First of the year

I have a story out in the Jan/Feb issue of Analog, my first short story of the year. It’s called “Drifting Like Leaves, Falling Like Acorns,” and it’s got companion frogs and genetically engineered flying squirrel people and much weirder stuff than I’ve had in Analog before.

Also it goes with “Uncle Flower’s Homecoming Waltz” and “The Ministry of Changes” and “Surfacing” and “The Dust Gate” and “The Salt Path,” all of those. The folder with those stories in it is called “postnuclear fantasy,” but that’s not really specific enough that other people will know which ones I mean. Anyone who has read them and has suggestions for a series title, setting title, group title, whatever, please comment or email me. I’d appreciate any help I could get on that front.

Well, that was a year for sure.

I have seen years before, and this was one.  Yep.

I wrote seventeen stories this year. No complete novels but serious revisions on an earlier novel and serious progress toward the next one. My new agent (Kurestin Armada) and I found each other in January, and I have learned a lot about doing revisions from working with her–it’s shaping the new things I write, making them better pre-revision.

I’ve already sold nine of the seventeen stories; one of the unsold ones I just finished writing two days ago. I sold a total of thirteen stories this year, so one thing that I don’t notice when I’m in the middle of it is that my work is selling faster than it used to. Nor is this because editors are universally faster than they used to be, because several major publications have been quite slow this year. In any case, last year at the end of the year I had nothing in the “coming soon!” category, and this year is quite the opposite. Much of what I sold has not yet seen the light of day, which means there’s a great deal to look forward to in 2017.

I did two writing retreats, which were really great for me, both enjoyable and productive. That’s something new this year that I hope to continue whenever possible. I also did the big trip to Finland and Sweden, and the effects of that are still making themselves felt in the stories I’m writing–and not always in the ways I would have predicted, which is perfect, which is just what travel is supposed to do. I expected to get a lot of science fiction out of the trip, and I got a bit, but even more has been fantasy. Brains! Can’t beat ’em, might as well join ’em.

Here’s what did come out, in case you missed it:

The Dust Gate, The Sockdolager!, Fall 2016.

The Most Important Thing, Nature Futures, 20 October 2016.

Upside the Head, Science Fiction By Scientists, December 2016.

How Far Are We From Minneapolis? (essay), Reckoning Issue 1, winter Solstice 2016.

Early Christmas present: The Elf Who Thought He Was Teddy Roosevelt

Some years I take a notion, and this is one of them.

I like the idea of giving fiction as a present, but I’m not embedded enough in the fanfiction community–or, let us be honest, committed or organized enough–to commit to doing Yuletide. Instead, some years I decide it’s time to give a story away for free for Christmas, to whoever wants to read it. Please don’t copy the text, but spread the link far and wide if you want to. This year Mikulas left Teddy Roosevelt in your shoe. Or rather–

The Elf WHo Thought He Was Teddy Roosevelt

Intermittent

Today I sold my third short story this week. I also had a revision request from an editor I work well with and have done revisions with in the past; while a sale is never guaranteed in those circumstances, it’s certainly better than a rejection. Two of the stories I’ve sold, I wrote this summer; the third I co-wrote with Alec Austin in early 2013. I mentioned this on social media, and my kind friends are congratulating me. That’s really nice of them, and I do feel proud of the work I’m doing.

Here’s the thing: before this month, the last time I sold a story was April. And before that January. One of the most important things that would-be writers should know is that this business is completely sporadic–but even people who know that can I think have difficulty with the phenomenon of comparing other people’s highlight reels to their own uncut footage. This week I am the superstar who sold three stories in a week. Last week I was in a drought lasting a third of a year. Same writer, same writing.

So you hear wry quotes about how intermittent reinforcement drives lab rats crazy. I have a solution to that. Do not let sales be your main positive reinforcement. Don’t get me wrong–selling stories is great. If I didn’t want to sell stories, I would write them and throw them in a drawer; it’s not like attaching files to emails and web forms and keeping track of who has seen what is deeply entertaining. But if I was relying on sales to be the reason I love this work, I would be miserable.

The work is the work. The work is its own reward. And if you’re finding that the creative work you’re doing is not its own reward–whether you’re a person who likes to write or likes to have written–then it may be time to assess what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. You cannot sell something every day, or even every week–even the most prolific writer just does not have that consistency of response. (Or probably that many markets, unless they’re writing a huge variety as well as a huge amount of fiction.) The editor who is going to love this particular piece might be on vacation this week. They might have a family emergency. They might, God forbid, have left the magazine. Or there might not even be an editor working yet who will like this particular piece–you might have to keep sending it around and being patient.

