All posts by Guest Poster

Friendship Is Magic

E. Catherine Tobler was kind enough to interview me about The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again for the illustrious pages of Shimmer. In answering her questions, I touched on something on I wanted to expand on — female friendship. Luckily, Shimmer was kind enough to invite me back to blather on a bit more. So here we go.

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In mainstream media, female friendship is disturbingly rare. Women tend to be relegated sidekick roles, love interests, or the damsel in distress, motivating the hero.

By now, everyone has likely heard of the Bechdel Test — the simple test that requires a book or movie to have at least two women share the page or screen and talk to each other about something other than relationships with men in order to pass. Failing the test frequently indicates that the women in question are props in a male-driven story; they have no lives of their own.

the_big_bang_theory_1x08_the_isolation_permutation1A particularly egregious offender is The Big Bang Theory. At a certain point in the series, they had multiple interesting female characters who did nothing but discuss what the guys were up to anytime they got together. They didn’t talk about their jobs (Neuroscience! Pharmaceutical research and development!); they didn’t talk about their families; heck, they didn’t even talk about what they had for lunch. Their lives began and ended with their male-centered relationships.

The lack of female friendships in mainstream media goes beyond failing the Bechdel Test. There’s also the problem of the Lone Exceptional Female. Black Widow in the Avengers is a prime example. As the only woman allowed in the boy’s club, she ends up carrying the entire weight of her gender (something cis-het-white-able-men are rarely asked to do).

Avengers00113These problems are both symptoms of the prevailing sense in mainstream media that stories about men are the only ones worth telling. Women get to fit into whatever space is left over. It gets even worse when the women in question are trans women, women of color,  or anything that puts them further outside the “norm”. Because there is so little space, a sense of competition develops. To be included, you must be the right kind of woman. Play nice with the boys, support their story, punch down and out at each other and climb to the top of the heap.

In this environment, the stories we see about women end up being very narrow. They aren’t the stories about women supporting each other, working together to accomplish a goal, commiserating over their losses, or celebrating their victories. They are stories about women fighting over a man. Stories about one woman surviving while the others are killed off, or simply not there. They are stories about the women left at home waiting while men go off and do important thing.

A study by the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media showed that a group made up of 17% women is seen as being equal, and one made up of 33% women is seen as being female-dominated. Women’s stories aren’t normal, they aren’t universal, they take up so much more space than stories for everyone. If we start letting all those stories about women talking to each other into onto our pages and screens, how will we ever hear the men’s voices over the deafening cacophony?

mlp-girlsThe culture is changing, but it’s a slow change. Still, there are some good examples out there. Parks and Recreation put the friendship between Anne Perkins and Leslie Knope  front and center; My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is based entirely on the idea the ponies are stronger together; and Lumberjanes not only features an all-female cast, but an all-female creative team. One of my goals for The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again was to show that kind of female friendship. The members of the Glitter Squadron don’t always get along. They disagree, they fight, but under it all, they care deeply for each other. And they talk to each other. Occasionally it’s about relationships, but more often than not, it’s about saving the world.

In the spirit of the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron’s friendship, I’ll leave you with a recipe from Sapphire’s Little Black Book of Cocktails, designed especially for my good friends, the Shimmer badgers. What better way to celebrate friendships of all sorts than with a drink?

The Shimmery Badger

2oz Viniq
1 oz Spring 44 Honey Vodka
.5 oz Orange Liquor
Champagne
Orange twist

Combine Viniq, honey vodka, and orange liquor in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake well and strain into a champagne flute. Top with champagne and an orange twist. The perfect drink for celebrating shimmery deeds.

As I understand it, badgers eat just about anything that won’t kill them, and a few things that will – fruit, roots, hedgehogs, chickens, and even venomous snakes. They’re also fond of honey, so this cocktail pays homage to the spirit of the badger’s diet, without the more…interesting aspects of their culinary choices. I am not designing a cocktail that relies on hedgehog parts for its flair.

Bunny and the Shimmer badgers go way back. To be perfectly honest, I’m not entirely sure whether these badgers are actual honest-to-goodness, black and white, digging in the dirt animals, people, or some combination of both. What I can tell you is The Shimmer Badgers sounds like a hell of a band name. When Bunny first mentioned them, I assumed she was talking about the back-up band for the cabaret show she used to do. I overheard Es and Bunny talking once, accidentally, of course. A lady never eavesdrops. Something about ghosts and were-raptors, and sets leading to underground tunnel networks and pocket dimensions. When I asked, they exchanged a super secret look and clammed right up. Maybe if I load them up with a few more of these Shimmery Badger drinks they’ll spill the beans.

Don’t forget: Come get your Glitter Squadron name/drink! A.C. will be picking a random winner, who will get glittery swag! Contest closes Monday October 26.

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A.C. Wise
A.C. Wise

 

A.C. Wise hails from the land of poutine (Montreal) and currently resides in the land of cheesesteaks (Philadelphia). Her fiction has appeared in previous issues of Shimmer, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and the Best Horror of the Year Vol. 4, among other publications. In addition to her writing, she co-edits Unlikely Story. You can find her online at www.acwise.net and on twitter as @ac_wise. The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again is available NOW from Lethe Press, and be sure to visit Shimmer #28 for “Even In This Skin,” her newest Shimmer story.

Writing the Scar Tissue: on truth in fiction

smoraine3Sunny Moraine joins us in Shimmer #17 with a story that alarmed me the first moment I read it. I mean that in a good way, reader. I have never read anything like her story before. And may not again. Here, Sunny talks about the writing of it. -ECT

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You can’t get to any of these truths by sitting in a field smiling beatifically, avoiding your anger and damage and grief. Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth. We don’t have much truth to express unless we have gone into those rooms and closets and woods and abysses that we were told not go in to. When we have gone in and looked around for a long while, just breathing and finally taking it in – then we will be able to speak in our own voice and to stay in the present moment. And that moment is home. – Anne Lamott

Many, many writers have influenced my writing, from the earliest days of wanting to tell stories via words on a page to the voice I often feel like I’m still struggling to find. But in terms of attitude toward writing, how I really think about the craft and what it requires, few people have been as influential for me as Anne Lamott.

Reading Lamott’s Bird by Bird was the first time I encountered an urge to go into the most uncomfortable places in myself in order to find material, to write about what one isn’t supposed to write about. There was something liberating about being told that so blatantly, though I’d never really believed otherwise – it’s different when you’re getting it from someone who isn’t you. But she doesn’t only claim that it’s important to do. She acknowledges that it’s painful and frightening, that the process of writing is often both, and that it’s okay to feel those things. That it doesn’t mean that you’re not doing well, but – on the contrary – that you’re doing what you need to do.

