Twisting and Turning: an update

Hello again. Sorry to abandon the WordPress community for the last couple of months. I knew May and June were going to be busy, but I guess I didn’t realize just how busy! Here’s a quick summary of what’s been going on here before I get into a real post. I’ve promised myself to get some real content flowing again now that my extra-curricular commitments are winding down.

I know I mentioned that I’m coaching soccer and t-ball this year, and it has been a crazy, frustrating, rewarding experience. I’m glad it’s (almost) over now, but I think I’ll sign up to do it again next year unless I have a scheduling conflict. That’s getting harder to predict, though.

I’ve had a bit of a shake up with my career as a writer-for-hire. I’ve done some freelance work over the last seven years or so, and I had a pretty sweet contract that kept me afloat. The industry I work in has been suffering a bit of a slump lately, though, and I’ve been hit twice now with major losses to that contract and it’s gotten to the point now where I need to branch out into something new.

The good news is, the timing is ripe for a project that combines many of my skills and interests, and while I have a lot of work ahead of me, I think I’m going to be able to turn the collapse of one contract into a huge new opportunity. I’ve got some meetings lined up over the summer, and I’ll be crunching some numbers and trying to drum up the financial backing I need to get started. So I’m in that excited/terrified stage of starting a new company where I waver between seeing all the potential, positive and negative, and not knowing where I’ll land. I’m choosing to stay positive, though. I’ll share more as I can!

I haven’t done much in the way of fiction writing over the last two months, as I’ve barely had time to sit down let alone put together a coherent thought. I pretty much crash as soon as I get the kids to sleep these days. However, I have been doing a lot of reading in my spare moments. I can still enjoy other people’s stories when I’m totally drained.

I have been studying some short story writers and hopefully absorbing some of their brilliance. I’ve finished: Skin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson, Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories, The Garden Party and other stories by Katherine Mansfield, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver, First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan, and The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami. I’m halfway through The Paper Menagerie and other stories by Ken Liu. Eventually, I might put together some thoughts on each of these. I really don’t think there’s a bad book in the bunch, but it’s a pretty eclectic collection of styles, so maybe not for everyone.

Otherwise, I’ve still been waiting to hear back about the third round of NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. A cash prize would be a welcome surprise at this point in career limbo, so keep your fingers crossed for me! I’ll let you know as soon as they announce the winners, even if I don’t make the cut.

July will be an exciting month for me as a writer. I’ve got the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge to look forward to, as well as two opportunities to travel (locally) and do some photo journalism projects, both of which will tie into my BIG SECRET PROJECT. As well as the aforementioned business meetings…

I’ll try to stay a bit more active here, though, as I miss the connection with other writers and people who feel my pain. Check in in the comments section if you’re still out there and reading!

Advertisements

Science Fiction and “Otherness”

img_2708

I read a wonderful flash fiction piece the other day, by Jennifer Stephen Kapral called “The Alien in 36B.” In it, Kapral describes the experiences of an alien ambassador travelling by airplane with a bunch of humans and it is both funny and poignant. I loved the descriptions of the alien’s kaleidoscopic ability to see germs, and I think some of my germaphobic friends and readers will appreciate his disgust at being crammed into an archaic flying tin can with a bunch of coughing, sneezing, bacteria ridden humans.

However, what struck me most was the parallels between this alien’s experience with humans and the experience of immigrants, particularly visible minorities, in North America. Kapral expertly injects a sense of otherness that is so subtle I had to read it twice to catch all of it. The alien “[whose] bones felt heavy with the weight of being constantly watched” must consider his every word and gesture so as not to offend his co-passengers. In a polite, everyday type of conversation he “steeled himself, anticipating an insult.” Even something as simple as passing a drink to the woman next to him, which he doesn’t want to do because he is disgusted by the germs he can see on the cup, becomes a potential political battleground because “humans were extraordinarily talented at taking small, meaningless incidents and turning them into worldwide scandals.”

It made me think of the way we expect people to participate in daily rituals that seem harmless enough to us. Simple politeness can carry the weight of cultural expectations we take for granted. A handshake, a shared meal. To a person of a different religion or different culture, there may be a hundred socially ingrained rules they must break in order to appease out sense of “normalcy” or “politeness.”

I also wondered if it would take the sudden appearance of an alien species to finally make humans see that we are in fact more similar than we are different. Is that what it would take for us to really believe that we all belong to the so-called “human race.”

