Patreon Content for May & June 2019!

Patreon content went up this week! There’s a poem for all patrons: ” Silver Tree Day” which I wrote about the street where my grandparents lived. For $2 patrons, there’s an excerpt from an unfinished story about first business in space exploration titled “The First Spaceship I Ever Flew.” And for $5 and up patrons, there’s a reprint of my story for Chicks Unravel Time, a collection of essays about Dr. Who from a feminist perspective, “Guten Tag, Hitler.”

Last month, I posted a story for all patrons “The Station at the Corner of Enning and Pine” I was 16 in 1998, and the political details of this era are in my skin.  For $2 patrons, there’s a rough story, The Noodle Effect, that I started with a three word prompt and a commitment to keep writing no matter how weird it went. And for $5 and up patrons, there’s a first to last draft evolution of  “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love”.

As always, thank you to all my patrons! You help make my writing possible and keep my head in one piece!

Silly Interview with S. L. Huang, Spectacular Specimen of Superhumanity

SL Huang. Photo Credit: Chris Massa

Rachel Swirsky: When you were at MIT, did you take any writing classes? What was it like studying writing in that environment? 

SL Huang: I did not!  Which is kind of strange given that MIT has a ridiculously good creative writing program, but I was in my “writing is the one thing I do that I will not stress out about or set any goals for” phase. (You can see how that has worked out for me, she says, eyeing the current mountain of deadlines.)

RS: Your bio says you are a gunslinger. Are you really a gunslinger? I hope so. Feel free to lie if you aren’t (or if you are, actually).

SLH: I am indeed really a gunslinger.  Some number of the following facts are true about me:

  • I have qualified at the Expert Rifleman level on a civilian version of the Army Qualifying Test
  • I can field-strip an AK-47 in less than seven seconds
  • I once fixed a malfunctioning Springfield XD with a piece of duct tape
  • I have fired an Uzi in the middle of Market Street, San Francisco
  • I’ve had conversations with police officers while hiding five shotguns under my trench coat

(NB, for the NSA agents reading this: the police officers knew they were there.)

RS: What is your gunslinger origin story?

SLH: I learned to shoot at MIT.  No, really.  MIT has one of the best pistol programs in the country.

My pistol coach from MIT now coaches the U.S. Paralympics Shooting Team.  We’re still in touch.

RS: You mention liking the abelian grape joke which I must admit I do not understand. I really like the Heisenberg’s speeding ticket joke. What does our shared love of terrible nerd jokes say about us? I remind you that you are free to lie.

SLH: It means we are spectacular specimens of superhumanity who ride into battle on dragons and eat gas giants for breakfast.

(p.s. I love the Heisenberg speeding ticket joke, too.)

RS: In 2016 you put together an anthology of Campbell-eligible writers so that they can show off their work to potential voters. In the past, it has always been difficult to identify eligible writers, let alone find all their work in one place. How did you figure out who to include? Did you reach out to writers who were in professional TOCs, or did you wait for people to come to you?

SLH: We (my co-runner Kurt Hunt and I) sidestepped the identification-of-eligibility question by pawning off the work on our friends at Writertopia, who maintain a list of Campbell-eligible writers as a genre resource.  Put yourself on their list, we said, and you can be in the book!

In all seriousness, we did not mean to cause so much extra work for them — we figured most people interested would be on the Writertopia list already.  But we figured WAY wrong, and Writertopia got flooded with add requests.  Bill Katz and David Walton over there are absolute gems of human beings — they did an incredible job vetting and adding people before our deadline, and they’ve given us nothing but support.  We owe them big time.

As for how we reached out — hahaha, we had less than two weeks to get submissions; there was no way we could wait for people to come to us.  We posted on forums, blogged, and tweeted.  We sent over a dozen press releases to genre sites and asked for signal boosts from well-followed voices in SFF.  We also wanted to reach out to eligible writers and invite them directly, but could only find public email addresses for about 60% of the people who were already on Writertopia’s list — and here our Writertopia friends did us yet another solid and forwarded an invitation to them all on our behalf.

I was so, so pleased with the response we got.  120 authors!  Over A MILLION WORDS OF FICTION!

We passed the torch on it the following year, and I hope anthologies of the year’s Campbell-eligible writers keep being a thing as often as possible. Some of our authors told us the anthology felt like an enormous group hug, and I’m so proud to have been a part of that.

RS: Looking at the stories in the Campbell anthology, would you say there were noticeable thematic preoccupations? What was the zeitgeist for new writers in 2015?

SLH: The biggest zeitgeist, I think, is that there wasn’t one.  The thematic diversity in this group is incredible.  I wasn’t able to read even close to all million words, but we had stories from F&SF and Analog, Strange Horizons and Mothership Zeta, Angry Robot and Baen.  We had self-published, small press, and Big Five.  We had funny stories and tearjerking ones, swashbucklers and horror, aliens and myths and hard SF and fairy tales.  Flash, shorts, novel excerpts, even a play!  And the authors came from all over the world and from all walks of life — we even had at least one translation.