Stephen King, another writer who’s been a huge influence on how I go about the act of writing, has said many times that writing fiction is ultimately about telling the truth, and on this he and Lamott are in total agreement: the best fiction is the truth. But the truth hurts. The truth requires courage.

I’ve worked on a lot of things in my journey toward being a better writer, and all of them are things I’m still working on – technique, plotting, discipline, character creation, consistent world building, not overusing certain words (which seem to change with wild abandon as new ones move into and out of fashion in my brain). But I get the feeling that the most difficult and most important thing is that act of telling the truth. Like most people, I’m carrying around a lot of scar tissue, as well as wounds that are still pretty raw. There’s a lot of anger and pain and terror there. And I feel sure that when I can finally let that anger and pain and terror be present in my writing, I’ll be doing great work. But I don’t feel like I’m totally there yet. I’m not quite brave enough.

Which brings me to my story in Shimmer #17.

“Love in the Time of Vivisection” is a bloody, vicious story in a lot of ways, but it’s also tender and pained. It came out of thinking about honesty and how much it hurts, how it can actually be destructive, how it can destroy relationships just as easily as it can make them stronger. I was also thinking about how the most destructive kind of honesty is the kind that exists without any mutuality; it’s almost coercive, almost a violation. One person is stripped bare by someone else, submitting willingly but also left with little choice, and in the end they’re left with nothing at all. It doesn’t quite come out of my own experience – I’m happy to report that my own relationship is nowhere near as dysfunctional – but I can imagine myself there, and I know how hard it is for me to be honest.

In fact, if my own fear is at the heart of the story, it’s really more about the act of writing itself than it is about a relationship with a lover. It’s about the relationship between me and whoever is reading what I’m writing. I’m afraid to be stripped bare, but by the same token I think it might be necessary. And what happens then? What are we left with?

By the way, I realized that just as I was writing it. Huh.

So writing – good writing, true writing – is terrifying. It’s visceral. It can be ugly and beautiful in equal measure. And maybe, when it’s at its best, we as readers feel just as stripped as the writer, having read something so piercingly true that it’s as if the writer saw into us just as they were putting their own blood and bone and guts on display. Truth in fiction is mutual. It’s all done on faith, that we won’t actually be destroyed, that when it’s all over we’ll be left with something that’s fully ours.

Which means that if we’re really going to do this, we’ll all have to be brave before the end.

On Writing “We Were Never Alone in Space”

Carmen Maria Machado joins us in Shimmer #17 with her remarkable story, “We Were Never Alone in Space.” Here, she takes us behind the scenes to tell us how the story came into being. -ECT

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“We Were Never Alone in Space” came together in a way that was unusual for me and my process—through three separate and distinct incidents.

The first happened the summer I attended Clarion. The night before we left, I stood teary-eyed with my classmates on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. We all read something for each other—a meaningful quote or passage, or something that we had written—and then knotted them into a giant rope of kelp that we had pulled out of the sea weeks before. I volunteered to return the kelp, and our words, to the ocean. As my fellow Clarionauts and teachers stood by, I ran pretty far into the water and hurled the kelp into an oncoming wave.

What I didn’t realize, as I galumphed into the tide, was that the sun had already set, and it was mere seconds before total darkness. As I stood there in the water, the kelp left my hand, and the light left the sky. All that was in front of me—the horizon, the whole of the ocean—was velvety, impenetrable darkness. I had spent all summer eluding certain memories and fears, and in that moment they all rushed in. I had never felt more alone than at that moment. I was certain I was going to drown, unseeing and terrified.

Then I turned around and saw the lights of the shore, and the faintest outline of my Clarion family. I could hear them shouting my name. Praying that a wave wouldn’t knock me down, I crawled toward to the shore, where they were waiting for me.

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A few days later, I said goodbye to Clarion and took a roadtrip with my now-girlfriend. We left Southern California and began meandering back toward my home in Iowa.

We stopped for a day in Roswell, New Mexico, and a decided to go to a UFO Museum. It was more of a radioactive science fair project than a proper museum, but it was fun and weird and had newspaper clippings pertaining to the history “the event” pinned up on cloth walls. One of them was from a local paper, published just after the Roswell incident in July of 1947. The reporter interviewed a woman who was incredibly excited about the out-of-town alien visitors. She said to him: “How were we to have known that we were never alone in space?”

I had a list of interesting titles going on that trip–little fragments of text that we saw here and there–and as I added it, I thought about the moment in the sea. They seemed connected, but I didn’t know how—not yet, anyway.

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Over the next few months, I kicked around a couple of half-drafts of the story. I thought about space and the ocean and how they are both alike—two terrifyingly unknown monstrosities, both of which I am afraid. I thought about that phrase, “we were never alone in space,” and about the frightening memory of my sea-walk, but nothing was really working. There was something I was missing, but I didn’t know what it was.

So one day, I decided to start over. I went back to the moment at the ocean, where I had intended on ending the story, and wrote it first. It occurred to me that I could try and tell the story backwards, beginning with this ending and learning, as the story progressed, each critical moment that came before. It’s hardly a new structure, but as it turned out, it was exactly the missing element that I needed to understand what it was that Adelaide was waiting for, there in the sea.

I wrote the first full draft of this story–not terribly different from the final version that appears in Shimmer–that afternoon.

SheWow? SheZow!

A.C. Wise’s story in Shimmer #17 is “How Bunny Came to Be.” It’s a story of a person who finally comes to accept what they are, even if they have to do battle with a sea monster along the way. Here, A.C. gives us a peek into a cool show I’m pretty sure I’ll be watching soon! -ECT

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There’s a brilliant cartoon series on the Hub Network called SheZow. It’s not crisp, witty dialog, or tightly woven plots that make it brilliant. In fact, the first episode I watched featured plot that made little to no sense, even within a genre known for taking liberties with reality. It is brilliant because of the premise:  A twelve year old boy named Guy Hamdon discovers a ring belonging to his late aunt, and by putting it on he inherits her superpowers and transforms into the hero SheZow, complete with go-go boots, a pink, glittery skirt, and laser lipstick.

That’s right, there’s a kids’ show out there with a twelve year old boy fighting crime dressed as a girl. You know what the best part is? Everyone is okay with it. Guy’s best friend Maz becomes his sidekick, and life rolls right on. The world doesn’t end because a boy wears girl’s clothing. In fact, in a recent episode, Guy is asked in a dream sequence, “Dude, are you wearing a dress?” With barely a pause, Guy fires back, “Yeah, you got a problem with that?”

See? Brilliant!

Of course One Million Moms is up in arms protesting the show and declaring the end of society as we know it. Personally, I want more shows like this on TV, more shows that not only flip and challenge traditional gender roles, but shows that tell boys and girls alike that being “girly” is okay. Liking pink, no matter what your sex or gender, does not make you weak. Wearing make-up and high heels, or flowery sun dresses, or layers of chiffon, or skin tight sequins doesn’t make you any less capable of fighting, or standing up for yourself and others.

