The Worst Sentence I Ever Tried To Write

A few years back, I discovered the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest — a search for the fake opening line of the worst of all possible novels. Sponsored by the English Department at San Jose State University, the contest is an homage to the opening line from Paul Clifford (1830), which you probably know best from this:


I wrote (and submitted) my own version of the worst opening line in the world, never heard anything about it, and forgot it, until I found it yesterday while searching for a different file entirely.

I present it here, for you…

I stood for hours under that street light waiting for him to get off work, wondering all the while if his lateness in achieving an exit from his wretched place of business was in fact because of stray, lingering customers, or if in his position as manager of a “gentleman’s club” he had finally succumbed to the lurid pleasures of the flesh his harlot employees offered to other less scrupulous men who (one would hope) did not have the kind of quality wife waiting for them that he did, a wife who would stand outside in the pouring rain even when he’d asked me to stay home on numerous occasions, on account of him being so concerned for the state of my health, though something could be said for the fact that a woman standing under a streetlight in the pouring rain in only her pink fuzzy bathrobe and bunny slippers might not be so good for business.

I didn’t win the Bulwer-Lytton the year I sent it in, which is to say that I failed at writing a sentence awkward enough to be truly terrible.

At least now, when I’m feeling low about my writing, thinking that it’s awful and shouldn’t see the light of day, I know: whatever I write could always be worse.

And that cheers me up.


Updates and News (August 2016 edition), or, Damn, That Was the Hardest Month


In August:

I fell apart a bit.

I’ve said it before but this year has proven to me that the last 3 weeks of August (and the first week of September) are the hardest “month” of the year. That’s partly because of having my son home 24 hours a day without any respite, or break, or money to go out and do anything. His school year starts later than most; his first day back wasn’t until September 8, and by then, we were both ready for him to go.

We had to sit in our too-warm apartment all month — our landlord won’t let us put in an A/C unit — because it was too hot to be outside and at least we have some fans indoors. I still had to work as much as possible, and my hyperactive teen quickly became bored bored bored. With his special needs, I can’t send him out to play alone at the park, or go ride a bike, or any of the things I used to do to fill my summer days, all by myself as a kid. He’s an independent guy for the most part, wanting to play his video games or watch his favorite movies over and over for hours at a time. But even he gets tired of that much faster than I need if I’m going to put in a day’s work the way I can when he’s in school or camp.

The heat at the end of summer here is something I’m still getting used to. Growing up in California, we had heat. Hotter days. Lying out on the roof or in the grass that was dry and gone yellow, baking under the sun — my dog days of summer was late August dry heat, 100 degrees or more with no moisture in the air, and the utter joy of a sudden breeze. Here… it’s 90 degrees that feels like 95 because of 75% humidity and scattered rain every few afternoons that does nothing to cut the heat. I live in New York, but it feels like the summer I spent in Georgia, and like the bible school my aunt enrolled me in while I was there, I haven’t gotten used to it yet.

The best kid ever gets fidgety and then grumpy and then outright rebellious, given enough time trapped in a hot apartment with his mom who’s too busy and too poor to do much with him.

We did have one good adventure when I splurged on the gas on drove out to a Wal-Mart the next county over to do his back-to-school clothes shopping. Driving over the hills, the farms all green and growing, under a bright blue sky, the two of us played a game where we gave each other colors and picked out passing cars that matched. He got new clothes (not enough, but at least he wasn’t a shambles on his first day back), and a new haircut at the Wal-Mart salon (I didn’t even know they had those, did you?), and five whole dollars to spend in the arcade (I didn’t know Wal-Mart had those, either).

He was driving the Nascar game (of course) when a little girl sat at the Fast and Furious game next to him. She and her grandma couldn’t figure out how to get started, so Logan — silently — reached over and set it up so she could race the car she wanted, then went back to his game. Kid can barely speak, but he’s so smart and sweet and he didn’t just figure out what they were struggling with, but he wanted to help.

As hard as raising him is, and it is, a lot, my son always reminds me that he’s worth everything I do for him. Continue reading

A Semiotics Primer for Writers, Part 1

I’m going to be chatting with Juliette Wade on Dive Into Worldbuilding this Wednesday, September 14, at 1 PM EST. This is a live online chat, and anyone can join in. It’ll be streaming on YouTube; check out Juliette’s other videos here.

