#IWSG – Writing for Readers?

On the first Wednesday of every month, members of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (open to anyone and full of great resources and information for writers) post their answers to a monthly prompt on their blogs.

Authors benefit from getting an insightful prompt for generating more blog content, and IWSG links all respondents, which is a way for writers to discover each other. Pretty neat!

August 3 question – When you set out to write a story, do you try to be more original or do you try to give readers what they want?

I think this is a hard question for me to answer, because I’m not sure I make an intentional effort at either.

I’m not explicitly setting out to be “original” in the sense of creating something new, groundbreaking, innovative, unique for the genre. Neither do I first consider what is marketable or what readers’ preferences might be. I just… write what comes to me. Maybe that’s the intent of the first option?

If by “readers” the question would include “editors” then the answer is most certainly yes, especially so in later drafts. When just setting out to write a story though, the answer is mixed. Sometimes, I am writing to a specific prompt or theme that has been provided; in fact, all of my market-published short stories have been for themed issues or anthologies. Is that “giving readers what they want”?

Perhaps I’m overthinking the question. Zooming out.

I write for the sake of creativity, exploring themes, worlds, and characters that interest me, and to express ideas that I find hard to get across in any other medium. If readers happen to like it and maybe even buy something to help me recover costs, hey that’s great; but I don’t think of my writing life as a business, nor my writing output as a product. In that sense, I choose “original”.

Reading Like a Writer – My (First-Cut) ‘MFA’ Book List

I’ve been reading Gabriela Pereira’s book and website entitled The DIY MFA. Her advice to writers looking to homeroll their own MFA-like experience is divided into three parts: Write With Focus, Read With Purpose, and Build Your Community.

The section that has been most helpful to me so far as been the second. Pereira recommended approach is summarized in her blog post called “Essential Reading List: Must-Read Books for Your Writing Library“, in which she describes four categories of books that can inform a writer’s work: Competitors, Contextuals, Contemporaries, and Classics.

I went through her recommended exercise as described in her book, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it actually did help me structure my to-read list, and lead me to discover many books I hadn’t read but probably should.

If I could think of a book I already knew of that fit a category, I put it in, whether I had read it yet or not, and whether it was already in another category or not. Otherwise, I spent some time researching what might fit. My first cut is shared here, with have-read books in strike-through. Edit: I’ve also decided to update this list over time. Maybe someday it will deserve a page.

There’s some clear patterns in the whole. Firstly, I should probably be reading everything Kim Stanley Robinson, Ursula K. LeGuin, N.K. Jemison, and Alastair Reynolds ever wrote, with perhaps Anne Leckie and Iain M. Banks as high-value points in the mix as well. Secondly, a few books — like Jemison’s The Fifth Season and Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire appear on multiple lists, and probably should be bumped way up on my priority list.

Time to get to work!

Competitive Titles

Books/stories that “compete” directly with the stories you are actively trying to write. Same genre and category as your work(s) in progress and cover similar themes or subject matter.

This category was difficult, since I have many varied projects in progress and the list could grow rapidly out of control. I focused on science fiction, and particularly on my novel-in-progress, Rassam’s Eye as the anchor point.

Short Fiction Magazines:

  • Asimov’s Science Fiction
  • Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

Ecological SFF:

  • Forty Signs of Rain, Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Three Californias, Kim Stanley Robinson
  • A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Dune, Frank Hebert
  • Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer
  • The Crystal World, J.G. Ballard

Sociological / Political / Spiritual :

  • The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemison
  • The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler
  • Hyperion, Dan Simmons
  • Dune, Frank Hebert
  • Revelation Space, Alastair Reynolds
  • The Unbroken, C.L. Clark
  • The Word for World is Forest, Ursula K. LeGuin

Contemporary Space Opera with overlapping themes of political intrigue, ethnic identity, colonization

  • A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine
  • Ancillary Justice, Anne Leckie
  • The Quiet War, Paul McAuley
  • Blue Remembered Earth, Alastair Reynolds
  • Surface Detail, Iain M. Banks

Contextual Titles

All the books that put your current project(s) into context. This includes references and research materials. These contextual books might have a similar theme or subject matter as your own but fall in a different genre, or target a different group of readers. You might also read contextual books that use a particular storytelling technique, even though in terms of subject it is completely different from your own book.

