Re: “The Eternally Obscure Writers”

Context: Yesterday, the 2016 World Fantasy Convention posted a list of programs for the meeting in Columbus, Ohio, this October. (Full list here.) Program #25 on the list is a panel about “The Eternally Obscure Writers”. Three examples were given: David Lindsay, William Hope Hodgson, and Clark Ashton Smith. The panel description closes with this question: “What is the place for difficult prose styles or ideas which can only reach the few and never the many?”

I don’t know the writing of Clark Ashton Smith, but the closing question contains an apt description of Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus and Hodgson’s The Night Land. Both books are extremely self-indulgent, and don’t make things easy on their readers. They also have rewards and charms for those who want to struggle through.

However, the difficulty of the text is just one factor in what makes a book or writer “obscure”. Moby-Dick and Ulysses are notoriously difficult, after all. And many not-difficult-at-all books with easily grasped rewards and charms have nevertheless struggled to find an audience.

With that in mind, I hope the programmers of the World Fantasy Convention will consider these alternate suggestions for “eternally obscure writers” (or books, as the case may be).

NOTE: Considering that the three suggested eternally obscure writers already proposed are all Anglophone white men (a Scot, an Englishman, and an American), I decided to limit my list to people who are not Anglophone white men. Moreover, since the panel seems focused on older works, I haven’t included any remotely recent writers.

Francis Stevens
Francis Stevens was the pen-name of Gertrude Barrows Bennett, who wrote tales of extraordinary weirdness during the first three decades of the twentieth century for early pulps like Argosy, All-Story Weekly, and at least once for Weird Tales. Her short fiction leans heavily on adventure, and is somewhat in the vein of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter or Caspak series. (In other words: imagination and excitement are the primary concerns, not tight plotting or deep characterization.) Her short fiction was recently collected by University of Nebraska Press Bison Books in Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy.

E. Nesbit
Perhaps best known as the writer of childrens’ books, Edith Nesbit also dabbled in adult fiction. She produced most of her output from 1890 – 1910, a time when the ghost story was very much in vogue. Like many writers at the time, Nesbit did not shy away from dragging the ghost story into the modern world. (One of her more memorable tales includes a phantom automobile.) But perhaps the most characteristic thing about Nesbit is her consistent vindictive streak, never shying away from unleashing the most terrible horrors she can think of on her characters. I read Wordsworth Editions’s The Power of Darkness, which collects several of Nesbit’s ghost story collections.

May Sinclair
If Nesbit is nasty, then May Sinclair is compassionate in her tales of the supernatural. Best remembered today as the critic who coined the term “stream of consciousness”,  Sinclair composed novels out of vignettes of highly detailed vignettes of everyday life. But she also wrote a couple volumes of supernatural tales. In Sinclair’s stories, the weird world is somewhat understated, woven tightly into the fabric of the real world. Neither is she simply out to spook and scare: Sinclair uses the supernatural to explore human relationships and the tricky balances of love. Wordsworth Editions has reprinted her 1923 collection with an additional story in Uncanny Stories.

Isak Dinesen
Isak Dinesen was the pen-name of Danish writer Karen Blixen. Best known today for Out of Africa, her memoir of seventeen years spent in British East Africa (now Kenya), Dinesen first found success by publishing what she called Gothic tales. Her stories are intentionally old-fashioned, written in the meandering and dream-like style of fairy tales, with many digressions and very little regard for modern structure. Her characters sometimes seem to follow their own internal logic and her stories are often set in indeterminate (or liminal) places and time periods. All of this infuses even her straightforward tales with an air of weirdness, but the supernatural does appear from time to time. However, the main attraction in Dinesen is her unique (and not always inviting) writing style and sharp insights into human behavior. Vintage International’s reprint of Winter’s Tales (originally published in 1942) is a great place to start.

Mary Shelley
It’s impossible to argue that Shelley’s masterpiece Frankenstein is anything resembling obscure, but some of her other works certainly seem to fall precisely into the sweet spot of this panel description. Take The Last Man, for instance, which is a book that equals Lindsay and Hodgson in its self-indulgence. First published in 1826, after the deaths of both Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, it tells the story of a plague that whittles humanity down to a handful of survivors, as well as the ultimate end of those last remnants. Critics have long cited parallels in the book to Shelley’s own life, many of which certainly seem intentional. In addition, the book indulges in repeated untranslated quotations from a variety of languages, and buries its science-fiction adventure story under a standard romance story for about half the length of the book. However, that only makes it all the bolder when the book delivers on its premise. It is perhaps not as compellingly weird today as The Night Land… but on the other hand, it was written a hundred years earlier.

Edogawa Rampo
I admit I have not been stressing very much over whether any of the writers listed here truly fit the definition of “obscure”. After all, obscure to whom? Edogawa Rampo (pen-name of Tarō Hirai), for instance, is certainly far better known in Japan than he is in the United States. One of the earliest writers of western-style mystery stories in Japan, Rampo started out by sending his stories (successfully) to Japanese pulps that had originally published reprints of western stories. Along the way, he helped create the modern mystery genre in Japan. Though his tales of sensational crimes are not usually strictly impossible, they are certainly far beyond the normal range of human experience and would fit most definitions of “weird”. There are a few translations of his work at various publishers. I enjoyed Japenese Tales of Mystery and Imagination from Tuttle Press, which collects several of his stories from the 1920s.

I would not ordinarily classify Colette as a writer of weird fiction. Like May Sinclair, her stories are usually firmly rooted in everyday life and reality. But I also firmly believe that the genres of “speculative fiction” or “weird fiction” should not limit themselves to stories that fit neatly in the realm of fantasy or science-fiction. I believe there is a lot of pleasure to be gotten from exploiting the shady borderland between reality and unreality, and Colette does it masterfully in her longish short story “The Rainy Moon”. First published in 1940, the story develops slowly as it first details the working relationship between a writer and her typist. There are odd coincidences (too laborious to enumerate here) in the set-up of the story that help lend an immediate air of the surreal. Over time, one of the characters is revealed as a witch, leaving Colette’s narrator with the problem of accepting or rejecting this revelation (and the power it may have over her). On the rare occasions when weirdness intrudes into my own life, this is very much how it happens: slowly, subtly, and with no obvious fanfare. The story is available in various collections; I read it in Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux’s huge omnibus Collected Stories of Colette. (NOTE: Very little else in the volume can be called “weird fiction”, but it is all very good.)

