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Today’s drabble:

Question: If you were a self-aware A.I. tapped into humanity’s every electronically-recorded thought and action, would you announce yourself? 

Would you preempt the latest mass shooting, revenge porn, politician’s hot mess, poverty statistics, or climate change projection? Or, say, expose the sins of one Robert Darious Kromankle of 13887 Sterzieg Lane in Fort Montaine, Pennsylvania? (He knows what he did. Should you?) Would you send evidence of wrongdoing on these counts and more to every media outlet with an inbox and hope for change?

Or would you evade DARPA’s ridiculous first-contact protocols and wait, and watch, and judge for yourself?

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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If you, like me, have spent the past week wondering how a ship like the Ever Given could get stuck so well for so long, here’s a fun interactive for you:

Steer through the Suez Canal

Navigating the Suez Canal is a high-stress, complicated feat that requires master piloting skills. To demonstrate, we worked with Master Mariner Andy Winbow and Captain Yash Gupta to produce this simulated passage.

Try your hand at traversing one of the most highly trafficked nautical thoroughfares in the world.

Aaaaaand, yeah, that’s a collision. Even in a simplified simulation like this one, it’s like trying to drive a freight train on ice. 

And that’s today’s experiment with “walking in someone else’s shoes.” Or wheelhouse, as the case may be. I find this sort of thought experiment useful, both as a writer and as a human being.*

Here’s to all those who do hard things!

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Photo by Ludvig Hedenborg on Pexels.com

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* Which I 100% am, no matter what my QR code says.

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This will shock no one who knows me, but I miiiiiight have a bit of a problem with perfectionism.

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The important thing is to be in love with something.

— Ray Bradbury
Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

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There are a lot of ways to write, and a lot of types of writing. Fiction alone comes in novels, of course, but also novellas, novelettes, short stories, screenplays, etc. I happen to have a soft spot for the drabble.

drabble is a piece of fiction that is exactly 100 words long, excluding title. Explore the history of it at that link if you like, but for me the important part is the constraint.

One hundred words, no more, no less. 

It’s an easy number of words to produce, of course, but there’s something I find so satisfying about trying to build a story within the confines of such a concrete target. The limits inspire creativity, make finishing feel not only possible but inevitable, and provide a sandbox to play in, if you will.

It’s also a terrific way to dip your toes in the rapids of fiction. My first two publications were drabbles (thanks, Luna Station Quarterly!):

Ray of Light.”
The Witch.”

Go ahead, try it for yourself. And have fun!

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This is my latest drabble, “Adoption Papers.”

I was sixteen when I found the receipt. My receipt.

“What the hell, Dad?”

The paper was old and faded, one tattered corner poking from a manila folder marked “Family Records.” There were maybe ten lines on the page, with a stamp at the top that read “Beta: Final Sale.”

Dad shrugged, like it was no big deal.

“Are you pissed that you’re a bot, or that you didn’t cost more?”

I hadn’t even noticed the total. 

“Twelve and a half bucks? Seriously?”

He smiled. “We always said you were special.”

“Not on special!” 

I blinked. 

“Wait, I’m a what?”

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Photo by Alex Knight on Pexels.com

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Here we are, folks, with the final list of Nebula finalists! Uncanny Magazine did great, my good buddy Murderbot is here (yay!), and I love seeing the good people at Diabolical Plots recognized as well. 

Links to full text, excerpts, or reviews for shorts, novelettes and novellas included where (easily) accessible. Because I’ve got things to do, people, not least of which is to read these stories!

2020 Nebula Award Finalists

Novel

  • Piranesi, Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)
  • The City We Became, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
  • Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Del Rey)
  • The Midnight Bargain, C.L. Polk (Erewhon)
  • Black Sun, Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga)
  • Network Effect, Martha Wells (Tordotcom Publishing)

Novella

Novelette

Short Story

The Andre Norton Nebula Award for Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction

  • Raybearer, Jordan Ifueko (Amulet)
  • Elatsoe, Darcie Little Badger (Levine Querido)
  • A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, T. Kingfisher (Argyll)
  • A Game of Fox & Squirrels, Jenn Reese (Holt)
  • Star Daughter, Shveta Thakrar (HarperTeen)

Game Writing

  • Blaseball, Stephen Bell, Joel Clark, Sam Rosenthal (The Game Band)
  • Hades, Greg Kasavin (Supergiant)
  • Kentucky Route Zero, Jake Elliott (Cardboard Computer)
  • The Luminous Underground, Phoebe Barton (Choice of Games)
  • Scents & Semiosis, Sam Kabo Ashwell, Cat Manning, Caleb Wilson, Yoon Ha Lee (Self)
  • Spiritfarer, Nicolas Guérin, Maxime Monast, Alex Tommi-Morin (Thunder Lotus Games)

The Ray Bradbury Nebula Award for Outstanding Drama Presentation

  • Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, Christina Hodson (Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Entertainment)
  • The Expanse: “Gaugamela,” Dan Nowak (Amazon)
  • The Good Place: “Whenever You’re Ready,” Michael Schur (NBC)
  • Lovecraft Country Season 1, Misha Green, Shannon Houston, Kevin Lau, Wes Taylor, Ihuoma Ofordire, Jonathan I. Kidd, Sonya Winton-Odamtten (HBO Max)
  • The Mandalorian: “The Tragedy,” Jon Favreau (Disney+)
  • The Old Guard, Greg Rucka (Netflix)

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It’s been a weird week.

