Saturday, February 23, 2013

"The Assassin's List" in new Ellery Queen anthology

The first short story I ever sold was uncharacteristic in a number of ways.  It wasn't speculative fiction, it was an unusual choice for the magazine I sent it to, it took me two years to write (I wasn't a very consistent writer back then), and I sold it on the first attempt.  When Ellery Queen did in fact buy it, I was absolutely floored, to say the least.  I was even more astonished when it was short-listed for Best American Mystery Stories 2002.  Of course, everyone insisted that I should "write more mysteries."  Thing is, "The Assassin's List" wasn't a mystery in any normal sense -- and I hadn't a clue as to how to write a standard mystery yarn at the time.  Instead, it was an attempt to write a kind of Existentialist/Kafka-esque/Magical Realist fable about the misinterpretation of symbols.  It's a story about someone with a solemn task and an overwhelming sense of doubt.  I wasn't reading mysteries when I wrote it -- I was reading Albert Camus and Umberto Eco.

All of which sounds vaguely snobbish, I'm sure.  In fact, my goal at the time was to write "literary pulp" or something along those lines.  I had a very clear sense of how such stories should feel, but it was in fact a difficult thing to attempt, especially since there are very few markets for it.  I should also mention that, at age 26 (when I completed the story) I was filled with self-doubt about what I could actually accomplish as a writer, and lacked the self-discipline to temper my huge ambitions to keep them within my skill set as it existed at the time.  I was also struggling with ADHD and a host of other issues.

I am very proud of this story, and seeing it back in circulation reminds me how different my approach to writing is now.  I outline, for one thing.  I know the ending by the time I finish the beginning.  I write scenes out of order.  I work quickly.  I do not, as I did here, build the thing like a house of cards, struggling over every paragraph, meticulously constructing every wisp of smoke and crack in the wall.  

Sometimes, however, I wish I did.  "The Assassin's List" has an oddball, immersive quality you don't get too often.  

At any rate, the story has been given a fresh life in the Ellery Queen anthology The Crooked Road Volume 2: Ellery Queen Presents Stories of Grifters, Gangsters, Hit Men, and Other Career Crooks. The fact that my story sits next to the works of some of the greatest names in field is something I can't quite get my head around.  Lawrence Block.  Peter Lovesey.  Edward D. Hoch.  Ed effing McBain!

I suppose I did something right.  

Anyway, to summarize -- buy it now.  Make your Kindle happy.  

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Happenings, updates, plans (Phase II begins)

My latest flash fiction, "Every Body Is More Than Human", appears in the 4th Quarter Issue of Abyss & Apex. This is my first publication in quite some time -- by no means for lack of writing on my part (more on that in a moment). Also in the pipeline is a reprint of my short story from 2001, "The Assassin's List," which will be appear in Volume 2 of "The Crooked Road: Ellery Queen Presents Stories of Grifters, Gangsters, Hit Men, and Other Career Crooks" -- I will post the release date as soon as I know it. In the meantime, I heartily recommend Volume 1, available for Kindle, for anyone in need of narratives of criminal mayhem (if you're not already getting enough of that this election cycle that is).

I've published dozens of stories before, but this marks the first time I've been paid to write something that is verifiably science-fiction. While I've been a reader or science-fiction, fantasy, and all things "speculative" for as long as I've been reading, most of my writing has veered towards more experimental/magical realist formulations than SF.

About two years ago, I hit a turning point. On a whim, I applied to the Clarion West writing program. I'd always dreamed of writing and publishing science-fiction at the professional level, but had never seriously attempted it. You wouldn't think so to hear college writing professors discuss it, but writing science-fiction is much more difficult than standard fiction writing, and I'd never felt up to the intellectual challenge before -- there were too many balls to keep in the air, it seemed, when managing the technical problems of creating plausible characters, moving them believably through a narrative, while also creating a fictional reality for them to inhabit. Nonetheless, I wanted to see if there was any hope for me.

To my great astonishment, Clarion accepted me. And then...I realized I couldn't go, because I had to hold down my day job and take summer classes in the evening for law school. That was a major bummer, to say the least. Let me tell you "Law & Economics" -- thrilling though it was -- provided little succor to someone who'd rather be discussing intergalactic mutant gangsters with fellow geeks than actuarial tables and cost-benefit-analysis with the future land-sharks of America during the precious summer months.

I decided, however, that I could make up the difference. What was Clarion providing after all? Discipline and feedback. Discipline, meaning a strong ethic of daily engagement with one's work, of putting pen to paper, fingertips to keyboard, every day, whether one feels like it or not, and whether or not other responsibilities are calling. Feedback, as in having other like-minded folk read my stories and take the red pen to them, while I do the same and deconstruct the work of others.

