Five Practical Tips on Writing Humor

April 29, 2013

I wrote a very long, very detailed post on how to incorporate humor into your writing.

You can’t teach someone to be funny. However, most people are already funny; funnier than they believe themselves to be. Some of that can be harnessed and translated onto the page.  Check out this essay, which is posted as a guest-blog post at Dark Cargo.


My 2012 Nebula Nominations

February 15, 2013

Today is the deadline to nominate for the Nebula award. Associate and Full members of Science Fiction Writers of America are each entitled to nominate up to five works on fiction in Novel, Novella, Novelette, and Short Story categories.

Here are the books and stories I selected:

Novel

I read *very* few new novels published in 2012. As such, I could not intelligently nominate multiple works in this category.  My plan is to read the five novels that get the nominations so, at least, I could cast my final Nebula ballot intelligently. But of the novels I did read, I loved John Scalzi’s Redshirts. Redshirts is a meld of space opera and humor that reminded me in some ways of Galaxy Quest. I loved every minute of it. It also gives me enormous pleasure to vote for a humorous book. As the readers of this blog already know, I’m partial to humor in SF 🙂

Novella

I did not cast any votes in this category. I was overwhelmed by the amount of great short stories and novelettes I was reading and just couldn’t allocate enough time to read in this category. I did begin to read Barry’s Tale by Lawrence Schoen and was enjoying it. I’m pretty sure it would get a nomination vote from me had I been able to finish it in time, but I want to be responsible with my votes and not cast one for something I hadn’t read all the way through. Still, the very least I could do is point out this entertaining read to all of you. It’s a free download, too.

Novelette

This is where things flip around — I read many GREAT novelettes and short stories but could only vote for 5 of each. This is what I went with:

The Waves, by Ken Liu (originally printed in Asimov’s) – This is, by far, the best piece of fiction I read in 2012. I *love* this novelette and wish there was an online version I could point readers to. Alas, it is only available in Asimov’s so far.

Taking Care of God by Liu Cixin — I fear that this novelette isn’t very widely known to the American readers. It appeared in Pathlight, a Chinese magazine published in English. But this is an amazing story, and I highly encourage everyone to read it.

Liberty’s Daughter by Naomi Kritzer, F&SF 5/12  — This near-future novelette in a libertarian setting made me want more. I hoK.pe Kritzer is going to expand this into a novel or at least write more stories featuring the same setting and characters.

Small Towns – Felicity Shoulders, F&SF 1/12

Alien Land – K.D. Wentworth, F&SF 1/12

Both of these last two novelettes came from the same issue of F&SF. This was easily the best single issue of a magazine I read in 2012. Not only did it feature those two novelettes, but several other excellent stories that made it relatively high on my list as well.

Short Stories

Mono no Aware by Ken Liu, The Future is Japanese anthology

Scraps by Michael Haynes, Daily Science Fiction

Seven Losses of Na Re by Rose Lemberg, Daily Science Fiction

England Under the White Witch by Theodora Goss, Clarkesworld

Earthrise by Lavie Tidhar, RedstoneSF

Once again, these are just some of truly amazing stories I read this year. Alas, there are only 5 slots per category.

Note that I couldn’t nominate any stories from Unidentified Funny Objects – per Nebula rules, editors cannot nominate the work they published.

 

 

 

 

 


Schrodinger’s Story

January 12, 2013

 

I enjoy every aspect of creating a new story, but one.

I like the brainstorm part, where an idea settles in, usually over the course of multiple days, before I ever type the first word.

The first draft is especially cool. Often the story runs amok and I discover things about the characters and the world of the story that I never originally intended. This is where, when I’m lucky, I write my best lines.

Revisions are cool, too. I go over the feedback from my crit partners and beta readers to nip and tuck at the story and give it the best possible face lift. Sometimes merely the act of letting the story sit for a few days and approaching it with a fresh eye will allow me to identify weak spots in the writing and fix them.

I enjoy sending the stories out on submission, and the thrill of making it past the slush readers and of an occasional sale. Rejections are OK, too. They’re part of the game.

