What I’ve Been Reading: Rickert, Burstein, Sharma, Tobler

This week’s reading was a collection of stories I randomly discovered online, either because someone recommended it, or because I stumbled it across it while looking for something else.

The Mothers of Voorhisvill”  by Mary Rickert, (novella)

5 out of 5 stars

There is a grandeur to Rickert’s work which is almost immediately obvious but not overwhelming. You begin to read the tale she’s written, sentences unfolding simply, with hints of strangeness, until a few paragraphs in you start to see the edges of the world she’s created — and it hits you. It’s never “let me tell you about every aspect of this setting for three pages before anything happens”. It’s not “this happened and then this happened and then this happened”. She understands her characters, where they live and how they move about in that place, so well that when she writes the story, it’s just you (the reader) and them (the fictional characters), having a dialogue.

Reading Rickert is like listening to the chatty neighbors you’d never noticed until they happened to be the most fascinating people you’ve ever met. You’ll find everything you’re looking for by the time it’s done.

The shape of this story is as a series of interviews conducted with various women who’ve, they admit at the beginning, done something terrible, or wonderful, and now they’re explaining why. There’s contrast between the things they’re admitting, the events they’re saying didn’t happen quite that way, and and the moments of “well, sure, it did happen, but she’s completely wrong about the way she describes it”. We read how the women see not only the events of the story but their own worlds so differently from one another. All the pieces of “Mothers”, not disparate but simply not the same, weave together until what you finally have is so large, so monstrous and beautiful and greater than you’d imagined, that “grandeur” is the best word to describe it.

There are definite hints of Witches of Eastwick, and Nightvale, but there are sensual details — the hundred scents, the beauty of light, of women, of creative arts — which swell as the women do, breaking free from other influences. Those details carry on as the story changes, gets darker and more desperate, breathing life into individual moments with the names of board games, the color of jam. It’s real without being weighted down; terrible in the way that it makes perfect sense. I continue to be in awe of Rickert’s ability to tell a complete story, full without going on for too long, like a ripe peach on the last day before it’s plucked and eaten.

Kaddish for the Last Survivor” by Michael A. Burstein, Apex Magazine.

2 out of 5 stars

A SF tale about Holocaust deniers? You might think it would be preachy, pointed, too invested in its message, and Burstein’s story is all of those things. It was also nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2001, and it’s worth figuring out why. (more…)

What I’ve Been Reading: Essays

So far in January, I have read:

Am I Black Enough For You? Rumpus, Retha Powers, January 2014:

“I was black. I wasn’t black enough. I was too black. Sometimes I was so upset there was nothing to do but sit down and eat a pack of Oreos—alone, of course. But for years I wouldn’t feel comfortable eating the crème-filled sandwich cooking without pausing for the fleeting impulse to turn and see if anyone was looking. Oh look, an Oreo eating an Oreo! (It’s still not my cookie of choice). I was being pigeonholed; and as Jessye Norman said, pigeonholing is interesting only for pigeons.

Not-Knowing, by Donald Barthelme.  Not Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme. Ed. Kim Herzinger. New York: Random House, 1997. Barthelme says, “Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing; a forcing of what and how.” It is, at least in part, definitely that.

Ethnography and Speculative FictionEthnography Matters, Claire Anzoleaga – explores speculative fiction from a communications studies and ethnography angle:

“For those of us who write ethnography, it is widely known that the truths we encounter and write about will never have a capital “t” in its purest, most-reducible sense. Ethnography written as speculative fiction fits smoothly into this understanding of interpreted truth-painting. It is an analytic approach which interprets data collected from the field and reimagines that data through narratives of fantasy, horror, and utopian/dystopian adventures with academic theory.”

Read it as part of the discussion on inclusion, diversity, and how/whether to write the “Other”. The rest of the site has a lot more to say about ethnography, which I studied as part of my History of Art degree, and keep in mind when I write fiction myself.

Biotechnology and Speculative Fiction, Brian Stableford – argues that writers have a moral obligation to write optimistic futures. Well, I disagree, but I think this essay gives a nice overview of biotech in SF pre-2000.

Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, Esquire, Gay Talese, April 1966 – this classic profile of a hostile subject is considered one of the best pieces of creative non-fiction ever published. Recommended because of the way Talese uses language, bringing color back into journalism to liven up a field of writing that had gone from sensationalist gossip to “just the facts” and was now edging into something reminiscent of literature:

“He wore an oxford-grey suit with a vest, a suit conservatively cut on the outside but trimmed with flamboyant silk within; his shoes, British, seemed to be shined even on the bottom of the soles. He also wore, as everybody seemed to know, a remarkably convincing black hairpiece, one of sixty that he owns, most of them under the care of an inconspicuous little grey-haired lady who, holding his hair in a tiny satchel, follows him around whenever he performs. She earns $400 a week.”