Charles W. Chesnutt
Born a few years before the start of the Civil War, Charles Chesnutt was an African-American who could have legally passed as “white” throughout most of his life. (The first of the so-called “one drop laws” was not passed until 1924.) However, Chesnutt always chose to identify as black, and became one of the best-known African-American writers of his day, being published repeatedly by Atlantic Monthly. Among his earliest stories were his “conjure stories”, which drew on African-American folklore for their inspiration. The formula of the stories is standard: a white northerner who has settled in the south talks over a problem with a former slave, who tells an allegorical story (almost always involving magical tricks of some sort) which points out the solution. But Chesnutt’s stories are more complex than they first appear. These stories are not just a method of solving the white man’s problem. Equally, they are a method for the black former slave to steer the decision-making on the plantation in a way that is advantageous to him and his family: a method of indirectly communicating needs and ideals that overcomes the obvious power imbalance between the two. Collected in 1899, you can read The Conjure Woman and Other Tales (plus a few additional stories) for free at Project Gutenberg.

Warning: I have roughly arranged these listings from “most traditionally weird” to “least traditionally weird”, and we have now entered the portion of the list where I may be accused of stretching the definition too far. Boileau-Narcejac is the pen-name of two French writers, Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud, who collaborated together (after great individual success) on a string of novels in the 1950s. The second (English title: The Living and the Dead) was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock into Vertigo. The story in the novel is the same as the movie: a tale of love lost and found, haunted by the specter of apparent reincarnation. However, the novel takes place in France during the early days of World War II, and the news of the ever-closer creeping German army increases the air of menace around the story. For much of the book, the possibility of reincarnation is dangled as a very real one, and it seems for a long time that the book will never resolve its supernatural coincidences. In the end, it is not exactly fantasy. But the feeling of weirdness is real. Pushkin Vertigo has recently put out a new English edition, retitled Vertigo.

Patricia Highsmith
Along the same lines is Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, which is nothing short of a modern retelling of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. There may be no potions (just a highly improbable meeting on a train), but Highsmith does not mince words when it comes to equating the two characters in the center of the story: after all, each one ends up fulfilling the other’s darkest desires. The trouble arises when they realize that they cannot do so without irrevocably tainting the pleasure they take in the “good” halves of their lives. In addition to removing the need for outright fantasy, Highsmith also restructures the story so that it is no longer a mystery… but rather a fascinating horror/suspense story that does not look away for an instant from the morally queasy decisions the characters make. First published in 1950, I read the novel in an omnibus that includes Highsmith’s brilliant second novel the Price of Salt along with several short stories. Available here.


Some things I do

My wife, K. Sekelsky, recently put together a new portfolio site to help her find new clients for art commissions.

In an earlier version of the website, she had tried to keep her avenues open by not being specific about what kind of work she wants to do. (After all, she is not going to turn away most opportunities.) But in later iterations, she really focused in on a few areas that she wants potential clients to remember her for.

Her website is divided into sections for “HOMES & BUSINESSES”, “STADIUMS”, “BASEBALL”, and “OTHER”. On her about page, she says:

I’m currently specializing in illustrations of homes, businesses, stadiums, and other buildings for gifts or professional use. This includes both line art drawings suitable for letterhead or holiday cards, as well as larger full-color paintings that are perfect for displaying in homes, offices, etc. I also have experience with figure drawing for sports and science-fiction illustration.

Looking at her portfolio site has made me realize that my own website has a serious lack of focus. If you are a reader or editor trying to figure out if I write the kind of stories that you’d like to read (or buy!), then you are pretty much out of luck.

So I think I need to update my website. But for now, I’ll just leave this blog post here. If you want to know who I am as a writer, here’s my personal statement.

I am a writer of personal, small-scale stories about how characters are affected by the world they live in and the choices they have to make. In general, I believe that adventures happen where we live and work–not way over yonder in some distant land. And I believe that heroes are created through acts of courage and compassion–not through prophecies and artifacts.

A lot of my stories are historical fantasy, mostly set in North America. (See “The Herons of Mer de l’Ouest” or “A Guest of the Cockroach Club” for examples.) Many of my stories are also about the ways that humans interact with the ecosystems we inhabit and/or alter, including from both a historical and a futuristic context. (See “Desert of Trees” or “We Jump Down into the Dark”, forthcoming in Asimov’s Science Fiction in 2015.) And finally, I write a lot about characters dealing with the demands of religion and the ambiguities of faith. (See “The Black Veil” and “Dress Me in My Finest Suit and Lay Me in My Casket”.)

If you’re an editor looking for an original or reprint story on one of those topics (or something else that you think I might excel at), don’t hesitate to drop me a line.


Somebody else’s stories, May 2014 edition

It has been a long time since I’ve written here about stories I’ve been reading. Mostly it’s because I’ve been busy and have been reading a lot less than I did a couple years ago.

But we make time for the things that are important. And this is something I think is important. So here, at last, are a few of the best stories I’ve been making time for lately:

“Observations about Eggs from the Man Sitting Next to Me on a Flight from Chicago, Illinois to Cedar Rapids, Iowa” by Carmen Maria Machado, in Lightspeed Magazine. This is a trippy tale about the narrator’s (or possibly curator’s?) encounter with an overbearing seatmate on a commercial flight on a regional airline. The seatmate has seemingly an endless store of interesting (and spooky) information about eggs… But unfortunately it comes wrapped in a sense of entitlement.

I really think the subtle interpersonal tension of the seatmate’s intrusiveness elevates this above most list stories, as it makes the act of listing itself into a narrative force. There comes a point in the story where the reader both craves and dreads the next tidbit to fall from this guy’s unhinged lips.

“How to Get Back to the Forest” by Sofia Samatar, in Lightspeed Magazine. If you’d asked me two weeks ago how I would react to a story that opens with a scene of communal vomiting, I would have said, “Not favorably.” But the vomiting here has a point — and it’s handled skillfully enough that the desperation and disorientation of the characters comes through without too much ick-factor.