While Kevlar and combat boots are more practical than stilettos and gold lame in real world combat situations, fiction doesn’t have to play by the rules. If Adam West’s Batman was able to repeatedly save Gotham City in heavy duty pantyhose while wearing his underwear on the outside, he should be just as capable of doing so in a sparkly ball gown. On the flipside, heroes like Superwoman, Jean Grey, and Storm, don’t actually get their powers from flashing their cleavage (despite what some artists would have you believe). They are strong and capable of kicking ass regardless of what they’re wearing.

Fiction should go beyond the surface of its characters, provide them with strengths and weaknesses that come from within, and those strengths and weaknesses should impact the plot. If a female character feels strong while wearing a chain mail bikini, more power to her. But if she’s wearing the chain mail bikini because of how awesome it looks on the book cover while contorting her spine in several impossible directions, and because her wearing it allows for loving descriptions of her breasts bouncing during battle scenes, then there’s a problem.

So give me men in short dresses and tall boots saving the world. Give me women in three-piece pinstripe suits battling monsters. Heck, give me a hermaphrodite in a full body fuzzy bunny costume taking down a room full of assassins. Just don’t give me blue is for boys, pink is for girls, men save the world and women stay at home. Don’t tell me there’s only one way to be strong, and that way is to purge any trace of anything the least bit “girly.” And this bit is especially true if I happen to be one of the impressionable young minds shows like SheZow are supposedly warping: Tell me I can save the world no matter what my sex or gender, and tell me you don’t give a crap what I’m wearing when I do.

Judge Dredd and Jane Austen, Sitting In a Tree

Robert N. Lee makes his Shimmer debut in #17 with “98 Ianthe,” a story I love for its voice and its irreverence and reverence both. It’s that kind of story. You have to read it, exactly the same way you have to read his guest post here, about romance. Ah, romance. -ECT

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I never read Lord of the Rings. I read Pride and Prejudice instead.

It wasn’t this cover, alas.

That’s not entirely accurate, but it’s a good opening.

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I did read The Hobbit, in fourth or fifth grade. I thought it was okay. I gave Fellowship of the Ring a try because my aunt Denise was a big nerd who was very excited about The Silmarillion — just then coming out — and new Dune books and the like. Later she gave me A Wizard of Earthsea; that was way better than three more long-ass books of hobbits and elves and dragons crap. Plus poems and appendices. Not in this life.

As far as Christian-themed fantasy lit went, I’d already graduated from C.S. Lewis to George MacDonald. Tolkien came off like a giant bore compared to The Princess and Curdie and Phantastes. My mom’s church friend who was a lit major and gothic/fantasy geek turned me on to MacDonald. She took an interest in me when she found out I’d read The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce and Dracula already and had opinions about them.

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This is accurate: the year I read Pride and Prejudice, the first time, was also the year I first read 2000 AD: 1980. We’d moved from Hawaii for sixth grade to New Jersey for seventh, and then back to Hawaii for eighth.

Judge Dredd, especially, I finally got to read (I’d read all about the comic back in New Jersey, in Fangoria or someplace, I had drawings in my sketchbooks of Dredd and I’d never been able to read the comics), because a couple at my parents church in Hawaii were the first adult fandom couple I ever met. And they took an interest in me when she found out I loved Doctor Who and we went to see Big Giant Science Fiction Name speak at the local SF/F book shop and stuff like that. And she loaned me a lot of books.

You could get 2000 AD in Hawaii, now, I found out the first time I ever went over to their house. She had all of them. And I went OMG YOU HAVE 2000 AD? And she went OMG YOU KNOW WHAT THAT IS? And she insisted I take them all home and read them.

Her husband was a hard SF guy, and not into comics. Not a talker, either. We bonded a little over Hal Clement and talked shit about Big Name, those are the only conversations I remember ever having with him, really.

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We talked shit about Big Giant Science Fiction Name because…he was gross. It was a big disappointment, going to see him speak. He talked about sex the entire time, not his work or science fiction generally or whatever. I mean, it was Hawaii and he was on vacation and probably two sheets to the wind, at least. But come on.

I’m sitting there going This Guy Is a Dirty Old Man, Is All, Does Nobody Else See This? And it seemed like all these other adult nerds around me didn’t, they were just eating it all up and LOLing. Not the couple I came with, though, they did not look pleased.

They asked me what I thought on the way home, and I wasn’t sure what to say, I didn’t want to blurt out That Sucked. But I did anyway, and they agreed, thank god. She told me there were guys like that in fandom, like everywhere, watch out for them. You definitely don’t want to be that guy, Robert.

I already knew that. Mr. Darcy would not have approved of Big Name at all.

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Pride and Prejudice, I read because my mom left it next to the toilet with the magazines, and I thought it was another book. I thought it was a book of Hawaiian history I’d used for a school report. It was not that.

I was somewhat put off by the cover — oh, this was one of the old books my mom read. I didn’t know if I was in the mood for an old book whose back cover text seemed to assume everybody already knew what this Great Classic was and was mostly quotes from people who were clearly snoots. The back cover text promised scanning the first few pages and getting dazed by old school language over a story I did not care one bit about already. Something to forget about after leaving the bathroom.

It was not that.

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I don’t remember ever not liking romance — in fiction, in movies especially. More even than reading, my mother and my aunt and my sister had a great influence on my budding film obsessions.

We only had one TV. I could either go do something else or watch the movies my mom and sister liked, a significant amount of the time. I guess that ended in other houses with boys finding something else to do.

Not at my house.

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My favorite movies, the handful of movies that jostle for Best Movie Ever in my head and keep me from ever making a proper list are:

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Vanishing Point (1971)

Of the five, two are flat-out romance stories — one tragic, the other not so much. In a Lonely Place’s source novel may be a Inside the Mind of the Psycho book in the Patricia Highsmith/Jim Thompson vein, but the (much improved) Nicholas Ray film adaptation is a love story. In which a murder also happened and people are suspected and etc. I Know Where I’m Going! is the greatest movie love story ever. I.M.O. Shadow of a Doubt has layers upon layers of dark and bitter commentary on romantic ideals and romantic relationships going on – anybody who objected to Park Chan-wook’s take on my favorite Hitchcock movie in this year’s Stoker has never really seen Shadow of a Doubt.

One of the movies is primarily about working relationships and corruption and power — love barely touches the dark world of Sweet Smell of Success and exists in the story primarily as a means to get yourself destroyed. The last one’s about a fallen knight on a doomed last quest, except he’s got a 1970 Hemi Challenger instead of a horse. There was once a lady, now lost, glimpsed briefly and only in memory. So…another kind of romance.