If this anthology proved anything, it’s that the upcoming generation of SFF writers want there to be room for all types of stories.  And so far we’re kicking ass at making that happen.

RS: Any projects coming up, or anything else you’d like to write about?

SLH: So much!!

My main novel series is the Cas Russell series with Tor Books — the first book, Zero Sum Game, came out last year, and the sequel Null Set is dropping in July. Billed by Tor as “the geek’s Jack Reacher,” it’s about a superheroine — an antiheroine — who can do math really, really fast.
She uses it to kill a lot of people. As you do with math.


I’m also one of the collaborators who wrote The Vela, a serialized novel that was just released from Serial Box. My co-authors are Yoon Ha Lee, Rivers Solomon, and Becky Chambers, and you can read the whole thing right now!

That “let’s not set any goals or deadlines for writing” philosophy from college REALLY was not very successful for me…

(This interview was posted early for my patrons on Patreon. Thank you!)

Silly Interview with Monica Valentinelli, Who Aspires to Terrify You with Marshmallows


(Editor’s Note: This interview has been in the vault. For Monica’s most updated work, visit her at  www.booksofm.com.)

Rachel Swirsky: You can write any tie-in on any subject you want. All the normal rules are out the window. If you’re writing Star Trek, you can have Q take over the universe. Whatever you like. What’s the tie-in book you’d write?

Monica Valentinelli: Well, I’ve been staring at this question for five minutes now, and I’m finding it impossible to narrow my options down to one. The book I would absolutely love to write is a Star Wars novel written as a mosaic (Yep, Game of Thrones!). The story for that would be a sordid tale of how different factions (which includes the Sith, Jedi, Witches of Dathomir, Kamino Cloners, Hutts) are all vying to become “the” de facto leaders of the Republic well before the the Old Republic ever existed. I’m talking centuries before the technology was created that allowed pilots to make the jump into hyperspace; here, space travel still exists it’s just a lot slower. For this to work, I wouldn’t kill off the Force-users and make them as rare as they currently are. Instead, I’d go the exact opposite direction. Force-users exist, but nobody believes they have real power, because they pass them off as religious or think their “tricks” are due to scientific or technologic advances. Only, they’re (Force-users) are not gifted due to genetics or midichlorians at all. So, it’s far less about “one family’s legacy” and more about “faction”. Everybody has a stake in controlling the galaxy, and sometimes they forget there’s other, more terrifying threats out there—like the Yuuzahn Vong or an unknown force. I think there’s a lot of politics in Star Wars that sometimes gets missed due to the high-octane action; its iconic setting is a treasure trove for storytelling potential, and I’d love to see (Who knows? Maybe write?) more genre-bending tales set in the universe.

Fantasy and horror are a bit tougher, because I prefer to create my own worlds in those genres; magic and mystery are comfortable wheelhouses for me. Of course, it doesn’t help that some of my fandoms (especially anime, Final Fantasy, and Miyazaki films) I’m way too nervous to touch; I don’t know if you’ve seen Madoka Magica, but I wouldn’t change anything after watching that; it’s perfect just as it is. If we’re going SUPER silly? Ever since Universal announced they were rebooting their universe, I kept thinking about the breakfast cereal. You know, Boo Berry, Franken Berry, Count Chocula, etc.? Yeah, a novel…but instead of scary monsters you get edible marshmallows and the only way to stop them from terrorizing your town is to eat them. Tasty. I have a lot of fun writing the ridiculous, and I don’t get to do that terribly often.

RS: Can you describe how you put a game book, like the Firefly RPG, together?

MV: Sure thing! So, the role I’m elaborating on is called a “developer”. This position requires management and participation in the team-based production of a game (or an entire line) from concept to approvals to print, while balancing the needs and desires of the publisher, license holder, and fans. The logistics of this position will vary widely from license to license and publisher to publisher. The Firefly RPG corebook, for example, was a complex and very involved undertaking for a number of reasons ranging from our focus on the TV show as opposed to the movie, which are two separate licenses, to ensuring that we made a game that Browncoats would be happy with. We encountered a lot of demand for the game after we announced in February 2013 but found there wasn’t enough time to produce a full corebook for our projected launch at GenCon, which took place in August 2013. Since GenCon is a significant show for game releases, we decided to release a preview, instead, so we could incorporate fan feedback for the full corebook.

In general, however, the tasks related to producing a game book happen over many months and might include: designing the production schedule, developing clear outlines and instructions for each book, finding, hiring, and managing other freelance game designers, writers, editors, indexers, artists, and layout artists, managing playtesters, working with sales or marketing partners, sending out contracts, making canon-related decisions and sticking to approval guidelines, etc. In addition to all of this, I feel the biggest responsibility I have as a developer is one of quality control. On each game I develop, I’m involved and participate in every step of production (outlining, writing, editing, layout, proofing, and approvals) to ensure the result is something everyone will love.

