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Words for writers

Monday March 07, 2011 @ 11:14 PM (UTC)

Once upon a time, I was uploading any number of photos from my writing school days to Flickr. Now, I have a tendency toward folksonomy, and a general philosophy that it’s best to capture data at the point of entry, whether or not you are sure you’ll use it later. Thus, I had the urge to not only tag the photos with the names of the people in them, but with their affiliation: Poetry, Fiction, Nonfiction.

I didn’t exactly want to type open-quote fiction student close-quote a thousand times: what I wanted was a one word solution, preferably as elegant as “poet”. What I got was two words (because of course I wanted to capture the Lying or Truth-Attempting valence of the prose students as well): proser and fictionist.

These are ungainly words. They lack the suavity of “poet”, but I have a real affection for them. “Proser” is so, well, prosy. It puts one syllable in front of the other: pro-zurr. Plod plod plod, building complete sentences out of verbs and subjects. Writing until you hit the margin and then doggedly keeping going. PROSERS, baby. Grunts of the literary world. Boots in the mud. PROSERS.

As for “fictionist”, it has more pretensions, but that’s only fitting. It has narrow little i’s, peering at the world, seeing it all as fodder. It’s more ornate, more full of artifice, and that’s what fictionists are. Peddlers of artifice.

I do so love words. I love other tools too — pencils, shading sticks, even erasers, and the odd and occasionally dangerous tools with which oboe reeds are made. I love their form that follows function, the capabilities they hold. Words are the same, but even better: you don’t have to carry them or store them or buy them, just remember them, and if you lose one all you need is a few clues to find it again. As I’ve purported before, language is our birthright. The toolbox is vast and joyously expandable. And every once in a while, it’s so nice just to lay out the tools and ponder their forms, admire in each its individual gleaming.

Find n

Friday March 04, 2011 @ 10:29 PM (UTC)

Here’s one of those things that I can’t believe I’ve never blogged about before (though I hinted about it when I chronicled my first rejection letter in 2004). Writing folks who know me in real life have probably heard me say this, but I want it up here, for two reasons. One, so I can drop a link when I refer to it in future; two, in case this way of thinking about rejections helps someone as it helped me.

When I started sending out stories, I knew I would be hearing a lot of “NO.” We all know that. We all find some way to deal with it: this is mine.

There is a finite, unknown number n of noes between you and yes. The only way to determine n is experimentally.

That may actually make me sound a lot more logical than I usually feel, but it helped me. It helped me take those thin, thin envelopes out of the mailbox and open them and keep sending stories out, in the dark days before n made itself known. A friend of a friend is reported to open responses from poetry journals exclaiming, “Aha! The rejection slips I sent away for have arrived!” but this, while cheerful, is not sufficiently optimistic for my worldview.

The truth is, every rejection is a sort of accomplishment, provided you’re improving your work and trying your best. Without throwing yourself in the way of rejection, you’re never going to stumble into acceptance. There are ways you can learn to improve your writing, which will probably make n smaller. There are ways — not researching markets, scattershot submissions, not revising and not being honest about your work — to make n almost certainly larger. But there’s only one way to determine the value of n. There is no equation, only experiment. You have to do it the hard way. Send out more stories. Count your losses. Send out more stories.

It’s true for stories, for academic articles, for grad school applications. Every rejection is one fewer between you and acceptance. Get out there and find n.

"Conditional Love" available free online!

Thursday March 03, 2011 @ 10:24 PM (UTC)

Spurred on by more experienced nominees, I have posted my Nebula-nominated short story “Conditional Love” on my author site. You can read it online here or download it in PDF or ePub file format to read on the screen (or printout) of your choice. Many thanks to my co-protagonist Ryan for making this happen quickly and beautifully!

My story is by far the latest of the nominated short stories to appear online, so please pass the link on!

I hope you enjoy my story. Here’s how it starts:

Conditional Love

The new patient was five or six years old, male, Caucasian, John Doe as usual. Grace checked the vitals his bed sensors were feeding her board and concluded he was asleep. She eased the door of 408 open and stepped in.

The boy’s head was tilted on his pillow, brown curls cluttering his forehead. Sleep had flushed his cheeks so he looked younger than the estimate. He seemed healthy, with no visible deformities, and if he had been opted for looks, it had worked—Grace would have described him as “cherubic.” He wouldn’t have been dumped if nothing was wrong, so Grace found herself stepping softly, unwilling to disturb him and discover psychological conditions.

