“Bibliotheca Fantastica” now available

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Bibliotheca Fantastica

Bibliotheca Fantastica is now available from Dagan Books, including a story by yours truly titled “The Typographer’s Folly”.

For the curious, this is the story which prompted A Florilegium of Rejection Notes. I have only had the chance to read about a third of the other stories in the anthology, and I look forward to the rest. Hope you like it—

Assessing the gatekeepers

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Yesterday I dropped two fat manila envelopes off at the post office for the first time in over a year. Yes, I’m back at it: mailing manuscript pages to editors in the desperate hope that one of them will publish my book. (I’ve done plenty of short-story submissions in the meantime, but not a book, and not on paper.)

Things are a little different this time around. The main difference is that self-publishing is a live option, meaning that I’m so confident in this book that if no publisher takes an interest in it, I’m just going to self-publish. The self-publishing marketplace has matured quite a bit, and I have some practice from last time—so I’m pretty sure that I can make things work if I need to.

The major implication of this is that I’m skipping the agent round. I can get an agent after I have an offer from a big publisher, since it turns out that lots of people get their agents that way, and I don’t feel a big imperative to go through the gatekeepers-before-the-gatekeepers this time. I am subbing directly to all of the houses that accept direct author submissions (and some of the ones that don’t), and I’ll wait around for them to get back to me.

The other major implication is that I’m vetting the small presses that I sub to very carefully. My previous experience with a small e-press, while not exactly a negative experience, has made me realize that there’s not a lot which many small presses can do for me which I can’t do for myself. So I’m very carefully going through the small press candidates and weeding out the ones which don’t offer one or more of:

  1. High-quality professional covers
  2. Print editions
  3. Help with promotion
  4. A non-trivial advance (where “non-trivial” is ~$1000)

These are roughly in order of importance. #1 is absolutely non-negotiable, since a big majority of self-pub and small press covers are terrible. I can pay Streetlight Graphics or a similar outfit to do a professional-quality cover for me, so why should I put up with the garbage that most small presses put out? At least half of the small presses that I’ve looked at have been disqualified with the note “Bad covers”.

A print edition is not something that I’d willing to pay for myself (even using the number of high-quality POD services), but it’s something that I consider a positive if a small press offers it. Promotion likewise is something that I can do by myself, but about which I’m largely clueless, and I’ll take all the help that I can get.

And of course, an advance is something which is by definition impossible under self-publishing, which is why I consider it the least important and least significant element of choosing a publisher.

In any case, I’ve time-boxed this process to take no more than a year. Even the slowest of the traditional publishers should have gotten back to me by that point, and if I haven’t gotten an offer by then, to self-pub I will go.

How to make Sanskrit with tools you have at home

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I’m toying with a Sanskrit-esque conlang. At the moment this is likely to be just a naming language, but there’s a good chance that I’m going to need to expand it later, so I want to make sure I get off on the right foot.

But this poses the question: what is Sanskrit-esque? I’m mostly concerned with phonology and mouth-feel, not syntax or morphology—which is convenient, since I know basically nothing about Sanskrit beyond its phonology. A little brainstorming suggests the following characteristics:

  1. A four-way stop contrast, with all combinations +/- voice and +/- aspirated for most places of articulation
  2. Palatal and retroflex consonant series
  3. a as the most common vowel, followed by i
  4. Syllabic sonorants, especially r
  5. Lack of w, but v and y very common.
  6. Onset clusters of the form Cr, but few/no other onset clusters
  7. Vowel length distinction
  8. Relatively few word-final consonants, and those that occur are usually nasals or h

I found this Sanskrit text as a good language sample, from which I drew most of the preceding observations. Obviously some of these are generalizations about Sanskrit romanization and not necessarily about phonology per se, but since my end-goal here is to create a Sanskrit-flavored naming language, observing the romanization conventions is part of the deal.

Now I further complicate my requirements by noting that I already have a decent number of names in use for this setting, which I have to retrofit without completely destroying. Let’s start with the city formerly named Wyrnas, a grotesquely cliche pseudo-Welsh name. My initial concept of this language used the digraph yr to indicate a syllabic [r], so this name can be changed to Vrnas with almost no change in actual pronunciation. But what a wonderful difference in flavor! I’m off to a good start.

