Speculative Fiction podcast link spam!

When it comes to fiction, I generally prefer reading over listening, but over the last few years, two factors have led to me spending more time listening to short fiction podcasts: 1) I’m a dreadfully slow reader with very little free time, and 2) I often have stretches at work where I’m doing fairly routine tasks like binding or scanning music—the perfect opportunity to put on my headphones and let someone else do my short fiction reading for me.

What’s been interesting about listening to fiction rather than reading it myself is that audio often gives me a better sense of when a story is truly gripping me. The less engaged I am with the story, the more I find myself zoning out and missing things. But when a story’s good, I’ll hang on every word—assuming the narration is decent, that is. There have been a few times when I’ve given up on an audio story because of a monotone narrator or mispronounced words left and right. Sadly, poor narration can ruin a perfectly good story. Luckily, poor narration has been the exception in my listening experience.

That’s enough babbling from me. I now present you with the promised podcast link spam! I’m sure there are more short fiction podcasts out there, but these are the ones I’ve given a listen to (some more than others).

Magazines that podcast some of their content:

Other assorted speculative fiction podcasts:

Barbara A. Barnett is an avid rejection letter collector (aka writer), musician, orchestra librarian, coffee addict, wine lover, bad movie mocker, and all-round geek. You can learn more about her and her writing at www.babarnett.com.

Siren-ish fiction on the web!

Barb here to interrupt your regularly scheduled blog programming with a moment of shameless self-promotion:

1) My story “The Swan Maiden” (originally published in the October 2013 issue of Flash Fiction Online) is one of the audio stories featured in the latest episode of the new fantasy fiction podcast Far-Fetched Fables; and
Unburied Treasures cover

2) Unburied Treasures: An Illustrated Anthology of Speculative Fiction, which includes my story “7:74 p.m.”, is now available as an ebook from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, and iTunes. It’s only $2 and is full of all sorts of fantastical goodies—including a talking pug, ’cause that’s how my story rolls.

Barbara A. Barnett is an avid rejection letter collector (aka writer), musician, orchestra librarian, coffee addict, wine lover, bad movie mocker, and all-round geek. You can learn more about her and her work at www.babarnett.com.

Crit Confusion

I’ve been working on a lot of critiques in preparation for a writing workshop next month, so I’ve kind of got criticism on the brain right now. I generally find critiques to be hugely helpful. I sure as hell have my blind spots when writing, which makes good crit partners invaluable for pointing out the things I’ve missed, be they plot holes, muddled character motivations, inconsistencies, or what have you.

The hard part for some writers is figuring out what criticism to take. You can’t—or shouldn’t, rather—try to address every single comment you receive. Fiction is a largely subjective thing, so inevitably, people are going to have different opinions. Try to incorporate all of their comments and you’re going to end up with a serious headache and a hot mess of a story.

So which comments do you address?

When I was attending the Odyssey Writing Workshop, Michael A. Burstein was one of our guest lecturers, and in reference to critiques, he paraphrased the Talmud: “If one person calls you a donkey, pay him no heed. If two people call you a donkey, buy a saddle.” In other words, if one person has an issue with your story but no one else does and you’re happy with it, then leave it alone. But if multiple people all point out the same issue, then that’s something you should probably address.

Unfortunately, there are also those head-desk inducing times when you get conflicting opinions. Half the people in the room were blown away by your twist ending while the other half thought the story was too predictable. Four people think the story’s well paced, four others think it moves too slowly, while yet four others think it speeds along too quickly. Or worse yet, everyone agrees that the story doesn’t quite work, but they all have a completely different opinion as to why.

That’s when things get tricksy. There’s no scientifically proven method or magic spell for figuring it all out. The best I can do is offer up some things to keep in mind:

1) What people say the problem is may not actually be the problem. Ending doesn’t work? It could be that your ending is fine; you just didn’t set it up properly, so it’s the beginning that needs to be tweaked.

2) Give the story, the critiques, and yourself some temporal distance. Writers are only human, so often your initial reaction to receiving a critique is going to be a bit raw—you just handed people your baby, and they’re telling you it has three eyes and a missing ear. I usually set critiques aside for at least a couple days, often longer. When I come back them, my reaction is less defensive and emotional, and I’m therefore able to look at the comments more objectively.

