Category Archives: Southern Discomfort

Worlds in collision: why I don’t write utopias

In a recent thread on Twitter (sorry, I don’t have a link), NK Jemisin took issue with people pushing for fewer dystopias, more utopias: people of color, women and gays (for example) all have good reasons not to feel optimism. Where utopian fiction is sunny escapism, dystopian fiction grapples with the darkness.

I see her point about the appeal of dystopia, but I think breaking utopia and dystopia into some kind of escapism/serious fiction dichotomy is wrong. Utopian fiction is traditionally educational, not escapist, starting with Sir Thomas More’s original Utopia. The goal isn’t to entertain with a fantasy but to show how an ideal society would work, or how we get from there to here.

Conversely, a lot of dystopia is escapist. Hunger Games. Cyberpunk. It can be the horror of the protagonist being ground under by a corrupt system, or the excitement of being the rebel fighting against tyranny, but the goal is, as with most fiction, entertainment. It may satisfy because it speaks to our fears about the future or our experience of life, but I don’t think it’s inherently more serious than utopian fiction.

And that got me thinking, again, about how when I write stories that change the setting’s social order — Southern Discomfort, Atoms for Peace, Questionable Minds — I change some things, improve some things, but I don’t improve everything. In Atoms for Peace, women are much better off, 1950s sexual standards are looser, but people of color haven’t gained anything. In Southern Discomfort, the McAlisters prevented the worst violence of Jim Crow from affecting the black residents of Pharisee County, but women and gays aren’t any better off. And by 1973, younger blacks see the McAlisters as more patronizing and outdated than protective.

I could have shot for utopian, or closer to it, but dramatically it doesn’t interest me. A system that’s changed from our own, or in upheaval (in Questionable Minds, Victorian England is still attempting to fit psi-powers into the established caste system) has more storytelling potential for me than a utopia where everything works.

That’s personal taste, not a writing rule: I could imagine the alt.1950s of Atoms for Peace reluctantly embracing civil rights and still tell the same stories. But a setting that works imperfectly appeals to me more. That’s not meant as an excuse — if someone thinks Southern Discomfort should have had a larger gay presence, they’re certainly entitled to criticize my storytelling decisions — just a statement of fact.

Of course, I don’t write dystopias either. But that’s just because I don’t write the kind of SF that imagines dystopia, so no great lessons to learn.

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Making choices and Southern Discomfort

“In a world where all fundamental laws can be rewritten, it is also illuminating which of them aren’t.” says Mimi Mondal in the Hindustani Times. Her point being that worldbuilding in specfic always has political overtones. A world where being gay is unremarkable and acceptable is a political statement, but so is a book that doesn’t have any gay characters.

Which seems like a good launch point for discussing how I’ve handled such questions in both Atoms for Peace and Southern Discomfort. The first is an alternative history in which SF-movies of the 1950s are everyday reality; in the second, one small town has been changed by the presence of two elves as the unofficial leaders since its founding. As a result I changed some of the real world in each book, but not all of it.

In Atoms for Peace women have made huge gains compared to our reality. Much like WW II, the government needs them to make up for the manpower shortage caused by men entering the military or the National Guard. A lot of people still give lip service to the 1950s standards of our world, and plenty of people feel like that’s the way the world should be, but in practice women get to see a lot more adventure than they would have in our timeline (no disrespect intended to those real women who pushed the envelope).

Black Americans, however, are doing worse. Blaming integration and civil rights activism on ET agitators works just as well as blaming it on Communists did. In our 1950s, the federal government’s response to civil rights was influenced by the need not to look better than the USSR (Jim Crow did not serve that end); in Atoms for Peace that pressure is removed. So it’s not looking good.

Gays? Well nothing’s changed for them; they’re still in the closet and still barred from serving in the federal government (though some people are willing to turn a blind eye if the gay’s got valuable skills).

That’s all reasonable, I think, but Mondal has a point it reflects  my writing choices, not some abstract analysis. I write a lot of women into my stories; I don’t use PoC as often. So it’s not surprising I focused on changes that improve women’s lives. I probably could have made bigger and more positive changes to civil rights too (I really don’t see gay rights budging much), but I don’t like the idea of making everything better — it feels way too utopian. So I made my call.

In Southern Discomfort, by contrast, the big change was race. The black residents of Pharisee County have been better off than most of the south, but they’ve still had to deal with slavery and Jim Crow. The role of women and gays in Pharisee isn’t much different from the real world.

