Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List. Previously I finished up a run of contemporary female authors with a local, academic read. Now as I complete the first round of re-writes on my science fiction manuscript I decided to pivot to that genre in the Reading List, starting with Robert Heinlein’s masterwork, the 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land. Or rather I decided to read what was released in 1991 as the “original, uncut version.” (Although Heinlein may have actually preferred the initial version.)
This novel is considered a masterpiece of the form, and while I don’t totally disagree I must say I had my ups and downs with both the narrative and what Heinlein was trying to say with the story. As readers know by now, these entries are not so much rundowns of the plots of these books, and I wouldn’t want to do that with this book anyway. If you are truly interested in the genre this one is without a doubt worth reading, but I don’t think I would place it as high as Vonnegut or Gibson. The novel was indeed vastly ahead of its time, and was visionary in how to use fiction to deconstruct such societal woes as religion and worries about “the other” (in this case an “other” from the planet Mars, yet human like us). It was also quite revolutionary in its approach to sexual relationships, which scandalized people at the time and led to the novel being banned from schools. Not much of it seems that way in 2019; despite the novel supposedly taking place around our time period there were more than a few lines (including a victim-blaming one concerning rape uttered by a female character and some pretty outdated views on homosexuality) that I would have preferred cut.
I thought the novel’s strongest parts were in fact the religious bits, and Heinlein’s deft use of prose to examine what was just becoming a major element of society in his day to be very interesting. He was essentially describing today’s megachurches, and I was blown away to read passages of gambling halls and strip joints being turned into religious domains, pondering how he was simply drawing conclusions of what was to come. The entire novel is also a great example of how to build up enough of a world that it is a believable place for the characters to interact through the story. On the whole, I did enjoy this over-five-hundred page novel, and it was a good if not overly satisfactory (re-)introduction to the genre, and I do hope to revisit Heinlein again in the future.
Toward the end of this year I plan on getting to Omar El Akkad, Dave Eggers and Ursula Le Guin, as well as possibly some Burroughs and Asmiov. But up next, in the middle of all of this I am going to take a break from my manuscript and work on some (science fiction-y) short stories that I hope to submit in the wake of “Live a Mile” finding publication. To that end I’m going to dive into a relatively new entry in Houghton Mifflin’s long-running Best American Series: the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017 (ok so I’m a little behind the times, sue me). And I will be back with an update on that published story when it hits the streets in October. Thanks as always for reading and writing!
Hello readers and welcome to another series on this here blog I’ve been struggling with for years: shorter pieces focusing on the writing life and its challenges, daily affairs, and all it entails. That was initially what this blog was going to be all about, but it sort of got hijacked by the reading list and my “how to write a book” project. The first essay is here if you missed it. And without further ado, here is the second installment in the Writing Life.
Embrace the failure. I know, it sounds counterintuitive and perhaps like every other piece of writing advice you’ve encountered on the internet and elsewhere. But there is perhaps no other more important part of the writing life than this one. Because it will be all consuming, and inescapable. Forget the general people out there who may be repelled by your work, or never even find out about it; there are yet to be legions of lit mags, online outlets, editors and publishers who all will reject your work for various reasons. This is a huge part of refining our skills. I suppose I should lead all this failure announcing that I am finally going to have a short story published this October, after a half-decade of writing them and not getting anywhere (more on where to find this particular story coming soon). This represents the culmination of getting an idea, drafting a basic concept story, showing it to a few people, getting some great feedback, rewriting and rewriting it, looking it over a few more dozen times, submitting it and receiving (at least) ten rejections, from lit mags in Minnesota and beyond, until finally it will be published by an outlet that has also published my editor, Libby Copa.
Speaking of Libby, a while back she pointed me to this essential LitHub article by Kim Liao about the importance of seeking 100 rejections per year. I know that I didn’t even get close to that with this story, and that feels pretty great but doesn’t make me underestimate the amount of work required to get even more published. If the dream is having some kind of story collection ready to go by the time my other manuscripts can get shopped, I will need to get hundreds of rejections piled over a dozen stories (at least). I have come to find the necessary rotation should be around five-six stories sent out to as many places as you can, while keeping track of them through a spreadsheet or document. And while it felt odd to have to withdraw the piece from other places I’d submitted it, I didn’t mind the reason.
This essay was also inspired by some thoughtful reviews of my books on GoodReads, which is another great resource for feedback (even if they point out errors I too have gone on about at length). And as much fun as it was to see someone created a profile just to give my first novel a one-star review, it is all a part of dealing with the fact that some people just won’t like your work. It seems hard to overcome that at first, but the more you embrace it, the more you will see how it doesn’t define you but is used to make your writing better. I have a lot more confidence now that an independent party has verified that I might know what I’m doing. This will in turn help me get my current manuscript in the best shape it can be, and eventually get it published as well. So learn to embrace the failure, for your own good.
John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cat. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.