Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Map is Not the Territory: Navigating Through the First Draft

Plotting, shaping the narrative – whatever you want to call it – is not my strong point, so it's the thing I am most consciously working to improve right now. One of the tools I use to develop and manage plot is an outline. Though I’m the first to say you don’t have to.

For some creating an outline kills any spark the story holds. But for me, if I don't create a map of the way the events and characters will interact; my story will just somehow slowly fail – like it's wandering some desert wasteland with no oasis in sight. It starts out trotting along all optimistically, then slows to a walk, begins to stagger, falls to its knees and crawls the last few yards before expiring with the final scenes and denouement still somewhere beyond the horizon. Okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but for anything longer than a couple thousand words, I simply cannot write "by the seat of my pants."

Conversely, I find outlining intensely creative. The process is a way for me to discover the heart of the story and to get to know the characters. First, I brainstorm a variety of scenarios and put the characters in play, I generate lots of ideas and random thematic details that might or might not go into the draft. As I begin to narrow the options, I can recognize and address logic flaws – before I start drafting. The outline is a place where I can try out ideas without the time-sink of writing through tangents and into dead ends. An outline is a map of the territory – of the story. Since I’m literally inventing the landscape, my outlines are never set in stone. I often tweak and change them once I begin writing. Even if my outline totally changes as I draft, it remains an essential step for me.

But, as much as I love a good outline, sometimes they are daunting. For writers who are natural storytellers in terms of plotting and conflict, maybe an outline feels like a terminal document. The story has been described and therefore all the magic has been drained from it. For me, a solid outline does not feel final, but it does have a self-contained completeness. There have been times when I’ve looked at my outline and thought, okay now how do I get into this story? How – or where – do I begin. That’s when I remind myself that

The map is not the territory.

I’ve done some backcountry hiking with trail maps and a compass, and I can tell you that those folded paper representations of the ground under your feet are an essential guide. But they are also abstractions, which don’t carry any information about what I might encounter on my journey. A map doesn't include the smell of pine needles warmed by the afternoon sun or the black bear, deer, and countless birds and butterflies I'll see as I walk. The elevation lines that crowd together indicate a ridge, but not the puffs of fine trail dust my boots raise or the ache in my legs, the sweat rolling down my neck, as I ascend.

An outline is an abstraction, a map, and it is only useful if I acknowledge that it is limited to describing the structure of the area of the story and can tell me nothing about what I will encounter on my journey though. As I begin writing, stringing one word after the other, I’m hiking on a narrow trail under the canopy of a thousand individual trees that are simply indicated by a wash of solid green on the map. Even with an outline, what I witness once I’m inside a story is always unpredictable and brand new.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Listen to Hands of Burnished Bronze at PodCastle!

Bronze hands by Rodin
My story, Hands of Burnished Bronze, is now live at PodCastle! It's read by the amazing Cheyenne Wright a freelance illustrator who just happens to have a voice made for invoking fantasy worlds. I love the extra dimension that his reading gives this story. 

As I mentioned before, I have been a long time PodCastle listener, so I'm delighted to hear one of my very own stories on this podcast. Do be sure to check out the many other wonderful stories on this site. There is plenty of fantastic fantasy ear candy to help you get through a long commute or whatever tedious chores await you.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

See The Elephant Cover Reveal

My story, Fairview 619, is going to be in the fabulous See The Elephant magazine later this month. Check out this fantastic cover and peruse the table of contents here

Also, I'm delighted to announce that I have a brand new story, Hands of Burnished Bronze, that will be available for your listening pleasure later this year from PodCastle! This is one of the podcasts that I listen to regularly. I have heard so many wonderful stories here that I'm really over the moon about having one of my own join the ranks.
Just time for a quick update today. I'm mulling, outlining, and making some big changes to the novel. While doing that, I'm also revising a couple broken short stories that have been laying about too long. Time to get those puppies out the door. My submissions queue has gotten dangerously low. I'm getting lonely as I'm hardly receiving even one rejection per week.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Read Futile the Winds on Medium

Martian sunset. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL

What do Emily Dickinson and Mars have in common? This story. Futile the Winds previously appeared in Interzone, but since that is print only, I decided to put it up on Medium so that y'all can read it.

I came upon this poem towards the end of writing the first draft, and it guided my subsequent revisions. For me it is deeply, if somewhat invisibly itegrated with the final version of this story.