It also famously recalls an incident between Sinatra and Harlan Ellison; of note to SFF fans and historians. (more…)

May 2013 Stats

In May, I:


  • The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler (for the third time)
  • More of Howard Waldrop’s Other Worlds, Better Lives and Charles Tan’s anthology Lauriat, though I didn’t finish either.
  • the current issue of the SFWA Bulletin



  • short stories for individual clients


  • did a written interview with Charles Tan, where he asked about Fish for SF Signal (1400 words). Read it here.
  • set up a Free Fiction page where you can find PDFs of my stories.
  • got involved, again, in a controversy concerning the SFWA. I’m now assisting with (not on) an advisory committee on solutions. I can’t say more yet, but I do think they’re headed in the right direction.
  • quit an editing job that wasn’t a good fit for me (they wanted me to do a lot of work for what amounted to less than $5 an hour, and no matter how much I need the money, I don’t have time for that).

Overall, I

Wrote 2,700 words of fiction, and about 8,000 of non-fiction. Edited and read much less than I would have liked. Spent most of my time this month on dealing with life stuff: financial, medical, child care, job hunting. Important, and ultimately getting better, but time-consuming. I don’t feel I’ve accomplished much during the last 4+ weeks, which is disappointing.

June will be better, though. I can feel it.

Advice for June:

Get out of the house. Write somewhere new. Library, coffee shop, park bench–as long as it isn’t where you normally write, give it a try. Changing our circumstances changes how we think, and putting yourself into a new place often puts you into a new mindset. I left the house a lot this past month. I walked several miles a week, spent time at a lake and at parks, wandered through our annual summer festival, and you know what? By the end of the month, I’d figured out what I wish I’d known at the beginning.

Looking for past stats? Read January, February, March, and April here.

Read these things, the Nemo storm edition.

If you’re stuck inside with not much to do, take a look at the stories, essays, and interviews that have interested me this week:

Shimmer interviews my friend A.C. Wise, whose story “Tasting of the Sea” appears in issue #16.

Rose Lemberg collected speculative fiction poetry recommendations from various editors – read the list here.

Geoff Ryman’s famously sad novel, Was, is now available as an ebook from Weightless Books (their page has excerpts from the book).

Avi Steinberg talks writing and the Gilbert v Roth argument:

That’s the kind of a person it takes to be a writer: someone who’s zealous and ready to argue, someone who has Philip Roth tell him, “It’s torture, don’t do it,” and replies, “You had me at ‘torture.’ ” You don’t enter into it because it’s a great lifestyle decision—it isn’t—you do it because, for whatever reason, you believe in it, and you believe in it because, for whatever reason, you need to believe in it.

Discover News says readers grasp digital media (aka ebooks) just as well as print.

Eddie Huang (author, chef, and tv personality) talks to NPR about Asian-American food, family, and masculinity. (podcast/interview)

NY Review of Books talks about Wes Anderson as a writer.

Stupefying Stories put together a free ebook of shorts by authors eligible for this year’s Campbell Award.

Wonderful Chet Baker documentary “Let’s Get Lost” now on YouTube.

My latest appearance on the SF Signal podcast is now up: “2013 SF/F/H Conventions We’re Anticipating“. I mainly talk about how great Readercon is.

Oh, and I shared the introduction from FISH over at Dagan Books.

How I Get Back Up When I Fall Down

I wish that I wrote every day. I’m working toward being organized and scheduled enough that I work – writing, editing, publishing – 30 hours a week. I admit, the last few months, there have been weeks when I didn’t work at all, or only a few hours. Things are better but I still have plenty of days where I spend an hour getting things done and that’s it. That’s not acceptable to me.

The one thing that I have going for me is that I don’t give up on wanting to be a writer, wanting to publish books. I have ideas and projects and people that I want to work with. I also have had a lot of personal drama, financial problems, raising a special needs child alone problems. Problems. Nothing that all of you haven’t had to deal with too. Life is just like that. It’s hard so that we grow and learn and, for writers, it’s hard so we actually have stories to tell. The Universe is such that we were allowed to be born, for which we should be grateful, and after which the Universe owes us nothing else. It’s up to us to keep moving forward.