RS: You also wrote and designed a dictionary and encyclopedia for Firefly. Can you tell us about those books?

MV: I had a great deal of fun working with my editor at Titan Books to produce Firefly: The Gorramn Shiniest Language Guide and Phrasebook in the ’Verse, which is available on April 12th. We designed this reference book to pull words from the television show scripts and define them, in context, for the benefit of the reader so that they might get a clear idea of what it’s like to live in the Verse. Every word chosen was intentional—even the simpler words—to establish what setting bits and pieces of dialogue mirrored our own world exactly as we know them, and to contrast the definitions that are slightly shifted or engineered to fit the world of Firefly. We also added character write-ups for the cast and a huge section featuring Jenny Lynn, the show’s translator, and her work on Firefly.

Following this, I was hired to write the Firefly Encyclopedia. Revisiting the universe, I was able to incorporate the comics to write a narrative retelling of the story thus far, dive into the culture, offer interviews, feature Tony Lee’s work (who was the Chinese translator on both the Firefly and Serenity RPG lines), and provide an analysis of the scripts that included my commentary and information about the story’s inspiration.

Both books are available wherever they are sold. When I was in Seattle recently, I signed some copies of the encyclopedia at the Barnes and Noble, but they’re going fast!

RS: If the characters from Firefly could choose any cake flavors, which flavors would they choose?

MV: Such a fun question! Kaylee might go for strawberry shortcake, and Simon would probably go for a devil’s food—so he could savor what a real chocolate cake tastes like! Let’s see, Book is pretty interesting because he’s a preacher with a mysterious past, so I think a vanilla cake with a surprise filling inside, like raspberry, works out pretty well for his character. Inara is very elegant and sophisticated, so she might prefer something like a ginger peach cake with green tea icing. Mal? I’m guessing he doesn’t care if his cake is fancy provided it has frosting on it. For Jayne, I’d have to go with apple pie. Technically it’s not a cake, but I imagine the smell of apples might remind him of home—even though his mom may not have been able to afford enough apples to bake such a confection. River? Hrmm… That’s a tough one, because depending upon her state of mind she might enjoy a birthday cake she had as a child, or something a bit more colorful like red velvet. That leaves Zoe and Wash. Being the insufferable romantic that I am, I have to go with the top of their wedding cake for both of them.

RS: Tell us about your most recent story.

MV: The story I published most recently is titled “My Name is Cybernetic Model XR389F and I am Beautiful” for Uncanny Magazine. I talked a lot about this story in my interview with Caroline M. Yoachim in that issue. Since the story debuted, I’ve learned a lot about perception and identity. You see, I wasn’t angry when I wrote this story. I simply relayed a specific experience that I, and a lot of other women have, using the lens of science fiction to examine and question it in a fictional context. Not so much “write what I know”, but more “write my truth.” I’m deeply concerned that we laud technological achievements without recognizing our inventions don’t change who we are; they will reflect our biases and core beliefs, because we made them. If we don’t broaden our perspectives now, then how can the future belong to all of us? I suppose that’s the beauty of writing and reading science fiction. There are so many wonderful authors who answer questions like these in their work, to propose a better future.

I also wrote a prequel to “The Dunwich Horror” for an anthology called Sisterhood: Dark Tales and Secret Histories featuring the Woman in White, wrote a tie-in story about cats for the Monarchies of Mau RPG, and have a handful of others that’ll debut this year. Plus, I developed a new fantasy world and wrote a novella to launch a solo game series called “Proving Grounds”. I’m thrilled that a bunch of my stories’ll be out this year. Exciting!

RS: Your cats have unusual names. How did they get them? Can we see some pet pictures, too?

MV: Hah! Well, we have two cats (one ginger polydactal manx with yellow eyes, and a black cat with green eyes). The ginger cat was originally named after the ancient Babylonian god of dreams, and our black kitty for the god of storms. Over time, as their personalities emerged, we wound up with sillier-sounding names to offset those four a.m. wake-up calls and our bewilderment at their addiction to catnip. We nicknamed our ginger cat Lord Lardbottom, because he’s a bit lopsided. Because he doesn’t have a tail, he biffs when he tries to jump up higher than the length of a footstool, and he often sits and pouts when he doesn’t get his way.

Our black cat is a chatterbox, gaping maw, and alarm clock all rolled into one. He has a high-pitched voice, which led us to affectionately refer to him as Captain Whinypants.
Thanks so much for inviting me to be a part of your world, Rachel. If your readers would like to check out me or my work, I invite them to visit www.booksofm.com.

(This interview was posted early for my patrons on Patreon. Thank you!)

Silly Interview with John Chu, who will tell you about the great injustices of American Musical Theater

(Illustration by Christopher Silas Neal for “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere“)

Rachel Swirsky: I am completely fascinated by the translation work you and Ken and others are doing to bring Chinese SF to the US audience. (Also, I am very grateful for it as a reader and writer; I am so happy to be able to see those stories which I wouldn’t otherwise.) We talk a lot about the challenges of bringing something into a new cultural context–for obvious reasons!–but what are some of the good parts? Do stories pick up new resonances sometimes?

