What is your writing process like? Did “A Man Walks Into a Bar: In Which More Than Four Decades After My Father’s Reluctant Night of Darts on West 54th Street I Finally Understand What Needs to Be Done” fit the pattern?
In many ways it did, but in its most important way, it did not. Which is only right for the strangest, most personal story I’ve ever written during a lifetime devoted to words.
For example—when I begin a story, I rarely know where the plot is heading. The most I might have once a character or setting or conceit or opening line pops into my head is a gut feeling. Perhaps I will vaguely know the new piece will have some sort of happy ending, or realize now’s the time to write a story which will tell people to be nicer to each other, or that they should appreciate life more . . . but that’s as far as I’ll go. Because if I have a clear vision of where a story’s heading, I no longer have an interest in writing it. For me, writing a story is learning what the story wants to be.
In fact, there are even times when I feel a destination coalescing and push it away, knowing once the goal line appears in my head I’ll have no interest in working my way toward it. I’m the kind of writer who, if I were actually to proceed with outlining a story, I would decide . . . well, I guess there’s no need to write the story itself now. I’ve learned all I need to know.
This story was in perfect alignment with that inclination of mine. All I knew when I began was one pivotal scene, and nothing else, not even an idea how to start the story so I’d eventually reach that point. Until I woke one night with the opening sentence in my head, scribbled it down in the dark, and hoped I’d be able to read my handwriting the next morning. (Luckily, I could!) And then I began writing as best as I was able the next, best sentence, over and over again.
That’s how it is with most of my stories. But as to where this one differed—I had no idea whether anything I was doing would actually result in an eventual story. It seemed too weird. Too personal. I usually only begin once I believe I have a concept which will result in something someone other than me might want to read, but in this case, I had to give myself permission not to care. In fact, after writing the first few paragraphs of this one, I then scribbled in my journal:
“I think I’m going to have to consider this playing, and not actually writing a story, so I don’t have to feel bad when it turns out not to become one. I’ll let it just be fun.”
And then—to my delight—when I showed it to a friend and asked whether he thought anyone else would ever want to read the story or any editor would possibly want to publish it, was told by him—Scott, it’s the best thing you’ve ever written. Whether that’s true or not after more than four decades of publishing and 110+ short stories out there, that’s for others to decide. But I’m grateful Lightspeed has chosen to showcase it to the world.
What is your writing space like? What do you like to have around for optimal creativity?
I could give you a guided tour of my office, and describe in detail all the souvenirs with which I’ve surrounded myself, but none of that would offer a clue to how I created this or any other story, because none of my creative work gets done there. Because—I do none of my creative work at a keyboard. All of my fiction is written longhand and then keyed in after the fact. Then to revise, I print out the manuscript, scribble my edits all over the page, key them in, print them out, and repeat.
And so, my fiction is not written in the room designated as my office, but on a couch in the living room, or out among our bamboo, or on a bench in a public park, all places where if you came upon me, you’d find me with pen in hand, alternating between staring off into the middle distance and scrawling in a penmanship so illegible its unreadable by anyone but me. And sometimes not even me.
But to satisfy the curiosity of those who’d like to know what I’ve surrounded myself with in my office space, some of what you’d find here on the shelves and walls if you visited would be—
A mid-seventies Marvel Comics bathroom key bent by Uri Geller during one of his trips to the office when I was an Assistant Editor there.
A 425-million-year old trilobite from Morocco.
A framed copy of the December 1928 issue of Amazing Stories featuring a cover story by Jack Williamson—as well as the autograph I asked him to place there seventy-five years after its publication.
A poster of the first convention I attended at age fifteen.
A ukulele which I’ve been strumming far too infrequently the more writing I’ve been getting done.
A signed photograph of the great acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, which I gave to my parents for a long-go anniversary, and have since inherited now that they’re both gone.
And oh so much more memorabilia.
Did you get stuck at any point while writing this? How did you get past that?
I don’t consider myself as ever having gotten stuck in any story, but then, we might have different opinions as to what is meant by the word “stuck.”
