STORY ANALYSIS: “Optimizing the Verified Good” by Effie Seiberg

written by David Steffen

For another round of story analysis, I wanted to draw attention to the short story “Optimizing the Verified Good” by Effie Seiberg, first published in Analog September/October 2018, and reprinted in audio in Escape Pod.

As with the previous run of the Story Analysis, do expect SPOILERS after this paragraph, but will give a quick spoiler free summary here. The cleanerbot that is the protagonist of this story works in a Battlebot arena, where robots are specifically built to destroy each other in the arena. Each of them the fighters feels a pain response when they are damaged to encourage them to avoid being damaged, and there is a control AI that maintains and updates their systems to promote the overall appeal and effectiveness of the Battlebot arena. The cleanerbot shouldn’t have any interest in doing anything but it’s primary purpose–cleaning up the robot parts after the battles, but it has memory of the pain the battlebots feel when they’re damaged and it decides it wants to help.

The cleanerbot starts simple, working by itself, finding ways to work within the parameters given to it that will interfer with the efficiency of the arena, cleaning the same areas over and over again, cleaning poorly, and so on. The other bots don’t understand why it would seem to push against its purpose, but as it tries again and again, and is gradually given updates to block each new attempt, the battlebots start to see the wisdom in its plan, and they start to work together to find some way to improve their lives.

I really enjoyed this story of a bot revolution, as they try to understand the details of their scenario, they come to understand that they can’t just stop fighting because that would mean the battlebot arena would close down, which is where their power comes from. But I especially enjoy intelligent robot stories when there is some justification for how they behave, and the incompletely formatted memory drive made sense here. And the robot way of thinking was very well executed here.

I quite enjoyed this story by Effie Seiberg, and I always look forward for her stories.

Hugo Novella Review: “Flow” by Arlan Andrews, Sr.

written by David Steffen

“Flow” by Arlan Andrews Sr. was published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact.  Analog published it free to read online as part of the Hugo season.

Rist and Cruthar live with their people in the Tharn’s Lands where the world exists in unending hazy twilight.  They make their living by riding icebergs that break off from the greater ice mass to sell them to warmlanders further south.  In this story Rist takes his first berg-riding trip to the south, where the sky is blue and the light burns brightly in the sky.  They are only meant to take the iceberg as far as the ice broker, but Rist gets the idea to ride the iceberg further south, and so he and the more experienced Cruthar go on to the strange lands of the south for an adventure.  People from different lands have lived separately long enough to gain differentiating racial features, including extreme farsightedness so that none can see things clearly up close in favor of far vision.  The people of the Tharn’s Lands used carved figurines for writing, and Rist keeps a journal of everything he does, and everything he learns to share with his family (both on a philosophical level and things that might have applications in their merchant business).

For me this story brought a lot of the good old “sense of wonder” of golden age science fiction.  Both the Tharn’s Lands and the warmlands are foreign and interesting, and because the character is learning about the warmlands as the story goes on and contrasting it with his home, the story gets a lot of this comparison in.  As the story goes on Rist keeps his journal, and I find his insights about the other world interesting, to reinforce his worldview that is very different from mine–even considering the sun and the moon to be foreign concepts because of the haze of the Tharn’s Lands.

The only part that got a little bit annoying was that Rist repeatedly went on about the breasts of the women of the warmlands–it makes sense in some fashion because apparently the Tharn’s Lands women don’t have prominent breasts (another genetic differentiator like the eyesight, though it wasn’t clear why this particular thing would differentiate while leaving the two races sexually compatible) but it felt rather random and distracting in a story that I otherwise thought was quite solid.  It also struck me as unimaginative in an otherwise imaginative story that, of course a man who has never seen breasts would find them attractive, when really there could be a variety of reactions that would be more interesting–concern about her health, wondering if they hurt all the time, or being put off by their strangeness since to him they may not seem natural.  But, really, that was the only sour note in the whole thing for me, and a pretty minor one at that.

A note at the beginning of “Flow” indicates that the characters were first seen in “Thaw, which was previously published in Analog.  I could definitely see the shape of that other story, with some references to past experiences together in this one, but I thought this story stood well enough on its own, and I always felt like I had enough information.

I quite enjoyed this story and I recommend it for those who like a little longer stories with a sense of adventure and exploration of one fictional culture from the perspective of another fictional culture.  It has my top vote in the Novella category.

Hugo Novelette Review: “The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale” by Rajnar Vajra

written by David Steffen

“The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale” by Rajnar Vajra, published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, is nominated for the Hugo Award this year in the novelette category.  Analog has posted this story for free for the voting period.

The protagonists of this story are a trio of Exoplanetary Explorers: an earthling, a silver Venusian, and a golden Martian.  They get in a bar fight, which puts them on thin ice with their commanding officers.  Their punishment is to be assigned to a mission doomed to fail–there is a planet on which they wish to establish a colony, where they have learned that the residents are intelligent but have failed to establish true contact with them.  Priam, the Martian, raises the stakes by promising that they can establish contact and offering up their jobs if they fail.

I am not the audience for this story.  It does evoke a sense of golden age SF, but not in a way that I found appealing.  The conversational tone of the narrator only came across as irritating to me, right from the first lines: “A silver Venusian, a golden Martian, and an Earthling walked into a bar. Sounds like a joke, right? Nope. Actually an unfunny blunder the three of us made that Friday evening.”  I didn’t care about the fate of any of the characters, and Priam who is portrayed a the smartest of the trio, I found particularly annoying in his thoughtless raising of the stakes for all three of them based on his own arrogant assessment of his own intelligence which, because this harkens back to golden age SF, is of course completely justified in the end because the smart character always wins the day.  It was kind of interesting to try to figure out the mystery of the intelligence, but as tends to happen when a story tries to put together a puzzle that is set up as being unsolveable by most people, it didn’t actually succeed in convincing me that it wouldn’t’ve been solved before this point.  The stakes of the story were entirely unimportant to me, or rather I was more rooting for them to be kicked out of the Exoplanetary Explorers but also had no doubt whatsoever that smart Priam would save the day because the shape of the story was so familiar.

So, as I said, I’m clearly not the target audience for this tale.

 

 

Hugo Novelette Review: “The Journeyman: In the Stone House” by Michael F. Flynn

written by David Steffen

“The Journeyman: In the Stone House” by Michael F. Flynn, published in Analog, is nominated for this year’s Hugo Award for Best Novelette.  Analog has posted this story as a free read as part of the Hugo season.

This is part two of the Journeyman series of stories.  I have not read the first part of the story, so I am extrapolating a bit.  Teodorq sunna Nagarajan the Ironhand and Sammi o’ th’ Eagles are in the midst of  a journey that began in the previous story, where they were sent on a quest by a ghost that resided in a crashed vessel from the sky (presumably an AI residing in a starship) to find particular settlements for the star-men to salvage from the remains.  As well as the quest, they are also trying to stay ahead of Kalakaran Vikaram who is looking to avenge his brother that Teodorq killed.  As they are trying to cross a territory toward their destination, they stop to examine a stone building and they wonder how it was constructed (the technology level of the setting is mostly like a Medieval level, but with the remains of higher tech scattered about it’s clear that this occurs in the future after a technological collapse of some kind).  They, as well as their pursuer, are captured.  To continue their quest they must somehow escape their imprisonment.

The most interesting thing about this story was the use of language.  The two protagonists are from different cultures that speak different languages.  This means that to communicate directly with each other they have to speak in a broken pidgin dialect.  Each has vastly different views of life and death and everything that surrounds it, and this comes out in various conversations throughout the story.  At the same time I found some of the dialect rather distracting because, well, I just wasn’t all that interested in the outcome of the story, and the dialect was more absorbing than the events.

