Writing in 2016

I made very little progress on fiction this year, which is okay.

In years past I was kind of defensive about my lack of fictional productivity—I think because I’d bought into the idea that a fiction writer writes fiction, and if I’m not writing, maybe I’m not a fiction writer anymore. But my experience is that making myself write something that I don’t want to write is no fun, nor is it particularly productive.

So of late I’ve just gone with it. On days that I feel like writing fiction I take a stab at something—I’ve started two new stories and worked on several old ones over the course of the year, in addition to working a little on the novel. Essentially none of that work has borne fruit in the sense of producing a finished story, but none of it was wasted either, in the sense that I did it because I wanted to, and only kept at it as long as I was enjoying it.

I don’t know whether I wrote more or less because I gave myself permission to write only when I wanted to, but I definitely enjoyed it more.

I did a bit more writing for Wise Bread this year, all concentrated toward the end of the year. Posts that appeared in 2016 were:

I’m pretty pleased with all of those. The first one did quite well in terms of reads, getting a pretty good response to my tweet “It bugs me when people mock millennials for not following the game plan that worked for the boomers.”

As a bonus, none of them is a listicle.

I wrote a typical amount here on this blog, averaging perhaps a post a week.

A big reason I didn’t do more writing this year is the amount of time I spent doing other things. I spent a little more time this year than in recent years with the local Esperantists. Jackie lured me into joining her on some of the volunteer stewardship work days she’s doing as part of becoming a Master Naturalist. The biggest was movement—that will get its own “Movement in 2016” post.

As a side note here, because although it’s not writing it is a creative endeavor, I bought myself a drawing tablet for the computer. (I got a medium Wacom Intuos tablet.) I’ve produce my first painting with it, and a second is almost done. I’m thinking I’ll share paintings here on the blog from time to time, but I wanted to get these 2016 review posts done first.

Hey! I wrote a novel!

It kind of snuck up on me. I hadn’t realized how close I was to being done with an entire draft.

After a couple of awkward starts, things had been going along pretty well until about spring. That’s when I started drawing more directly from the text of the short story that had been the basis of the novel, pulling the scenes from the short story and slotting them into the right spot in the climax of the novel. Except that process went very badly. They didn’t fit well. The tone was wrong. The characters had drifted. I kept finding small off-hand remarks to set up some thing or another, and realizing that in a novel there should instead be a whole earlier chapter to set that thing up. I kept finding that once I’d written those scenes, there was nothing left of this scene. It was such a struggle, I became discouraged. Progress ground almost to a halt.

A couple of times I got back to it, grabbed a scene, and reworked it—deleted the one-line remark and added the earlier chapter, reworked the interactions so that the characters were true to how they’d developed in the novel up to there, added full-blown scenes where the short story version had just had a brief reference that the hero had done something. But I found all that work hard and not much fun, so I kept not doing it.

Since moving to the summer place, I’ve been trying to reestablish a habit of daily writing, figuring that it should be as easy right now as it will ever be.

Today is my birthday, which I took advantage of by choosing to set my schedule exactly as I wanted—I got up, did a little social media stuff, had breakfast, read a little, then sat down to do some writing. I spent a good long while on one scene, because it had a lot of compressed action that needed to be more fully worked out in a novel-length work. Then the next scene went very quickly, because it was short, and then the next scene went quickly, because it was just about right in terms of tone and character. And then I realized that it was the last scene! I had finished my novel!

There’s a whole lot left to do, of course.

Although I tried to get the set-up stuff inserted as I went along, a lot of it is missing, or only present in vestigial form. I have to fix all that.

Probably a bigger deal, there were many little clever bits that might have set up something neat, but didn’t, and many short turns down side roads that seemed cool, but that didn’t end up leading anywhere. I need to locate each of those and think about whether it does lead somewhere—and then make sure that the “somewhere” it leads to is actually in the text and not just in my imagination. The others, of course, need to be ruthless pared away.

Most important, in the writing of the book I’ve finally figured out what it’s about. That too needs to end up in the text, and not just in my head. In particular, there’s a lot of economic and political stuff that kept showing up in my brain to be stuffed in the book, but didn’t all show up at the right points, so ended up getting stuffed willy-nilly into whatever corner happened to have a bit of space in it at the moment. Those bits need to be pulled out and carefully tucked into the right corner, now that I can see the whole thing and can figure out where they really go.

So, a lot of work to do—but it will be a lot of work on a novel! A novel that exists! A novel that I have written!

Finished the demon story

For the first time in far too long I finished a draft of a story and sent it out to the Incognitos and a couple other first readers.

The working title of this story is “the demon story” and it is special in that it is by far the oldest story still in my “active” folder. It has its roots in the very first story that I started working on when I started seriously trying to write fiction for the pro markets, back in the 1990s. I have versions of this story dating back to 1995.