“Romance” is a good word, all around. Why would anybody be ashamed of it?

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Pride and Prejudice wasn’t so much a dusty old classic, I found to my delight, it was a romance novel. And I already liked those.

I have no idea how many “kissing books” I’d read by then. A lot. I ran out of my own new library books to read, often, as a kid, and went rummaging through others’ collections. I read my dads’ theological and political books and his Fletch and Wambaugh novels. I read my mom’s Micheners and Krantzes. I read my sister’s V.C. Andrews and Sweet Valley High. I read whatever guests brought to the house and left laying around.

One summer – the summer previous, I believe – my mom got my sister in to Rosamond du Jardin’s books. If you’ve never heard of her, that’s because she wrote Sweet Valley High, basically, back when my mom was young. Her books were very popular in the mid-twentieth century, less so once The Sixties started in earnest. They had all fifteen or twenty of her books at the local library, I believe my sister read all of them, that year.

I read one, bored. Unfortunately, that one was Practically Seventeen, which kicks off the epic Tobey and Midge Heydon Cycle, so I was pretty much in for all six of those books. I had to find out which guy Tobey was going to end up with, and that meant stick with her through college, and then it turned out SHE HAD A SISTER WITH THE SAME KIND OF PROBLEMS. Wait, there’s more?

I tried to read one of du Jardin’s other series, after, since my sister was now all excited that I liked those books and was reading them with her, but…the Heydon sisters had spoiled me, I guess. Pam and Penny Howard seemed a wan imitation, at best.

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Here’s how I got sucked into Pride and Prejudice, there in the bathroom, a recreation of my thirteen year old mental processes – or as best I can manage, anyway, from giving the novel a quick reread before writing this post:

1. Mr. Bennet hates idiots. Right on. And he’s funny about it.
2. Mrs. Bennet is kind of an idiot. He gets that. He loves her. I like Mr. Bennet better already.
3. I got to read about this daughter Mr. Bennet loves best and Mrs. Bennet can’t figure out.

I already knew it was going to be a love story, that’s obvious from line one, and…hey, is this going to be a love story about a smart girl who thinks everybody else in the world is hilariously stupid? Because they’re my favorites! And it was, and of course, the smartest girl in any room runs into the smartest boy in every other room and they hate each other immediately, they’re so smart they’re that stupid.

But everybody who doesn’t know Pride and Prejudice knows that story, even. I didn’t know those other stories I’d read and seen took cues from Austen, yet, but I’d find that out eventually.

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I keep writing love stories, lately. I didn’t mean to, initially — I meant to write other things, and the stories ended up being more about love and relationships than ghosts or apocalypse or time travel.

I never got how people who love books best about flying saucers or dragons of ghosts or murder can have the gall to mock people who love books about love. I mean, first, of all the things to despise: that. But then: really? You love books about medieval-style battle between goblins and trolls riding flying horses. Maybe you’re the kind of person who reads nothing but that book, over and over, except the goblins are gnomes and the elves are banshees, this time around, and they all do battle on flying earthworms. And people who love books about first kisses, they read about the process of getting there over and over, they seem strange to you.

Okay. People have a lot of gall. I learned that first from romance fiction, probably.

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The first overtly romantic story I wrote, I wrote for my mom. I wrote exactly the kind of science fiction story she always loved best, and I guess I did it okay. In that, after she read it, she called me and she’d totally gotten it without my prepping her, she knew exactly what kind of story I’d written and why.

And that, I guess, is as good a way as any to wrap this meandering thing up: for my mom. And for every other woman along the way, reaching out to shape the course of my adult nerdhood.

I remember, always.

Thank you. For Jane Austen and Judge Dredd and everything else.

Writing in Ray Bradbury’s Shadow: Write1Sub1

Shimmer author Milo James Fowler joins us this week, to talk about the writing challenge he created, thanks to Ray Bradbury.

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What makes someone a literary legend? Does he have to live long enough to see his work become popular? Outlive his critics? For many writers in the past, a true fan base only developed posthumously.

Not so with Ray Bradbury. Novels, short stories, poetry, plays—his body of work is loved the world over. But once upon a time, he was just a struggling young writer in love with the craft. He wrote a short story every week, polished it up, and submitted it to a magazine. Rejection letters flooded in, mainly due to his prolific submissions. But there were also acceptances along the way, and they inspired Bradbury to keep doing what he loved: telling stories as only he could.

Seeing him at the Escondido library in the fall of 2009 was a surreal experience I’ll never forget. He spoke about being a “lover of life,” and that, for him, writing was always a labor of love. He told us that night, “If you can write one short story a week—doesn’t matter what the quality is to start, but at least you’re practicing. At the end of the year, you have 52 short stories, and I defy you to write 52 bad ones. Can’t be done.”

A year later, a reader commented on my blog that I seemed to be announcing a short story publication every month. I responded by saying that compared to Bradbury, I was nowhere near as prolific, but that someday I hoped to follow in his footsteps.

“Someday” turned out to be 2011.

It was time to take the proverbial bull by the horns and see if I could do it: write and submit a new story every week. And since misery and joy both love company, I decided to invite fellow writers Simon Kewin and Stephen V. Ramey along for the ride. Thus, Write1Sub1 was born. Now with over three hundred participants this year, we’re still going strong, and I can honestly say I’ve grown as a writer because of this challenge.

W1S1 has forced me to take my writing seriously and carve out a chunk of time for it every day. It’s also taught me how to deal with a deadline—how to write fast and revise slow, and to get my work off the hard drive and into an editor’s inbox. Along the way, I’ve created some of my best work. “Soulless in His Sight,” appearing in Shimmer #15, is one example from Write1Sub1 Week 9 last year. It’s a story I’m proud of, but it’s just one of 52 that wouldn’t exist without this challenge and our supportive community of writers.

Thank you, Mr. Bradbury, for inspiring us. You told us it could be done, and you were right

Facts are Friends: Writing What You Know

Write what you know…they all say it! Author Cassie Alexander stops by to tell us why writing what you know can be so awesome and can take your writing to the next level.

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For me, the best stories are firing on three pistons – they’re good, interesting, and true.

Goodness is a matter of storytelling skill. It has everything to do with pacing, voice, the rise and fall of action, and emotional resonance. Interestingness is all about novelty – new people, new places, new emotions. And truth is about being honest with your reader, and yourself.

The ability to tell a “good” story (for my limited criteria above) is acquired through time and patient practice, and is a longer, vastly different post. Same thing for emotional truth. But interestingness is something you can seek out and find. And what better place to do that than in your job or passionate hobby?

