My latest post for the Scientific American Guest Blog is up. It’s a response to an article at Salon that promotes some dangerous ideas about obesity by equating anti-obesity sentiments to homophobia, and downplaying the medical risks of obesity. As someone with weight problems, I thought it was important to publicly disagree with what was said in the Salon article. If you’d like to weigh in (pun intended) on the subject, the article can be found here: “Anti-Obesity Is Not The New Homophobia.”
9/11 was a traumatic day for all Americans, myself included. While I didn’t lose anyone I knew that day, we all lost a piece of ourselves. My experience of the event is complicated by the fact that I’m an Arab-American Muslim. All three pieces of that identity – the Arab, the American, and the Muslim – were profoundly effected by the events of that day.
Five or six years ago, I began writing about my experiences, and over the course of the next few years, revisited that piece, fine-tuning it into the memoir short that was published by Mobius: The Journal of Social Change. It felt appropriate to repost the link to the story, so here it is: Voices From The Corral.
I recently realized in my father-for-a-second-time daze that I’d neglected to mention my most recent guest blog post at Scientific American, entitled Scientific Arabian: Revolutions Then and Now. This article hews close to one of my motivations as a writer – to increase an awareness of the Arab world’s contributions to science in Western audiences.
As a high school student, I can’t recall a single instance where a teacher made any mention of the Arab world’s contributions to science. I DO recall learning about Avveroes and Avicenna in college, who I’d later learn through studies outside the school system were Arab scientists named Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina. In our post 9/11 world, this sort of denial and minimization has only exacerbated the issue, and has been incorporated into a larger fabric of Arab/Islamophobia.
I’m not delusional enough to think this series will even amount to a speed-bump for the fear machine, but perhaps it’ll have a few readers thinking about how the pace of scientific advancement is connected with the sharing of information between cultures.
Two weeks ago I found myself Stupefied by my mailbox.
Contained within its dark innards was a single letter from Bruce Bethke, editor of Stupefying Stories. I wasn’t expecting a hard-copy communications from him: payment for “Two Zombies Walk into a Bar” was to be arranged via PayPal, and a response to my latest submission was expected to be a rejection via e-mail (like all other communications with this publisher), though I hoped not.
Like most any story that an author tries to publish, “HoPE” had its share of rejections – in this case, five times. Considering the experimental nature of the story (who the heck writes a story in Pythonesque code format?), and the fact that it’s only 275 words long, I fully expected another rejection.
I opened the letter and unfolded it to find a contract. For “HoPE”. What? Just like that? No acceptance e-mail? Unusual, but I’ll take it!
So why had Stupefying Stories accepted “HoPE” where others hadn’t? Its a foolish game, trying to guess the motives of editors, but I never claimed to be wise. I can think of a couple possible reasons why Bruce & Co. accepted “HoPE”:
- Go ahead and click that link up there, the one that says “Bruce Bethke“. Okay, I’ll make it easy. You can just click the one on his name two sentences earlier. Read his profile. Now, I had it in the back of my head that if I found a publisher that had some computer programmers on its staff, the story would have a shot. I wasn’t consciously aware that Bruce was a programmer when I submitted this story to his publication. Perhaps subconsciously I was. On the other hand, I’d submitted the story to Unitied Shoelaces of the Mind specifically because I thought they’d be interested in something experimental AND because the editor’s bio mentioned computer programming. In baseball terms, 1 for 2 ain’t bad. Hooray for the subconscious!
- In an interview at IGMS (you’ll need an account to read the whole interview), Ben Bova said this of John Campbell:
John Campbell was very kind to new writers, very solicitous. And he was a fountain of ideas. He spent the better part of his life striving to get writers to produce the kinds of stories that he wanted for Astounding/Analog. He discovered new talent and worked ceaselessly to develop it.
