The Laws of Thermodynamics

Last year one of the Fourth Street seminar participants approached me after the seminar. They had a lot on their mind and were feeling pretty strongly, though, I hasten to add, they didn’t seem angry with me or to blame me. The general gist seemed to be: I have had a lot of short stories published, so things are easy for me; this person is completely unpublished and has also struggled with issues in their job, their romantic life, and their health, and they were just not up for submitting themselves to more rejection; and therefore, they told me, they were going to self-publish, because that way they would dodge the possibility of rejection.

And that was where they lost me.

There are good reasons to self-publish, and there are good reasons to seek a traditional publisher. There are good reasons to make one’s career a hybrid of the two.

But if you are really, truly not able to deal with rejection, none of those three possible paths will work for that.

I’m sorry. I don’t mean this to be discouraging, which is why I didn’t blurt it out to the person from the seminar. Publishing can be awesome in whatever form, and the feeling of your work connecting with someone you don’t know, some stranger whose only connection is that you wrote a thing and they read it–that’s amazing.

But self-publishing moves the rejection from editor, agent, or publisher, to readers. Very directly to readers, since the self-published author really needs word of mouth and reviews. There will be thousands or millions of people who can reject your work instead of just dozens.

I don’t want to be dismissive or uncompassionate here–quite the opposite. Some people are going through such a stack of stuff at a given time that one more rejection is legitimately just too much, and that’s a thing to respect, a thing to know about oneself. I just…would really like for people who are in that situation not to go into a particular form of publishing thinking that it is the emotionally safe way to share their work with the world. There is no emotionally safe way to share meaningful art with the world. It all involves at least a small emotional risk.

Things that you create can sometimes wait. If you’re in a particular kind of really horrible place in your life, it’s okay to make awesome things and keep them to yourself for awhile. I’m not saying that’s the situation universally, or for you in particular. I’m just saying that self-care is all right and is sometimes part of making this whole thing work in the longer-term.

Rounding up

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed that I’ve been linking to more short stories I’ve enjoyed lately. Or maybe not; Twitter is an ever-flowing stream, easy for individual Tweets to merge into the shuffle. But even if you hadn’t noticed, I had. This is deliberate.

There are lots of short stories out there. Lots. Whether you’re invested in the awards a genre has to give or not, short stories are almost as easy as Tweets to lose in the shuffle. I’d been setting my standards wayyyy too high on talking about short stories, essentially only bringing them up if they were life-changing, mind-blowing, THE VERY BEST OF MY LIFE. But the problem is that Octavia Butler doesn’t write short stories any more, and also I’m not 20 any more, so…other writers who write good, interesting stories still deserve to have their work read and discussed. So I’m going with that instead, and I’m going to try to remember not only to Tweet about stories in the moment but to round up those links from time to time in a more permanent location.

Here’s what I recommended lately:
The Ways of Walls and Words, by Sabrina Vourvoulias (Tor.com).

The Migratory Pattern of Dancers, by Katherine Sparrow (Giganotosaurus).

A Beautiful Memory, by Shannon Peavey (Apex).

City of Salt, by Arkady Martine (Strange Horizons).

The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn, by Usman Malik (Tor.com).

You’ll notice, if you look, that Katherine Sparrow’s story is from a few years back. That’s because my main focus is not to get people awards (although, hey, if the people who vote on awards like stuff I like, lovely). It’s to get people and stories together. I’m not pretending that I read everything–even the stuff I mean to keep up on, I often haven’t yet. So go ahead and recommend things you like in the comments, or talk about the stories, or both. Yes, even if it’s the same issue of a magazine as a story I’ve already linked to–I am rarely systematic about these things, so not mentioning something doesn’t mean that I have JUDGED IT UNWORTHY DOOM DOOM DESPAIR. I just…want to be louder about liking the things I like.

On the uses of writerly proprioception

We’ve talked in the past about something I call writerly proprioception: the sense of relative shape and position within a story, the sense of where stuff is in relationship to other stuff and how much there is (but relating to one’s story, not to one’s body). For me this is a very literal analogy: it feels like knowing that my left knee is x many inches from my left foot because, well, because. Because you just know that. Because it’s your leg.

(My actual proprioception sometimes gets a little messed up–go neurological symptoms, sigh–so I guess that part of the analogy is possible too.)

But recently I heard the advice, “Don’t keep writing just to keep writing”–that is, don’t add on words to a section for the sake of adding on words–and I think that’s mostly good advice? but I have a caveat.