“Don’t worry about waking him, he sleeps pretty deep.”

…Read the rest!

In the course of bearding the beast of biographical blurb yesterday, I found myself using the verb “to noodle”. I used it to describe the way I wrote before I buckled down and got serious. I love this word. To me, noodling is joyous, experimental, and yet also careless. It lacks vigor, but its aimlessness gives it a chance for serendipity, for discovery. The word, with its associations of limp pasta and long strings of wiggly spaghetti, is perfect. But I wondered — was this a word I could expect everyone to know? As I’ve previously mentioned, the family dialect of the Shoulders is not always comprehensible to the bystander, and I could even trace the lineage of my fondness of “to noodle” to my dad, that inveterate word-bender. I consulted the OED.

The verb “noodle”, it transpires, has any number of meanings, including the English regional “To fool around, to waste time” and the Australian “To search (an opal dump or ‘mullock’) for opals”. In the Southern US, it can refer to a low-tech method of catching turtles and fish. Finally, however, the fifth entry yielded what I sought:

noodle, v.5: 1. trans. and intr. Chiefly Jazz. To play or sing (a piece of music) in a tentative, playful, or improvisatory way; (also) to play an elaborate or decorative series of notes. Also fig.

2. U.S. colloq.
a. intr. To think, esp. to reflect or muse in an unproductive or undirected way; to act light-heartedly (also with about, around); (also) to experiment in an informal, tentative manner.
b. trans. to noodle out: to figure out, work out; to devise. to noodle up: to think up (rare).
c. trans. To mull over; to think about, ponder. Also with around.

How fabulous that this meaning seems to arise from the musical usage! One of the reasons I love the OED is that it includes such a wealth of etymology and reference. This is the stuff a word carries around with it. It carries its own history and DNA, which may register on a reader’s brain along with the individual connections and memories that that reader carries in his own personal lexicon.

How lovely it is to noodle, to be limp and squiggly as cooked spaghetti, adventurous and light-hearted as a jazz clarinetist, free to wander using only (if you’ll forgive me) the power of your noodle!

Life stories

Monday February 28, 2011 @ 03:01 PM (UTC)

I hate writing biographical statements for myself. It makes me feel almost as clueless and awkward as writing business letters. I feel like I’m wearing some sort of Victorian costume, a very formal cage: who is this person? And can she move in any natural fashion?

Ah yes, “she”. Most bios are in the third person, so some of the odd formality comes from stating your life’s facts and achievements from a false seat somewhere over your left shoulder. “Felicity Shoulders was born within sight of Mt. St. Helens, nine months to the day after its eruption,” I write. “Felicity Shoulders lives in the wooded hills of Portland, Oregon, with an engineer, a cat, and more computers than she can count.” Somehow it feels as if the narrator from Amélie is trying to sum me up and finding my life insufficiently whimsical. “Felicity Shoulders pourrait être un peu plus interessante.”

However, bio-blurb I must, and so I’ve worked at it, on the theory that practice should improve the muscle. I think it has. I’d estimate that when I write a new bio now, I feel only 20% the desire to writhe out of my own skin from embarrassment that used to strike me. Of course, being able to write toward the words “nominated for a Nebula” helps. My skin does have some advantages, after all.

But now, as a consequence of that happy pair of n-words, I have to write a new blurb, and the first person is specified (hooray for specificity!) The first person should be natural. No invisible floating perspective, no avuncular French voice. Just me, telling you about how I and my little story got here. And somehow, now, that feels almost as bad. I can’t sum anything up. I can’t tell you who I am or why you should care. When I find a potentially fruitful track, I find myself wandering down it far too long, until I’ve spent all my allotted words just telling you about reading my dad’s Science Fiction Book Club hardbacks as I grew up. Even in my own skin, it seems, I lack an overarching perspective.

Fame-o-meter Malfunction

Friday February 25, 2011 @ 01:33 PM (UTC)

So, I haven’t had much to blog since the big news. It was probably the strain of keeping that news a secret that has left me so curiously untalkative. I have a volcano metaphor here involving andesitic lava, pressure buildup and pyroclastic flows, but I’ll spare you.

At any rate, the other day Ryan asked me how this nomination affects the reading on my Fame-o-meter. So I went and dug up the trusty old device (now actually the Fame-o-meter Mark 2) and discovered how this nomination affects it: it shows that once again it is completely miscalibrated and must be replaced. Because how the heck is it supposed to register something way up there without hitting any of the intervening marks? How am I to suspend the (figurative) colored sand up there? Waste of anti-grav.