As with Atoms for Peace I think that’s a plausible set of changes, but I could have rationalized different ones. With Olwen McAlister around, women could have easily been given more respect. The McAlisters aren’t bothered by anyone’s sexual orientation, so it could have been a more gay-friendly community than typical for 1973. But again, I prefer better-but-flawed over utopian in my alt.Earth settings.

Good decision? Bad decision? Too limited in rewriting the fundamental laws? Wish I knew.

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Once again, life thwarts my plans

Which is to say, this was a busy week in the non-writing areas of my life.

Wednesday we had the electrician come out to check some of our outside lights. That turned out to be more time-draining for me than I’d expected, as it was a constant “go inside and turn on the lights … turn off the lights … turn them on again …” It paid off (he identified the problem), but it took more time than I’d expected. And left me with very little time to concentrate on anything before the dogs went on afternoon walkies (I settled for research reading, which doesn’t demand creative thought). After that we had the guy in to repair the washing machine; I’m happy to say that after dealing with two other companies, Wright Appliance finally seems to be competent.

This morning I had unexpected extra dog watching, and at noon I had one of my appointments for the Alexander Technique, the body training I’ve been doing since last year.

It’s not just the time each side activity consumes, but the time it takes to get refocused on writing again. And I’m still too slow in my Leafs. Plushie’s neediness in the evening makes it very hard to make up the time then.

I did get a bunch of Leaf articles done, and even going slow, the pay is good. I got some more work done on both Let No Man Put Asunder and Impossible Takes a Little Longer, though those were the big casualties of this week’s lost time. But Impossible definitely works better in first person, as I said last week. However both of them reached a point where the relatively slight plot changes I’ve made so far have suddenly forced big changes in the next scenes. That stumped me quite a bit.

I submitted Fiddler’s Black to a new market, which means all my shorts are out. It’s been a while since that happened. And Southern Discomfort went out to five more agents.

I rewrote Only the Lonely Can Slay a couple of times, but there’s still something missing. It might be that Heather, my protagonist, needs more at stake, or maybe something else? I feel frustratingly close to what I want but I can’t quite jump across the last mental boundary to get there. I may send it out as is to a beta reader or two to get some insight.

So that was my week. On the plus side, I’m not battling a giant monster on a Silver Age Jack Kirby cover!

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Filed under Nonfiction, Personal, Short Stories, Southern Discomfort, Story Problems, Time management and goals, Writing

Today I got that nibbled to death by ducks feeling

But first, a look at Plush Dog nuzzling with Tito, new sibling to Lily, the dog up the street we sometimes dog-sit for.

The feeling of having one’s day eaten up by multiple little distractions is in some ways worse than having one big project. With one major distraction, like a repair, I can block time and when it’s over, it’s over. Today, though, I had multiple distractions: washing-machine repair guy (third one we’ve dealt with, first one I feel good about), arranging an electrician appointment for next week, upgrading our security system, doing some research on the cost of a replacement washing machine (probably won’t be necessary), providing extra dog care … plus Plushie completely freaking out over the repair dude being In The House (we fenced off the area so the pups couldn’t get in his way).  And talking on the phone is not the best thing for my strained voice. However it’s definitely growing stronger every day so I must be nursing it sufficiently.

Despite that, it was a productive week. Though novel writing is still going slower than I want, and Leaf articles are taking way too long (not their fault, it’s me). So what did I get done?

I rewrote the first chapter of Impossible Takes a Little Longer in first person. It’s closer to urban fantasy as a genre than anything else, and first person is the default setting there. Plus I found I could work in a little more needed information with first-person narration.

I finished the first chapter of Let No Man Put Asunder and read it for writer’s group. The feedback was, as always helpful. As my voice frayed a little by the end of the reading, I skipped out on the usual hanging out after. A shame.

I sent a Southern Discomfort query off to five agents, queried two magazines about articles and one newspaper about an op-ed column.

I submitted A Famine Where Abundance Lies, and I may have found a publisher to submit Questionable Minds too.

I rewrote the story Neverwas, which is now titled The Impossible Years. It’s definitely closer to being readable, but I still lack the ending I need. I rewrote Only the Lonely Can Slay, and it’s coming along well. Here I have the ending and the general structure but I need more obstacles for my protagonist, Heather, to overcome. I was working on another draft today, when all the ducks began nibbling.

And I did my usual array of Leaf articles to help put bread on the table. I gave up on doing any of those today too, but I got them in, and some requested rewrites, every other day this week.