Editorial revisions and copy-edits are fun; a competent editor will always make the story better and make me look smarter in the process.

And, of course, there’s nothing like the feeling you get when a story is published and I get to share something I created with thousands (hundreds? tens?) of readers out there.

There’s only one part of the process I really hate: the time spent waiting on feedback after the story has been polished enough to show to friends and critique partners, but before they get the chance to respond.

At this stage I call them “Schrodinger stories” because I don’t yet know if the story is alive or stillborn. It’s very difficult for any writer to evaluate the quality of their own work. Some of the pieces I think turned out brilliant get their heads bashed in during this round of feedback. There are clear problems, gaping holes in the plot, or trouble conveying what I want to convey to the reader.  Such stories may need lots more work, or even to end up in the “Come back to this one day later. Much later” pile.  On the other hand, there are stories I don’t have as much confidence in that sometimes come back with better reviews than I expected. Arguably my two strongest flash fiction stories published to date are “Spidersong” and “Nuclear Family” — both were written in one sitting, and both were stories I felt somewhat skeptical about upon finishing them.

The smart thing to do would be to move on to the next project, but I find it difficult to do so until I finalize the current work-in-progress and get it out on submission. So I usually find other things to do — editing, critiquing, and writing blog posts, to while away the time.

Can you guess what stage my latest story is in, presently? 🙂

 


Submissions Open for a One Sentence Story Mini Anthology

December 9, 2012

oss

Back in the spring, a bunch of writers on Twitter challenged each other to write the longest (and, of course, most interesting) flash stories consisting of only one sentence. This blog post explains the back story, features my own entry, and links to the stories posted by all of the other participants who chose to post their stories publicly.

Matthew Bennardo liked the idea so much, he decided to produce and publish an anthology of one sentence stories. For the next two weeks Matthew is accepting submissions, with guidelines outlined on his blog. Check it out!

 


My New Submission Cover Letter

August 25, 2012

Nothing could possibly go wrong.

 


Guest Post: Leaving It All On The Page by Michael Haynes

July 3, 2012

Michael Haynes has recently released a non-fiction eBook “Write Every Day: Hints & Tips Towards a Daily Writing Routine.” He blogs regularly about writing-related topics at michaelhaynes.info and writeeveryday.info

To “leave it all on the field” in sports means to have not held anything back, to have given your all. I thought of this concept last night watching — of all things — Saturday Night Live audition videos. Here I saw Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, John Belushi… All of them leaving it all on their chosen field. The camera was on just them but you could occasionally hear commentary (and very occasionally, laughter) from those who were watching the auditions. All of these people were skilled performers to have reached that point, but you could see on their faces just how important this moment was to them. It was absolutely fascinating.

From there, my mind jumped to my own closest experience to these auditions: in-person tryouts for the televised quiz program Jeopardy. Twice I’ve made it past the online test and been invited to travel to near(ish) cities for those in-person events. Several dozen other qualifiers were there each time and we all went through written tests, mock games, and mock interviews. You go through all this and then you’re thanked for your time and told that you might (or might not) get the call to fly out to Los Angeles to (maybe) be on the show sometime in the next eighteen months.

My first time I sort of winged it and suspect I did so-so, but not well enough to make it on. I didn’t make it to the program with my second try, either, but when I left the room from that tryout I felt on top of the world. Why? Because I knew I’d left it all on the field. I’d read up more on the tryout process before my second experience and had learned that you’re being judged every second that you’re in the room, even if it’s not obvious. So I made a point to be “on” at all times, even when the people evaluating us were supposedly away from the room looking at our paper tests. I’m not a naturally outgoing person and would normally just sit quietly unless someone engaged me, but I made a point to chat up other contenders throughout that period. Even now, though my eighteen months are over, I feel happy with how I performed that day.

When writing for publication, if you want to reach the top levels, you’re unlikely to meet with success doing things halfway. You have to leave it all on the field or, in our case, the page.

But what does that mean? To me, it means that when I go to send a story out for the first time, that I want to feel like the story is as good as I, right now, can make it.

