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Short Fiction: “Marsh Gods”

Remember I said that a good deal of my short fiction career involved my learning to write to shorter and shorter lengths? This is true–up to a certain point (not long past this story, in fact) you can (more or less) put most of my work in chronological order just by arranging them by descending word count. (Once I hit 300 words I figured I’d achieved what I wanted, and began just writing various lengths.)

Anyway. I was quite proud of myself when I finished “Marsh Gods.” Four thousand words! Go me! And then, to top it all off, I sold it to Strange Horizons, which I’d kept getting very nice rejections from and wanted to sell to really badly.

So, for your enjoyment, “Marsh Gods.” Like nearly everything I sold at the time, it’s set in the universe I’d begun building in “The God of Au” and continued to use in “The Nalendar.”

Voud had escaped the house before dawn, climbing up the ladder and onto the roof, across the neighbors’ roofs and down to the edge of the water, where she had caught three decent-sized frogs. She had tried but failed to catch a fourth, the bullfrog she’d heard honking hoarsely away somewhere on the bank; her sister-in-law Ytine would be dismayed at her muddy tunic, but there was no help for it. Now, her prey struggling in her bag, she went to ask the gods a question.
 
It was late enough in summer that she could go on foot, over the causeway. The shore of the gods’ island was muddy and cypress-shaded, but as she climbed, the trees cleared. At the edge of the trees, she stopped and dropped her bag on the ground. “I have questions,” she called. “Frogs for answers!” Insects trilled; the frustratingly elusive bullfrog honked. Voud sat on her heels—it didn’t pay to be impatient with gods—and watched the sky lighten.

Edited to add: Wilson Fowlie has kindly supplied a link to Podcastle’s audio version of the story: “Marsh Gods” at Podcastle

Short Fiction: “The God of Au”

The God of Au” is the first story I wrote in what eventually became its own fantasy universe. I wrote it, as I said in an earlier blog post, aimed at an anthology that wanted fantasy stories about war, religion, and political intrigue. As often happens I ended up instead with a fantasy story about volcanoes and giant squid. Sort of.

I had difficulty selling it–it’s nearly thirteen thousand words long, which is a length that’s difficult to place even in the best of circumstances. But I’d put a lot of work into the world, and when the occasion presented to aim another fantasy story at another anthology, I used the framework I’d already built for “The God of Au.” I’ve continued to use that universe for fantasy stories, it’s been pretty useful and fun.

I sold three or four stories in this universe before I sold “The God of Au” to Helix. Which is a publication that is no longer with us, for better or for worse. The story currently appears at Transcriptase, which archives a number of Helix stories. If you’re curious how and why that happened, there are links on the Transcriptase site.

But! “The God of Au.”

The Fleet of the Godless came to the waters around Au by chance. It was an odd assortment of the refugees of the world; some had deliberately renounced all gods, some had offended one god in particular. A few were some god’s favorites that another, rival god had cursed. But most were merely the descendants of the original unfortunates and had never lived any other way.
 
There were six double-hulled boats, named, in various languages, Bird of the Waves, Water Knife, O Gods Take Pity, Breath of Starlight, Righteous Vengeance, and Neither Land Nor Water. (This last was the home of a man whose divine enemy had pronounced that henceforth he should live on neither land nor water. Its two shallow hulls and the deck between them were carefully lined with soil, so that as it floated on the waves it would be precisely what its name declared.) For long years they had wandered the world, pursued by their enemies, allies of no one. Who would shelter them and risk the anger of gods? Who, even had they wished to, could protect them?

Also at Transcriptase, and linked in the sidebar of “The God of Au,” is my story “The Snake’s Wife.” I sold TSW before I sold TGoA, though I wrote it quite some time later. I think it’s a very good story, personally, but I don’t plan to link to it directly here. If you’re interested in reading it, you can find it in the sidebar, but I want to say up front that “The Snake’s Wife” should have All the Content Warnings on it. Just so you know.

Short Fiction: Night’s Slow Poison

If you’ve been reading my blog a while, you probably already know about this story, but I suspect I’ve picked up some new readers, so.

Remember last time I linked to a short story, I said that my first few pieces of short fiction had been SF? “Night’s Slow Poison” is one of them. I wrote the first draft while I was at Clarion West. In the first week, two of my classmates had turned in stories titled “Crawlspace.” They were very different stories, but the coincidence amused us, and for a while there was a running joke that all of us should turn in stories with that title. “Or,” someone suggested at one point, “Spacecrawl.” The suggestion was made that this would involve lots of creepy alien bugs maybe. “Or,” I said, “you could…” and then stopped, because the idea of The Crawl had suddenly built itself in my mind, and it seemed full of story possibility. “Oh!” exclaimed a classmate, “Ann’s just had an idea!”