  • The Dispossessed, Ursula K. LeGuin
  • The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen
  • The Nakesake, Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
  • The Road, Cormac McCarthy
  • Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
  • Barkskins, Annie Proulx
  • Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
  • Blue Skinned Gods, S.J. Sindu
  • Zenogenesis, Octavia E. Butler
  • Green Grass, Running Water, Thomas King
  • Gods of Jade and Shadow, Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  • The Unbroken, C.L. Clark
  • The Overstory, Richard Powers
  • The Devourers, Indrapramit Das

Contemporary Titles

Read a few recently published (within the last three years) books in your chosen genre each year. Be aware of new trends in the genre, the broader conversation around these works, and how they are marketed to the current audience of genre readers.

Note: I was most surprised by this category, specifically in how out-of-touch I’ve become with the genre. Of the Hugo and Nebula finalists for best novel in the last three years that looked interesting, I’ve read exactly none of them. Damn.

  • A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine
  • A Master of Djinn, Djeli Clark
  • Network Effect, Martha Wells
  • Gods of Jade and Shadow, Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  • Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir
  • The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemison
  • The City We Became, N.K. Jemison
  • The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal
  • Project Hail Mary, Andy Weir
  • The Unbroken, C.L. Clark
  • Black Sun, Rebecca Roanhorse
  • The Poppy War, R.F. Kuang

Classics

Genre dependent, but you need to know what the founding assumptions and touchstones are of the genre(s) you’ve chosen to write in. You can’t (effectively) break what you don’t know, and you can’t reach readers who speak a language you don’t understand. You need to be able to get into the headspace of a genre to affect it.

I assembled this list using a rough merger/overlap of a few online lists (NPR Books, Goodreads, etc) of the best Science-Fiction novels of all time. I have not yet done the same with Fantasy. I seem to have done fairly well here so far, but some work left to do!

  • 1984, George Orwell
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke
  • Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller
  • Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke
  • The Dispossessed, Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K Dick
  • Dune, Frank Hebert
  • Farenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
  • The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
  • Foundation, Isaac Asimov
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
  • I, Robot, Isaac Asimov
  • The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. LeGuin
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein
  • Neuromancer, William Gibson
  • Ringworld, Larry Niven
  • Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
  • Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein

#IWSG – Book Worlds

On the first Wednesday of every month, members of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (open to anyone and full of great resources and information for writers) post their answers to a monthly prompt on their blogs.

Authors benefit from getting an insightful prompt for generating more blog content, and IWSG links all respondents, which is a way for writers to discover each other. Pretty neat!

July 6 question – If you could live in any book world, which one would you choose?

Oooo great question.

The easy answer that comes to mind would be the Culture, a post-scarcity civilization in the universe of Iain M. Banks’s science fiction series by the same name. The idea that humans finally figure out how to make technology work for us and not against us (or to exploit each other for profit), to create a society in which most to all preventable suffering is eliminated, is highly appealing.

Of course, who wouldn’t want to live in such a setting?

I think the more interesting answer for me might be Earthsea, the setting for Ursula K. LeGuin’s YA fantasy series featuring the wizard Ged. I love the diversity of its terrain, people, and societies, and all the more so because it is nautical in flavor. There’s something about ships and sailing that automatically sets of associations of high adventure and intriguing quests on mysterious islands!

I don’t think I’d choose any of the worlds my own stories set in! That probably says something… The exception might be the planet Iskaria from my novel-in-progress, Rassam’s Eye. I think I’d also enjoy a subset of the world that will form the setting for a trio of novellas I have planned…

Education and Intelligence

One of my favorite podcasts, Hidden Brain, recently released an episode called “Why You’re Smarter Than You Think” which stirred some powerful feelings for me. The interview is with Scott Barry Kaufman, someone who was labeled “backward” as a child and sent through special education programs, but later became a widely respected psychologist on intelligence, working with some of the most prestigious universities in the world.

The episode is a rational and emotional look into how we choose to measure and label “intelligence”, and more particularly how these labels then go on to affect students’ lives from the time they are very young, often becoming self-fulfilling.