To me, it doesn’t mean going through endless revisions, but it does mean taking a critical look at your own story and not just saying “Eh, it’s good enough.” Professional-level editors are rarely going to buy “good enough.” Readers of these publications aren’t likely to rush out to read your other works because they thought that one was “good enough.”

No one is going to have every story they write be brilliant. And as we grow as writers, stories that once represented our best effort no longer will. But when we’re writing something new, we should always be looking to leave it all on the page.


One Sentence Stories

May 28, 2012

You never know what’s going to happen when you hang out with a bunch of crazy writers.

I’m chilling on Twitter last Friday evening while I’m beta-reading a SF story by Anatoly Belilovsky. The story is excellent, but at one point has a run-on sentence that is, literally, 90 words long (I checked in MS Word). So I send the following Tweet to Anatoly:

@loldoc Dude there is a 90-word sentence in your story. I had to go find a snack in the middle so that I could get through it! 🙂

And then I write in the comment field of his document: “This is an enormous run on were-sentence that makes me want to go out and find stakes, and garlic, and whatever else kills were-run-on sentences. ” Followed by a few suggestions about breaking this sentence into three. Anatoly likes my were-sentence comment and Tweets it, and then a discussion begins about long sentences with more and more of our writerly friends chiming in.

I point out that a famous Russian author Victor Pelevin wrote a one-sentence short story that went on for several pages. Anatoly replies that Gogol is known for some page-long sentences, and Jake Kerr chimes in that so is Henry James.

And then this happens:

Ken Liu@kyliu99

@AShvartsman @jakedfw @loldoc This would seem to be a good challenge to take up. Shall we all try to write a one-sentence story?

Challenge accepted, Mr. Liu, challenge accepted.

Before we know it, half a dozen authors want in on this. I hesitate about posting our perfectly good (if short) stories publicly on our blogs, and Matthew Bennardo offers to pay $5 to see each story. He is forced to hastily withdraw this offer as the number of participants snowballs. By the end of the evening we have a Twitter hashtag #1ss (One Sentence Story) and an impressive array of authors (all the way from people who write award-nominated stories like Ken and Jake and to people who read award-nominated stories like me) who all agree to write the longest, most interesting one sentence story they can, no later than Wednesday night.

The following is my one sentence story:

ONE THOUSAND AND FIRST

…this will be the last story I ever tell you, my sultan, and so I humbly beseech you to listen and to delight in it, and to keep your promise of allowing me to finish this very last sentence, uninterrupted, even as the sun is already rising from beyond the Eastern dunes and the executioner sharpens his scimitar; I have told you a thousand stories — tales of flying carpets and bottled jinn, bold sailors and treacherous viziers, magic and wonder and all manner of things beyond the mundane – but this last story is about an ordinary young woman, a woman who caught the eye of her sultan and who managed to survive their wedding night, and a thousand nights afterward, using no weapon and no magic but her imagination alone; the sultan was mesmerized by her wondrous fables at first, always eager for  another, but as the years went by she found it more and more difficult to keep his attention until, finally, he had had enough and wanted to hear no more stories – but being a kind and generous ruler he graciously consented to allow the girl to finish speaking before the guards would take her away (everyone knows that the sultan’s word is his bond) and the poor girl swallowed her tears, drew in a big breath and began her tale thus:

this will be the last story I ever tell you, my sultan, and so I humbly beseech you…

The above story is 243 words, which is a tiny sliver compared to some of the epic sentences composed by others. However, *my* story is an a loop. Which means it is, in fact, infinite words long. That totally means I win, right? Right?

You can read some of the other entries and decide for yourself. Damien Walters Grintalis and Ken Liu both opted to keep their entries off the Internets because they’re awesome writers who can sell their grocery lists to magazines. And if they can sell their grocery lists then surely they can also sell their one sentence stories. Some of the other authors opted to post theirs publicly and I’m going to link all the ones I know about below (and will update the links as more stories are posted, so watch this space!):

“The Bloodline Is Only as Strong as Its Last Generation” by Jake Kerr

“A Vos Souhaits” by M. Bennardo

“Good Thing I Did Not Tell Them About the Dirty Knife” by Anatoly Belilovsky (Anatoly wrote several entries, check his blog!)

