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So, the other day–nearly a week ago–I was in one of those situations where I was asked a question that really needed a long answer, but I didn’t have unlimited time in which to do so.

The question was, given that I never expected any editor to even buy Ancillary Justice but that I had turned out to be oh so very wrong, what lesson might there be in that for other (maybe new, aspiring) writers?

So. On the one hand, in one sense there isn’t much of a lesson there for anyone–the ways of publishing are mysterious, no one really knows why any particular book does or doesn’t sell, etc.

On the other hand, there are some instructive aspects, at least in my opinion. It’s just that they’re complicated(ish) and full of caveats. And I’ve given some of this advice before, but I think it’s worth repeating.

Part of my answer at the time I was asked: there’s a narrative about what sorts of books (and authors) are likely to sell to major publishers and what sorts aren’t, and I feel ambivalent about that narrative. On the one hand, it’s entirely accurate to say that there’s a huge amount of systemic prejudice operating (there, and in so many other areas of life) and yes, it’s going to be really difficult for certain kinds of authors (and certain kinds of books by those authors) to grab editors, or at least to go all the way from grabbing to “buy this.” This is absolutely true.

On the other hand, I’ve more than once seen someone say of their fabulous book that they didn’t see any point in even trying to sub certain places–major publishers, for example–because of course it would be hopeless. When, you know, yeah, it’s an uphill battle, and it’s emotionally draining to go through that, and when it’s on top of everything else you’re enduring day after day, any given person might very legitimately decide it was too much to deal with. But it’s not necessarily entirely hopeless.

Hence my ambivalence–the difficulties are real, and I know every writer has to make their own decision about what to go through, how much rejection to deal with (and whether or not they can handle cluelessly–or maybe intentionally–hurtful comments along with that rejection, including offhand remarks about certain sorts of people not really existing or not being interesting or worthy of stories, when that would include you, yourself). At the same time–if you can do it, if you can stomach it, well, the chances may be really small, but you never know.

And there’s a thing that Mark Tiedemann said to me a while back that I thought was really smart. He said that really, when you submit to an editor over and over (we were mostly talking about shortfic here but still), you’re teaching them how to read your work.

Part of that systemic prejudice, part of what upholds it, is the way people are only familiar with certain kinds of stories. Other kinds feel off, weird, unrealistic (no matter how accurate and realistic they may be). It’s that incessant repetition of the “right” kind of story that keeps reinforcing itself. And this didn’t happen by accident–we’ve many of us been trained from small to appreciate certain kinds of stories, just like we’re taught from infancy to appreciate certain kinds of music. Most of the work, most of the training, is exposure to a high volume of work that fits the culturally approved model.

The way a reader learns to appreciate other sorts of stories, from other points of view, is to be exposed to them over and over. Editors and agents and slush readers–every time you submit, they are being exposed to your work.

Now, like I said, I can’t blame anyone for just not sending to places where they know they’ll get hurtful rejections. I don’t blame anyone for sticking with places they think they’ll have a fighting chance at. I’m just saying, if you can do it, it’s very possibly worth submitting to those places anyway. Not the editors that send abusive replies, those exist and no, they’re not worth it. But the “that place? It’d be awesome but nah, they never buy stuff like mine, by writers like me.” Well, maybe not. But if you can, give it a shot. If nothing else, you’re exposing the editor, the agent, the slusher, to your kind of thing. Every little bit, right? And besides. You never know.

Relatedly–write your story. I mean, write your story. Write it the way you think it needs to be written, don’t worry about whether it’s going to appeal to guys or White people or straight folks. Don’t worry about things you’ve heard that editors like or don’t like, buy or don’t buy. First of all, nobody knows, least of all editors, what will make them buy something or not. Second–and I’ve said this before, and other writers have said this before–you can make your work as smoothly, blandly, perfectly commercial as possible and it might not sell. There are no guarantees. You can rip your heart out trying to pretend to be the right sort of writer and get nowhere. But you know what you can guarantee? That the work you do is yours, that it’s what you want to be working on, that you’re proud of it. Do that work, and no matter what happens you will always have that.

Once it’s done, send it out with as much ambition as you had writing. No guarantees. But that’s no guarantees of failure either, right? Send it out to the publishers of your dreams, wherever those may be. Every little bit, every drop of water against a stone.

I’m not gonna lie, it’s not easy. No guarantees. And maybe it’s not you who’ll benefit, maybe it’s that next writer the editor sees whose work will suddenly seem more familiar because they saw yours already. Or maybe not, but. Do the hopeful thing, if you can find it in you. That’s my advice. That’s what we have, as writers, we have the work we do, and the completely ridiculous hope that sending that work out will be worth it. And sometimes? You never know when, exactly, but sometimes we’re right.