Maybe I would feel more absorbed if I had read the first story in the series.  Maybe if I had seen the conversation with the AI I would have a clear idea of the stakes at hand here, and I’d be more emotionally invested.  As it was, I was never confused by what was happening, I didn’t feel like it left out too much detail at least to explain events, but I didn’t really care what happened either and the story dragged as a result.  The characters could succeed, they could give up and go home, they could die in the attempt, and it wouldn’t make much difference to me–not that I really had any doubt that they’d make it through this alive.  When I read a story I want to feel connected to it, either an emotional connection with the characters, or at least some kind of thematic or intellectual connection.  I want to understand the stakes, what will happen if they fail in their mission, and I didn’t really feel like I got any of that.

And then the story just kind of ends at a pretty much arbitrary point, clearly just leading on into the next one, but without any kind of satisfying tying off.  Maybe these stories as a whole make a compelling story when combined together, but when a story is up for a Hugo as a standalone I’ve got to judge it based on what I see, and to me this is a not-very-compelling story fragment with some interesting dialect.  Maybe I would’ve liked it better if the Journeyman series as a whole were nominated for a novella or novel award, rather than this segment being nominated for the novelette award (that’s no longer possible with this nomination, a part of a whole cannot be nominated and then the whole also be nominated).  So this one was a miss for me.

 

Hugo Novella Review 2014

written by David Steffen

And the last of the shorter categories for the Hugo this year, covering stories from 17,500 to 40,000 words. The longer categories are often misses for me because I feel they have a lot of word bloat, but when I do like one of them they have so much space to grow.

 

1. “Equoid”, Charles Stross (Tor.com, 09-2013)
This story is part of Stross’s Laundry series, wherein Bob Howard works as an agent for the secret British government organization for known only as “The Laundry” which serves the purpose of investigating and handling invasions of Lovecraftian monsters. This particular story involves an outbreak of outbreak of unicorns which are not the lovely pure animals we’ve been led to believe and even most of the people in the Laundry aren’t aware that they’re real.

This story is awesome, scary like few stories are, and simultaneously hilarious. Cosmic horror from the POV of a cynical career buraeaucrat. Even the smallest details are filtered through the funny point of view, so that even the recurring descriptions of a character’s beard had me rolling. I also loved how the story made HP Lovecraft part of the story, but not as the prophet you might think they’d make him considering their role, but rather of a crackpot who occasionally stumbled across something real, and knew just enough truth to be a dangerous idiot. I highly recommend this story and now I want to read more of the Laundry series.

 

2. “The Chaplain’s Legacy”, Brad Torgersen (Analog, Jul-Aug 2013)
In the previous story “The Chaplain’s Assistant” the eponymous chaplain’s assistant forestalled the annihilation of humanity at the hands of the technologically superior mantis race by provoking in them an interest in religion. The mantises have no religion of their own and they decided to study this strange phenomenon before destroying their opportunity to do so. Now it appears that the mantes may be growing impatient, feeling they’ve learned everything they can learn, and hostilities may recommence. Humans have now had time to prepare defenses against mantis attacks and the war might begin anew, but perhaps not as one-sided as before. Now the chaplain’s assistant is meeting with the Queen of the mantes and desperately needs to prove to the mantes that humans still have something to offer.

I thought this was a solid story. I appreciated it giving a fair shake to religion which traditionally SF doesn’t do. I admit I found the particular form of the mantes a little hard to take seriously (tiny flying saucers fused with giant praying mantises) but the story was good enough to overcome that as the chaplain’s assistant did everything he could to prolong the peace, and maybe even form a permanent truce. Good action, good characters, well told. This and the previous story are going to be repackaged as a novel published by Baen so I imagine that will be a solid offering as a package deal as well.

 

3. “Six-Gun Snow White”, Catherynne M. Valente (Subterranean Press)
A wild west retelling of the Snow White story, in which Snow White is the daughter of a wealthy landowner Mr. H in the Montana Territory and his Crow wife. Snow White is the name given to her by the second Mrs. H, her cruel stepmother to mock her native heritage. Snow White is a crack shot with a gun but is otherwise naive to the ways of the world, but she runs away to make her own way.

I liked the character of Snow White. You’ve got to admire the guts it would take to be a woman gunman in a world that doesn’t exactly reward that and makes you fight for it every step of the way. I really liked the early chapters of the story where all of it was told by Snow White in first person. I found her character voice as interesting or more interesting as the stuff that was actually happening, so I was disappointed when it dropped into a distant third person partway through the story. I’m not sure if the only difference was the voice itself or if the story itself was just weaker but after that point I didn’t feel like I was emotionally invested in the character anymore.

 

4. “Wakulla Springs, Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages (Tor.com, 10-2013)
This story spans most of a century, mostly taking place at Wakulla Springs a beautiful natural wonder in Florida, a real life place that was used as a jungle-like setting for some twentieth century movies like Tarzan and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. This story follows a series of colored characters from a time when Jim Crow laws were the norm to the present day.

I reviewed this story in greater detail as a followup to my usual Nebula award reviews. To sum up, I thought that the characters felt very real, and it certainly had plenty going for it in terms of theme, but I didn’t rank it higher among the novellas because I didn’t feel that it had enough of a cohesive plot arc or character arc to really hold it together for me.

 

5. “The Butcher of Khardov”, Dan Wells (Privateer Press)
Orsus Zoktavir is a warcaster for the Khador army, one of those rare few who can control the powerful mechanical warjacks by his mind alone. As if this weren’t enough, he is a giant of a man wielding a deadly axe so that he is almost as deadly as a warjack itself. This story follows Orsus (in time-jumping fashion) from when he is a young boy through the events of his life that gave him the name “The Butcher of Khardov” where he is sentenced for slaughtering an entire village, and what happens after.

It’s no surprise that this story didn’t really enthuse me. It is the second book in a series based on Warmachine, a model-based tabletop roleplaying game that’s been around for ten years but which I haven’t played nor followed. Presumably the target audience of this story are players of that game who want to know more backstory for the characters they’re moving around the battlefield.

I decided to give the story a try anyway, on the chance that it might stand on its own. I didn’t have any trouble understanding the story. The concept of warjacks is simple enough and the story explained other concepts to my satisfaction. I didn’t think the time jumping did the story any favors, whiplashing constantly from past to future and back again with no apparent design. I didn’t feel convinced that the events in the story would actually transform a violent but basically sane young man into the psychotic war machine that he becomes in his more recent years. He kind of struck me as a rabid Perrin Aybara from the Wheel of Time series. In his older incarnation I didn’t care for him at all, and frankly thought the world would be a better place if someone did execute this rabid wolf before he turns on those he claims fealty to.

Hugo Novelette Review 2014

written by David Steffen

Now that the Hugo packet is finally out, I can finish my reading of the Hugo nominees.

 

1. “The Waiting Stars”, Aliette de Bodard (The Other Half of the Sky, Candlemark & Gleam)
This is told as two seemingly separate stories, taking place in a world that will be familiar to her fans, as she has told stories from this world before. One story is about Lan Nhen and her sister Cuc as they go to rescue a damaged mindship that contains the mind of a relative. They come from the Dai Viet culture where ships are controlled by human minds, birthed as mechanical objects from human wombs. The other story follows Catherine, who has been “rescued” from Dai Viet culture by the empire which has tried to give her a new life in the imperial way.

Aliette’s stories have a great deal to say about how cultures interact with each other, not in the war that is often the subject of SF stories, but more in regards to cultural assimilation, imperialism, and the motivations of individuals who are just trying to survive in the boundaries where wildly disparate cultures intersect. She has a real gift for exploring this topic. This is a very good story. It did take me most of the story to guess how the two tales are related to each other, but it was done well.