I never intended to write books about being a nurse while actually being a nurse. I went into nursing as a career to have a part time job I could afford to live on, while having enough free time to write. I assumed I’d be nursing at night, and writing science fiction during the day, and for a while that’s what I did.

Friends encouraged me to use the frankly absurd work stories I accrued in fiction, and for a year or two I said I couldn’t. Things were too weird, no one would believe me, and I didn’t know enough about nursing yet to write with any authority – I felt too new. All that ended the night I called a doctor to ask for more sedation on a patient who was crawling out of bed. The doctor clearly didn’t believe me, and left me hanging – I practically had to sit on this patient to stop him from extubating himself all night. I got off the phone too angry to breathe, and my first thought was, “That’s it. You’re going in a book.”

After that, I started writing Nightshifted – and that scene is pretty much the introduction to my book.

Now, Nightshifted isn’t completely truthful, in that it’s completely factually accurate in every way. I mean there are vampires in it for crying out loud. And honesty and the urge to not get sued compel me to note that there’s no one event or patient in Nightshifted that comes from any of my working life, etc. etc. etc. (Which you’d think would be evident from vampires, but you never know.)

However, being a nurse gave me the opportunity to sprinkle Nightshifted with moments that were interesting, loosely based on experiences I had, and with emotions that were true. And anything that you’re passionate about can provide you with those opportunities too.

You don’t have to have a job in your field, you can be an enthusiastic hobbyist or dedicated researcher. It just needs to be something that you’re into. If you’re writing something historical and researching it is a drag…why are you writing it? Ditch that project and find one you’re really interested about.

Everyone knows something interesting about something. Work with yourself until you find it – or with other people until you find theirs. (This is how I have survived many long trips with chatty people on planes.) And even if you look at your life and think it’s plain – consider how you would be under vastly different circumstances. You could be an accountant…dealing with ledgers on a colony ship. Or a teacher with a classroom full of aliens. Or a nurse – working on a floor with vampire exposed humans. You get the picture.

Every authentic experience you have as someone In the Know – be it in health care, law, cooking, parenting, teaching, quilting, bronco-busting, you name it, is an experience that you have had that other people might not have had before, that readers will want to share through you. There’s also probably a themed romance or mystery series in there for you to publish in, too.

The key to using that knowledge – to make readers excited to go on your same ride — is to filter it appropriately.

Have you ever read a text book? Or read somebody’s draft that read like a text book? There’s a temptation as an expert to overshare – after all, you really know what’s happening in a courtroom! Only…as most of us know from jury duty, the vast majority of that stuff is deadly dull. Same thing for the hospital. I get so excited to write accurate scenes sometimes. I’ll think, “And here is the one book in all of fictiondom that will teach everyone how to start an IV!” (Note to self: if you have ever sat and honestly wondered, “Why has no one ever written this before!?” think very, very hard. There is probably a reason.) Cue angels singing above at the genius of my completely new scene. I write it, content – because being overly accurate feels really good. Word count racks up. You don’t have to wonder what’s coming next, you know, because you’re dryly describing it, like an Ikea instruction manual. And then you reach the end of the page, and realize all your facts have done nothing for your plot and you have to delete it all.

Unless my imaginary patient has iron skin which makes an IV start impossible and which’ll be a plot point later, there’s no point to having it in there. Iron skin = bullet proof? IV = way for poison to get in? If it doesn’t come up again, it needs to go.

Another good way to pull facts and minutiae in, is to use them in relation to a character’s emotional state. What if, instead of my character dryly describing wiping skin with alcohol, she’s trying to start an IV on a crying child and her own baby just got kidnapped by werellamas? That’s a great moment for your character to have some personal revelation about the nature of protecting children, or a mental infodump about “If only my own child were here crying, and I could comfort them like this mother, I wouldn’t have to worry about who is looking after her on this, a full moon night.” Then we’re advancing the plot via characterization, and explaining the factual activity, which is a nice way to block a scene. (Oh, for the good old days when everyone could endlessly smoke, and thus always be doing that with their hands!)

I used to be scared about writing things that could (were vampires real) happen. I felt like I’d be trapped. But over time I realized there’s a beauty in the constraint of facts, and I find that research used really helps my stories grow. Instead of having a vast open plane (actually and metaphorically) my characters could travel through, where anything could happen at any time, and who knew what would happen next, facts gave me a fence line to follow. I know characters can realistically only cover so much distance in a day, or fight with certain weapons due to the time period, or have certain pop culture references. It’s much easier once you’re set into a certain time and place to know how things will have to flow – after running for 20 hours, my protag will have to hide out and sleep, where at, oh, that park that I know is there in my fictional town – where the werellamas roam! Plot spools out from plausibility which comes from personal knowledge.

I was also worried about being found out as a fraud. You do want your writing to be as plausible as it can be – you don’t want your cowboy to tame the dragon he’s bronco-busting overnight, if it’s actually a three day saga in real life. (Real-ish life.) Or, your character to be resuscitated sheerly by CPR when the actual chances of that happening are abysmally low.

But there’s also no use in worrying about pedants, if people using CPR like magic on TV have shown us anything. Most people won’t know when you lie, if lie carefully. Only you can tell if you’re working as hard as you can to make your story work within the constraints of personal knowledge. If you are, don’t let your facts hem you completely in. Sometimes you have to bend facts to fit the story. It is completely okay. And hey, if you’re in outer space or using genre tropes, oftentimes you can consciously handwave out of it anyhow. If you’re telling your story right, people might notice but enough other things will be going right not to care. They’ll be so consumed by the fact that your protagonist has almost found her daughter at the werellama ranch that they’ll flip to the next page anyhow, and your well told story is more important than any single fact.

If you are the boss of your research, and you can keep plot foremost in mind, then beach-comb as many truths to use from your own job/hobby/research-addiction as you can, and you’ll be golden.

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Cassie Alexander is an author and a registered nurse. Her debut novel Nightshifted is out now through St. Martin’s Press.

On Voice, On Gravy

David Erik Nelson joins us this week to talk about his new cookbook, Punk’d Squid, in which there are many recipes for sauce, secret and otherwise. Fear not, Dear Reader: you can make them all with two hands and/or ten fingers…

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I want to talk about voice–about your capital-V Voice as a writer, and the little voice of each specific piece you write–but first I want to tell you about how this guy I know makes steaks.

He goes to the butcher and buys a few good cuts of beef.  Back home, while these steaks drain on the cutting board, he makes his “sauce.”  This sauce consists of Worcestershire sauce, malt vinegar, salt, pepper, brown sugar, ketchup, maybe barbecue sauce, whiskey (or whatever he finds in the cupboard), beer (maybe), wine (why not?), soy sauce, and season salt.  He marinates the steaks in this sauce for an indeterminate period, then sears them briefly on a high-BTU gas grill.