Wild nights - Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile - the winds -
To a Heart in port -
Done with the Compass -
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden -
Ah - the Sea!
Might I but moor - tonight -
In thee! 
P.S. I blogged about the way Kij Johnson used Shakespeare's sonnet 116 in her excellent story, Spar. Scroll to the bottom of this post to see what I thought.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Cattle Futures

My story Cattle Futures is now available to read at the 99 Pine Street Literary Journal. Many of my stories come out of a collection separate ideas that I sew together, Dr. Frankenstein like, into a unique creature.

Remember FarmVille? A few years back it was the most popular game on Facebook, and even though I have zero interest in playing games on my social networks, I would see these little bright green fields in my feed as others played. I was fascinated by the idea of thousands of people growing crops and caring for flocks and herds of farm animals that were all just flickering pixels on their screens.

And people were spending real money inside the game, which seemed like a natural enough progression, especially when you look at how money, goods and stock are traded today. Screens dominate the floor of modern stock markets, and prodigious computing power is devoted to mediating their daily business. Everything under the sun is traded largely via flickering screens. It seems ephemeral, yet very real fortunes are made and lost every day in the markets.

Around this time there were also some news stories circulating about efforts to grow beef in the lab. So far this is still extraordinarily expensive, but if the process could be scaled up there is real potential to create solutions that might feed the world's growing population while being more humane to livestock animals and using up less water and land resources. It's a very science fictional idea on it's own. Kind of feels like we're one step closer to a food replicator.

Add a family trip to Carlsbad Caverns, mix well, and Cattle Futures was the result. I enjoyed writing it immensely and am delighted that it found a home at 99 Pine Street. Be sure to stick around and check the other stories, artwork and poetry.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Getting Stuck, Reimagining, and Moving Forward

The African violet budding on my kitchen windowsill; these flowers, like my novel are growing but still hidden in their potential state.
A couple weekends ago, I attended a half-day novel workshop with Kij Johnson in San Antonio, and it was wonderful! Kij is a wellspring of writing knowledge. The format of the workshop was inspiring. After going over some general principles, each attendee presented a summary of our novel-in-progress, then described the problem or difficulty we were facing. Kij offered specific, actionable advice to each of us, then opened the conversation up so that we could all brainstorm solutions for each other.

Just hearing the breadth of problems that a dozen writers are wrestling with was weirdly inspiring. Maybe it was the simple affirmation that most of us (certainly everyone in that room) struggle with this complicated, wonderful, maddening thing called a novel.

Writing a novel is an endurance event. They are so much larger in scope than a short story and truly different in kind. Short stories can rely on, and often benefit from, leaving much unsaid, and encouraging the reader to discover the meaning on her own. Alternatively, you can aim directly at the target and that can work too. Novels, being longer, can be more meandering, more inclusive, more complex. After spending so much time writing short stories, I’m finding that a challenge.

I’m about a quarter of the way into my novel, Izzy Crow, which means I have now arrived at the very beginning of the dreaded middle. Many elements of the events that I so cavalierly put in the opening are now coming due. Because a novel is so much bigger, I feel like I’m learning to juggle or spin a dozen plates, and I can’t quite keep everything in the air yet.

After running my troubles through the patented Kij Johnson wringer, I can see that I will have to trash my beloved first scene (kill your darlings), but that decision allows me to re-envision the whole story in a way that suggests more layers. So, I’ll be throwing some words out and repurposing many more, but I believe I’ll have a deeper novel when I’m finished.

Kij Johnson teaches a two-week version of this workshop at the Gunn Center for Study of Science Fiction. If you’ve been working on a novel and are not sure how to proceed, I would highly recommend it. She’s taking applications right now!

In other business:

You can read my thoughts on the excellent Vestal Review at The Review Review.

Flash Fiction Online included my Diorama story included in their Annual Anthology along with over 30 other amazing flash fiction stories.

My story "Cattle Futures" is forthcoming in February at the lovely 99 Pine Street Literary Journal. I'm delighted that this story found such a lovely home. I will post a direct link as soon as it becomes available.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Ecotones: Story by Story

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming 

This anthology, with my story, The Silva, is has been released into the wild. I just finished reading my contributor’s copy and found it to be an eclectic and excellent collection of stories.