I had. It took me a week or two to work out, and the first draft was full of problems, but there was a lot there that I liked. Eventually I revised it to my satisfaction and started sending it out, but for a very long time I couldn’t sell it. This made me sad, because I was quite fond of it, but that’s the breaks, that’s how writing goes.*

Then, finally, it sold to Electric Velocipede, edited by John Klima. EV had been on my list of venues I really wanted to sell to for a while, so I was super happy about that. EV is, sadly, no longer with us.

Last year, Tor.com reprinted it.

The Jewel of Athat was mainly a cargo ship, and most spaces were narrow and cramped. Like the Outer Station, where it was docked, it was austere, its decks and bulkheads scuffed and dingy with age. Inarakhat Kels, armed, and properly masked, had already turned away one passenger, and now he stood in the passageway that led from the station to the ship, awaiting the next.

When I submitted this to Strange Horizons, way back when, the (very nice) rejection included a mention of the tea vondas–a creature in the story—saying the name made the editor think too strongly of Vonda McIntyre. And well it should have. At the first week’s Friday night Clarion West party, the first person I met was a very nice lady who offered a bag of crocheted…scrunchy things.** “Take one,” she said, “I make them for the students every year.” How nice, I thought, and chose a white one with red edging, and thanked her, and she went off to offer her gifts to some other students.

A classmate came up to me and said, very quietly, “That was Vonda McIntyre.” And I nearly fell over. I had just been in the presence of Vonda McIntyre! Unconquered Sun!

So when I needed a creature for my story–and fast–I looked up from my desk and saw…my scrunchy thing. “Okay,” I said. “But what will I call it?” And so I found myself with the vondas of the story. I kept it, when I revised. Because.

“Night’s Slow Poison” is set in the Radchaai universe though not (at the time of the story) in Radch space. Readers will likely recognize a few placenames.

*I did have to change the title, of course. I’d turned it in to the workshop as “Spacecrawl.” (The same week, I think, as S. Hutson Blount turned in his story titled “Spacecrawl.” He sold his “Spacecrawl” to Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, far sooner than I sold mine.) I quite like the new title, actually, but I still think of it as “Spacecrawl.”

**If you crocheted a couple chains and joined them to make a loop, and then made twelve or so double crochets in that loop and joined them, to make a flat circle, and then each round made two dc in each dc so that it got all curvy and ruffly instead of flat, you would have something that was nearly identical to my red and white scrunchy thing.

Short Fiction: “The Nalendar”

So, the first short stories I wrote were pretty much all science fiction of one sort or another. I thought maybe I just wasn’t much of a fantasy writer, though I do like to read fantasy, quite a lot. But then a friend of mine pointed out an anthology call for submissions that wanted fantasy stories involving war, religion, and political intrigue. “Ann, if that doesn’t have your name on it, I don’t know what to say,” my friend told me.

So I sat down and did some serious considering. And in the end, I came up with “The God of Au,” which was way too long for nearly anyone and didn’t quite fit the call anyway. (It is kind of typical of my process that I started off with the intention of writing war and political intrigue and ended up with volcanoes and giant squid.) That bad boy took a while to sell, but I was proud of it, and it was still sitting unsold in my inventory when I saw the call for the newly revived Sword and Sorceress.

I wrote “The Nalendar” in the same universe I had already begun to establish in “The God of Au” but, of course, a very different part of it. And I managed to keep it down to about eight thousand words–the guidelines had given nine thousand as the upper limit, so I was pretty proud of myself. (Much of my short fiction career involved working very hard to learn to write to shorter and shorter lengths, so this was a milestone for me.)

The editor bounced it back to me saying they couldn’t buy a story that long but if I would cut it down to five thousand, they would take another look.

That puzzled me, because it was under the stated maximum–but hey, the editor gets to make the call, and Mithras help me, I was going to cut the story down.

When I was done, I felt like it was kind of lifeless and bleeding, but I sent it off anyway. And immediately found myself hoping the editor wouldn’t buy it. That was a revelatory moment for me–I hadn’t thought it would bother me much how good I thought a story was, that I could ever not be happy to have anything at all published so long as it got me money and a publication credit.