If you’re adding words to a scene of your story/book/whatever because you have a word count goal for the day and have not yet met that goal–or because you know that it’s very difficult to sell adult novels unless they reach a certain length–that’s not likely to result in quality fiction. If the scene is done and you haven’t met word count*, the correct answer is to finish the scene and start another scene.

But. If your writerly proprioception is telling you that something else goes there–if your writerly proprioception is basically saying that there’s a gap between your foot and your knee–sometimes writing more in that spot and seeing what emerges is really, really useful. If the actual words you write don’t contribute, you’ll have to take them out again. But if you know there needs to be something there, and you don’t know what yet, writing to get to it is a perfectly reasonable method, and at that point, by all means, keep writing just to keep writing.

Recently the current project (Itasca Peterson, Wendigo Hunter! filled with fierce eleven-year-olds and their grandpa!) did that to me. I could feel that Chapter Two was not done. And so I kept writing, and up popped a subplot that has implications in Chapters Four, Six, Nine, and Fifteen. I said, “We’re having an infestation of what?,” and then I just altered the outline and went on doing it. Because my sense of shape and structure knew there needed to be something there, and when I kept writing, there it was. Boom.

In the past I’ve told myself I could edit that kind of thing out later. I have learned better than this. I have had structural mice and load-bearing bears. The things I didn’t know I needed are the least removable of anything in a piece of fiction, basically. That is the brain doing what it’s trained to do. That is the part that’s smart about story asserting itself in the face of the part that thinks it knows what’s going on. Listen to that part. You’re working hard to let it out.

*And if word count is a good way for you to self-motivate. It isn’t for me, and I have known a lot of people to get hung up in various ways on word count. But I also know that it works for some.

Books read, early April

Balak, Sanlaville, and Vives, Last Man: The Stranger. Discussed elsewhere.

Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith, Hostage. Kindle. Sequel to Stranger, very dependent on its events and characterization. If you were wanting more of that, here it is, but this is not the place to start. Implication and ramification, though, both in terms of the world and individually. I don’t see that coming out nontraditionally did a thing to harm this book.

Roz Chast, Can’t we talk about something more pleasant?. A memoir of her parents’ old age and her experiences in eldercare. In comic form. Wry and in some places dark, not as much depth as I would have hoped.

CJ Cherryh, Tracker. The latest atevi novel. For the love of Pete don’t start here, but! We have plot progress! This is not merely another book in which people drink tea, pick out coats and furnishings, and try not to get assassinated! Not that I didn’t enjoy those, but: serious plot progress hurray! (Of course, I flipped immediately from being thrilled with the plot progress to being impatient for more. Readers, man. You just can’t win.)

Adam Christopher, The Machine Awakes. Discussed elsewhere.

Mary Robinette Kowal, Of Noble Family. Discussed elsewhere.

Ken Liu, The Grace of Kings. This is why I keep reading epic fantasy: because sometimes there is a book like this. So immersive! I found my sense of how much more it was reasonable to read before doing laundry/making supper/etc. stretching out as the book went on: “Oh, only 100 more pages in this section? sure, that sounds like a sensible amount to read before eating.” The influence of the Chinese classics was so structurally pervasive that I think it even changed how I saw POV shifts. There is a thing in classical Chinese literature where you get a POV character for a short time but it doesn’t feel like head-hopping, and that came into play for me very early on in Ken’s book, that the short-term perspectives felt signaled to be an homage to that instead of just random. Other people have talked about how there aren’t very many women characters early in the book, and this is true, but I think that the last part makes up ground quickly and promises good things in future volumes, and considering the literary influences on it, it is jam-packed with women doing both traditional and non-traditional things in awesome ways. Very much recommended. Looking forward to more.

Robin McKinley, The Door in the Hedge. Reread. Wow, am I glad I didn’t pattern short story writing off this. Her structure is so weird. Most short stories–even novelettes and novellas–are not better with a prologue, an epilogue, and then two chapters. That…is not really how this goes mostly. Also she was doing lots of early-career trite stuff–if I never see a tiny sprinkling of freckles described as keeping someone from being perfect/too beautiful again, it will be too soon. Still immersive and lovely.

Nayad Monroe, ed., Not Our Kind: Tales of (Not) Belonging. I make a policy of not reviewing books I appear in. Therefore I can tell you: this book exists, I read it, I wrote part of it.

Marie Rutkoski, The Winner’s Crime. This is very much in the “characters dig themselves a muuuuuch deeper hole” school of second books. Do not, do not, do not read this first. Go read The Winner’s Curse first. Then if you don’t want to keep going, The Winner’s Crime was not the book for you anyway. Revolutions, negotiations, politics, star-crossed lovers like whoa.

