Who wants a holiday card? (2016 Edition)

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songbirds-1

A variety of non-denominationally winter stamps have been acquired.

Since last year’s attempt to send out a bunch of holiday* cards was successful, I’m doing it again this year — and starting earlier, so I have more time to do it right. I’ve also been trying to be less of a “reclusive writer”, reaching out to people I know well, and I realize this could be an opportunity not just to celebrate the friendships I have, but to expand the new friendships I’d like to build on. So… who wants a holiday card?

If you would like to receive mail from me, please click on the link below and fill out the form. Your answers will not be visible to anyone else.

Sign me up!

And… if you want to send mail to me, you can do so at:

address

 

Thank you, for enlarging my world.

* Whatever this means to you. Choose from a variety of holidays, non-denominational writing inspiration, recipes, or simply an acknowledgement that winter hasn’t killed you yet. Because that’s worth celebrating too!

Note: if you signed up last year, you’re already on my list, and you don’t need to do so again. But! If you moved, or want to change your preferences, please do take a second to update your information in my form. Thanks!

Happy Halloween! No tricks, all treat: “On the Methods of Preserving and Dissecting Icthyo Sapiens” (FREE PDF)

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Art by Shannon Legler, commissioned for my story when it appeared at Mad Scientist Journal (November 4, 2013)

Art by Shannon Legler, commissioned for my story when it appeared at Mad Scientist Journal (November 4, 2013)

I can’t hand out candy over the internet — but oh, my friends, I would if I could — so instead, I am handing out a short, sad, and creepy story I originally wrote for Mad Scientist Journal in 2013. Read the excerpt and download a free PDF below.

Lab Notes, April 23, 1931. The subject has four limbs, but while its skin appears crocodilian, the limbs are not fixed under the body. Instead they appear to be jointed much as a man’s are, with longer back legs and a wide range of motion in the shorter front legs.

Water is everywhere. It is, always, since the earliest memories of my life. I feel it as a warm pressure on every part of my skin. It is an ever-moving source of air for my lungs and food for my belly. When the currents are strong it becomes thick enough to sit on, to grab a hold of and ride. The water is never still because it is never empty. I can taste the time of day.

Though it has a mouth and front facing eyes, it does not appear to breathe air, and instead has several gills hidden under heavy scales on its neck which are easy to miss. Kudos to Johnson for noticing them, or the thing might have drowned before we got its head and neck into a bucket of water.

I was born there, where the river flows into the deep lake. I have traveled upriver to mate, have seen water muddied by great hippos and in places a river lowered by heat and summer sun. I have crawled along the nearly empty river bed, me, who was born in a place so deep no light can penetrate it! I have seen all manner of fish and monsters and men. Everything has a place in the world, everything fits into each other and makes sense, except the men.

Download a free PDF of the full story here.

For more information about Shannon Legler, visit her site at http://lendmeyourbones.tumblr.com.

“On the Methods of Preserving and Dissecting Icthyo Sapiens” by Carrie Cuinn  is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. (This means that you can share the story — including the PDF I’ve provided — freely, as long as you attribute it to me, do not charge any money for it, and don’t change it in any way. Please note this basic explanation is not a substitute for the license terms.)

Thank you for sharing, and reading!

Follow Friday Five: Barbara Jane Reyes, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Dr. Adrienne Keene, Alice Wong, Gay YA

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I realize that I’ve been lucky to know some incredibly talented people in publishing, at all stages of their careers. People that you should be familiar with, too. For at least the next few months, I’ve set up regular posts to go out on Fridays (coinciding the with the popular #FollowFriday movement on Twitter) to highlight people and projects I want you to know more about.

Last week, I recommended: Fran Wilde, A.C. Wise, Jeff VanderMeer, Wes Chu, and Don Pizarro.

This week? Barbara Jane Reyes, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Dr. Adrienne Keene, Alice Wong,  and the Gay YA project.

It’s not enough to say we want more diversity in SFF, or genre fiction, or literature — we have to actually seek out and read authors and educators who write from a perspective that isn’t “middle-class white suburban America”. Today’s Follow Five can help you to do that.