The extended problem is then, those who happened to have the qualities to succeed through these artificial filters generally go on to be successful in a society built around them, and naturally harbor the belief that the system must be fair because it worked well for them. And since they generally have the power in the society they were successful in, they both directly and indirectly contribute to reinforcing the system for another generation.

I saw some of these effects first-hand when I taught in an urban public high school in Boston, full time for five years. I don’t think I’ve ever yet been able to fully process and explain the personal transformation and revolution in my worldview that these experiences affected in me. I hope to be able to over time through my writing, but that might be awhile.

In the meanwhile, the tip of the iceberg likely lies embedded in two short stories I wrote during that time period: Remembering Turinam (and my accompanying essay on linguistic colonization) and The Parched Lands. I suppose that’s a start.

Refugees, Language, and the Meaning of ‘America’

I recently had the wonderful opportunity to hear Pulitzer Prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen speak at the College of William and Mary for the 2022 McSwain-Walker Lecture. His talk was entitled “Refugees, Language, and the Meaning of ‘America’“. Nguyen wrote the novel The Sympathizer, and was also a guest on my favorite podcast, Throughline, in the episode entitled All Wars Are Fought Twice (worth a listen… or maybe two!).

I took away so many insights from Dr. Nguyen’s talk, in which he – a Vietnamese American – referred to being “split in two” by the duality of how the Vietnam War is remembered by Vietnamese and by Americans, and finding himself in neither narrative. Both vantage points, he remarked, “want to believe only in their own humanity.”

The persistent anchoring in our own constructed memories and shared narratives about nation, identity, and what constitutes ‘us’ and ‘them’, and then the conflict which occurs when these constructs collide against the views of others, are persistent motifs in Nguyen’s fiction and lectures.

The feeling of being caught between two worlds but part of neither, and yet craving earnestly to be “wholly inside” in Nguyen’s terms, is a primary inner conflict for one of the main characters in my novel in progress, tentatively entitled Rassam’s Eye. Nimasha Vaas grew up on a highly technologically advanced planet in the neurally-augmented Dharumi Hegemony. She returns to the remote backwater planet on which she was born, Iskaria, while the build up to an interstellar war threatens to close in around her.

It was an inspiration and an honor to have the opportunity to listen to and meet Dr. Nguyen. I have not yet read his book; but now that I have a signed copy, I might have to bump it higher on my list! I will say, the Throughline episode I linked above is a great one, and one I’ve listened to at least twice. I’d strongly recommend it as an access point to Nguyen’s perspective and ideas.

#IWSG: Highs and Lows

On the first Wednesday of every month, members of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (open to anyone and full of great resources and information for writers) post their answers to a monthly prompt on their blogs.

Authors benefit from getting an insightful prompt for generating more blog content, and IWSG links all respondents, which is a way for writers to discover

May 4 question – It’s the best of times; it’s the worst of times. What are your writer highs (the good times)? And what are your writer lows (the crappy times)?

I do enjoy the act of writing itself, but I’d say the highest of the high times (in the context of writing) for me is actually the community aspects of the work. I love shopping early drafts and brainstorming ideas with the Word Still Writers Circle, talking about what beta readers got from an early preview, chatting about some aspect of craft with a writing class, workshop, or convention, and taking a deep dive into the themes and issues that I enjoy writing about with family, friends, and readers.

The worst of the worst? Feeling too bogged down, uncreative, stressed, or otherwise unmotivated to go on, especially when there is a commitment (even a self-imposed one) on the line. Those days when I just stare at a blank screen and a blinking cursor. Or when I find myself starting over on draft after draft because it doesn’t feel right, but I’ve already told friends and fans I’m working on something. It’s really about the feeling of letting people down, including myself.

Fortunately, the highs can directly combat the lows! I’m grateful to have a fun and creative writers critique circle, and a highly supportive friend and fan base.

Short Stories!

All three of my published short stories are now available to read directly on this site, without needing to download from an e-bookstore.

In order of publication, they are:

  • Remembering Turinam – (2013, fantasy, originally published in We See a Different Frontier)
  • The Parched Lands – (2014, science fiction, originally published in Issue 7 of Crossed Genres Magazine)
  • Anpo (The Dawn) – (2021, science fiction, self-published)

If you prefer to read these via an ereader, these stories have been (and still are) available for free download as mobi (Kindle) and epub (everyone else) files on Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, Apple Bookstore, Kobo, and, sigh, yes even Amazon.

