Fiction

The Spine of Worlds is Here

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My story "The Spine of Worlds" is now up over at Kaleidotrope! Go read!

Here's a taste:

The Clockwork Gallery, as Hal called it, had walls of gears, pistons, springs and boilers, all hot steam pipes and cool iron.

At the far end, a bewilderingly complex series of dials and knobs, when set precisely, would cause a portion of the wall to roll away, to reveal the shimmering door.

The Gallery had exactly one permanent occupant, a mangy cat with a single glowing blue eye, which had escaped from the realm of the Gnome King long ago. The Gallery was littered with abandoned camp sites from adventurers who’d spent days or weeks there, trying to solve the puzzle and get through the door to the land of gnomes and their fabled wealth.

On Vocabulary and Fiction

There is a faction in the world of writing that would advise you to avoid words that would be unfamiliar to most readers— that is, big vocabulary words. The argument usually goes something like this: when a reader encounters a word they are not familiar with it makes them stop and realize they are reading something, taking them out of the story. That is, you want the reader to be completely absorbed, forget their reading at all, and not break the “vivid and continuous dream” (John Gardner’s phrase) of the narrative.

There are a few problems with this notion. The first is that particular words carry particular meanings that often simplifying them just won’t accomplish. If I call someone “indolent” that’s different than if I just called them “lazy”. Secondly, often a word will have a meaning that isn’t covered by any other. When I say the sun’s rays were “crepuscular", I would have to get a lot more verbose to describe that effect any other way.

More importantly, big words might be entirely appropriate for a particular character or style. For a character, using erudite words might be a way for her to show off her erudition. For a story written about the upper class in the late 19th century, for example, using words common to that class and time are a way to convey the setting besides mere description. Words are the tools with which prose narrative is created, and certain tools have certain functions. This is where I think most writers should come down on the subject: you use the vocabulary appropriate for what you’re writing.

But finally and most decisively for me, I actually don’t give a fuck about disrupting some reader’s precious “vivid and continuous dream”. For me, part of the joy of reading is the awareness of the prose, awareness of the techniques and tools and conventions being used to convey a particular kind of story, and I don’t mind it—in fact really enjoy it—when, as in many post-modernist works, you have an architecture with the ducts exposed and blueprints laid bare, as it were. I like books that are fully aware of and in possession of the fact that they are book, and not some suppositional “movie” going on in your head. (If I wanted to make movies, I’d be making movies.) Far from taking me out of a story, a well chosen unfamiliar word makes me more absorbed, more aware—by forcing me to think about a word, to look it up or intuit its meaning—of the kind of effect the writer is trying to create by using it.

You might not feel this way, you may prefer your vivid and continuous dream metaphor. That’s fine. There isn’t only one way to enjoy fiction, and there’s definitely more than one way to make it.

Judges' Cave is here!

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My story Judges' Cave is now available at Lakeside Circus!

A little taste:

After the world ended, five people holed up in Judges’ Cave and started a band. Like the punkers of old they rechristened themselves as a new people for a new, post-civilized, age. The Judges played outlandish music, all jangly majors and insistent, thumping rhythms that got under your nails and down your throat until you had to dance and stomp and rave to get it out or risk bursting. People came from miles around, canoeing through the bay that was once downtown New Haven to where the raw cliff face of West Rock jutted out over the water like the ragged brow of some angry sea god, just to watch Vinson, Warren, Burger, Rehnquist and Roberts play.

Go read the rest now!

LORE with "Trials of the Dead King" available now!

My story "Trials of the Dead King" is available now in LORE vol 2. no. 3 along with 11 other stories!

Also, I know I've been quiet lately. I'm going to be mostly quiet for a little longer, but at the end of the month I'll be making some noise about various exciting things. Stay tuned!

Here's a taste of the story:

The Challenger steps into the perfectly round room, closing the door on the bodies left behind him. The Savant sits on a low stone bench, gazing into the globe that floats inches from the floor and bathes the room in soft, warm light. Something slips around within it and sends shadows slithering along the walls and over her pale skin. She looks up and welcomes the Challenger with a nod toward the bench directly across from her.

"Would you like some tea?" she asks as the Challenger sits. She motions to one wall. There is a table the other hadn't noticed before, and on it is a cast iron tea pot and some simple ceramic cups.

The Challenger grunts. "No foreplay, old woman," he says. "Let's get to business. I need to go to the Citadel of Oberon."

The Savant sighs, "They never want tea." She takes a breath. The air crackles with hidden energy. "Very well. We begin with a character. You seem like a hip fellow. He'll have a hip name. He will be Danny Mitochondria."

She takes another breath, and when she resumes her voice has taken on a low, inhuman tone that echoes through the room. "Danny Mitochondria made his living taking tourists through the ruins of the faerie capital."