This kind of “otherness” is an integral part of the science fiction genre. In order to speculate about future worlds, species, societies, we must first be able to imagine ourselves as the Other. Some of the best SF writers today are minorities: women, people of colour, LGBTQ+, immigrants, people with disabilities, people with mental illness; I believe this is because writers who have experienced being “othered” by a majority have a better sense of the anxiety, fear, frustration, and loneliness that comes with being different. One of the reasons science fiction is so popular, I believe, is that it gives people a glimpse of a world that is so different that they can imagine themselves belonging there, when our own world seems to reject them.

What do you think? Have you ever experienced being “Other”? Do you feel that it helps you connect to science fiction as a reader (or a writer)? What did you think of the story? I hope you read it!

If you liked that story, and would like to read more, I highly recommend subscribing to Daily Science Fiction‘s newsletter, or at least checking out their site any time you want a quick read. I hope to see my own work up there some day, but I keep publishing it to my blog instead of submitting it. What a terrible habit!

NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge: Update

SC2016_EventBriteHeader01

I’ve been meaning to update you all on my first round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Contest ever since we got the feedback back a few weeks ago. So here it is!

Some of you may have read my submission already. You can find it here, if you’re interested. I was really excited for my submission this time. I got a prompt that was right up my alley and I was quite happy with what I produced. So I had been awaiting the results of the first round with bated breath!

Unfortunately, the judges were not quite as enamored with my story as I was, haha. They actually prefaced this round with a note that competition was very stiff, and not to feel badly if we didn’t score as well as we’d like. That didn’t happen during any of the three rounds I participated in for the Flash Fiction contest, so I guess I’ll believe them.

Alas, I didn’t even place in the top ten for the first round! But all is not lost. The feedback was actually quite encouraging, and it gives me some direction for what to do with this piece before I start submitting it elsewhere.

Here is what the judges had to say:

Feedback for “Tongue Tied” by Sarah Jensen

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY –

{1737}  Your narrative was complex, but perfectly executed. Your ideas were dynamic, but comprehensible. Your narrative landscape was intriguing!

{1772}  Suki has a clear outer goal that she pursues over the course of the story. The premise is original and keeps the reader engaged.

{1636}  The severity of the stakes is never lost, and even before clear conflicts arise, the tones does a good amount of work in terms of demonstrating the nature of the story ahead.  The world-building is also impressively done, especially in the early pages.

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK –

{1737}  Try to maintain the clarity of some of your more thoughtful or intelligible ideas.

{1772}  Suki’s inner needs should be developed more. She has a clear outer goal to save her career and patients, but what about her inner drive? By giving her something to long for (for example, she needs to prove herself to the world) and an inner conflict to deal with (her desire to punish Meeker vs needing him), the story will make a greater impact on the reader.

{1636}  The dialogue can be a bit stilted at tomes, and at others, overly expositional.  Additionally, much of the language (dialogic or not) is so internal and specific to the world being created here that it might be off-putting to readers. An example: “You know Blastocorp produces only the highest quality pluripotent cells from synthetic lab-engineered blastocyst embryos.”

So, what do you think? If you haven’t read it yet, head over to my Flash Fiction Friday section and give “Tongue Tied” a read. Let me know if you agree or disagree with the judges, and if there is anything you would add! I will be submitting this piece somewhere, sometime before summer hits. All critique is welcome!

SF/Horror Book Review: I am Legend by Richard Matheson

I’m giving this particular edition three stars, because I’m reviewing the book as a whole—not just the iconic titular work. “I am Legend” is, hands down, the best story in this collection. And when I bought this book on Amazon (don’t shoot me) I didn’t realize that it was anything more than Matheson’s famous dystopian novella.

If I was reviewing “I am Legend” alone, this would be a 4 star review, maybe even 4.5. After all, it is the vampire novel that gave birth to zombie fiction!

Wait, what?

No, really. Although Matheson’s tale features the last man alive in a battle for survival against a host of vampires, “I am Legend” is much more akin to the zombie lit that has followed, than what we (or I should say, I) associate with modern vampire fiction. I never really jumped on the zombie bandwagon, but I have always enjoyed a good vampire tale (Anne Rice defined my angsty teenage years), and I think that Matheson succeeds in both genres. What is even more impressive is that “I am Legend” was written in 1954, and has influenced countless contemporary masters of horror and SF since.