Barbara Jane Reyes is an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow, award-winning author of numerous poetry chapbooks, and professor of Filipina American Literature. She was born in Manila, and raised in the SF Bay Area, where she got a B.A. in Ethnic Studies (U.C. Berkeley) and a M.F.A. from San Francisco State.

Reyes is constantly working to increase readership of Filipino — particularly Filipina — authors. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for Philippine American Writers and Artists (PAWA), is an adjunct professor at University of San Francisco’s Yuchengco Philippine Studies Program, and co-editor of Doveglion Press. She’s given numerous readings, lectures, and interviews (you can find some of them on her YouTube channel here), and she regularly writes comprehensive blog posts detailing authors, lit movements, and cultural history. For example, she’s recently shared several lists of Filipina American Lit Authors that should be required reading not just for students of Filipin@ authors, not just for literary students, but for readers in general.

Filipina American Literature Reading Recommendations: List 1 | List 2 | List 3 | List 4 | List 5

You can find her online at barbarajanereyes.com and on Twitter @bjanepr

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a Mexican-Canadian author and editor whose creations include Innsmouth MagazineInnsmouth Free Press, and The Jewish Mexican Literary Review (with Lavie Tidhar). She also co-edits The Dark with Sean Wallace. She was also the original fiction editor for People of Colour Destroy Horror, a special issue of Nightmare Magazine. As editor, her anthology She Walks in Shadows — highlighting Lovecraft’s mostly-ignored female characters — was nominated for a World Fantasy Award this year. As an author, she’s published dozens of short stories since 2006, and has two collections out now. Her novels (Signal to Noise, 2015, and Certain Dark Things, 2016) focus on the supernatural from a Mexican perspective, and have been widely praised.

Moreno-Garcia has long been a fan, and scholar, of horror — including exploring and expanding on the work of HP Lovecraft. (In fact, her 2016 MA thesis is available online: “Magna Mater: Women and Eugenic Thought in the Work of H.P. Lovecraft” and has my vote for a “Best Related Work” Hugo next year.) Her Strange Horizons article on the history of Mexican Science Fiction is a must read — though I wish it were longer — and her Fantasy Magazine article on Pre-Columbian Cultures in Film recommends work you probably would never have heard of otherwise.

Start with those three pieces of nonfiction, move on to Moreno-Garcia’s stories and novels, and then keep an eye out for anything she publishes as as an editor.

You can find her online at silviamoreno-garcia.com and on Twitter @silviamg

Dr. Adrienne Keene is the writer behind “Native Appropriations“, professor of Native Studies, and member of the a Cherokee Nation. Hers is a tireless voice, active online (particularly Twitter), discussing and dissecting stereotypes of indigenous peoples. She frequently highlights cultural appropriation, and shares news stories you probably missed. On the Native Appropriations site, she writes long posts which thoughtfully and kindly — often, much more kindly than we deserve — explain in detail exactly what’s wrong with the lack of Native representation in Hamilton, or why polls claiming Native people don’t mind racist sports team names are probably very wrong.

In short, she educates the public. If you’re wondering whether she’s constantly the target of abuse and harassment for that effort, the answer is yes. Yes, racist white dudes flood her mentions on the regular, defending their team mascots, and entitled white women active insist on their right to dismiss critiques of their “native-inspired” Coachella headdresses. Keene educates us anyway.

You can find her online at Native Appropriations and on Twitter @NativeApprops

Alice Wong is a writer and activist, and founder of the  Project. She shares and discusses news to foster a greater understanding about the intersection of disability stories, culture, politics, public perception, and the individual people living with the experience of disability.

Wong is an organizer of , to encourage discussion of disability issues during the 2016 election season (which is still ongoing), writes curricula for home care providers and caregivers, and is a Staff Research Associate for the Community Living Policy Center. Her Twitter is full of insightful conversation about the variety of barriers faced by people living with disability, and their struggles against institutional ableism — and she contributes greatly to the discussion.

Wong also a contributor to The Nerds of Color and Model View Culture, so you know I’m following her for those things, too. (Geeks of the world, unite!)