Thankfully, the editor didn’t buy the story. And I went on to sell the original, full length version to Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, which I’d been hoping to sell to for a while, so it was all good. The story has been reprinted recently in Uncanny Magazine. So, have some light Monday morning reading!
 

Down at the riverfront at Kalub, the little gods congregated in clouds, flies and dragonflies and even small birds approaching would–be travelers. They scattered out of the way of wagons and carts, circled over the flagstoned road and then re–formed. Umri walked through them, careful not to jostle or hit. The citizens of Kalub paid deference to a host of more powerful gods, including the river itself, but it was wise to be wary of even these tiny things.
 
A small bird lit on her shoulder. “Take me with you, I’ll see you safely to your destination!” it chirped.
 
“No thank you,” said Umri, “I’m seeing someone off.” The tiny brown bird cocked its head, eyeing the bag in her hand, but flew off without saying more.


 

Short Fiction: Hesperia and Glory

I did this a while ago on Tumblr, made some weekly posts about my old short fiction, and a recent tweet reminded me that a lot of my readers aren’t aware of most of the short fiction I’ve had published. Which, I mean, if you’re not into short fiction, cool, scroll by, but just in case you are interested, well.

So, my very first SF&F sale was a story called “Hesperia and Glory” which appeared in issue number four of Subterranean Magazine. It was guest-edited by John Scalzi, so, yes, he was my very first editor. The entire issue was made freely available as a pdf, which is where that link goes. There’s a lot of good stuff there, including Rachel Swirsky’s first SF&F sale!

(My first ever sale ever was a story to True Confessions. It wasn’t spec fic, and since stories in TC were supposedly ONE HUNDRED PERCENT TRUE writers didn’t get a byline and all names in the ms were changed before publication. Trust me, you’re not interested in reading it.)

Anyway. Hesperia. I knew that John Scalzi was guest-editing an issue of Subterranean, with “science fiction cliches” as the theme. So while I was at Clarion West, I pounded out a draft and turned it in for the final week of the workshop. It had, at the time, the brilliant title “Help I Need A Title.”

Michael Swanwick was our instructor that week. Now, he put a huge amount of energy into teaching. Seriously, I don’t know how he did it. He read everything we’d submitted for the entire six weeks, plus our application stories, and gave us extensive comments on all of it. What a gift, right? It was amazing. And he had lots of things to say about my story for the week. All of which I duly noted down because I am no fool–if Michael Swanwick is going to give me writing advice I am damn well going to take it.

On the way home I was thinking hard about how to apply his advice, when I suddenly realized that in fact all the advice he’d given me was wrong.

See, he’d misread my story. (It was, as all my first drafts are, pretty awful, so that was no one’s fault but mine.) And he’d given me all that advice based on that misreading. But it took me several days and a long train trip to realize that. And to realize that what I needed to do was to re-write it in such a way that Michael Swanwick would not misread it.

Yeah, that took me some time, and some amount of banging my head on the desk, but eventually I ended up with “Hesperia and Glory,” buffed it all to hell, and sent it off. And nearly died of delighted shock when I got an acceptance back. Nearly died of shock a second time when Rich Horton asked to put it in his Years Best antho for that year.

In a lot of ways, that was one of the most important lessons I learned at Clarion West, and one I’m exceedingly grateful to Michael for teaching me–that all the best advice in the world (and trust me, it was fabulous advice for the story I appeared to have written) isn’t useful if it’s not for your story. And that in the end it’s you, the writer, who has to make that call.

So, “Hesperia and Glory.”
 

Dear Mr. Stephens,
 
It is entirely understandable that you should wish a full accounting of the events of the last week of August of this year. If nothing else, your position as Mr. John Atkins’ only living relative entitles you to an explanation.
 
I must begin by making two points perfectly clear. The first is quite simple. The account you have read in the papers, and no doubt also received from the chief of police of this town, is entirely false.
 
My second point is this: there is not now, nor has there ever been, a well in my cellar.

 

If you’re into audio, you can hear it read at Escape Pod.

So, a lot of people have already weighed in on the brief twitterburst the other day, when Neil Gaiman, in a well-intended tweet encouraging folks to apply to Clarion, made an unfortunate choice of words. The things I’d have said first off have mostly been said. (Disclaimer–I went to Clarion West in 2005 and found it to be a transformative experience. It is, however, not for everyone, not necessarily good for everyone who applies or attends, and not a possible choice for everyone who might want it or benefit from it.)

In the followup to that, though, I’ve seen a few comments about how the original tweet was obviously hyperbole and people were overreacting and mobbing Gaiman and it was just another example of pointless twitter outrage.