Next is Corath. This name doesn’t violate any of our rules outright, but that final -ath doesn’t sit right. Obvious alternatives would be Coratha or Corathi, which are merely okay. While looking at these names I thought of simply geminating the th to Corattha, which seems just right.

On to Gocem. I’m pretty sure that CoCeC is not a possible word-shape in Sanskrit, so we have to change at least one of the vowels. But the most minimal change here seems like the best: Gocam

(Note that I’m editing purely for flavor here, without any concern for the morphology or phonotactics of the target language. This is fine as a first step, though later of course I’ll have to figure such things out.)

I won’t go through the rest of the 20-ish names that would have to be retrofitted, since this is just a preliminary sketch. But I’m heartened that the retrofit seems to be possible.

“The Other City” now at Intergalactic Medicine Show

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I held off announcing this a little because of some weirdness, but I’m happy to say that that has resolved itself, and now I can happily report that my story The Other City is currently up at Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show.

The man stumbled through the gates of Salem with a bundle in his arms. “Let’s eat him,” the boys said and scampered down the grassy hill to the wall, hooting and hollering and grabbing sharp sticks and stones as they went.

Read the whole thing here.

Fun facts about this story:

This was the first short story that I wrote after I decided to get serious about my writing a few years ago. It took a while to find a home.

My idea for the story involved the ending (which I won’t spoil), and the starting point of a man being expelled from Salem. So I wrote the first line above (“The man stumbled through the gates of Salem”), then thought for a moment. The next line (“‘Let’s eat him,’ the boys said”) was a moment of inspiration, and this wound up driving the rest of the story. My advice is that when your subconscious gives you cannibalism, you run with it.

A Writer’s Lent: Love

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(Part of a series applying the Prayer of St. Ephraim to the writer’s life, and considering where I can improve.)

Grant not unto me a spirit of idleness,
of discouragement,
of lust for power,
and of vain speaking.

But bestow upon me, Thy servant,
the spirit of chastity,
of humility,
of patience,
and of love.

Love is the last of the virtues that this prayer seeks, which means that it is presented as the opposite of vain speaking. This makes sense. Writing which comes from love cannot be empty and self-serving as vain speaking is. This is the highest virtue, and perhaps for that very reason, I believe it’s the easiest.

Love your characters. Don’t be afraid to hurt them (remember that they aren’t actually real people), but realize that if your characters are not gripping and fascinating to you, they’ll be even less interesting to your writers.

Love your stories. If your story isn’t keeping you up at night with ideas, then maybe you should write something else.

Love the fact that you get to be a writer. Be grateful that you live in a time and place where “writer” is an actual job that people get to have, even if it isn’t actually your job yet. Even if you don’t actually want it to be your job—I don’t actually aspire to be a full-time writer, but I’m still thankful and a little awe-struck every time I see a story with my byline.

I don’t think that most of us would be doing this if it weren’t for love. Let’s not forget that.

Next time: Seeing your own flaws

A Writer’s Lent: Patience

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(Part of a series applying the Prayer of St. Ephraim to the writer’s life, and considering where I can improve.)

Grant not unto me a spirit of idleness,
of discouragement,
of lust for power,
and of vain speaking.

But bestow upon me, Thy servant,
the spirit of chastity,
of humility,
of patience,
and of love.

My story The Lion and the Thorn Tree was under submission at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly for six months before they finally got back to me to let me know that the story had been accepted. I say this not to complain about their response times (there are plenty of other markets that are worse), but to illustrate the kind of patience that any writer must have. Publishing moves glacially. Short store markets are on the fast side of the tracks relative to book publishers, many of which have response times exceeding a year. You can avoid some of this slow-down by self-publishing, but even that doesn’t remove the real need for writerly patience, which is waiting for the money to come in.

This is the place where I find myself now. I’ve accustomed myself to the response times of most short story markets, and I’m quite happy with the notion that a story may need to be shopped around for years before it actually finds a publisher. My patience now is tried with knowing how long I have to wait before I’ve “arrived”. At the moment I’ve sold a number of short stories, but never a novel. Am I a professional yet? When do I start winning awards? When do people start recognizing me at cons? When do I get to become geek-famous?

(This is the point where I stop and check myself for humility and the lust for power, as discussed in previous installments.)