John Chu: A translation is a trade-off. (This is hardly an original thought.) Yes, we lose something in the process but it wouldn’t be worth doing at all if we didn’t also get something in return. At the end of the day, it’s is not practical to be fluent (enough) in every language that is the original language of some work that you’d like to read. (I’ve lost track of how many languages I’d need to be fluent in.) A really good translation, combined with knowledge of the culture the original work is a part of, can get you much of the way there. It is a way to experience what would otherwise be impractical to experience. (That said, I don’t think you should let yourself think you are, somehow, engaging directly with the original work. Translation is always an intermediated experience. If you want to engage directly with the original work, I’m afraid you need to become fluent in the language of the original work. And the standard is that you are fluent. If you can’t understand in that language well enough, you are probably better off with the translation.

Stories inevitably pick up new resonances. Part of translation is to get the readers of the translated work to feel what the readers of the original work feel. One way of getting there is to find equivalents (to the extent possible) for what can’t be directly translated, like the resonances of the story. For example, I translated a story once where each section was written in a distinct style. What I needed to do, then, was to find styles in English that had the same affect as the styles referenced in the original text then write the translation in those styles. The translations end up harkening back to different traditions of storytelling than the original, but the effect on the reader is much closer to reading the original than if I’d just translated the text so-called ‘literally.’ (Again, if you really need to see what the writer actually need, you need to read the original work directly.)

RS: Your wikipedia page calls you “an American microprocessor architect” before also mentioning that you are a writer and translator. It took me a minute, reading that, to parse it, and for a second I was wondering about what kinds of buildings you’d design. So, what kinds of buildings would you design?

JC: I love Brutalist and Modern architecture. (Postmodern architecture is also wonderful but we’re still in that period (or we’re still so close to it) so it’s hard to generalize.) One of the joys in visiting Chicago for me is that its skyline beautifully details the evolution of skyscrapers as tastes changed and construction methods improved. One of the things I most treasure about my trip to Helsinki is the day I played hooky from WorldCon and just walked around the city encountering one lovely piece of Modernist architecture after another. The juxtaposition of buildings from many eras in Helsinki was also a delight. (The city also inadvertently make it clear that we have left the Modernist Era. Still, if you are able—and it’s a lot of walking, sometimes on cobblestone–I highly recommend walking around Helsinki and engaging with one fabulous example of Modernism after another. It’s a beautiful city.)

The buildings I would aspire to design would probably draw on the sleek elegance of the International Style of Modernism whether I intend to or not. (It’s probably not literally true but one of the things I love about Chicago is that it kind of feels like a giant tribute to Mies van der Rohe, not to mention Frank Lloyd Wright (who, yes, is not of the International Style).) However, it’s the early 21st century, not the early-to-mid 20th century. Left to my own devices, I hope I would be brave enough to engage with humor, like Frank Gehry. (Not specifically his sense of humor, though. Mine. Frank Gehry is already the world’s best Frank Gehry. We don’t need another one.) I hope that my work would follow in the tradition blazed by Arata Isozaki, who pointedly does not design in any one architectural style. Instead, he is very site-specific and project-specific, letting those requirements dictate what the building needs to be. (Also, he just won the Pritzker Prize! *kermit flail*)

RS: I read an interview where you said that you make it a point to find out things about obscure musical theater history! Me, too! (I took classes in this! LOL.) What are some of your favorite forgotten musicals?

JC: Well, I’m not sure how forgotten these are but I do wish they were more popular:

The Golden Apple. I will flog that musical until it gets the mainstream recognition it deserves. Jerome Moross and John LaTouche set The Illiad and The Odyssey at the turn of the 20th century (and engage in a search for the truths necessary to survive the 20th century). I won’t say that it’s a perfect musical but the score is absolutely glorious. It’s appallingly short B’way run is one of the greater injustices of American Musical Theater. A mostly complete recording of the show was released in 2015 (and it’s absolutely worth getting).

You can see snippets from 2017 concert production (which I saw!) here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpEjaDW3feI

The Day Before Spring. Lerner & Loewe would go on to Brigadoon, My Fair Lady, and Camelot. Before all that, they wrote The Day Before Spring. The story is nothing to write home about but the score is pretty terrific. (Bits of it was recycled into their later efforts.)

