End of year state of the Mris: the writing version

2013: it was full of stuff. Good stuff, it turns out. Quite a bit of good stuff. Go team.

In the “clear signs of progress” category, I passed my hundredth short story sale mark, which was cool and weird. I cannot really make reflexive Minnesotan noises about how really it’s not so many, because it is: so many. So. Major thing there. Also in the same category, I now have an agent, and she is awesome, and I am pleased and hopeful about what this means for the future.

I sold nine stories this year. I have four stories sold and still yet to come out (one from 2012, the rest from this year). New stories that came out this year included:
“The Radioactive Etiquette Book” in Analog
“Armistice Day” in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
“Milk Run” in Analog (co-written with Alec Austin)
“The Troll (A Tale Told Collectively)” in Daily SF
“On the Weaponization of Flora and Fauna” in BCS
“Ask Citizen Etiquette” in Asimov’s (technically a 2014 publication date)
“The Ministry of Changes” in Tor.com
“Things We Have in the House for No Reason” in Analog
“Unsolved Logical Problems in Time Travel (Spring Semester)” in Nature

There were also some lovely reprints, in Twenty-First Century Science Fiction and Year’s Best SF and Fantasy 2013 and anthologies of Clarkesworld and Daily SF sales from previous years.

And the writing. I really hit my stride on new stuff, writing twenty stories, one novel, and serious parts of other novels and stories. All the short stories are revised, and I have a plan for revising the novel. In addition to that, I’m kind of hoping to hit the new project hard once I’ve done the revisions. It’s pretty clear after twice going through it that when I have to be on the vertigo meds, I can still write–I can still write things people like, even–even including myself–but it’s harder. So there’s a balance to find (sorry, had to) between keeping myself safe and getting good work done. Ideally I’ll be able to get enough momentum on the novel to carry me through the last horrible phase before going on the meds and the first horrible phase on them. We’ll see. If not, I will dig my heels in and just make it work. I’ve done it before and can do it again. But gosh, these last six months when I didn’t have to dig my heels in and could just write happily have sure been nice. Hoping to use it as a running start on next year, because this year has been awfully good.

Competence porn, character expectations, and the Houses of Cards

Spoilers for the first season of House of Cards in UK and US versions. I don’t know how to do a cut-tag on my wordpress journal if in fact such a thing is possible. So seriously. Spoilers. If you care, back away from the post.

Francis Urquhart and Frank Underwood have some key things in common, due to the one series being based on the other. The main thing is that they are both consummate backroom politicians–wheeler-dealers, hip-deep in machinations, people who use the secrets and foibles and relationships of others to achieve their own ends. This is sometimes horrible and generally fun to watch, in no small part because they are so good at it. It’s a form of competence porn: it’s very satisfying to watch people do difficult things they’re good at.

And then. And then partway through each version’s first season, the main character FU kills someone who is being inconvenient.

And gets away with it.

When I was talking about this with Timprov, the metaphor he came up with was that it was as though you had set up Sherlock Holmes and suddenly had him torture a confession out of a suspect. It’s not what makes Sherlock Holmes interesting–in fact, it’s the opposite of it. In some fundamental sense it’s not what Sherlock Holmes is for. It’s a crude solution from someone whose entire point is subtlety, and as such it’s terribly unsatisfying. If you want me to watch someone kill people, and wince and marvel, give me Omar, give me Brother Mouzone, but do not give me Sherlock Holmes with a baseball bat, and do not give me Francis Urquhart or Frank Underwood. The early episodes of each show us that FU is someone who exploits other people’s weaknesses, and the victims in question each have plenty of weaknesses. So having FU just decide to kill them is an annoying waste of the character’s skills, which are what I like to watch in the first place, in favor of a skillset neither FU has ever demonstrated in the first place.

