The Hiking Writer and Speculative Fiction

The Hiking Writer and Speculative Fiction

By Sara Codair

Even though a majority of my stories are speculative in some way, they are often inspired by reality. Sometimes it’s a question begging for an answer, sometimes it’s a piece of news too dark to keep inside me, and often, the seed for the story was found somewhere on a hiking trail.

On Labor Day weekend of 2016, my spouse and I went on a hike in New Hampshire’s Belknap Range. I hate crowds, and the parking lots for the better-known trails were overflowing onto the road. Thankfully, we had done our research and located a more “off the beaten path” trail.

The directions took us down a handful of side roads, the last of which wasn’t paved. I thought we hit a dead end and were in someone’s driveway when Adam rounded a corner and pulled into a tiny dirt parking lot with a trailhead.

Happy that we found a way to avoid mobs of tourists, we checked our gear, traded out sandals for boots and started walking up a steep, rocky fire road.

“I’m not sure any fire truck could actually drive on this,” said Adam.

His words were like a horn starting a race. As the hill got steeper, my legs and lungs burned with effort, and my mind was running, making up histories for the road and stories that could happen on it.

DSC_0147When we reached the secluded mountain pond at the top of the road, my mind was racing faster than my pulse. This lake would be a perfect home for a wizard in a fantasy novel, a hide out for the demon hunters in my YA novel, a good hike for my parents to do with their puppy, and a place to pump water if a flock of phoenix’s or an angry mother earth started a forest fire.

We took a break. Adam consulted his map while I devoured cookies and made up stories. The next part of the trail was a loop, but I was too lost in imagination to pick which way we would do it, so he choose, and soon, we were making our way up Mack Mountain.

Just shy of the summit, we reached a scenic overlooked where two trails merged. A large cairn, painted in the colors of the trail blazes, marked it. For some reason, there was a fork balanced atop the cairn, and there was literally a keyhole on the fork’s handle.

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My mind went crazy, and by the time we were done the hike, I had mentally written a complete story. After a swim and dinner, when I finally got home, I sat down and wrote my first draft. Over the next few months, it endured a cycle of revision, rejection, shortening and expansion. Finally, it found a home on Theme of Absence.

Stories, no matter how realistic or surreal, are everywhere. We just have to keep our minds, hearts, and eyes open, so that when we find them, we can catch them.

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Here is an excerpt from my story, “At The Fork.” Just click on it if you want to read more – it is hyperlinked to Theme of Absence.

The way to the alternate world isn’t through a wardrobe, rabbit hole or a non-existent train platform. You won’t get carried to it by a tornado or by falling through the “gap” you must mind when using the London Tube.

©2017 Sara Codair

Why Bullshitted Papers are Underrated

Why Bullshitted Papers are Underrated

By Sara Codair

It’s the last day of class before finals. While some students have their notebooks and netbooks open, ready to take notes, others are glancing at their phone, counting down the minutes until I give them permission to leave. They’re all exhausted. Most have been working all day, yet they still showed for this last class, hoping to learn something, or get the extra-credit for perfect attendance.

Phrases like “C’s get degrees” and “Night students just want to get their A’s and get home” float through my head as I try to focus on framing the wrap up discussion.

I don’t remember how it began, but the bookworm in the back row declared that every essay she ever wrote, from elementary school through my  English Composition II, class was completely bull-shitted.

I stared for a minute, mentally rereading her essays. She was one of the strongest writers in my class, and an avid reader. She’s someone who, if I met under different circumstances, that I could have been friends with, and I don’t say that about too many people. We could read and talk about books for hours if life didn’t make us do other things.

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Goose thinks writing is snack…

I smiled. “Isn’t all writing bullshitted?”

 

The class stared at me, probably thinking I had lost my mind.

“What’s a novel?” I asked. “Isn’t it just stuff people made up? Isn’t that bullshit?”

And she thought about, and tried to explain that novels are things people are passionate about. Yes, they are made up, but they are crafted and polished before they are sold to people who live for them.