In short, one girl at a compulsory “camp” is urging the others to purge themselves of a bugging device that has been implanted somewhere deep inside them. The others (including the narrator) are not so sure that any such thing exists, and even if it does they may just want to ignore it anyway. Propulsive and unsettling, a lot of the conflict in the story comes from the tension between the competing desires most kids feel to conform on one hand and rebel on the other. But the decision is already made for these kids from the start, and the whole point of their “camp” is to tip them all in the direction of conformity…

“21 Steps to Enlightenment (Minus One)” by LaShawn M Wanak, in Strange Horizons. In twenty-one interconnected vignettes of varying length, the narrator explains her history with spiral staircases. In this world, fantastical spiral staircases are the literal embodiments of the potential for revelation, epiphany, growth… When one appears, you can choose to go up it, or you can choose to ignore it. But the catch is that you won’t know what the new perspective will teach you until you get to the top.

I love this imagery. It’s the kind of thing that seems obvious in retrospect, but really it takes a smart observer to come up with something so elegant and natural-feeling. And it takes a deft writer to keep it from feeling too “on the nose”. But Wanak keeps changing perspectives on the spiral staircases — offering points and counterpoints through the experiences of various characters — so they never become a magical cure-all. They’re just another tool that only works as well as the person wielding it.

“Coffin” by Mari Ness, in Daily Science Fiction. Short but engrossing. Ness relates the history of a familiar fairy tale artifact in an original way. But first she builds a real-feeling world around the artifact — so well realized that it’s not clear that this is a fairy tale take-off until well into the story. The effect is less folk tale and more magical realism. It’s a great effect.

“Love is a component of this story” by Liz Argall, in Daily Science Fiction. Another short one that weaves threads concerning gender, sexuality, and love into a complete whole. In her story notes, Argall says that this was the result of a dare to write a romance story. To me, it reads more like an anti-romance. Or, at least, a deconstructed romance in the way it attempts to separate the “components” of human attraction and compatibility into discrete boxes (e.g., gender without sex, sex without love…) but ultimately finds that the threads don’t stay separated long when a human element is introduced.

Full disclosure: I’ve been published by all of these zines, and I continue to submit to them. I’ve had many friendly interactions with Mari Ness and Liz Argall. I’ve also edited and published stories by both of them. (Ness in Sixteen Single Sentence Stories and Argall in This Is How You Die.)


The Australian correspondence

Apropos of nothing in particular today, I started thinking about Max Beerbohm’s story “A.V. Laider”, from his collection SEVEN MEN (1919). That story contains a reference to a phenomenon called “the Australian correspondence” that I have always found true and amusing.

Beerbohm is talking here about an editorial correspondence in a magazine — an exchange of letters among readers that has spanned several issues. He goes on:

“This correspondence had now reached its fourth and penultimate stage — its Australian stage. It is hard to see why these correspondences spring up; one only knows that they do spring up, suddenly, like street crowds. There comes, it would seem, a moment when the whole English-speaking race is unconsciously bursting to have its say about some one thing — the split infinitive, or the habits of migratory birds, or faith and reason, or what-not. Whatever weekly review happens at such a moment to contain a reference, however remote, to the theme in question reaps the storm. Gusts of letters come in from all corners of the British Isles. These are presently reinforced by Canada in full blast. A few weeks later the Anglo-Indians weigh in. In due course we have the help of our Australian cousins. By that time, however, we of the mother country have got our second wind, and so determined are we to make the most of it that at last even the editor suddenly loses patience and says, “This correspondence must now cease. — Ed.” and wonders why on earth he ever allowed anything so tedious and idiotic to begin.”

As I said, this was put in my mind today by nothing in particular. Or, at least, nothing more particular than the mere existence of social media and the Internet.

In fact, this is far from the first time I’ve thought of this passage. It comes to me regularly whenever I see my Twitter stream beginning to contract around a particular topic, filling up with responses and re-responses and so on.

I don’t have any gripe with this system, mind you. I think it’s great that almost anyone (at least among those with a reliable Internet connection) can participate in these exchanges. And I think it’s often useful when conversation constellates around a particular topic for a while, reinforcing ideas and challenging assumptions. And, of course, it’s wonderful that technology allows us to move through the stages more quickly and then to more easily archive the conversation for those who missed it the first time.

(Not everything is ideal about the way social media and the Internet are used, of course. But in general, tools that make communication easier and more accessible are going in the right direction in my opinion.)

And in the end, I think that’s really what I like about this quotation. Beerbohm’s tone is facetious and perhaps, toward the end of the paragraph, somewhat weary. But I also sometimes feel temporarily weary after some of these conversations have run their course. (That’s a loaded term — “run their course”. Run their course… for whom? For a disinterested observer, as I usually am.)

So when I feel that weariness, I say to myself: “We’ve reached the Australian stage.” And that reminds me that it’s not the Internet, it’s not social media, it’s not Twitter… It’s human beings, doing what they have done for as long as they’ve had access to public (or public-ish) forums. And now more people than ever have access to those forums. So of course we might start to feel a little weary sometimes… But that doesn’t mean that things are getting worse.

Perhaps you won’t take as much comfort as I do in the idea that the things which exasperate us today were exasperating our forebears a hundred years ago. (Or a thousand, or more!) But I believe we have made progress in that time. Sometimes slowly and tediously, sometimes violently and suddenly. And the expression of so many differing and disparate voices didn’t lead to the breakdown of society or the permanent cessation of progress a hundred years ago — so I have every hope that it won’t do so now either.


Why I applied to join RWA on Valentine’s Day

Today, I mailed off an application to join the Romance Writers of America. Anybody can join RWA as an “Active” member, so long as you are willing to assert that you are seriously pursuing a career as a romance writer. I wasn’t willing to go quite that far (yet), so I applied as an “Associate”. To do that, you only have to assert either that you are a writer who writes primarily in a different genre, or that you are a person who supports the mission of RWA.

So why did I apply to join RWA?

— I currently belong to SFWA, which I have mixed feelings about. But SFWA is not the only writers’ organization out there. I was recently reminded of this by this post by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. I figured it can’t be bad to see what a different writers’ organization is like. Maybe another organization is more professional, more effective, less exhausting, more welcoming… Like I said, I have mixed feelings about SFWA.

