Reading break

I’ve read more short stories in the last few days than I have in the last year, I think. But no, it was not simply for pleasure. That was just a welcome side benefit.

In a couple of weeks, I’m giving a presentation on writing speculative fiction, to a group of writers who don’t write specfic as a usual thing. Some of them have likely never written anything in the speculative genres, and possibly never read anything in those genres, either.

For that reason, I thought I’d like to assign them a few stories to read before the workshop, just so that we would have a few more talking points and all be on the same page (no pun intended). I had a few criteria–the stories had to be of short-to-moderate length, available online, accessible to readers outside the genre, and had to exemplify a couple of the things I’m planning to talk about. For example, the importance of good writing regardless of genre, the difference between story and mere anecdote, a certain depth of characterization.

I found that “accessibility” was the most difficult criterion to fill. For readers who are unfamiliar with standard genre tropes, I felt that stories with a minimum of SF jargon and a setting that was at least somewhat Earthlike might be best. However, it becomes obvious that we speculative fiction writers expect a lot from our readers–or is it that our readers expect a lot from us? I begin to think that specfic writers tend to start invoking the “sensawunda” as soon as possible at the beginning of many stories, dangling a tempting hook for our readers so that we can quickly reel them in. For readers coming to specfic for the first time, however, I think many of these stories would be too unfamiliar, offering too much “difference” too soon, for non-genre readers to stay with them long enough to become invested in the story. To get their specfic legs under them, so to speak.

And of course, personal taste enters into it and can’t be separated from the selection process, so the stories I chose would not necessarily be the ones someone else would choose. Still, it was an interesting exercise. I’ve asked the workshop participants, if they begin reading one of the stories and don’t finish it, to make a note of where they stopped and why. Could be some interesting comments there.

Anyway, after a few days of (mostly) enjoyable reading, I settled on four stories to recommend. Three are science fiction, and one is fantasy. Since I’m recommending them in my workshop, I thought I’d recommend them here, too. They are:

SF Short story – “Jimmy’s Roadside Cafe” by Ramsey Shehadeh

Fantasy Short story – “Sun Magic, Earth Magic” by David D. Levine

SF Short story – “Ghosts and Simulations” by Ruthanna Emrys

The last piece is a novella, but since it won a Hugo award at WorldCon in Montreal this summer (and I was there to see it!), it is definitely worth the time investment:

SF Novella – “The Erdmann Nexus” by Nancy Kress

If you read any of the stories, please tell me what you think of them. Happy reading!

*Magazine cover art from

But when is it ready?

Yesterday morning I opened an email from a publisher I’d queried about The Seventh Crow. To my delight, they were requesting a look at the full manuscript.

Now, this manuscript has been pretty thoroughly edited, revised, redrafted, read by three trusted readers, run through the trusty Cliche Cleaner, etc. I made sure it was ready before I even thought about sending out queries.

Or so I thought. To make the submission, I had to convert the file to MS Word, so I thought, “might as well run it through Word’s spell/grammar check, too.” Two days later, I have just now sent the file out.

Now, much of this is due to the fact that Word’s grammar checker is…weird. I know, I know, this is one of the most difficult things to program because of context issues, style issues, usage variations–but still. Of everything it flagged, I would guess I changed less than one-eighth. Don’t get me wrong–I am not saying I know better than the program when it comes to strict right-or-wrong questions. It was useful to me in pointing out a number of things I’d missed along the way. But the vast majority of issues it flagged were non-issues. Hence the two days it took to go through 324 pages (and not counting kids, puppies, husband, laundry, meals, and sundry assorted other distractions, of course).

At any rate, the real point of this post is in the title…how does a writer know when a piece of writing is ready? Really ready to go out into the world and stand on its own?

Two answers spring to mind for me: feedback and critiquing. I think it’s extremely important to have some trusted readers (or at least one!) who will provide honest feedback on a story at various stages, and who have some facility with the technical end of writing–who can tell you that you’re using too many passive sentences, or semicolons, or that you’ve used the word “recalibration” three times in two paragraphs. And of course, you have to be willing to listen to them.

Conversely, you need to develop your own critiquing skills by reading and commenting on the work of other developing writers. It’s the best way I know to become a good self-editor, which is one of the most difficult skills to master; and in today’s publishing world, one of the most important. It is crucial to be able to bring your own work to a highly polished level before submitting it. By critiquing stories for other writers, you learn to view the work with a detached eye, and in time will be able to apply a similar level of detachment (although never quite the same) to your own stories.

But still…when is it ready?

Honestly–I don’t know. Some say, if you’re changing less than 10% of the words, send it out. Some say, when you feel like you can’t improve it any more on your own, send it out. Some say, when you can’t stand to read the damn thing one more time, send it out.

All good advice. I think the main thing to take away from this post is that you make the work the best you can, and then you send it out. And then…you cross your fingers and wait.

Personally speaking…

This fall I’m attending a writing workshop (as I often do this time of year). It will run for eight weeks, Saturday morning sessions, and we’ll be covering a lot of ground, discussing both assigned reading and submitted stories. For last year’s workshop, we were required to write a story in first person; this year, we were asked to rewrite that same story in third person.

Sounds simple, but it’s been a challenging exercise, and one which I would suggest every writer should take on at least once. It’s not a matter of merely swapping out pronouns. It’s a great way to gain a greater understanding of two very different storytelling modes. And although you may already have written stories in third person and stories in first person, it’s a much stronger lesson if you write the same story in the two different ways.

In the end, I think I still like the first person version of this particular story, but I was pleased with the new version as well. I think the storytelling modes highlight different areas of the story, which is a very helpful thing for a writer to be able to recognize, especially when making those first decisions about the best way to tell your story. The main character in this story is a hired killer, so it is very interesting to reflect on how the story will come across when the reader is merely an observer, compared to when they are actually in his head.

The best thing is–it’s done and submitted, and I can cross it off my to-do list!

*photo courtesy of kevinrosseel at