NOTE don’t point to this as me saying that imbalances in who gets published is just a question of who submits. It’s pretty manifestly not. My advice for editors concerned about those obvious imbalances is very different. And until you’ve had the experience of being someone who endures prejudice every single day and then gets more of it in the face reading and hearing advice about what’s publishable (somehow never you, as yourself), maybe even getting rotten feedback from clueless editors–until that’s your life, don’t be telling folks what should or shouldn’t be easy for them to go through or what they “should” be feeling or doing.

Real Science Fiction

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Or, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

I’m looking at what is likely the homestretch on the WiP, or at least the first complete draft of it. So of course I’m thinking about blog posts right now instead of writing.

It is notoriously difficult to define “science fiction” but a common attempt to do so–to wall off stuff that isn’t “really” science fiction from the proper stuff–is to assert that a real science fiction story wouldn’t survive the removal of the science fictiony bits, where, I don’t know, I guess “fake” science fiction is just Westerns with spaceships instead of horses or somesuch.

I never thought much about this except to think that well, sure, that would probably be a succinct way to define the most science fictiony of science fiction.

But the more I’ve thought about it, recently, the less satisfied I’ve been with this. I’m not sure there are any stories that fit this requirement.

Here’s the thing. Almost any story, you could remove some or other bit of it, replace it with some more present-world (or past world) analogue, and it would still be recognizably the same story on some level.

Let’s take Star Trek. Okay, some of you may consider ST to be “fake” science fiction. I’ll lay my cards on the table and tell you I laugh when I see someone call ST “hard science fiction. I consider it to be space opera. But let’s consider it a moment, shall we? At first glance all the aliens and the transporter and that utopian Federation of Planets stuff, and you’d think you couldn’t remove it, but let’s set it back a couple centuries, build the Enterprise out of wood, make Kirk into Horatio Hornblower and change the Klingons to French, the Romulans to Spanish. (I know, I know, the Klingons are actually stand-ins for the Russians, and the Vulcans/Romulans for the Chinese but that’s not helping the cause of “can’t remove the skiffy elements” is it.) You could take Star Trek and remove it’s snfal elements and still end up with basically the same stories.

That was an easy one, right? A gimme? Sure, maybe. But consider–there’s always–always–a level of abstraction available at which a story with whatever elements removed qualifies as “the same.” And the reverse is true–there’s always a level of specificity at which the removal of very small things means a large change. I mean, you could go very close-up on Star Trek and say that without dilithium crystals and tribbles, very specifically, it wouldn’t be the same. And it wouldn’t!

So it’s just about how much change it can take before too much violence is done to the original, right? Well, no. Any change is going to do violence to the original. Traduttore tradittore, after all. And the question of how much violence to the original is too much isn’t hard and fast.

I’m sure someone is going to comment insisting that Star Trek is one thing, but story Foo would actually really be irreparably changed by the removal of element Bar, and thus am I refuted. But seriously, there are almost no sfnal elements that couldn’t be framed some other way, no blackhole that can’t become an inescapable whirlpool, no alien that can’t become the denizen of some far away island, and while we’re at it whole planets get treated basically like smallish islands of one sort or another in quite a lot of sf anyway so that’s an easy enough transition to make. The question of whether that non-sfnal framing constitutes an obviously different story, or one recognizably the same if superficially different, is not one that can be answered easily, not in any really objective way.

And I can’t help noticing how often this particular criterion is used to delegitimize stories as “real” science fiction that by any other measure would more than qualify. It’s not just that the critic doesn’t really like this work, no, sadly the story is just not “really” science fiction, because if you take away the robots and the spaceships and the cloning and the black holes and the aliens and the interstellar civilizations and the fact that it’s set way in the future, well, it’s still a story about people wanting something and struggling to get it. Not really science fiction, see?

And well, sure, you take all that away and no, it’s not science fiction. But you had to take it away to begin with, didn’t you.

I stand by this series of tweets. But I may need to clarify something. Someone objected that it might be irresponsible to advise young writers to pretend the rules don’t apply to them, that some projects are just foolish to undertake and it’s better to say so.

Now. I can see where this person is coming from and I sorta kinda agree but not really.

Here’s the thing: yes, there are some projects that are fundamentally unsalable. If you are determined, for artistic reasons, to write a 500K word novel all in Sumerian, well, you know, the audience for that book is going to be very, very small and I’d bet most editors would pass it up no matter how brilliant it was. That’s kind of common sense, right?