Sweet Adeline by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. It played B’way in 1929, Set in the 1890’s, it’s a lush, nostalgic story of a woman who becomes a Broadway star and her various failed relationships along the way. For me, its take home hit is a choral set piece in the middle of Act II called “Some Girl Is On Your Mind”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8S_1_MPRo4

St. Louis Woman. Music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Book by Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen (based on Bontemp’s novel God Sends Sunday). It’s the musical that “Anywhere I Hang My Hat Is Come” and “Come Rain, Come Shine” comes from. Love! Revenge! Murder! And a happy ending. Here is Audra McDonald singing “I Had Myself a True Love”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovMj0EHx-bc

Golden Boy. Music by Charles Strouse. Lyrics by Lee Adams. Book by Clifford Odets and William Gibson (not that one!) based on Odet’s play. It’s about a man who becomes a prizefighter to escape his ghetto roots. He does, but at a cost. I saw a concert production of this that makes the book never really worked. It has a lot of terrific songs though.

“While the City Sleeps” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xuK-1oFj5sc

“Night Song” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwhFxDzYjSo

“Stick Around” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwhFxDzYjSo

I could go on, but I think that’s enough for now.

RS: Relatedly, what words do you have for young gay, American men who don’t know who Judy Garland is?

JC: My feelings about this are weirdly nuanced. Basically, I don’t think it’s good to be the gay version of That Guy Who Wants Everyone To Read Heinlein. So I’m not going to be. Without taking anything away from the brilliance and genius of her work (and, at her best, Judy Garland was in a class of her own), it’s not unfair to say that the near-religious reverence for her was also, in part, a consequence of a culture that, as a matter of life or death, had to stay underground. The discovery and the love of her work was part of how you found your (secret) tribe. There is a reason why, once upon a time, one might discreetly inquire whether one was a “friend of Dorothy.” And, back then, if you were gay and never discovered a love for her work, I suppose you might have lived your entire life thinking you were the only one in the world and remained desperately and heart-breakingly alone? 🙁

Nowadays, though, on one hand, I’m not saying that we have achieved full equality. In fact, it feels like reactionary forces are desperate to drag us back into the closet. On the other hand, we are freer than we once were and the path to finding other gay men does not necessarily go through a discovery and a love of the works of Judy Garland. (Yes, she was a huge star in the mainstream, too. I’m making a point. Hush.) Gay culture has become much more diverse and much more mainstream. (I mean, RuPaul’s Drag Race is on VH1!) I think we may be inching towards the point where it’s not Gay Culture as much as it is just part of culture. Assimilation is a tricky topic and way outside the scope of this interview. However, to the extent that Gay Culture was a reaction to the systemic oppression of LGBTQ (although, in the case of Judy Garland, let’s face it, the demographic in question is mostly cisgender gay men), the way the culture shifts because we are no longer as oppressed can’t be a bad thing on the whole.

So, if you are a young, gay American man and musicals are not your thing, there’s no reason to subject yourself to Judy Garland. If you love musicals though (and I loved musicals long before I realized I was gay) and you have not yet encountered the works of Judy Garland, boy are you in for a treat.

RS: I also have some improv training, although I don’t feel like I use that a lot in my work. (I’m sure I have much less experience with it than you do.) What techniques prove especially useful?

JC: I actually have an entire lecture about this! This is what I talk about when I’m invited to fill an hour at a workshop or something. (The lecture, perhaps appropriately, is a constantly evolving work-in-progress.)

I steal shamelessly from the improv toolkit when I write. In improv, you are on an empty stage with a scene partner who, because the two of you are not telepathic, does not actually know what you are going to do (and visa versa). And yet, merely through the things you say and the things you do, you two are able to fill out an entire world and a relationship that leaves the audience satisfied. If you can do that with improv, imagine what you can do when you bring in the other tools that a writer also has at their disposal. Improv turns out to be a great lens (for me, anyway) to strip everything to its fundamentals, work the skills it takes to write a great scene, before you then add back in all the other things you can do. (Also, the ability to revise is huge. In improv, of course, you get only that one shot.)

Everything you do on stage makes a promise to the audience, whether you intended to or not. That promise has to be kept no matter how small it seems. So, if you walk from point A to point B, you jag around what you have decided is a table, you have defined the length and width of that table. Until someone moves the table or destroys the table or changes the location of the scene, no one can simply plow through that empty space. That would break the promise and throw the audience out of the reality you’ve created.

Improv forces you to consider, in real time, “OK, if this is true, what else is true?” The most obvious place to apply this is world building, but it’s a question that writers need to ask about everything. For example, once I played a scene where I squinted, shaded my eyes and my first line was something like, “OMG, you’re so happy, you’re glowing. I can barely stand to look at you.” Because my body language was that of someone looking at a very bright object and because I was working with a terrific partner, he immediately recognized that the glowing was literal, not metaphorical and that he was glowing out of joy. Now, because he’s an awesome partner, he took my second sentence also for its emotional truth and considered if I can’t look at him because he is so happy, what else must be true about me? The result was this really searing scene of loss and healing that neither one of us could have anticipated from my admittedly somewhat goofy opening offer.

RS: What projects are you currently working on?

JC: Being mostly a short story writer means I’m always in the middle of writing multiple somethings but I almost never have anything in progress that I can announce. I do have a story forthcoming at Uncanny Magazine and another story in the anthology, The Mythic Dream, forthcoming from Saga. As for what I’m currently writing, I have great hopes but nothing is locked down yet.