Salla Simukka, As White as Snow. Finnish YA suspense novel. Second in its series but not as dependent upon the first one as some other things I read this fortnight. Very, very Finnish. Matter-of-fact romance with a trans character, very structurally weirdly handled though: it’s the sort of thing that feels like it somehow didn’t fit in the first book where she was setting backstory/expectations and needed to be there (I’m guessing) before the third book where she wants to have some kind of continuation/plot/payoff, so…it goes in the second book, but basically offstage. Strange place for a romance plot. (I mean that the romance plot itself was offstage, not just the sex scenes, which were at least highly suggestive-to-pretty-onstage for this type of YA. That inversion confused me, too.)

Jo Walton, Ha’penny and Half a Crown. Rereads. After I finished Farthing last fortnight, I basically just wanted the whole arc. I think there’s enough backstory in these to make them readable at any point, and the three non-Carmichael voices are so vividly different. I found the follow-through into Elvira’s attitudes particularly wrenching. I said last time that Jo is one of the best at theory of mind stuff, and this comes through particularly, I feel, on something like her characters’ reactions to Hitler. It appears to be really difficult for people to put themselves in the mindset of someone who doesn’t think of Hitler as they do, or else they feel insecure about whether everyone will understand that they know Hitler was really bad? or something. But Jo gets it just right, the chasm between what someone under a fascist system will think of a charming politician they’ve just met and what we know, or the things that growing up under a particular system can normalize. I love these, but I can’t reread them too often.

Robert Charles Wilson, The Affinities. Discussed elsewhere.

Last Man: The Stranger, by Balak, Sanlaville, & Vives

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

(I could have sworn I posted this review earlier. Apparently not.)

The visual style of this slim graphic novel is clearly influenced by French-language comics of the past (French and especially Belgian). It’s doing a plot that shows up in anime a lot: basically a tournament with lots of fighting, a tiny bit of subplot for the characters but not much. But the faces don’t look like anime. The fight style doesn’t look like anime.

This is not quite Tintin Goes To A Tournament, Manga Style. But it’s pretty close.

Nor is this a complete story. If you’re someone who likes fight comics that don’t get too gory, and you don’t mind stories being stretched over several installations of blam, peuh, and thwok, this may very well be your thing. I’m going to try it on my favorite 12-year-old and see whether he likes it, but for adults it’s likely to revive feelings of being that age. You can judge for yourself whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. So far, it’s executing reasonably well, but if it’s doing more than dead-center genre-standard things, I can’t see what they are.

Please consider using our link to buy The Stranger from Amazon.

The Machine Awakes, by Adam Christopher

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

This is the second book in a series, and I have not read the first. The rule for reviews is that I start reading, and if I don’t quit until the book is done, I review it; while there are some things that probably would do a bit better with the context of the first book, nothing was too glaring. I don’t see any reason not to start here, if you have a copy convenient.

This is an entirely readable military SF thriller. There’s nothing innovative in the SF concept, and the characterization is not deep enough to provide its own novelty, but on the other hand, an unobjectionable military SF thriller with readable prose is just what I have heard a great many people yearning for (albeit usually in more glowing terms). There are Psi-Marines, if that tells you what genre-space we’re in. I could wish that it was doing something more with the characters, but the action zipped along, and I didn’t regret the time I spent reading it. And it may be just what you’re looking for.

Please consider using our link to buy The Machine Awakes from Amazon.

Random cool future

This weekend I sold a story, “Draft Letter on Research Potential Suggested by Recent Findings in Gnome Genomics,” to EGM Shorts. It started with an offhand tweet about how I have to read carefully because both gnome and genome are words my friends could reasonably be writing to me, and then it snowballed from there into a short-short. I love all the writing I get to do, but honestly when it’s something full-out gleefully weird like this, I just feel like I’m getting away with something. The rule that I should never, ever say, “But who would want something that peripheral/oddball?” is being reinforced by this sort of sale. I should just write things, and we live in a future where there’s some chance that people can be united with their chosen weirdnesses.

Which reminds me of my friend Mary’s Patreon project. Mary proposes to write science news poetry: poems about scientific advances and concepts that have been in the news each month. She is already an accomplished poet and nerd, so this project would give support to focusing those talents. And honestly, $1/month is not very much for a bunch of cool science poems. Certainly not much to help bring them into existence. Because honestly, this is the kind of future I want to live in: the kind where the stuff about which I would have said, “Can you do that?” when I was a teenager is out there being done, with joy and verve and–what was that last bit, Bull Durham?–oh yes: poetry.