3) Not everyone is going to be in your target audience. If you’ve written a story about albino goat herders and there’s someone in the critique group who absolutely detests stories about albino goat herders, then there’s probably not much you can do to make the story work for that person. Don’t automatically discount all of their feedback by any means; there might be something useful there. But, there will probably also be comments that you can safely ignore since this simply isn’t the reader you’re hoping to please.

4) Inevitably, there will be someone who critiques your work in the most dickish way possible. I’ve been fortunate enough not to run into too many of them, but they’re out there. Luckily, the dickishness means that you can generally ignore about 90% of what they say since it’s usually unconstructive feedback along the lines of, “Your story sucks.” Still, occasionally you’ll find a good point or two buried in the I-am-a-sad-tiny-person-who-needs-to-feel-superior snark that is a dickish critique.

5) Always remember that it’s your story. Be grateful for critiques, but don’t feel obligated to address every single comment. Even a perfectly valid point might be best discarded if it turns the story into something other than the one you want to write.

6) When in doubt, trust your gut.

Barbara A. Barnett is an avid rejection letter collector (aka writer), musician, orchestra librarian, coffee addict, wine lover, bad movie mocker, and all-round geek. You can learn more about her and her work at www.babarnett.com.

Brain – Mental Ass Kickings = More Productive Writer

For my last post, I babbled about where I write. When pondering what topic to tackle next, one of my fellow Sirens suggested I could continue the sequence and address the question of how I write. That’s an easy one: I just start typing.

Well, ok, maybe not that easy. I get an idea first, and then I start typing.

But seriously, there’s more nuance to it than that. I could get into how I approach theme and plot and character and structure and blah blah blah. Those things are important, and I recommend giving them some thought, but I only just finished a masters degree program like a week ago, so the last thing I feel like doing right now is engaging in an intellectual analysis of, well, anything. My brain is tired. And that got me thinking, which totally doesn’t help with the brain tiredness, but did lead to a realization:

I got my masters degree to help me write.

No, it wasn’t a writing program. My shiny new degree is a masters in library and information science (MLIS). So how the hell does that help me as a writer? Well, it goes like this:

Once upon a time, I worked in development (aka fundraising) for non-profits, primarily as a grant writer. While I liked many of the people and the organizations I worked for, the work itself made me miserable. Fundraising and my personality type were not a good fit. And writing grant proposals all day often left me too mentally exhausted for fiction writing, and that just made me more miserable.

Also once upon a time, I briefly escaped from fundraising for two years to work on a cataloging project for a music library—a temporarily funded project, alas, or else I would have loved to have stayed there. I enjoyed the job, and it didn’t sap all of my writing energy. I cranked out my first-ever novel draft on my lunch breaks. But trying to find another library job after that usually resulted in one of three problems: 1) the job required an MLIS, which I didn’t have; 2) if the job didn’t require an MLIS, I was deemed overqualified (“Don’t you think you’ll be bored?” was an actual question at one interview); or 3) they looked at my resume and went, “Ooo, you have grant writing experience! We could use a grant writer!”

So after wavering about it for several years, I finally dove in and got my MLIS. On the down side, working toward the degree meant three years of more mental exhaustion and getting even less fiction writing done. But now that I’m done, I think the upside is going to prove worth it: I work in an orchestra library now. I enjoy my job, I work with interesting people, and every day I get to listen to amazing musicians. But most importantly, the type of work I’m doing doesn’t drain my fiction writing energy the way grant writing did. Many days I come home energized instead.

So my takeaway from all this babbling is this: how you write isn’t always about getting words down. Sometimes it’s about looking at other aspects of your life and figuring out if there are changes you can make that will improve your ability to get those words down. For me, that involved a short-term sacrifice of writing time so that, later down the road, I could dive back into fiction without regularly beating the crap out of my mental well being. I’ve only been done with grad school all of a week at this point, granted, but if my summer breaks were any indication, my brain is going to be a lot more cooperative during my writing time now that it isn’t getting its ass kicked on a daily basis.

Where Do You Write?

