you” is so…belittling, so arrogant. It feels out of character for a movement that says it’s all about free will. And yet totally in line with the way we Westerners usually interact with other countries.

I still recommend the book. It’s the next best thing to being there, in the park. Which is an incredible achievement, despite the problematic nature of some of its plot points.

Keeping Score: September 18, 2020

I’m turning the editing corner, into the final third of the book.

I’m a little nervous about this section. The middle edits were smooth sailing, but the closer I get to the end, the more things need to line up perfectly. I need to make sure threads are getting wrapped up, that I haven’t skipped any scenes, that everything makes sense.

I need to keep the whole novel in my head at this point, basically, in order to keep it all consistent through the end.

And the end, of course, is the most complicated part of the book. It’s where the main conflict gets resolved, via multiple timelines and a perspective shift.

I hope it works. I hope I can hold it all together.

Because if I can, if I do, then this round of edits will be finished. And I can start sending it out to beta readers, to finally get feedback from another pair of eyeballs than mine.

And maybe, just maybe, have their reviews back in time to make final adjustments, and have it ready to send to agents by the end of the year.

It is…a tight deadline. But we live in hope, don’t we?