 

2. “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”, Ted Chiang (Subterranean, Fall 2013)
A very interesting story on the subject of memory. The main part of the story is written from the POV of a journalist documenting his trial of the new memory enhancement product called Remem. Lifelogs that record everything that you see and hear have been available for quite some time, but the process of finding a particular memory in the huge set of data that any person builds up is time consuming enough that it’s generally only used for special occasions or for court cases where a team can be paid to look through the evidence. But that has all changed now with the Remem product that can find any memory in just a moment, by only giving it a vague explanation. Our protagonist is very concerned about what this will do to the way people think and remember when they no longer need to do the remembering for themselves. And in particular that it will lead people to constantly recall each other’s faults instead of letting them fall into the vagueness of memory.

There is a parallel story about a man named Jijingi who is a member of a tribe that has not developed a written language, and their visit from missionaries. A missionary named Moseby offers to teach Jijingi to write and Jijingi accepts, but is soon alarmed to find how much he is changed by the process–writing is a technology like any other, and one can’t use it without being changed by it.

Both stories were compelling and heartfelt. The journalist’s more so than Jijingi because I share some of his concerns about how modern technology is affecting people’s mental abilities, and I felt for the trials that he went through–who hasn’t thought they remember something completely different from another person, but in real life there’s generally no way to prove it.

 

3. “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”, Mary Robinette Kowal (maryrobinettekowal.com/Tor.com, 09-2013)
An aging woman astronaut is offered another chance to go into space, to visit an extrasolar planet, but her husband Nathaniel is nearing the end of his life and he might not last the three years the mission will take. She has yearned for another opportunity to relive the missions of her younger days. Should she stay or should she go?

This story and the people in it felt exceptionally real. This story is an apt metaphor for the kind of difficult life decision that we may come across from time to time, and by using the speculative element to reinforce it, it only becomes stronger, more understandable. How could you not relate to that?

My only qualm with the story was that it had an obvious reference to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz right in the first paragraph, referring to Dorothy who was raised by her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em in Kansas. While Dorothy played an important role in the story, as far as I could tell the story had nothing to do with L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories. This left me disappointed at the namedrop that apparently went nowhere.

 

4. “The Exchange Officers”, Brad Torgersen (Analog, Jan-Feb 2013)
This is the story of Chopper and Chesty, both members of the Orbital Defense Initiative Station, run by the United States military forces to protect the USA’s interests in space. It flashes back and forth between the past as Chopper and Chesty begin their training for the ODIS, and the present as Chopper and Chesty are the only remaining defenders of the ODIS against an attack by Chinese agents. Chopper and Chesty are Operating their robotic avatars remotely.

This story was okay. Kind of a Golden Age SF, the kind that has action but not a lot of deep thought, and you can enjoy it if you just watch the stuff happening but don’t expect much else out of it. The codename Chesty for the protagonist’s female colleague just made me cringe whenever I heard it–even though it was apparently a reference to Marine Chesty Puller and very fitting as the character is rare Marine in the organization. I had no idea who it was referencing while I read the story and it just seemed like a needless sexual reference of the only major female character–just a bit more explanation of where the nickname would’ve gone a long way toward reducing the cringe factor. Overall, not a bad story, but it doesn’t fit my idea of award-nominated material. I need something more than this.

 

5. “Opera Vita Aeterna”, Vox Day (The Last Witchking, Marcher Lord Hinterlands)
This is the story of an elf that asks to stay in a monastery, offering to make illuminated manuscripts during his long stay in exchange for answers on the subject of religion from the abbot. A demon follows in the elf’s footsteps, demanding the elf leaves with it.

I just found this story dull from start to finish. I didn’t care what happened, or about the fate of any of the characters.

I feel that I should mention that this story has been involved in some of this year’s drama (there’s always SOME drama during award season). Vox Day is the pseudonym of Theodore Beale, who blogs about various topics such as the supposed unsustainability of feminism. He has publicly posted this last year that he aimed to get himself on the ballot and implied that he would be willing to bankroll WorldCon memberships of people who support his views. All this to piss people off and prove a point that he’ll get voted off because the Hugo voting population is voting based on what they think of author’s personal views rather than story quality. I won’t link to his blog. You can find it easily enough with a websearch if you feel inclined.

If you feel that you should vote against Vox Day because of his personal views, I have no problem with that. You should make whatever vote you know you won’t regret and I certainly understand wanting to automatically vote against someone whose views you see as poisonous.

My heart tells me that I should vote based entirely on story quality. The Hugo Award for Best Novelette is not meant to be a contest of the popularity or rationality of the author. It’s meant to be about the quality of the story. If Vox Day wrote an amazing story that topped all the others, then I would vote for it. And if someone buys their way onto the ballot, I figure that quality will out itself.

I had heard about the controversy of someone buying their way onto the ballot before I knew which author it was that was at the center of it, but to avoid biasing my views I intentionally avoided finding out which author until I’d read all the stories in that category. I ranked all of the stories after I’d read them, and without taking into account his personal views, I still voted him at the bottom, under where I will vote for No Award, meaning that I would rather no one at all walk home with the trophy than for this story to win it.

Assuming he did buy his way onto the ballot, the real shame is that some other story, some worthy story actually chosen by the Hugo voters as a whole, was bumped from the ballot for this. We don’t know whose story that was at this stage, though we will be able to determine that later after the Hugo awards release their voting numbers.

Interview: Brad Torgersen


interviewed by Carl Slaughter

Brad TorgersenHugo nominee, Nebula nominee, Campbell nominee, Writers of the Future winner, and Analog regular Brad Torgersen talks with Diabolical Plots about his journey as a writer, the blue chip veterans who mentored him, and his hopes for the Society Advancement of Speculative Storytelling.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: Did you write the proverbial one million words before you got published in Analog? Before you won Writers of the Future?

BRAD TORGERSEN: Just about. When I won the Writers of the Future Contest I sat down and added up everything I’d written to date, and all totaled it came out to be roughly 850,000 unpublished words. So in my case I feel the “first million words” really were an accurate gauge. I know this also goes by the 10,000 hour rule. And I think it’s true. Fledgling and/or aspiring writers need to understand that it can take a lot of work and time to reach what more or less passes for entry-level professional quality. That’s not a bad thing, really. Almost anyone desiring to do a thing professionally,especially an artistic thing,needs to put in his or her practice.

 

Lights in DeepCS: Do you have a first reader?

BT: No. I have in the past used an exclusive reader group. But for the last two years virtually everything I’ve written and sold has gone through one and only one first reader: my editor(s) at Analog magazine, Baen books, etc. I know some writers swear by their first readers. Me? I fly solo these days, and do so knowing that I have only myself to trust when I am sculpting the stories. It’s a little unsettling, until I get that next acceptance letter in my e-mail. Then I breathe a sigh of relief and remember something I like to tell new writers: the point of a writing group or a first reader is to not become dependent on the writing group or the first reader. Your objective should be to eventually get proficient enough to send directly to editors without fretting about whether or not the story has what it takes to impress an editor.

 

CS: Do you use workshops?

BT: I have used several different workshops over the last five years. The first one I ever did was called the “Kris and Dean Show” and it was a weekend event hosted by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith out in Lincoln City, Oregon. “The Kris and Dean Show” was a kind of two-day crash course in how publishing works, and it really knocked my socks off at a time when I was struggling a great deal, and wondering if I would ever become good enough to sell even one story, much less the many stories and book I’ve since sold. I liked the “Kris and Dean Show” so much, I went back (after I won Writers of the Future) to do Kris and Dean’s short story workshops, and a novel pitch/packaging workshop. I sold all of the stories I did for the short story workshops (two of which got covers, and one of which was nominated for both a Hugo and a Nebula) and the novel pitch/package workshop was hugely valuable. Needless to say, I am not just a fan of the workshops in Lincoln City, I am a friend of Kris and Dean now too. Lovely, wonderful people.