I can write just about anywhere. Noisy cafés, libraries, airplanes, waiting rooms, the train on my way into work, sitting in the park, alone at home, in a room full of people who are chatting and watching TV, outside on the patio listening to the birds chirp. Some unwanted distractions are easier to tune out than others, but I’ve learned to be flexible. Because sometimes, if you want to get anything written, you simply don’t have a choice.

It’s easy to fall in love with this romantic notion of only being able to channel the muse when the stars have properly aligned over your perfect writing environment. But the reality for me and many of my fellow crazy-scheduled writers is this: the only way to get any writing done is to use whatever scraps of free time you have, regardless of where those scraps of time are taking place. That, and my muse is a surly plumber named Jim Bob. The guy does good work, but he never shows up when he says he will. He sure as hell doesn’t care about star alignments or my preferred writing atmosphere. So lately, most of my writing has been getting done here:

PATCO
I’d like to describe the train’s interior as retro, but sadly, they just haven’t updated it since 1968.

But, given a choice, where would I prefer to write? A comfy place with a pretty view. And as luck would have it, my sunroom meets those qualifications:

sunroom backyard

I can curl up in my papasan and watch a gorgeous-looking hawk land on a tree, perch there and be awesome, and then fly off. And when I don’t feel like sitting, I can plop my laptop onto the room’s pub-style table and stand. We’ll come back to that standing thing.

Alas, the sunroom isn’t perfect. It can get noisy as all hell in there when it rains, and the view is less awesome in the winter. That’s when it’s nice to be able to retreat to my office. When the spousal unit and I started looking for a house, I knew exactly what I wanted for my office—a big-ass desk and a place to display all of my geeky toys and collectibles. And I got it:

old-desk office-toys

But I found that the more time I spent standing at the table down in the sunroom, the less comfortable it was to sit at my big-ass desk for extended periods of time. I got a balance ball chair, which was an improvement, but I would still get too fidgety after a while. So now, the big-ass desk is gone, and I have this:

standing-desk

An adjustable height desk so I can alternate between sitting and standing. I’ve only had it for a little over a month now, but so far I love it. Add to that the health benefits, and I’m a happy writer.

dinos
Yes . . . yes. This is a standing desk, and we will thrive. We will rule over all this desk, and we will call it . . . This Desk.

But, the real point of all this is that, even when I’m an unhappy writer stuck on a noisy, crowded commuter train, the work still gets done.

“Nobody poops in fiction” and other silly complaints

Let’s talk about some of your basic biological functions. They’re often not pretty or pleasant, but it’s kind of an accepted fact of life that we all have them. Like breathing, I just assume they happen, and so I’m perplexed when I encounter comments like, “People in fiction never have to go to the bathroom!” There’s even a “Nobody Poops” TV Tropes entry for it.

My response to that sort of complaint is usually a Scooby-Doo style “Ruurghh?” Are some people really so literal-minded that they need to be shown characters peeing for the sole purpose of establishing that they do indeed pee? Pictures or didn’t happen?

Of course people in fiction go to the bathroom (well, there are always exceptions to be made in fantasy and SF scenarios). But unless there’s something significant about it, I just assume the characters take care of their business off stage. Is a bowel movement going to tell me something interesting or revealing about a character or the setting? Is it going to advance the plot in some way? No? Then I don’t need to hear about it. Get on with the story.

Now, there are times when depicting things like urination and defecation actually do serve the story. The first example I thought of is Margo Lanagan’s “A Thousand Flowers” from the anthology Zombies vs. Unicorns. The story opens thusly:

I walked away from the fire, in among the trees. I was looking for somewhere to relieve myself of all the ale I’d drunk, and I had told myself—goodness knows why—in my drunkenness that I must piss where there were no flowers.

We then get several paragraphs of the poor sot trying to find a flowerless patch of earth before he’s finally able to relieve himself. Why does this work for me? Partly because it’s funny, but mostly because it tells me a lot about the character and what he values. No matter how drunk he is, no matter how badly he needs to pee, he respects this beautiful part of nature so much that he will go ridiculously out of his way not to sully it. Also, his search for an appropriate spot to pee also advances the plot as it leads to him stumbling upon an unconscious girl who appears to have been assaulted—a crime he is then falsely accused of when a bunch of soldiers show up.