A slightly less extreme example–most SF or Fantasy novels come in at around 100K words. Give or take ten or twenty. You’re probably going to have an easier time selling a manuscript that’s 100,000 words long as opposed to one that’s 300K.

But here’s the thing–that’s not really an ironclad rule. I know personally of at least one person who sold their first fantasy novel a couple years ago–it was in the neighborhood of 300K, and the subsequent volumes have also been that length, so far as I can tell. (Hi, Django! And y’all who aren’t Django, the books are great fun.)

See, that sort of thing is covered by my admission in the tweets that, yes, commercial considerations are a thing and you might want to keep them in mind. Or not, you know, because A)you, the writer, get to make the final call just what considerations you want to take into account and B)every one of them is a case-by-case thing. I can’t tell you “never ever write a first SFF novel that’s 200K-plus words, you’ll never sell it.” Because that isn’t necessarily true.

What I can tell you is that most first novels are going to be in that 100K range, and so maybe when you’re working you want to keep that in mind. But you have to balance that against your project. What are you trying to do? What will best serve the goal you have in mind for that particular work? It might well be that the answer is “ruthlessly cut down to 100K” or “ditch it and write something else in a different but related subgenre.” I don’t know, I can’t tell you that. Only you can tell you that. But “most first genre novels are 100K” is not a rule obligating you to stick to that length if you want to be published. It’s a piece of information about what’s mostly being published right now. There are, and will be, exceptions.

No, you can’t guarantee that your work will be one of those exceptions. But, some real talk: there is nothing you can do to guarantee that your ms that has all the characteristics of what’s being published right now–the right length, popular subgenre, whatever–none of that is any guarantee that ms will sell.

If you have a quirky project, and you, personally, feel compelled to see that project through in some way, shape, or form, then do that. Consider advice, certainly. If you can take the advice without harming your project, and it seems good to you, by all means do. I am absolutely not encouraging any writer to refuse to listen to any critique or advice at all in the name of their pure, unadulterated artistic vision.

Nor, by the way, do I consider writers who weigh commercial factors very heavily in their calculations to be sellouts. On the contrary, that is a valid choice to make. I can’t tell anyone reading this blog how or whether to weigh such concerns, because that’s a question of what a given project calls for, and what the writer feels is going to work for that project.

But if you’re going to tell writers never to write anything much longer than 100K, or that they should give up all hope of writing something in a mined-out (or currently popular, soon to be mined-out) genre, well. No. Be aware, if you’re setting out on your 500K vampire-elf novel, that you’re going to have to really impress an editor with it. You might want to consider another project for now. Maybe. Do you? I can’t tell you that, only you can. Think about it. I’d probably say it was maybe foolhardy. But you know, it’s your call, and I can’t tell you that your 80K Angel/Mermaid Romance is going to do any better. Will you get as much fun out of the Angel/Mermaid book? You might want to start there and work on the Vampire Elf next. Nothing wrong with that. Sometimes your most ambitious project needs a skill level you don’t quite have yet. Sometimes you need to work up your confidence before you attempt it. It’s your call. Whatever choice you make will be good, it will be okay. There’s no rush, writing takes time, submitting takes time, just write. It’ll be all right. I’m just saying, don’t permanently scrap your cool project because someone said “but you can’t sell that kind of thing.”

And if folks in your writers group or message board or whatever are telling you things like “you have to have a POV character that’s like the reader so they can sympathize with them” or “don’t write in first person” or “editors won’t buy stories with queer main characters” well, frankly, no. “No infodumps.” Really? Take a look at the critically acclaimed books of the past couple years. I can think of at least two, just off the top of my head, that from all I can tell sell pretty well and have been nominated for or won major awards that are pretty infodump heavy. There are likely more, because actually some readers really enjoy the heck out of a good infodump, especially when it’s embedded in a story that hits their buttons in other ways as well.

My advice–don’t get your advice about what editors will or won’t buy from writers group members, many of whom may or may not have sold much themselves but are passing on second-hand, received wisdom that came from Mithras knows where. Take it from actual editors, and from observing what’s actually on the shelves at the bookstore. Always remembering that what’s on the shelves is just what’s being published right now, not a complete set of what will or won’t ever be published in the future. In fact, today’s hot subgenre is already on its way out, for writer purposes. There’s no predicting what tomorrow’s will be.

Weigh writing advice carefully. Anything presented as a rule is not a rule. At best it’s general advice presented as a rule. At best. Half the time it’s bad advice to begin with. But always consider advice. Consider it seriously, and if you find it won’t work for the project at hand, put it aside.