It’s helpful to write all that down and see that despite my feeling right now, I had a good, productive week.

Below, Plushie lets the greyhounds at Piney Woods Park know that he’s the boss of this cell block.

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Filed under Impossible Takes a Little Longer, Nonfiction, Personal, Short Stories, Southern Discomfort, Story Problems, The Dog Ate My Homework, Time management and goals

Missed it by that much! Quite a big ‘that much’

Like most people I start off the year full of enthusiasm for my various year goals. In January that gives me the drive to complete 70 to 80 percent of them.

This January? Not so much. More like 54 percent. Part of that was having a really big goal list. Part of it was that one miserable week I experienced. And some of it was that several goals I’d written down turned out to be non-starters. Focusing on a single project one day a week (a novel, a short story, pitches) didn’t work because I’m back doing Leaf articles. It’s easier to handle them if I do a couple a day rather than clump them, but that means I can’t do a full day of anything else. So that one’s off the table.

Other ideas just need more practice. I want a more relaxing lunch break rather than rushing to eat so I can walk the pups. That takes a conscious effort. But I’ll get there.

The big disappointments for the month were a)not getting beyond a chapter or two in Impossible Takes a Little Longer; b)not getting anything done on the Undead Sexist Cliches book. Well and c)not selling anything I’d submitted to anyone, but that’s not within my control. I am very pleased that I submitted five stories (technically; some of them were the same story sent out twice), two articles and one column idea.

And I did finish Southern Discomfort and submitted that to eight agents (two refusals so far). I’ll keep sending it to agents until I’ve exhausted the list. Then I’ll switch to publishers. Then I’ll self-publish. Take that, uncaring publishing universe!

Tday I started work on rewriting another novel, Let No Man Put Asunder. This went slow too, and I’m starting to see why: I’m just thinking and editing as I go and it’s slowing me down. I need to let go and let the words flow.

I was pleased that this week I made real progress on two short stories, Only the Lonely Can Slay and Neverwas (that title will definitely be reworked). On Lonely I can actually see what the story arc should be; Neverwas is almost there. Once I get that, it’s mostly a matter or refining, fixing and improving. Being able to see progress makes me more optimistic about my ambitious goals for the year.

I did a fair amount of hanging out at Illogicon (yes, that was a goal) but I didn’t get out much the rest of the month due to my desire to rest my voice. I didn’t get as much bicycling in as I planned, either as I didn’t want to expose my throat to the cold.

I did get lots of Leaf articles done. And that helps pay the bills so yay!

Oh, and I found where my baby sister Keri was buried years ago, which was one of my goals for this year. I thought it would take a lot of work but it actually went smoothly: I checked the US Consulate records for deaths and births of American citizens abroad. That led me to ancestry.com, which, after I signed up, gave me a digital copy of Keri’s death certificate. I’m impressed with myself (I thought I’d blogged about this before but I can’t find it).

Despite what didn’t get done, I feel pretty pleased.

Below, Trixie nervously contemplates going to doggy day care. She loves it there, but she dreads the car trips.

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Filed under Impossible Takes a Little Longer, Personal, Short Stories, Southern Discomfort, Story Problems, Time management and goals, Undead Sexist Cliches: The Book, Writing

My plan was perfect! How could I have failed?

Ever since Wisp settled onto our porch, Trixie has been increasingly fascinated. Some evenings when Wisp is out there, Trixie will sit by the door sniffing for her.  When the blinds are open, Trixie watches, as you can see.

The past week or so, though, she and Plushie have gotten more frantic. Trixie claws at the door and sticks her nose under the blinds to get a better look. Plushie barks loudly from the couch. Almost as if they imagine Wisp is—

Tuesday morning it just reached fever point. It was freezing cold so they didn’t get much of a morning walk. They then channeled all that energy into barking their heads off. It was … distracting. And that was on top of being very sleep-deprived (even by my standards). Plus the bug TYG brought back from her travels was now in me, leading to hacking and sore throat and worries my voice was fading.

The long and short of it is that while I had a good Monday, Tuesday fell apart. I got some Leaf writing done, that was it. Otherwise it was sleep, or hacking, or dogs, or doing some budget-crunching that needed doing (not during work, but I did it anyway). As I thought we might have some emergency expenses, the paying stuff was a high priority.

Wednesday I was worried my throat might be worse than it appeared, so I hit the urgent care in the morning. I was fine, but by the time I got back I was again, too distracted to focus. More Leaf!