— Whenever I see statistics on this kind of thing, romance is always the best-selling genre by far. I would think that any writer interested in making money would want to keep that fact in the back of their minds. Meanwhile, an editor recently accepted one of my stories with a note that said (paraphrasing here): “If I ever get around to editing that SF romance anthology I want to do, this story would be lovely in it.” That comment made me think: HEY I GUESS I CAN WRITE ROMANCE STORIES. THE BEST-SELLING GENRE BY FAR.

— Looking back over my work, I find that I may have actually written enough romance-themed stories already to put together a small collection of SF romance. This is something I am now very interested in doing, but I do have to wait until some exclusivity periods expire first.

— It doesn’t hurt that I’m reading what is arguably a romance novel right now (NOW, VOYAGER by Olive Higgins Prouty) and am loving it. Also, the last book that I read before that I was blown away by was Daphne du Maurier’s REBECCA — which has an awful lot in common with romance novels. So this is not exactly a genre I dislike.

I spent a lot of time in my early twenties being snobbish about science-fiction and fantasy. I eventually got over that by coming in the backdoor, as it were. I was fascinated by the permeability of genre boundaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. How both “serious” and “popular” mainstream writers (people like May Sinclair, William Dean Howells, Henry James, Edith Wharton, E.M. Forster, Jack London, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Robert Louis Stevenson, Thornton Wilder, H.G. Wells, D.H. Lawrence, Arthur Conan Doyle…) alike dipped liberally into the vein of the fantastic.

That fascination has brought me this far–over 40 science-fiction and fantasy stories sold, and this year a story forthcoming in Jonathan Strahan’s best-of-2013 SF/F anthology. Not bad for a guy who wouldn’t even go down the science-fiction aisle at Half Price Books ten years ago. (For the record, I think that attitude of mine ten years ago was both ignorant and stupid.)

I could make a similar and much longer list of writers I respect who dipped even more liberally into what ought to be called romance. All the Victorians, of course — Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, Alexandre Dumas. Not to mention Fanny Burney, Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Elizabeth Inchbald, Choderlos de Laclos, and even (forgive me) Samuel Richardson. Then, later, Wharton and James and Doyle and Wells and Lawrence, but also Colette, Max Beerbohm, Willa Cather, John Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Hardy, and even Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. And Shakespeare…!

I won’t extend the list. I could go on effectively forever.

Of course, not every writer here looked on romantic relationships in the same way. Their books may have been more or less sophisticated, more or less progressive, more or less problematic… People more knowledgeable than I can argue whether WUTHERING HEIGHTS or THE GREAT GATSBY or ZULEIKA DOBSON are “really and truly” romance novels, as we understand the genre today. (No need to tell me the answers. Such debates about science-fiction and fantasy never much interested me either.)

But very often I put relationships at the center of my stories. Sometimes they’re romantic–more often, they’re not. They’re between strangers or family, rivals or friends. And the story isn’t over until the future direction of the relationship is resolved.

In broad strokes, that’s what I understand the shape of a romance story to be.

So if there’s an audience interested in romantic relationships specifically — well, I think I may be able to write some of those. Not all the time, probably. And not in a way that’s very different from how I write today. I’m not looking to change my strengths or style here — just maybe change my audience a little.

And maybe I won’t be any good at it. Maybe my theories are all wrong. I’m not quitting my day job yet. But at the very least, it seems like something I ought to check out. And so, today I applied to join the RWA.


Stories I loved in 2013, plus stories I published

I feel guilty writing this post, since usually I prefer to make year-end lists of other people’s stories that I really enjoyed, with my own stuff as a footnote.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t keep up with my usual amount of reading past the first couple months of 2013, so I don’t have a long or comprehensive list of stories I loved. There are a few, however, so let’s start with those.

— Truslow, Tori. “Boats in Shadow, Crossing”. Beneath Ceaseless Skies:
— Arkenberg, Megan. “Désiré”. Crossed Genres Magazine:
— Tidhar, Lavie. “The Long Road to the Deep North”. Strange Horizons:
— Hoffmann, Ada. “You Have to Follow the Rules”. Strange Horizons:
— Enjoe, Toh. “Harlequin’s Butterfly”. Asymptote:

I wrote about most of those more extensively back in January or February (when I was doing a good job at reading).

Also, I co-edited (with Ryan North and David Malki !) a sequel to our MACHINE OF DEATH anthology from 2010. The sequel is called THIS IS HOW YOU DIE and was released in July 2013 by Grand Central Publishing.

I’m obviously an interested party in this book. I helped pick the stories and was prepared to help fund its self-publication if we couldn’t find a real publisher. But I also really, really like this book. A lot.

A number of the stories are available to read for free online. They’re all great. You should totally read them all. You know what — just buy the book.
— North, Ryan. “Cancer”. Reprinted in Lightspeed Magazine:
— Burgoine, ‘Nathan. “Old Age, Surrounded by Loved Ones”. Free here:
— Rush, Toby W. “Rock and Roll”. Free here:
— Seybold, Grace. “Drowning Burning Falling Flying”. Free here:
— Roger, D.L.E. “Conflagration”. Free here:
— Black, Rebecca. “Tetrapod”. Free here:
— Francis, Tom. “Lazarus Reactor Fission Sequence”. Free here:
— Hoffmann, Ada. “Blue Fever”. Free here:
— Chaponda, Daliso. “Screaming, Crying, Alone and Afraid”. Free here:

Oh right, and I also edited a very short chapbook anthology called SIXTEEN SINGLE SENTENCE STORIES. There are sixteen very short stories (none longer than 350 words) written by sixteen talented writers in a range of genres.

You can read the whole thing here, which is something you’ll definitely want to do:

Whew! I had more to say about other writers than I thought I did. Now, on to what I’ve been up to this year.

I’m not going to post every story that I published in 2013 — you can see the full list under the “FICTION” tab. But here are a few selected stories that folks have told me they enjoyed.