This is difficult to do, by the way. You need to have a weird sort of ambiguous attitude, at least in my experience. You have to be really pig-headed but also willing to bend when it’s called for. And only you can decide when it’s called for.

Weigh advice, think, and if, after thinking about it, you really feel passionate about the Vampire Elf, then go to it. Commit entirely to it. Don’t bar any holds, don’t just go overboard, dive enthusiastically over that rail. Worry about selling it later. Who knows, you might hit the right editor at the right time and spark a whole Vampire revival. (Actually I hope not, I’m pretty much over vampires (and zombies for that matter) but you don’t need to take my taste into account.)

Or not. Maybe the Mermaid is a better call. I know it’s frustrating, part of the reason these “rules” get passed around is because we would so much love to have at least some certainty, at least some indication that there’s a way to get where we’re trying to go, some black and white steps we need to take. But there’s no way anyone can give you that. The only sure thing I can tell you is, if you don’t write you won’t ever sell your writing. If you don’t finish what you work on, and submit it, you will never sell your writing. Everything else is a matter of “it depends what you’re trying to do.” So whatever project you decide to work on, it might as well be something you really do want to write.

Short Fiction: Another Word for World

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So, uh, this is a thing that happened. I mean, not just Ancillary Mercy being a finalist, which is super awesome (and thank you to the readers who voted for it!), but also, look at the novelette category.

Yeah, my story “Another Word for World” is a finalist for the Locus Awards this year. Like novel, the other works in the category are pretty amazing stuff, so I’m counting them just being on that finalist list as wins on my personal scoreboard. But “Another Word for World” has the distinction of being the very first time any short fiction of mine has been shortlisted for any sort of award. I mean, I’ve seen individuals say, here and there, “Oh, I’m going to recc/nominate “[Shortfic]” by Ann Leckie this year, I really loved it” (and enjoyed the heck out of seeing that, and tucked those away to remind me to keep going during long spells of rejection), but this is the first time a story of mine has actually made the cut.

So, I’m kind of giddy about that!

“Another Word for World” appeared in Future Visions, by the way, which is full of great stories by amazing authors. You can download the whole thing for free and read them all, not just mine!

More Omniscient

The other day, while I was reading a (published) work of fiction, I came across a passage that seemed to me was a result of the author being determined to write the piece in 3rd person limited, but wanting very badly to do something that would have benefitted very much from the piece being in omniscient POV. Instead, the author had kluged together an awkward workaround.

I would have been a bit less dismayed to see such a thing if it had not been for the context of the way new writers are nearly always taught about POV. I’ve not infrequently seen advice to avoid omni altogether, either because it’s difficult and therefore only for experts, or because readers aren’t used to it, or because editors won’t or don’t buy works using that POV. Specific advice for handling POV is nearly always advice for handling 3rd person limited, though it’s often articulated only as advice for handling POV, period. Writers who use that advice as their default template for handling POV will find themselves faced with difficulties if they attempt omni–hence, perhaps, the common wisdom that omni is hard to do, though once you realize that your POV technique isn’t POV technique but 3rd person limited technique, it becomes much easier. And then, of course, writers trained up on the features of 3rd person limited as “good POV” will read through that framework as well, which makes pieces written in omni look like they’re just full of incompetent POV slips and if it works anyway, well that’s because the writer “knew how to break the rules.”

***

Excuse me, I had to take a few calming breaths after typing the “know how to break the rules” thing. Look, if you can break it and the story still works–if lots and lots of writers break it and those stories still work–it is not a rule. There are not actually any rules. Okay? Okay.

I’ve dealt with the “omniscient is too difficult to attempt” bullshit previously.

Now, let’s talk about common POV advice. The one, basic precept a newbie writer learns is that while you’re in the POV of a particular character, the text should only reflect what that character might know or actually think. This is good as far as it goes–it’s not the whole ballgame, but it’ll keep you from making the most obvious missteps. Asking yourself, as you write each sentence, “Would Star Ranger Samantha actually know or think this?” will keep you from slipping out of her POV. So far, so good.

Then there’s advice to avoid headhopping. This is also excellent advice–for 3rd person limited. Switching in and out of characters’ heads without warning is disorienting and confusing in that context. If you want to have more than one POV character in a 3rd person limited piece, you need to signal each POV switch so that your reader doesn’t have to stop and puzzle out whose thoughts they’re reading, not even for an instant. A scene break is conventional, but there are other ways to do it. (And a scene break by itself isn’t enough–you want to open that next paragraph with a sentence–or maybe even just a few words–that will re-orient the reader to the new POV.)