I asked her about her last essay, one exploring and defining dystopian young adult novels. She admitted she actually liked that essay, so she spent more time writing it

I smiled again. “Well, writing is better when you care about your topic. I wish all essays were open topic, but unfortunately, that doesn’t happen.”

The debate went on, growing from the concept of “bulshitting” essays to the kind of writing we do in college and its usefulness, or lack thereof, in the “real world.” While no one won it, I hope that the students left with a few insights.

The students who claim they bull-shit their papers do not give themselves enough credit. They can sit down, and think, and make words appear on the page. They can generate four or five pages of half-decent prose a couple of hours. Believe it or not, that is a big deal.

 

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Writing might be easy for the students who are over 21…

The most challenging obstacle I often face when teaching writing is getting students to
actually write. Many will stare at the screen, agonizing over each word and sentence, afraid to make a mistake or just unsure how to convey their ideas.

 

I told my students that if they could bull-shit a paper, then they had taken the first step to becoming a good writer. In order to write, first, people need to be able to dump what they are thinking onto the page. Second, they need to shape into some kind of genre or convention. In the case of the students, they need to revise their ideas into an introduction, thesis, body paragraphs and conclusion. Third, they need to edit it and make sure it follows the format their teacher wants.

They are generating ideas inside and putting them outside.

While I didn’t go into any gross details in class, I often compare writing to bodily functions. When I say writing is shit from bulls, I take the metaphor quite seriously.

 

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Horses are good at eating and shitting too.

We consume information like bulls consume grass. We digest it, just like they digest grass. We break it down and use it up. We excrete what is left in the form of words.

 

In a more advanced class, one filled with people who were there because they wanted to be, not  because they were required to take the course, I might get into the nitty gritty details of crafting sentences and fine-tuning arguments. However, in a first year writing course, I am happy if my students leave with the ability to put ideas on the page in a coherent manner, and follow guidelines when they turn it in.

When students get an A’s on bullshitted papers, it’s not because they fooled their teachers. It’s because they weren’t censoring themselves like the students who agonize over every sentence. Getting words down on paper is the first step to developing as a writer. Being able to bull-shit a paper is a sign that  students are already halfway up the mountain.

I can’t make someone a master writer in one semester. What I can do is give them the tools to get words on the page, and empower them. I can help build a grain of confidence.

I can  plant seeds in their bullshit, and hope that one day, there is enough shit their to make the soil fertile so their ideas grow.

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©2017 Sara Codair

A few words about Alternative Truths

I’ve been in my fair share of anthologies, but none of them compare to my experience in Alternative Truths. I’ve worked with good editors and great editors. I’ve been in the company of writers better than me. However, I have not previously had the pleasure of working with a group as engaged and enthusiastic as the Alternative Truth team.

Every time I log onto Facebook and see a new notification, I hope it is for this anthology’s Facebook page. I love knowing that even in the face of a political disaster, people are still writing, and using that as a way to resist.

The writers and editors are committed to this book. They do so much more than share it on social media. They brainstorm places that might review it, they help write press releases and go out in the world and do readings.

Because of the timing, I haven’t been as involved as some of the others, but I have tried to read and participate in comment threads between students and share it on social media when I can.

I haven’t even read the whole anthology yet. I haven’t read much that wasn’t written by students in a few weeks, but I’m trying to sneak stories from this anthology in whenever I can.

The first story is absolutely brilliant. I can’t wait to read the rest!

The groups’ enthusiasm, dedication, talent, and love for the work has made this a success. Please support us by buying a copy and leaving a review.

I’m honored to have my story surrounded by the words of these amazing people!

Anxiety in the Margins

 

Lately, I’ve been participating in opportunities to help marginalized writers get published. Sometimes when I share this with my writer friends, they give me funny looks. They don’t say anything, because I’m a pain in the butt to argue with, but I can see their discomfort, see comments lurking in their eyes.

What is a white, middle-class girl like you doing taking advantage of those things? You always get your way. You’ve published more short stories than anyone else in our group. You’re so sneaky…trying to take advantage.

When I see agents and authors tweeting about how many non-marginalized participants they saw, I wonder if they mean me. When I ask how they know people are not marginalized, I get answers that seem like they think I am stupid for asking.

