Our Genre

This is yet another post about the short stories in Organisms, the collection of stories I contributed to the Bundoran Buddies Science Fiction StoryBundle. This time I’ll talk about “Three Damnations: A Fugue”.

In most bookstores and libraries, books are separated by genre. The three biggest genres of fiction are Mystery, Romance, and Li-Fi (often just called “Fiction”, although literary fiction is clearly just as much a bounded genre as any other—it has its own quirks, conventions, and unspoken assumptions just like any other genre).

So after Mystery, Romance and Li-Fi, what’s left? Sometimes Science Fiction and Fantasy are split into separate sections, but often they’re shelved together. These days, Horror is blended into the SF/F section; there was a time a few decades ago when Horror had a section to itself, but I haven’t seen a separate Horror section in ages.

So Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror are often combined into a single entity. This is more than just an oddity of retail; SF/F/H are often seen as comprising a single unified field of literature. Most web sites and blogs that deal with one of the three will deal with the other two as well. The same thing holds for publishers, especially the larger companies: any publisher who publishes one of the three probably publishes the others too.

Some people fiercely object to the notion that SF/F/H is a single thing. Such people draw a hard line between Science Fiction and Fantasy. Then they put individual works of Horror on one side of the line or the other. (“Alien” is Science Fiction. “Dracula” is Fantasy. Et cetera.) Many readers only read Science Fiction or only read Fantasy. The same goes for writers writing.

But many writers write all three of SF, F, and H, switching freely between them. Many readers do the same. And many stories are resistant to pigeonholing. Despite physicists playing around with blue-sky ideas, faster-than-light travel still seems to be scientifically impossible…whereas unicorns (i.e. horses with single horns on their noses) are just a gene-splice away. I sincerely expect that real unicorns will be created in the next fifty years. Yet any story with a unicorn would be shelved in Fantasy, whereas any space opera with FTL would be shelved in Science Fiction.

For myself, I consider Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror to be parts of a single thing. I call it Our Genre: the Genre of Geek/Nerd culture…the Genre of comic books…the Genre of RPGs and many many computer games.

This gets me back to “Three Damnations: A Fugue”. I decided to write a single story that explicitly combined all three aspects of Our Genre. For Horror, it has a haunted house and obsession; for Science Fiction, it has time travel and obsession; for Fantasy, it has a magic grove and obsession. The story presents all three sides of Our Genre, by means of three characters who just can’t help themselves making the same bad decisions, over and over again. They aren’t nice people, but I like the story quite a bit.

Damon Runyon and Me

This is another post about the short stories in Organisms, the collection of stories I contributed to the Bundoran Buddies Science Fiction StoryBundle. This time I’ll talk about “A Clean Sweep With All The Trimmings”.

There’s a backstory underlying “Clean Sweep” that I may turn into more stories someday, or even a novel. It starts from the idea that an alien race might make sophisticated servant androids that outlive the race itself. After all, it’s quite possible that humans could make intelligent machines that last a long time. If humanity itself then dies off (e.g. through a pandemic), the machines will still be programmed to act servants, even if they have no one to serve.

So I imagined a set of ageless “ideal servants” created by a long dead alien race and still roaming around the galaxy looking for masters. They can change their shape into anything that would make a master happy. Similarly, they change their personalities too. The changes happen automatically—the androids aren’t consciously aware of what they’re doing, they just change physically and mentally to be whatever their current master would find most suitable.

You might think that these androids would be general-purpose servants, able to do anything…but I thought it would be more fun if they specialized. Perhaps there’d be an Ideal Accountant, an Ideal Valet, an Ideal Secretary, etc. There’d also be an Ideal Sexual Partner, because of course there would.

This led to a question: “What would happen if this ideal found its way to Earth?” I could see people fighting to possess it, and the poor android forcibly kidnapped by a succession of ruthless owners. To make the conflicts more extreme, I envisioned it falling into the hands of a mobster. This would lead to a blood gang war as various gang leaders tried to grab the android for their own.