Of course, becoming famous, even geek-famous, is not actually my goal. It sure would be nice though. And here, I have to recognize the fact that these things take time. Lots and lots of time. Most of the “overnight” successes in the writing world are from people who have been writing for a decade or more. If I really want success, I have to (1) continually improve my craft, and (2) wait.

Perhaps you can tell that this topic is a bit of a sore point for me. I do not want to be patient. I want to exercise my lust for power (the vice which is paired opposite patience), and seize recognition and fame now. But I can’t—because that power isn’t actually mine, and because it would be bad more me even if I had it. Instead I’ll wait. I’ll keep working, and I’ll wait.

Next time: Love.

A Writer’s Lent: Humility

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(Part of a series applying the Prayer of St. Ephraim to the writer’s life, and considering where I can improve.)

Grant not unto me a spirit of idleness,
of discouragement,
of lust for power,
and of vain speaking.

But bestow upon me, Thy servant,
the spirit of chastity,
of humility,
of patience,
and of love.

Aside from idleness, this is probably the line of St. Ephraim’s prayer which is the easiest to apply to writing. The ways in which a writer must be humble are both numerous and obvious.

A writer must accept criticism, and he has to accept it with a smile. He must accept it from a multitude of sources: from beta readers, from fellow writers, from agents, from editors, from reviewers. He must accept it gladly, because all of this criticism will almost always make his work better. If you don’t have humility before you begin this process, you’ll certainly have it afterwards.

The tricky part is realizing that humility doesn’t require you to unconditionally agree with your critics. The writer has to disentangle his ego from his work—this is what humility means, after all—and he has to be able to recognize when his critics are telling him something true, and when they’re wrong. He also has to recognized when they have correctly identified a problem, but are mistaken about the solution. And he has to do all of this without falling into the trap of discouragement and despair, which is one of the vices mentioned earlier in the prayer.

In fact, if we take the four virtues of this prayer as corresponding to the vices, we see that humility is the counterpoint to discouragement. That’s an interesting correlation, because it reminds us that humility doesn’t just protect us from the over-large ego, but from the overly fragile one as well. C.S. Lewis wrote somewhere that a truly humble artist simply doesn’t care where he ranks, because he is simply trying to create the best art that he is capable of. I can’t think of any better way to apply humility to the writer’s life. If we tie our sense of self-worth and validity as an artist to our commercial or critical success, we will always ricochet between the extremes of hubris and despair. The only way to write and maintain your sanity is to approach your craft with humility and honesty.

I honestly feel like I do well in this department. I have the confidence to send my work out without fear, but I don’t hesitate to listen to my critiquers and beta readers when they tell me about flaws. (Look at how humble I am! Whee!)

Next time: Patience.

A Writer’s Lent: Wholeness

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(Part of a series applying the Prayer of St. Ephraim to the writer’s life, and considering where I can improve.)

Grant not unto me a spirit of idleness,
of discouragement,
of lust for power,
and of vain speaking.

But bestow upon me, Thy servant,
the spirit of chastity,
of meekness,
of patience,
and of love.

With this post, we have finished up with the first stanza and its four vices, and move to the second stanza with its description of the virtues. The line which is bolded above calls the first virtue “chastity, and if I were actually going to write about chastity here, I would be in for a rough time. The nearest relation to writing that I could think of was the notion of finishing what you start (aka “Stick with your wife”). However, Fr. Alexander Schmemmann has an illuminating discussion of this word in his book Great Lent: Journey to Pascha:

If one does not reduce this term, as is so often and erroneously done, only to its sexual connotations, it is understood as the positive counterpart of sloth. The exact and full translation of the Greek sofrosini and the Russian tselomudryie ought to be whole-mindedness. Sloth is, first of all, dissipation, the brokenness of our vision and energy, the inability to see the whole. Its opposite then is precisely wholeness.

If wholeness is the opposite of sloth, then it’s the virtue that I most lack as a writer. I don’t think I’m alone in this. A great many writers find it very difficult to finish anything, while others, like me, finish things but just do it veeeeery slowly. The problem that I have is not that I get distracted by other stories, but mostly that I find it difficult to focus single-mindedly on one story. I do finish everything that I write, but it takes me so long that my total output is very low. The notion of whole-mindedness implies a concentration and a focus that I often lack.