Or

Maybe I can’t see those words dying to escape their lips and those comments are not directed at me. Maybe my anxiety is just making me think they disapprove. It’s hard to tell, because anxiety makes me think I’m a failure, that I’m a monster, and that sooner or later, I am going to ruin EVERYTHING but it never tells me what everything is.

It does make it hard to breath every time I send out a query letter or enter a pitch contest or submit a short story. It makes it hard to get up and go to work where I have to interact with people. It makes it physically painful to go food shopping, walk through a crowd, or go to a conference.

I called in sick today because I have an upset stomach. The thing is, I honestly can’t tell if it is a virus or my anxiety.

Anxiety makes it hard to not only do things are necessary, but it also holds me back from things I love. Anxiety is a disability.

It’s not the only reason I enter things like #DVpit or submit my work as #ownvoices.

I have a freaking master’s degree in English, but time and time again, I fail catch the most random, stupid errors in my own work. I’ve probably tried every proof-reading strategy ever invented, but in the end this is what it comes down to: I don’t like grammar, therefore I cannot focus on it. I also cannot have someone re-read a query or story EVERY SINGLE TIME that I make a change, because I never stop editing and revising.

I’ve over a decade of my professors and mentors complaining about my errors, and after successfully teaching other people to edit, I have come to realize I cannot produce error free prose anymore than a paralyzed person can walk.

And I KNOW I’ve gotten rejections simply because of errors in my work.

OK – maybe if took Adderall or Ritalin, things would be different, but just writing the names of those drugs makes the anxiety monster roar. Drugs scare me, even the ones I already take for my anxiety. I’ve found other ways to cope, but they can only get me so far.

Even if I did overcome my anxiety about certain medications, I would still have to get an official diagnoses to get the prescription. Two years ago, my primary care physician recommended a neuropsychologist who did ADHD in my area. Have called to make an appointment? No. Why? Anxiety.

It’s a vicious cycle that always holds me back one way or another, keeping me in the margins of the places I want to be.

In many ways, I am fortunate and privileged. My parents loved me. They always found a way to get me the things I wanted. I never went hungry. I’ve always had at least one or two good friends. However, I’ve also faced barriers and fallen through cracks.

I wasn’t poor enough to get financial aid, but not rich enough to afford anything but community college and state schools that offered transfer scholarships.

I was too smart and proud for extra help in school, but my GPA wasn’t high enough to get into top colleges, let alone get scholarships.

My parents did their best to research college, but they did not have the inside knowledge of people who went and graduated.

My anxiety makes in-person networking almost impossible. It keeps me out of writing conferences and most Academic conferences.

I may be more privileged than someone with a different color skin, but I do feel like it is ethically okay for me to participate in things like #DVpit, and #ownvoices when it’s relevant because I need the extra boost to even the playing field.

Should I worry every time someone tweets about privileged people posting where they shouldn’t ? No. Will I worry? Yes.

Perhaps the day I stop worrying that I don’t belong in events for marginalized writers will be the day that I actually don’t belong.

Micro Fiction: Migratory Blues

Here is another little story from Cracked Flash – this one was a runner up.

Migratory Blues

By Sara Codair

They unfurled their wings, shifted their weight and lifted off the rotting branch. Fuz smiled as the north wind hit their face. It was damp and mild, a sure sign spring had arrived in mid-regions. Circling high above the mud-sodden earth, they searched for one last southern meal.

They dove when they spotted slow movement – a tiny rodent whose legs were getting sucked in with every step. Within in seconds, the little critter was in Fuz’s claws, being carried back to the their nest.

After a hearty, albeit muddy meal, Fuz sprayed the nest with their scent and flew north.

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Three days later, Fuz arrived to the mid realms, only to find the ground there had already turned to claw sucking mud. Their stomach grumbled as they circled over mud and water. They plucked an eel out of a pond and perched on a damp rock to eat it, but it wriggled all the way down.

Each year, it seemed the mid-realms spring got closer to that of the southern realms.

Fuz signed, flapped their tired wings and was airborne once again, hoping the north was having an early spring too, or else he would freeze to death.