So my first attempt at the story was very Quentin Tarantino. It was pretty damned sordid, and it didn’t work. But it had one interesting trick—it was told from the viewpoint of the guy called in to clean up after all the bad stuff happened. This was basically the Harvey Keitel character from Pulp Fiction. He had a “big picture” view of the story which let him figure out what was going on.

As I said, the Tarantino version of the story didn’t work. But I thought the underlying set-up was good, and I liked telling the story from the viewpoint of a “cleaner”.

How could I tell a similar story without it being ick? Simple answer: Damon Runyon.

Runyon was a reporter who hung out with gangsters in the 1930s and 40s. His most famous work is Guys and Dolls, a collection of short stories that became the basis of the famous musical. Many of the folks Runyon wrote about were killers and very bad people…but his quirky writing style somehow made them seem charming rather than psychotic.

I love the way Runyon wrote, so I decided to steal it whole hog. I rewrote the story in Runyon’s tone of voice, and this time it worked really well: funny and sweet rather than mean and dark. As a result, “A Clean Sweep With All The Trimmings” is one of my favorite stories.

More About Organisms

Last week I wrote about “The Young Person’s Guide to the Organism”, a novella that appears in my contribution to the Bundoran Buddies Science Fiction StoryBundle. (By the way, that bundle is still available: $20 for a dozen amazing science fiction e-books!)

In this post, I’m going to talk about two more pieces I contributed to the bundle: a pair of stories I wrote on request for my long-time friend, Julie Czerneda.

Julie has edited/co-edited a number of great story anthologies. On several occasions, she ran into last-minute troubles when one of her planned contributors couldn’t deliver a story on time. Julie asked me if I could whip off stories to fill the gap…and since I love tight-deadline challenges, I said yes.

The first time was for an anthology called Mythspring. The idea for the book was that each story should be inspired by some actual piece of Canadian folklore: a legend or myth that would serve as the basis for the story. I said, “Okay,” and went to the library to search for reference material.

I came home with Colombo’s Book of Marvels by John Robert Colombo. Colombo is a long-time folklorist (as well as a poet and quotation collector), so I figured I could count on him to provide me with useful material.

I was right…but the book gave me far too much: dozens of interesting legends. How could I choose just one? Instead, I sort of chose them all. The result was a story called “All The Cool Monsters At Once” in which legendary monsters from all across Canada suddenly crawl out of lakes, emerge from the woods, or drop from the sky for reasons unknown. It turned into my own personal love story for Canada: the ending always brings a tear to my eye.

The second time Julie asked me to write a story on short notice, it was for an anthology called Space, Inc. The book dealt with what jobs would look like in the future—strange science fictional jobs. Since I was rushed for time, I couldn’t do a ton of inventive world-building, so writing a traditional story would have been difficult. Instead, I decided to write a bunch of snippets: vignettes showing a range of future jobs.

But there’s a problem with vignettes. Even if each of them is fine, they need to be tied together with an overall story arc or the reader won’t get a satisfying beginning, middle and end. How could I make such an arc? I started to think of how other writers had done it, and I immediately came up with Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino.

I love Invisible Cities. It’s full of mind-boggling ideas. It takes its style from Marco Polo’s original travel journals, wherein he described his journeys to and from China back in the thirteenth century. Polo wrote short descriptions of all the strange things he saw. Calvino uses the same technique, describing increasingly weird cities, and framing it all as conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. The frame tale gives the story its arc and holds everything together.

I shamelessly copied the format (just as Calvino had shamelessly copied Marco Polo). But just to jazz around a bit more, I based each of the vignettes on the Buddhist Eight-Fold Path. As one does. Hence was born “The Eight-Fold Career Path”, one of the oddest things I’ve ever written. (But someday I’ll talk about “Axial Axioms”, another thing I wrote for Julie on short notice. What if Lao Tsu invented complex numbers, Aesop invented combinatorics, the prophet Daniel invented trigonometry…)

Organisms

Just released: the Bundoran Buddies Science Fiction StoryBundle! This bundle of 12 ebooks contains work by such luminaries as Robert J. Sawyer, Madeline Ashby, Tanya Huff, and yours truly!