Sounds a little different than your standard form rejection, doesn’t it? Now, an excerpt from an interview with Mr. Bethke:
I’d been running an online writing workshop for several years and was getting tired of hearing my workshop writers — some of whom were producing truly first-rate work — complain that they just couldn’t seem to get a break. So I started looking into it, and realized that yes, the kids were right; there really are very few editors out there now willing to do for today’s new writers what George and Charlie did for me.
And by extension, what John Campbell did for Ben Bova and others. Mind you, I’m not lamenting bygone era of supportive editors. Writers have other resources for development that Golden Age writers didn’t have (like the internet), and I can’t claim to know all the hats today’s editors wear. Still, it is refreshing to see an editor in 2012 who is willing to help nurture writers who show promise (I feel compelled to make a shout-out to another editor who works to develop writers, Stephen Ramey, who I had the pleasure of working with on Triangulation: Morning After).
The lesson just reinforces what I learned from “Voices From the Corral” and “Two Zombies Walk Into a Bar“: don’t just know the magazines you submit to – know their editors. Just don’t spam them. Definitely don’t stalk them. That’d just be rude.
I’ve heard word over at a certain social networking site that the TWO ZOMBIES WALK INTO A BAR will be (hopefully) released in three weeks. It’s been a long wait, but I’m quite excited at the prospect of seeing my first sale in print as part of an anthology. Here is the cover art for the anthology. Clicking the picture will take you over to the Stupefying Stories social network page. Go ahead and give them a like, they deserve it!
So I’ve been a bad blogger, haven’t I? June goes by, and no posts. July passes, and still no posts. Well, I hope you’ll forgive me, because I have the best excuse in the world!
Please welcome Nour, our newborn daughter. Her name means ‘Light’ in Arabic, and if you’ll forgive the cliche, she’s lit up our lives. Consider that out of the three sons my parents had, they in turn produced eight children, seven of them boys, prior to Nour’s birth. I never bought the idea that there is a 50/50 chance of having one or the other for a given couple. The bioinformatics analyst in me wonders if in fact there is a genetic disposition towards producing offspring of one or the other. But I digress.
Now that things are settling down in the A.A. Leil household, I’m finding the time to blog and write again. That means a flurry of announcements is imminent where you can read about my latest SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN blog post, take a peek at the cover art for the anthology TWO ZOMBIES WALK INTO A BAR will appear (soon!) in, and learn how I’ve been Stupefied, yet again.
In the war of words, writers frequently target cliches, reaching for that axe of manuscript destruction, lopping off sentences while screaming “die cliche die” so frightfully they’d make an Uruk-Hai proud. Most ferocious of all are the newest recruits, eager to impress the writers they critique with both sharp wit and incisive intellect. And who can blame them? The warnings to avoid cliches like the plague are drilled into them from day one by more experienced writers who themselves have been trained by their own critique experiences to kill cliches wherever they may be found. But is this for the best?
Consider Legolas from the Lord of the Rings:
Rather than slice lock and limb from his black-maned opponent in the Mines of Moria, Legolas takes aim before adroitly planting an arrow between the goblin’s beady eyes. No mess, no fuss.
As critiquers, we can take a hint from Legolas and think twice, or even thrice, before we admonish someone for using a cliche. The first question to ask ourselves is if the author is even at the stage of revision where they care about cliches. Many authors divide their writing into two stages, focusing first on the general construction of the story (plot, pacing, character development) and saving the nitpicks (like cliche words) for later. A manuscript in its early stages benefits more from critical attention to story-level problems because these are the make-or-break issues, and all the cliche-free prose in the world won’t make for a compelling read.
Suppose the manuscript is ready for nitpicking. There are still a few things to consider before slashing that sentence. Cliches aren’t cliche to everyone. An older reader has a larger catalog of cliches in their mind than a young reader, so therefore stories for adult audiences should be more concerned about cliches than those for young audiences. Similarly, what was cliche twenty years ago may not be cliche today, and what we might think is cliche may not be cliche to most people.
