I think it’s been a couple years since I actually posted my list of books read, but here’s everything I finished in 2022…
Empty Planet, by John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker The Invention of Sicily by Jamie Mackay The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson MS copy of a banging horror novel by a friend Naturally, I also got to read the MS copy of Kelly Robson’s brilliant novella High Times in the Low Parliament. Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel (reread) Spear, by Nicola Griffith I Contain Multitudes, by Ed Yong Dragon, by Saladin Ahmed, drawn by Dave Acosta Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit and Obsession, edited by Sarah Weinman Hawkeye: Anchor Points, by Kelly Thompson art by Leonardo Romero & Michael Walsh Artemesia, by Nathalie Ferlinghetti & Tamia Baudouin The Terraformers, Annalee Newitz (yes, I got an advance copy, you should be very jealous of me.) Agatha Christie: an Elusive Woman, by Lucy Worsley Sex (The School of Life) by Alain De Botton Ducks, written and illustrated by Kate Beeton Unthinkable, by Helen Thomson
In many ways, the past year has been a blur. Kelly and I had a couple of family tragedies and other lesser setbacks, and these often felt huge and all consuming. Interspersed with these challenges was a much more thrilling distraction–a return to the delights of travelling! There was quite a lot of it, as Kelly’s High Times in the Low Parliament was out, so we cautiously attended some cons and writing festivals. Worldcon, Windycon, CanCon, and the Celsius festival in Spain were among the events that welcomed us, and I was so grateful to be able to go, to see my various writing friends again, and to once again reach out to the wider world.
There were virtual cons, too! You can see my panel for Augurcon, “Stories for the Futures we Need,” which also featured Premee Mohamed and Charlie Jane Anders, by clicking on the Youtube link at the bottom of this post. There’s a whole day of programming there to enjoy!
When we weren’t on the road and sometimes even when we were, I was writing. Mostly I worked on novel-length fiction, but I did write a novelette called “Horsewoman,” which will be out in Uncanny soon; I’m very excited about that! My “The Hazmat Sisters, which was a finalist for the 36th Asimovs’ Annual Readers Award will also be featured on Escape Pod, in text and audio forms.
Finally and in a very Gamechanger-y plot twist, my House of Zolo poem, “Starring You in the Role of the Fourth Rider,” is going to be adapted into a presentation–still to be determined–in VR by Black Bag media.
Working on books can make it feel like you have nothing to show for the hours and hours and hours and look, more hours! that one puts in. This is emphatically not me complaining about writing a lot. I loooovvvveee writing. But the publication dates come few and far between, and depending on your process you can work on something for months or even years without putting it in front of someone. It can be odd, and it forces me at least to rely on inner resources when I think about how a project’s going. The time scale for sharing long form fiction can be innately discouraging. I suspect that’s why many new writers struggle to see their work through to completion. It’s a marathon not a sprint: a long way to the finish line!
All of which is to say I’ve probably written half a million words this year, and it may be a fair while yet before you get to read many of them. I do have high hopes of committing more short fiction in 2023–so encourage me, if you dare!
Does it make sense to keep working on short fiction, with the idea of developing my writing skills before moving on to a novel? How do you know when one of your own ideas will be a short story or a novel??
What about the second question, though–what do you do if you’ve started writing a story, and now you think it might actually be a novel?
This is an issue that comes up a lot when you’re workshopping. What happens in those cases is that your readers notice that you have a lot going on in the story you’ve submitted. Like, a lot: lots of characters, lots of complexity within the world you’ve built, maybe even multiple story threads. You’ve alluded to a dozen or more incredibly interesting things and none of them feels fully realized, and several readers are calling for you to expand each and every one of those elements. But you’re already pushing 7,500 words!
Sometimes more is more. It may be that you do indeed have a novel on your hands.
The opposite can also happen: your internal editor or actual readers can come back to your book chapters or novella with a million suggestions for cutting and condensing material that feels unneeded or, sometimes, duplicated. In such cases, you may have a lot of words covering not much content. A more abbreviated and effective form of the story might be what’s called for.
It might be easy to see both types of analysis as sheerly quantitative. One is saying you have too much stuff to fit into a short story, right? The other is suggesting you have too little matter to justify a work’s present length. It’s easy to feel like this is about word counts, and important to notice that it’s not. Whether a story is enough at a certain length is really about its heft, a sort of of intuitively-felt ratio of ideas and emotional beats to words. It’s about how much we, as readers, are digesting in relation to the length of what we’re reading.
