The Kindest Cut of All

Without hesitation, my primary love language is words of affirmation. Today, I am feeling affirmed because of a personalized rejection letter I received from the editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. The story in question is Exemplars , my pastor-meets-space-alien short story, and it’s a big deal because I usually get rejected by form letter.

Exemplars is, in my estimation, one of my best stories to date, and at three-plus years in the making, it was also one of my longest to write. Because of this extended duration, it has also provided me with a lot of experience learning how to edit my stories. In no particular order, here are a few things I learned — and implemented — while rewriting Exemplars.

  • Less is more when it comes to characters. In my initial draft, I had no less than five different characters present in my story, with a sixth on the telephone. The story was stronger with only three present, even though it meant I had to cut what I thought were some of my funniest lines.
  • Research matters, even when writing what you know. In this case, my need to rewrite this story required a research trip to a Reformed Baptist church in Massachusetts.  Although my original draft took place in a church more like the one I currently attend, I felt I needed a church with more of a New England feel to it.  I also needed the specific denomination because it tied better to the story I was telling.

pew-door

  • Painful edits can be essential. After its second trip through the queue at Critters, I decided that readers were being confused by the door on the pews of my fictional church. Pew doors are an authentic part of my New England setting — something I grew up with — but apparently they don’t exist anywhere else. I couldn’t afford to confuse my readers, so the pew doors had to go.
  • Secondary themes matter, even in short fiction. The plot of Exemplars is relatively straightforward, but the struggles my protagonist faces while interacting with a creature he initially doesn’t believe in are reflected in the struggles of the church at large in its relationship to minorities. It’s an issue I know well, and I think it makes my story stronger.

As I mentioned in my opening, Asimov’s actually turned down this story, but I’m still feeling pretty good about it. Mostly, that’s because I feel it’s a strong story, and Sheila Williams affirmed that by telling me she looks forward to seeing my next story.  Once I send Exemplars shipped out to another publication for consideration, I’ll get right on it.

 

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False First Impressions

I am older than the internet, which means I am older than dirt. It also means I had to learn typing (keyboarding to you millenials) on an honest-to-goodness IBM Selectric typewriter. I learned it in the business wing of our high school from Mr. R.

IBM_SelectricCollege-track students in those days didn’t often take business classes, but Mr. R. taught both history and typing at our high school, and I had him for several classes in my teens. Mostly, I did not respect him. I think, in retrospect, that this was a function of my disregard for history, which in my limited experience seemed to consist entirely of the memorization of unrelated facts. My brain focuses on relationships, not facts, and while I was able to find the relationships between topics necessary to earn my A, the whole process seemed tedious and somewhat pointless[1].

Although I have since learned that Mr. R. was a bright man, a hard-working man, and a good man, I in my ignorant youth confounded the dull, plodding, pedantic subject he taught with the teacher himself.  Moreover, Mr. R’s physique did nothing to dissuade me of this incorrect opinion. Mr. R. was obese.

I do not hide from the fact that I am generally considered overweight, and have been so for as long as I can remember. During this same time, I have had any number of friends whose BMI exceeded my own, and really thought nothing of it. In this regard, Mr. R was exceptional.

Standing a full head and shoulders taller than me, Mr. R. still carried so much additional weight around his middle that it was his girth, not his height, which caught your immediate attention. His waist was the widest part of his body, and I remember wondering how his belt could possibly suspend his pants above a pair of hips that were so much smaller in size. His broad neck supported no less than three chins, and his rolling gait suggested a sailor just beginning his first shore leave after a full year at sea. And those hands!

People in my family generally have narrow wrists and thin fingers. This feature has served my daughters well when learning to play the violin. Since the reality we know tends to define “normal”, for me, skinny hands are normal hands to me. Mr. R. did not have skinny hands. Indeed, his fingers were best compared with sausages, and I wondered how he could even bend them, much less use them to do actual work.

My bogus opinion was corrected one day in typing class when my ribbon broke. Unable to finish my exercise, I asked for help, and Mr. R. came to see me.

“Out of your seat,” he said, and I rose. Mr. R. slid into the chair. I craned myself over the typewriter from the side, watching as he extracted the broken ribbon cartridge and replaced it with a fresh one. Then he rolled a fresh piece of paper onto the platen and set his hands on the typewriter keys. Even with his thumbs held close together, Mr. R’s hands were so broad that they spanned the entire machine. Then his fingers blurred.

“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs” appeared on the page, and I never saw it happen.

I later learned that Mr. R easily typed over a hundred words a minute, accurately, with a typewriter. These days, my best typing speed peaks out at around a hundred words a minute — on a computer.  The keyboard on a small laptop may be insufferable, but the keys on my 17″ Dell are far easier to use than anything I had access to in the 80’s.

From this brief incident, I learned in a practical way just how deceived we can become when our opinions are based on appearances alone. More recently, it has me thinking about how I can use mistakes made with first impressions to product conflicts in my stories.