Thursday I took the car in to get a recurring issue looked at. I took my computer but I didn’t get much done before starting on the paperwork for a loaner. Because like Scotland Yard in an old mystery, they are baffled (the VW dealer’s service people are really good so I take that as a sign the problem is challenging, not that they’ve screwed up). I came home in a loaner and mostly collapsed into extra naps.

Today I just threw in the towel and did more Leaf. As it turns out, we may not need the extra money, but still, it’s nice to have.

Not getting anything else done? Not so nice. I know sometimes it can’t be helped, but this was an exceptionally poor week.  I even skipped writers’ group because I was so tired and I hate skipping group.

Oh well, next week will almost certainly be better.

I did send Southern Discomfort out to three more agents. No One Can Slay Her came back with some positive comments (it’s always nice to be told “remember us for your next story” but not as nice as being accepted) and went out again. I started several other projects, but got nowhere.

But the weekend’s here. I can collapse, watch movies, finish the budgeting, etc., etc. And start over next week with renewed vigor and make up for what lost time I can.

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Filed under Nonfiction, Personal, Short Stories, Southern Discomfort, The Dog Ate My Homework, Time management and goals, Undead Sexist Cliches: The Book

I’m getting those colored lights going!

Title is a paraphrase of Jean Kerr’s play, Mary, Mary. It’s a sort-of way of saying that while I’m zonked, I had a very productive week (if you want to figure out the context, I recommending reading the script or catching the stage play — the movie version is disappointingly dull).

While insomnia frequently allows me to get some extra work in, and at an hour of the day I’m not dealing with puppies, this week it was as much a hindrance as a help. TYG came back from her trip last weekend with the equivalent of con crud so she’s been coughing in her sleep pretty much every night (the cough’s lingering although all the other symptoms are gone). I sleep way too lightly not to wake up when she coughs, and then I can’t get back to sleep because she’s still coughing. And once I’m up, I can’t seem to get back to sleep at all.

I have the freedom to take naps throughout the day, whenever I want, but I can’t nap long enough to make up for the sleep I missed. I suppose I should have slept somewhere else, but I’m not sure it would have helped. TYG’s coughs are loud!

Despite all that I had a productive week. I resumed work on articles for Leaf so I have some money coming in, which is nice. Although due to being so tired, they kept taking much longer than I’d budgeted for them. That was frustrating. Another week I might have tried putting in extra hours to compensate, but I was too wiped.

I finished No One Can Slay Her (finally!) and submitted it, as well as sending off Rabbits Indignateonem, a flash fiction I finished last week. I also submitted queries for one article, one op-ed and sent Southern Discomfort to a few agents. I haven’t quite decided how I’m going to work submissions: at what point do I give up on agents (assuming I don’t land one) and submit to publishers directly? But I’ll figure it out.

I’m really pleased about this. Submitting stuff usually stops cold when I’m working on Leaf articles, and if I don’t submit, I don’t sell. So this is a big improvement.

I didn’t get much done on Impossible Takes a Little Longer. The rewriting is still going much slower than I anticipated, and it wound up being the main victim of the added time spent on Leaf articles. However the replotting for Let No Man Put Asunder went freakishly well. It actually left me wondering if I was doing something wrong, but on reflection, it’s just a very different book from Impossible or Southern Discomfort. Those both have rather tangled, non-linear plots; Discomfort has a large cast with several POV characters. Asunder has two first person narrators and a fairly simple set-up: freak event happens, two people caught in it become targets for a mysterious villain and they end up running across the multiverse to escape.

So other than lack of sleep, I think I’m grading this week as an A.

Below a couple of photos I took during an early morning drive recently.

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Hello, I must be going

I was supposed to finish up Southern Discomfort by now. But a surge of added dog care shanghaid me. I will have it finished later today, but I have no time for a longer post.

Here are photos of the dogs as a reminder they’re adorable even when they’re inconvenient.

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He looked at the future and went mad!

So as I mentioned yesterday, nonfiction squeezed out a lot of fiction writing time in 2018. And the same was true for 2017. That year it hit me hard because I just assumed I’d have a short spurt, then it would fade away. So I skimped on fiction during the spurt … which didn’t go away. Which is good for my bottom line, but not so good for (strikes Byronic pose) my creative soul.

This year I did a better job balancing them at first, but like I said yesterday, the demands of Screen Rant and Leaf combined ate into a lot of time. So now that I’m looking at a year without any Screen Rant (probably plenty of leaf though it’s not guaranteed), and ready to balance fiction and nonfiction better, just how much fiction can I get written?