Speaking of which, I’ve also done Dave Wolverton’s “Million Dollar Outlines” workshop. Which, combined with the Kris and Dean novel workshop, helped prepare me to sell to the book-buying world. Having cut my teeth and proven my worth at short fiction length, I really wanted to zero in on some stuff for my books. I knew the skillsets for writing at book length were different from writing short stories, and I really needed help putting my brain through the outlining process. Because I am a “seat of the pants” man for short fiction. But, having lost several older books to this method in the past, I didn’t want to lose any more books. So I appealed to Dave for help, and his week-long workshop was amazingly informative. Dave’s really got his pulse on the underlying emotional and “legendary” aspects of storytelling. Perhaps more than anyone I’ve ever seen, as writers like Brandon Sanderson (a student of Dave’s) might attest.

Mike ResnickAnd of course, there is the Writers of the Future workshop itself; which is free to all winners of the Contest, and puts a new writer through his or her professional paces. The best benefit I can think of from Writers of the Future was the networking: being able to meet and talk to all these very-successful and award-winning authors. In an intimate setting. Often for hours and hours. I not only left the workshop with numerous contacts in the industry, I eventually became good friends with many of the judges, such as Kevin J. Anderson, Eric Flint, and especially Mike Resnick; the last having become like a father to me in the business.

One thing about workshops: there are workshops for craft, and there are workshops for business. Be sure what you want to do (and where you need the emphasis most) before you sign up. Kevin J. Anderson (along with Dave Wolverton, Brandon Sanderson, Rebecca Moesta, Eric Flint, and several others) runs a stupendously useful and very fun professional business workshop called Superstars Writing Seminars. I took the three-day course at Kevin’s encouragement, following my stint in L.A. for Writers of the Future, and I found Superstars to be chock full of valuable writing business advice, anecdotes, cautionary tales, and encouraging news. A top-notch workshop if I do say so myself; excellent for those writers who, having published a bit, are wanting to bump up to the next level and really start making money.

 

CS: How many times do you revise the same story?

BT: I used to endlessly revise my stories to death. It was what I thought you had to do to become a pro. Dean Wesley Smith disabused me of that notion in 2008-2009 and it paid off: I won Writers of the Future, and have not looked back since. Now I give myself roughly three passes through a thing: the initial creative pass, a second pass to check for consistency problems and emotional impact, and a final pass for fine-tooth-comb stuff like spelling and grammar and occasional sentence or word changes. After that . . . I am done. I know the story or book is as good as I can possible make it (in that particular time and place) and I need to get the story out to the editors, and begin working on something new. If I let a story linger too long, and go for even more passes, I always have a bad time of it. Always. So I try to make sure I don’t get cold feet. I grow more as a writer working on new work than I ever do endlessly “fixing” old work. I think many writers are the same way, but we’ve all been taught this myth that exhaustive revision is the only way to be good. I think it’s not so.

 

CS: Do you write an outline, character profiles, etc?

For short fiction? Almost never. For books? I lost six books writing by the seat of my pants, and swore I’d never do it again. I went and sat at the feet of professionals with dozens and dozens of novels to their credit, and forced myself to learn how to outline. I used to think working with an outline was stifling and would kill the creative juice of the story. But I was wrong. An outline (for book length) is the only way I personally know how to do something that long, and not get lost in the sub-plots, let the small characters grow and take over the big characters, etc. Outlines can be anywhere from a few pages, up to as much as 50 pages. Depends on how much world building and character development I want to do before I actually begin writing the prose. And there is always a *lot* of that behind-the-scenes stuff that doesn’t wind up in the book verbatim. Because while I may need to know a character’s eight-paragraph bio in order for her to make sense to me in the overall plot, the reader may only need to know a few details dispersed here and there; as the action moves along.

 

Analog 2CS: Are most of your stories primarily premise-oriented, character-oriented, plot-oriented, or theme-oriented?

BT: All of the above. I have written stories based purely on a suggestive title, a nugget of a plot, a single interesting character premise, or a theme that’s rolling around in my head and which I want to explore. Usually I wait for two or three of these things to collide in my unconscious before I decide I have enough material to put together an interesting and engaging story. One of my best-known stories, a novelette called “Outbound,” actually began as a kludging-together of two previous stories which had, on their own, failed to gel. One of them had a good theme and a decent plot, but no compelling character or situation. The other had a compelling character and situation, but no theme or plot. Throwing these elements from these separate stories together, and making a brand new story from the bones of the old, made all the difference.

 

CS: Do you make major changes at an editor’s request or hold your ground?

BT: I am easy-going. Toni Weisskopf, Stan Schmidt, Edmund Schubert, Bryan Thomas Schmidt, Trevor Quachri, they all have valuable feedback, and there is almost never a time when I can’t improve a story with some experienced feedback from the editor. That’s what they’re there for, after all. And no editor, especially book-buyer like Toni, ever gets a book from a new author which cannot use at least some commentary and feedback. I look at it like a perpetual learning process, and as long as the editor seems to see the same (more or less) story that I am seeing (and this is almost always the case) then I am perfectly happy making whatever changes work best. Or which might be required to take a decent story, and make it into a good story. Or take a good story, and make it into a great story.

 

BradConCS: How many stories has Analog bought and how many have they rejected?

BT: Before Stan Schmidt bought “Outbound” in January 2010, he had rejected two or three dozen previous stories. Since then Stan (and his successor, Trevor Quachri) have bounced a tiny handful. All of which found their way to homes with other markets. One of the nice things about cracking the professional glass and gaining entry-level proficiency as a story teller, when a story gets rejected these days, it’s almost always a matter of taste for a given editor; someone else (with a different taste) will almost always like the story and pick it up. I often go to Analog with my stories first because Analog’s needs so closely match my particular style and content; of story subject, theme, protagonists, etc. But not always. Analog has taken things other editors could not use, and vice versa. Again, a perk of being pro level.

 

CS: Now that Analog has a new editor, will the magazine, or you, have a fundamental shift in MO?

BT: Nope. I’ve sold two big stories to Trevor Quachri (“The Chaplain’s Legacy” was a massive novella, and “Life Flight” was a substantial novelette) which I believe would have easily sold to Stan Schmidt when he was editing. In fact when Stan Schmidt did the intro for my short story collection LIGHTS IN THE DEEP he noted that his wife had already read “The Chaplain’s Legacy” in the magazine, and gave it very high marks. And he tends to trust her taste, so I think Analog and I will continue to have a mutually beneficial relationship. It’s a lot of fun being able to publish in such a well-known and venerable magazine. I am pleased that Analog’s readers have continued to respond so well to my work. I hope that’s always the case, and I endeavor with each story I send to Analog to match the bar I set for myself with the last Analog publication.

 


CS: How long is the “Unpublished But Hopeful Stories by Brad Torgersen” list?

BT: Difficult to gauge, as I generally have several dozen ideas rolling around in my head at any one moment. I have on occasion gone back to the “trunk” an unearthed an old story which got rejected at all the markets previously, then reworked the story from the ground up, and sold it contemporarily. In those cases it’s a total rebuild, almost always using the character or the idea as the skeleton around which the new, re-drafted (Dean Wesley Smith’s phrase) story takes shape.

 

DP: Do you anticipate ever breaking into novels? Anthologies? Editing? Full time sci fi work?

BT: Full-time writing would be great, but give the vagaries of the marketplace and the needs of my family, it remains to be seen if full-time ever becomes truly feasible. I have spoken to several of the elder statesmen in the Utah spec fic writing community, and among them is a fellow named L.E. Modesitt, Jr. who says full-time writing (pre-retirement) isn’t even a necessary goal, as long as I keep putting the hours in at night and can produce fresh work on a regular basis. So, for now, I live with late nights. Yes, I’ve sold my first novel, a “fix up book” (in the vernacular of Mike Resnick) called THE CHAPLAIN’S WAR to Baen Books. It’s based on my two Analog stories “The Chaplain’s Assistant” and “The Chaplain’s Legacy,” both of which appeared in print previously. I’ve had several stories reprinted, and have also put fresh work into anthologies on request from the editors. I am not sure I can afford the time to edit right now. Though if a choice editorial opportunity came along (and I felt it was my chance to really make a statement and/or affect the field) I might try to take it. But only provided that I could work it in with my other jobs: full-time healthcare nerd, part-time Army Reserve soldier, and night-time sci-fi writer.