But what if you want the POV of more than one person in a single scene? There are ways to do this without a scene break in limited 3rd, though you want to be careful with them, they require very close control of your POV, and a very careful consideration of how you’re moving the reader from character to character. I’m not going to say don’t try it–on the contrary, do try it! You’ll come out of it with better control of POV and the flow of information to the reader. But you know what can give your reader the thoughts of multiple characters in a single scene without so much as breaking a sweat?

That’s right. Omniscient.

On twitter, Alex Clark-McGlenn suggested (if I understood correctly) that one of the problems with omni was an inherent lack of tension:

Since in omni the narrator knows all, why isn’t the narrative giving you this or that or the other piece of information? The reader, perhaps, rather than feeling enthralled feels manipulated. Or the omniscient voice, since it would know who the murderer was (to take an unsubtle example) must naturally mention that at some point, and there’s the end of suspense.

So, I disagree that tension is a product of concealing information from the reader. You get tension a couple of different ways, and one of them does involve controlling the rate of information the reader gets, but that’s not exactly the same thing as “concealing” that information. Just knowing what’s going to happen isn’t always going to kill tension. Now, if you’re handling your omniscient POV badly, yeah, it’s going to kick the reader out of the story enough that they wonder why the heck the narrator is hiding this or that. And if you’re trained up as a writer to think that limited 3rd is the one true POV, you’re maybe not going to handle omni very well.

There’s a tendency to think of omni as though it’s basically 3rd limited except you can headhop all you want and throw in whatever info you want, and of course that’s difficult because it violates everything one has learned about doing POV well–heck, when you try doing that, the results aren’t good at all, and so how the heck does it work, when it works???

But it’s really very simple. Omniscient always has a narrator. That narrator, by the way, is not always literally omniscient in the sense that they know everything there is to know in the universe. They are omniscient for the purposes of the story.

Sometimes that narrator is named–sometimes they declare themselves the narrator from the start, and tell you who they are. Sometimes the narrator is essentially a version of the actual author of the story. Sometimes they stand so far in the background you hardly know there’s a narrator at all, but they’re there.

But the story is always being told from the POV of that narrator, who just happens to know a whole lot about the circumstances of the story, for whatever reason. They’re telling you the story, commenting on it, judging it, maybe even making snarky remarks about it. But the story is being filtered through the perceptions of that narrator.

Once you know that, omni becomes more or less a snap. Well, barring the actual details of execution, which will probably take some practice, but it’s no longer as puzzling as it might have been. Decide who’s telling the story–you don’t have to tell the reader up front, you just have to know, yourself; you don’t have to have a name or history for them, you just need to have a feel for who they are and how they’d tell this story–and then have them tell it. No matter how many characters’ thoughts you report, you’re never violating that narrator’s POV. You’re not headhopping, you’re still in your narrator’s head.

Let me be clear, there’s nothing wrong with 3rd person limited POV. But it’s not the only way to go.

Now, is it true that editors won’t buy it, or that readers won’t read it? I suspect there’s not as much published in omni, but is that because editors won’t buy it, or because writers don’t write in it, or when they do they handle it badly because they’re thinking of it as multi-limited 3rd with unrestrained headhopping?

And as for readers–you learn to read particular sorts of things by reading those sorts of things. If no one is writing omni, readers won’t be used to it. If you want readers to appreciate works in omniscient, well, you have to give them well-written examples of it to read. Editors are readers. It’s possible some younger editors may well have limited experience reading work in omniscient. I’m guessing about that, I don’t know for certain.

You can throw up your hands and say that the only thing to do is to write thing things editors are used to and likely to buy. You know, if you want. You do you, I’m not here to tell you how to manage your career. But I don’t think that’s the best course to take, I think if you give editors and other readers a really well-done example of something they’re not used to, they’ll be interested and intrigued. I don’t think we’re helpless in the face of What The Reader Expects.

This leads me to wonder how we got into a situation where, at least in SFF, limited 3rd is the One True POV. And I saw this tweet:

And I’ve been chewing on it. Here’s the thing: limited 3rd seems to just…come out of the air. There appears to be nothing between the story and the reader, just the raw facts of the character’s thoughts and impressions, just reality somehow arriving onto the page. Except it’s not–that reality is framed, carefully pruned and curated by the writer. It pretends to be an objective camera-view of the story. Except, even a camera isn’t actually objective. Things are edited, or left out of the frame, very carefully, to produce the film. It’s not raw truth, it’s carefully shaped.

There are advantages to doing this–limited 3rd can give you a particularly strong immediacy, can put you deep into a character’s experience, and that’s awesome. That’s possible to do with omni, of course, but it’s one of the things limited 3rd does best.