Fame-o-Meter Mark 2 has failed

Time to design the Mark 3, I suppose.

I feel a little silly posting the thing here, but perhaps I shouldn’t. I’ve remarked before that it’s very easy to focus on the next thing – in any part of life, but particularly in writing. You get your first story accepted and after the euphoria fades, you start worrying that you’re going to be a one-hit wonder. You get another story accepted, and you find something new to worry about. What if I never get any fantasy published? Shouldn’t I have finished a novel by now?

It’s good to keep moving, keep writing, keep sending out, but it’s also good not to jettison today’s accomplishment and today’s happiness. The life of a writer is hard enough without embracing a continuous cycle of discontent.

The Fame-o-Meter exercise also helped me focus on the things that were important to me, from the sublime and unlikely (“Interviewed on Fresh Air”) to the picayune but personally significant (“Have to change FNAQ to FAQ"). There are many things outside the scope of the Fame-o-Meter. Maybe they’ll make the cut when I formulate a new version, maybe not. But this keeps me focused on the things that are important to me, like getting stories in front of readers, and my lifelong obsession with Powell’s Books.

What’s on your Fame-o-Meter?

Huge news: my first Nebula Nomination!

Tuesday February 22, 2011 @ 07:03 AM (UTC)

I am overjoyed to be able to announce that “Conditional Love” has been nominated for a 2010 Nebula Award in the short story category!

This is an immense honor. I’ve daydreamed about being up for a Nebula, but I hadn’t expected to get there so soon. Now I get to daydream about celebrating and meeting people at the Nebula Awards Banquet in May, which is a very near future. Much nearer than flying cars!

“Conditional Love” was first published by Asimov’s Science Fiction and will soon be available as a free pdf from their website. I’ll post again when that is up, [I have posted my story on my author site in several formats! -FAS, 3/3/11] but if you’d like to listen to the story, narrated by Mur Lafferty, on Escape Pod, that is already available!

The Short Story category is a big one this year, with seven nominees (there are five in each Nebula category unless there are ties in the number of nominations):

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first nomination for Amal El-Mohtar and Vylar Kaftan as well as for me!

I hope you’ll take a look at the full list of nominees. Congratulations to all the nominees, including my fellow Portland-area writers Mary Robinette Kowal, M.K. Hobson (both nominated for their first novels!)

I am so happy that it’s been very hard to keep the news under wraps until the press release. I’ve been running through huge numbers of exclamation marks — don’t be surprised if there’s a regional shortage — and smiling, even early in the morning, for days. A marvelous surprise, and, with apologies to the replica pulse rifle, the best birthday present ever. Who could mind turning 30 when she knew about this?

And a brass plaque that reads “Chekhov’s Gun”! I received many fabulous birthday presents for my thirtieth birthday, but none so geeky, and nearly none so unexpected, as this replica pulse rifle from Aliens:

M41A Pulse Rifle

Ryan got this for me without even knowing that I’ve been coveting it since age 17. He said he was afraid I would be less excited about having it around than he was. I think once he caught me petting it, that fear was dispelled!

Newsstand date for "Apocalypse Daily"

Friday February 18, 2011 @ 11:22 PM (UTC)

The June issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction is due on newsstands April 5, and will be out to subscribers earlier still. This one will contain my story “Apocalypse Daily”, a tantalizing snippet of which can be obtained from this earlier blog post.

As usual, I will announce its availability at the top of my blog-voice when it occurs, but if you want to set a calendar alarm too…then you’re probably related to me!

I have, it seems, a childish weakness for words that sound like what they mean. Not in the crude onomatopoetic sense (or not only in that sense) but in a rhythmically or associatively suggestive way. I think it’s the rhythm of this one that makes it fall under this category:

judder: per the OED, “To shake violently, esp. of the mechanism in cars, cameras, etc.; also of the voice in singing, to oscillate between greater and less intensity.” — I think the oscillation is there in the violent shake too, hence the association with mechanisms.

I find myself reaching for this word a lot, and I think it’s the discontinuity in the middle, the “dd” that cuts off the sound abruptly, like your teeth coming together as you are shaken rhythmically by a crude, juddering engine. I also like to use it for things which judder to a halt, in which case you can imagine the “jud” repeating and the “der” as the final sigh of repose. Judjudjudjudjudder. Phew.

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