[1] For those who would take this as a recommendation to do poorly in history, let me remind you that those who fail to learn in history class are doomed to repeat it.  Learn the material, earn a good grade, and you will only have to take it once.  Moreover, you will have earned the right to mock the whole process in your blog thirty years later.

Ancillary Justice

From time to time, I encounter a work of fiction that really makes me think. One such book is Ann Leckie’s debut novel, Ancillary Justice. Having encountered it in Asimov’s “On Books” column this month, I decided to buy a copy for my eReader, and I’m glad I did.

Leckie’s protagonist, Breq, is all that remains of a military ship’s AI, Justice of Toren. As Justice, Breq simultaneously inhabited a massive number of ancillary bodies, but is now limited to one of the solders from the unit One Esk she used to control. Breq has embarked on a mission to kill Anaander Mianaai, an enemy who likewise lives in thousands of bodies herself. It is an epic battle spanning multiple worlds and distinctive cultures.

These days, when I read fiction, I find myself doing so with my metaphorical red pencil in hand. I could blame my experience critiquing people’s work with Critters, but the reality is probably more mundane: I am teaching myself to edit my own work, and it has heightened my awareness of everything I read. As a result, I found myself considering a number of things Leckie does especially well with this novel and whether I could equal any of them in my own work.

Most superficially, I appreciate the way Leckie describes the interstellar empire in which her story is set. The Radchaai are polytheistic syncretists[1], and Leckie realistically integrates integrates their religious practices into the fabric of her story. As a strict monotheist, I don’t know if I could possibly attempt to portray this perspective. I don’t even know if I would have imagined something as elegant as Leckie’s use of gloves to portray Radch cultural ideals.

A second characteristic of her work, and the one which challenged me most while reading, is the fact that the Radchaai make no distinctions between male and female in their language. As a result, Breq uses a single set of pronouns — generally translated into the feminine third-person pronouns in English — to describe other characters of both genders[2]. It parallels the way I myself use masculine pronouns as the generic neuter, and while it’s not the way I usually think, it works here. Compared to other pieces I’ve read that use  alternative gender-neutral pronouns, this technique flows much better for me.

Third, and perhaps most noteworthy in Ancillary Justice, is Leckie’s deft handling of the multiple simultaneous perspectives of her protagonist’s ancillary bodies. While writing in first person point-of-view, Leckie takes advantage of her character to achieve an almost omnicient perspective on her plot. In any other story, this would break my suspension of disbelief, but here, it actually serves to to emphasize what is essentially an alien AI perspective.

Taken as a whole, Ancillary Justice is a solidly-written and creative novel, strong enough that Justin Landin of tor.com thinks it should win the Hugo for Best Novel. I don’t get a vote, and to be honest I haven’t read enough new novels this year to make a fair judgement, but this much I can say:  Ancillary Justice is a worthwhile read.

[1] In the extras, Leckie indicates that her Radchaai culture borrows heavily from Roman polytheism, but her description of their gods and the heavy use of doubled ‘a’ in character names makes it feel somewhat Hindu to me. Regardless, it is a consistently-portrayed culture, and it works.
[2] In my description above, I used these same pronouns to describe Breq and Anaander, though neither one has a single definitive gender. This was the author’s choice, and I think it deserves that respect.

 

Surviving Childhood

For the past few weeks, NPR has been airing a series of programs on Men in America. Since I think I have some applicable experience on this topic, I thought I’d tell you a story. And since I think the way to understand men is to understand male childhood development, I’ll tell you a story from my childhood.

Somewhere in the archives of the West Bridgewater Historical Society there is a high school valedictory address with my name on it. Looking back, I’m proud of that accomplishment, but I’m also somewhat surprised, because I was a major discipline case for the first eight years of my grade-school education. Faced with boring material in class, I constantly challenged my teachers. I wanted to know more at a faster pace than the system was ready to teach me, and when I didn’t get it, my frustration showed up in a need to move, to do something, to do anything but sit still.Spring Street School

The best teachers in our school system found creative ways to challenge me.  Whether it was delivering the attendance to the office every morning or asking me to solve problems the rest of the class didn’t have to consider, they kept me engaged, which in turn kept me out of the way.

The less successful teachers tried to block me directly from disrupting things, with limited success.  In second grade, a teacher seatbelted me to my chair with a scarf to keep me from running around, so I carried the chair with me just to oppose her. In third grade, my math teacher punished my disruptions with detention, so I made it my personal goal to identify and announce every mistake she made for the rest of the year.  In middle school I once gave an improvisational presentation in health class based on things I heard others present in class that day because I hadn’t bothered to write my own report the night before–a report in which I explicitly told people not to do the very things I was doing.