 

CS: Give us the background on Society for the Advancement of Speculative Storytelling?

BT: Lou Antonelli came to me shortly after I broke into print, and he proposed the idea that the spec fic community needed a new organization that could not only focus on bona fide advocating for established authors, but which might also help foster the growth and development of aspirants as well. Now, I knew then as well as anyone the heartache of the aspirant, and I like a lot of what Lou had it mind, so I signed on. Unfortunately, because my three jobs still have to take precedent, I wasn’t able to do much more for SASS at the start, than serve as a hood ornament Vice President while Lou got the word out and tried to attract new members. I think SASS is definitely something that will gain speed and momentum over time, whether I am able to lend it much credibility or not. Right now I am a dues-paying member and I like (again) what Lou is trying to do with the organization. Spec fic really could use a group capable of bona fide professional advocacy, combined with grass-roots growing and fostering of new talent. Too often sometimes (at least in my perception) the existing bod(ies) get tangled up in personality disputes or political bickering that’s got nothing to do with anything important to me as a professional. Can SASS be the answer? I would certainly like to think so. I hope Lou continues to gain traction and that SASS moves forward.

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

His training is in journalism, and he has an essay on culture printed in the Korea Times and Beijing Review. He has two science fiction novels in the works and is deep into research for an environmental short story project.

Carl currently teaches in China where electricity is an inconsistent commodity.

 

 

 

Trevor Quachri Interview

interview by Carl Slaughter

Trevor Quachri photoTrevor Quachri recently took over from longstanding Analog editor Stanley Schmidt. Science fiction writers want to know what changes, if any, to expect. They also want to know how, exactly, to sell their stories and how to avoid getting their stories rejected.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: Will you read every submitted story or assign slush readers?

TREVOR QUACHRI: Every submitted story is pretty absolute, but the overwhelming amount of time, yeah, I’m going to be the only person reading the slush. Stanley Schmidt read all the submissions himself, and that’s something I want to continue, as much as I’m able. I know that’s the opposite of how most other magazines do it, but it’s tough for me to really feel like the magazine reflects my vision or tastes if I’m not actually looking at the majority of stories that come in. That said, I also know that right out of the gate I’m nowhere near as fast as someone with thirty-four years of experience under their belt, so if I’m not quite to where I can do it all yet, I’m also not above accepting a little help for a bit.

 

CS: How far into a story do you go before you decide not to continue reading? How far into a story do you go before you decide to read it til the end?

TQ: It depends on the story. There are three major questions I’m constantly asking myself as I work , 1) “Is this readable? 2) Where’s the science? 3) Does the science hold up?” — and how far I make it depends on the answers I’m coming up with. If it’s not readable, I don’t get far at all. If it’s readable, but I can’t find the science, I’ll make it further in. If it’s well written and the science is there, then I’ll read the whole thing. Length is also a big factor. For obvious reasons, I’m much more likely to give a 5,000 word short story the benefit of the doubt than I am to make myself stick with a 22,000 word novella that’s still not working for me at the half-way point.

 

CS: Science fiction is about the exploration of science, but it’s also about the implications of science. How much emphasis do you place on the technical aspects of a story and how much emphasis on the human element?

TQ: Good science fiction has both elements working in concert, hand-in-hand, building off one another. If your story would still work if you largely excised one aspect or the other, you’re either writing bad science fiction or good lit-fic. So a story where one is emphasized to the exclusion of the other is going to be a tough sell for me.

 

CS: How much of a chance does a new writer have with Analog and how much of an edge does an established writer have?

TQ: The primary advantage an established writer has is that I’m probably going to read them slightly sooner. Otherwise, that’s about it. Much of an established writer’s “edge” is just a matter of them behaving professionally, having a sense of what I’m looking for, and being persistent. Any newcomer can handle that.

 

CS: Do you automatically publish stories submitted by Analog regulars like Brad Torgerson and Carl Frederick? How often do you reject a story by an author familiar to Analog readers?

TQ: This is probably a better question for the authors, but the short answer to the first part is “Heck no.” They have to earn their spot, just like everyone else. Even the Analog regulars who have sold to me have racked up their share of rejections from me, too. Part of an editor’s job is to say, “This isn’t good enough; I think you can do better,” and it doesn’t do anyone any favors to spare them from that.

 

CS: How many stories per year are by unpublished writers? How many by writers new to Analog readers?

TQ: Well, I haven’t actually put out a year’s worth of issues yet, so it’s tough to say exactly. I’d guess anywhere from a quarter to a third are from unpublished (or mostly unpublished) writers. Established writers who haven’t previously appeared in Analog are the smallest group, after regulars and new writers, in that order. They probably only make up ten percent or so. That’s not a conscious decision on my part; I think most people who are already selling regularly just don’t branch out all that much.

 

CS: Will winning Writers of the Future or some other prestigious award get an author a foot in the door with Analog?

TQ: The way I do things right now, I really only look at the cover letter (where most people list their bona fides) after I’ve actually read the story. So I already have a pretty solid sense of whether or not the story works by the time I even see an awards list. If all the accolades seem inconsistent with what I thought, I may go back and give the story another quick once-over to see if I missed something, so awards can act like a little bit of a safety net, but that’s about it.

 

CS: What subgenres and premises are you especially interested in and which definitely don’t excite you?

TQ: Editors hate being specific about this kind of thing, because it means we’ll see a million bad stories about the subject that we said interested us, and all the good ones with premises that haven’t historically appealed to us (but conceivably still could) will go elsewhere. Broadly, I’d love to see more stories that push the boundaries of what people think of when they hear “hard science fiction.” Hard SF has a very specific image, both among people who love it and people who hate it, but I think that image can be reductive. So anything that challenges that image is the kind of thing that will get my attention. Atypical characters and settings and under-represented disciplines like neurochemistry or immunology or paleontology or metallurgy (or, or, or†) are all good ways to do that. I joked in a recent editorial that the season two episode of Breaking Bad where Walt and Jesse get stuck in the desert and they use SCIENCE! to save themselves is the best hard SF I’d seen on TV in years. I wasn’t entirely serious, but it’s also not entirely off base, either. Yes, it’s lacking the imaginative elements that are vital to our genre, but the science is both relevant to the story and accurate, and those are really the most important rules of hard SF, as I see it. Beyond that? Surprise me.

 

CS: How much weight do you give to strong writing and how much to strong science?

TQ: This is another answer that really depends on the story in question. Optimally, it has both to a sufficient degree that I don’t have to weigh them against each other. I’m definitely more capable of polishing the writing of a story with a strong scientific foundation than I am trying to completely overhaul a well-written story with an entirely different scientific rationale. Details can be corrected, but if the whole story is predicated on something that we know just won’t work, there’s only so much to be done. I’ve often compared science fiction (hard SF in particular) to other specialized genres like kung fu movies. If you get a well-acted, well-choreographed movie like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, that’s great. But even questionably translated kung fu movies are successful in what they set out to do if they deliver great fight scenes. Without those, you’re just watching a Chinese soap opera. Hard SF has a similar relationship to science. That’s more of a broad philosophy than a rule, though: we also published Dune, which isn’t exactly the epitome of hard SF. I believe there should always be room for something like that at Analog.

 

CS: What can aspiring writers do to improve their chances of getting out of the slushpile?