Omni, on the other hand, draws at least a little attention to the fact that you’re getting not raw truth, but someone’s interpretation of events. You’re getting the same with limited 3rd, of course, it’s just that the fact that the author is doing just that–presenting you not with utterly objective fact but with their take on the story–is concealed.

I think that in some parts of SF there is a particular value placed on the idea of Objective Truth. There’s no such thing, actually. I mean, yes, there are things that are true about the world–two plus two equals four, and the sun is about eight light-minutes from the earth, and objects in motion stay in motion unless some other force acts on them, and things like that, those are all facts. But stories? Stories, even stories arranged entirely out of facts, well, those arrangements aren’t somehow naturally occurring truths, but interpretations, thoughts about the world that come from a particular point of view–that is, the author’s. Some other author might have (almost certainly would have) arranged those facts differently, with very different results.

Limited 3rd conceals this–it conceals the fact that the story has not come from out of nowhere, some objectively factual place, but from the point of view of the author, with all its inherent assumptions and biases.

And if, as a writer, it’s the only POV you know how to use, and any others are deprecated, it conceals this fact from you, the writer, as well.

I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with limited 3rd. Heck, the thing I’m working on now is in limited 3rd. Just, it’s not the only way to go. And it’s worth learning how to use others. It’s worth your time to spend some thought on how those others actually work, and to read things written in them and try to see how they’re put together.

This is getting long, and I have other thoughts, but I should stop here. But, in summary: no POV is inherently good or bad, they all have advantages and disadvantages. Don’t feel stuck with limited 3rd if you want to do something another POV would do better. All are worth learning, all are worth practicing. They’re all tools worth having in your box. Why limit yourself?

Short Fiction: She Commands Me And I Obey

Quite frequently someone at a reading will ask me if I’ll ever explain about that icon Breq is carrying. And the answer is, I already have.

Residents of Noage Itray could look up and see the ballcourt hanging ten miles overhead, four meters wide and fifty long from goal line to goal line. Stands stretched along each side, row upon row of seats slanting up and back. For the station’s entire thirty-five-mile cylindrical length, buildings and gardens clung to its curving interior walls, bright with reflected sunlight. Noage Itray was the largest and wealthiest of the four stations in its Precinct—the second oldest of the four Precincts.
 
Under the ballcourt stands, proof of that antiquity, stood ranks of life-sized statues serving, crouching, springing to meet the ball. Elaborately painted wristguards, jewels on necks and arms, shimmered faintly in half shadow, each statue the result of the septennial elections decided on Noage Itray’s Blue Lily ballcourt.
 
They were called the Hundred, though Her-Breath-Contains-The-Universe had counted three hundred and seventy-two of them. On game days flowers decked each statue. The air would be heavy with their scent and the muttered prayers of worshipers as they streamed past, into the stands. Today the space echoed coldly, the stale remains of incense barely perceptible, the Hundred staring into empty, silent space.

I know I’ve linked it here before, but since I keep getting the question, I figure folks who have followed more recently might not have seen it.

Short Fiction: Beloved of the Sun

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So, by a certain point it became obvious that when I would set to work on a fantasy piece, I would end up centering it around a particular animal. Maybe two animals. This was handy, because at the time I was writing these a trip to the zoo was generally greeted with enthusiasm by most of the other people in the house, though they would sometimes get impatient with my desire to stare for a while at a particular animal they found less interesting than others.

For “Beloved of the Sun,” which I sold to Beneath Ceaseless Skies in 2010, I had decided (for reasons that I’m not a hundred percent clear on anymore) that I wanted to write a scary, dangerous butterfly. As often happened, Ant actually ended up with more screen time, and by the time I was done writing I knew way more about sturgeons in the Mississippi and Missouri rivers than I strictly ever needed to. (I’ve forgotten a good deal of it now, honestly.)

But the couple of trips to the Insectarium at the zoo were a complete success from my kids’ standpoint! So that was a win.

I knelt on a woven mat. The room was dark, the walls barely visible. A low fire burned on the packed-earth floor. Human heads circled the fire, eyes shadowed, dark mouths open as though they were about to speak or scream. The fire flared up momentarily, and I saw they were round clay pots, the faces molded and painted on. Across the fire from me sat a man in leggings and linen shirt, his face strong-boned and sharp, long black hair pulled back. Behind him sat a large, dark bird on a perch.
 
“She sees,” said a voice like wind through an empty jar. “She hears. She may or may not understand what she hears. But her mind seems to receive speech as words, not merely sounds.”
 
“But she doesn’t speak,” said the man. “Is there damage?”