I’ve started watching the second series (what we would call the second season) of the British version, and it has some lovely moments, but generally the killing thing is totally unsatisfactory to me, and the handling of it has not improved. Timprov pointed out that the show may not have been made as competence porn at all, it may have been made mostly as a poke at the Tories, and I can see that–it’s visible from space–but it’s a great deal less interesting to me, and I think would be even if it was poking at politicians in my own country and my own timeline. Schemers are fascinating. Unsubtle digs and implausible deaths less so.

Two questions

1. Timprov and I were watching a very silly TED talk, and I wondered: does anybody but Timprov like 4 a.m.? And if so, do you like it from the staying up side or the getting up side?

2. As we know in Dar Williams’s “The Christians and the Pagans,” “When Amber tried to do the dishes, her aunt said really no, don’t bother.” What does this mean in your idiolect? In mine it’s, um…it’s basically “I don’t really trust you, person I barely know, so get the hell out of my kitchen.” (There are other ways of saying things like, “I think it’s more important for you to get time with your uncle,” or, “I have a system that I’d just prefer to work within.”) Is that what it means in Dar’s home dialect/idiolect? What does it mean in yours?

Adventures in doggishness.

So yesterday afternoon Ista was worrying at her right front leg, and when we looked at it, we saw that she had scraped it on something in the back yard severely enough that there was a triangular flap of skin torn back. And she was not leaving it alone. Not a source of great worry, but also not something that could just be left. So Mark and I bundled ourselves into the car and went off to the emergency vet with her.

People. The emergency vet is not where you want to be late in the afternoon the Sunday before Christmas. I mean, really, the emergency vet is no fun in general. No one is there to get routine shots for their perfectly healthy puppy. The general take-home lesson of the emergency vet the Sunday before Christmas is: for the love of Pete keep your dog away from the chocolate. The place was quite full, mostly with dogs who had eaten lots of chocolate when their humans were out shoveling or otherwise occupied.

We waited for an hour and a half before we got into a room. In that time, we saw a family–mother and dad and little girl–whose dog did not make it. That was pretty horrible. Anyway, they got us roomed, and another half-hour later, Mark and I got sent off to get dinner while they waited for a chance to sew her up. No general needed, just a local. But we called to make sure that they were done, and sure enough, they weren’t, so…all in all, Ista spent four hours at the vet yesterday, Mark and I about two and a half.

It’s amazing how people who can talk for hours under other circumstances have a much, much harder time of it in a vet ER with a stressed and injured dog.

Ista’s bandage is off, though the sutures will stay in 10-14 days. She is worrying at them, so we have her in the cone of shame. Oh the displeased poodle. Oh the injured dignity. She’s already managed to get it off twice, so when we don’t have another focus I think we’re going to have to try to sit with her and get her used to the sutures and not licking/biting them, because the cone is not seeming like it’s going to work as a sole solution to this problem.

So. Not the blog post I’d intended to make–stay tuned for character expectations and competences–and not the Sunday evening I’d intended to have, but we’re all fine. Even if one of us is also pretty annoyed with the cone.

These are a few of my…you know the drill.

It is time for some favorite things. I’ll start, and you join in.

1. Cloudberries.
2. Best-aunts who smuggle jars of cloudberries into unrelated gifts.
3. My ice cream lady.
4. Introducing my ice cream lady to the concept of cloudberries, because cool people and cool things should meet from time to time.
5. I do actually like crisp apple streudels. The song was pretty on-point there.
6. Clean sheets.
7. The library.
8. Transparent coping mechanisms that actually work.
9. Ambers, the fossilized tree resins.
10. Ambers, my niece and my friend.
11. Snow.
12. Trees. No, really, all of them. I like trees. I have taken to declaring myself a tree whenever anybody has a personality quiz on social media. Jo helped me figure out that I don’t have a totem animal, I have trees, and so then I answered a totem animal quiz with “I’m a tree,” and now I am answering “Which Hobbit character are you?” and “What is your Myers-Briggs?” and “Which heavy metal band are you?” with “I’m a tree,” because hey, it worked the first time. Probably this will stop amusing me at some point. But this is not yet that point.