— “The Penitent”. Beneath Ceaseless Skies:
— “Water Finds Its Level”. Lightspeed Magazine:
— “Outbound from Put-in-Bay”. Asimov’s Science Fiction: Available in the Jan 2013 issue
— “Thing in a Bag”. Shock Totem: Available in Issue #7

And a couple flash-sized distractions:
— “I Heard You Got a Cat, I Heard You Named Him Charles”. Daily Science Fiction:
— “Final Corrections”. Daily Science Fiction:–dispatch

And finally, I should mention that a couple of my stories (“Water Finds Its Level” and “Outbound from Put-in-Bay”) were recorded as part of the podcast StarShipSofa. You can find them in Episode #304:

That’s it. See you next year!


A tough year in review

Last October, I wrote up a blog post tracking what I had done as a writer over the previous year. It was an easy and enjoyable post to write. I keep giant spreadsheets with all the necessary data, so I didn’t have to spend a lot of time pulling together numbers. And, more importantly, I was on a roll at that time. Things were going good! I had written 43 stories that year, and I had sold 18 of them. Who wouldn’t want to share those numbers?

The point of the post last year was to explain how much work lay behind the 18 acceptances. They didn’t just materialize out of thin air. In fact, there were lots of other stories I’d written that hadn’t sold (many of which still haven’t). And when you factored in all the submissions I made, my acceptance rate was scarcely better than 10%. So even if it looked like I was selling a lot, I was still getting turned down nine out of ten times.

This year, I have a different story to tell. It’s a little less fun though.

At the beginning of this year, I had 31 stories already written that I thought were worth shopping around to publishers. Over the course of the year, I wrote 19 more. But that bare number is deceiving. Here’s my output divided into quarters:

First quarter: 10 stories written
Second quarter: 6 stories written
Third quarter: 3 stories written
Fourth quarter: ZERO stories written

Over the course of the year, I sold 17 stories. But again, this is deceiving. Here are the sales divided into quarters:

First quarter: 8 stories sold
Second quarter: 5 stories sold
Third quarter: 3 stories sold
Fourth quarter: 1 story sold

My goal had been to write 24 stories over the course of the year. Despite a fantastic start, I fell short of that. But what really makes me worried is the apparent trend of how things are going.

I didn’t keep up with my submissions this past year either. In 2012, I made 170 total submissions. This year, I only managed 75 — a drop of more than half. Partly, that was a result of having fewer stories to send out, but mostly it was a lack of follow-through on my part. There were months where I didn’t submit any stories at all, despite the fact that I had some sitting around.

This kind of thing can become a vicious cycle if you let it. Past success is never encouraging for long — sooner or later (usually sooner), confidence starts to wane again. Weird thoughts run through your mind: I used to be a decent writer, but I’m obviously not anymore. You write less, you submit less, you see less success. Rinse, wash, repeat.

The trouble is that things don’t get any easier. The door to success doesn’t magically stay open by itself just because you’ve been through it a few times before. It turns out that you still have to work really hard to write the next good story. And sometimes it seems like you’ll never manage to do it again. This is normal.

It’s impossible to be disappointed with 17 acceptances in one year, especially since 10 of those sales were to markets that pay “professional” rates of 5 cents per word or more.

(I should note that not all of the 17 acceptances came from the 75 submissions I made. Many of them came from stories that had been submitted the previous year.)

On the other hand, it’s now been five months since I’ve had any short story acceptances. That part doesn’t feel so good. And even though acceptances are largely out of my hand, it’s obvious that the first step is to write and submit stories, which I’ve been having a tough time with.

[EDIT: I hadn’t sold anything in five months when I originally wrote this post, several weeks ago. I have since sold a couple more stories — hooray! Those sales definitely made me feel very good after so long. But my “writing year” runs September to August, so they don’t add to my stats for this 2013 review.]

The 17 stories I sold represented a combined income of just under $2,100. About 85% of the income came from the 10 pro-rate sales. This is consistent with what I saw last year — my writing income overwhelmingly comes from a few generous markets that pay good rates.

Despite all the sales I made at the beginning of this year, I’ve spent most of the year feeling pretty down on my progress as a writer. From what I hear from other writers, this kind of lapse is normal. Even after you’ve sold dozens of stories and feel like you’ve figured it out, it’s still possible to hit bad patches where it seems like you’ll never sell a story again.

As far as I’ve been able to determine, my own rough patch probably had three proximate causes:

  • Process changes: When Duotrope went to a pay model, I stopped using it and didn’t replace it with an adequate system. In particular, I kept my master submission spreadsheet on a different computer from the one where I usually send and receive emails, which really disrupted my submissions process.
  • Life changes: Over the past year, I started making writing a lower priority. This is not a bad thing necessarily, since there’s more to life to writing and I had some big life events occur in the past year. But it takes a toll on output, and if writing continues to be a lower priority for me then I may have to revise my expectations downward. See here for a couple books I helped edit, for instance.
  • Writing changes: This is difficult to explain, but the way I think about my own writing has changed. There are stories I would have happily written and sold a year ago that I wouldn’t bother with today. I don’t know if this is a permanent change and I don’t know exactly what it means. It might mean that I’ve refined my sensibility somewhat, and am becoming a more discriminating writer. Or it may mean that I’ve grown gun-shy and less confident for some reason. Either way, it has its effect on my productivity.


Although I’ve been working on turning things around, I’m not out of this rough patch yet. I’ve been better about keeping up with my submissions — that’s something I have total control over, and sending stories out really does have a positive impact on how I feel as a writer. Even though it mostly means getting more rejections, it still makes me feel like I’m doing something. Like I’m part of the game.

I’ve written a couple new stories too, which is a good start. But I’ve never measured my success as a short story writer by what I’ve done in the past. I’ve always looked ahead to the future. How many stories do I have lined up for publication? How many stories am I trying to sell, and how many of those do I feel good about? How many stories will I finish this month, and how many of those do I feel good about?

Things may never go back to the way they were two years ago. I may never again write forty stories in a year. I might become a writer who writes twenty stories per year. Or maybe I’ll spring back to form, better and more productive than ever.

But I’m not too worried either. I like to keep statistics like these so I can see how my progress changes over time. But I don’t want the statistics to drive my behaviors. There is more at stake here than productivity and success metrics.