#

Touching down in the north, Fuz was glad to have solid ground beneath their claw’s. The sun was shining, and prey animals were scurrying about – a living buffet. They feasted on rodents, lizards and insects until their belly felt like it would burst. Then they found a solid tree branch – one they noted was still devoid of leaves, and sprawled out for a nap in the sun.

Later, the howling wind woke them. The sun was gone, and frost coated the edges of their feathers and beak. They stood, struggling to take off, but the wind was too strong and cold.

Dystopian Gardens / Micro-Fiction:Lying in the Dirt

I’ve noticed that whenever a writing prompt leads me to some kind of dystopian or post-apocalyptic story, there is always nature or garden imagery. It happened with the prompt that inspired me to a story that grew into “Necromantic Buzz.” It happened with a piece of flash fiction that was published in Burning Waters Magazine, and  happened again in this week’s cracked flash competition. My story didn’t win, but it was an honorable mention.

I’m starting to think this is my way of smothering fear with hope. The political turmoil and climate problems make me fear some kind of societal upset or end of the world as we know it is coming. I’ve placed my hope for the future in nature’s resilience, and in local, sustainable food.

While the following story isn’t directly about food or an apocalypse, it is packed with garden imagery and hints at some kind of corporatism
gone wrong.

Micro-Fiction:Lying in the Dirt

By Sara Codair

“You lied to me?” Carrots hung from Donn’s hands like the flop over ears of a pathetic puppy. “Why lie about that?”

Susie shrugged, watching the way Donn’s fingers curled around the carrots. His nails dug through the dirt and pierced the bright orange beneath. His eyes widened. He pursed his lips.

“I just couldn’t disappoint you.”

“Well, you did.” Donn looked at the red boxes brimming with carrot tops, the cucumbers climbing a white trellis and tomatoes bursting out of their cages. “If you told me, I could’ve helped.”

“How?” Susie looked down the driveway, where the bank men were coming to take the keys, the house, and its contents.

“I have a few secrets of my own.”

He placed the carrots on the potting table, picked up a shovel, and zigzagged through the labyrinth-like garden to a spot where nothing was growing. He dug. The bank man came with his suit and guns.

“Sir and madam, you must vacate the property.”

Donn laughed and kept digging.

The man crossed his arms. “Unless you can produce 200,000 Cred in the next 60 seconds, you are leaving.”

“Give me five minutes and I’ll give you 250,000.”

He watched as Donn dug until he hit a wooden box, brushed it off, opened it, and pulled out stacks of green bills. “Now, what is the conversion rate for old USD these days?”

The man gulped. “This morning, a single was fetching a 1,000 on the market.”

Donn handed a banded stack to the to man. “Here are 20 for your bank, and 5 to keep. Get off my property. I’ll expect the deed tomorrow.”

The man scurried off. Donn glared at Susie. “Next time you have problems, tell me.”

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Can on only child mentality be the key to a successful writing career?

Writing and Publishing with an Only child Mentality

By Sara Codair

Only children, especially those of the millennial generation, have a reputation for being spoiled: needy, narcissistic, socially awkward brats who always get what they want.

While some of the stereotypes may be true for some people, only children have strengths too. We are often comfortable being on our own, imaginative, and self-motivate.

Many of the writers I interact with in “real world,” meaning people I speak to in-person, not online, often seem to marvel at my ability turn out a high volume of stories, handle rejection, persist, and get my work published.

While I’ve been writing since I was old enough to hold a pen, I’ve only been publishing for a little over a year. I’ve done well for my first year, but I still have a long way to go before I reach my goal of being a full-time, professional fiction writer. I’m starting to think that my initial success, and potential for further successes, is tied into my only child mentality.

To start off with, I’m used to getting my way.

“No” was not a word I liked hearing as a child, and often, I could turn a “no” from either parent into a “yes.” At first, I worried this would hurt me. I do hate rejections, but more a market rejects me, the more determined I am to get published by that market. I know I cannot argue with rejections, so I just keep writing new stories so I can send that editor more stories.

I’ve been sending Daily Science Fiction at least one story a month for the past year, and in December, I made it to their second round for the first time. In the end, they didn’t buy my story, but I know I came close, and sooner or later, they will buy one of my stories.