So. For starters, Gaiman? Can safely ignore most of what went down on Twitter in the past few days. He stands in a position of amazing privilege on that score (and on several others, but those aren’t at issue right now).

But many of the people speaking out the other day cannot safely ignore Gaiman. His status is such that even casual statements of his carry weight. And writing (at least, writing fiction, at least, among the writers I know, which at this point is a considerable number) is fraught with all sorts of anxieties. I don’t know many writers who aren’t neurotic about their writing in some way, and the rest are probably just hiding it well.

You develop different ways to cope with those anxieties–you have to. You have to have some kind of psychological defense against rejection, and eventually, if you’re lucky, bad reviews. You have to find some way to persevere in the face of constant apparent failure, because it can take years, sometimes decades, from first sitting down to write seriously until your first sale. You have to find some way to continue on in the face of writers who sell in their first couple of years out, who hit big with their first novel, while you’re still typing away with, you think (possibly incorrectly–keyword: neurotic) little to show for it, and what do they have that you don’t?

One of the handiest ways to do this is to assign whatever rejections/bad reviews you can to the Inconsequential bin. “That’s one reviewer, what do they know?” or “That’s just one story hitting one editor at the wrong time.”

There are people (or particular submission situations) that are difficult if not impossible to assign to that bin, though. Your personal heroes. People of very high status in the field. Prestigious publications or workshops. Much, much harder to say those rejections or negative comments mean nothing, when they’re so widely vested with such significance. Any given writer’s cry of protest at one of those doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t take rejection or bad reviews generally, or don’t have the fortitude to deal with life as a writer. It means that this particular situation is beyond the edge of where they can currently pretend it doesn’t matter.

I’m at a place now where I can consign nearly anything to the Insignificant bin. One star reviews at goodreads or amazon? If I happen to see them, they generally make me laugh. On the rare occasion that a negative comment does truly get under my skin, I can dry my tears with the cloth I use to dust my awards, and console myself with a stop for ice cream on the way to the bank to deposit my royalty checks. I can afford to be amused at most things I see, and pay no attention to any of it unless I want to. It would take a disparaging remark from one of my personal heroes to cause any noticeable pain.

Three or four years ago this would not have been the case. Three or four years ago a couple of close-timed rejections could leave me contemplating giving up. And I had it easier than many–my whole family, from when I was small, had encouraged me to write and constantly validated the idea that I could be a writer. I had a degree from a fairly prestigious university and no debt from that degree (because my parents were employees at that university). I grew up speaking a prestige dialect of American English. I had (still have!) a super-supportive husband with a decently-paying job. My children were (and Mithras willing will continue to be) both healthy. I myself have so far been able-bodied, and not in need of much (if any) help or accommodation. And with all that, it was hard.

Imagine if I’d had even more piled on. A family, maybe, who didn’t understand or care about or actively opposed my wanting to write. Bigger financial difficulties. Health problems, or family members who needed my constant attendance and care. What if I lived outside the US?

What if, on top of all of it, a writer I looked up to, with very high status in the field, quite casually said that I NEEDED something to be a writer that I knew I could never have?

Yeah.

Now, Gaiman has no obligation to worry about the emotional states of every new or struggling writer. He can quite easily ignore a day’s cloudburst on twitter. But a lot of struggling or aspiring writers? Can’t ignore him as easily. And by speaking, they send a message to other, silent folks on the sidelines–don’t let this stop you, do your best to put this tweet in your Insignificant bin, keep writing.

This is, by the way, part of the reason I absolutely despise the “discourage aspiring writers, because if they’re really writers they’ll write anyway” thing. Who the fuck is anyone to decide who is or isn’t meant to be a writer, who does or doesn’t want it badly enough? Fuck that. It’s hard enough in the best of circumstances, nobody needs that extra noise. Help where you can, and let people decide for themselves. But that’s a whole other rant, and I have things to do today.

The Poetics of Science Fiction and being paid by the word

I found The Poetics of Science Fiction on academia.edu and downloaded it and am mostly enjoying it and learning things from it.