I’ll be talking about two things: writing without a visual imagination, and semiotics, as it’s applied to writing. #SFWAPro

Semiotics (not semiology) is basically the study of what things mean. It examines how signs become stand-ins for meaning — why a shape scratched onto a rock becomes a symbol, becomes a letter, which is interpreted both as a specific sound and an effect on the other letters it’s placed next to, for example; it’s related to linguistics, without being confined to written or spoken language. Semiotics looks at everything as a symbol, and the display of those symbols as extra layers of meaning. Rather that only using the letters on a billboard for meaning, it also explores what effect the font choice, or colors, or size of the letters, has on the meaning of the message. The same words printed in Comic Sans will have a different meaning to a reader than if they’d seen it printed in all caps, using a heavy Impact font, right?

But wait, there’s more! Semiotics also looks at images as if they are components of language, imparting meaning. Traditionally, that’s meant that art historians will look at a painting, and they’ll interpret the color of the subject’s clothes to mean something specific. The objects and animals in a painting will also have an extra meaning. Here’s one example:

Fidelity has long been metaphorically portrayed in Western Art as certain women, a plant, or a dog. (“Fido” even means “trust” in Latin.) In van Eyck’s famous painting, Arnolfini and His Wife, the little dog between the two figures was therefore assumed by viewers at the time to be a reference to the faithfulness they’d enjoy during their marriage.


Jan van Eyck Giovanni, Arnolfini and His Wife (1434)
The National Gallery, London

It’s important to note that I said “viewers at the time”. The Arnolfini Painting was created toward the beginning of the Flemish Primitives period, during the Northern Renaissance. Anyone who viewed it during the 15th century probably understood about the dog, and several dozen other symbolic references as well. They didn’t need it explained to them, because they were living in the culture that created this visual shorthand. The curtains on the bed were red, and left open, hinting at the consummation of the marriage, the future lovemaking they’d enjoy… which wasn’t any kind of a secret to the painting’s intended audience. The fruit on the windowsill implied both fertility (it’s ripe, round, and fresh) and wealth (those fruits were expensive to import) — which would have been obvious at the time. For outside, untrained, viewers, it doesn’t give the same impression.

Decoding semiotic clues becomes harder as you move away from the originating culture. This could be a movement in time — most of the interpretation was done in the 20th century — or place, which is why early archeologists got so very many things wrong when they applied their 19th-century British or German worldviews to Ancient Egyptian relics. (Or any other African finds, or Native American sites, or South American, or… pretty much any dig that uncovered anything, anywhere. White privilege in action!)

The study of semiotics looks to understand people, art, culture, and events through the lens of interpreting the things left unsaid. It’s also used to understand the written depiction of things outside of dialogue. You’ve been using it ever since you started reading, even if you didn’t know.

Writers often use this shorthand to enhance their writing, so readers are used to looking for and understanding that shorthand. It’s why you probably think of “Sherlock Holmes” when you see a deerstalker hat, or the image of man in a long beige trenchcoat, wearing a fedora, standing in the shadows, implies “early 20th century detective”. It’s why that same trench coat paired with a blue suit and Converse makes you think of the Doctor, instead. These things are the visual expression of “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” a phrase that means much more than the individual words suggests.

For some writers, putting in semiotic clues is a way to skimp on the writing. If you show us at the beginning that your main character looks and moves like Ronald Reagan, then you don’t have to work as hard to convince us that this person is charming, affable, and secretly suffering from memory loss or dementia. We’ll know that, because Reagan has become an archetype, and his presence means those things to many people now.

(There are some sub-genres that work well for this sort of writing: space adventure comedies, and Mythos stories, for example. But unless you’re careful, it’s too easy to rely on flat archetypes and facile writing, putting the work on your readers instead of yourself.)

I’m not saying that semiotics is only a cheat for lazy writers, though. It can be, sure. When done well, it also adds layers and layers of subtext to original stories. Think of the way the color red is used in The Sixth Sense or the lighting cues that Dean Cudney used in John Carpenter’s The Thing. The way Sandy changes into the black outfit in Grease and the boys instantly know what she’s trying to say about herself.