Now you.

No longer startling, actually.

Several people do “first line of each month” memes at the end of the year, but the fact that I do book posts early in each month makes this less-than-scintillating blogging. (Especially since my book posts are not done chronologically, so I can’t use them to determine first book of the month.) But I went back through my archives just to see, for my own interest, what was what.

The moral of the story is that I need to stop being surprised by how many books I bounce off. I get books from the library on a pretty speculative basis–“someone but I forget who” is good enough for a recommendation when it comes to library books. “Maybe I’ll like this” is often enough followed by “okay, cool” to be worth my extensive library use, but it’s also very often followed by “orrrrr not, ew.” So: I will try to stop expressing surprise that the thing I expect to happen has happened quite so much. Really. Sorry.

But I really think this is a feature. I feel the same way about food: if you’re not trying stuff you don’t like, you’re not trying enough stuff. You’re missing stuff that would be on the borders of what you think you like but could turn out to be awesome. On Twitter last night, Jonathan Strahan asked if there was too much sff being published, if/since readers couldn’t keep up with it all. And that struck me as–how do I put this politely. Hmm. That struck me as filled with some quite wrong assumptions. It is not a problem if the world is filled with more wonderful things than I can ever behold or taste or read or learn or do. That is what we call a really good thing.

Also, we don’t all like the same stuff. If there’s just exactly as much sff as “a reader” can read in a year, there’s not nearly enough sff to keep me personally happy, because I will not like great swaths of it. I read faster than most people (which is not a statement of moral superiority but just a fact), and many of them like things I don’t like. Which: hurray for them! As we used to say in the dark and flannel-clad days of the nineties, rock on with your bad self! Eat my share of the pineapple while you’re at it!

And then if I miss sff that I would like that’s published right now, it will be there later for me to find later, when TexAnne or RushThatSpeaks or Papersky says, “You haven’t read Thingy? READ THINGY!!!”* And then I will! And there will be rejoicing over the reading of Thingy! Hooray! See? This is a good story with a happy ending.

I get that poor Mr. Strahan is probably feeling overwhelmed reading for Year’s Best purposes. I do. But a) that experience is not at all generalizable; b) there is no great advantage to everyone reading the same thing; and also c) nobody put a gun to his head and made him do this job as far as I’m aware. Oh, and also d) anyone who treats editors of any volume of Year’s Best as though they are idiots or jerks or whatever if they didn’t happen to get to Particular Story X is themselves being an idiot or a jerk or whatever. Don’t do that. Editors are humans. They will give it their best, but any “the best of” volume should be automatically prefaced in your mind with “SOME OF,” and on you go, not hassling the editors of same.

While I was writing this, XKCD popped up a post about reading every book. Heh. Lovely timing, internets.

*It might be someone else. But let’s be realistic here.

Books read, early December

Lyndsay Faye, The Gods of Gotham. Historical murder mystery that in no way lives up to its title but is interesting anyway: very very early New York policing (that is, early policing, not early NY–mid-1800s, not the Dutch), party politics, etc. I will keep on with Faye’s stuff in this vein. I like historical mysteries.

Stuart Firestein, Ignorance: How It Drives Science. A paean to the stuff we don’t know, particularly the informed and thoughtful ways of assessing what we don’t know. A brief read, good fun, amusing in spots, nothing spectacular.

Tim Flannery, Among the Islands: Adventures in the Pacific. Too many personal details, not enough bat zoology. More small mammals, Tim Flannery! Nobody cares what you had to drink! Bats! Rodents! Etc.!

Christopher Fowler, Full Dark House. The first in the Peculiar Crimes Unit series, a mystery in two timelines (“contemporary” and WWII). Not amazing but readable, and I am looking for new mystery series, so I will probably read more.

