Category Archives: Writing

This is why I love Roger Ebert so much

I’ve always enjoyed his film criticism, and particularly his desire to find a way to use film criticism to elevate both film making and film watching. He’s a passionate advocate for the joy and awe of movies, and I’ve learned so much from him that even in disagreement I feel like I’ve learned something. I long enjoyed his occasional forays into essays on other subjects, and in recent years he’s written more and more about his life, his career in newspapers, and lately even creationism and his own Catholic upbringing. And sometimes in his essays, aided by his years of experience honing his writing, he manages these moments in his writing that make me shake my head in admiration.

And sometimes, he just totally cracks me up. Here’s him writing about Vincent, a Chicago guy who is the subject of a documentary, but in discussing it Ebert’s able to… well, here’s a long clip:

One person in the doc speculates that Vincent has spent a lot of his life being stigmatized and isolated, and the suits are a way of breaking down barriers. I confess that the first time I saw him, I saw a man with unfocused squinting eyes and a weird suit, and leaped to conclusions. But by the time I saw this documentary, things had changed in my life. Anyone seeing me walk down the street would notice an unsteady gait, a bandage around my neck, and my mouth sometimes gaping open. If they didn’t know me, they might assume I was the Village Idiot. You can easily imagine Vincent becoming an isolated agoraphobe, locked onto a computer screen. But he spends hours every day in the fresh air and sunshine, picking up that tan and getting lots of exercise.

That’s why I respond to Vincent, and applaud him. If people take one look at me and don’t approve of what they see, my position is: Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke. So here is a man who likes to wear pimp suits and wave them at tour boats. So why not? What are the people on the boats so busy doing that they don’t have time for that? I suspect something like 99 percent of them are more entertained by Vincent than by the information that Mies van der Rohe designed the IBM Building, which stands across the street as an affront to the tinny new Trump Tower. As least they can smile and wave and tell the folks at home about that wacky guy they saw on the bridge.

Yeah. I love Ebert.

Good writing is horribly painful

From Caren’s excellent post “What I Have Learned Reading Slush” which I recommend in total. One of them, though, demands further commentary:

10. This line, while usually meant well, is almost always a bad idea: “I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.” This is because I, too, am a writer, and my personal experience is that everything I have ever enjoyed writing personally was always really, really bad. If you have more fun than I do—that’s great. But telling me is going to make me suspicious when I first start reading.

Yeah. Here’s the dirty secret about writing: it’s a fucking horrible experience if you’re doing it well. Writing, say, “Usurpers” I typed, randomly took notes longhand, thought about the story all the time, and felt this world-destroying anxiety about it. To get the rhythm (and the rhythm breaks) down I read it out loud to myself over and over. By the time it went to Asimov’s, I’d read the story out loud to myself 50, 60 times. And every time during a reading I’d tick off a mark each time the flow broke, and each mark would end up being an intense and sometimes far-reaching re-write. That story’s written within an inch of its life, and by the time I was done I had to step away for a while to gain any perspective on whether it was worth sending out or not.

Or my book — when I was done with revisions, there was a point where I wanted to discard it entirely. I’d read the stories so many times they seemed worn, the jokes didn’t survive a hundred readings, and my editor’s assistant told me “Well Derek, no book is truly finished until the author is disgusted with it.”

There’s joy and satisfaction in a piece well-written, but it’s a job, a fucking job, where re-writing is more important than inspiration. The sword-maker doesn’t say “woo-hoo!” when they pull that steel out of the forge and then hope people think it’s awesome. That’s only the start of the work, pounding and folding and shaping, and absolute concentration.

My best writing involved me fighting anxiety the whole time about whether it would turn out awful or great, if I was putting too much of myself into it and would be embarrassed, if I’d gone too far. It’s a scary constricting feeling in the chest, difficulty swallowing, and a massive tightness of stress across my shoulders. If I want glee and happy fun smile time, I’ll go read something. That’s not what writing’s for.

I wouldn’t ever write “I hope you enjoy this as much as I enjoyed writing it”. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

True rewrite tales

“Azure” which really needs a rename. I love the story but it’s way long, which kills the tension and is generally bad news. So.