Stopping to note, though, the section on Pulpstyle, which is actually pretty cool and illuminating in a few ways (specifically comments about the use and effects of particular pulpy techniques). But then–

More noticeable than these stock lexical variations are adverbial qualifications to reporting-clause verbs. This addition of adverbials helped the pulp writer to earn an extra few half-cents. Characters rarely just say or sigh or mutter something; they do it „meditatively‟, „savagely‟, „bitterly‟, „softly‟, „curtly‟, „briskly‟, „carefully‟, „doubtfully‟, „uncomfortably‟, „profoundly‟, „heavily‟, „dispassionately‟, „beatifically‟, „urgently‟, „tiredly‟, „unhappily‟, „drily‟, „unsympathetically‟, and so on. Even more profitably, pulp writers often expanded adverbial qualification into an entire extended phrase, so characters do things „hurriedly and efficiently‟, „slowly and thoughtfully‟, „extending his arms in a similar gesture‟, „in Rod Blake‟s voice‟, „between a cough and a sneeze‟, „sighting the ion-gun at the nine flapping, rapidly vanishing things scuttling across the red dusty planet‟, and so on.

Now, this stylistic feature is inarguably part of the described style. He goes on to quote a few sentences:

Blake stared. He stared with steady blank gaze at that perfectly impossible Japanese maple. He gawked dumbly.

[…]

Rod Blake sat down and laughed. He laughed, and laughed again.

[…]

“Let’s move.”

They moved. They moved hastily back across the sand dunes to the ship.

The author here explains this as a product of the writers wanting to make more money–they were, after all, being paid by the word, and therefore had no incentive to be efficient, and on the contrary plenty of incentive to pad things out.

Here’s the thing. Publications that pay by the word don’t generally just want huge-ass manuscripts. They have upper limits–either explicitly stated in their guidelines, or unstated but definitely influencing what they’re likely to buy and publish. When you’re writing for such a publication, there’s no percentage in needlessly padding out your story for a couple extra cents. In my experience, you’re far more likely to be ruthlessly economizing, slashing whatever you can to fit your story in the amount of space you have.

And speaking just from my own experience, these examples don’t sound like deliberate padding to me. They sound like hurried writing. In fact, they all remind me very much of the more egregious examples on display in the work of Lionel Fanthorpe, who rather notoriously wrote whole novels over a period of days, hundreds in the space of a few years, mostly by, from what I can tell, free-associating into a tape recorder and passing that off to someone else to type out.

And I gather the writers for these pulps weren’t making their money on the extra cent or two in every ms–they were making it by sending out as many stories as they could to as many magazines as would buy their work. They had to write quickly and efficiently–no long and careful polishing for the successful pulp writer!

And editors aren’t–weren’t–stupid. They had a certain amount of money to spend, a certain number of pages to fill, and readers to satisfy. The whole “it was so long because he was paid by the word” thing is just foolish–the editor would reject it or if you were lucky cut it down or demand you cut it down to within acceptable limits. And the result needed to be something the magazine’s readership would probably enjoy, or at least enjoy enough to be willing to buy the next issue, otherwise the magazine would lose readers and hence advertising dollars.

No, those repetitions and extra words are more likely due to super-fast writing, by people who weren’t (yet, or ever destined to be) very good writers, who were typing on paper that cost them money to begin with and a fair amount of effort to make corrections on, and who had a pressing need to finish the story and get a new blank page onto the platen ASAP.

Seriously, I’m enjoying this book, but I do wish the “it’s padded out because they were paid by the word” thing would be seen for the foolishness it is.

2015

This has been a pretty excellent year for me! When I list the stuff of mine that’s been published, it doesn’t look like a lot. But I did a lot this year!

First and foremost, of course, Ancillary Mercy came out. It finishes the trilogy, though I’m not done with that universe, which is a nice large one and suitable for nearly anything I feel like doing in.

Ancillary Mercy has gotten a lot of nice reviews, and much to my delighted amazement it hit the New York Times Best Seller List. It is, of course, available at fine booksellers everywhere. But none of that is news to regular readers of this blog.

Also published this year, the novelette “Another Word for World” in the anthology Future Visions. You should be able to download the antho for free at that link. The story is also going to be reprinted in a few Years Best anthologies, including Neil Clarke’s new entry into the YB field and the volume edited by Gardner Dozois. There… might be another one but I haven’t seen that ToC announced yet, so.

Also published in 2015 (but not for the first time) Uncanny Magazine reprinted my fantasy story “The Nalendar”, which originally appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine in 2008.

And Forever Magazine reprinted “The Endangered Camp,” which first appeared in Clockwork Phoenix 2 in 2008.