You can find her online at disabilityvisibilityproject.com and on Twitter @SFdirewolf

The Gay YA project isn’t a person, but is an excellent source of news, information, and discussion about QUILTBAG+ characters in YA novels. They host a book club, share links, point writers at agents who are open to repping diverse authors, and moderate Twitter chats on various related topics. If you write YA, want to read YA, or are involved in any other aspect of publishing and want to stay on top of current trends in fiction, follow Gay YA. (So, basically, anyone who reads and/or writes. Yes, this means you.)

You can find them online at gayya.org and on Twitter at @thegayYA

Follow Friday Five: Fran Wilde, A.C. Wise, Jeff VanderMeer, Wes Chu, Don Pizarro

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I realize that I’ve been lucky to know some incredibly talented people in publishing, at all stages of their careers. People that you should know about, too. For at least the next few months, I’ve set up regular posts to go out on Fridays (coinciding the with the popular #FollowFriday movement on Twitter) to highlight people and projects I want you to get to know.

The first five are some of my favorite people: Fran Wilde, A.C. Wise, Jeff VanderMeer, Wes Chu, and Don Pizarro.

Fran Wilde writes about invisible sky squid and bone cities and jewel girls, and she makes it all look effortless. There’s an ease about reading her work. I tear through it like a watching a movie. I’m never left, after reading Fran’s work, feeling as is there were things she left out, questions unanswered, worldbuilding she didn’t quite complete. She builds her stories from the basement up, figuring out history, society, cuisine, laws, fashion… all of the little bits of creating a culture which tell us it’s real, even when we don’t notice the effort. Her worlds and characters simply exist, fully formed, doing the things you’d expect for reasons that make sense and every part of it is so authentic that you don’t question it. You just believe it.

That talent didn’t come out of nowhere, and Fran — like everyone else on today’s list — has put in years to get where she is now. She has an MFA in poetry, has taught writing at high schools and colleges, worked in digital media, in communications for non-profits, wrote reviews and articles and blog posts and short stories and now, after all of that, novels. It’s no surprise, then, that her first novel, Updraft, won the Andre Norton and Compton Crook awards, and was nominated for a Nebula. (The sequel, Cloudbound, is out now.)

But on top of all of that, she’s a delightful person to be around. She loves adorable socks and good food and her family and friends. She’s enthusiastic about the projects we’ve done together. She’s always made me feel like she’s glad to see me. I’m genuinely happy that she’s my friend.

You can find her online at franwilde.net and on Twitter @fran_wilde

A.C. Wise was born in Canada, but we don’t hold that against her. She’s a short story writer with the range to pull off glittery and fun, or poignant, or emotionally powerful, depending on the story (and sometimes all of those things at once). Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies (including mine) plus Clarkesworld, The Dark, Lackington’s MagazineApex, Uncanny Magazine, and dozens more magazines. She has two collections so far: The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again, and The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories, which comes out this month.

Wise has been working on her craft for over a decade, publishing her first short story in 2005, and writing consistently every year since. She also co-edits Unlikely Story, and has spent the last few years actively encouraging women’s voices in fiction. She wrote the popular “Women to Read” column at SF Signal, starting in 2013, until it shut down this summer. (She’s now writing “Words for Thought” each month at Apex Magazine, but the “Women to Read” columns are all archived on her website.) She’s kind and helpful, and she’s always, always, supported me.

You can find her online at acwise.net and on Twitter @ac_wise

Jeff VanderMeer is world famous now, mostly as the author of his Southern Reach Trilogy (soon to be in theaters!), but I know him as one of the hardest-working people in genre fiction. He’s been devoted to writing, editing, and teaching, for decades. He’s been nominated for 14 World Fantasy Awards, has won 5, and a dozen or so other awards as well. He’s defined genres, introduced important translated work to a generation of English-speaking readers, taught at Clarion, Hobart-William Smith College, and Shared Worlds (a two-week residential workshop for teenagers). He writes non-fiction, including book reviews, and helped created Weird Fiction Review, as part of his ongoing contributions to the academic side of genre fiction.

If there’s anyone who’s career I’d like to have when I grow up, it’s Jeff’s.