Answer: probably not as much as I put in the goal list. My plan is to rewrite Impossible Takes a Little Longer over the first two months while I replot another novel. Then try and write a draft of that one almost as fast. And a couple more. These are all old books I have worked on many times in the past, so the basics are there (characters, concepts, setting). It’s just revising the plots (“just” does a lot of work in that sentence, some of them need a lot of work), and in a couple of cases updating them; one of them actually starts in a contemporary setting and that’s changed a lot from the last time I tackled it.

And if I can’t work out a good new plot? Time to say goodbye and bung them into the trunk. On to newer stuff!

Plus I want to write twelve short stories this year. That’s really optimistic; it takes me forever to shape them from the first draft into something usable. But as I said yesterday, I don’t have any sort of reward/penalty system in play, so it’s not like I have anything to lose. Pride? Maybe. But I didn’t get any short stories finished this year and I’m not walking around kicking myself. So I think I can take it.

I was worried that Southern Discomfort running a little into the new year would gum up the works, but I don’t think so. I’m soooo close to done.

I have a bunch of other goals, writing and otherwise. They range from finishing reading John LeCarre to finding my sister Keri’s burial place (she died at about seven weeks).  In fact it’s an insanely long list. And a really huge list of January goals based on them, but that actually makes sense. As we all know, it’s easy to start off the year with high aspirations, then we lose focus. So I might as well make maximum use of the January vigor. We’ll see if that works.

And yes, having fun, relaxing and enjoying life, undefined though those goals are, are definitely on the list.

Here’s to 2019. I hope it’s awesome for all of you. And me too.

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2018 was not the year I anticipated

So out of 103 goals of varying complexity and importance, I accomplished 53 percent of them. That’s consistent with my performance for 2016 and 2017. As I don’t give myself any rewards for achieving them, I’m satisfied with the percentage. I set my list high, after all (rewards make a good incentive, but it’s hard to find something I wouldn’t do for myself or buy for myself anyway).

The bad news is that my creative output really fell way short of my aspirations. My top goal was to finish Southern Discomfort and submit it; didn’t happen. I wanted to finish four short stories; I didn’t manage any. I only occasionally pitched nonfiction pieces to any markets. I didn’t finish the Undead Sexist Cliches book.

The main reason was that my steady freelance gigs got in the way. Which is not a bad thing—I made well above my writing income goals for the year—but working on Leaf articles and Screen Rant took a lot of time. Particularly as the minimum Screen Rant listicle got longer and some of the topics got further away from my areas of expertise (like finding 17 secrets about the Nick TV show Victorious). Even though Screen Rants are fun and they gave me a chance to play with my writing style, I gave up the gig in the summer; it was just consuming too much of my writing week and Leaf, while duller, paid better.

I have learned from this. It’s the main reason I haven’t started submitting one nonfiction proposal in my files to publishers yet: I think it would just consume too much time and I’d like to do a lot more fiction in 2019.

I did self-publish the paperback edition of Atlas Shagged and Atoms for Peace, though, and I’m quite pleased with them. And I stuck to my goal of only checking email three times a day during work. And I finally got around to putting a PayPal donation link in the sidebar. Oh, and it occurs to me I don’t even bother setting any goals about staying as a full-time writer: barring disaster (which can’t be eliminated of course) it seems like I’m secure in that path.

In nonwriting goals, I kept the bird feeder filled, used sunscreen regularly when walking the dogs or bicycling and bicycled almost once every week (even discounting the weeks the weather didn’t permit it, I didn’t make the cut, but I’m doing better than last year). I called my elected officials off and on, and wrote them a couple of times, though I doubt it did much good (nor blogging about their pathetic performance). I traveled outside Durham several times, mostly with TYG (Mystacon was a solo act, on the other hand) and I got to see my brother and niece in October at my dad’s 90th birthday shindig.

Goals aside, it was a good year (not counting the frequent train wrecks emanating from President Shit-Gibbon). I snuggled with dogs and TYG, spent more social time than last year with friends, read a bunch of books and watched a lot of movies. I hung out more with the neighbors on our cul-de-sac and kept my weight to a reasonable level (not so much this past week, but that’s normal). I turned sixty and threw myself a birthday party (usually it’s just me and TYG). I enjoyed seeing my family (it’s not like they’re just a checkmark on a list) and catching up with my niece for the first time since she became an adult.

Next year I intend to keep having fun. But with more fiction. Details tomorrow.

Happy new year everyone.

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