Friday Roundup: Ursula K. Le Guin on Racism, Anarchy, and Hearing Her Characters Speak

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I love the work of Ursula K. Le Guin, and in this I’m not alone. Though she’s primarily known as a science fiction (SF) writer, her admirers include literary heavyweights like David Mitchell, Salman Rushdie, and the fabulous Zadie Smith, who said that “Le Guin writes as well as any non-‘genre’ writer alive.” In this interview, reposted from Structo this week on LitHub, you’ll find nothing more than UKL being UKL, which is always pretty brilliant.

In particular, I appreciate her thoughts on fictional utopias–how she realized that anarchy, as a philosophy, did not have its own utopian novel. So she wrote The Dispossessed, easily one of my favorite SF novels.

She also says some cool things about how sometimes, as an author, a story can come to you because you hear it–either a first line or a character’s voice or perhaps both. I experienced something like that myself with my SF novel Kublai (though, in the end, I will probably throw out the original beginning; it’s definitely a work in progress).

Every writer knows that beginnings are a special kind of magic–a process I think of as “piercing the veil.” If a story is a big undifferentiated field of associations, a beginning (however it comes to you) is a point, and from a point you can draw a line–and from there, you’re off and running, trying to keep up with the thing as it rolls along down an increasingly steep incline.

Or maybe that’s just me!

Wednesday Works in Progress: Night-Blooming Cereus

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This week I’ve started work on a different short story, “Night-Blooming Cereus.” It’s the tale of a woman facing a difficult diagnosis who forms a relationship with an elusive teenager in a place that’s dear to my heart, a little pocket park in Prescott, Arizona.

I shifted gears from “Dream Studies” into this project because it’s been one year since my own difficult diagnosis–one year of nothing but good news and good things and good people, but still, there is something about anniversaries. Especially when a big follow-up test is looming on the horizon.

The woman in the story is mourning the child she may never get to have, the way I was last year. And this year, my husband and I are beginning the process of adopting an infant. Huge! Especially since I have a book coming out in November, and we have no idea when we might be chosen by an expectant mother; it could be as soon as July, or it could be two years from now.

Nevertheless, I’m thinking about something I imagine all female writers do when they’re expecting: I’m wondering if I have what it takes to keep writing through the baby years. This article from New York Magazine isn’t all that reassuring, but I find myself wondering: If I’m already accustomed to drafting in very small increments (say, a half hour), won’t I be in good shape to survive those years as a writer?

One of my beloved patrons, Pauls Toutonghi, recently posted the increments in which he wrote the first draft of his latest novel. The word counts ranged from 6 to 1600. Surely I can manage this while caring for a small human? And didn’t Lidia Yuknavitch (who just won not one but two Oregon Book Awards!) say that she and her husband experienced some of their most productive years when their son was small?

In any case, this is a story time will tell.

Best Thing I’ve Read All Week: 1,000 True Fans

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The “long tail” is a bit of shorthand for the fact that there are just a few books/movie/albums/etc. (what Patreon calls Things) that appeal to everyone–the blockbusters–and many Things that appeal to select groups of people. Studios and publishers tend to focus on the blockbusters, but now that the tools by which Things are published/produced are available to one and all, the Long Tail means that most artists can find a small market.

The question being, can that small market be big enough to sustain us as artists? To, as Ursula K. Le Guin seems fond of putting it, “keep us in peanut butter?”

This article that appears on The Technetium (which came to me via Kelsey Nelson, whose thoughts on book marketing I’ve found useful). It states that, based on the math, an artist only needs to find 1,000 True Fans to make a living right now.

The only catch is that a True Fan is someone who’s willing to purchase any and everything that you, as an artist, produce–and that you, as an artist, keep producing outstanding work.

“But the point of this strategy is to say that you don’t need a hit to survive.  You don’t need to aim for the short head of best-sellerdom to escape the long tail. There is a place in the middle, that is not very far away from the tail, where you can at least make a living. That mid-way haven is called 1,000 True Fans. It is an alternate destination for an artist to aim for.”

As I launch my debut novel–that is, my first big Thing–this is, without a doubt, the destination I’m aiming for.


The Story Behind the Story: “Spin”

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I wrote the first draft of this short story around 1999 and revised it innumerable times over the years. Though it got me into grad school, the story racked up at least twenty rejections and remained unpublished until 2013, when a young editor at Bayou Magazine named Robin Baudier told her superiors that she wouldn’t take on any other project until the magazine decided whether or not it was going to publish this piece. I’d found my first real fan!

It seems fitting that Robin’s love for “Spin” brought this story out, at last, into the light of day, because it’s a story about love, albeit romantic.

It’s also a story about physics, quantum entanglement (the real phenomenon at the heart of the fiction), and Einstein’s “spooky actions at a distance.” I’ve been thinking about such things recently in the wake of our latest major scientific breakthrough, the detection of gravitational waves via the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, which appears to confirm one of the stranger implications of Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

In essence, that giant, immensely expensive piece of equipment was constructed solely for the purpose of detecting the subtle ripples in space time hypothetically generated by the collision of two black holes just over a billion years ago, many millions of galaxies from here–and, as of just a few months ago, it succeeded. Those ripples are hypothetical no more.

Nicola Twilley, writing for the New Yorker,  points out that virtually everything we know about the universe has come to us via the electromagnetic spectrum, whereas LIGO is a completely new kind of telescope, which means we have an entirely new kind of astronomy to explore. How exciting!

Clearly, I’m still preoccupied with many of the same things I was at twenty, when I wrote the first draft of this story. You’ll see other hallmarks of Young Writer Susan here as well…

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