Other things that happened this year: Ancillary Sword won the BSFA! That was super exciting, actually. I figured most voters, no matter how much they liked Sword, would figure I got more than enough recognition last year. And to be entirely honest, that’s a completely valid position to hold. I was super chuffed at the nomination. And that wasn’t all–Sword was nominated for the Nebula and the Hugo as well! And the Hugo nom–well, that was in circumstances that made it clear that a flattering number of readers had a very high opinion of it. So I got to enjoy the Nebs and the Hugos in a very low-stress way–I was pretty sure my book wasn’t going to win–and to happily applaud the results of both.

I went on an actual tour! Thankfully Orbit sent me along with Greg Bear, whose book Killing Titan came out the same day as Mercy. I cannot tell you how glad I am of that. Greg and Astrid were great fun to travel with, and on top of that I got to tour with someone who’d done it before and knew how it all went. I got to meet lots of readers, some of whom gave me lovely gifts in addition to just being their wonderful selves. It was exhausting but wonderful.

I was an actual invited GoH at ICON! I meant to write a post just about ICON and what a great time I had. They took fabulous care of me, everything went wonderfully and I had a great weekend. I met quite a few people I had wanted to meet in person for a while, met even more people who I hadn’t known I wanted to meet but absolutely did, and it was just a lovely convention all around.

I haven’t been keeping the blog post with the list of translations of Ancillary Justice up to date, and I really need to. Quite a few were published in the last year, including Japanese, which came out just a few weeks ago and I gather has already gone for a second printing.

And there’s fanfic! I don’t read the fanfic, but I have to admit that I check the number every now and then. It’s up to fifty-four! And there’s fan art.

So, all in all a really exciting and wonderful year! Much of it due to my readers, who are fabulous. Honestly I can’t thank you all enough.

I will leave you with this holiday-appropriate Origami Tauroctony that my daughter made quite a few years ago:

OrigamiTauroctony

Happy Dies Natalis Solis Invicti!

What do you read, my lord?

This is partially a writing advice post, and partially the beginnings of an answer to several questions I frequently receive about my work.

So what I want to talk about is word choice. One of (several) common problems I saw in slush, back when I was reading slush, was iffy word choices. That is, words that are dictionary-correct, but wrong for the context.

At least some folks will take issue with my having said that. “Ann, if the definition is correct then how can it be the wrong word?”

Obviously the wrongness of the choice doesn’t lie within the dictionary definition. But what a word means isn’t confined to its dictionary definitions.

The thing is, we mostly don’t learn our vocabularies by reading dictionaries. We learn words by hearing people talk, and by reading. When we were babies, we learned by hearing others around us talk, and watching what they did while they were talking, and by repeating things and discovering that particular words would elicit particular reactions. So one of the ways words mean things is by their associations–with real objects, with other words, with the circumstances in which we first heard or read those words, or the circumstances and context in which we often or nearly always hear those words. For most of the words we use on a daily basis, and quite a few others we use a bit less often, the most painstakingly accurate dictionary definitions are nothing more than schematics of our experience of their meaning. Indeed, the dictionary definitions are derived from those experiences and associations, not the other way around.

This is one of the reasons, by the way, that incautious use of a thesaurus can lead a writer astray. There aren’t actually any real synonyms–that is, you can’t just freely replace any instance of “purse” with “receptacle” even though the thesaurus lists them as synonyms.

Anyway. For most of us, we don’t experience words as distillations of their dictionary definitions, but as a set of associations. If I say “table” you’ve got some idea of what a table is, formed either by your personal experience with tables, or ideal cultural images of tables. Or, more likely, both. If I say “operating table” you get another very specific image, likely formed by movies or TV unless you work in the medical profession or have a lot of experience with healthcare.

Let’s imagine I’ve written a story with, oh, science fictional tables that do things. Like, oh, a Star Trek kind of replicator table. Or, really, it doesn’t matter. What matters is, in this scene there are several tables, but only one of them works. Now we write this sentence:

She put the tray of tools on the operating table.

Let’s even grant that context has been sufficiently established–yes, the reader understands that we’re in a table repair shop, and that all the other tables in the room do not, in fact, work. Still, that phrase, operating table is going to pull up associations that are entirely inappropriate for the scene. I’m not trying to associate my replicator tables with surgery (I might want that, on another occasion, but not this time).

The dictionary definition of “operating” will not help me here. I need another word. Or another set of actions. (Even “working table” might not be best–is it that the table works, or that it’s a table for working on? Dictionary definition says “absolutely correct.” Actually reading the sentence says “ambiguous meaning.” You can spend quite some time settling on the best sentence to describe this action. Personally, I think one ought to spend that time, and personally I aim to reduce that sort of ambiguity wherever I find it, or make sure that when it’s there, I mean it to be. Your work, though, your call.)