This past fall, I got a rejection from Dark Magic: Witches, Hackers and Robots, an anthology I wanted to be, so I sent them another story, and got another rejection, then sent them a third story, and got an acceptance.

Growing up getting the things I wanted didn’t turn me into a weak, whiny person who cries when someone tells her no. It taught me that persistence, determination, and hard work lead to success.

In addition to being stubbornly persistent, my imagination and comfort with solitude also help me write. When there weren’t other kids to play with, I would entertain my self by making up stories. When there were kids, or adults willing to play like kids, I often directed them in acting out my stories. It was like Live Action Role Playing (LARPing) using my imagination instead of dice or game cards.

Making up stories is a habit I never got out of. I do it when I am sitting in traffic, running, waiting for an appointment and trying to follow asleep. Whenever the current task I am doing is not occupying my full attention, I have a story going in my head, and I don’t mind staying home on a Friday night to type out the story I made while commuting instead of socializing, especially since my friends aren’t really into LARPing.

Even the worst qualities associated with only children can be useful.

A small amount of narcissism can be useful, or almost necessary for anyone who goes into novel writing. The concept writing/publishing is narcissistic at its roots. I have to be a little in love with my self and my words in order to think that anyone would want to PAY for the things I made up while sitting on Boston traffic.

Some might say this is simply confidence, but to me, confidence is believing in your skill to write and tell a story. Believing your imagination is something that needs to not only be shared, but also sold, crosses the line. As long as it doesn’t get out of hand, a drop of narcissism can be the difference between wishing you were writer and actually becoming one.

Like other aspiring writers, I have plenty of self-doubt and anxiety. However, I think the difference between me and my colleagues who “want” to write but never finish anything is that I have that annoying drop of narcissism and entitlement that allows me to believe I can and should sell my work.

I’ve grown up believing that with enough persistence, I can get anything I want. Rejection discourages some writers, but I am fueled by it. This mentality has gotten me published in token and semi-pro markets, and its even led to a few pro-sales. Hopefully, it will eventually lead to a career writing novels.

The Dreaded Short Story Query

The Dreaded Short Story Query

By Sara Codair

Querying short stories is the most stressful part of the publication process for me.

The word query has a slightly different meaning in the world of short stories than it does for novels.When you query an agent of publisher about a novel, you are essentially submitting a cover letter and sample to see if they are interested. However, when you submit a short story, you generally include an extremely brief cover letter and the full manuscript. Writers refer to this as a submission, not a query.

 

The short story query is actually a follow up letter. If the publisher does not respond to the story in their advertised timeframe, then you are allowed, and in some cases, expected to follow up with an email. For me, this is more stressful than the actual submission.

The longer a market takes to respond to my story, the more I start over-analyzing their silence. Did they forget about my story? Did they put it in their maybe pile? Are they just really backlogged? Any of these are equally possible.

If they are just backlogged, I feel bad adding more material to their reading list, even if it is just one email, so I always keep my query email short.

I take cues from their submission guidelines regarding how and when I can query. Most publications will provide some information about querying in their submission guidelines. For example, Firefly has this near the end of their guidelines: “if a month has passed from the day you have submitted to us and you haven’t heard from us, please feel free to send a query with either “Query” or “What The Heck” in the subject line. We find the latter more cathartic.”

I queried them once, but in the end, they were just backlogged and rejected my story. Other markets, like the Sockdolager and Museum of Science Fiction, have responded to queries telling me my story has made it past their first round and is being held for further consideration. The most successful querying experience I had was with Helios Quarterly as it turned into an acceptance.

Some markets have made querying unnecessary with extremely specific guidelines and efficient submission managing systems that allow writers to track their stories progress through the queue. However, many smaller and/or new markets can not afford said software, so they rely on email.

The best advice I can offer is keep it short, and make sure you read the guidelines first. If a market says “don’t query until three months have passed” then make sure three months have passed before you query.

Most of my queries look something like this:

Dear Editor (s),

I sent you my story, “The Best Short Ever,” on June 4, 2016, and have not heard anything. Could you please confirm you received it and provide an update on its status?