He’s also continually inspiring as a person. He’s passionate about halting climate change and protecting endangered species. He works constantly, reads voraciously, and shares what he knows. If he reads a story he likes, he’ll tell you. If he discovers a new author, he promotes their book. He’s involved in the genre community, not just as a teacher and publisher, but appearing at events and on panels, serving on judging committees, and behind the scenes, too, quietly guiding and supporting.

On a personal note, he’s inspired me to write the weird little novel in my heart, even if no one else gets it but me.

You can find him online at jeffvanderrmeer.com and on Twitter @jeffvandermeer

Wesley Chu may be the most honest person I know in publishing. The first time I met him, just before The Lives of Tao debuted, he sat down and told me his plan. His goals, his motivations, the arc of his writing career — all laid out. He knew what he needed to accomplish in order to make a career of writing, and what he’d have to give up, too. In the years since, he’s done exactly what he set out to do, by believing in himself, focusing on one thing (writing his novels), and putting his butt in the chair every day. Over and over again.

He doesn’t pretend to be anyone other than he is, and he doesn’t need to. He’s unapologetically driven, but he’s kind. He loves his fans, appreciates his success, and has remained accessible to the people he came up with, even as he’s sold more, gotten movie deals, and could have easily forgotten everyone. But I’ve never seen him dismiss people, or be pretentious. And, he’s fun. He’s energetic. He likes good booze and fine food and will talk for hours. He wants to see the world and to be a part of it at the same time. If you like entertaining books and charming authors, you’ll want to know Wes.

You can find him online at wesleychu.com and on Twitter @wes_chu

Don Pizarro isn’t a household name, yet. He’s had a handful of sales, edited an anthology, voiced half a dozen podcasts, and written a few essays, but rarely promotes himself. He’s incredibly well-read, and has appeared on panels at Boskone, World Fantasy Convention, and given presentations at the Rod Serling Conference, several years in a row, sharing his insight. He’s always up for good conversation about writers and writing, and he listens at least as much as he talks.

Don doesn’t submit very often, though I hope that will change soon. He’s spent the last six years that I’ve known him studying. Reading. Practicing. Taking workshops, going to other author’s events. (He attended Viable Paradise this year, too.) He’s driven to work at his craft, week after week, and the stories he produces have a delicate blend of realism and folklore, personal history and a sense of place. He can write anything — even Lovecraft-inspired erotica — and give it a thoughtful, literary feel. (I’m not kidding. Felicia Day said his Cthulhurotica story was like “Innsmouth meets indie movie”.)

Read “Life After Wartime“, and then find him online at warmfuzzyfreudianslippers.com and on Twitter @DonP

The 4 jobs I have (Other than Writing)

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As a freelancer, without a dayjob office to go to or set shifts, I end up working every day, and some days, weeks, blend together. To better organize my life, I track it — what I get done (and what I don’t), if I sleep, eat, take my medication, how I feel. With that data, I now know that my life is chronically overbooked, and most of jobs are unpaid. And, most of what I do isn’t what I wish I was: writing.

Freelancer: This is my dayjob (night job, weekend job). What I do for a living, the editing and content creation part, I love. The business side of it is hard, stressful, and I’m underpaid. (I don’t make enough enough month to pay my bills, putting me further into debt each month, and part of my job is to chase down more work, to remind clients to pay me… which doesn’t always happen.) I have some flexibility, though, which I badly need so I can do all of the other jobs I have, too.

Child care/advocate/special needs teacher: I’m the only parent and full-time caregiver for a very bright boy with a serious speech disorder, so I spend several hours a week being not only his mom, but his teacher, and the connection between him and the rest of the world. I have meetings with his school, his speech therapist, and the county agency that acts as the state intermediary. I interview and hire his staff, research therapies, take him to doctor’s appointments, manage his medication, and create different exercises to teach him new words in different contexts. Plus the parenting bit — feeding him and buying clothes when he grows and snuggling him when he’s sick. I’m happy to do it, no matter how much time it takes, but it does take time, every day, and I don’t have help to do it.