So, it’s extremely important to be aware of the associations words have, because your reader is going to be experiencing those as they read. And you can get a lot of mileage out of choosing the word with the right association. If our table story were, say, a horror story in which a character was going to be disassembled by a replicator table, then “She put the tools on the operating table” might be exactly the sentence I want, to set some associations ringing right away. Or maybe not, right? Maybe that would still be clumsy. The only way to know is to think about how it might or might not work for me, if I were the reader.

Which brings me to my next point. Our ideas about what words mean, and the associations words have for us, are all a product of our personal histories–our families, our families’ in-jokes and private conversational tics, where and how we went to school, the version of English that dominated where we grew up, the books we read, the shows or songs we’ve seen and heard, the kinds of things our friends talk about. There is no universal experience of a word. You can mostly (mostly) rely on really common words, that most of us use every day. Most people will have the same (or same enough) set of associations with the word “table.” Being aware of those common associations, paying attention to them and choosing words accordingly, will get you part of the way, keep you from the clumsiest of missteps.

But you want more than that. Right? The problem is, not all your readers will have the same set of associations.

The most obvious example of this is one I tried explaining to my daughter, years ago, when I was telling her that words are like plants–the word itself is leaves and flowers, but its roots under the soil are entangled with other roots, and you can’t pull on the flower without also tugging on those other plants. In the right circumstances, you can say one word and your listener will hear some of those others more or less faintly in the background. “In the right context,” I said, “if you say the word spice to a science fiction reader, they will instantly think of sandworms. ” She was dubious.

A while later, we were walking somewhere and were talking about water and rain, and walked past a bakery, they must have been making fruit pies, or cinnamon rolls, or something, because there was a delicious waft of cinnamon and cloves, and I said, “Ooh, I smell spice.” Without meaning it to happen, the memory of Dune came to my mind. And my daughter said, “Mom! That thing with the words, it just happened!”

Of course, she’d read Dune. If she hadn’t, she wouldn’t have had that same experience I’d just had. I could have said “Ooh, I smell spice!” to my mother-in-law, and (lovely mother-in-law though she is) she would have had no reaction, or only thought about food.

So, this is my point–the language we speak isn’t like a programming language, where definitions are set and meaning follows an absolutely logical sequence and there’s some perfectly logical way to decode the meaning of any word or sentence. (No one has actually died in the shower from not being able to exit the loop on the back of the shampoo bottle. Indeed, the joke is funny because it never has and never would happen, because human languages don’t work like computer languages.) The dictionary definitions of words are only the surface of what they mean–but what’s below that surface is different from person to person, even if some meanings are common to some groups of people.

As a writer, your work is to some extent made more difficult by this. But if you turn it around and look at it as a tool to be used, you can get some really cool effects from it. Just, not every reader is going to be in a position to experience the effect. But that’s all right, that’s just life. That’s how it is.

The writing advice here is, think very carefully about the resonances and associations of even common words, while you write. Be sure the echoes of your words are the ones you want. Always remembering, of course, that some readers won’t hear them at all or will hear different ones, but that can’t be helped.

The answer to the questions about my work? Well, if a dictionary-correct word isn’t producing the set of associations I want, I’m going to either try to manipulate the context so that it’s closer to what I want (by, say, using other words in immediately previous sentences to prime the association I’m after), or choose a different one. So if you’ve wondered why I chose one word and not another, that would be why.

What the Reader Wants

Hey, I haven’t posted any writing advice in a while! And what with one thing and another, there’s a particular issue I’ve been pondering.

Sometimes–this happened to me more when I hung out at various online crit-group type places–I’ll see someone advise writers that they need to make things digestible for the reader. They need to follow reader expectations, because otherwise the reader won’t like the story. The advice was rarely so general. It usually took very specific forms. Don’t write something that requires some sort of previous knowledge! Or, don’t use long, obscure words! Don’t use complicated sentence structures! Don’t violate plot expectations! (Make sure there’s a romance/happy ending/three act structure/whatever.) Don’t use second person! Don’t use present tense! Don’t use omni, readers think it’s headhopping! Whatever.

It all boils down to “Don’t challenge the reader. The reader wants the story to go down easily, and be exactly what they expect it to be.”

Here’s the problem with that: what reader are you talking about?