Jessica Day George, Tuesdays at the Castle. A magical castle and its children work together to thwart evildoers. Go castle. Very much a middle-grade book.

Jan Guillou, Birth of the Kingdom. The last of the trilogy, and you’ll really want to start at the beginning. I loved this, but Swedish historical political novels are a thing I adore. This one was all set in Sweden; Arn had returned from the Crusades.

David G. Hartwell, ed., Year’s Best SF 18. Discussed elsewhere.

Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost. About Belgium and its relationship with the Congo region. Its horrible, horrible relationship. This is one of those things that I felt I should read to be better-informed about world history, but there’s a reason that that period is something of a template for evil. Adam Hochschild is very very good at writing about horrible things. I recommend him if you feel the need to read about horrible things and you want an author who will recognize the horrible and deal with it appropriately. (Also he included all sorts of stuff about the black Americans who were missionaries and lobbyists for the region, which I did not previously know and which was cool.)

John Kelly, The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People. And speaking of cheerful topics! But again: the Irish potato famine was a major thing, and I felt the need to be better informed. Kelly is really quite good about recognizing the ways in which the upper classes and absent landlords didn’t actually screw up, so that he can focus on the ways they really, really did.

Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds. I miss this kind of SF. The kind that does divergent groups of humans on different planets! I need more of that kind! This is like the SF I read tons of when I was 12, except smarter and better about a wide variety of demographics. Do want. The telepathy part is also in that category, except that I can take or leave telepathy books. But the rest is smart and good enough that the neutral of telepathy does not drag the book down to neutral. Mooooore.

Philip Reeve, Fever Crumb. If you want a YA about postapocalyptic whosits living in a giant head, this is for you. You do? I know you do. There are several people who do. Postapocalyptic whosits are very popular these days.

Ira Rutkow, James A. Garfield. What it says on the tin, with a focus on the medical stuff following the assassination. Sadly I had already read Candace Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, which has the same focus and is in every way a better book. So really, if you want to know about Garfield, go read the Millard, and if you still want to know more about Garfield after that, this Rutkow book will not help.

Sherwood Smith, Whispered Magics. Kindle. Some of the best of Sherwood’s short stories as well as a few that overweighted message with mode for me. I have always loved and always will love “Mom and Dad at the Home Front,” and there are some other really lovely things in here too. Well worth the nickel. (Note: nickel is proverbial. Actual book costs more than a nickel.)

“We’ll do what’s necessary, ’cause even a miracle needs a hand.”

It is Santa Lucia morning, and my house smells of yeast and saffron and hope.

Earlier this week, my friend’s son C’s class at school was learning about late-year holidays from different traditions, religious and non-religious. C is 7, and my friend commented that he didn’t understand why his family couldn’t celebrate all the things. And I thought about it, and I said, “…I don’t understand either.” Clearly you will behave differently when you’re making your own religious observance than when you are honoring the fact that other people do, but…holidays good. I am with C: let us have holidays.

But I did eventually figure out why not, and that is because C is 7, so he can’t do the work of making these holidays, and he is one of seven kids, so his parents kind of have full plates already. And I love the lussekatter–I love taking flour and butter and sugar and saffron and making light and hope in the dark of winter. But after the knead I kind of wanted to go back to bed myself, and I’m not 7. Sometimes joy just shows up naturally, but sometimes it’s hard work. Sometimes you have to chase down joy and club it repeatedly to subdue it and drag it back to your lair.

My mother’s favorite Christmas special is “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” the one with the wee mousies. And it has a song in it that is very much what she wanted to teach me, I think, about working and planning for the miracles you want to see in the world.

It’s very dark. It’s very, very cold. And there are sides of the dark and the cold we don’t even tell each other. But I have done battle with the dough and emerged triumphant, and victory is tasty indeed.

Happy Santa Lucia Day.

The first one in 2006. 2007, the beginning of the story. 2007, the end of the story. 2008. 2009. 2010. 2011. Last year.