Look: a friend with a geology degree posted to Facebook a meme claiming that a career in geology sounds so much cooler if you talk about it like a six-year-old. It’s true. But: there is approximately no way to talk about my work and sound any older than that. “I make up stories about magic and the future and different worlds.” How cool is that.

So yes, we get happy about sales. We celebrate the sales. But it’s far easier to avoid getting anxious and wrung out if the main enjoyment is in making the thing you wanted to make. People are saying things to me like, “You’re on a roll!” And in fact I am. But not just for the reasons they’re thinking. I’m on a roll doing the things that will make another week like this next month or next year. Doing the things that will sit for weeks, months, without any thought of being published. It’s a good writing time for me. It’s really nice that it’s a good sale time, too. But if I attached too much to that, it would interfere with the good writing time. And we can’t have that.

All the news that’s fit to pixelate

A lot of work stuff going on here. Some of it is in the category of “secret projects, cannot discuss.” Some of it has just departed from that category! So! I will tell you now!

1) I have signed the final paperwork and can now say that I am very pleased to have my long-form work represented by Kurestin Armada of PS Literary. If you have a fabulous book deal you have been waiting to fling at me and were not sure where to fling that offer, the answer is: Kurestin Armada, PS Literary. More seriously, I am looking forward to working with Kurestin. It really feels like the right fit for both of us.

(Kids, don’t ever let anyone make you feel like this goes only one direction. You and your agent are choosing each other, not just them choosing you.)

2) I sold “Drifting Like Leaves, Falling Like Acorns” to Analog. This is a story in the same mosaic as several previous stories, and it is the weirdest thing I have ever sold to Analog. Trevor seems to agree, calling it an “odd duck”–yep–quack!–but when they say “odd duck” in an acceptance letter, you say “thank you!” See, we can all do our part in keeping science fiction weird.

3) Strange Horizons did a reader poll for 2015, and my story It Brought Us All Together came in fourth. I’m not sure why I included the link there, since apparently enough of you liked it to vote it fourth out of all the year’s stories! Thanks, readers! Mycogeneticist origin stories are more popular than I ever knew, which is great, because I’m writing another, completely different one. And then the two mycogeneticists can get together and fight crime…er, actually just fungal plagues…but I get ahead of myself.

I do that a lot.

I want a 4) and a 5) in honor of the late great Rise/wilfulcait (for those of you who are late to this party, she was the source of “five things make a post,” breast cancer stole my friend away years and years ago now, and I still think of her whenever I do a post like that), but I don’t think I have two more bits of thematic news. Ah well. She would understand.

Interview with Lawrence Schoen

Today I’ve got an interview with Lawrence Schoen, author of Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard (not to mention tons of short stories over the years). If you missed my review post, it’s over here.

Interview with Lawrence M. Schoen

Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard features dozens of anthropomorphic species. Was there any species you wanted to fit in but just couldn’t?

The original draft of the novel had the protagonist visiting several worlds of the Alliance, and along the way he met representatives from a number of additional races. Some of these were lost (not from the galaxy, just from the portion we see of it) when the action was scaled back to take place just on one planet and a space station.

It’s strongly implied that all of the races in the Alliance are mammalian, and while it’s impossible to “prove a negative,” I can tell you that the reason we haven’t seen any primates is because there aren’t any, which is a point I hope to come back to in a future book.

In my notes, I have references to Cats and Foxes and Sheep and at least a dozen more. Some will surely show up in future stories. I am sorry that I couldn’t work in a Tapir. That would have been fun. [Me: and popular in my house!]

Have you always been interested in elephants? If not, what sparked the central race of this book?

I’ve always liked elephants. They’re unlike any other land animal, so much so that the two species that we have get lumped together because while they differ from one another in some pretty significant ways, they’re still more similar than either is to anything else.

And the more you discover about them, the more fascinating they become. When I learned that they had infrasonics I squealed with delight! And did you know that some historians believe the Greek myth of the cyclops, that one-eyed giant, has its basis in encountering an elephant skull? What’s not to like?

The social structure of the female Fants didn’t get much time in Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard. Any plans to return to them?