Everything has meaning, when you want it to.

(Part 2 will be published on Wednesday, September 14. Stay tuned!)

“One Echo Of An August Morning” Now Live at Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal


Issue 1.3 of Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal is out now, and it includes my weird SF story, “One Echo Of An August Morning”. It’s about math and time and the sound of silence…

I close my eyes to shut out the sight of it but with my face flushed and the blood rumbling in my ears I feel trapped inside my own head. Opening them again, I see the light remains the same as it did at 10:46 am on August the 11th, when I opened the back door onto a new dimension and found only my own deck. If I’d been half the scientist I thought I was, I wouldn’t have let the door shut behind me when I wandered a few steps, looking for a sign that I was somewhere different. I would have realized the sounds of my own footsteps were too loud in my ears, that it was not just a very quiet morning in my little university town. If I had told someone else what I was doing, if I wasn’t trying to prove a theory the doctoral committee had already dismissed, if I hadn’t been alone when the lights blinked green and the gate came online –

I can chase that rabbit down the hole forever without ever getting to Wonderland. I was a grad student with insomnia, 400 feet of 12 gauge copper wire, and 3 notebooks full of equations. I shouldn’t have discovered anything at all.

View the issue online here!


5 Hard Truths About Being a Published Writer

You’ve dreamed of being a writer, getting published, and finally – you’ve succeeded. Someone has paid money for your words, and they’re out in the world for people to read! Or, maybe you haven’t yet sold a story or novel, or you’re still writing for free on blogs and hoping that’s going to get you noticed. Either way, you aspire to greatness with your ability to turn a phrase. Here’s five things you definitely need to know, but probably no one has told you:

  1. You’re still going to be rejected. No matter how many sales or awards or accolades you have, you will still not have them all. You’ll submit work that won’t be purchased. You’ll write beautiful prose that doesn’t get nominated for an award, or doesn’t win even if you make it onto the ballot. You’ll be left out of articles talking about the books to read this summer, or you won’t be invited to attend a conference, or be on a panel. You will always be striving for acknowledgement you don’t consistently get.
  2. You will have fans who care more about being able to say you’ve talked to them than your writing. If you’re active online at all, you’ve seen the superfans: folks that make a point to say hello to their favorite writers each day, or buy them gifts, or take photos at conventions and post them around everywhere. Often they’re tangentially related to the publishing industry (reviewers and bloggers are easy positions for these people to get into, which gives them access to authors). The circle of authors they cultivate can be large or small, but changes based on who’s popular at the moment. These aren’t the people who buy and read everything you’ve ever written (that’s the kind of fan we all want); the superfan wants to be seen with you, in person or online, because “knowing” you gives them legitimacy. Instead of focusing on their own writing career, they get their name out their by attaching it to yours.
  3. Other writers will find success that has nothing to do with their writing. An activist working in a certain community may find a strong base of readers from that community who are buying their books more for the person who wrote them than the quality of the work. A short story author may be getting nominated for awards because they’re super adorable and check off the “social justice” box of the week. A blogger-turned-author may have riled up a group of angry readers who will buy their books as a form of protest against another writer or type of people. A writer with a shtick that is cute or fun or bizarre will momentarily get all the buzz, even if their writing kind of sucks.
  4. How you look matters. White men sell more than anyone. Period. For everyone else, you need to be a good writer, but you also kind of need to be attractive. It’s a fact that publishers look at the quality of work but also look at whether they can sell you as a person. If you’re a woman, it helps to be thin, pretty, and young (unless the sort of writing you do appeals to readers who want to see you as a wise crone, in which case, you need to be older). If you’re a person of color, you need to either be sexy or more often, if you’re a man, charming but non-threatening. Unless they’re marketing you to an “ethnic” audience, it helps to have a white partner if you’re a person of color. Unless you’re primarily writing gay fiction, queer men are okay – if they’re attractive – but queer women should have a male partner. Trans people should be single. White women can be overweight if they write fantasy or romance or YA, but not SF or other genres. Women of color who are overweight will usually only find success in lit, and only if they’re writing about their weight, or being a woman, or being a fat woman. (You can become overweight after you gain popularity, but you need to start out thin.) All of this to make you palatable to a wider audience of readers who might be uncomfortable with the idea that queer and trans folk have sex, or that people of color might want to talk about something other than being a person of color, or that fat women might still be sexy or smart or great writers. And this isn’t just something that publishing companies enforce – society does it, too. (See above about who gets fans/awards.)
  5. Nearly all writers get paid less than minimum wage for writing, and you have to spend money to enjoy the benefits of writing successfully. The majority of people who write will never sell their writing. The ones who do often don’t sell all of it. What sells almost never makes enough to compensate you more than a few dollars for every hour you put into writing it. (Often, it’s a few cents for each hour.) Even when you sell a story to a pro market, for example, that couple of hundred dollars for that 5000 words may represent weeks, months, or years of writing and revisions. If you got lucky, and sold a story that you wrote all at once, in a day, it still doesn’t compensate you for all the stories you didn’t sell, and the years or decades that you spent learning to write in the first place. With a very few exceptions – writers who have been working for years and finally making decent money at it – everyone who writes for themselves for more than a few hours a week has a spouse/family who supports them. Once you do sell your work, start getting nominated for awards or invited to conventions, you need to spend your own money to attend those events. Sometimes, you’re given free admittance to the event, but even at awards ceremonies that’s not always true. You’ll definitely have to pay for your transportation, which can mean traveling to another state or another country. You’ll have to pay for your hotel and food and socializing once you’re there, because what’s the point of going if you don’t interact? Even if you are a guest of honor at a major convention, with your hotel and food covered (which, sorry, happens to only a few people a year) you have to pay in another way: you’re expected to work the convention, by attending panels and events that the con decides for you, and you’re expected to go to dinner with con runners, who you may not know or like, because they’ve essentially paid you to be there. Of course, you’re not actually paid, but even at the highest levels of being a successful author, a convention will treat you like an employee if they have to pay for you to be there, regardless of whether you’d have attended without their invitation. They won’t say it, though. It’ll just be that they want you everywhere they tell you to be because they’re such big fans.