Nearly all my fantasy stories have shorthand titles that I used while writing them or while discussing the stories with my writer friends, especially the people who saw the stories at various stages before the final draft. “The Nalendar” is “the skink.” “Marsh Gods” is “the Crane.” “The Unknown God” is usually “the horse” but sometimes “the Frog.” Despite Ant’s taking the stage more often, this one was “Butterfly.”

Short Fiction: The Endangered Camp

The Endangered Camp” is one of my few short science fiction pieces.

Back in the day, when I first decided to try to sell short fiction in earnest, I ran across an interview with then-F&SF slushreader John Joseph Adams.  F&SF was of course one of the venues I wanted very badly to sell to, and I had not managed to get anything past JJA and onto then-editor Gordon VanGelder’s desk. Like a lot of newbie writers, I was searching desperately for something that would get me out of the slush.

(Note to aspiring writers–I know it is useless to say this to you, because it was useless to say it to me at the time, but I’ll say it anyway: this is not actually a productive aim. Just work on writing the best stories you can. Getting past the slusher before you’re actually producing salable work (and you will never be able to tell, yourself, whether your work is salable so just do the best you can and leave the rest to the universe) will do you no good. I know, you don’t believe me. That’s all right, I did my best for you. Keep writing. It’ll be all right.)

Anyway. Someone interviewed JJA and asked him what he wished he saw more of in the slush. And he said he wished he’d see more post-apocalyptic fiction, more stories involving Mars, and more stories with dinosaurs. And I said, jokingly, “Now the race is on–who will be the first to submit a Post Apocalyptic Dinosaurs on Mars story?”

And about two days later I was driving and was fortunately on an empty street when it hit me just how I could write exactly that.

I wrote the first draft while I was at Clarion West. Gordon VanGelder was our week four instructor, and I submitted it that week. He was unimpressed. Undaunted, I revised it and submitted it various places. It did not sell. Until it hit the second volume of the Clockwork Phoenix anthology series. 

(Well, okay, actually it was my third sale to now-defunct Helix. It was never published–long story, part of the fallout of the whole mess that resulted in the creation of Transcriptase. They hadn’t paid me–Helix paid on publication, not acceptance–so I asked to withdraw the story so I could submit it elsewhere, since it was obvious to me that they would at that point never publish it. I was given the story back, and I sent it back out into the fray.)

You could do worse than check out any volume of the CP anthos, btw.

Anyway. Rich Horton picked it up for the corresponding year’s Best SF antho, which pleased me, because I’m really quite fond of this story.

Short Fiction: Misc Very Short

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Last time I mentioned working diligently during a particular period to write shorter and shorter, until I reached the (for me) region of ultimate fiction shortness. As a result of that effort, I have several very short pieces out there. One of them was for a rather unusual anthology, A Field Guide to Surreal Botany. Pieces took the form of entries in a field guide, and mine was for a plant called Clickweed. (Someone actually turned up with a copy at Outland in Oslo, which surprised and delighted me.) It’s not available online, and it’s a bit odd out of context–but then, the actual context was (delightfully) odd to begin with.

Also around this time, I wrote the 1,000 word “Bury the Dead,” which never had a print publication, so I put it on my website for International Pixel Stained Technopeasant Wretch Day, and later it was narrated over at Podcastle by the awesome Tina Connolly.

I wrote “Footprints” in a fit of pique after an online conversation that made me angry, and then sold it to Postcards from Hell, which was an interesting project that sadly never did more than it’s first series of postcards. I put it on my Livejournal for another IPSTP Day, once its exclusivity period had lapsed. Five hundred words! That’s very nearly the lowest wordcount I would ever manage.

But the actual lowest? The point at which I said to myself, “Self, you have accomplished that. Check the box and go do other things”? That was “The Sad History of the Tearless Onion.” I wrote it for the first Escape Pod flash fiction contest. It came in fourth, but EP bought it anyway, and eventually it ran on Podcastle. Three hundred words. I had done it!

Later, after Ancillary Justice came out, Popular Science asked me for a flash fiction piece for their Dispatches from the Future, specifically on the topic of aging. So I do have one much more recent piece of fiction that’s three hundred words long: “HappyMart.” Scroll down–or, you know, just read Ian Tregellis’ story which is just above mine.

This is really not a length at which I’m comfortable–when it comes to short fiction I’m happiest when I’m working in the eight to twelve thousand word range, honestly. But I’m pretty proud of having managed to actually write these stories.