“Inevitable” by Carrie Cuinn

Untitled by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

“Mr. Fix-It” by Don Pizarro

“The Ghost and the Machine” by Suzanne Palmer

“Tommy Hopper and The Future” by Spencer Ellsworth

“And Yes” by S. R. Mastrantone

“Glork” By Amanda C. Davis

“Object of My Affection” by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

“Dear Kyle” by Brenda Stokes Barron

“Great-Uncle’s Visit” by Michael Haynes

If you wish to play along, post a link to your one-sentence story in the comments or follow us on Twitter under the hashtag #1ss.


Guest Post: “Dreams, Horses and the Little Story That Could” by Beth Cato

April 23, 2012

Today I’m pleased to feature a guest blog post by Beth Cato, the author of “Red Dust and Dancing Horses,” a SF tale  featured in the current issue of Stupefying Stories. Beth writes about perseverance and not giving up on the stories you believe in, and I wholeheartedly agree.

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Dreams, Horses, and the Little Story That Could

By Beth Cato

 

 

There’s something I’ve learned during the past few years. If you want to succeed as a writer, it’s not all about talent. It’s not about developing a thick skin. Rejections make you cry? Scream? Those are valid reactions sometimes. But what enables you to succeed is sheer stubbornness. You send the story out again.

Case in point: my story “Red Dust and Dancing Horses.”

From the time I wrote the rough draft, I knew this story was special. It hit me on a personal level. The tale is a horse story set on Mars, where horses can’t exist. It’s about a young Martian girl who has to accept that her deepest desire–to know horses–will likely never come true.

I was completely horse obsessed from the time I could walk and talk. I adored Rainbow Brite from age 3, but my biggest love was her horse, Starlite. I collected Breyer horses from age 4 (I wasn’t into My Little Ponies as much because they weren’t realistic enough). I read every horse book in the children’s section of the library, and if a new book came in the librarians told me. I knew the difference between a Shire and a Paso Fino, a forelock and a fetlock. My parents owned two acres of property, and I knew exactly where we could build a stable and corral. I took riding lessons. I knew exactly what my dream horse would look like and how his mane swayed in the breeze.

And at age 11, I finally had to accept that I would never have a horse.

I was mature enough to realize we were too poor. Money was tight. My riding lessons stopped as we couldn’t even afford the $10 for my riding lessons every two weeks. How could we afford a horse, or hay, or tack?

The dream died, but my love for horses didn’t.

That was the emotion I put into the story, only using a grittier Martian backdrop instead of a central Californian one. I posted the story on OWW. I revised heavily. I started sending it out to magazines. And this story I loved passionately was soundly rejected by almost every pro science fiction market.

Really, I could see why. It’s a horse story, on Mars. People don’t usually pair horses and sci fi, much less horses from old westerns. But it still hurt. This was a story that I felt was not only one of the best things I had written, but it was also a story I loved.

But I loved it so much, I kept gritting my teeth and sending it out again. It had some close calls. It won an honorable mention in Writers of the Future for the 4th quarter of 2011. But it still didn’t have a home, so I sent it out yet again.

You know what? It has a home now, an amazing one. This is what the editor of Stupefying Stories, Bruce Bethke, said in the forward for this March issue:

I’m about out of space now, but would be remiss if I did not call special attention… especially to my personal favorite in this entire collection, “Red Dust and Dancing Horses” by Beth Cato. If this story doesn’t wind up on several Best of 2012 lists and on the short list for at least one major award, I will be disappointed.

While querying agents, the big mantra is, ‘It only takes one yes.’ That’s true for short stories, too. “Red Dust and Dancing Horses” finally found its YES, and whatever happens from here, I’m happy, because the story finally found some other folks who love it just as much as I do.

The dream lives on.