The Affinities, by Robert Charles Wilson

Review copy provided by Tor.

Nerds like taxonomies. This is a truism we use around here a lot, but there it is. In The Affinities, Robert Charles Wilson manages to write about a highly taxonomized future without telling us more than the tiniest bit about those taxonomies. Sixty percent of people, this book postulates, fit into twenty-two “affinity groups.” Okay? But what these affinity groups are, how they work, why they work, remains sketchy at best. Many of the characters are part of the Tau affinity group, and all I could make out of the Taus is that they are “nice enough, I guess.” Their main competitors for resources and political power are the Hets, who are not nice enough, who are in fact frankly villainous. So we have the good guys, the bad guys, the 40% unclassified, and…twenty other affinity groups, of which we know that…one of them is kind of flaky? That’s pretty much it.

For this book to work, we are asked to believe that the affinity groups work amazingly well together…but this is repeatedly told and never even remotely shown. They are to be mentally, emotionally, socially, and neurologically amazingly compatible–but couples who share the same affinity group and find each other without help are supposed to be rare? And no one says, “eh, this is all right, but I’m actually more compatible with” any of the other affinity groups humans already form. Fraternities and sororities, bird watchers, alumni of particular colleges/universities, folk dancers…well, yeah. The number of things people already form clumps around is large. And those clumps already give advantages to some over others–I, for example, would go farther for a randomly selected Gustavus physics major than I would for a randomly selected member of the general population. I don’t have a lot of pull in getting people jobs etc.–but I absolutely would try at least a tiny bit harder for one of “us.” Or one of another of a dozen “us”es I have. But in The Affinities, the affinity groups discovered are so powerful that they completely crush any other possible ways of forming kin and affines. For nearly everybody. And yet! And yet they are distributed more or less randomly, so that you always have the useful profession you want available, whether it’s substance-abuse counselor or helicopter pilot–and never discover that, eh, nobody in your affinity group really likes to do [job], so you can’t really rely on them for that.

Further, the affinity groups have enough time to get themselves deeply embedded in a society that is clearly (from the grandmother’s class year) the future and yet behaves like ten years ago or so. Other than affinity groups, nothing has changed over the course of this entire future. There are tensions in South Asia; people use cell phones but not for anything interesting; the same cars are prestigious and the same behaviors are denigrated or lauded by society at large and its more reactionary members in particular. When people complain about SF novels not addressing the present, much less the future, this is exactly the sort of book on their minds.

This is a lot to swallow, and in fact I couldn’t swallow it. Robert Charles Wilson’s books are always readable on a sentence or even paragraph level, so it was a painless read in that sense. But the social thinking…just did not work for me. I found it unconvincing in its particulars and as a whole. I didn’t even find it interestingly wrong, because it wasn’t engaging with any depth on the topic of what makes people work well together or not, and which ways of working well together engage the wider world in positive and negative ways. It just sort of skated over those questions for a shallow action plot and a deeply obvious “twist” ending. I wanted to like this book or, failing that, find it interesting to argue with. I can’t say that either happened.

Please consider using our link to buy The Affinities from Amazon.

Mini-con report/Minicon report

I am terrible at the kind of con reports that are the next best thing to being there, but I did have lots of nice moments at Minicon. There were a couple of really quite good room parties (including one that actually was worth being squeezed in like sardines–first time in my con-going experience that that’s ever been worth it, and I’ve been to a lot of sardine-parties), and every meal was with at least two people I like and do not see enough of, sometimes more. An anonymous benefactor included me in the Cats Laughing pre-concert dinner, so that was unexpected and great fun, much hilarity ensuing, etc. (If you’re reading this, anonymous benefactor, it was as lovely as you could have wished. Thank you.) I don’t actually eat enough to just spend entire conventions at meals, but socially I sometimes wish I could.

I didn’t go to very many panels, but the ones I did ranged from uncontentious to quite good. I don’t really enjoy panels that purport to be recommendation panels and devolve into nerd plumage displays, so the Anime and Manga for SFF Fans panel Alec was on was not really my jam. Since I can’t do light shows, I took in a bit of the Cats Laughing concert from just outside the room and another bit on the TV, but I spent most of that time at a panel about “Why Are We Still Having This Panel?”, because I feared that it would be underattended and my friend Michael was on it. As it turned out, the audience was not crowded but was quite enthusiastic and engaged, and we had a good discussion about how to keep programming fresh–and when, at a large regional con, not to bother, since the repetitive programming does serve some people’s wants/needs.