For a specific example, I once workshopped a story that included a silly joke about Occam’s Razor. One critiquer complained that I should not be including obscure stuff like that in my story, and they knew it was obscure because they had never heard of it. I pointed them to the wiki entry and was told that not everyone cared much about religion and I should just leave that kind of stuff out.

Now, the joke was stupid. It was not my best story. But Occam’s Razor? Obscure? Occam’s Razor is not obscure. At least not in the circles I tend to hang with.

But of course, I bet if I went into the grocery store right now and asked everyone who came through the doors all day about Occam’s Razor, there’d be a bunch of folks who’d never heard of it. I bet bunches of them would be readers, too.

And there are readers who actively enjoy complicated sentence structures, second person, unusual narrative choices, challenging reading. Now, granted, you’ll probably sell more copies if you write like Dan Brown (and if you can hit on the combination of anti-Catholocism, pseudo-history, and Biblically-connected conspiracy theory he did. Please don’t get me started ranting on that topic). And if that’s your aim, well, you know, go for it.

But that is not the only way to please readers. A healthy chunk of readers want something more. Hell, a healthy chunk of readers want a lot more. And you probably won’t retire to your own island providing it, but you can do pretty well. It’s nice work, if you can get it.

Not all readers are the same. I know there are folks out there who just will not believe this, but some readers genuinely enjoy things you might think are “pretentious” or unreadable or whatever. Their taste is different. No, really, they actually enjoyed that. The writer was not trying to show how clever they were in writing it, they were just writing for a set of readers that does not include you. Which is fine! Nothing wrong with being (or not being) part of any particular intended audience.

It’s also, by the way, an actual impossibility to write a story that doesn’t require some kind of previous knowledge. Well, maybe Dr Seuss managed it. Maybe. Even Goodnight Moon is written for someone who’s got some kind of knowledge already in place. It would be a mess of incomprehensible syllables and images otherwise. (It probably is to a fair percentage of its intended audience, at least for a few months until they get a handle on things like bedtime and balloons and bears and chairs.) And while there are probably things large numbers of readers are likely to be familiar with, that will never be all readers.

I think there’s a kind of weird tendency to assume that one is, oneself, the baseline default sort of human. (I would, in a less charitable mood, suggest certain types of people are more liable to this assumption than others, but let’s leave that be for now.) And that if one likes something, everyone else must like it because of course it’s good or one wouldn’t like it! And if one doesn’t like it, of course it’s bad, and anyone who says they do like it is lying about it so they can seem hip and with it.

This is not the case. The fact is, there is no one single type of reader whose likes and dislikes can be so easily categorized. Best you can do is maybe figure out trends–larger numbers of readers prefer certain things, maybe. And that’s fine, but that’s not “The Reader.” That’s those particular readers.

When someone generalizes this way about what readers will or won’t read, or what they do or don’t want, ask yourself, “What reader?” (Often it’s obscured by the sentence but it’s there if you dig. “Readers don’t want books about women/POC/LGBT.” Oh, see what’s not being said there? What specific kind of reader is being framed as “all readers”? Which readers are being dismissed as not existing, or not worth caring about?)

Write the thing that interests you. Don’t worry too much about warnings that “readers” don’t want anything but standard vanilla custard writing. (No offense to vanilla custard. I might have to go make some when I’m done here because that sounds delicious. If you’re aiming for Dan Brown style bestsellers, well, you go, and good luck to you.) You, yourself, are a reader, and if your project seems cool to you, likely it will seem cool to at least some other readers. Don’t worry about what some nebulous mass of “readers” might or might not want. Worry about doing your cool thing really well so that those readers like you will appreciate it. You have my permission to stop taking advice from anyone who tells you that you can’t do anything interesting or difficult because “readers won’t like it.” (Or because editors won’t like it. Gods help us all, run don’t walk away from that advice.)

Yeah, sometimes bloggers or reviewers natter about how obviously such and so author is a pretentious git who hates their readers because everyone knows readers don’t like long sentences or present tense or second person or stories told out of temporal order or narrated by cats, or whatever. Such people are saying more about their failure to actually think very much about writing and reading than they’re saying about the work they criticize, and you have my permission, if you need it, to take them as seriously as they deserve. Which is to say, not at all.

Don’t worry about some nebulous mass of “readers.” Worry about your readers. Your readers will be people who appreciate the sort of thing you want to do, particularly when you do it well. They’re the ones who matter to you. And it won’t be the least bit coincidental that, when you please yourself with your work, when you do the things that fascinate and interest you the most, your readers will turn out to be interested in and fascinated by the same things.

Do the thing you want to do, as well as you can.