V1: 8500 words
V2, edited for length: 8900 words (that’s not a joke)
V3, immediate edit following crit yesterday: 8350
V4, yesterday: 7400

There’s at least another 500-700 words coming out of this thing.

Usurpers in Asimov’s

I just realized I didn’t post about it here — my short story “Usurpers” is in the current month’s Asimov’s, my first sale of a short story to a science fiction market. I love the story and I’m happy to see it in Asimov’s, which I’ve been reading for ages and am huge on.

I was thinking about writing an “author’s commentary” on it, but I don’t want to spoil it — and I’m not sure how much demand there’d be for that anyway.

But yeah, check it out.

This is the most terrifying thing I’ve seen in a year

Ira Glass, on storytelling:

I watched this in stark terror the first time. This is me: post-Clarion, I am more than ever able to see and aspire to something and criticize myself for not being there. I write short stories and sit on them, I’ve been working on a book in semi-secret this year and only a couple people read the first chapter, after which I stopped sending pieces out. When I write something I really truly like, I have a weird impulse to stop immediately, put my hands up, say “that’s as good as it gets, I’m going to go learn acoustic guitar or something”.

So yeah. It’s weird, that interview’s been out for almost two years (which would have been a great time for me to see it) but watching it, I felt a lot like I did at Clarion, where if you’re very, very lucky like me, the lesson of the whole thing is the things you’re doing wrong are exactly what you’re most afraid you’ve been doing wrong, so now you have to fix them.

I want to go write.

In case of emergency, wiggle

I’ve been doing a huge amount of space-related research as part of the book I’m working on, and today I came across this, which I thought I’d share. It’s from an actual space shuttle schematic, a “penetration guide” on how to cut the thing open in case of… I’m not sure why you’d ever need to do this, but anyway:


“Dear God! We have to get into that orbiter immediately!”
“What do we do?”
“Use your Q-34 Penetrator Tool, quickly!”
“Are you coming on to me?”
“There’s no time for that! Shove it in there approximately two feet!”
“Okay! Now what?”
“Wiggle it around.”
“Have you penetrated and destroyed the metal filter which is flush with the payload bay liner?”
“Um… no?”
“Oh well, it’s too late. What do you say we go get a beer or something?”

I think I’m writing a book

Yup. I realized I was researching, in pretty serious detail, a list of about a dozen topics that started with:

  • Metallurgy
  • Hyperinflation and more generally currencies
  • The history of clothing
  • Modern pharmaceutical research, design, and fabrication

I wonder, now that I write this, if the scope’s too huge for me to ever start on a book, and I should just write a draft and figure out the science later by having people in those fields read and laugh at it.

It’s a doozy, though. I’m totally jazzed.

First big sale woooo

My story about (beeeeep) in (beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep), written at Clarion West, honed through the fine crit skills of my comrades, sold to Asimov’s. Details to follow, but this is my first sale to Asimov’s — my first sale to any of the esteemed digests. I’m super happy. Especially since I read and love Asimov’s.

Hidden lesson from Clarion West

During Clarion, every week I turned in my story in a sweat, freaked out, anxious, exhausted from the week’s effort, wondering if I’d gone mad, if it was any good, if I’d made any progress at all. I would, seriously, turn in, sit down quietly somewhere for a couple minutes to calm down, and then take a shower, or go for a walk, or fall asleep.

I wrote harder, in an exertion sense, then I’d ever before. And here’s the thing that’s come to me: you don’t stop writing that hard. The things I learned don’t make it easy to crank out a story. They made it harder. In some cases, far harder — putting the visceral and the emotional in my stories is still a huge struggle, for instance, and it puts the fear into me again, and when I don’t pull it off I want to bang my head against a wall.

Looking back, I’m not sure why that’s a surprise. I didn’t expect that in week four, Kelly would say “and surprise, here’s the secret to turning out consistently great short stories — drink a cup of green tea quickly five minutes before you sit down! There it is, everyone! Don’t spread it around, because you’d only be helping your competition.”

And yet it’s hard to grasp: to write stories I liked as much as the ones I produced in those six weeks, I have to work just as hard as I worked then. The difficulty setting on the treadmill only goes up.

Unless you write some flash fiction, right Gary?