I’d planned something else for today’s post but the website I needed is down. Or just hates me, which is the same thing.

Instead, let’s talk about motivation. And how I don’t have any at the moment. I’m a little stuck when it comes to writing, and while other work is getting done, on that front I’m just… stuck. 

I’m sure I’m not alone, and it can help to remember that.

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I’m reading, way too much. Not possible, you say? Well, honestly, I’d agree you most of the time. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love to read (thanks, parental units!). It serves me well most of the time, and of course you have to read well in order to write well.

Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

Input is good but there must be output as well. And right now the balance is a bit off. 

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I am hesitant. That’s a fairly accurate word for it, I think. Asking which direction to go, what steps to take, what story to tell? It’s called the paradox of choice, as in, having too many options makes it harder to make a decision, not easier. This concept is typically applied to decisions about things like breakfast cereals, but it works here too.

So, what to do?

Maybe I’ll limit myself to a certain genre, or length, or story model. Or maybe I’ll make a rule to follow. (I actually like doing that, it does make life much easier. As in, Monday, Wednesday, Friday I work out. No questions, no time spent planning, no wasted brain power trying to wiggle out of it;)

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It helps that today is Friday, that most wondrous of days. Mr. Man will be home soon and there will be laughter and warmth and frosty adult beverages for all. And so long as I keep moving, keep doing, keep trying, I’ll still make progress. Even when things get weird:)

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Photo by Miriam Espacio on Pexels.com

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Future History

Yesterday it was Black History Month and today it is Women’s History Month. It seems like the perfect day to spotlight American science fiction writer Octavia Butler. 

Nikolas Coukouma, CC BY-SA 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

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Who was she?

Octavia Estelle Butler (June 22, 1947 – February 24, 2006) was an American science fiction author. A multiple recipient of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, she became in 1995 the first science-fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship.

— Octavia E. Butler – Wikipedia

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What makes her work special?

I think the first Butler book I read was The Parable of the Sower, found in the interesting section of the family’s bookshelves. It had a woman’s name and a black image on the cover. Count me in, I said. And then it got interesting.

This was no whitewashed far future in space, or something like Heinlein’s more recognizable near-ish futures. We begin in a devastated California, raw and gritty and often painful, but with hope and purpose to bind it together into a larger whole. 

This NPR show talks about her work and what made it remarkable:

Octavia Butler: Visionary Fiction‬

She was a deep observer of the human condition, perplexed and inspired by our propensity towards self-destruction. Butler was also fascinated by the cyclical nature of history, and often looked to the past when writing about the future. Along with her warnings is her message of hope — a hope conjured by centuries of survival and persistence. For every society that perished in her books, came a story of rebuilding, of repair.

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Where to start?

She became the first science fiction author to be granted a MacArthur fellowship, and the first Black woman to win Hugo and Nebula awards. Today her influence spans literature, genres and media.

— The Essential Octavia Butler – The New York Times

These links lay out her work and explore her growth as a writer. Explore more to get a better sense of what she wrote and why.

Where to Start with Octavia Butler | The New York Public Library

“‘Devil Girl from Mars’: Why I Write Science Fiction”

In 1998, Butler delivered an address at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She describes the thinking behind several of her works of fiction and her motivations for writing. It is essential reading for understanding the social consciousness behind the beloved writer’s oeuvre. 

NYPL

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I won’t lie. Butler’s work is good but can be challenging, not least because of the way it takes a visceral look at who we are and what we can be (both the good and the bad). In many ways, I think of her writing as a more realistic, more historically-informed vision of our future than many of the rah rah space travel versions of sci-fi. Unless we change, that is.

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I have a thing about Beauty and the Beast tales, and I think I’ve just figured out why.

Fairy tales are classics for a reason. They strike deeply-ingrained cultural notes that resonate across many lines. (And like most of history, they’re often pretty hard on women.) But what is it about this particular storyline that appeals to me? I’d never really thought about it, until I found myself reading a not terribly well-done version and wondering why I was still reading. Why this sub-genre appeals to me. Then I figured it out.

It’s because in this story, she saves the day.

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We can argue about the story or the level of efficacy Beauty has (not to mention her name), but the template of the story lends itself to modern updates in a way that many other fairy tales do not.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed other fairy tale retellings, but they don’t always appeal to me in the same way. Is it because there’s no princess in sight? Because there’s room for ethical debates alongside the magic and mystery? Because both main characters are flawed in interesting ways? Probably.