Other than those two, I went to two panels I was on and moderated. The first one, the collaboration panel, was filled with entertaining anecdote and also with Jane Yolen’s kids doing imitations of her voice. (Heidi wins at this.) It managed to cover somewhat different ground than the previous panels I’ve done on collaboration, so go team on that front. (See above re: keeping programming fresh!) The second was the last panel of the day on Sunday, talking about middle grade optimism, YA dystopia, middle grade dystopia, what teenagers want and how we find that out, what adults let younger kids have…all sorts of good stuff. I really wish it had not been the panel right before I had to leave for Easter dinner, because there were lots of new faces listening intently and some asking interesting questions. (If this post gets to the attention of the young writer asking about how to find your own boundaries with vulgarity/profanity and writing for teens: come to Fourth Street! We get into all kinds of questions like this. Perkele.)

At our reading, Alec and I read one jointly written story in alternating sections, and then with time constraints we chose to have me read one of my solo stories. That seemed to go pretty well. We were followed in the same room by Pamela Dean, Naomi Kritzer, and Michael Merriam, so a) lots of good stuff read and b) the cookies I brought got eaten. Pamela’s astronomical werewolves were amazing, Naomi had me on the edge of my seat about whether the Berlin Wall would actually fall this time, and I’m all excited about Michael’s new thing. Yay readings. I like readings.

On the up side, I didn’t really feel crushed by walls of people at a Minicon that was twice as large as usual. I was a bit worried about that, so it was a relief that it didn’t actually happen. On the down side, it was very, very easy to simply never see a friend, or to lose them Saturday morning and never see them again. At most Minicons, there’ll be one or two people who fit that description. At this one at least a dozen. This is why I don’t like big conventions. At a convention of 50-150 people, if it’s a good con, you will of course have the problem of not having enough time for everything fun. This is a good problem to have. But at a convention of 1000 people, you not only don’t have enough time for everything fun, you don’t even have any idea what’s going on where at any given time. You don’t have the chance to prioritize, “Hmm, I said I wanted to catch up more with X at lunch on Saturday, but I haven’t even said a single word to Y, so I’ll go talk to Y and hope there’s still time after that before X goes to the airport.” Because where is X? Where is Y? I’m good at algebra. This is supposed to work out for me. So…I’m not going to refuse to go to conventions of this size, but this is why I am more than a bit ambivalent about them even when they go well.

Of Noble Family, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

This is the conclusion of a series, and a lot of its emotional weight as well as its worldbuilding rests on having read the previous volumes. To use Jo Walton’s spearbuilding metaphor, this is a very sharp point on a very long spear. It’s sharp enough that even without the long spear, the point will probably cut skin easily, but with it, this book will go right through you and also impale your next-door neighbor.

At the beginning of the book, Jane and Vincent are ready to return to England when they find that Vincent’s brother needs them to go to Antigua on urgent family business. Vincent’s relationship with his relations, as readers of the previous books will know, have been strained at best, but some crises are important enough to encourage cooperation–especially with Vincent’s closest and least-fraught brother. When he gets there, he finds that the problems are not only at the core of his family but also with the conditions of the estate, its managers, and the slaves who have lived upon it. Jane is plausibly–and appropriately for the particular period–a mild abolitionist: not a modern person in a period dress, but someone who is horrified by the institutions of slavery–and yet still has some assumptions to unlearn about race herself.

In the midst of all of this, Jane finds herself pregnant with a much-wanted child who complicates matters immensely: it is widely believed that working glamour (magic) can cause miscarriages. This is an interesting case of something we don’t see enough of in fantasy: a place where different characters believe that magic works different ways, so that the exposition of the protagonist’s beliefs are important without being a definitive statement of ultimate truth. The slaves with whom Jane interacts have completely different assumptions about magic and how it is and should be done, and her attempts to learn from them feel very frustratingly realistic–and so do her frustrations with her own limitations.

The entire structure of the book hands Jane and Vincent one hard choice after another, regarding magic, human rights, and family. It’s no shame, then, that the true climax of the book is not quite so fraught. Some of the plot twists struck me as a bit obvious, but this is not a book whose power relies upon shock value. Rather, it’s focused on the emotional core of two people who love each other very much (and who are better at loving each other than they were for the first book), and how they face difficulties together. If you have someone close to you who has been through abuse–if you are that person yourself–this book may be difficult in spots, but it is incredibly well done. You may want to choose a moment when you’re feeling strong and supported to read it, but I don’t think it’s one you’ll want to miss.

Please consider using our link to buy Of Noble Family from Amazon. (Or the previous books in the series: Shades of Milk and HoneyGlamour in GlassWithout a SummerValour and Vanity.)