The other element of whole-mindedness which Fr. Schmemmann’s quote illuminates is the idea of seeing the whole. Being able to see the entirety of a work of fiction, including the plot, character arc, setting, etc., especially a longer work, is a skill which I am still developing. This is arguably a matter of craft more than discipline, yet I’d say that it’s still the least developed skill in my writing repertoire. And it is ultimately linked to the problem of writing discipline which I raised above, since inability to take in the whole work is related to the slowness with which I work, and my unwillingness to focus.

Next time: Meekness

A Writer’s Lent: Vain Speaking

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(Part of a series applying the Prayer of St. Ephraim to the writer’s life, and considering where I can improve.)

Grant not unto me a spirit of idleness,
of discouragement,
of lust for power,
and of vain speaking.

I said last time that we writers have one power: the power to write a good story. Now let us consider what a great and serious power that is. A good story will inspire or terrify; it will teach you truth and beauty; it will make you recognize lies; it will change your life. I dare say that those of us who want to write have embarked on this vocation because we’ve been transformed by the books that we’ve read, so we know firsthand the power of a story well-told. How should we approach our calling, if not with fear and trembling?

When I speak this way, I have to quickly disavow two common misconceptions. The first is the notion that stories must have a Message. This is a terrible mistake. Stories which are deliberately written with a Message tend to be terrible, and even when they’re good they often succeed in spite of their Message, and not because of it. The writer has a responsibility to avoid vain, empty talk, but she does not have any duty to give a sermon. On the contrary, sermonizing usually undermines the writer’s real efforts.

The other misconception is to think that writing must be Serious, and must absolutely not be Fun. After all, if writing is a serious business, then surely we have to write about serious things. But come on: I’m a genre writer, so I will take a story about dragons and spaceships and explosions over a self-serious, “literary” work any day. Let us banish all shame in writing a pulpy adventure story or a steamy romance. However, we must recognize that even the most gonzo space opera contains within it a vision of goodness. You have a hero: what are his heroic qualities, and what will your readers learn to imitate from him? Or maybe you have merely a collection of antiheroes: what does this choice say about the world?

As writers, we have to tell the truth in our fictions. When the zombies attack, when you find the Ring of Power, when Mr. Darcy comes with a proposal, what will you do? What will your characters do? And what will these choices say about the good, the true, and the beautiful? Is your story telling the truth in what it says?

Let us put aside vain speaking, which entrenches prejudice, ugliness, and despair. We have better things to do.

Next time: This is the last of the vices in the Prayer of St. Ephraim, so we move on to the second stanza of the prayer and begin with the virtues.

A Writer’s Lent: Lust for Power

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(Part of a series applying the Prayer of St. Ephraim to the writer’s life, and considering where I can improve.)

Grant not unto me a spirit of idleness,
of discouragement,
of lust for power,
and of vain speaking.

Writers are powerless. Everyone knows this. We are the playthings of editors, agents, publishers and buyers. We are buffeted by the cruel winds of the market. Vast, capricious forces determine whether our books and stories will sell. We have no control over our fate. So why should “lust for power” be a writer’s vice?

Well, for starters, writers aren’t completely powerless. We do have one power: the power to tell a great story. This is not a power that we should give up. I think that the key word in the prayer here is “lust”. The problem is not that writers have or do not have power. It’s that we want the power that is not, and never will be, in our grasp, namely the power to ensure our success.

Why do so many writers go ballistic when they get rejected? Why do writers occasionally lash out against critics? Why do the self-published writers condemn the traditional publishers for cowardice? Why do the traditionally published folks condemn the self-published for unprofessionalism? I’m not talking here about legitimate criticisms or disagreement, I’m talking about the over-the-top nutty-butter insane things that litter the inboxes of agents and editors and spill out on the internet with depressing regularity. I propose that what’s going wrong with these people is the lust for power. These are writers who believe that they deserve success for having published good books before, or having gotten an MFA, or merely having completed a story. So when anyone, whether it be a publisher or an editor or a reader, comes along and refuses to give them what they deserve, they simply lose it.

This is the lust for power. You will never, ever be able to force someone to like your writing, no matter how good it is. As writers we all want acceptance and success, but it is never in our power to simple take it. When we feel that we deserve to have success, and that those who disagree are merely obstacles to be destroyed, we are engaging in the lust of power.

We still have the power to tell a great story. That’s the only power we need.

Next time: vain speaking.