Housekeeper/Cook/Home and item repairs: All the things you need to do in order to keep your house clean? I do that. Cleaning up after a child? I do that. All the shopping, cooking, and figuring out how to feed us well on a small budget — which means lots of cooking from scratch — is on me, too. Because I can’t afford to replace anything, or hire anyone to fix things, I do all of that as well. On a given week this might be sewing up a ripped shirt, gluing a wooden chair back together, or  — this week — diagnosing a plumbing problem, ripping out a toilet (including cutting out rusted bolts) and replacing it with a new one, to save the labor cost my landlord would have charged. When you’re poor, you learn to fix a lot of things. I actually feel lucky that I’m capable of doing as much as I am.

Nutritionist/Trainer/Medical Care: There’s been a lot of this, the last couple of months. Surgery for the thyroid cancer, and then getting tested for everything my new insurance will cover, has meant changes to what I eat (anemic and lactose intolerant means more iron and less dairy, to start with). In the process of being sick, I put on almost 80 pounds I didn’t want, so now I have to get it back off, and learning to do that safely at this size has been a new challenge. I’ve had doctor’s appointments or blood tests almost every week for 3 months — this week alone I have four appointments and lab work. I have three daily medications (soon to be four) and a weekly one, that need to be taken at certain times, and a rescue inhaler for when I exercise. Like everything else, learning what’s causing me to be unhealthy so that I can work to be healthy takes a lot of time.

Between each of these “jobs”, I don’t leave the house as much as I’d like to. I don’t go out. I don’t watch much tv. I don’t read enough to make me happy, or sleep enough, or take a day off. Trying to find time to write fiction in the spaces these other tasks don’t occupy feels impossible, and my to do list is neverending. The stress over not being able to reliably pay my rent causes me a lot of worry, and honestly, I’m afraid on a regular basis.

But I love to write. I think it’s the thing that is going to matter the most, at the end of my life. It’s the way I can make a little bit of a difference in the world. Maybe a tiny difference, but I’ll take it if I can get it.

So, with every task and every worry I’ve got weighing me down, I still look for writing time every day. I’m not going to give up.

If you love writing too, you shouldn’t stop looking for time to write either. We can do it together.

The 5th Annual Art and Words show is tonight!

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My poem, “Myth of the Mother Snake“, will be appearing in tonight’s Art & Words show, alongside original art that’s being created to go with it. I won’t be able to be there — it’s in Texas — but if you’re local, you show definitely go.

art_show

In addition, I was assigned a piece of art to be inspired by: Todd Ford’s painting, Ravenous (above). From that, I wrote an 800 word flash story, “If Wishes Were Feathers”. It won’t be unveiled for the public until the show, but here’s an excerpt:

If Wishes Were Feathers

The raven was past dead when Melda found it. Its belly had been ripped open by something with a small muzzle and sharp teeth, and its innards were long gone. It was missing a leg as well, and all around the raven’s body, black feathers littered the ground like drops of water shaken from a wet dog. Whatever blood had spilled was dried to a brown smear. She quickly grabbed a hold of the bird’s head and twisted.

It didn’t come off.

She pulled harder, struggling to not breathe, to not think of the way the feathers poked her tiny fingers and the flies buzzed around her head. Suddenly, with a squick of mud and fluids, the bird pulled free from the dirt and Melda fell backward. The air escaped her lungs in a rush; without meaning to, she breathed in the foul stench of decomposition, and choked on it. Coughing, she scrambled to get up without letting go of the raven’s head, and somehow, when she was standing upright, the rest of the body had dropped off.

“You be good now,” she said. “We’re going to see a witch.”

You can find the show at:

Art on the Boulevard

4919 Camp Bowie Boulevard, Suite B
Fort Worth, TX 76107

Reception and Reading:  6:30 until 9:30 PM.  Exhibit will continue until Oct.9.2106.  