(This interview was posted early for my patrons on Patreon. Thank you!)

Bunny Chicken

Image

Bunny Chicken is a character I drew for a role-playing game I was sketching out called Cats and Dogs Living Together.

Bunny Chicken is a muscular, black domestic shorthair. He’s five years old, weighs twelve pounds of sheer strength, and is vain about his shining fur and whiskers. He thinks of himself as Alpha, master of all he surveys. He’s genuinely tough, but he’s been tame all his life–deep down, he wouldn’t be cat enough for the mean streets. He’s smart enough to see the benefits of power, but not to worry about consequences.

(originally posted on my patreon)

Straight to the Point: What can we learn about ourselves from the world around us?

Verses of Sky & Stars: How to Write the Poetry and Science Fiction and FantasyMy online speculative poetry class, Verses of Sky & Stars, is coming up on June 9th! The class changes a little each time as the group composition does, but if you want to get a basic idea, I talk about why I like teaching it in this post from April:

As our understanding of the world grows to incorporate more science and technology, our metaphors grow to include them. The static human behavior of looking outside to understand ourselves combines with an evolving society to give us reference points that shift over time and cultures. … Science fiction wrestles with how to figure out the universe and our place in it. Poetry allows writers to focus on metaphors and internal states. Science fiction poetry can get straight to the point and ask, “What can we learn about ourselves from the world around us?”

Poetry requires intense linguistic control. Every word matters. Whether you’re a poet who wants to create fantastical verses, or a prose writer who wants to learn the finely tuned narrative power that poetry can teach, you’ll find something in this class. 

Over the course of a few brief lectures, peppered with plenty of writing exercises, we’ll discuss some common forms of speculative poetry, and the challenges they represent. I’ll also send you home with market listings, and lists great authors, poems, and books to pick up to continue your journey.

There is still time for you to join us next weekend. Enroll here at the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers

Haiku Round-up #3

Time for another round-up of my recent haiku! (Here is an explanation about why I’ve been writing and posting haiku.)

A day for walking,
but I sit and try to work.
My thoughts are so slow.

Cats watch the birds cry.
A window divides their worlds,
but watching is fun.

Clouds whiten the sky,
swaddling snug and restrictive,
the arms of autumn.

Cold drives off the bugs.
We shiver, but no bug bites
afflict our bonfire.

Brisk air on my arms.
Colder days come, and the dark,
but this day: fresh, calm.

The chilly blue skies
make the world bright as summer.
Leaves, trees, flowers, friends.

Colder than it looks.
The wind sways me with the trees.
So hard to stay still.

The leaves keep blowing,
tethered to branches and trunk,
brought short by their leash.

Dry leaves, restless wind,
all these things I’ve seen before,
trapped in recurrence.

Silly Interview with Jenna Katerin Moran, who knows what Russian servers to hack

 

Here’s me! The outfit is Miranda Harrell’s version of the clothing style for the villains (?) of my RPG, Nobilis: A Game of Sovereign Powers

Here’s my website! https://afarandasunlessland.wordpress.com/
Rachel Swirsky: You have a PhD in computer science. What made you fall in love with the subject?

Jenna Katerin Moran: We’re one of those rare Tinder success stories! You would not believe how many clunkers I had to date through to get there, though.

(Example: trossulography. Trossulography tried to have like five PhD students just in one city alone without telling any of us about one another … and it probably would have worked fine, too, except we all had to submit to the same journals.)

RS: How does your academic training in computer science affect how you write role playing games?

JKM: There are some really good discussions out there of marketing techniques, cultural trends, and American gamer purchasing habits if you know which Russian servers to hack.

RS: I’m sure you get this question all the time, but I feel like it’s pretty relevant for an audience of people who aren’t all tabletop gamers. How and why did you end up falling into writing table top RPGs?

JKM: So it was like the year 1997? Ish? I don’t know. A little before Y2K, when I would have had to get out of the field of computer science (for, like, obvious reasons) anyway. And I was looking for something good to write because, y’know, it’s not like one can stop the writing, right? I mean, one tries, right, one goes and, like, tries to pursue other careers, or, curls up in one’s closet and wails in despair, or, moves to China and tries to become a foreign pop idol—like, Jenna Starlight Sparkles; whatever—but then one has barely turned around again before discovering that one has just been writing. I mean, y’know? (It is only when one has sighed and given in and accepted that one must be a writer that there is a possibility, er, uh, probability, … near-certainty? Uh, that the words will stop.) But, anyway, so, I was looking for something good to write, and naturally I settled on pornography; only, being a … regrettably … uh, prudish? person, I had to use fairly roundabout and esoteric euphemisms for everything. Long story short, it accidentally came out as an urban fantasy roleplaying game about people with conceptual powers in a world under existential threat from the inhabitants of the beyond. (If you know what I mean, and I think you do.) Only, in fact, despite that parenthetical that I have just shared with you, hardly anybody knew what I meant, or, at least, I think they didn’t? and once it got popular, I was way, way too embarrassed to ever tell anyone. I had thought that, like, 2000-era fanfic would have sensitized people to it? You know, to, uh, roundabout euphemisms? Like, what with, you know, all that, “his melancholy duck quacked down into the shimmering epilimnion of her pond” kind of thing that was, like, the style of the time? but apparently “each player designs a player character (PC for short), one of the protagonists in the story” was just one bridge too far. So now, suddenly, instead of taking my pornography into the bedroom, people were, y’know, propping it up on the coffee table and showing it to their parents and inviting groups of friends and strangers to their houses to talk about it together and I thought suddenly, wait. What if I just did this as a business and wrote for RPGs instead?