But how? How do you pick yourself up when you’ve had a hard day? How do you keep writing, putting huge chunks of yourself down on paper, and do it well, while struggling not to spend the day in bed under the covers? I’ve had enough of those days lately, so here’s what I’ve been doing:

  • If you have to quit, do it in small doses – Sometimes the struggle to keep it all together is so much harder than the things you’re trying to get done. If you’ve been working 60 hour weeks or dealing with family drama or been sick, the best thing to do might be to take a day off. Don’t try to write anything. Relax, decompress, take a nap, whatever makes you feel better. You deserve it. The important thing is to keep an eye on these “breaks”. Don’t do it two days in a row. Once you start saying, “I didn’t write yesterday but I don’t feel like it today so maybe tomorrow,” you’re slipping into the abyss of giving up completely.
  • Get happy – put on some dancing music, go for a walk in the sunshine, eat a brownie. Do something that you know will make you feel better, and which has a short time investment. You don’t want to spend the day at the beach because then you’re not writing all day. But taking your dog for a run only eats up an hour of your time and still got you out of the house.
  • Get organized – Jumping back into writing or editing, when you have a lot on your mind, can seem daunting. It might be better to “prime the pump” by getting yourself ready to write. Lead your brain down the path toward writing by cleaning your desk, writing a story to-do list, organizing your notes or your project white board. It helps you focus on writing-related activities and off your personal problems.
  • Look at what’s nearly done – I tend to write several stories at once, jumping back and forth between them as the mood strikes me. One thing that I do when I haven’t written in a while is to figure out which story is the closest to being done. It’s often easier to sit down and bang out the last four hundred words on a story than it is to start something completely new. Plus you get the bonus of having finished something.
  • Write something else – I feel strongly that part of what keeps my readers interested even when I don’t have new fiction out is the content I produce for my blog, and other websites like SF Signal and Functional Nerds. A big part of my push to get my life back together has been to commit to getting my non-fiction blog writing back on track. When I don’t want to work on anything else, I can still usually think of a blog post. Talking here, about writing, movies, or anything else, is easier because it’s really just me talking to you. I do want to sound literate and I do edit a little, but for the most part I turn on my computer and let the words come out. When I’m done, I’ve accomplished something, I’ve connected with the world, I’ve got another 1000 words out in public. Writing doesn’t always have to be hard. Make sure that you’re writing about something related to your work though, because that will help train you to be thinking about writing, and putting words on the page in relation to your writing. You can talk about your favorite story, do a book review, or rant about how much you hate the ampersand.* Do a guest post somewhere (you probably know other writers who’d be happy to have you create some content for their site, just ask).
  • Do your research – It’s ok to not write if you’re doing the work that will prep you for writing. And let’s face it – we all have days where we want to lie back and let someone else talk to us. Don’t feel like doing anything but watching TV? Fine, you can do that today. As long as you’re watching documentaries about the evolution of tigers for that big felines in space story you’ve wanted to write. Spend it online, reading about the Ottoman empire for that historical you’ve been outlining. Or you can listen to a podcast about how story structure. As long as you’re learning something you need to know in order to write well, you’re not wasting your time.
  • Read the greats – I was stuck for a voice on a recent short story until I read Ray Vukcevich’s collection, BOARDING INSTRUCTIONS. Even though my story doesn’t read like any of his, “listening” (in my head) to someone else’s voice helped me find my own. Read a new hit, or an old classic, and you may find a story idea that you hadn’t thought of, or see someone else’s answer to a plot problem you’ve struggled with. Reading, for me, always feels like recharging, and I like being able to say, “Well I didn’t write today, but I read the book that won the Hugo last year.” That’s accomplishing something. Plus you can write a book review of it when you’re done.
  • This, Then That – make a deal with yourself. First you’re going to make the bed, then you’re going to open a new Word document, write your name at the top, and save it to your desktop. Next, you’re going to wash the dishes, and then you’re going to write two paragraphs on whatever comes out your brain. Keep doing that throughout the day and as long as you follow each non-writing task with a burst of writing, your list of things you have to do before you can write (we all have them) will diminish and your word count will go up.
  • Track your hours – Tape a piece of paper to your wall and write down what you spent your writing time on, and how much of it there was. You may find you’re working more than you thought! Or you may see that you’re writing less than you imagined, which could help motivate you to work harder. At least you’ll know for sure.
  • Don’t stop yourself – The first few things that you write when you’ve been away from your desk may feel clunky and wrong and bad. You may want to give up again. That’s more about getting used to using that part of your brain again than it is about your actual skill as a writer. Don’t give up! Remember the power of editing. You can fix almost anything, but you can’t edit a blank page.

I’m not where I want to be yet but doing these things is moving me in the direction.

* Note: I love the ampersand.