Thanks to someone I met at MarsCon for the suggestion! This person was interested in my ideas, took my card after watching me on a panel, followed the QR code on it to my site… and then wondered why she couldn’t read some of my fiction immediately without having to do a transaction (even a free one) at a separate bookseller.

Seems obvious in retrospect, but I’m glad I could fix this now! All of my published stories, including my novel, will continue to be linked from the Stories page.

#IWSG: Audiobooks

On the first Wednesday of every month, members of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (open to anyone and full of great resources and information for writers) post their answers to a monthly prompt on their blogs.

Authors benefit from getting an insightful prompt for generating more blog content, and IWSG links all respondents, which is a way for writers to discover

April 6 question Have any of your books been made into audio books? If so, what is the main challenge in producing an audiobook?

The short answer is: no.

But if I left it there, that would be a very boring blog post! A better answer might be: I’d like to do that.

Anecdotally, I gather that a significant swath of millennials and younger consume audiobooks, many as their primary (or even only) mode of accessing books. The ability to multitask while driving, getting housework done, or doing anything else seems to make audiobooks ideal for a generation that is constantly on the go. And as people get busier and true downtime to read seems to get ever scarcer, I would guess that audiobooks would continue to see growth as a Thing.

What research I can find seems to support that intuitive conclusion. And further, the fact that I all my previous work is published via Smashwords means that I definitely could do it on my own if I wanted to. So… why not?

The main challenge in producing an audiobook is that either: (a) I would have to pay a professional to do it — and even if I wanted to spend that money, I doubt that would ever be a net positive return on investment at least for my currently published work; or (b) I’d have to do it myself, which means a lot of time that I don’t have. Otherwise, I probably would have done it by now!

Still… maybe either approach wouldn’t be so bad for a short story. Perhaps I should pick one and try it out… Anyone have a vote as to which one?

The Story of Us

I recently listened to a great (really, they’re all great) episode of my favorite podcast, Throughline, called “A Story of Us?“. The conversation and interview with Tamim Ansary, author of The Invention of Yesterday, ranges across a variety of interesting topics, but the general takeaway is summarized in the episode description:

With a world seemingly more connected than ever and still volatile with a constant sense of fracturing identities, Tamim contends that our shared history is a story we must invent. And the future of our species depends on our ability to develop a story we can all see ourselves in.

I actually listened to the interview twice, re-parsing every phrase. I think it resonated with me so deeply because many of the topics Ansary touched on (and the philosophy with which he does so) mirror, to a great degree, what I love about history and what I try to put into worldbuilding. It also speaks directly to the heart of the fierce cultural and political divides that the country (and really, the world at large) are experiencing right now.

The idea of humanity trying to tell a unified story about itself is a central theme of my short story Anpo: The Dawn, which I published earlier this year with an original cover by Patricia Revolinksy. The story started with me asking myself the question, “Could humanity ever unify around anything besides an external threat?”. I don’t think I ever actually answered that question, but the story did come out as an exploration of that struggle at the individual and societal level.

I highly recommend a listen to this Throughline episode! (And, I suppose, my story as well… if you find parallels, please feel free to comment on this post or reach out.) I’ll probably also be trying to track down Ansary’s book to add to my nonfiction to-read list…

MarsCon 2022!

Cons are back! After two years of cancelled nerd conventions during the pandemic, it feels great to be looking forward to MarsCon this weekend up in Williamsburg. I’ve only been to this con once before, but I’m looking forward to getting more directly involved now that RavenCon has moved back up to Richmond, which is a little farther away.

I’ll be on a few panels for the first time in a long time:

  • Bring on the Bad Guys! – Friday 5pm, Room L
  • Short Stories – Saturday 1pm, Room 6
  • Making That Battle Real – Saturday 4:30p, Room L
  • Mythology, the Original Fantasy – Sunday noon, Room L
  • “Thou Shalt Fall Before My Mighty Sword!” (dialogue) – Sunday 1:30p, Room A

I’m also looking forward to sitting in on a few writing panels as an audience member and checking out the dealer’s room for delicious cheap used books and perhaps some new D&D accessories…

Hope to see new friends and old there this weekend.