If you’ve spent any quality time in the kitchen, then you see how absurd this “sauce” is:  It’s five-plus kinds of salt, four kinds of sugar, four kinds of vinegar, the beer is mostly water . . . it’s a crazy hash.  The result is okay, I guess–it’s hard to go wrong with salt, sugar, and vinegar (which is why it’s in basically every bottle in your refrigerator door)–but it doesn’t particularly taste like a cut of fresh venison, or like grass-fed Delmonico, or like freezer-burned chuck roast.  It doesn’t particularly taste like anything.  That meat might as well be pressed tofu or a slice of Quorn (both of which, incidentally, I like just as much as I like a quality steak; I’m an equal-opportunity consumer).

I bring this up because I used to make steak the same way–because everyone is inclined to throw “just one” dash, sprinkle, and dollop into every recipe to give what we imagine is a distinctive little flourish that screams “This is ME!”  And we don’t confine this impulse to the kitchen.

Listen: Voice isn’t gravy.

It’s not something you pour over a story once the meat and veggies–the plot, the characters, the setting–are cooked and ready to plate.  Steampunk isn’t alt-history slopped with a ladle of cogs and dirigibles; literary fiction isn’t YA with the last half of the final chapter cut off and a schmeer of 50-cent words.

The voice of a piece–and your Voice as a writer–arises from stripping everything else out, not piling more crap on.

Right on the face of it, I’m sure this sounds absolutely absurd. On the one hand, all I’m basically giving you is Strunk and White’s nearly century-old chestnut to “omit needless words” (Rule #13).  On the other, the guy saying this–to whatever degree he might be at all notable–isn’t noted for sparing the verbiage.

Nonetheless, that’s what I’m saying:  My voice, which you no doubt hear in your head as you read these words, isn’t the result of all the words I’ve crammed on to this page; it’s the result of all the words I’ve left off of pages over the last 20-odd years (up to and including this one).

Take, for example, Poor Mojo’s venerable Giant Squid.  For about a decade I co-wrote Giant Squid advice columns on a weekly basis, usually a few thousand words, occasionally a dozen-thousand words or more.  Over the course of those ten odd years we wrote upwards of a million words of Squid.  (To this day it shocks me to say that; there are several complete and unpublished novels tucked in there.  There are so many pieces of Squid that I come across columns I totally forgot we wrote, and get LOLed by them all over again.  I’m like an Alzheimer’s patient, hiding my own Easter Eggs.)

In part, this project began as an exercise in puking all over the Strunkian edicts we’d been schooled in.  It was the ’90s, and we’d been trained to be “lean” literary writers, bare-knuckles chaps like Carver and Hemingway.  “Feeding the Squid” was our attempt to exorcise ourselves of the lush, verbose, oratorial 19th Century voices that still rung in our heads from our public-library boyhoods.  We were trying to write the Twain and Lovecraft out of our bones.

This exercise immediately sets you on the horns of the Voice Dilemma: In order to work, a piece needs to be long enough to carry the data readers want (i.e., the story, the info, the facts, the Truth, the fire).  But each word is cumbersome to read; it adds drag and saps the reader’s momentum.  So, every word has to add value slightly in excesses of the energy it demands. (If you had a single-sex education and are male, your English teacher might have introduced this to you as the “Skirt Rule”; with apologies: “All writing should be long enough to cover what matters and short enough to be interesting.”)

There is no room for superfluous words.  Nonetheless, even journeymen writers have a tendency to cook up a perfectly edible lil tale, and then finish it by slathering on the voice gravy–or, at the very least, to think of their “Voice” as being encoded in some little non-essential flourish they “permit” themselves, rather than in the undecorated main course they’re being paid to proffer.

The result is a goopy, unpalatable mess.  It can be “interesting,” but take a second to think about all of the things folk say were “interesting” rather than “good.”

FYI, this tendency–to make the meal then slop it in voice gravy–doesn’t just go for squidified Deadwoodian said-bookism.  We tend to treat any voice this way, even the leanest gumshoe banter: we write our story, and then cram in “dolls” and “molls” and “heaters” and “mickeys.”

Your Voice, even an overblown Giant Squid of a voice, is the result of reduction: You write from the start with too many words; too many tangents; too many footnotes; and three modifiers for every miserable, skinflint, parsimonious noun.

Then, once your fat, rosy-cheeked baby is finally born, cooing in her hospital blanket, you put her on the table, flay her, and into the stockpot she goes.

I cut my teeth on Stephen King and David Foster Wallace.  As I’ve gotten older, what’s really struck me about the two–who aren’t generally grouped together–is how much they fundamentally have in common as writers:  1. They both bring remarkable clarity to remarkably complex situations (in the case of King it’s his ornately multi-threaded novels, and for DFW it’s in his treatment of the intricacies of popular culture and mathematics; I don’t feel like DFW’s fiction is a paragon of clarity by anyone’s measure).  2. They do this in a voice that is at once casual and precise.  I know that sounds nuts: Both are guys that regularly top the 1000-page mark without batting an eye or apologizing.  But look at those pages, those sentences, and you see that their voices arises not from decorating workmanlike prose, but in shaving down a mound of logorrhea to the vital words that make the sentences go.  They don’t write long because they are slathering on a bunch of frosting and garnishing their books with radish rosettes and spiral-cut beets; they write long because they’ve got lots to say, and a lot worth saying.

And they both have voices that are casual and breezy and distinctly theirs.  You know you’re in a King story in seven words, even when it’s under the name “Bachman.”  You know you’re in a DFW essay–or a parody there-of–before you make it to the first footnote.

Listen: I take it back–Voice is gravy:

Voice is the economical result of not throwing anything away, but instead boiling and scrapping until what you have left is as concentrated as possible, a half-once of liquid with more flavor than the chops you started with.  Every good story will make its own gravy.

And your Voice emerges from the process of cooking up story after story after story in the same iron skillet, until that skillet is so seasoned that you don’t need oil to fry an egg, and any steak seared on it comes off tasting like it put you back $50 at a necktie establishment, even though you didn’t even bother to sprinkle salt on the pan prior to sizzling.

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 David Erik Nelson’s fiction has appeared in Asimov‘s and Shimmer, and in anthologies like The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded. His celebrated steampunk novella Tucker Teaches the Clockies to Copulate is now available for Kindle through Amazon (and other formats at davideriknelson.com).  He co-created Poor Mojo’s Giant Squid with Morgan Johnson and Fritz Swanson, and regrets nothing.  Look for the Giant Squid in the upcoming anthology Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution.

Squid illustration by PLuNDeRPuss!

Hewing Away the Rough Walls (Or, Five Ways to Put Your Story on a Diet)

Author Lisa L. Hannett joins the Shimmer blog once more, with very extremely good awesome writing advice that you can put into action today!