Tired December note

Today I have a tired. Actually I have enough for two, if anybody wants to split off some of my tired and take it away for me and still leave me with a tired. It is December, it is so very much December, and I spent most of last week being sick, and despite having made epic strides in Christmas shopping online in the last two days, I am behind. I am so behind.

And my brain, dear sweet wacky brain, keeps making me behind-er.

Brain: “let’s not work on the new novel just now” does not map to “let’s work on a brand new short story instead!” That is not what that means, brain.

Brains.

Anyway, someone on FB asked a question about how she should spell a character name, because she was afraid that readers would mispronounce it. And I went, “Ooh ooh! I know this one, pick me pick me!” The answer is: they will. I mean, ideally not all of them. Ideally not even most of them. But if you write a perfectly normal name like Zhang, there will be readers who are twelve years old or from the sticks or some other explanation and will pronounce it Zuh-hang. You cannot let yourself get upset by this. You do your best and move on, and when someone has questions for you about your character Zuh-hang, you tell yourself, “I am so lucky, people read and care about my characters.” (And maybe you politely correct them.) But honestly, people cannot pronounce the names of actual other human beings they have reason to interact with. Ask Mr. Hjalmarsson of the Chicago Blackhawks. So the ones in your head? They’re going to get mispronounced. It is so far down the list of things for you to worry about.

Someone on the internet is wrong. Someone reading your fiction is wrong. Channel your inner Norwegian farmer uncle, say, “Ayeh, that’ll happen,” and get back to milking the metaphorical cows. (Really, not everybody has an inner Norwegian farmer uncle? Hmm. I will have to think on this.)

Year’s Best SF 18, edited by David Hartwell

Review copy provided by Tor.

This was a really solid Year’s Best collection. Of course there were stories in it I didn’t finish, or didn’t bother to reread, because that happens in pretty much every anthology ever: part of the point of anthologies is that not everything has to be to everybody’s taste for it to be worth the time and paper. But there were far fewer of that type of story than average, and more stories that I felt were worth mentioning in the good way.

I sometimes find Gene Wolfe’s characters frustratingly vague and distant. “Dormanna” is an exception, and it manages to have a child protagonist without being a teddy bear killing story. I like imaginary friends, that may be part of it. I also like complex friends, part real and part imaginary, and I think the titular Dormanna qualifies.

I am a sucker for alien stories, and Eleanor Arnason’s “Holmes Sherlock: A Hwarhath Mystery” is no exception, even though I am generally not a sucker for Holmesiana. But this isn’t Holmesiana, or at least not as I have encountered its worst excesses. Holmes is not a character in this story, but rather a character in stories read by the protagonist of this story. I love alien-perspective stories, and every time I encounter the Hwarhath, I think, “Oh yes, I like them, I should go find more of these.”

I can see where Naomi Kritzer’s “Liberty’s Daughter” would appeal to a very broad spectrum of SF readers, because it’s very like a lot of the SF people who are writing now read as teenagers, but with…how do I say this politely…it’s not with 75% less assholery. It’s with instances of assholery recognized and tagged as such, within the spectrum of human behavior. The seasteads are exactly the kind of varied extrapolative near future cultures I want to see more of in fiction.

In “Waves,” Ken Liu took a conflict that could easily have filled another SF short story and portrayed its outcome (I won’t say resolution) in a few pages, moving on to more and greater extrapolations across time, space, species, and family. One of my favorite of Liu’s so far, he portrays different gigantic life choices, and how they can separate–and reunite–family members.

Finally, “The North Revena Ladies Literary Society” by Catherine H. Shaffer is probably the least overtly SF of my favorite stories of this volume. It’s a spy action story that does SFnal things, but the SF aspects of them come in later. I just wrote out what it could be a crossover of and then realized that my analogy would be a spoiler for the story, so instead: SF spy ladies, hurrah!