I realized that I could meet both of these needs without attending Clarion. The discipline I was already getting from the mental boot-camp of law school. Unpleasant as those three-and-a-half years of evening classes were, they were fantastic exercise for the brain. At the end of it all, I can run rings around my former self when it comes to breaking down a problem, organizing an idea in the form of an outline, and pacing my daily productivity with a deadline in mind. As for feedback -- I live in New York City. We have writer's groups lurking in every borough. All I needed to do was attend a few meetings of Fantastic Fiction at the KGB bar, hosted by Ellen Datlow and Matt Kressel, and almost instantly I was put in touch with a bunch of aspiring SF writers who were gearing up their own workshops (in fact, I joined two!). I received superb input from my fellow writers -- bitter medicine though it was at times -- and gave in kind (and I am happy to report that two of my fellow workshoppers are now published novelists, and a third was recently nominated for a Nebula).

Since graduating from law school and passing the bar exam in February, I've been writing every day. Maybe not a lot, sometimes just an hour, but I do it every day. An in that time I've finished (or am nearing completion of) a half-dozen short stories and two novellas, with a third well underway, pretty much all of it science-fiction, horror, or dark fantasy. And I'm enjoying writing more than I ever have before. Getting published at the professional level is not easy, but I've been persevering, and it's finally starting to pay off. Even stories that get rejected are starting to elicit the good kind of rejection letter -- the kind that says, "this is close...send us more!"

I do not know if I'm permanently retiring my previous approach to writing, which was (in most cases) more improvisational and less narrative-based. I do feel that I'm at a new stage of my writing career, in which I want to embrace whole-heartedly the challenges of structure and plot, and fill my stories with multiple characters. After years of playing with language, mood, and imagery, I would like to engineer drama -- not abandoning what I've learned from my earlier writing, but rather incorporating it into a new framework.

"Every Body" is very simple compared to most of what I've been working on since the beginning of this year (the first draft was written in one night while I took a break from studying for the bar exam), but it is the first step into a new phase of my writing. Much more to come -- will keep you posted.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Book Review: Erotomania by Francis Levy

Originally posted on Goodreads:

This novel is in many ways a dark comedy based upon the themes of Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. The story is a first-person narrative told by James, a theatrical set designer who becomes obsessed with a woman (who is likewise obsessed with him) after he has an anonymous sexual encounter with her. He knows her first through her body, long before he learns her name or identity, or even has a clear image of her face. But know her personally he eventually does, and the arc of the novel traces the evolution of their relationship, which can only be described as a mutually-enabled sex addiction taken to the very extremes of human physical tolerance and beyond. 

What is noteworthy about the novel is that, despite the gargantuan amount of screwing that occurs in it, none of it feels gratuitous or exploitative. This would be because Levy’s narrative is not about the sex itself, but rather the inconveniences of sex in a world that requires us to be civilized. What happens when two people find more meaning in sex than anything else in their lives? Are they ill, or does society make them ill by condemning their affliction? The reader’s attention is not directed to linger over the salacious details of physical communion but upon what happens, or fails to happen, as a result. When the first person narrator does go into detail about, for instance, the remarkable traits of his lover's genitalia, it is done to evoke the lightless, sensory world he inhabits, not to tantalize the reader. 

This short but very compelling novel echoes with a sense of the mythological, as well as a more modern existentialist nausea. Ultimately, and ironically (as intended) it is not the couple’s compulsive, epic lovemaking that evokes a certain terror, but rather the consequences of mitigating sexual desires in the mundane and familiar world of consumer society. Levy’s novel works magic because he wants to show the reader that this conundrum is both funny and tragic, and that love, as well as repression and conformity, lies behind the rules and limitations we seem unable to escape. Along the way, he is able to mock the phoniness of our many social conceits while to some extent vindicating their intent.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Suits (Meditations on a Uniform)


The business suit is a uniform which indicates that one's purposes are mainstream, lawful, and subject to a higher principle of organization. Its ubiquity is even more astonishing than its homogeneity. It has existed in its current form, with certain modifications to accommodate the entry of women into the corporate workforce, for nearly a century. It is even more astonishing to realize that within every single business suit is an individual who awakens each morning, purges their body and mind of the exuberant formlessness of borne from the wilderness of sleep, dons the suit and, before allowing themselves to be seen by anyone other than their families or lovers, examines themselves carefully in the mirror – some with a sense of pride, and some with a vague feeling of dread which must, like the tableaux of images and longings still lingering from sleep, be excreted, buried, submerged, drowned before that individual is ready to earn the day's living.