RS: Your cat, Kennedy, prefers that you pay attention to her at all times. What do you think is her current inner monologue as you do this interview? (Illustrating with photographs is highly encouraged!)

JKM: I suspect she is wondering if she is sleeping correctly. She is wondering if, perhaps, there is some proper way of sleeping that she was meant to be practicing, but which no one has ever explicitly explained to her, only making allusions to it, talking about “catnaps,” and sleeping awkwardly in her vicinity instead, and leaving her with no recourse but to guess.

Perhaps that is why (she thinks) she is sometimes left alone, to wither and wail in her hopeless misery, while her emotional comfort hominid cavorts beyond the gates with the other cat. Perhaps her failing at proper sleeping is the reason, there—

But if that is why, it is so unfair!

It is not her fault that nobody has taught her how to sleep correctly. It is not her fault that nobody has explained how to get past the top shelf of the bookshelf to the notional higher height that she knows must, logically, exist— for it would not make sense for a mathematical series to carry itself to the top of the bookshelf and then stop— or what the exact rules as to when she may use the two litterboxes that are reserved entirely for her use, that she has access to 24/7, are. It is not her fault that the correct propitiation to the household gods to allow her to go upstairs sans incident has not been made; if the upstairs cat would just tell her what the format of that ritual is supposed to be …

But, enough dwelling on the other cat. Let us return to the puzzle of the litterboxes; as noxious a thing as they may be, still, to her they are more sweet.

It is obvious, she believes, that there must be rules as to their use, because they cannot be used by a single cat, alone. A single cat, alone, entering the litterbox, enters a kind of quantum state— nobody has ever given her a proper explanation of quantum physics, so physicists must forgive her if she gets this wrong— enters a kind of “quantum state” where one may exist, in the outside world, or one may not. Arguably, when one enters into the box, as a fully defined and differentiated entity, one ceases therewith to be. The only anodyne to this noisome quandary is witness: to be witnessed, to have independent affirmation of one’s existence, to have an external force creating continuity from one’s entrance into the box … to one’s exit. But much of the time, this warrant cannot be obtained; no witness can be pressed into service; and the litterboxes, therefore, must lie fallow: the proper rules for this are, as yet, unknown.

Outside the window, in the vaster, greater world, where monsters roam— she knows this; one presses its face against the window, sometimes, at night— there may be entities that know the rules to all such things. Outside the window, one day, if the hominids would only leave the window open at all times as she has asked them to, she may smell and hear as one such beast walks past:

A nebulous, smoke-stack figure in the distance, made of words and bleeding doctrine.

When she sees it, smells it, hears it; when the wind carries to her the shadows of its words— again, if the window has been properly left open

Then she may, finally, begin to know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

RS: What projects are you currently working on? 

JKM: My major project right now is Glitch: A Story of the Not, which is an RPG about surprisingly relatable evil gods who don’t actually know what they’re doing with their lives but are pretty sure that it shouldn’t actually be bringing an end to everything like they had previously thought. I guess the central thesis of the game is something like, “So, there’s an intrinsic universal characteristic of suffering— what do you do?” Only, unlike some RPGs, you can’t then roll for initiative against the intrinsic universal characteristic of suffering, because Glitch uses a cost-based system instead of dice.

Queued up behind that is A Book of Golden Hours, which represents a quixotic effort to break character arcs down into eight basic stories, split that again based on whether the character is getting cooperation, active interference, or neither from the world, and turn the result into twenty-four character classes with powers abstract and high-level enough that each can actually handle the roughly 4% of fictional characters that they wind up representing. It’s not just an RPG supplement, it’s also a unique work of orphic cubist literary criticism!

Then there’s Adventures on the Far Roofs, which is about fighting god-monsters with heroic talking rats at your side up on the rooftops out where the roofs start to blend together until you can’t be sure there are actually any houses underneath. That one’s been written for a long time, but it uses content from A Book of Golden Hours so it can’t come first.

For my patreon consumers I’ve been building a campaign—a set of pre-made characters and stories—for my game, the Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine RPG. I’ve also lately been sharing a mildly updated version of an old cyberpunk setting of mine. Those’ll both be wanting to go into print sometime after they’re done.