It’s also unusual in that it’s the only story that I’ve finished a draft of and then neither submitted nor abandoned.

The usual advice—almost universal advice—is that you not endlessly rewrite the same story. You’re almost always ahead of the game to simply write the best story you can, finish it, start submitting it, and then go on to something new. At some point, if you can’t produce a submittable draft, your time is almost certainly better spent working on a story that you can finish.

For this story, I’ve made an exception. I like it too much to submit a version that doesn’t work.

However, I’m done with it for now. Hopefully, the critiques will tell me that it’s nearly working, and give me a few tips for improving it. If so, it’ll go out to editors very soon.

A slug of fiction writing

I told Jackie, “I want to get a slug of fiction writing done, and then take a nap.”

She said, “Does fiction writing naturally come in units of slugs?”

And I said, “Yes. The slug is the natural unit of fiction writing.”

So she said, “Well then, you should be sure to bring along Sigurson.”

So I went and got Sigurson to sit with me while I work on the next bit of this story.

Here’s a picture of Sigurson, sitting on a spare coaster on my desk:

Update: I wrote 745 words. Didn’t get a nap, though.

Race and the fictional character

One of my Clarion classmates, Nnedi Okorafor, tweeted today wondering why sometimes authors won’t just say what race a character is. I doubt if she was thinking about me, but I’m one of those writers who is sometimes coy about a character’s race. My answer won’t fit in 140 characters, so I thought I’d write a post.

The most common instance when I do this (just provide physical descriptions, rather than stating a racial identity) is when the viewpoint character doesn’t know the answer.

This is pretty common in real life. There are plenty of people I know whose ethnic heritage is not at all obvious just from their appearance. You’d have to ask.  And these days, I hesitate to ask—some people take offense at the question, and others are simply tired of answering. So, just like in the real world, my characters often don’t know the ethnic heritage of other characters. Sometimes they’ll speculate. Other times they won’t.

The other common instance when I do this is when the whole cultural background thing is complex enough to be a distraction from the story. A character of South Asian heritage might be one whose ancestors had immigrated to Uganda but whose grandparents had been expelled and moved to England. But for story purposes I might decide that all I want to say is that she has straight, dark hair and speaks with an English accent.

Finally, what I’m working on right now is a far-future story where humans have spread to a hundred worlds. Even when they know where on Earth people had a particular skin color, they know no more about the paths their various ancestors took than I know about mine. (I can point to some English, Irish, and Dutch—but there’s reason to believe that one of my male ancestors came from somewhere around the Mediterranean, or maybe Sarmatia.)

I do have one unfinished story where I play around a bit with ethnicity, because the viewpoint character was raised to be interested in it. Due to his background, he’s much better at it than I am, able to look at people and perceive that this one is Celtic, that one Igbo, another Chettiar. It was fun to write those bits, but it got to be a bit much to be just a quirk of the character, without managing to rise to the level of being a powerful driver of the story.

Watch Bees on bookstore shelves!

Me finding Asimov's at Borders
Me finding Asimov's at the local Borders. Photo by Steven Brewer.

The August issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction with my story “Watch Bees” was on the shelf at the local Borders this evening!

My mom bought two copies, leaving just one on the shelf. (A fact possibly of interest to local folks who’re hoping to get a copy.)

I got a call from my dad, who said that he’d found a copy as well, but he bought his at the Michigan News Agency in Kalamazoo.

Watch Bees

“Watch Bees” is in Asimov’s Science Fiction, August 2011, Vol. 35, No. 8, edited by Shelia Williams.

Cover of August 2011 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction
Cover of August 2011 Asimov’s Science Fiction. Cover art by Jeroen Advocaat.

“Watch Bees” is in Asimov’s Science Fiction, August 2011, Vol. 35, No. 8, edited by Sheila Williams.

Picking his way through morning glory vines, over rolling chunks of old pavement, David made his way to the edge of the ditch. Kneeling down, he got close enough to the dandelions and clover to see that the bees visiting them were striped the distinctive orange-and-black of watch bees.

Looking up, David took in the farm as a whole. The paint on the farmhouse and barn wasn’t fresh, but it wasn’t peeling. The garden was big. The fields grew food, not just biofuel crops. He was six or seven miles from town, having rejected each of the farms he’d passed, but this one looked promising.

Update: “Watch Bees” has been reprinted in the Russian Magazine Esli!

Contributor’s copies!

Contributor's copies of Asimov'sI got my contributors copies of the August Asimov’s! It’s a treat to see my story in print.

I haven’t read it yet, but of course I flipped through it. Seeing the “next issue” section of the new issue prompted me to check out that section of the previous issue, which turns out to be available on-line. It mentions my story, saying:

Another new author, Philip Brewer, gives us a stinging tale about how to recover from the end of life as we know it in “Watch Bees.”

I hadn’t noticed that before; it’s sure fun to see.

The new issue should go on sale June 21st.