The suit is not Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or atheistic, even though persons belonging to all such belief systems and more commonly wear them. What is its purpose, in all societies? Its purpose is to establish trust. And yet, trust by itself is not enough. It is the particular kind of trust we wish to establish with someone who will, in some way, prepare for, or safeguard, or recover our wealth. Which is to say, a depersonalized trust. The suit is there for when we wish to trust someone with whom any form of personal emotional attachment is absolutely forbidden. We must not allow ourselves any significant amount of repulsion or attraction to their personalities and their form – indeed, both personality and physique must be attractive only in a generic sense, sufficiently mild and malleable so that no possibility exists of imagining the wearer's true passions and personal inclinations. Even among the most beautiful, the excitement of viewing the contours of their bodies must be kept carefully in check.

Normally, the colors of an outfit are supposed to distinguish one from nature, or from the crowd. But the wearer of the business suit means to identify himself with the crowd, the mob, the profession, by assigning to himself the absence of: color, the flush of life, the threat of passion and mortality. When, years ago, I worked as a cashier in a chain bookstore, the employee handbook instructed me that I was to dress as though I was “an extension of the store itself.” It became clear that by “the store itself,” the manual meant the building, the shelves, the carpeting, and the wallpaper. Not the books.

There is a phenomenon called depersonalization disorder, which occurs in the following circumstances: a child abandoned or abused by their parents, a person subjected to or forced to witness a violent event, a soldier exposed to the frequent stresses and horrors of war. It has several symptoms in common with schizophrenia. The individual may experience the sensation that their limbs are growing to abnormal lengths, or that they are physically detached from their body altogether. The events of the waking world pass by them as if on a movie screen, a fixed recording played out in a fixed order by mechanical means. They may hear babbling voices as they drift off to sleep, and witness gray, humanoid shapes creeping at the corners of their vision.

Another component often associated with the condition is something known as “visual snow,” in which one's field of vision is constantly filled with a kind of noise resembling television static, a randomized wash of pinks, greens, and blues that in the aggregate form a grayish haze. These visual artifacts do not in any way interfere with or block one's ability to see the details of the outside world – they merely fill its blank spaces with a dance of tiny, pointillist watercolors. In the darkness they boil over completely, billowing like clouds of smoke and tumbling like spiderwebs on a breeze, or jellyfish in the ocean.

One's trauma is therefore mitigated with a kind of primal cinema, in which ghostly actors weave a veil of safety between the lost individual and the outside world, with its aggressive colors, its hardness. These bottomless anti-colors and anti-forms are, in essence, a sense memory of the womb, that most senseless and timeless of places. The humanoid figures in the corner of the depersonalized field of vision are formed from this restless blackness, and the figure in the suit mimics these figures. The suit is the color of unconsciousness, of isolation. It is the comforting un-color of absolute helplessness and removal from the outside world.

In a world without suits people would be forced to wear uniforms of a different meaning, or, perhaps more likely, to abandon the use of uniforms altogether. It would become impossible to pretend that the person claiming to take responsibility for your wealth – to whatever extent you have any – was not an individual human being with passions and flaws and labyrinth of dreams their own. In other words, it would be more difficult for them to win your trust. Trust, then, would have to be won entirely by deeds – there would be no generic "business" phenotype in the common currency.

Imagine a world where every office space is filled with people, not in uniform, but wearing their own true selves, where workplaces are not clean and crisp like mirrors or glass voids, but are filled with the objects of the home, with plants and pets and crockery, with the odors of sweet decay. Imagine office spaces that look lived in, where in fact the homeless or outcasts could live at night if they needed to.

Corporate culture has ruled the world for centuries -- but that is how things will look when this era finally meets its end.  It will be a world in which business is conducted without pretense, in full view of reality.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Hi there

Granted, nine months is a long time to go without posting. I have a good excuse. Excuses, actually. They are: my last semester of law school, two legal internships, and studying for and taking the bar exam and the MPRE. I finished the latter just yesterday. These things were a bit time consuming and stressful. In fact, it was like getting repeatedly run over by a very large truck. I'm not even sure what I mean by that exactly, but it somehow seems apt.

Much as I think going to law school was a good thing -- great, actually -- I'm glad it's over. No, glad doesn't even begin to describe it. Let me explain. Today was a Sunday. Here's what I did today: everything I wanted and nothing that mattered. I woke up, watched Futurama over breakfast, then spent the next three hours revising a short story which I will soon send out for publication. Then, my wife and I went out for a late brunch, to a place in Queens which makes a delicious Spanish Omelette. We came back home, and I worked on the story a little more, and then spent the rest of the day reading science fiction -- the latest Nebula short story nominees, to be specific. At no point today did I do or think about anything practical.