That social structure is hinted at, both in the mainstream when Jorl visits his sister (and communal home made up of mothers, aunts, sisters, female cousins, and children of both sexes) and in terms of outliers when we glimpse how Tolta lives, but yes, we’ve seen little thus far. That’s an unfortunate function of running with a male protagonist in society where the men and women have rather limited access to the lives and lifestyles of the other side.

That said, there are proposals for two sequels sitting on my editor’s desk. If I get to write them, I have plans to show much more of Barsk culture from its women’s perspective. And too, we’ll see some more glimpses of other races and their societies, both overall and from the differing perspectives of the male and female characters inhabiting them.

There’s so much to write. I worry that I’ll have time and opportunity to tell it all.

The linguistics were buried pretty deep here, and I know that’s where your training is.  Is that where you started? or could you just not resist figuring out the linguistic aspects of this universe?

One of the things that pisses me off in a lot of science fiction where we’re encountering non-humans is the way that language is handled, or rather not handled. If we’re able to understand the aliens (or in the case of Barsk, the raised mammals that make up the many different races of the Alliance), then there damn well better be an explanation, and if you hold up a universal translator, attempt to shove a babel fish in my ear, or try to sell me some other bit of hand-wavium, I’m going to be very, very unhappy.

It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the Fant are raised mammals who are descended from elephants (both African and Asian) on Earth tens of thousands of years in the past. And yet, it’s pretty clear they’re speaking English. Not just English, but English with slang and colloquialisms. (I had to fight with my editor to keep the word “ginormous” in the book).

Any solution that I came up with not only had to make sense — not just in terms of the plot, but also linguistically — but it had to serve the story, and not simply my need as the author. Or more simply, it had to make sense in the context of everything else we learn as the book unfolds. I think I managed all of that pretty well, and I’m looking forward to the response from the more language savvy members of my readership.

And one other fun bit, that I did because I’m me and I could, as part of the world building I invented a writing system for the Fant. To my delight, my publisher even used some of it in the book.

While we’ve seen something of a renaissance in space opera in the last decade or so, it’s been awhile since I’ve read a book that dared to go *this* far into the future. What were some of the challenges of ultra-far-future SF compared to something closer to our own backyards?

Unlike a lot of SF writers, I don’t tend to worry too much about the “hard science” details. In part this is because my doctorate is in cognitive psychology, not physics or chemistry or biology, but it’s also because my protagonist doesn’t have training in those fields either. As such, he’s not going to be distracted by how a spacecraft gets him from place to place, no more than you or I need to know the workings of an internal combustion engine in order to drive a car to the grocery store.

That freed me up a lot. We see things that imply a level of technology that’s superior to our own — a galaxy-spanning Alliance, interstellar ships, space stations — but they’re all taken for granted, yesterday’s news. The story here isn’t about how different or similar their science and engineering is to our own, rather all the technology is there mainly as props and cues that this is a science fiction story. Hard SF fans will probably be disappointed that, except for one section where I have a scientist (Jorl’s dead friend, Arlo) actually explain some theory and application of science that’s beyond what we have today, all the other trappings work in the background like magic. You know, kind of like the way most of us go through life today.

The drug koph allows the Fant (and other races) to talk to the dead. Of our recent dead, who do you think would get most tired of being called up this way?

There are probably a handful of celebrities who would be hounded (no pun intended) in death much like they were in life. Marilyn Monroe immediately comes to mind. And then there are the mysteries that are a part of popular culture that have never been solved like where is Jimmy Hoffa buried, and who really kidnapped the Lindbergh baby? And then of course there’d be the ironic uses, like chatting with Erik Weisz.

Personally, I’d be embarrassed by most of these applications, and I’m hoping my raised mammals do a better job at it than I suspect we primates would. I can think of scientists and authors I’d like to chat with, and perhaps arrange for Speakers to serve as conduits to get Einstein’s thoughts on the current state of physics or a new novel from Octavia Butler or Jay Lake. There would probably be reams of commentary about the complications of intellectual property in such situations, but I’m not going to be the one to write them.

Lawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics. He’s also one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Klingon language, and the publisher of a speculative fiction small press, Paper Golem. He’s been a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award, the Hugo Award, and the Nebula Award. Lawrence lives near Philadelphia. You can find him online at LawrenceMSchoen.com and @KlingonGuy.