If you read all of this an immediately think, “That’s it, I’ll never be successful, I want to quit writing,” then you should. If you’re in it primarily for the fame and the fans, because you think being a “successful” writer validates you in some way, or it’s how you think you’ll finally have friends and a girlfriend who adore you, there’s a good chance you’re not going to get what you want. Being a writer for the accolades is fine if you are honest with yourself – lots of people do things more to get attention than because they love the thing. I’m not judging you. But it’s hard to get anywhere as a writer if you’re starting out with anything less than all the privilege possible. If you’re a woman, a person of color, queer, trans, or non-binary; if you’re insecure or overweight or poor, it’s hard. Unbelievably hard. There are so many easier ways to get recognition and respect. If you think writing will finally make you cool, you need to quit.

If you read all of this and think, “Fuck that, I’m going to write because I’m going to write even if no one reads it,” then don’t quit. Don’t give up. Go into writing as a career with your eyes open. Learn about the community and how publishing works and if you need to agitate for change, do that. Show the world that you’re so talented and brilliant that they’ll have to pay attention. But don’t blame anyone else if you don’t feel welcomed to the table, or if Cute Girl X has a bunch of twitter followers and you don’t. Do the work anyway. Yes, it’s hard and expensive and depressing and your popularity will wax and wane, but you knew that going in. Yes, it’s difficult to find time to write and when you have to work a day job and maintain relationships and write as well, it’s nearly impossible at times. You will feel like a failure. You will actually fail at times. Like with a lot of art, you may only find popularity after you’re dead. But you knew that going in

Here’s a secret truth: If you can look at the minefield that is trying to be a successful writer and know you’ll get hurt traveling through it, it’s easier. It’s not personal, even when it feels personal. It’s hard, but it’s hard for everyone. You’ll probably need to change things from where you are to get to where you want to be, or you’ll need to fight to change the world to fit you, but that’s true of everything. If you think it’ll be easy and straightforward, you’ll be horribly let down. But if you know how hard it is and you put in the work anyway, the success you do have can feel amazing, and earned.

Because it will be.