A Semiotics Primer for Writers, Part 2

“Semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used “to tell” at all.” ― Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics

Did you read “A Semiotics Primer for Writers, Part 1“? In that post, I talked about the basics of what semiotics is, and a little about how it’s applied to writing. These links go to articles and sites that will explain further:

Foundational Work:

  • David Chandler’s Semiotics for Beginners (1998) is online in its entirety here. This is a linguistics-based text that reads like college coursework from an old British professor, which some of you will hate and some of you will adore. It covers the history of the field and gives a foundation for later study to work from.
  • Arthur Asa Berger’s Cultural Criticism: Semiotics and Cultural Criticism is only available for sale at used bookstores but Dartmouth has one of the intro chapters up here. His Signs in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction to Semiotics is also quite a good place to start, and is available on Amazon here.
  • The Encyclopedia of Semiotics, edited by Paul Bouissac, Oxford U Press (1998) is available online here.
  • A Theory of Semiotics (Advances in Semiotics), Umberto Eco (1976). My favorite! You can get it from Amazon here.
  • Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Umberto Eco (1984). The whole thing is available here as a PDF. Also excellent.

Semiotics and Writing:

… and Advertising:

… and Theater/Performance/Music:

  • Semiotics of the Theater“, The Academy
  • Musical Semiotics in the 1990s: The state of the art“, William Echard, SRB Review
  • The Semiotics of Theater and Drama, Keir Elam (1980). Full book online as a PDF here.
  • The Semiotics of Theater, Erika Fischer-Lichte, Indiana U Press (1992). Translated by Jeremy Gaines and Doris L. Jones. Available from Amazon here.
  • Theatre Semiotics: Text and Staging in Modern Theatre, Fernando de Toro, U of Toronto Press (1995). Translated from the Spanish by John Lewis. Available from Amazon here.
  • Performance Studies, Semiotics Encyclopedia

… and Film/Gaming:

… and Early Childhood Education

Further Reading:

  • SemiotiX – “A global information magazine. Its aim is to provide periodic snapshots of the situation of semiotic research in the world, with photos, editorials by, and profiles of, active semioticians, mini-reviews of books, state-of-the-arts at a glance, and selective publicizing of scholarly events.” Published by Semiotics Institute Online. They also offer online courses and an excellent archive of articles. They’re also working on an online semiotics encyclopedia here.
  • Signata – a scholarly journal put out by the Université de Liège. It’s not available to the public online, but if you’ve got JStor or other academic access, you should find it there.
  • Umberto Eco’s semiotics links page
  • Google’s list of scholarly articles on “semiotics and fiction” is here.

Updates and News (August 2016 edition), or, Damn, That Was the Hardest Month

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In August:

I fell apart a bit.

I’ve said it before but this year has proven to me that the last 3 weeks of August (and the first week of September) are the hardest “month” of the year. That’s partly because of having my son home 24 hours a day without any respite, or break, or money to go out and do anything. His school year starts later than most; his first day back wasn’t until September 8, and by then, we were both ready for him to go.

We had to sit in our too-warm apartment all month — our landlord won’t let us put in an A/C unit — because it was too hot to be outside and at least we have some fans indoors. I still had to work as much as possible, and my hyperactive teen quickly became bored bored bored. With his special needs, I can’t send him out to play alone at the park, or go ride a bike, or any of the things I used to do to fill my summer days, all by myself as a kid. He’s an independent guy for the most part, wanting to play his video games or watch his favorite movies over and over for hours at a time. But even he gets tired of that much faster than I need if I’m going to put in a day’s work the way I can when he’s in school or camp.

The heat at the end of summer here is something I’m still getting used to. Growing up in California, we had heat. Hotter days. Lying out on the roof or in the grass that was dry and gone yellow, baking under the sun — my dog days of summer was late August dry heat, 100 degrees or more with no moisture in the air, and the utter joy of a sudden breeze. Here… it’s 90 degrees that feels like 95 because of 75% humidity and scattered rain every few afternoons that does nothing to cut the heat. I live in New York, but it feels like the summer I spent in Georgia, and like the bible school my aunt enrolled me in while I was there, I haven’t gotten used to it yet.

The best kid ever gets fidgety and then grumpy and then outright rebellious, given enough time trapped in a hot apartment with his mom who’s too busy and too poor to do much with him.