An ecotone is a region of transition between two biological communities. This is the theme that binds the stories in this diverse anthology together. This is rich territory to explore and there is a little of everything here from high fantasy to hard science fiction. I love variety, so I truly enjoyed everything my TOC (table of contents) mates brought to the table. After reading Ecotones, I’m even more delighted to be a part of this anthology!

Here are my quick impressions of the stories in this collection.

Inundated by Jonathan Laidlow
I love this kind of story. Sea monsters and undines threaten a fishing village and the land beyond it. This story is filled with fantastic creatures, yet is grounded in a very recognizable world – our world. As floodwaters encroach a father searches for his daughter and his wife who isn’t entirely of his world. The relationship between the father, his estranged wife, and missing daughter are evocative and poignant.

The Green by Lauren Beukes
What if alien life got inside your suit, got inside your body? What if they devoured and repurposed your flesh while keeping you on your feet, turning you into a kind of green zombie? What if your corporate bosses saw an opportunity in this grim turn of events? This dark tale is told in the gritty voice of a low-level employee with very few choices available to her. Excellent.

Seeds by a Hurricane Torn by Daniel Ausema
Years after a hurricane devastates a coastal town, some people return to try to reclaim the area. The magic system is based on botany so gardening is magical, which I found delightful. When these characters try to reclaim the land they find that the sea may carry an undiscovered magic of its own. I loved how magic illuminated the border between these two divergent ecologies.

Green Man by P. J. Richards
Establishing a colony in an alien environment is difficult, not all attempts are successful. An elegiac story of a last survivor on a doomed mission and his final bid for a kind of survival. Like Beuke’s tale, this story illustrates the strength of this anthology’s theme by exploring what it might mean to interact with an alien biological environment

Stochasti-city by Tobias S. Buckell
This one is a reprint but new to me. A gritty but ultimately uplifting look at a future where large social uprisings can be hacked by new, integrated technologies. Set in a future Detroit that is both more decayed and somehow more vibrant than the one we have now. This one rollicks along following a likable deadbeat who finds his way into a new life.

Homo Panthera by Andrew Leon Hudson
The introduction to this story says that it is “part of a larger evolutionary science fiction project.” While it does feel like part of a larger whole, it also succeeds as a complete story in itself. This one is military SciFi with an environmental edge. The story is told by a contractor tasked with guarding one of the last panthers from poachers. The world is richly drawn and full of detail, which makes the story feel immediate and relevant to today.

The First Feast by Victor Espinosa
This one is classic high fantasy and a sweet boy-meets-girl story. It starts out as a young elf’s first encounter with humans at an annual feast where these two different races mingle. This one also feels like it might be part of something larger, but the story comes to a satisfying conclusion. The ecotone here is in the realm of magic, which illustrates how different cultures view the natural world around them.

Compatibility by Ken Liu
This brief story hilariously explores some of the problems that labor-saving and companion technologies may present in the not so distant future. Anyone who has had computer compatibility issues will relate.

Not a Problem by Matthew Hughes
Another short, humorous piece about the dangers of relying on others to fix your problems. The twist ending though not terribly surprising, is funny. The strength of the voice, and hubris of the narrator, carry this piece.

The Pattern Box by Christina Klarenbeek
The crew of a long-range colony ship wakes up to find themselves off course and headed for a crash landing on an unknown planet. Told from both the point of view of the alien life form that witnesses their arrival, and the frightened, disoriented colonists, this is an intriguing first contact story. I could definitely spend more time in this world with these characters.

A Theft of Flowers by Stephen Palmer
Intrigue in a market that is not only on the border between desert and jungle, but between the virtual and the real world. A diverse cast of human and non-human characters add layers of meaning to this life and death story of economic survival.

The Grass is Greener on the Other Side by Igor Ljubuncic
This one has a lot going for it, a false utopia/dystopia setting, a young boy who wants to carry on his family’s military tradition, and a girl from the wrong side of the biodome. The interior narration from the protagonist is balanced with the action of the story to make this a compelling read.

Paolo, Friend Paolo by Kurt Hunt
A mad industrialist tries to harness an alien object, but it’s his longtime assistant who comes to better understand the alien identity that almost certainly will change life on earth. Full of big ideas viewed through the humane sensibilities of the narrator, this is an excellent story to close out the anthology.

There you have it. If these look like the kinds of stories you might enjoy, go pick yourself up a copy of Ecotones!