I haven't really had a day like this in over three years. Sure, I've had days off of school and work, but they were fleeting, and couldn't escape the shadow cast by the many responsibilities looming over them. And, while I still have a lot to do, like find a permanent law-related job position, I know that I can once again begin to lead a normal life with evenings and Inconceivable! After the grind of work by day, law school by night, even a 50+ hour work week will seem like a permanent vacation. No more briefing cases in class. No more getting cold-called by the prof (which age and experience does not render any less unnerving). No more final exams. No more having to do this at night after a day at the office. Ever.

I'm not even deeply worried if I have to take the bar exam again. I can deal with another bar exam. It won't be until July!

As for my writing, I've managed to squeeze it in, somehow, into the random cracks of time, the half-hour interludes and early mornings over the last nine months, and complete about a half-dozen story drafts, along with perhaps ten outlines of ideas for new work. I'm already starting to send things out again.

Next task: fix the design on this ugly-ass blog. Seriously.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

New work, many doings

New work in Sein und Werden and The Cafe Irreal.

In six months, I will be done with the time-draining, energy-sapping fiasco known to the civilized world as "law school." Since September 2008, I have been going to my day job, taking evening classes in Contracts, Torts, Con Law, etc., while somehow finding a few hours each week (on a good week) to squeeze in my little literary endeavors. There has been a lot of sleep deprivation involved.

Somehow, I have managed (I think) to get through it all without turning evil. In fact, I think I am a better person now than when I started. But one thing I feared -- irrationally, I now realize -- when I embarked on this project was that law school would "ruin my creativity." This is something writers fear rather often. I know I do. One fears the effects of a competitive atmosphere on the Muse. I pictured her little winged form crushed under a mighty gavel of cold, hard reality.

Not so. In fact, going to law school has if anything caused my imagination to go even more happily off-kilter. This I think is partly due to the sheer rebellion of the subconscious over being subordinated for most of the daytime to analytical tasks. It could also be a reaction to the simple fact that the brain is doing more work. But above all else it demonstrates the importance of doing new things to have new ideas.

For a couple of years leading up to law school, when I was working a very easy, very boring (and badly-paying!) day job for the sole purpose of sustenance, I was starting to feel creatively dead. Having new ideas requires having a sense of hope, not just about one's writing but about life in general. I believe this is true even if you are writing about darkness and despair. Writing is an inherently positive, hopeful act. But I was getting to a routine where I felt too bored with my life to invent new worlds or characters.

That has changed, in a big way. I have met new people, and put myself in situations which I could not have imagined for myself before, and it is only just beginning. Furthermore, I will have a versatile job skill I can rely on for a wide variety of uses (to the extent that one can rely on anything in this collapsing economy).

Of course, I now almost completely lack for time to write -- almost. There has been just enough to scribble down some flash fictions, make dozens of outlines, and join a weekly workshop every now and then. Enough time to know that I can still do it, and that I am really looking forward to coming back into the literary world as a writer newly remade, with a better day job. And lots of new ideas.

I just thought I'd share that with any other writers out there. The Muse is more resilient than you think. The only thing that kills it is boredom.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Menda City Adieu

After five incredible years, editor Terry Rogers has decided to call it a day with his online literary magazine, Menda City Review. The final issue (number 18) has posted just last week.

MCR was a truly exceptional publication, one that favored quality over quantity. It was named along with Clarkesworld as the "best new online literary magazine" of 2006 by the Story South Million Writers Award. For the following five years it continued to publish a wide variety of work, everything from traditional narratives to unabashedly experimental fiction and magical realism, including some of the best writers out there today. Its commentary section also included political essays and non-fiction memoirs.

Terry believed in every word of every story he published. Unlike most editors for online publications, he was unafraid of longer works -- MCR was one of the few online publications that would take submissions as long as 10,000 words. He gave meticulous, sensitive feedback to writers, collaborating with them until their work was in the best shape possible. I am proud to have been a part of it, serving for three years as associate editor of the commentary section. I am not proud of the fact that I still put two spaces after periods in my manuscripts, which he insists (I think correctly) is both unnecessary and unprofessional in the age of word processors.

Terry is also an exceptional writer, as you will see from his "Song of the Siren," included in this final issue, along with WJ Rosser's "The Robber" and my own "The Curtain". MCR was a huge time commitment for him, and I know he's looking forward to getting back to writing his own fiction. For myself, I am looking forward to reading it.

In the meantime, enjoy this last issue!