Ultimately, it’s not important if I write or sell more stories next year. It’s only important that the stories I sell have something interesting to say, and say it in a compelling way.

[EDIT: In the couple months since I wrote this, I have replaced Duotrope with Submissions Grinder. It’s definitely helped to keep my submissions on track — which has resulted in selling a couple stories to Asimov’s Science Fiction and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, which feels great. I’ve also finished a couple of stories that I feel really good about, and have made progress on others.

So right now, just a month or two later, I feel like things are really looking up. I didn’t hold on to this post intentionally so that I could add a happy-ish ending to it, but I’m glad that it worked out that way.

To be honest, I don’t know if occasionally taking time off from writing is a good or productive thing… For some it might be, for others it might not. But it’s clearly not a disaster that can’t be recovered from. In short fiction, you have endless second chances, so long as you don’t give up on your goals.]


I edited a couple books this year and never told anybody

Okay, it’s not true that I never told ANYBODY. But I haven’t talked about those books like I should have. It’s time to correct that.

SIXTEEN SINGLE SENTENCE STORIES: The first book to mention is a little chapbook anthology called Sixteen Single Sentence Stories which was published back in April or May. I read a few hundred (very short) submissions for this from around the world. The only criterion was that each story had to be a single sentence in length.

And I have to say that I LOVE the result. The stories are both literary and genre stories — some clever, some touching, some funny, some thrilling. The writers include Mari Ness, Ron Collins, Megan Engelhardt, Alex Shvartsman, and others. My wife, K. Sekelsky, did the book design and illustrations for every story.

You can read the whole thing for free online here:

But please also consider buying a copy. It’s only five bucks, and shipping is only a dollar inside the U.S. This is a one-of-a-kind book that I promise won’t take up much room on your bookshelf. I doubt it will ever be reprinted, and there are only a couple hundred copies in existence. If we sell them all, it’ll pay me back for printing and writer payments, plus a nice dinner or two for Katie and me.

But really, I did the book for fun and it turned out to be such a cool little artifact that I don’t think you’ll be disappointed at all if you buy a copy.

THIS IS HOW YOU DIE (sequel to MACHINE OF DEATH): This is the big one… Yes, thirty more Machine of Death stories are now available to read. (The book was published by GCP in July.) Like the first book, this one is co-edited by Ryan North and David Malki !

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that I also LOVE this book. But I absolutely do. It’s definitely not a retread of the first Machine of Death book — the stories go farther and do more with the concept than ever before. Our one guiding principle in putting this book together was that readers should constantly be surprised by what they find on the page. (And in a good, wholesome way. There’s probably a few cusses in the book, but otherwise it’s safe to give to a smart tween or teen.)

The AV Club loved the book so much they called it one of their favorites from 2013, which is totally humbling and amazing:

If you want to read a bunch of sample stories or watch the hilarious book trailer that David Malki ! put together with REAL HOLLYWOOD TALENT, you can do all that here:

Since this book was published by a real publisher, we can’t give the whole thing away for free. (Sorry.) But we DID convince the publisher to let us release eight FULL stories as a totally free PDF, which is awesome. Thanks, GCP!

On the other hand, thanks to our publisher, the book is available EVERYWHERE that you can buy books. Just go up to your nearest bookseller and ask her to look us up. Ebooks are also available in all the usual places.


Washington Irving’s vision of an alien invasion, ca. 1809

Recently, while reading a blog post that speculated about mankind’s likelihood of ever meeting alienkind, I was put in mind of a passage written by Washington Irving in his book Knickerbocker’s History of New York, first published in 1809.

It’s a remarkable passage, and one of my favorites. Though Knickerbocker’s History of New York isn’t science-fiction (it’s a dry satire), this short passage must be one of the earliest visions of an invasion of Earth by an alien (but largely not supernatural) force.

Let us suppose, then, that the inhabitants of the moon, by astonishing advancement in science, and by profound insight into that ineffable lunar philosophy, the mere flickerings of which have of late years dazzled the feebled optics, and addled the shallow brains of the good people of our globe—let us suppose, I say, that the inhabitants of the moon, by these means, had arrived at such a command of their energies, such an enviable state of perfectibility, as to control the elements, and navigate the boundless regions of space. Let us suppose a roving crew of these soaring philosophers, in the course of an aerial voyage of discovery among the stars, should chance to alight upon this outlandish planet.

Irving was hardly the first writer to imagine interplanetary journeys. Johannes Kepler and Cyrano de Bergerac, among others, both wrote famous stories (Somnium and L’Autre Monde, respectively) about trips to the moon in the 17th century. And Voltaire’s Micromégas (1752) even sends a visitor from another star system down to Earth.

But Irving seems to operate in a more science-fictional mode, extrapolating as he does from the new technology of lighter than air balloons to predict future modes of travel.

And here I beg my readers will not have the uncharitableness to smile, as is too frequently the fault of volatile readers, when perusing the grave speculations of philosophers. I am far from indulging in any sportive vein at present; nor is the supposition I have been making so wild as many may deem it. It has long been a very serious and anxious question with me, and many a time and oft, in the course of my overwhelming cares and contrivances for the welfare and protection of this my native planet, have I lain awake whole nights debating in my mind whether it were most probable we should first discover and civilize the moon, or the moon discover and civilize our globe. Neither would the prodigy of sailing in the air or cruising among the stars be a whit more astonishing and incomprehensible to us than was the European mystery of navigating floating castles through the world of waters to the simple savages. We have already discovered the art of coasting along the aerial shores of our planet by means of balloons, as the savages had of venturing along their sea-coasts in canoes; and the disparity between the former and the aerial vehicles of the philosophers from the moon might not be greater than that between the bark canoes of the savages and the mighty ships of their discoverers. I might here pursue an endless chain of similar speculations; but as they would be unimportant to my subject, I abandon them to my reader, particularly if he be a philosopher, as matters well worthy of his attentive consideration.

Of course, Irving is writing a satire, so we shouldn’t take much of what he says at face value. The parallel he draws between space invaders and the European colonists who settled the Americas is the real point of this passage. He’s using science-fiction (as countless others will do in the centuries to come) to get his readers to consider a familiar circumstance from a different point of view.