“Red Dust and Dancing Horses” can be found in Stupefying Stories 1.5, on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

 

 


Night and Day

April 6, 2012

I’ve always been a night owl. From an early age I found myself to be at my most productive and creative in the evening hours. When I started writing, I fell into a routine where I got most of my new words output done at night, after my wife and son went to sleep and the house became quiet and distraction-free. Some nights I would be too tired to write–exhausted by the day job or various chores that needed doing. Writing being a hobby rather than a career for me, I accepted this loss of productivity and tried my best to make up for it on other evenings, when I had a bit more energy to spare.

Then my wife switched jobs.

She started at the new place two weeks ago. Her new office is very far away, and it takes her nearly two hours to commute there.  This means that she has to leave the house very early, before our son’s day care opens. So now I have to get up early every morning, get Josh ready and drive him to day care. No more sleeping in till 9-10am. And those late-night writing sessions? Forget about it. By midnight my brain feels like a squeezed out sponge.

So, driven by necessity, I fell into new routine. After dropping my son off at day care I get a bit of breakfast and have several uninterrupted, quiet hours in which to write. (I don’t have to be at work till noon). The difference has been night and day–pun very much intended. I am able to attack whatever story idea I’m working on while rested, fresh, and properly caffeinated.  Words are flowing more easily and quality of the output appears to have improved (says the guy who’s notoriously bad at evaluating his own writing).

In the last two weeks I wrote three complete stories from scratch. And although they’re relatively short, none of them are mere flash length, either. There’s a magical realism story I’m especially proud of called “Things We Left Behind” (2500 words) that draws heavily on my personal experiences of uprooting and moving from the Soviet Union to the United States. A 1350 word space opera-ish “The Miracle on Tau Prime” is about the Vatican miracle investigators. In space. And yesterday I wrote a 1500 word SF story “Seven Conversations in Locked Rooms,” completing the first draft in one sitting. One sitting! Normally I struggle to write 500 new words of fiction per day.

I’m liking this new productivity. Well, scratch that. I’m still a night owl at heart. I hate getting up early and going to bed on old people’s time. What I do like are the results.

Could something as simple as a routine change ultimately take me to the next level in terms of both quality and quantity on my writing? Only time will tell. But it’s certainly an intriguing possibility.


Awesome Rejections

March 30, 2012

One of the most important skills to being a writer is the ability to deal with rejection. Understanding that  an editor choosing to pass on your work is not personal, and that you will receive a lot more rejection slips than acceptance letters.

Every publication deals with rejections differently. The most common are form rejections. You get a very generalized note that looks something like this:

Dear Author,

Thank you for sending us “Story Title Here.” Unfortunately have have decided not to publish it. Please feel free to submit more of your work to us in the future.

The Editors.

Or some variation of above. It’s short, impersonal and to the point–but it gets the job done.  Some markets will offer small bits of personalized feedback in order to offer encouragement or–better yet–let the writer know about some specific flaw in their story that contributed to its rejection.

But who says rejections have to be boring? There’s a way to inject humor, originality and outright strangeness into the mix!

Consider the famous Rolling Stones rejection sent by Hunter S. Thompson in 1971 (warning: do not click on this link if you’re easily offended by profanity). Had I been on the receiving end of this I would be framing that thing up on my wall. I should probably do that anyway, and look at it any time I get a rejection of my own. I think it’d make me feel better.

Then there’s this poetic rejection, riffing off W.C. Williams:

This is just to say we have taken some plums

we found in our mailbox.

You were hoping it would be

yours. Forgive us,

others seemed

sweeter

or colder

more bold

or whatever.

Again, this is a “make your day a little brighter” kind of bit, at least when you’re seeing it for the first time.

But my favorite form rejection (and the one that prompted me to write this blog post) is one not being used by any magazine or anthology. It is a hypothetical rejection letter written by a friend and fellow New York SF writer Anatoly Belilovsky.  If I’m ever in position of some editorial authority, I hope to make use of the following, at least once:

Your stories soar like birds,

I wish I could acquire ’em,

but I seek only words

fit for an aquarium.