Here’s an exercise that illustrates the point. A visit to ClicheFinder allows us to randomly select ten cliches from a database and list them. Here is an example:
1. In the heat of the night 2. Cudgel your brains 3. All over the place like a dogs breakfast 4. Look what the cat dragged in 5. A submarine with screen doors 6. Win's one's spurs 7. Paying lip service 8. Return to the fold 9. The game is not worth the candle 10. He's like school in the summer ...No class
How many of these cliches have you heard before? Unless you are remarkably well-read, I doubt you’ve heard all of them, and that means to you, they aren’t all cliche. Speaking for myself, I’ve only heard of 1,4,7 and 8.
Suppose we’ve asked ourselves all these questions and still think we’ve identified a cliche. Is the cliche part of dialog? People speak in cliches all the time because it quickly communicates ideas through a shared understanding of the cliche’s meaning. One of many cliches I’ve used earlier in this piece was ‘make-or-break’. Sure, I could’ve said ‘problems with plot, character, and pacing can render a reader completely disinterested in your story’, but ‘make-or-break’ is more efficient.
If we’ve asked ourselves all these questions and still think we need to strike out the cliche, then we can knock that arrow, pull that bowstring, and let our cliche-hunting fury fly because like Legolas, our aim will be true.
What if we’re on the receiving end of the critique? We can’t really control what our critique partners say, nor do we want to. As critique recipients, we should always seriously consider comments given to us, but we must also feel free to reject them. A first reader of one my stories once declared that it was cliche to use the word ‘blared’ to describe a shock jock’s voice coming from a radio. I’d never heard anyone else say that, and none of the other readers flagged the word in the manuscript. More importantly, from the point of view of the protagonist who found the shock jock’s words offensive, blared was exactly the right verb to use to describe the protagonists attitude toward what he’d heard. So I ignored the comment and moved on. The editors of Stupefying Stories didn’t seem to mind the word “blared” either, because they bought the story.
Which of the ten cliches above have you heard before? Let’s determine by group consensus which of these aren’t cliche at all. Comment below!
Over four thousand people infected, nine hundred of them suffering hemolytic-uremic syndrome, a disorder whose first symptoms are vomiting and diarrhea. For fifty individuals, it ended in death. Such is the grim toll that the 2011 E. coli epidemic wrought upon Europe, and in particular France and Germany.
When Yonatan Grad, an infectious disease physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and research fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), first read of the outbreak in the New York Times, he thought he and his colleague, Bill Hanage, could contribute to the understanding of the outbreak.
Read the rest of “The Future of Epidemiology: Next-Gen Sequencing.”
Over at my writer’s group, Philangelus carpet-tagged a bunch of us with the Lucky 7 Game. This writer-sport’s gone viral, and though I’ve seen it spreading throughout my cyberspace haunts for a few weeks, I hadn’t been tagged until today. The rules of the game, shamelessly copied from Philangelus’s blog, are as follows:
1. Go to page 77 of your current MS
2. Go to line 7
3. Copy down the next seven lines as they’re written–no cheating!
Here is my problem. My current MS is a short story I’m working on for a contest. In the unlikely event that a contest judge or administrator reads this and happened to recognize my story later on, I could be disqualified. So instead, I’m posting the Lucky Seven from the last story I finished. From PLATINUM BLONDE:
One A.M., and the fishmongers are still at it. How is it they work the sea by day – good, honest work that God would approve of, and spit in His face by night with singing and dancing? Hypocrites.
The dock’s fish market spills out into promenade hugging the harbor. Just a few strollers tonight, and I’ve got enough cover to approach them unnoticed. God must be looking out for me. I duck into a stall, the stench from the discards of the day’s catch nearly makes me gag.
So there you have it, my Lucky Seven. In case your skeptical about the number seven being lucky, let me point out that my first two publications were both accepted at their respective markets on the seventh try!
Care to post your own Lucky Seven below?