We did have one good adventure when I splurged on the gas on drove out to a Wal-Mart the next county over to do his back-to-school clothes shopping. Driving over the hills, the farms all green and growing, under a bright blue sky, the two of us played a game where we gave each other colors and picked out passing cars that matched. He got new clothes (not enough, but at least he wasn’t a shambles on his first day back), and a new haircut at the Wal-Mart salon (I didn’t even know they had those, did you?), and five whole dollars to spend in the arcade (I didn’t know Wal-Mart had those, either).

He was driving the Nascar game (of course) when a little girl sat at the Fast and Furious game next to him. She and her grandma couldn’t figure out how to get started, so Logan — silently — reached over and set it up so she could race the car she wanted, then went back to his game. Kid can barely speak, but he’s so smart and sweet and he didn’t just figure out what they were struggling with, but he wanted to help.

As hard as raising him is, and it is, a lot, my son always reminds me that he’s worth everything I do for him. Continue reading

A Semiotics Primer for Writers, Part 1

I’m going to be chatting with Juliette Wade on Dive Into Worldbuilding this Wednesday, September 14, at 1 PM EST. This is a live online chat, and anyone can join in. It’ll be streaming on YouTube; check out Juliette’s other videos here.

I’ll be talking about two things: writing without a visual imagination, and semiotics, as it’s applied to writing. #SFWAPro

Semiotics (not semiology) is basically the study of what things mean. It examines how signs become stand-ins for meaning — why a shape scratched onto a rock becomes a symbol, becomes a letter, which is interpreted both as a specific sound and an effect on the other letters it’s placed next to, for example; it’s related to linguistics, without being confined to written or spoken language. Semiotics looks at everything as a symbol, and the display of those symbols as extra layers of meaning. Rather that only using the letters on a billboard for meaning, it also explores what effect the font choice, or colors, or size of the letters, has on the meaning of the message. The same words printed in Comic Sans will have a different meaning to a reader than if they’d seen it printed in all caps, using a heavy Impact font, right?

But wait, there’s more! Semiotics also looks at images as if they are components of language, imparting meaning. Traditionally, that’s meant that art historians will look at a painting, and they’ll interpret the color of the subject’s clothes to mean something specific. The objects and animals in a painting will also have an extra meaning. Here’s one example:

Fidelity has long been metaphorically portrayed in Western Art as certain women, a plant, or a dog. (“Fido” even means “trust” in Latin.) In van Eyck’s famous painting, Arnolfini and His Wife, the little dog between the two figures was therefore assumed by viewers at the time to be a reference to the faithfulness they’d enjoy during their marriage.

bowron_renaissance_vaneyck340x247

Jan van Eyck Giovanni, Arnolfini and His Wife (1434)
The National Gallery, London

It’s important to note that I said “viewers at the time”. The Arnolfini Painting was created toward the beginning of the Flemish Primitives period, during the Northern Renaissance. Anyone who viewed it during the 15th century probably understood about the dog, and several dozen other symbolic references as well. They didn’t need it explained to them, because they were living in the culture that created this visual shorthand. The curtains on the bed were red, and left open, hinting at the consummation of the marriage, the future lovemaking they’d enjoy… which wasn’t any kind of a secret to the painting’s intended audience. The fruit on the windowsill implied both fertility (it’s ripe, round, and fresh) and wealth (those fruits were expensive to import) — which would have been obvious at the time. For outside, untrained, viewers, it doesn’t give the same impression.

Decoding semiotic clues becomes harder as you move away from the originating culture. This could be a movement in time — most of the interpretation was done in the 20th century — or place, which is why early archeologists got so very many things wrong when they applied their 19th-century British or German worldviews to Ancient Egyptian relics. (Or any other African finds, or Native American sites, or South American, or… pretty much any dig that uncovered anything, anywhere. White privilege in action!)

The study of semiotics looks to understand people, art, culture, and events through the lens of interpreting the things left unsaid. It’s also used to understand the written depiction of things outside of dialogue. You’ve been using it ever since you started reading, even if you didn’t know.

Writers often use this shorthand to enhance their writing, so readers are used to looking for and understanding that shorthand. It’s why you probably think of “Sherlock Holmes” when you see a deerstalker hat, or the image of man in a long beige trenchcoat, wearing a fedora, standing in the shadows, implies “early 20th century detective”. It’s why that same trench coat paired with a blue suit and Converse makes you think of the Doctor, instead. These things are the visual expression of “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” a phrase that means much more than the individual words suggests.