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Michelangelo, that Renaissance jack-of-all-trades, is given credit for one of the most famous observations about the art of sculpture. “In every block of marble,” he says, “I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to other eyes as mine see it.” His now-iconic David is considered the ideal representation of the male form, not just because it is massive (even in the Middle Ages, size, apparently, mattered) and not just because Master Buonarotti was a whiz when it came to wielding a chisel, but because you can’t pinch an inch on young David. Trimmed of all fat, skin smooth and firm, hands placed just so to effortlessly prevent gravity from wreaking havoc with those muscular marble arms — this statue is a triumph of hewing away the rough walls and revealing the perfection trapped inside.

Great short stories writers all get a case of the Michelangelos when it comes to crafting their narratives. Although not everyone will immediately see the fully-formed shape of a story (Michelangelo’s a bit of a show-off in that respect), most will practise the same process of “hewing” the artist describes above. Through redrafting and revising each piece, writers of short fiction act the way word-sculptors should: shearing away all the flabby bits, they reveal only the story’s most essential elements, releasing striking images from the prison of sluggish prose.

But how do these word-sculptors do it? It doesn’t matter if you’re writing fairy tales or splatterpunk, space opera or paranormal romance, there are at least five ways you can tighten up your paragraphs and transform them into things of beauty.

Be active, not passive

Writing in the passive voice can waste words. Get your characters off their butts and make them do, instead of having things done to them. Saying, “Sunscreen was slathered on the albino’s skin” could be trimmed by telling us “The albino applied sunscreen” and it also makes us stop wondering who it was, exactly, that did the slathering in the first instance. (Sure, it could’ve been the albino, but then again it could’ve been a poltergeist with a penchant for zinc creams. There’s no indication, in the first sentence, whether it’s the former or the latter.) Writing primarily in the active voice will also allow you to use the occasional passive construction for dramatic or emotional impact. For example, if your protagonist is consistently described in active terms — “Her sword sliced the mutant’s head”; “His song hypnotised the court” — then using the passive voice at moments of crisis can underscore his/her loss of power — “Wounded, she was captured by the mutant king”; “When his voice faltered, he was cast out by the courtiers…”

Using active verbs to describe your characters’ actions can also help prevent awkward or flabby phrases. Early in James Joyce’s “The Dead,” for instance, “Gabriel could be seen piloting Freddy Malins across the landing.” Freddy isn’t “pulled along by the elbow,” nor is he “dragged by Gabriel across the landing” — instead, Gabriel “pilots” Freddy. This concise description instantly conjures up the image of one man directing another, but it also gives us a sense of Gabriel’s personality. He doesn’t guide or lead or assist Freddy; he pilots him. This active verb effectively sketches the characters’ movements, while simultaneously conveying Gabriel’s desire to steer people and events to suit his own purposes. Choosing exactly the right word — a process Flaubert refers to as selecting le mot juste — can tighten up your sentences, with the added bonus of adding dimension to your characters.

Let one word do the work of many

Taking the time to find le mot juste doesn’t have to be something you do in the first draft. If you’re someone who writes quickly, just to get the story down, then keep at it! When revising, watch out for words like very and really and extremely, which often crop up in that first mad burst of writing. Some authors, such as Susanna Clarke, pepper their stories with very. In the first few pages of “The Ladies of Grace Adieu,” we are told “The second Mrs Field and Cassandra were very pleased with each other and soon became very fond of each other” and “Miss Ursula and Miss Flora were very prettily behaved children” and there is also mention of “a very short letter,” “a very fine day,” “a very smart barouche,” “a very slovenly fellow,” a song played “very badly” so the pianist was “very reluctant” to play at all… and the onslaught of very continues throughout the collection. In Clarke’s case, this overabundance of very (as well as quite and rather) adds to the tone of the work — the wordiness is part of the point. But for those of us not recreating the verbosity of Regency literature, then choosing one perfect word instead of many can only benefit our prose. When tempted to use words like very, really, and extremely stop and ask yourself if there is a more effective way of conveying this idea. Is it very bad or abysmal? Is it extremely hot or searing? Is it really funny or hilarious?

The same applies to the general use of adjectives and adverbs. Most of us have been advised to use these descriptive words sparingly — because, in most cases, one word can do the work of many. If the sun is shining brightly, then perhaps blinding or dazzling will expresses this more accurately. If spilled blood is vibrant red, we may want to know the precise hue: is it crimson or scarlet or vermilion?

Cut down on speed bumps

A few other culprits can slow down your prose: that or so that, and then, and and so can act as visual speed bumps, subtly interrupting the flow of your sentences and paragraphs. As with very and its pals, you don’t have to eliminate these words and phrases altogether — but use them with intent, not out of habit. “She stirred the potion so that it would boil and then poured it into a bottle that sat on the workbench” makes perfect sense, and we can certainly visualise what’s being described. Even so, the sentence is sluggish. Removing these speed bumps creates quicker action: “She stirred the potion to boiling before pouring it into a ready bottle on the workbench.” More often than not, going back over your story and deleting that (and rearranging the sentence to accommodate this deletion) will cut down on your word count and tighten up your sentences.

Paying attention to how you use dialogue tags, even simple ones like “he said” and “she said”, can also change the story’s pace. Like commas, these tags can slow our reading, allowing our minds the time to process what our eyes have just scanned. These pauses can be used strategically to suggest a character’s hesitation or reluctance — “Well,” he said. “I guess you were right.” — or to build tension — “Luke,” Darth Vader said, leaning over the fallen Jedi, “I am your father.” However, when writing arguments and other moments of heightened emotion, getting rid of these indicators, as Robert Shearman does in this passage from “Pang,” adds a sense of immediacy to what’s being said.

She frowned, gave it a little thought. “No, I’m pretty sure it’s stopped.”

“But you can’t, one day, after fifteen years…”

“Seventeen years.”

“Seventeen. Good God, is it really?”

“Oh yes.”

“Seventeen. God. Well. Even more reason.”

“You must feel the same way,” she said. “Just a little. Don’t tell me I’m the only one.”

We don’t need the “he saids” and “she saids” after each line to know who is speaking here. And, more importantly, without them this exchange is quick and tense — the way you’d expect a breakup to be.

Borrow someone else’s eyes

Once you’ve completed your revisions, get someone else to read your story and give you feedback. And though I’ve no doubt your mom is awesome, she might not offer the most critical feedback… “That’s nice, dear,” she’ll say. “What a weird mind you have.” Other writers, on the other hand, are ideal critiquing partners. They’ll see repetitions you’ve overlooked a hundred times, no matter how sharp your editing skills. They’ll point out the verys and reallys and extremelys you thought you’d eradicated, and slice through flabby lines with fluorescent yellow highlighters. Plus, they’ll grant you access to their own word hoards, letting you know things like “an entrance to an underground mine which is horizontal or nearly horizontal” is actually called an adit — one word instead of twelve! You’ll expand your vocabulary and watch your sentences shrink, all in one fell swoop.