A bit of background: Bundoran Press is a science fiction publishing house run by my friend Hayden Trenholm. Hayden organized this bundle as a way to raise Bundoran’s public profile, as well as to provide an easy and affordable way for readers to buy a dozen great books.

My contribution to the bundle is a set of stories grouped under the title ORGANISMS. The central piece is a novella called “The Young Person’s Guide to the Organism”. It’s one of my favorite pieces of writing for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that it’s the first published League of Peoples story.

The subtitle of the novella is “Variations and Fugue on a Classical Theme”. So let me briefly get all artsy and explain what that means.

You might be aware of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, a piece of music by Benjamin Britten. The piece introduces the various instruments of a symphony orchestra by presenting a theme and variations. First, the whole orchestra plays a melody by Henry Purcell (that’s the theme). Then the flute and piccolo play a variation of the theme; then the oboes play another variation; then the clarinets; and so on, through all the woodwinds, then the strings, then the brass, then percussion. The final section of the piece is a fugue which starts with the flute and piccolo again, then adds the oboes on top, then the clarinets on top of that, and so on until the whole orchestra is playing the fugue together…after which the brass section blasts out the original theme over top of everything else.

The piece itself is well worth listening to. There are several versions on YouTube, so if you’re interested, have a look.

What I did was write a novella with the same structure. The “theme” of my story is First Contact—a classic sf theme indeed. The plot begins with a gigantic alien organism entering our solar system and slowly proceeding toward the sun. Each section of the story is about someone’s experience of making contact with the organism, as told to a “young person”. (In many sections, a parent is telling one or more of their children about this amazing thing the parent saw.) The final part of the novella (the “fugue”) consists of brief snippets when all the “young people” have their own moments of first contact with the organism, eventually culminating in humanity making first contact with the League of Peoples.

So let’s just say that the story is structurally ambitious. It dates back to 1992 and I’m sure there are a ton of things I’d change if I ever decided to rewrite it…but I’m still quite fond of the story and am glad to see it get some new exposure.

And that’s just one of the stories in ORGANISMS, which is just one book in the bundle! Maybe in the next few days, I talk about more of the stories in the book.

Financial Advice for Writers

Few writers make a lot of money. Many writers make a little money. But however much or little you make (or even if you haven’t made any money at all as yet), let me offer some advice.

TALK TO AN ACCOUNTANT!

and

WHATEVER THE ACCOUNTANT TELLS YOU TO DO, DO IT.

Seriously, accountants serve two extremely useful functions:

  1. They can save you money.
  2. They keep you out of trouble with the tax collectors.

For example, a good accountant will tell you what expenses you can and can’t deduct from any income you receive. Deducting valid expenses is good: you pay less tax on whatever is left over. Deducting non-valid expenses is bad: if the tax agency finds out, you could be in serious trouble. (See All Capone.)

Now it’s true that consulting an accountant may cost money. If you have no income from writing, maybe it’s too early for you to go to that expense. But it’s never too soon to start keeping track of your finances. Here’s what I’d recommend for anyone who hopes to make money from writing some day:

Starting right now, keep every scrap of paperwork that might possibly be relevant to your writing.
In particular, keep receipts for expenses. You don’t have to get fancy; I used to just have a plastic freezer bag labelled with the year, and I put every receipt inside. Also keep any paperwork from household expenses—eventually you’ll want to claim the expenses in connection with having a home office, so now is the time to get into the habit of keeping relevant records. If receipts are purely digital (e.g. charges emailed to you), consider printing them out so that you have a hardcopy record.
Keep a spreadsheet (e.g. in Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets) recording income and expenses.
When recording an expense, separate the cost of the item from any sales tax paid on top, and record both. Try to be consistent in the terms you use. For example, don’t use “Printer paper” for one purchase and “Paper for the printer” for another. You want to be able to sort your data so that lines for similar expenses are all collected together. By the way, you should also use a spreadsheet to record mileage and/or other car expenses related to your writing.