Finally, I have a novel—the Night-Bird’s Feather—that’s gone temporarily back into editing at the moment after some new reader feedback. It’s a book of stories about cross-time dream magic and the mental origins of valuation. I’m really excited about it!

Oh, and tonight I was thinking of making soup?

OK, that’s all.

Learn the Rules Before You Break Them. Or Don’t.

I’m teaching my class on how to break the rules on Saturday, May 25th. Rules can put fiction in a box; let’s talk about ways to explode out of it.

There’s an old adage: Learn the rules before you break them.

I grew up with that rule. I learned it for the first time in an art class when I was probably still in single age digits. My art teacher painted abstracts, but her classes were aimed at giving children a strong grounding in composition and sketching. Why? Because we needed to know the rules before we went searching for our own styles of breaking them.

I like this rule. It’s a good rule. It’s generally useful.

And you should feel free to break it.

The thing is: if you insist that everyone know the rules before breaking them, you end up smothering a lot of innovation. Not all innovation! Many people are quite capable of learning rules and then doing completely strange and new things afterward.

But remember people like the outsider artists. The ones who, knowing nothing about what’s going on in the broader conversation of their art, pursue (usually) obsessive projects with their own ideas and aesthetics they’ve grown from the ground up.

Their stuff is weird and often unsettling and I think we would be poorer without it.

I also see plenty of students and young or new writers breaking rules without seeming to realize that’s what they’re doing, or what the rule is they’re breaking, or why it’s there. Usually, that fails. Think about evolution — most significant mutations aren’t beneficial, and may even be fatal. But every once in a while, one is amazing.

I’m not sure if Lily Yu knew all the rules when she wrote “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” but it’s an absolutely amazing story that breaks a ridiculous number of rules. It’s beautiful, and it’s stirring, and it’s unique. It’s one of the best stories in the past decade. It established Lily as a passionate, brilliant writer all in a single swoop. Do you know how unusual that is? (You probably do!) It’s not uncommon for people to become lightning strikes with a single novel–but for a single short story to provide that much light and electricity? Totally shocking. A wonderful black swan.

While I was still trying to learn the rules as fast and as well as I could, there was often a freedom to my writing which is much more restricted now. Now, when I’m writing, and I’m trying to figure out to do, I can list the traditional options, I can elucidate the rules governing the situation, and why they work, and the usual ways of breaking them–and the consequences thereof. I pick the one that makes most sense for me. All very tidy.

Before, I had to grab at something uncertain. Maybe it was the right tool for the job–the one I’d use now–or maybe it wasn’t. Sometimes when you write with the wrong tools, you find that you’ve made something beautifully unexpected, something you couldn’t even have predicted in yourself. Things you don’t intend can evolve into wildness, into tangles, into novelty.

If you watch reality shows, think about the unconventional materials challenges. Clothing designs made out of candy, or seatbelts, are often the best outfits of the season. The hairdressers, assigned to use hedge clippers, figure out ways to work around it.

There’s always someone complaining that it’s unreasonable to be expected to make a dress out of candy. At home, they know the rules. If they want to make a dress, they’re going to use the right material. It’s flowing so it will be jersey, or it needs the nap of velvet, or the shine of silk.

Sometimes when the rules aren’t yet deep down in your body, when you don’t know that you should search the fabric store for the shiniest silk — sometimes, you grab the cellophane instead.

And most of the time it’s going to be awkward and unattractive.

And sometimes, you’re going to make a cellophane dress that will dazzle the runway.

Writers who know all the rules might still choose to make a cellophane dress. If they’re very good at this sort of thing, it might still have the sense of unexpected freedom as the dress made by the person who ended up with cellophane because they didn’t understand fabric yet. But ultimately, the art of someone fumbling to explore, and the art of someone aiming at their goals with precision, don’t usually look the same.

I want dresses made of cellophane. I want Lily Yu to take my breath away with possibilities I hadn’t imagined. I also want to read the older Lily, too, the one who writes now with a sharper breadth of knowledge–because she’s amazing. But I wouldn’t trade away her earlier stories.

So, it’s useful to know the rules before you break them. It’s a good guideline. But sometimes, by breaking the rule you didn’t even know was there, by wandering the path less traveled by, you can find something astonishing.

(Here, again, is the link to my class: www.kittywumpus.net/blog/breaking-the-rules-with-rachel-swirsky/)

Zippy

Zippy is a character I drew for a role-playing game I was sketching out called Cats and Dogs Living Together.

When she’s full grown, Zippy will fit in a teacup. At three months old, she’s even smaller. She’s noisy, playful, and brimming with energy. Sometimes she gets so excited wriggling in circles that she forgets to use her legs and falls down. (Sometimes she forgets to control her bladder, too.) She’s whip-smart, and learns new things quickly–including tricks, a surprising number of human words, and bad habits.

(originally posted on my Patreon)