Let it breathe

If you can, take a step back from your work, give it some distance, before sending it off to a publisher. Give yourself time to regain the objectivity that is inevitably lost after spending so many hours intimately involved with a story. Let the rose-coloured editing glasses come off before giving your work a final once-over. Break up with your darlings — doing so will make it much easier to kill them. And if you still can’t kill them after a few days, you may at least be prepared to put them on starvation diets.

Short Story Collections: Gathering Places for Infinite Worlds

Author Lisa L. Hannett joins the Shimmer blog this week and helps us navigate the perilous waters of short story collections. How does one make such a collection, anyhow? Read on.

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Imagine yourself at a party.

Not just any old party. There are no paper hats with snug elastics digging into your throat here; no streamers twisted and taped to the ceiling; no gaudy candles melting into your Dairy Queen cake.

Instead, picture a castle with many rooms, each decked out with sparkling chandeliers, priceless artworks, furniture that once belonged to kings. The bar is stocked with imported wines and a champagne fountain graces the main hall. Long trestle tables line the walls in each chamber, laden with delicious hors d’oeuvres that won’t spill down your front when you bite into them, and don’t leave any green bits lodged in your teeth. There are as many guests as you’d like—you’re the host, after all—but to really get the shindig going, let’s say you’ve got at least a dozen. Each person is eloquent or funny or mysterious or brooding in a Byronic fashion (if you’re into that kind of thing). Men, women, immortals, fées—they’ve come from worlds both near and distant. Depending on their customs, they give perfect gifts wrapped in silk, or sheets of beaten gold, or dew-beaded cobweb ribbons. Your guests have got their own quirks, costumes, histories, but you’ve an eye for matchmaking. Everyone gets along. And, really, how could they not? They’re all excellent conversationalists. So much so, in fact, you wish you could clone yourself just so you could talk to them all simultaneously. All night, you move from group to group, chatting, dancing, drinking without getting drunk.

For hours, you’re enchanted.

You wish the party would never end.

This is what it should feel like to read an excellent collection of short stories. Whether the book is a compilation of works previously published or a collection of mostly new pieces, it should leave us with the impression that we’ve been invited to a magical word-party. A place where characters, story sequences, themes coalesce to make a strong impact on our imaginations. A gathering of infinite worlds which, ideally, is one we’ll continue to think about long after we’ve read the last page.

Obviously, authors can’t control the reactions their readers will have, any more than hosts can force their guests to have a good time. But there are a few things we can focus on when collecting our stories that will ease readers’ journeys through our written worlds.

Make each new story your favorite.

This almost goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. Write the best story you can, every time. Make each new piece your current favorite, so that it can be lavished with all the love and attention you poured into earlier works. Because when it comes to collections, a good story might be left loitering outside with the valets. An excellent story will be in the grand ballroom, hanging with the cool kids on the Table of Contents.

If the glass slipper doesn’t fit, Stepsister, don’t force your foot.

‘But all of my stories are excellent!’ I hear you say.

That may be true. As I’ve already mentioned, many collections are ‘compilations’ of short works published elsewhere. And ‘elsewhere’ may indeed be the top fantasy magazine, the award-winning science fiction anthology, the most popular ’zine on the internet. There are so many examples of ‘collected works’ of this variety (by brilliant writers like Theodora Goss, Robert Shearman, Neil Gaiman, Kaaron Warren… oh, the list could go on and on) but ‘collected’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘all-inclusive’. Some stories, no matter how great, will not suit the tone, style, length of the collection. ‘Best of’ collections usually can’t showcase the author’s entire oeuvre, unless the term ‘best’ is actually a euphemism for ‘all’ (but few publishers are willing to sacrifice their readers’ wrists by forcing them to hoist a 5000 page tome). A writer’s favorite fantasy stories won’t suit a collection of their most popular space opera tales. There should be a clear dialogue between stories on a given collection’s ToC—which means that not all stories will be able to join in the conversation.

This is especially true for collections of mostly original stories. Books like Amal El-Mohtar’s The Honey Month, Angela Slatter’s Sourdough and Other Stories, and even my own collection, Bluegrass Symphony, are constructed around central themes or conceits—each piece was either custom-written or carefully selected to enhance these ideas, and to create a coherent body of work. Throwing in extra tales just to pad the book out wouldn’t have done us any favours. When writing Bluegrass Symphony, a collection of stories all set in a pseudo-Midwest American setting (but with shapeshifters, clairvoyant cowboys, tentacle-boys and talking squirrels), I had several ideas that almost fit but weren’t quite what the collection needed. So although I’d thought of including fifteen stories, it turns out the work was stronger with only twelve. It’s much better to have a small and perfect suite of stories (as in The Honey Month, for instance) than a clunky, incoherent rabble.

Seating plans were invented for a reason…

After you’ve whittled the collection down to its essential stories (a dozen or thirty? see the previous point) you need to decide in which order they should appear. What kind of mood are you trying to set? Which narratives will hook readers most deeply? Do you have two stories that feature magic lamps? If so, should they go next to each other, or will they be most effective separated by a handful of other adventures? Do some stories jar when read in succession? Is that the desired effect? Do you want to leave your readers crying, laughing, wishing the collection will never end?

As the author of these works, you know them best; their rhythms, themes and tones. Most editors will place the strongest stories at the beginnings and endings of collections, so that readers are immediately drawn into the books and reluctant to put them down. This is something you may want to consider when assembling your own published works. Of course, there are no hard and fast rules. A collection of original stories may work best chronologically, building towards a climax in an overarching narrative—in which case, you may not want to present the conclusion as the first piece in the book. (Then again, you might want to do just that.)

The beauty of short stories is that they are precise. Elegant. Concise. They enchant without wasting any words. A collection of such finely-crafted works should aim to do no less.

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In just over two years, Lisa L. Hannett has sold more than 20 stories to venues including Clarkesworld Magazine, Fantasy, Weird Tales, ChiZine, Electric Velocipede, Shimmer and Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded. Her work has appeared on Locus‘s ‘Recommended Reading List 2009’ and Tangent Online’s ‘Recommended Reading List 2010’. ‘The February Dragon’, co-written with Angela Slatter, won the Aurealis Award for ‘Best Fantasy Short Story 2010’. She is a graduate of the Clarion South Writers Workshop. Bluegrass Symphony, her first collection, is published by Ticonderoga Publications. A second collection, Midnight and Moonshine (co-authored with Angela Slatter) will be published in November 2012. You can visit her online at http://lisahannett.com.