The point here is to develop good habits of record keeping sooner rather than later. The more you record, the more information you have. You can see how much you’re spending on your writing, and that knowledge may be useful.

BUT…eventually, talk to an accountant. They’ll tell you if your jurisdiction requires that you keep records in a particular format. They’ll tell you which of the expenses you’ve recorded are actually deductible. They’ll tell you how long you need to keep receipts. And much else beside.

So tl;dr: start keeping receipts and records now. It’s good practice. Consult an accountant as soon as you can justify the expense, and definitely as soon as you make any income.

(By the way, I have a friend who’s an accountant and she says she doesn’t charge for initial consultations. She’d rather help potential clients keep proper records right from the start than to go through the hassle of trying to clean things up later on. You may or may not find someone who’ll talk to you for free, but I suspect a lot of accountants won’t charge very much for an initial get-together. For them, it’s a good investment of their time to avoid headaches later on…and accountants love good investments.)

Sharing: November 18, 2018

More things I like:

Book-: The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp
Tharp is a long-time dancer and choreographer, and this is her book about the creative process. As the title suggests, she recommends developing the habit of being creative, and she offers numerous ways to improve your creative process. I first read this book many years ago; now, as I’m rereading it, my creative juices have started bubbling fiercely.
Newsletter: Orbital Operations by Warren Ellis
I think of Warren Ellis as a comic book writer, but he also writes novels, screenplays, and a heck of a good weekly newsletter. Every posting talks about books that I’ve never heard of but immediately want to read. His Morning, Computer blog is also well worth following.
App: Freedom
Freedom is an internet blocker, available for most operating systems. I use it on both my iPad and my Windows desktop. Freedom helps you avoid indulging your vices; I have it set up to prevent me from reading Twitter when I’m supposed to be writing, and from playing solitaire anytime after 10:30 at night. In other words, Freedom has willpower when I don’t. It lets me work and sleep when I want to, despite the addictive nature of the web.

How I Write: Forays

After several past postings on how I write a novel, we’ve reached the point where I can actually start writing. At this point I have:

It’s now time to start some real writing.

I begin with forays into the story. Usually this means writing the first ten pages or so a bunch of times. I want something that has the right chemistry: specifically a tone of voice that will sustain my interest for the months it will take me to write the first draft.

After all, if I get bored, I’ll have trouble finishing…and of course, if I get bored, readers will too. So I need to find a voice that grabs my attention. If I’ll be writing from multiple points of view, I need to find multiple voices that catch my ear.

I’m not one of those writers who believes my characters actually exist. I know the characters are just inside my head. At the same time, when I write from a character’s viewpoint, I’m giving free rein to some specific part of my psyche. I’m putting myself into a particular frame of mind and seeing what comes out. I want the result to be organic, without other parts of my brain trying to horn in on the act.

So I need to find a voice that ignites emotional sparks. It has to be someone who can face what’s going to happen and react in engaging ways. The character will be affected by the needs of the story and the character arcs I’ve envisioned…but the arcs I’ve made at this point are all provisional. If a character goes in other directions, that’s great. That’s part of what “being organic” means. And hey, if it all goes off the rails, I can always rewrite the darn thing.

So I write the first few pages numerous times. Five? Ten? More? And I usually write it all longhand, because writing with a pen makes my brain go slow and feel around for what’s waiting to come out.

Eventually, something clicks. When that happens, I know it. I’ve found the spark: the way into the story.

Then all I have to do is write the first draft.

[Map of forays during the Age of Discovery by Universalis [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]