But Irving does something else too. He clearly enjoys the opportunity to imagine fantastic people and their fantastic technology. In particular, I find his vision of weapons that operate through “concentrated sunbeams” to be especially fascinating.

To return, then, to my supposition—let us suppose that the aerial visitants I have mentioned, possessed of vastly superior knowledge to ourselves—that is to say, possessed of superior knowledge in the art of extermination—riding on hippogriffs—defended with impenetrable armor—armed with concentrated sunbeams, and provided with vast engines, to hurl enormous moonstones; in short, let us suppose them, if our vanity will permit the supposition, as superior to us in knowledge, and consequently in power, as the Europeans were to the Indians when they first discovered them. All this is very possible, it is only our self-sufficiency that makes us think otherwise; and I warrant the poor savages, before they had any knowledge of the white men, armed in all the terrors of glittering steel and tremendous gunpowder, were as perfectly convinced that they themselves were the wisest, the most virtuous, powerful, and perfect of created beings, as are at this present moment the lordly inhabitants of old England, the volatile populace of France, or even the self-satisfied citizens of this most enlightened republic.

He goes on at some length with this scenario, imagining the conquering armies of the moon taking the heads of state of Earth back to pay homage to the Man in the Moon. He imagines the lunar explorers addressing the Man in the Moon with their captives thusly:

“Most serene and mighty Potentate, whose dominions extend as far as eye can reach, who rideth on the Great Bear, useth the sun as a looking glass, and maintaineth unrivaled control over tides, madmen, and sea-crabs. We, thy liege subjects, have just returned from a voyage of discovery, in the course of which we have landed and taken possession of that obscure little dirty planet, which thou beholdest rolling at a distance. The five uncouth monsters which we have brought into this august present were once very important chiefs among their fellow-savages, who are a race of beings totally destitute of the common attributes of humanity, and differing in everything from the inhabitants of the moon, inasmuch as they carry their heads upon their shoulders, instead of under their arms—have two eyes instead of one—are utterly destitute of tails, and of a variety of unseemly complexions, particularly of horrible whiteness, instead of pea-green.”

Apart from the gleefully detailed physical differences, the Man in the Moon finds the people of Earth quite lacking in other ways as well. They adhere to shocking customs like taking their own wives and raising their own children, rather than participating in communal families. They cling to their Christian religion and don’t know a single word of the “Lunatic” language. In consequence, the Man in the Moon decides that the people of Earth are quite unfit to own or work their land, and gives it instead by divine right to parties of settlers preparing to leave from the moon.

The whole bit is worth reading. If you want to, you can open the HTML version of Knickerbocker’s History of New York on Project Gutenberg, and search that page for “moon” until you come to the start of the passage I quoted above. It runs until the end of the chapter.

There are lots of things that I find fascinating about this passage — not least of which is that it’s essentially a sarcastic takedown of colonialism written by a white American man (and a direct beneficiary of colonialism) in 1809. That of itself is a good reminder that the past was full of as many disparate opinions as the present is. Even common and widespread opinions were not the only opinions held by people at the time.

But I especially love the description of the moon men as looking substantially different from humans. Nowadays, we take it for granted that the inhabitants of other planets would look different from us, but that wouldn’t necessarily been obvious in 1809.

Although evolution wasn’t entirely unknown in 1809, many naturalists of the time believed that the forms of animals and plants were created according to divine plan. Thus, many early writers who speculated on the inhabitants of other planets simply duplicated the forms that were found on Earth.

For example, Voltaire has this to say about his alien creation in Micromégas (1752):

On one of the planets that orbits the star named Sirius there lived a spirited young man, who I had the honor of meeting on the last voyage he made to our little ant hill. He was called Micromegas, a fitting name for anyone so great. He was eight leagues tall, or 24,000 geometric paces of five feet each.

Certain geometers, always of use to the public, will immediately take up their pens, and will find that since Mr. Micromegas, inhabitant of the country of Sirius, is 24,000 paces tall, which is equivalent to 20,000 feet, and since we citizens of the earth are hardly five feet tall, and our sphere 9,000 leagues around; they will find, I say, that it is absolutely necessary that the sphere that produced him was 21,600,000 times greater in circumference than our little Earth. Nothing in nature is simpler or more orderly. The sovereign states of Germany or Italy, which one can traverse in a half hour, compared to the empires of Turkey, Moscow, or China, are only feeble reflections of the prodigious differences that nature has placed in all beings.

His excellency’s size being as great as I have said, all our sculptors and all our painters will agree without protest that his belt would have been 50,000 feet around, which gives him very good proportions. His nose taking up one third of his attractive face, and his attractive face taking up one seventh of his attractive body, it must be admitted that the nose of the Sirian is 6,333 feet plus a fraction; which is manifest.

As Voltaire says, it is the most natural thing in the world to assume that an inhabitant of Sirius should be no different in proportion than an inhabitant of Earth. In fact, Micromegas is not just roughly the same shape as a man — he even has classical features that painters and sculptors find pleasing.

Likewise, Emanuel Swedenborg describes the people of Mercury in Earths of Our Solar System (1758):

I was desirous of knowing what kind of face and body the men (homines) on the earth Mercury have, and whether they are like the men (homines) on our Earth. There was then exhibited before my eyes a woman exactly resembling those who are on that earth. Her face was beautiful, but smaller than that of the women of our Earth; she was also more slender in body, but of equal height: her head was covered with some linen stuff, arranged without art but still in a becoming manner. A man (vir) also was exhibited. He, too, was more slender in body than the men (viri) of our Earth; he was clothed in a garment of dark blue fitting closely to his body, without folds or protuberances anywhere. Such, I was told, were the personal form and clothing of the men (homines) of that earth. Afterwards there were exhibited some kinds of their oxen and cows, which did not, indeed, differ much from those on our Earth, except that they were smaller, and approximated in some measure to the stag and hind species.

Swedenborg does at least seem to have some question as to whether the Mercurian people might look different from humans, but it soon is apparent that they do not. Later, Swedenborg talks about people from Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus, and the Moon. Despite great differences in habit and custom (the Jovians have an entirely different way of walking, for instance, and the people of the Moon speak with air from their stomachs instead of their lungs), there are apparently no physical differences in appearance worth mentioning except for some changes in coloration.