Yes, digesting! It can be fun (and sometimes useful) to think of the story as something you’re cooking up for readers. Is it a snack? A light soup with a cookie on the side? Or is it a banquet?
Whether you’re taking this feedback about a story’s relative bigness and evaluating it after the fact, or you’re working with an unfinished idea and trying to rate whether it’s a novel or story idea, there’s no easy binary Long/Short answer or rubric you can fall back on. Complex stories can be cut back, after all. Apparently slender ideas can be nourished and expanded.
However, one thing you can try, that might make a good starting point, is to try to summarize the story you’re telling. Can you get it down to one or two sentences that really encapsulate what you’ve got on the page? If no matter what you do you can’t sum up the story without stretching into paragraphs, or even a page, you are probably heading into novel territory.
The innate sense of whether something is a novel or story idea gets sharper as you continue to write, and gain experience as both a reader and an editor. But until that instinct develops, asking yourself these kinds of questions, like What kind of food is it? or Can I summarize it in a line or two? or Can I cut it down to three characters without breaking it? might be the best way to evaluate what you’re working on.
There are few rules in writing, but in general good, self-contained short stories tend to have one storyline, one protagonist, an easily understood setting, one theme and around a handful of characters. Novels, simply, have more.
So if you’re 6000 words into something and you find yourself introducing your eighth important character on your third planet, or developing a second whole story arc, let yourself ask if you actually a novella or a book on your hands.
If that’s the case have a pause, take a breath, and then prepare to ask yourself one last thing: are you eager and excited about diving in?
How much should I be willing to change a work–say a gory horror story or something with explicit sex–to make it eligible to sell to a magazine that won’t take it in its current form?
I get this question quite often, and what caught my attention this time was the emotional framing captured in the phrase How much should we be willing…
It’s a little meta, I know, to pick apart the very words of a simple question. This writer wasn’t really asking me to set levels for their feelings about revision, of course. But writing and editing are professions where close reading is a must and everything you say has impact, so for a second I’m going to take this literally. This question, as phrased, is set up in a way that invites us to judge the writer’s emotions, isn’t it? It’s not that different from asking How much should I want to get married?
This can remind us, though, that the idea of revision is emotionally charged. Changing a work of fiction isn’t like tightening the bolts on your kitchen taps or defragging a hard drive.
So let’s start with this: how you feel about revision (or marriage) isn’t really up for discussion: if you’re in hate with any given editorial suggestion, that’s allowed and valid and perfectly all right. It’s your story, always. You never have to do anything to it unless you want to. On the other hand, if you’re open or even excited about the idea of making possibly-radical changes, whether it’s for artistic reasons or commercial ones or maybe a little of both… that too is just your emotional response.
Basically, don’t let other humans try to tell you how to feel.
All right, but that’s obviously taking us away from the intent of the question… or is it? If you truly have a story that’s on the far end of salable because of its content or extreme sensibility, isn’t that a question of artistic impulse in question with the crass needs of the market? Gore’s a great example to use here. A lot of people are horrified and even triggered by graphic violence. Readers may actively seek to avoid such content and many fiction markets don’t accept stories that push into that sensibility…
… Okay. But horrified. That’s a feeling, isn’t it? And artistic impulse… that’s a value judgment we often attach to feelings that reinforce our sense of ourselves as artists. When we talk about the crass commerciality of wanting to sell stories for money, we’re judging too. We all know there’s a big tendency in our culture to imply that artists should feel bad if they want to make a living. People can find it easy to assume that someone who courts the markets somehow isn’t really a writer, or not really a good writer, and they should definitely feel bad about themselves.
In putting those imaginary judgmental voices aside, ask yourself: what matters to you most? The story as it is, as an expression of your original vision? Or the chances of a sale? Either answer is valid and can determine your choices.
Does this mean you should never examine or question those feelings or impulses? No. It is always worthwhile as a writer to explore the feelings of reluctance that arise when a difficult editorial suggestion is on the table. Sometimes we don’t want to trammel the purity of our vision, but other times the reluctance comes from other places. Places like: I am so ready to be done with this story and to move on to the next thing. Or: I don’t know how to do what’s being asked of me in a way that makes the story as good or better.
No writer, writing instructor or editor should ever argue that you should sell out your true artistic impulses by throwing your story under the bus. If you’ve got a great tragic ending and someone offers you big bucks to make it happy–we should all face such dilemmas!–and it would truly feel like a betrayal of the work, then you might feel you’ve diminished yourself and the piece by doing the changes and taking the cash.
But I want to emphasize that editors and readers do not set out to deliberately ruin stories. Editorial suggestions, even commercially motivated ones, are often good suggestions. So do check in with yourself, now and then. Are you leading with No out of habit, without even considering or trying to make the change? Sometimes this is the right instinct, but at other times it can potentially be a reflex that causes you to discard worthwhile artistic possibilities.
As for how to make revisions once you’ve decided on possible changes to a story, that’s a topic for another essay. Or, really, several other essays.
Today I get to share something that has given me immense joy this spring: I have become, almost by accident, a playwright!
How did it happen? The short version of the story is this: some months ago award-winning actor Margo MacDonald asked me, Kelly Robson and Amal El-Mohtar to each write her a monologue for the upcoming Ottawa Fringe. We had a general theme—disappearances, lost time, uncanny abductions. Together, we also came up with a phrase, Dressed As People, that each of us would feature somewhere within our speech.
Without consulting each other, the three of us got to writing. Each determined, I know, to wow the others, and give Margo great material to work with, while taking the concept as far as we could. None of us knew what the other was working on until the first read-through. And…
Oh, you all! Even in that rough cut first stage table read, Margo was incandescent. As she’s worked with the pieces, and we’ve worked with her and director Mary Ellis, it’s only gotten better.
I sometimes use the phrase “I grew up in a theater” as shorthand for a certain chunk of my early childhood experience. My parents were deeply involved in an amateur Northern Alberta theater company, and from the time I was three I was backstage, running errands and being admonished to get out from underfoot. Yes, this does mean I was raised by boho hippies who couldn’t afford childcare. Weren’t we all? Soon I was getting pressed into service as a prompter when nobody else was around or willing to follow a script during rehearsals. I probably hung my first lighting instrument when I was ten. (I shouldn’t have! Fresnels are damned heavy!)
I wrote some plays when I was working on my undergraduate degree in theater, many years ago, but I already knew I wanted to write science fiction novels. I didn’t regret setting aside stage work for prose, and I have written many fun things set among theater companies in the years since. But in 2020, this let me suddenly break from the Toronto pandemic and lockdown routine—with all its stresses and anxiety-laced moments of boredom and added tasks and responsibilities and woes… well, you know, of course you do. It let me stop doing all that and write to a specific challenge—this is the thing that makes me love theme anthology invites—and to work both with Kelly and with so many other artists whom I respect and admire and love. So, really, this has, from start to middle, been a dream come true.
In addition to all the other things about this experience, Dressed as People has thus been a huge gift to me, unlooked for, but much needed and so deeply appreciated that just typing these words makes me tear up. It has been a chance to take a treasured sliver of my childhood and spin a little macabre gold from it, and to be part of a theater gang again, and to make stage stuff with my wonderful wife. It has been everything during this long spring siege.
Naturally, the pandemic has shaped everything we did as we worked on Dressed as People. The Ottawa Fringe is virtual this year, and we rehearsed in Zoom and watched Margo and director Mary Ellis wrestle with the contradictions of trying to create a live theater experience in a recorded medium. Working as a theater company is so much about being together… and we simply weren’t. Or at least, we aren’t yet.
I hope you’ll consider joining us for the premiere of the show. Tickets are on sale now, and all of the $15 ticket price goes to the artists in the company. You can attend from anywhere in the world, at any time convenient to you, during the Ottawa Fringe, which runs from June 17-27. We will be getting up some watch parties, and if you keep an eye on our social media, or the Parry Riposte Productions site, you should be able to find out when those are scheduled.
But what is Dressed as People, besides three monologues by award-winning writers, performed by an award-winning actor and served straight to your home in just a couple weeks? Obviously I don’t want to spoil, but first of all it’s Skinless by Kelly Robson, a shot of ice to the veins that tells the story of a school haunted by troubled children. It’s The Shape of My Teeth by Amal El-Mohtar, about an ancient hunting wood and the mysterious disappearance of a young woman’s most important childhood friend. My Repositioning is a bit of a romp, with myriad pop culture influences including The Love Boat, Legend of the Blue Sea and even a slight takedown of Madmen, all set now, or ten minutes from now, in this moment when a very lucky and privileged few of us might soon expect to pick up the strands of our lives… though it’s also the story of someone whose life strands were fraying pretty badly before 2019.
All three monologues are performed by Margo MacDonald, directed by Mary Ellis, and we were lucky enough to have original music composed and performed by SIESKI. Our technical director at Parry Riposte Productions is the luminous and multi-talented Titus Androgynous , and we also have support from wonderful graphic designer K.