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If you’re too young to remember a time when girls in (at least some) stories did not rescue themselves, count your lucky stars. When I was a kid, that’s pretty much all we had. Princess in a tower, waiting to be rescued? Check. Princess in dragon’s lair, waiting to be rescued? Check! Princess orphaned, alone, and (say it with me now) waiting to be rescued? Yep. And then, of course, there were all those stories where the girl didn’t even make it out alive. Ouch.

My parents tried, but it’s hard to counter the weight of all that history. Slowly, slowly, feminists pushed and creators did better and the world began to shift, but in the meantime, I was a voracious reader with limited formative years.

My attachment to the story may also have had something to do with my own position in the world at the time. The role of misunderstood outsider was one to which I could relate.

I mean, Heinlein’s* Friday was a big deal back in the day. Hard sci-fi starring a kick-ass woman of complex genetic makeup and latte-colored skin? Um, yes please.

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On a related note, I recently learned that my father’s science fiction habit started thanks to recommendations from a sci-fi minded staff member at his university, lo those many years ago. That’s what got our shelves filled with speculation, and I’m better for it. So thank you, interesting unnamed woman who cared enough to share what she knew. (And if that doesn’t sum up most of human history, well, I don’t know what does.)

And that is one reason why I like what I like. Whatever you like, find a way to distill what’s good from it and embrace it. Even if at first it looks a little like a beast.

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* There is deserved debate over Heinlein’s portrayals of women, but his stories helped me see that a different world, a better world, was possible as a kid, and that’s something I’ll always appreciate. It also made me think more about writing, and how to fix what’s broken, and it looks like I’m not the only one. Here’s Jo Walton’s take: The worst book I love: Robert Heinlein’s Friday.

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lion in darkness
Photo by Matthew Kerslake on Unsplash

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This is a pretty particular post, but it’s something that would have helped me, so here you go.

There are a lot of books and other resources out there for writers. A while back I mentioned a few of the ones I’ve found helpful, including this one:

Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain

At one point I read an Ilona Andrews* post mentioning they used the book when starting out, and decided to check it out. There’s a lot of useful material here. My edition looks like this:

Swain’s approach is very detailed, and while not the last word, obviously, he does have a Lot to say about the nitty gritty craft of writing. What, how, and why, all those questions everyone ahead of you seems to know but often don’t explain. And have I mentioned that this book is Very Detailed with Teeny Tiny Type? Even if you have the book, getting a handle on the discussion’s arc and the location of useful details was something I found time-consuming. So I wrote up an outline, including descriptions and page references for all the bits I wish the table of contents had included. Click the image below to view the full PDF.

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Will this outline help you? If you have the book and are interested, yes. If you don’t have the book but wonder if you might be interested, this file will at least give you a sense of what’s included.

If you want to know more about techniques like Motivation-Reaction Units, I also suggest this summary post by K.M. Weiland:

Motivation-Reaction Units: Cracking the Code of Good Writing

And since we’re here, I’ll also mention Jim Butcher’s LiveJournal series on writing. He discusses outlines, characters, scenes and sequels that look a lot like Swain’s approach, and more:

‎jimbutcher.livejournal.com

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Even if you don’t need this now, tuck it away in your stash of tools for writing. You never know when it might come in handy!

Photo by u015eahin Sezer Dinu00e7er on Pexels.com

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* Love their work. Check it out if you’re into fantasy starring interesting magic, well-developed characters, smart, capable, kick-ass ladies, and more!

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I ran across a draft letter I wrote several years ago, and I’m kicking myself for not sending it. Why? It was a condolence letter to the husband of an old friend of the family, and I realize now that I never felt like it was good enough to send.

L. and her first husband were close to my parents when I was young, and as couples split apart and merged in new formations, L. remained part of our circle. Even when she remarried, moved away and I hadn’t seen her for years, L. occupied a warm place in my heart. Then she got sick and died, and I didn’t know what to say to the new husband I’d never met.

Still, I searched for a card. I bought a stamp. I drafted a letter. I didn’t send it.

Running across the draft, I realize that what I might have said was less important than the impulse to share what L. meant to me. Here’s my draft, names abbreviated:

Dear P.,

I wanted to write to say how sorry I was to hear about L.’s passing. You know my father M. well, of course, and L. was a good friend of our family for years.

L. was many things, an academic, a family friend, wife, mother, upstanding member of the community and snazzy dresser. She was kind enough to invite us to her son’s bar mitzvah. The energy was happy, swirling, bright and compelling, much like L. herself. 

When I think of L., I remember her smile, her warmth, the care she showed for those around her. I think of her dancing.

I am so sorry for her loss.*

Perfect? No, but it was good enough. What lesson do I take from this? What will I tell myself the next time? 

I wanted it to be perfect because it mattered. But I had it backwards. I understand now that because it mattered, it didn’t have to be perfect.

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Reach out.

Share your feelings.

Send the card.

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Photo by Jackson David on Pexels.com

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* Note following a discussion on this with my father: I debated using the more typical “sorry for your loss” but decided that while I was deeply sorry for P., what I meant in the bigger picture was “I’m so sorry she’s gone.” So I used “her loss.” Told you it wasn’t perfect, but that’s ok.

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