When I’m not sure what happens next—as will occasionally happen with a pantser—I pull out a journal and write out all the possible branches the story could take. Sometimes there might be a dozen or more until I find the right direction in which to head, and then, once I do, I return to the story.
If that doesn’t work—I’ll take a nap. Or a shower. And know that while I’m in either of those spaces, the next sentence, or even the next paragraph, will pop into my head, as my subconscious is my greatest—and in fact only—collaborator.
You might think of those brief work stoppages as being stuck, but I don’t, because I have no doubts whatever is meant to be next will be given to me as a gift.
The only time I was truly stuck wasn’t on an individual story, but over writing in general, due to the results of the 2016 election. It was the only writers block I’ve ever had. I had trouble deciding what I could write which would possibly be commensurate to the times in which we were living. What finally resulted was the “The Stranded Time Traveler Embraces the Inevitable,” which ended up being published in Cat Rambo’s anthology If This Goes On. Once that ice flow was broken, the work continued.
I hope this current story in Lightspeed is also worthy of these times.
Where are you in this story?
Why, I’m the narrator! It is, after all, the most personal thing I’ve ever written. And about that, I shall say nothing more . . . because I hate spoilers with the heat of a thousand dying suns.
What led you into writing genre fiction?
I don’t see myself as having had any choice. It’s in my nature. I don’t know whether I was born that way or molded that way, but see the world in fantastic terms, always wondering “what if.” And I’m grateful for that, because it provides me with the freedom I need to make sense of the world through a broader range of metaphors than mimetic fiction allows.
Is there anything you want to make sure readers noticed?
That they should be more like my father than . . . the other guy.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
If I could say one thing to other writers, it would be—
Never give up! Never surrender!
Lightspeed rejected twenty of my short story submissions before accepting my twenty-first. You’ll notice I didn’t say Lightspeed rejected me twenty times. The publication only rejected words on the page. There’s nothing personal about rejection, and just because an editor passes on one story doesn’t mean she’ll do the same next time. As long as you find joy in what you’re doing, keep on doing it.
This advice comes to you from a writer who took forty-four years of trying to sell his first story to Analog. And who managed to collect several thousand rejections over his lifetime. So to repeat—
Never give up.
What are you reading lately? What writers inspire you?
The novel that most moved me recently was When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill. I don’t think I’ve felt a novel more necessary to its era since Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother. Barnhill’s novel is imbued with the power and precision of poetry, and manages to be relevant without being didactic. Please keep it in your thoughts as award season begins!
Other than writing, do you have any other creative pursuits? What do you do to relax?
I wish I could say “strum my ukulele,” but as I mentioned above, the writing has been going so well lately I’ve been doing it far less frequently. But I’ll flip that question on its head and say—writing itself relaxes me. I don’t see it as work, or a chore.
I am never more at peace than with a pen in hand, for then, nothing else exists but me and the page. I’ve heard runners talk of being “in the zone,” a place where all the world falls away. That’s what happens to me when I’m writing.
What are you working on lately? Where else can fans look for your work?
The story I’ve just begun has a core concept which might be impossible to pull off. We’ll see. I’ve always felt I should only attempt to write stories which have a high degree of failure. I was once advised that as a writer, I should always play to my strengths. But I’ve instead spent my career playing to my weaknesses. If I don’t do that, how will I get better? Which means my current project might crash and burn horribly. But even if it does, I’ll at least have learned something from the experience.
As for what readers can experience now or shortly—
My most recent collection, Things That Never Happened, about which Publishers Weekly wrote, “his talent is undeniable,” was published by Cemetery Dance Press.
Recent and upcoming short stories from me include—
“The Lessons Only a Jelly Bean Can Teach” in Pulphouse.
“Learning to Accept What’s to Come” in Apex.
“The More Loving One” in Proton Reader.
“The Message Behind the Words is the Voice of the Heart” in Daily Science Fiction.
And down the road, another story in Lightspeed titled “The Letters They Left Behind”.
Plus—those wishing to hear me interview writers while we break bread together can check out my podcast, Eating the Fantastic, where we chat about how the magic is made.
Spread the word!