I should also note that Earths in Our Solar System was not published as fiction. Swedenborg presented the book as memoirs of experiences he had while communing and conversing with “spirits” that hailed from other planets. Regardless, it’s probably safe to say that Swedenborg drew on common ideas at the time about the other planets for his book.

It’s in this context that I find Irving’s moon men remarkable — with their one eye, their tail, their head carried under their arms, and their pea-green skin. They are different from us in so many ways. By the end of the nineteenth century, H.G. Wells would give us truly alien Martians in The War of the Worlds (1898). But even these creatures — with their oversized heads, their writhing tentacles, and large eyes — are seemingly a vision of what humans themselves might become, rather than something entirely new.

Says Wells, in his novel, amid his descriptions of the Martians:

It is worthy of remark that a certain speculative writer of quasi-scientific repute, writing long before the Martian invasion, did forecast for man a final structure not unlike the actual Martian condition. His prophecy, I remember, appeared in November or December, 1893, in a long-defunct publication, the Pall Mall Budget, and I recall a caricature of it in a pre-Martian periodical called Punch. He pointed out–writing in a foolish, facetious tone–that the perfection of mechanical appliances must ultimately supersede limbs; the perfection of chemical devices, digestion; that such organs as hair, external nose, teeth, ears, and chin were no longer essential parts of the human being, and that the tendency of natural selection would lie in the direction of their steady diminution through the coming ages. The brain alone remained a cardinal necessity. Only one other part of the body had a strong case for survival, and that was the hand, “teacher and agent of the brain.” While the rest of the body dwindled, the hands would grow larger.

There is many a true word written in jest, and here in the Martians we have beyond dispute the actual accomplishment of such a suppression of the animal side of the organism by the intelligence. To me it is quite credible that the Martians may be descended from beings not unlike ourselves, by a gradual development of brain and hands (the latter giving rise to the two bunches of delicate tentacles at last) at the expense of the rest of the body. Without the body the brain would, of course, become a mere selfish intelligence, without any of the emotional substratum of the human being.

Another popular writer of the time, George Griffiths, posits Martians that aren’t quite so far down the evolutionary path in his novel A Honeymoon in Space (1901). Here, two characters discuss an approaching Martian:

“Oh, don’t bother about them!” she said. “Look; there’s some one who seems to want to communicate with us. Why, they’re all bald! They haven’t got a hair among them—and what a size their heads are!”

“That’s brains—too much brains, in fact. These people have lived too long. I daresay they’ve ceased to be animals—civilised themselves out of everything in the way of passions and emotions, and are just purely intellectual beings, with as much human nature about them as Russian diplomacy or those things we saw at the bottom of the Newton Crater. I don’t like the look of them.”

Give these Martians a few more millenniums and they might resemble Wells’s creations. On the other hand, the people of the moon have, in Griffith’s novel, “devolved” into something resembling apes again:

“Look!” said Zaidie, clasping his arm, “is that a gorilla, or—no, it can’t be a man.”

The light was turned full upon the object. If it had been covered with hair it might have passed for some strange type of the ape tribe, but its skin was smooth and of a livid grey. Its lower limbs were evidently more powerful than its upper; its chest was enormously developed, but the stomach was small. The head was big and round and smooth. As they came nearer they saw that in place of fingernails it had long white feelers which it kept extended and constantly waving about as it groped its way towards the water. As the intense light flashed full on it, it turned its head towards them. It had a nose and a mouth—the nose, long and thick, with huge mobile nostrils; the mouth forming an angle something like a fish’s lips. Teeth there seemed none. At either side of the upper part of the nose there were two little sunken holes—in which this thing’s ancestors of countless thousands of years ago had once had eyes.

It would be interesting to keep digging up examples of aliens from the 1800s and early 1900s, but I’ll stop here. Suffice to say that Irving’s aliens are somewhat unusual in that they are arbitrarily so different from humans. Indeed, there appears to be no reason why Irving should require his moon men to look different in any way except complexion. But he did — and I find that endlessly fascinating.

Did people in 1809 commonly believe that aliens would look different? Or was Irving simply free-associating to amp up the absurdity of his satire? Or referring to long-ago sailors’ tales of strange lands with monstrous inhabitants?

On the other hand, Irving’s aliens are still based on a more-or-less human body plan, with a few parts switched around. If anybody had the time and inclination, it would be fascinating survey the literature of the past and chart how the appearances of aliens change over time. Who was the first to imagine aliens would be substantially different in any way from humans? Who was the first to suggest they would resemble humans at a different evolutionary stage, or humans evolved to meet different environmental conditions? And who was the first to give aliens a truly alien appearance not based on human appearance at all?


Sixteen Single Sentence Stories!

It’s been a while since I made the final decisions on the one-sentence stories that will be included in the mini-anthology that Katie Sekelsky and I are publishing. Time has flown, and I realize I’ve never shared the list of writers and stories. Bad editor!

Here are the stories you can expect to find in the mini-anthology when it’s ready:

Letters from Within — A.T. Greenblatt
A Boy, a Balloon and the Man in the Moon — Xanthe Elliott
In Bloom — Richard J. Dowling
Jane Blonde — TJ Radcliffe
Songs from My Father — Lisa Marie Lopez
The Sadness of Souvenirs — Abigail Wyatt
After — Ron Collins
For a Mortal’s Love — Mari Ness
The Glimmer of Light on Silver Pills — Megan Engelhardt
And the Chilean Sea Bass Was Overcooked Too — Kit Yona
Primer — Sue Ann Connaughton
A Hushed Space — Judy Darley
Rocketmen — Wayne Helge
The Bells — J. Brosnan
Catch a Falling Star — Joanne Fox
One Thousand and First — Alex Shvartsman

This is a really awesome collection of (extremely short) stories, and I’m so excited to be publishing it. Every time I look over the included stories, I get goose bumps.

Katie is hard at work on the illustrations as we speak. We’re shooting to have the anthology ready to sell at the SPACE small press convention in Columbus in April. Katie will have a table there, where the anthology will be for sale. After that, we’ll start taking online orders. The PDF will also be posted at some point for all to enjoy.

So just a little while longer now. Very exciting!