At the same time, I was a social disaster. My parents insisted that the growing trend for denim jeans in school was unacceptable, so I had to wear my (husky) corduroys instead.  But we were living on a teacher’s salary, so I had to find a way to make three pairs (all I owned) last through five days of school (between laundry days) without anyone finding out I was re-wearing my dirty clothes.  Since t-shirts were likewise deemed unacceptable by my parents, I paired those limited trouser choices with the only shirts I could wear to school–polo shirts, generally adorned with horizontal stripes that made me look even less attractive. Paired with my 1950’s-era haircut, my wardrobe guaranteed that I would fit in like a biker at the ballet–but faced with a list of “don’t” options, it was the only solution I could see.

Many boys use sports or other physical activity to feel part of a group. Being entirely incompetent at gross motor activities, I could not use this option. This was, however, a fact that my parents didn’t know about at the time. Indeed, I used false claims about intramural sports activity to cover up my excessive detention record through fifth grade. I’m not proud of this, but it’s true.

High School graduation, 1984.

It wasn’t until early in ninth grade that one of the “cool kids” in school talked with me about my appearance. Instead of telling me what I couldn’t do, he had some ideas about what I could do. With his guidance, I was able to swap out my polo shirts for regular dress shirts–an upgrade for my parents and my peers.  With the addition of a fuller haircut, I was able to shed my Steve Urkel image for one that was, if not debonair, at least marginally acceptable.

At the same time, I suddenly found myself able to select the high school classes I was going to attend. I wasn’t always the most successful, but by the time I graduated I had become an expert on maximizing my grade in each class while simultaneously minimizing the amount of work I had to do outside of class. It was an exercise in optimization that kept me occupied, and my delinquency rate dropped. This ability to optimize my education served me very well in college, and I still fall back on it today from time to time.

The takeaway from this story is that for me, I don’t need to hear what I can’t or shouldn’t do. What I need to know is the complete rules for this game we call living, negative and positive. Give me a puzzle with an actual solution, and some hope of finding it, and I’ll pursue it.

Modern society often leaves men with a set of conflicting requirements.  Express your emotions, except for the emotions other people don’t like. Take responsibility for everything, except where some other group wants that responsibility to move ahead.  Work hard and provide for others, and just accept the criticism when your job leaves you unavailable to do something else.  While women may be told “you can do it all”, men are often told the opposite.  I think this can change, and I think it has to change if we’re going to see the societal improvements from men that so many are asking for.

The Joys of Yiddish

While assembling the shelf of books for my banner image, I took some time to think about what books represent me best, with special consideration of the books that get the most use. I was surprised to find that my bookshelf is most heavily weighted by nonfiction. It made me realize that while I thoroughly enjoy reading a good story, the books I feel compelled to keep at hand are the ones I can later use to refresh my knowledge. I am content to borrow works of fiction from the public library; reference books, I need to own.

Joys of YiddishOf all the books on my shelf, the one most heavily worn is The Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten. Inhabiting the intellectual space between a dictionary and a book of jokes, it is really just a series of definitions clarified by amusing stories, and serves to illustrate the author’s love for Jewish culture in America. While I haven’t yet found much use for Yiddish in my stories, Rosten’s colorful anecdotes have brought pleasure to many an afternoon, and add depth to my otherwise whitebread existence.

An example: the word gewalt[1].  Literally meaning “strength” or “power”, it is, when used as an interjection[2], a one-word prayer crying out for strength in the face of formidable circumstances. For its purpose, I find no equal in the English language to this elegant term, and it has infected my speech to the point that my daughters now mutter “gewalt” when confronted by an absurd situation around the house.

You may be inclined to suspect that I have a bad habit of absconding with vocabulary that is not legitimately my own. Your suspicion is correct, but I nonetheless hold that Yiddish phrases have become useful arrows in any English-speaker’s quiver. From aha to shtick, Yiddish has infected our way of speaking.

Consider, for example, my trip to the UK ten years ago. Having noticed a small sign reading nosh (food), I spent an hour driving around the back roads of Sussex in search of the bagel it promised. Alas, it was not possible to purchase bagels in that part of England[3]. I later learned that restaurants in England had been using the term in its general sense, and the sign in question actually referred to some kind of church dinner being held that afternoon.

I now find, to my great joy, that this marvelous text has been re-released by Rosten’s daughters and updated with the help of Lawrence Bush. I may have a new text on my wish list.

[1]pronounced “geh-valt”, with the emphasis on the second syllable. Rosten illustrates this word with the tale of its use by a French diplomat, so I think I’m justified in taking it for my own use as well.
[2]It is interesting to note that Italians use their word for power, forze, as an interjection as well. The fact that they use it in joy at a soccer match may indicate a difference in the Jewish and Italian experiences through history.
[3]Though I have many unpleasant things to say about New York, it does appear to be the one place in the world where you can buy a bagel (with lox) at two in the morning. If I am wrong, please tell me where else this can be done, and I may be forced to travel there.