Or, for an example from a different media, one of my favorite scenes in Battlestar Galactica is the conversation Baltar and Gaeta have in the bathroom in the episode “Six Degrees of Separation.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a video clip of the scene, but here’s a picture that sadly cannot convey just how awesome the foot acting in this scene is:

bsg-bathroom

Baltar: “So how’s it going over there?”
Gaeta: “Uh…”
Baltar: “In the lab, that is. I’m talking about the photograph.”

In addition to being hilarious, their conversation is relevant to the plot, and it’s a great character moment—Baltar is so desperate for information about the photograph Gaeta is enhancing (a photo that could condemn or absolve Baltar of a crime) that he follows him into the bathroom, where the poor guy becomes a captive and highly uncomfortable audience. And Gaeta is so determined to get out of this awkward conversation that he races from the bathroom as soon as he’s able, leading to Baltar’s hilarious, “Wait, you didn’t wash your hands!”

So yes, if it serves the story, I’m all for portrayals of characters answering the call of nature. But if someone actually needs to see characters peeing and pooping in order to accept that those characters do in fact have such bodily needs, I have to question their priorities as a reader. Really, if you just like depictions of people vacating their bowels and bladders, I’m sure there’s a place on the internet that can hook you up.

The Problematic Approach of Colorblind Writing

In her last post (It’s the Skull, Stupid), Naima raised the question, “If in my brain the two main characters of my book look East Asian and Black, but it isn’t relevant to the story, does it matter if these details don’t make it to the reader?” Naima’s post focused more on how to describe a character of color in fiction, particularly when writing a fantastical world that might not have the same historical and cultural shorthand that exists in our world. For this post, though, I wanted to get back to that question of why those kinds of details matter in the first place.

Sometimes I hear other writers (almost always white folks like myself) mention how they try to be “colorblind” in their writing—in other words, purposefully not describing a character’s skin color so that readers are free to picture the characters however they want. There was a time when I naively thought that was a good way of striving for inclusivity in fiction. Unfortunately, while colorblind writing generally comes from a place of good intentions, it’s ultimately a flawed approach.

The first problem with colorblind writing is the underlying assumption that, if a character’s skin color is not described, readers will default to imagining characters who look like them, thereby making the story inherently more inclusive and diverse. Sadly, that assumption just doesn’t hold up. My wake up call to that fact occurred several years ago when the concept of colorblind writing came up during a discussion I was having with some other writers. It surprised me when two of the writers, both people of color, said no, they actually didn’t default to picturing characters who looked like them. They had grown up in a world where white was the societal default and where they were frequently bombarded with the message that their skin color was not ideal or, worse yet, a sign of inferiority. So when reading a book, they assumed a character was white unless told otherwise. Because that was what dominated the society around them.

Another major problem with colorblind writing is that you’re not just erasing skin color; you’re erasing all of the culture, identity, and history that comes with that skin color. What we look like and where we come from plays a significant role in shaping who we are, so let’s not ignore that by embracing this Pollyanna-ish “I don’t see race, I see people!” idea of equality. Equality doesn’t mean being oblivious to differences in race; it means not hating or discriminating against people based on those differences.

Of course, some people will make the argument that, if you’re creating a fictional fantasy world, that world need not be saddled by the same racial dynamics and tensions that exist in the real world. True. But in order for me to lose myself in a fantastical world, it needs to have a sense of realism to it, and racial homogeneity isn’t something I find to be realistic (unless you’re writing about an engineered society or something like that). I think one of the best ways to achieve a realistic fantasy world is to create one that, like our own, has a rich diversity of races and cultures and people who have been shaped by those backgrounds. Those cultures can be different than what we have in the real world, and they can have a different history with each other (though there are still plenty of Save the Pearls-style pitfalls you can stumble into with that approach, but that’s another post). But even in a fictional world where people aren’t judged by skin color, I imagine people would still notice skin color in the same way we notice hair color or eye color. That’s the thing—noticing skin color doesn’t have to be negative or combative or racist. It can just be one element among many that makes up a full person.

Anyway, that’s enough babbling from me. Here’s what some other folks have had to say on colorblind writing and reading: