Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer
“The History Within Us”
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“The Last Novelist (or a Dead Lizard in the Yard)”
The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume 3
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Shades Within Us
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“Will You Meet Me There, Out Beyond the Bend?”
Nightmare Magazine 63
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Smokopolitan nr 10
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Bifrost
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Mad Hatters and March Hares
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“The Last Novelist (or a Dead Lizard in the Yard)”
Tor.com
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Lightspeed Magazine 85
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科幻世界 (Science Fiction World)
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Nightmare Magazine 38
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World Chinese SF Association
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After
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Health and Happiness for Writers: The Writer’s Spine

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post titled “Health and Happiness for Writers: The Writer’s Ego“, which was a continuation of the discussion from a panel at the 2018 Nebula Award Conference in Pittsburgh. In my post I discussed some of the emotional issues writers might encounter in their career. In this post, I want to talk a little bit about the physical side of things. Specifically, the writer’s spine and the travails we put it through, often unconsciously.

There is the old cliche that a suffering artist is a better artist. That’s horseshit. Artists do their best work when they are healthy and happy.

If you read my blog, you may have encountered my post “When I Was Suffering, I Made Less Art,” which is about my journey through the U.S. Healthcare system with no health insurance and a herniated disc in my neck that was so painful it made it near impossible to do anything productive. The post went viral after John Scalzi retweeted a link to it, because I think it resonated with people, and also because of the Republican attempts (which continue today) to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

There is the old cliche that a suffering artist is a better artist. That’s horseshit. Artists do their best work when they are healthy and happy.

So after the panel in Pittsburgh, this young guy comes up to me and, before he even speaks, I know by his body language what he’s going to say: he has terrible pain in his neck. You could see it in his face, his barely contained grimace, his reddened, squinting eyes. My first thought was, I see you’re in pain, and I have been through the same thing. I want to help you.

We didn’t have a lot of time to talk, but I quickly outlined several things that worked for me not only to mitigate but to eliminate pain. I also quickly went over techniques I use to keep my body functioning optimally, so I can be as productive as possible.

Here is some of what I said:

  1. Begin with body awareness. How are you sitting? How are you writing? Are you slouched over a keyboard like an opening parenthesis? This is the worst posture ever, because you are putting all of the weight of your head onto your cervical spine (lower back and neck), and these vertebrae are the most common to get herniated.

    BAD posture. DO NOT sit like this!

    This should be your posture:

    And actually, having the midline of the monitor at eye level is probably better, since it prevents you from leaning forward to see what’s on the bottom of your screen.

  2. If you feel pain, stopIf I could shout this from the rooftops, I would: If you feel pain, stop. Do not work through pain. It doesn’t make you tough. It makes you stupid. Pain is your body’s way of telling you that you are doing it wrong. Got a tingle in your shoulder? Neck? Lower back? Stop. Reevaluate your posture. Take a break. Go get some water. Go for a walk. Working through pain is a quick way toward a more serious injury.

  3. Exercise your core. When you are young, your body forgives bad posture and infrequent exercise. But as we age, the places in our bodies where we have put the most stress will often flare up with an injury. This is because we have let our core muscles atrophy. Most people do not use the core muscles in their everyday lives. And because our core muscles are weak, our other muscles overcompensate. Your lower back or your neck take up the strain. One thing I’ve learned is that regular exercise of my core muscle groups reduces and often completely eliminates neck and lower back pain. This is because once you have strengthened those muscles, the rest of the body doesn’t need to work as hard to compensate. To strengthen my core, I use a combination of Iyengar Yoga (you can do this routine in about 10 minutes in the morning) and a rowing machine at the gym, with occasional free weights. 

  4. You are what you ingest. When I was in my 20s, I could throw back half a dozen beers and be fresh for work the next morning. Now, even two beers negatively affects my sleep cycle. Also, when I occasionally ingest (or inhale) other substances (use your imagination) I’ve found my energy level adversely affected the next day. The same is true for refined carbs. I love pizza and I could seriously eat a whole pie by myself. But afterward, and often the next day, I’m a sloth: sleepy, cranky, unmotivated. The bad things I put into my body have very real and immediate consequences in ways that they didn’t when I was in my 20s. This includes caffeine. My suggestion: avoid sugar, refined carbs, and excess caffeine. Minimize your intake of alcohol and drugs. Eat as many plants as you can stomach, because that’s still probably not enough. Have your blood tested to see if you are deficient in any vitamins (most of us are Vitamin D deficient), and take supplements if necessary.

  5. See a doctor, if you need to. Don’t be afraid to see a doctor. I know this one’s a mixed bag for many, since the quality and affordability of health insurance, at least in the U.S., is not ubiquitous. But if you can and have the opportunity, go see someone. Get a professional opinion. In fact, get multiple opinions. One orthopedist was ready to inject a steroid into my spine after a five-minute consult. I didn’t feel comfortable with that at all. I did visit a chiropractor who, through an adjustment, gave me the most relief I had had in many months, and that was wonderful. But another chiropractor, at the same practice, gave me no relief at all (I think because he was inexperienced), and so I left for another practice. My point is: get professional opinion(s), to make sure there is nothing more serious going on, but also use your judgment. If something doesn’t feel right for you, then don’t be afraid to walk away and seek help elsewhere.

  6. There is no shame in pain. This goes back to some of what I said in my earlier post about our emotions. During my most painful flare-up years ago, I was afraid to speak up and let people know how much I was suffering. Part of this was pride. I’m too young to be in this much pain. I can’t let anyone know I’m suffering, as that would make me vulnerable. Part of it was denial. If I ignore it, it will go away. Part of it was lack of health insurance. I have no other options, so I might as well just deal with this. A lot of this stems from societal expectations. Men, especially of my generation (Gen X), have been conditioned to avoid revealing vulnerability. We were taught that this is a sign of weakness, and weakness is bad. But — and this may seem counterintuitive — the strongest I’ve ever felt in my life was when I openly revealed my vulnerabilities and my pain to others. I have found that hiding my vulnerabilities only serves to amplify them, in the long run. My point: it’s okay to be in pain. There is no shame in it. In fact, millions of others have gone through what you are going through, and many of them can help.

And while I could go on, I already feel this post is getting rather long. And I think, depending on the feedback I get from this, I might do another post in this series. So I hope this was helpful to you. Let me know in the comments. 


Health and Happiness for Writers: The Writer’s Ego

At the Nebula Award Conference this past weekend, I was on a panel with Patrick Rothfuss, Theodora Goss, Erin Roberts, Rekka Jay, and Lara Elena Donnolly called “Health and Happiness for Writers.”

Because I felt we had barely touched on some subjects, and because this is an issue I feel strongly about, I thought I would continue the discussion here on my blog, where I might share some experiences and struggles I’ve had with “health and happiness,” and some techniques that have helped me maintain both physical and mental health in the past. 

Patrick Rothfuss, Matthew Kressel (me), Theodora Goss, Erin Roberts, Rekka Jay, and Lara Elena Donnolly; Photo by Diana M. Pho

Today I thought I’d focus on a mental health aspect: the writer’s ego.

When I speak of “ego” I mean it in the psychological sense, that is, one’s sense of self and their place in the world. From my own experiences and my many conversations with writer friends, I know that we all often struggle with ego issues.

Here are examples of things that might “bruise” a writer’s ego:

  • Getting a rejection letter
  • Getting a negative review
  • Getting a harsh critique of a story
  • Doing a reading or signing and having few people/no one show up
  • Seeing your peers “succeed” while you do not
  • Seeing your peers win awards

The latter is especially close to me at this moment, as I was just up for the Nebula Award in the Short Story category, but just lost to Rebecca Roanhoarse’s (definitely worthy) “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” This is the third time that I have been up for a Nebula, only to lose to another amazing story.

The danger is the negative self talk. “Oh, I’m not worthy.” “I’m not good enough.” “I suck.” No one likes losing (except maybe masochists?) and it can be especially frustrating to get so close to something and not attain it.

The solution, for me, has been gratitude. I tell myself how lucky I am to even be here. I tell myself how grateful I am even to have had the opportunity to be on the same ballot with all these amazing people and stories. Just to have had the experience of being a nominee at the Nebulas.

But what about if you’re not a finalist? You have written fifty stories and none of them have sold. Or your sprawling epic fantasy has chalked up thirty agent rejections of, “Nice, but not for me.” Or you published your first story and you got really excited, and you did your first reading at a convention, and only two people showed up, and one of them left early because they discovered they were in the wrong room.

These things hurt. I have experienced all of them. And I think that in the past I did some really destructive things to avoid feeling that hurt. I got angry. I blamed (someone, anyone). I drank. I did other substances. I got extremely jealous of others.

The key is, for me at least — and I would like to note that I still struggle with this — the key is to let yourself feel. I think as a Generation X male, I was conditioned that men shouldn’t feel. Or at least, if we did, we did it privately. In the public space, I always tried (with varied success) to show how strong and fearless and teflon-like my ego was. The truth was (and in some ways still is) that I can be as sensitive as a mimosa plant.  And I have found that simply allowing myself to feel the hurt, however painful it is, is the first step to overcoming it.

I hope that doesn’t sound pat or condescending. There is a statement you may often hear in certain therapy circles that the only way out is through. I allow myself to feel the sadness, the hurt. I let myself accept it. This is a part of who I am, even if it makes me uncomfortable to be vulnerable. 

And you know what? Letting myself feel, letting myself be vulnerable and open to feel this feeling I so badly wish to repress has allowed me to overcome a lot of my self-doubt. Because on the other side of that pain is a form of self acceptance I never really allowed myself before.

I cannot say this technique will work for you. It doesn’t even always work for me. Sometimes, I just feel bad, and nothing will change that. But in general I have found this technique to be extremely powerful.

Important Note: As Patrick Rothfuss said in the panel, there are some things that we cannot do on our own, and there is no shame in getting help. Please seek out therapy (both for physical and emotional issues) if you feel you cannot solve these issues on your own.

 

 


Story Sale to Analog Science Fiction and Fact

I’m happy to announce some good news for the new year. Mercurio D. Rivera and I co-authored a story called “The Walk to Distant Suns” which has been sold to Analog Science Fiction & Fact. The premise: Shandi Pallai is a wormhole engineer who works aboard a space station, helping people migrate off the dying Earth to a new, better planet. She’s been saving up to migrate to the new world with her family and her sick, dying mother. But when the corporation raises the price of transit, Shandi decides to take things into her own hands.

The story will be out sometime later this year.

 


My Readercon Schedule

I’ll be attending Readercon next weekend in Quincy, Massachusetts. Here’s my schedule. Three panels and a reading! Hope to see you there.

Friday July 14

12:00 PM    5    Writing Futuristic Fiction in 2017. Michael J. Deluca, Haris Durrani, Matt Kressel, Shariann Lewitt, Paul McAuley, Naomi Novik (leader).Speculative genre fiction has always had the ability to consider our future and shape it, so now that the present more sharply resembles the settings of some dystopian fictions, where do we as genre writers go next? Do we need to write more dystopian fiction to process our anxieties and warn against things getting worse, or do we need stories of hope, utopia, and resistance to get through a time that will be frightening and dangerous for many? Can editors and readers tell the difference between stories that were written before and after the election, and does it matter?

4:00 PM    B    Reading: Matt Kressel. Matt Kressel. Matt Kressel reads a new short story about AI, UBI, and job replacement.

6:00 PM    C    The Catastrophe of Success. Alex Jablokow, Jim Kelly (leader), Matt Kressel, Paul Levinson, Eric Schaller. In a 1947 essay called “The Catastrophe of Success,” Tennessee Williams wrote, “We are like a man who has bought up a great amount of equipment for a camping trip… but who now, when all the preparations and the provisions are piled expertly together, is suddenly too timid to set out on the journey…. Our great technology is a God-given chance for adventure and for progress which we are afraid to attempt.” This is a very 1940s SFnal way of looking at technology and the world. We are in Williams’s future, with 70 years of perspective to add to his still-relevant observation. What has changed in the human relationship to technology since 1947, and what has stayed the same? How can present-day SF explore this tension between what technology allows us to do and the fear that holds us back?

Saturday July 15

12:00 PM    6    Is There a Law of Conservation of Utopia?. John Crowley, Michael J. Deluca, Karen Heuler, Matt Kressel, Kathryn Morrow (leader), Wes Rist. Readercon 27 included panels on utopias, dystopias, and apocalypses, and in all the panels the distribution of utopian experience was noted to be uneven: one person’s utopia is another person’s dystopia. Authors often create tension by showing the dystopian underpinnings of seemingly utopian cultures (as in The Hunger Games and The Time Machine). How could an author depict a true universal utopia where life is genuinely better for everyone while still writing a satisfying story? Or is there a law of conservation of utopia in fiction such that the amount of happiness in a fictional culture remains constant, and any utopia for some has to be a dystopia for others in order to drive the plot?

New Story in Lightspeed & Other Stuff

My near-future cyber-hacking seduction story “Love Engine Optimization” is now out at Lightspeed Magazine.

I came up with the idea of “Love Engine Optimization” after reading a blog post from Hugh Howey where he suggests that privacy is obsolete. The common refrain I hear from people who don’t understand internet privacy is this: “If you do nothing wrong, what do you have to hide?”

That’s an absurd concept if you think about it for half a second. Especially now with all these cloud-connected devices that record everything from our heart rates to our locations to the number of hours we sleep. Add to that our detailed psychological profiles that social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Google and others gather on us, and you have a pretty clear picture of what makes a human being tick.

I wanted to tell a story of someone who uses this data to manipulate another, in this case, to seduce them. (Data that anti-privacy advocates think should be in the public domain.) I wanted to show what such a bad actor might do with such information. I wrote this story last spring, long before the revelations that Russia might have done this very thing in the most recent U.S. elections. To me, it seems clear that we are offering up our personal data by the terabyte into the cloud, and yet we are not clearly thinking through the ramifications of giving all this personal data away. “Love Engine Optimization” is a horror story, then, encased in a near-future science fictional shell.

If you read the story, please consider writing an online review (good or bad) and/or sharing a link to the story on social media. I can never state enough how much that helps.

In an experiment in self-publishing, I’ve released my short story “One Spring in Cherryville” across several digital e-book markets.

“One Spring in Cherryville” chronicles the adventures of Mitch and his friends who live in a tumble-down rust-belt American town, with little prospects for their future, when they discover a treasure hidden in the basement of an old factory. But there is more to uncover in Cherryville, a dark past that just might change all their lives forever.

Amazon | Apple iBooks | Barnes & Noble | Google Play | Kobo

I’ve also been working on a new novel, a YA thriller about AI and the Singularity. In the past I’ve spoken a lot about my boredom with dystopian fiction. We’ve seen a glut of dystopian stories these past few decades (and I’ve written my fair share). And so I’ve decided to put my money where my mouth is and write an optimistic SF novel. This is not to say there is no conflict. No, there will be a lot of conflict. (The future of the planet is at stake.) But the ultimate message will be a hopeful and optimistic one. I can’t say more without spoiling it.

As for my short fiction, I have one story coming out in December called “In Memory of a Summer’s Day.” That will appear in Ellen Datlow’s Mad Hatters and March Hares, an anthology with stories based on the characters from Alice in Wonderland. I envision Wonderland as a kind of dilapidated theme park, where visitors take Disney-like tours through the famous scenes. Except there is something rotten at its very core.

Right now I have three short stories out with editors. “The Words That Maketh Murder” is about a former military drone engineer who begins hearing strange sounds at a train yard where she lives. “The Marsh of Camarina” is about AI, job replacement, and universal basic income. And “The Walk to Distant Suns,” which I co-wrote with Mercurio D. Rivera is about a woman who works as an engineer for a wormhole that allows people to migrate to another star system. I am also writing a ghost story.

So what about you? What are you working on? I would love to hear from you guys, to see what exciting things you’ve been up to.

 


Mad Hatters and March Hares

If you attended the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading back in November with John Langan and yours truly, you might remember the story I read called “In Memory of a Summer’s Day.” That story will appear in an Alice in Wonderland-themed anthology edited by Ellen Datlow. The anthology includes stories by Seanan McGuire, Catherynne M. Valente, Genevieve Valentine, Kaaron Warren, Jeffrey Ford, Richard Bowes, Jane Yolan, Andy Duncan, and lots more. The full table of contents is below, but first I wanted to talk a little bit about the origin of my story.

When Ellen asked me to send her an Alice-themed story, I first had to go back and reread the books to re-familiarize myself with the material. But I kind of already knew what I had in mind. I envisioned a kind of haggard, jaded tour-guide who leads a group of clueless tourists, Disney-style, through Wonderland’s oddities. But unbeknownst to the tourists, Wonderland is crumbling. And it’s not the whimsical, fantastical realm everyone’s been led to believe, but something far more sinister. I got my idea from an exhibit I visited with some friends in Manhattan at the Morgan Library & Museum called “Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland.” What struck me was, well, how pervy Lewis Caroll was. His obsession with the real Alice (Ms. Alice Pleasance Liddell), penning love letters to her, taking photographs of her in her underwear, when she was many years his junior and not even close to consensual age, just came off as vile. And here were were, a century and a half later, so enamored with the tale and all its variants, ignoring its uncomfortable source. It seemed to me that its very seed was corrupt. This idea led me to my story, “In Memory of a Summer’s Day.” 

Mad Hatters and March Hares, edited by Ellen Datlow, comes out December 5, 2017. Details follow:

Here is what you can expect from Mad Hatters and March Hares: “An all original anthology of stories inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. ‘Alice’ has been read, enjoyed, and savored by generations of children and adults since its publication. It’s hallucinogenic, weird, imaginative and full of wordplay, mathematical puzzles, and political and social satire.”

Mad Hatters and March Hares will features stories that are inspired by the strange events and characters that appear in Wonderland.

Table of Contents

  • “A Comfort, One Way” by Genevieve Valentine
  • “Alis” by Stephen Graham Jones
  • “All the King’s Men” by Jeffrey Ford
  • “Conjoined” by Jane Yolen
  • “Eating the Alice Cake” by Kaaron Warren
  • “Gentle Alice” by Kris Dikeman
  • “In Memory of a Summer’s Day” by Matthew Kressel
  • “Lily-White & The Thief of Lesser Night” by C.S.E. Cooney
  • “Mercury” by Priya Sharma
  • “Moon, Memory, Muchness” by Katherine Vaz
  • “My Own Invention” by Delia Sherman
  • “Run, Rabbit” by Angela Slatter
  • “Run, Rabbit, Run” by Jane Yolen
  • “Sentence Like a Saturday”  by Seanan McGuire
  • “Some Kind of Wonderland” by Richard Bowes
  • “The Flame After the Candle” by Catherynne M. Valente
  • “The Queen of Hats” by Ysabeau Wilce
  • “Worrity, Worrity” by Andy Duncan

The anthology features a cover by the legendary Dave McKean, whose Folio Society edition of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods recently went on sale.

Mad Hatters and March Hares will be released on December 5, 2017.