Read the rest in LORE vol. 2 no. 3

The Trials of the Dead King are Coming

My story "The Trials of the Dead King" has been accepted for publication in LORE Magazine for the upcoming April issue! It's the story of two adventurers and the beings controlling their fate as a storytelling challenge between them.

In addition to "The Kill Robot Hitler Show" in Stupefying Stories this will be my second publication of the year (so far).

VanderMeers Launch Weird Fiction Review

In the wake of Ann VanderMeer being taken off as editor-in-chief of Weird Tales following its acquisition by another company, and the publication of the VanderMeer's massive ombnibus The Weird, which collects weird fiction throughout the 20th century, Jeff and Ann VanderMeer have launched a new publication, the Weird Fiction Review, publishing articles, fiction and comics related to weird fiction. Included in the inaugural installment is an interview with Neil Gaiman. Worth checking out.

Why I'm Not Worried About Academic Laurels or the Death of Mainstream Book Reviews

Back when I was Literary Fiction guy, I had a conversation about books with a girl I knew who was, if not exactly well-read, did certainly read books regularly. In the course of the conversation I mentioned Don Delillo and Dave Eggars, and she referred to them off-handedly as "people no one had ever heard of." It was at that point I realized how thoroughly we lived in different worlds.

I had a similar moment recently at my job at comiXology, when Jake, who does a weekly comics podcast, mentioned that he might have George RR Martin on as a guest and asked me if that was a big deal. There's this assumption that comics and science fiction are part of the same "geek" world (as if geeks are some monolithic entity), but Jake is extremely well-read in comics didn't have any sense of the scale of one of the best-selling authors in the world right now.

But then, I should hardly feel cocky for having heard of Delillo, Eggars and Martin. After all, according to Wikipedia, the top five bestselling fiction authors of all time are, in order, William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Barbara Cartland, Harold Robbins, and Georges Simenon. Shakespeare and Christie are recognizable enough, but before looking this up I could not have told you for the world who those last three names belonged to. Apparently, Cartland wrote romance novels, Robbins wrote adventure fiction, and Simenon wrote detective stories. How is it that I, someone for whom books are practically a lifestyle, has not even heard of three of the five best-selling writers of all time? Imagine how absurd it would be if I were a film buff who had not heard of three of the five top-grossing film directors of all time?

The Murakami-Mieville Continuum

I've mentioned before Bruce Sterling's famous essay from 1989, in which the science fiction author laments that "mainstream" (read: "literary fiction") writers are writing speculative fiction better than the genre writers are, citing examples like Margret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Don Delillo's White Noise, and suggests a new category, called "Slipstream," which would include literary works with genre elements and genre works with literary feel (or more precisely, "a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility"). (There's an interesting digression I could go into about how literary fiction people think of themselves as marginalized while genre fiction is "popular" and "commercial" and genre fiction writers think of themselves as marginalized while literary fiction is "mainstream". In fiction, everybody is second class.)

Sterling's attempt at rebranding was marvelously unsuccessful: while a small group of genre writers occasionally identified themselves as Slipstream, most genre writers ignored the term while literary fiction writers never learned it existed. Some people missed the point entirely and thought the term just meant combining two genres together, and there was at least one "Slipstream" anthology filled with cowboy werewolves and noir detective vampires.

James Wood Has a Superficial Understanding of Fiction

James Wood is perhaps the most celebrated literary critic around, and his offer of employment at the New Yorker a few years ago was practically an inevitability. Long time readers of this blog will know I have mixed feelings about the man, on the one hand praising his analysis and critical acumen, and on the other despairing his hopelessly conservative tastes and high modernist sensibility. However, I never quite grasped the true depths of what is deeply wrong in his critical understanding until I read his most recent book, How Fiction Works.

Understand: this is a book that spends three chapters talking about the importance of detail (before Wood concludes that he is "ambivalent" about details in fiction), but has not one single chapter about plot. Indeed, plot is twice dismissed as juvenile, and Wood turns to the example of Flaubert again and again, the man who, Wood says, wanted to write a book about "nothing", that got by on style alone.

Fiction Magazines Worth Reading: 2010

It's been just over a year since I posted about the fiction magazines I felt were still worth reading, and already two magazines I liked (Farrogo's Wainscot and the not-mentioned-but-should-have-been Lone Star Stories) have gone out of business. Since then, I've also read a lot more widely, discovering new venues. Given that these things may continue to happen, it seemed appropriate enough to turn the list into a yearly outing. There's a glut of completely unreadable fiction magazines out there (with the "literary" magazines tending toward tepid boredom and the genre magazines tending toward uninspired hack-work), and the world sorely needs someone to sort through them and pick out the ones that are actually worth paying attention to.