Thank you,

Sara

Or

Dear Editor (s),

I sent you my story, “The Best Short Ever,” on June 4, 2016, and have not heard from you. Are you still considering it?

Thank you,

Sara

If I addressed my cover letter to a specific person, I will use their name. Otherwise, “Dear Editors” works fine.

I’ve never had an editor get made at me for querying. Most of the responses I get are sympathetic or apologetic. If a market says you can query after X days or months have passed, then do it. Just keep your letter short and polite. It will give you peace of mind and remind the editor you exist.

Micro Fiction: Be Better by Sara Codair

Note: This piece was originally written for Cracked Flash’s weekly writing contest. It didn’t win, but I still thought it was worth sharing since it is one of the first pieces I’ve written using gender neutral pronouns. I’ve been researching them for a while and often feel that if they were more known, I would rather use some neutral than she/her.

In the end, I think this piece was more of an excercise than a full story, but I’d love to hear what you all think of the Ey/Eir and how it worked in the piece. -Sara

Be Better
by Sara Codair

Eli, the captain of the guard, watched two figures silently move through the shadows. Ey unholstered eir blaster then stalked after them. Eir heart raced as they approached the supply house. The manager reported canned goods and medicine stolen, but no one had caught the culprit. Eli suspected that was because eir investigators pitied the fools who lived outside the compound.

The figures walked right past the supply house into the scrapyard. Nothing was reported stolen from there, though they rarely inventoried it since no one used cars. It was too dangerous for Eli’s people to leave the compound.

Ey followed the thieves right up to a rusty carcass of a pickup truck and waited until their heads vanished into the hood. Ey aimed eir blaster. “Freeze! Put your hands where I can see them.”

The two figures turned. Judging by their wrinkles, stubbly pale skin and flat chests, Eli guessed they were two middle aged white men – the kind of people that made it too dangerous for eir to live in out in the world.

“Please don’t shoot.” Both men dropped to their knees. “The government has gone nuts. We need your help.”

“Get off my property!” Eli undid the safety.

“Please let me take this. I’ll pay you back with labor. I have no money, my truck is broken, and my daughter needs to get to a hospital. She’s has a major infection.”

Part of Eli wanted to send the men away, reject them in the same way society had rejected eir, but as ey watched them look at her like they were praying to some forgotten god, ey couldn’t do it. “Take the part and bring your daughter here. We have doctors, and could use some help turning over the fields next week.”

When a Form Rejection is Better…

I often find myself cringing at form rejections, wishing that editors would give just a snippet of insight into why they rejected my story. Today, I found myself wishing for a form rejection.

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a story titled “George and the Fatal Mistake” merging George Lucas’ sale of the Star Wars franchise to Disney with a cross-road/deal with the devil trope. I sent to a few speculative publications, but quickly realized it was too close to fan fiction for their taste. I sent to a few celebrity and pop-culture themed calls for submissions, but also got rejections. After more rejections from humor zines, I was thinking it just didn’t belong in a lit mag, but saw an interesting anthology and thought, “I’ll try one more time.”

That was first of my big mistakes.

The second was that I didn’t reread the story to make sure it was the most up to date, error free draft. I wasn’t confident it was even a fit for theme. It was late. I didn’t think it was worth the effort.

The result: The rudest and most detailed rejection letter I’ve ever received that not only criticized my editing and writing skills, but put me down as a teacher as well. This editor even went as far as telling me that she couldn’t imagine anyone anthology editor would publish my writing.

For the first time since I started submitting stories, I actually wish the editor had just sent me a form rejection, and while I normally don’t let an angry editor deter me from submitting a story elsewhere, but I knew even before I sent this one out that it was the type of thing that belonged on my blog, not someone’s zine or anthology.

Later today, after I finish fixing all the grammatical errors than angered this editor (and a few she didn’t comment on), I will post it on my blog, and readers who don’t know anything about Star Wars can ignore it, and those who will appreciate it can read it.

Next time I get a form rejection, I will think of this angry editor, and be happy with “thank you for submitting, but this just isn’t what we are looking for.”