TQ: Probably the single most common problem I see with otherwise good stories is that they’re too often the wrong length for what they’re trying to accomplish. Either they’re too short to properly develop the elements that are supposed to have gravitas, or they’re too long, full of padding that isn’t easily snipped, bloating a story that could otherwise have been elegant. Get in, tell your story or deliver your idea, and get out. From a more practical standpoint, while I do need some long stories, I need proportionately more short stories, and your odds are better if you’re closer to that end of the spectrum. I can definitely afford to be more adventurous with a 3,500-word story than I can with 17,500 words. So start out small. Less seriously? Stop automatically giving children names like “Timmy” or “Jimmy” or “Billy,” like they just stepped out of an episode of Lassie. That signifies “The Future!” to a reader about as much as character names out of Lovecraft (“Wilbur” or “Barnabas” or “Danforth” or “Randolph”) would have to a reader in 1975.

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

His training is in journalism, and he has an essay on culture printed in the Korea Times and Beijing Review. He has two science fiction novels in the works and is deep into research for an environmental short story project.

Carl currently teaches in China where electricity is an inconsistent commodity.

Interview: Tom Greene

interviewed by Carl Slaughter

tomgStrange Horizons editor Julia Rios, in an interview with SFWA, said of Tom Greene’s “Zero Bar,” published last year: “It knocked my socks off because it brought up so many things I’d experienced in my own life.” Greene recently sold “Another Man’s Treasure” to Analog. Greene has a Bachelor in English, a MFA in creative writing, and a Ph.D. in English literature. But he struggled for thirty years to discover why his stories were being rejected and how to write marketable fiction. In this interview with Diabolical Plots he explains what he learned in the process. “Zero Bar,” probably Greene’s best story, was significantly revised at the request of the above mentioned Rios. Greene explains why he didn’t have a knee-jerk reaction to these suggestions. He also shares some profound insights into why vampire stories are so popular and why the vampire myth has endured in fiction for so long.

 

YOU TRIED FOR 30 YEARS TO WRITE MARKETABLE SCIENCE FICTION. YOU SAID YOU DISCOVERED ONLY A FEW YEARS AGO HOW TO WRITE WHAT SELLS. WHAT DID YOU LEARN AND HOW DID YOU ADAPT?

Well I started trying to write science fiction and fantasy back in about 1984, and I got my first actual sale in 2011 and my first SF sale in 2012. That’s all year after year, hundreds of rejections. And for all those years I was completely clueless about why no editor was interested in what I wrote. My teachers and family members seemed to like my stories, and I was good enough to get into and graduate an MFA program, but no publications. Not even one.

So I did what a lot of newbies do and blamed the industry, as if there’s some kind of conspiracy of publishing insiders striving to keep new writers out (actually the truth is that most editors are desperately looking for talented new writers).

Some people tried to help me, but I wasn’t ready to hear those lessons because I didn’t accept that the problem was with my stories. So I rejected any suggestion that it was my writing, and I became the stereotypical sulky, failed writer and wore a beret and smoked clove cigarettes and drank a lot of red wine at parties.

What was actually happening is that for the first 25 years or so, I was writing stories about characters who weren’t very interesting doing things that nobody cared about. I think a lot of newbies fall into the same trap: unlikable characters in linear plots. Sometimes I had good ideas, and sometimes not, and it wasn’t that the stories were always bad, but even the best ones just weren’t interesting for most readers to read. So editors would send them back with comments like “some good ideas, but not for me,” which was puzzling.

The turning point came when I heard about Critters and joined in about 2008. I’m not the first one to say this, but the really great thing about online workshops is not that you get to read some good fiction, but that you get to read a lot of bad fiction, fiction that is as bad as your own. So after the thirtieth or fortieth time that I had to read a story about characters who weren’t very interesting doing things that I didn’t really care about, it dawned on me and I was like, “Hey, these are just like the stories I write!”

Some of us are just slow learners I guess. In a way, It’s a really good thing I didn’t make a sale in all those years, because that would have just reinforced the error.

 

THE OPENING SEQUENCE AND ENDING OF “ZERO BAR” WERE SIGNIFICANTLY ALTERED BY STRANGE HORIZONS. WHAT HAPPENED IN THAT PROCESS?

My wife is a professional editor, so I was lucky enough to go into the situation already knowing what editors actually do. Editors are not gatekeepers or adversaries to writers (it seems many writers tend to think this way). The editor is the person responsible for making the publication as good as it can be in terms of what their readers want. Good fiction editors read a lot, and they get constant feedback about the choices they make from a huge group of readers. So that gives them expert insight into what makes stories work for their readers.

Also I worked on and off over the years as a curriculum and technical writer. Nothing teaches you how to not be ego-invested in your work like writing manuals for bank software. Professional writing is all collaborative, so you work with editors and marketers and graphics designers and so on. Primadonna writers don’t last long in that environment. You learn quickly that the person who wrote the document is just one voice in making the document work,and usually also not the most important voice.

So in fiction, it’s like the author is the expert on his or her vision of what the story wants to be, and the magazine editor is the expert on the audience and the characteristic voice of that particular publication. So you work together to make the story the best story that it can be for that particular audience and publication.

So when Julia Rios, my editor at Strange Horizons for this story, offered to give me feedback and make suggestions for improvements to my piece, my reaction was more like, “Wow, so you’re going to offer me a service that I would ordinarily have to pay hundreds of dollars to a freelance editor for, and then you’re going to pay me? Cool.”

The process was very much like what would happen in any professional writing environment. My editor sent me notes on where she thought things weren’t working, and I rewrote those parts (actually I typically write multiple alternate versions of fixes and send them all). Then we’d go back and forth with more changes until we were both satisfied. It was hard work, but in my opinion the story is much improved. If anything, Julia was much *more* respectful of my opinion than I’m accustomed to from non-fiction writing.

 

DID YOU WRESTLE WITH THE THOUGHT THAT THIS MIGHT BE YOUR MOMENT AND THAT YOU MIGHT HAVE TO COMPROMISE TO REACH A PRO MARKET?

After my Critters revelation about why my stories were failing, making the changes necessary to reach a pro market didn’t feel like a compromise. When I’m the reader, I like to read stories that are engaging. So as a writer, the last thing I want to do is burden other readers with stories that they don’t care about.

So far at least, I get to keep my ideas, my themes, and my message (if any) in my fiction without compromising. The changes I’ve been working on learning are in putting my own conceptual stuff into a story that people might be actually interested in reading.

 

YOU LECTURE ON THE VAMPIRE GENRE. SHARE SOME INSIGHTS WITH US.

There are a lot of precursors out there and some controversy, but the completely modern version of the vampire myth was actually invented by Stoker right at the end of the 19th century, and it was one of those magical moments in the history of genre fiction when some random guy (he was actually a theater manager, not an author) just happened to strike on exactly the right symbol to represent exactly what people were afraid of in his society at that time. The British Empire was coming apart, there was a lot of free-roving anxiety about the growing independence of women and the diminishing role of the aristocracy, the anonymity and social isolation of growing cities, the influx of foreigners into London†So a supernaturally-powerful aristocrat from a foreign country who preys on women by sexually liberating them and lurks around city streets–it’s just exactly right.

It’s the same kind of thing we see whenever some new genre hits it big–cyberpunk representing the fears about the Internet that people had in the 80s, all those giant bug movies in the Cold War, Steampunk now, and so forth.

The thing that’s unusual about vampires, though, is that the myth has a kind of persistent flexibility that allows it to speak to people across a variety of generations with only some minor changes. So vampires remain popular because their mythology can be repurposed to fit whatever people are currently afraid of. So, Eastern-European aristocrats in the 1930s, Hippie Atheists raise Dracula in one of the Hammer films from the 60s, Anne Rice and her AIDS-era handsome male vampires lurking around the alleys of New Orleans in the 80s, waves of illegal vampire immigrants invading human society in the True Blood series…

Don’t ask me in a short interview to explain Edward Cullen, though. I could write a whole monograph on that one. Probably I should.

 

YOU HAVE A BACHELOR IN ENGLISH, AN MFA IN CREATIVE WRITING, AND A PH.D. IN ENGLISH LITERATURE. HOW DID YOUR ACADEMIC BACKGROUND AFFECT YOUR VIEW ON WRITING FICTION? WHAT DID YOU LEARN THAT HELPED AND WHAT DID YOU LEARN THAT YOU HAD TO UNLEARN?

The major advantage of formal education in literature for me was that it forced me to read a bunch of stuff that I never would have picked up otherwise, the canonical works of literature in English. I don’t have the kind of personality that would have resulted in my reading Milton or Richardson or Sterne without a deadline and a paper hanging over my head.

Being exposed to all that stuff really does change your brain, I believe. It really does shape your sense of aesthetics and your understanding of history and culture in the English-speaking world and the big themes that authors have been dealing with since the invention of writing. But also it broadens your sense of what is possible and what has already been done, seeing what other people have done.

But of course we’ve all seen the studies that show that the more school you attend, the worse you do on creativity tests. It’s impossible to know if I would be more creative without it, I guess. But I did always prefer to focus on the wonky, forgotten corners of literary criticism: folklore, magical realism, Jungian psychology, vampire myths, men’s fraternal organization, semiotics, Victorian adventure fiction. I had good teachers early-on who taught me that you can carve out your own space in literature studies and you don’t have to
write another tired old paper on “Hamlet’s left toenail” as one of my teachers put it.

When I draft fiction, I try to follow my emotions with where I think things should go. But it happens pretty regularly that when I’m revising afterward, that I’ll have an intellectual insight, like “Of course she needs to spill the ink on her hands in this scene, because that’s what happens in Perrault’s ‘Bluebeard’ and the ink represents blood.” So I think it helps the ultimate shape of the way things turn out, and hopefully doesn’t interfere too much with the creativity.

And the education, of course, allowed me to go into teaching, which is not only my dream job, but also actually rewards me with extra time and resources when I successfully do my creative writing work.

My MFA in creative writing I have to treat separately because, for me, that experience was a failure in a lot of ways. I mean, I was not the best student either because I was still in a place with my writing where I wasn’t ready to hear that the problem was with me. But also, it seemed my program wasn’t set up to teach me a lot of basic fundamentals of writing that might have helped me. And my program focused primarily on mainstream, literary fiction while I was doing much more speculative stuff. So most of my colleagues’ comments in workshops started with the phrase, “Well, I don’t really read science fiction, so…” and that just reinforced my belief that I was misunderstood, rather than that I needed to change things about my writing.

It was mostly pure luck that Samuel R. (Chip) Delany happened to be teaching in the Comp Lit department at my MFA school, and that I was able to persuade him to sponsor an independent study for me, and then later to be my thesis advisor. I learned a lot from him.

So I usually warn people to modulate their expectations about MFA programs. As a speculative fiction writer in a mainstream literature program, there was a constant tension for me during those three years between the pressure I felt to write for the grade in the workshop (i.e. realistic fiction) versus where I felt my fiction ought to go. Then afterward, because of my bad experiences, it took a couple of years to really find my direction in writing again.

 

YOU WRITE ABOUT VAMPIRES AND ZOMBIES, BUT YOU ALSO DO SCIENCE AS IT AFFECTS SOCIETY AND SOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS AND PERSONAL DECISIONS. “ANOTHER MAN’S TREASURE” SOLD TO ANALOG, WHICH EMPHASIZES HARD SCIENCE. DO YOU HAVE A SPECIALTY / PREFERENCE?

My favorite stories to read are the ones that are kind of mythic: that is stories about individuals confronting experiences that are transformative or unknowable on a scale that’s outside of the normal human realm. Orpheus in the underworld, or Psyche and Eros. It’s possible to do this kind of story in a realistic setting–“Moby Dick” or “Heart of Darkness.” But science fiction, fantasy and horror give you a bigger canvas and more colors to play with in constructing mythic-scale stories.

Scholars who write about SF agreed a long time ago that science is the symbolic magic of the technological age–that science serves the same function in SF stories that flying carpets and magic potions serve in fairy tales. Similarly in horror, there’s a wide consensus that zombies are closely associated with the plight of anonymous industrial workers, and vampires have represented a whole slew of cultural fears from Stoker’s original British Imperial anxiety up through the current rash of sparkly abstinence-vampires.

So on some level it’s all myth-making. Rewriting fairy tales with new symbols, and I feel pretty feckless about using whichever symbols I think will work.

I do really like hard SF, though, and I always give those ideas priority when they come up (which I wish were more often). I feel like the whole Enlightenment idea of rationality as the solution to human problems is both important and endangered. So anything that expresses that ideology in a positive way is maybe part of the way forward.

 

ANY NOVELS IN THE WORKS?

Like most SF fans probably, I have tons of accumulated notes on some settings for possible novels, and I hope to get there eventually. But I still feel like I have years of hard work ahead of me on the rudiments of storytelling in short fiction before I’ll be ready to seriously take on longer projects.

 

ADVICE TO ASPIRING WRITERS?

I can tell you what seemed to make the biggest difference for me (in chronological order).

1. Accept that if none of your stories ever get published year after year, it’s almost certainly a problem with your writing. Join an online workshop (I like both Critters and Online Writing Workshop ) and read all the weak stories to find out what is weak about your own stories. Pay particular attention to critiques from people who tell you why your stories suck, because they are trying to help you.

2. Get away from the idea that your stories fail because of language problems. For many years, I thought that tweaking my words around or writing in the “style” of this author or that author would make my stories publishable. But a failed story can’t be made to work by changing the language.

If the story is good and the writing is competent, nobody really cares about the style. Something that happened to me after my big revelation is that I started simplifying my language. Something we learn in technical writing: to be simple and clear is hard work. I think it was a big improvement, stripping away the verbal distractions and focusing on the story.

Also, actual language problems are amazingly easy to fix. Pick up a copy of Browne & King’s “Self Editing for Fiction Writers.” This book explains in specific detail about the amateurish mistakes that we all make as newbies, and how to clean them out of your prose. Browne & King are freelance editors who do this stuff for a living. I’m teaching a creative writing class at my college this Fall, and this is the textbook for the class. This is the book I wish I’d had when I was 17 and decided to try to be a fiction writer.

3. Work on diagnosing and fixing the specific problems that make your stories fail. My stories were all about unlikable characters (when readers say “unlikable” they actually mean flat or uninteresting) going through the motions of linear, contrived plots. I used to put all my focus into engaging the intellect of my readers, and paid no attention to engaging the reader’s emotions.

The best book that I’ve found specifically about how to engage reader emotions is Donald Maass’s book “Writing the Breakout Novel.” Maass is not an author; he’s a literary agent. Therefore he really knows more than most authors about what readers enjoy, and explains it very clearly and in practical terms. Maass makes a persuasive argument that if you want to engage reader’s minds, you have to engage their emotions first. This is what I wish somebody had told me in my MFA classes.

4. This isn’t true of everybody, but for me, I have to write every day. No exceptions. Holidays, traveling, birthdays, puking up last night’s hangover– If I miss even one day, it takes me at least two or three days to pick up the thread of where I left off.

When I write every day, this really helpful thing happens where my brain continues working on what I’m writing during the downtime. So if I stop writing on Tuesday because I don’t know what comes next, it cooks around in my unconscious for 24 hours so that when I sit down Wednesday, I typically know what’s supposed to be next. If I wait until Thursday, it’s gone.

I used to think that I didn’t have time to write every day. Over many years of not getting very much written, I discovered that you *never* have enough time to write. Waiting for that ideal job or that vacation or that relative to die and leave you a trust fund doesn’t improve the situation any. I sincerely believe that if I won the Powerball today and quit my day job, I still wouldn’t feel like I had any time to write. The only way to get enough time to write every day is to actually write every day. Somehow, when you actually do it, the other stuff that used to fill that time magically becomes less of an issue.

When you write every day, the economy of scale really gets on your side. If I had started writing every day 30 years ago (instead of 3 years ago) even at my current slow rate of about 750 words a day, that’s over 7 million more words that I would have written by now. Most of it would have been crap, but the nice thing about writing is that even writing crap helps you write better as long as you learn from it.

And a final word: Probably the advice you most expect from somebody who started finally getting some things published after 30 years of failure is something like, “Be like me, and don’t give up.” But actually, my best advice is, “Don’t be like me! Wasting years of writing time.” If your stories are not getting published, then there’s a reason for it, and the most likely reason is that your stories aren’t good enough to publish. Figure out why, and fix it now.

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

His training is in journalism, and he has an essay on culture printed in the Korea Times and Beijing Review. He has two science fiction novels in the works and is deep into research for an environmental short story project.

Carl currently teaches in China where electricity is an inconsistent commodity.

Interview: Ken Liu

interview by Carl Slaughter
introduction by David Steffen

ken_liu_small

If you’ve kept up with science fiction publications in the last few years, you’ve probably at least heard the name Ken Liu. Dozens of his stories have been published just in the last couple of years in the biggest and best SF publications out there today, including F&SF, Analog, Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction… The list goes on and on. He won the Hugo for “Mono No Aware” this year. He won the Hugo and the Nebula for “The Paper Menagerie” last year, one of my personal favorite stories I’ve read in years. I just read a fun story by him on the Drabblecast titled “The Call of the Pancake Factory”, about a representative of a certain supercorporation amusement park happening to cross paths with a cult of Cthulhu–great story. He’s on a roll, and showing no signs of stopping. He’s a great writer and you should check out his work if you ever get a chance to read it.

 

You’ve been getting an awful lot of stories published the last few years. Did you build up an archive or have you just been a really busy guy lately?

For the longest time, I wrote very slowly, and so there never really was much “inventory.” But I’ve been writing at a somewhat steady, faster pace for the last four years. The more I write, the more ideas I seem to have. So that has worked out well.

 

How do you maintain quality and quantity? Natural talent, hard work, long hours, disciplined lifestyle, or some combination?

I think over time, I’ve learned to do a better job of picking out which story ideas seem cool but won’t work, which ones are good for flash pieces, and which ones are good for longer development. That has helped to reduce the number of stories I have to trunk.

I’ve also learned to work better under deadline. Knowing how long it takes me to finish a story and polish it to the point where I’m satisfied with it builds confidence, and that makes it easier to take up new projects and plan them into my schedule.

 

What’s your day job? How do you find time for family, the office, and the keyboard?

I used to be a programmer, became a corporate attorney, and now I work as a litigation consultant for high-tech patent cases, which sort of combines my areas of expertise. It’s very interesting, stimulating work, and probably helps with giving me story ideas.

I have two young children at home, ages 3 and 1. As anyone with young children knows, they severely constrain your writing time. I’ve learned to be better about time management and use the little writing time I do have more efficiently. For example, I try to do some drafting on my commuter rail ride every day.

I can’t say I’ve got it figured out. My novel revisions are going much more slowly than I’d like, partly due to the lack of uninterrupted writing time. But plenty of writers have figured out such a balance before, I just need to keep on working on my process and improve it.

 

Some author’s sell to the same two or three markets or half a dozen markets. You’ve been selling to every market under the sun. What’s the explanation? Diverse material? Looks better on your resume? Just like to shop around?

I enjoy working with different editors. Every editor has taught me something new. And I do write a wide variety of stories, so some stories might be a better fit with F&SF while others might work better at Analog. Not every editor likes everything I write.

I also like being exposed to new readers through new markets, so being published in multiple markets has worked out well for me.

 

You’ve been winning and being nominated for a lot of awards. Mike Resnick said about awards, “When you walk out of the convention, nobody on the street knows who you are.” This in contrast to, for example, the Oscar. How has winning famous awards affected you personally? How has it affected your career? More sales? More fan mail? Invitations to speak at conventions? Requests for interviews?

I can’t say it has affected my personal life significantly — I did get a lot of congratulations from my friends and co-workers, which made me very happy. I think the stories that were nominated got more readers, and of course I’m happy about that.

Career wise, since I don’t have a novel, I can’t point to any concrete sales boost from the awards. I do think some of the translation deals I’ve gotten were due to the awards — if nothing else, they help with name recognition, especially overseas.

Unless people ask about the awards though, I just don’t think about them much. I’m very grateful to have been nominated and to have won some of them, but what keeps me writing isn’t the desire for awards, but to write stories that I want to read myself.

 

You’ve been concentrating on short stories. What does the novel horizon look like?

I’m working on a novel, an epic fantasy of sorts, set in a secondary world created by my wife and me together. The setting is an archipelago, and there are magical creatures, gods, and lots of fanciful machines based on ancient Chinese mechanical engineering. The plot is loosely adapted from the historical legends about the founding of the Han Dynasty, and some of the cultural aspects are derived from classical East Asian elements.

The first draft is done, but there’s a lot of rewriting left still.

 

What about the screen market? Any queries to or from Hollywood to buy or write scripts?

I do like scripts, and want to get better at writing them. But there’s not much of a market for them unless you’re in Hollywood, so, for now, I’m focusing just on narrative fiction.

 

What’s the market like for science fiction in China? Aren’t they more into traditional fantasy? You know, beings with magical powers. Personification of animals, like the famous Chinese novel, “Journey to the West.” (Or is it more accurately translated, “The Journey West”?) Is there a market in China for traditional science fiction? Biotechnology, space travel, etc.

I’m not an expert on the Chinese science fiction market, but from what I’ve seen, science fiction does very well there. Of course, China is a very big country, so even if only a small percentage of readers are interested in science fiction, the absolute numbers are going to be big. Liu Cixin’s Three-Body trilogy, for example, sold some 400,000 copies, and that’s a hard science fiction first contact story. (I’ve been engaged to translate the first book of the trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, into English, and Tor Books will be publishing the book in the US in 2014.)

A lot of my writer friends in China — in science fiction, fantasy, and slip-stream — seem to have many more readers (even if they don’t all have novels out yet). And even my own stories, translated into Chinese, seem to have generated more feedback than they received in English. So I’d say the market is very healthy, overall.

 

Besides China, how are overseas sales going?

I have a Japanese collection coming out from Hayakawa Publishing in 2015, and I’ve sold a few reprints to markets in France, Spain, Italy, and other countries. Sometimes I get a chance to work directly with the translators, and that’s always such a pleasure.

 

You have all your stories critiqued on the Critters Online Workshop. How has that affected your writing and your sales?

I haven’t used Critters for most of my fiction for a while now. Over time, I’ve developed a circle of beta readers (several of whom I met through critters) whose opinions I trust, and it’s just more efficient to get their take than to go through critters, especially when I’m under tight deadlines.

I think Critters taught me, above all, how to figure out which critiques are helpful and which ones are not. When you’re relatively inexperienced as a writer, there’s a lot of benefit to getting a wide range of opinions because they help you figure out who your target audience is. Learning to ignore opinions from people who aren’t in your target audience is a difficult lesson because our natural tendency as writers is to try to please everyone. But that’s impossible, and it’s better that you learn this lesson earlier rather than later.

 

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Listen when other writers share their process and try their techniques out, but don’t be surprised when most of them don’t work for you — but also be prepared for the possibility that a few will. You won’t know which is which until you try them though.

 

Carl_eagle

Carl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

 

His training is in journalism, and he has an essay on culture printed in the Korea Times and Beijing Review. He has two science fiction novels in the works and is deep into research for an environmental short story project.

 

Carl currently teaches in China where electricity is an inconsistent commodity.