Of course, “I am Legend” is not the first vampire novel (novella, in this case), nor is it the first dystopian or plague novel for that matter. Detractors from this work love to point this out as if not being the first somehow negates the work’s influence on popular culture. One gets the feeling that some of these people still believe in “original” art, as if there is such a thing as a completely new idea. Sorry, folks, it’s all been done before. Literature is an evolution of ideas. Just because something has been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done again, and done better. That’s the fun of writing, isn’t it? Expressing old ideas in new ways?

“I am Legend” is a moody, self-reflective tale about the end of the world. Robert Neville, the protagonist, battles fear, loneliness, anger, and despair as the last human being untouched by the plague that has turned the rest of the world into vampires. He’s perhaps not a likeable character, he spends a lot of time wallowing in self-pity and drinking himself into a stupor, but that’s not to say that he’s not a believable character. Matheson’s prose is descriptive without being flowery, the repetition of scenes and themes that many found irritating, to me served to build an idea of the necessarily mundane routine of Neville’s life. He is confined to a small area of the city, defined by how far he can go and still make it back to the safety of his house by sundown. His life consists of gathering supplies, maintaining his property, dispatching any vampires he finds and, later on, researching the plague. When something disturbs this routine, such as finding the dog or the woman, the reader is shocked—as Neville is shocked—as much by the disturbance as by how little it takes to make a profound impact on a lonely man’s existence.

The story is only about 170 pages long, so the tedium of Neville’s world doesn’t bog the reader down (or I didn’t find it did). Had it been longer, I think Matheson would have needed to add more action to maintain the pace of the story, but this would have detracted from the intensely moody landscape he’s built. It is the lack of action that is so disturbing in “I am Legend,” and that is what makes the ending so shocking, in contrast. Neville’s perspective shifts so suddenly that it is disorienting, for the reader and for him. The skill with which Matheson delivers the transition of Ben Cortman from antagonist to pitiable victim was gut-wrenching and unexpected. And Neville’s last thought in the novel, the titular phrase “I am Legend,” has chilling implications.

Some people were bothered by Matheson’s “pseudo-science,” finding that his attempts to explain the plague were ham-handed or just silly. But I think they forget that this was written in the mid-1950’s, and that what we recognize as being impossible or implausible today would not necessarily have been so then. I feel it’s an unfair criticism. Even if Matheson should have known better (I have no idea what stage the study of virus and bacteria were at in the ‘50’s) it’s a red herring argument. This is not hard science fiction, the science behind the plague wasn’t important to the story at all. What was important, was seeing a man’s desperate attempt to explain and understand his circumstances. The way that Neville was able to create a sense of normalcy for himself by pursing an answer to the age-old question of why thing happen the way they do. So Matheson’s science is a little far-fetched, I get it. But had it been more plausible, it would have had no effect on the outcome of the story. It was the act of researching that had meaning for Neville, not the answers themselves, in my opinion.

Sadly, the rest of the stories in this collection didn’t really do it for me. I won’t go into them here, as most people who pick up this book are likely only doing so for “I am Legend”, but rate them as follows:

“I am Legend” 4-4.5/5

“Buried Talents” 2/5

“The Near Departed” 1/5

“Prey” 1/5

“Witch War” 1/5

“Dance of the Dead” 3/5

“Dress of White Silk” 2/5

“Mad House” 3/5

“The Funeral” 3/5

“From Shadowed Places” 2/5

“Person to Person” 3.5/5

***A couple of complaints on the edition I bought: Nowhere on the cover, with the exception of some fine print on the back, does this mention that there are other stories than the titular one inside. When I bought it on Amazon (don’t shoot me) I had no idea that this was a collection of short stories. I accidently discovered this when reading a review of “I am Legend” and I realized that the book I was reading was far too thick to be a novella, as the reviewer described it. I guess it’s not a big deal, but I felt kind of deceived…

Worse than this misrepresentation of “I am Legend” as a three-hundred page novel, is the tacky red star on the front of the book proudly proclaiming that the tale is “Now a major motion picture starring Will Smith!”. If they have to do that, why couldn’t it be a sticker? Why print it on there, forever scarring what otherwise was some pretty cool cover art? Especially annoying because the big red star didn’t show up on Amazon’s preview image (not the book’s fault, I guess, but still annoying). Grrr!