For some writers, putting in semiotic clues is a way to skimp on the writing. If you show us at the beginning that your main character looks and moves like Ronald Reagan, then you don’t have to work as hard to convince us that this person is charming, affable, and secretly suffering from memory loss or dementia. We’ll know that, because Reagan has become an archetype, and his presence means those things to many people now.

(There are some sub-genres that work well for this sort of writing: space adventure comedies, and Mythos stories, for example. But unless you’re careful, it’s too easy to rely on flat archetypes and facile writing, putting the work on your readers instead of yourself.)

I’m not saying that semiotics is only a cheat for lazy writers, though. It can be, sure. When done well, it also adds layers and layers of subtext to original stories. Think of the way the color red is used in The Sixth Sense or the lighting cues that Dean Cudney used in John Carpenter’s The Thing. The way Sandy changes into the black outfit in Grease and the boys instantly know what she’s trying to say about herself.

Everything has meaning, when you want it to.

(Part 2 will be published on Wednesday, September 14. Stay tuned!)

FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE #5: It’s Lovely, Under the Stars

I recently asked people on Twitter and Facebook for random writing prompts, and from those, I wrote five micro and flash fiction stories to share here on my site. The others are:

This story is courtesy of Melissa Dominic, who gave me a bunch of prompts:  forest stream, tall and short, violet, bunny, moons. Here is my 500-word interpretation…

#SFWAPro

It’s Lovely, Under the Stars

“Marty, we’re stuck,” the shorter man said. “That pisses me off.”

“Everything pisses you off, Big Jack,” the taller man replied.

Big Jack nodded slowly. “True. But we’re trapped out here because of those things and that’s worse of all.”

“It ain’t too bad. Look around.” Marty moved his arm in a wide, sweeping motion. “We got the forest, and this here stream, and our gear. It’s like a camp out.” He smiled, crinkling up his angular face and revealing a mouthful of perfectly white teeth.

Big Jack frowned, his face relaxing into familiar wrinkles. “You think it’ll ever be safe to go back?”

“With those big mouse-looking things? No, I do not.” Marty looked away then, and picked up a stick. He poked at the fire, stirring up embers, which floated away as tiny orange specks in the night. “You saw what they was doing to people. Breaking open houses and just lifting people out, popping ’em in their face holes, like so many wriggling snacks.” He sighed.

“It ain’t right,” he added, after a moment, and much quieter.

“I think they was bunnies,” Big Jack said. “They looked soft.”

“No, now, they ain’t bunnies,” Marty said. “You can’t think of ’em as anything you like. They were giant space mice, bigger than trees, come from the meteor that crashed last week.”

“You figure?”

“I do, and they can’t be beat, so don’t go trying.”

Big Jack sat down near Marty and the fire. He looked up the sky. “Maybe the meteor came from that new moon?”

“That makes sense. The extra moon just appeared in the sky after that storm and the earthquake we had a few weeks back,” Marty replied. “That is smart thinking, Big Jack.” He smiled again. “I need you to keep thinking smart if we’re going to survive out here until those space mice get tired of being here and go home again.”

Big Jack’s face pulled to one side, the way it always did when he was thinking. “They might get homesick,” he said slowly.

“They might do,” Marty told him, patting Jack gently on the arm. “Now lets get in our bags and get some sleep. We walked a long way today, and yesterday, too. I’m beat.” He kicked some dirt onto the fire to put it out.

They took off their shoes and got into their sleeping bags – a red plaid one for Marty, marked XL but still not enough for his gangly body, placed next to a smaller blue bag that was longer than his friend would ever need. In the deep dark, the forest was quiet, and the stars were bright.

“That extra moon is pretty, though, isn’t it Marty?” Big Jack asked, his arm under his head for a pillow. “It’s like the color of my grandma Helen’s African Violets.”

“It is real pretty,” Marty admitted. “You go to sleep now.”

“Goodnight, Marty,” Big Jack said quietly. “I kind of like mice, too.”

“I know, Big Jack. Goodnight.”