The internet abounds with advice for new writers, with suggestions on everything from avoiding adverbs to the elements of story. For nearly two years, I devoured this kind of advice wherever I found it. Even fillet mignon gets boring if you eat it every day, though, and I soon found that I’d begun encountering the same advice over and over again.
Through all this advice-seeking, I rarely encountered discussions about attitude. Maybe that’s because attitude isn’t something on a page that can be dissected, and it isn’t easily subdivided into categories like plot, character development, or style. Maybe it’s because people don’t want to be told how they should think when it comes to their writing. So instead, I’ll share a prevailing attitude I have about writing that’s been central to my growth as a writer in the hopes you’ll find it useful. So what is that attitude? I’m a visual thinker, so lets start with a picture:
We’ve got someone walking a tightrope. If he falters a little to the left or right, he’s in for a nasty face-plant, or maybe worse if he is high enough – a long nose-drive to the asphalt. What could that possibly have to do with writing? To survive in writing, you’ve got to be balanced.
Early in my writing career, I shared one of my first stories -this precious manuscript resulting from hours of toil at the keyboard – with several people with the hopes of publishing it in The Sun (first publication in The Sun, really? What was I smoking?). The feedback I received was devastating, with readers describing the piece as preachy, pedantic, expository, and stupid. It was a tough inauguration into the world of literary critique. Humbled by the experience, I took the manuscript (VOICES FROM THE CORRAL) and all the written comments and stowed them in a drawer, certain I’d never again let that story see the light of day.
I could’ve told myself I didn’t have the talent I thought I did, that I was just another hack who thought writing meant nothing more than putting words to paper. Instead, I set to work on another story, finished it, and sent it to some other writing partners for feedback. And I opened that drawer. I reread the comments on VOICES. Where months ago I’d seen only scorn, now I saw valuable suggestions for improvement. Where there really was scorn, I saw the reasons behind the reader’s reaction. I revised the story.
I sent it to The Sun. It was rejected, but the notice came with a kind personal note from the slush reader. From November of 2010 to April of 2011, I sent it to five more magazines, and it was rejected each time. I began to doubt that I’d ever find a home for the story. I trunked it again and told myself I’d never submit it anywhere again. For the next ten months I religiously honed my writing skills, waking up early in the morning, crawling out of bed at 1 am, and reading every writing guide I could get my hands on. I wrote several more stories, one of which earned an Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future contest, but I still couldn’t break in to publication.
I had a conversation with one of my critique buddies, and he convinced me that I should submit every story, and keep submitting it until it finds a home. He helped me realize my mistake – I’d been holding out to break into one of the handful of pro markets, and by doing so, I’d been denying myself any chance at validation. Does an aspiring Olympic runner just walk onto the track and win the gold with no prior training? Nope!
So I took VOICES out and submitted it for the seventh time, this time careful to pair it with a market I thought appropriate for the piece. The result? Accepted. Within the same week, another story I’d written while VOICES was collecting dust sold to an anthology. A few weeks later, I was invited to contribute to the Scientific American Guest Blog.
So what does this all have to do with balance and tightropes? It was only after I’d balanced the humbling experience of harsh criticism with a dose of confidence and objectivity that I’d been able to use the feedback to whip VOICES into shape fit for publication. It was only when I tempered my ambition with the reality that I’d been submitting this story to inappropriate markets that the story found a publisher.
So it was that I’d found balance in my attitude toward writing. It isn’t just about balancing confidence with humility or keeping a realistic perspective on markets, either. I also learned to balance my own artistic vision with the comments of readers. A writer needs to learn when reader comments are useful, but must also learn to recognize when they aren’t, however well-meaning they may be. My general rule is that if one person in your critique group suggests a change, it is just an opinion (unless it makes sense to me), and if they all suggest a change, it’s virtually a fact, and if I ignore it, I’d better have a damn good reason for doing so.
It was only by keeping my balance that I wasI able to cross to the other side of that tightrope. As for that other story I started after first trunking VOICES? Well, it’s sitting in my desk drawer, but it will see the light of day again, someday.