Oh, and since A Field Guide to Surreal Botany came out in 2008, I’m pretty sure my bit of it is past any exclusivity period, so here’s my entry. (Without, of course, the lovely illustration.) I think you can still get copies of the book, actually, and it’s a cool little project that I enjoyed very much.

Common Clickweed
 
Anyone who has wandered by the side of a lake or a stream will have encountered the common clickweed. Its seven-leaved basal rosette, the distinctive smooth, thick leaves, and the hairy stalks that trail into the water, are unmistakeable. Raise those stalks out of the water (gingerly, with a stick!) and the lens-shaped growths near the ends of those stalks emit the clicking sound that gives these predatory plants their name. To a fish’s ear these clicks sound remarkably like a distressed knucklefish, and any hearer hoping for an easy mouthful is lured into the entangling hairs and trapped, to be absorbed by the clickweed over a period of several days. Half-digested clickweed prey is sought after by some epicures, who eat it with vinegar, or a dash of coarse salt. This, and the noise the plant makes, is the extent of the clickweed’s charm. It is hardly a beautiful plant.
 
But common, ugly clickweed has a secret. Some seventy-five years ago a retired diplomat named Bren Wilson was separated from her party during a caving expedition. Fifty years later her skeleton was found near an underground pool, along with a notebook detailing her last days. According to this account she lived by the pool for weeks, eating the sparse prey of a clickweed bleached white by its subterranean existence. This is not impossible; though each clickweed seems like a single plant, in fact it is really one part of a single organism that may stretch as far as a quarter mile, hundreds of sets of leaves emerging from the same rhizome. It is conceivable that an offshoot might find its way into a cavern.
 
But the next part of her notes led readers to assume that, disoriented and malnourished, she had imagined the plant entirely–she wrote that she had been able to find the plant and its pool because it glowed. “Like a cold fire,” she wrote, “golden and glittering and burning.” This would seem impossible–clickweed had never been observed to glow under any circumstances, and phosphoresence serves no purpose in a cavern, since the creatures that live there are blind.
 
But fifteen years after the discovery of Wilson’s notes research confirmed that, contrary to all common sense, some of these do indeed glow. There is no predicting whether a particular specimen will, nor when it will do so–a subterranean colony might shine for its entire existence, or grow for years in darkness, burn for three days to a month, and then go dark again. As Wilson herself wrote, “It can serve no purpose…but it is not mysterious, because no one can even suspect it. It exists, it would seem, for itself alone.”
 
Pilolaqueus sonivius
 
Carnivorous, colonial geophyte. 7-leaved base rosette of oblanceolate leaves, 4-10 cm, fleshy and glabrous. Trailing stalks 20-70cm, 2-5mm wide, with numerous long, fine but strong hairs. Near the ends 2-6 lenticular excresences, opposite, lacunate. Monoecious, pedicels 0.5-1cm, apetalous, capsule ovoid, black, dehiscent, 5-seeded. Found along the banks of lakes, streams, and small rivers on every continent.

Short Fiction: “Marsh Gods”

Remember I said that a good deal of my short fiction career involved my learning to write to shorter and shorter lengths? This is true–up to a certain point (not long past this story, in fact) you can (more or less) put most of my work in chronological order just by arranging them by descending word count. (Once I hit 300 words I figured I’d achieved what I wanted, and began just writing various lengths.)

Anyway. I was quite proud of myself when I finished “Marsh Gods.” Four thousand words! Go me! And then, to top it all off, I sold it to Strange Horizons, which I’d kept getting very nice rejections from and wanted to sell to really badly.

So, for your enjoyment, “Marsh Gods.” Like nearly everything I sold at the time, it’s set in the universe I’d begun building in “The God of Au” and continued to use in “The Nalendar.”

Voud had escaped the house before dawn, climbing up the ladder and onto the roof, across the neighbors’ roofs and down to the edge of the water, where she had caught three decent-sized frogs. She had tried but failed to catch a fourth, the bullfrog she’d heard honking hoarsely away somewhere on the bank; her sister-in-law Ytine would be dismayed at her muddy tunic, but there was no help for it. Now, her prey struggling in her bag, she went to ask the gods a question.
 
It was late enough in summer that she could go on foot, over the causeway. The shore of the gods’ island was muddy and cypress-shaded, but as she climbed, the trees cleared. At the edge of the trees, she stopped and dropped her bag on the ground. “I have questions,” she called. “Frogs for answers!” Insects trilled; the frustratingly elusive bullfrog honked. Voud sat on her heels—it didn’t pay to be impatient with gods—and watched the sky lighten.

Edited to add: Wilson Fowlie has kindly supplied a link to Podcastle’s audio version of the story: “Marsh Gods” at Podcastle