Dressed as People: A Triptych of Uncanny Abduction

Today I get to share something that has given me immense joy this spring: I have become, almost by accident, a playwright!

How did it happen? The short version of the story is this: some months ago award-winning actor Margo MacDonald asked me, Kelly Robson and Amal El-Mohtar to each write her a monologue for the upcoming Ottawa Fringe. We had a general theme—disappearances, lost time, uncanny abductions. Together, we also came up with a phrase, Dressed As People, that each of us would feature somewhere within our speech.

Without consulting each other, the three of us got to writing. Each determined, I know, to wow the others, and give Margo great material to work with, while taking the concept as far as we could. None of us knew what the other was working on until the first read-through. And…

Oh, you all! Even in that rough cut first stage table read, Margo was incandescent. As she’s worked with the pieces, and we’ve worked with her and director Mary Ellis, it’s only gotten better.

I sometimes use the phrase “I grew up in a theater” as shorthand for a certain chunk of my early childhood experience. My parents were deeply involved in an amateur Northern Alberta theater company, and from the time I was three I was backstage, running errands and being admonished to get out from underfoot. Yes, this does mean I was raised by boho hippies who couldn’t afford childcare. Weren’t we all? Soon I was getting pressed into service as a prompter when nobody else was around or willing to follow a script during rehearsals. I probably hung my first lighting instrument when I was ten. (I shouldn’t have! Fresnels are damned heavy!)

I wrote some plays when I was working on my undergraduate degree in theater, many years ago, but I already knew I wanted to write science fiction novels. I didn’t regret setting aside stage work for prose, and I have written many fun things set among theater companies in the years since. But in 2020, this let me suddenly break from the Toronto pandemic and lockdown routine—with all its stresses and anxiety-laced moments of boredom and added tasks and responsibilities and woes… well, you know, of course you do. It let me stop doing all that and write to a specific challenge—this is the thing that makes me love theme anthology invites—and to work both with Kelly and with so many other artists whom I respect and admire and love. So, really, this has, from start to middle, been a dream come true.

In addition to all the other things about this experience, Dressed as People has thus been a huge gift to me, unlooked for, but much needed and so deeply appreciated that just typing these words makes me tear up. It has been a chance to take a treasured sliver of my childhood and spin a little macabre gold from it, and to be part of a theater gang again, and to make stage stuff with my wonderful wife. It has been everything during this long spring siege.

Artfully blurred photograph in cool blue tones depicting the reflection of a young woman in a window pane, her face partially obscured by the window frame. Two dried out leaves cling to a thin branch in the upper-left corner; the words "dressed as people" overlay the image in a stylized font with a ghostly blur effect hovering around the letters. The effect is eerie and evocative. Beneath that it reads "A Triptych of Uncanny Abduction" and beneath that, "with Margo MacDonald".

Naturally, the pandemic has shaped everything we did as we worked on Dressed as People. The Ottawa Fringe is virtual this year, and we rehearsed in Zoom and watched Margo and director Mary Ellis wrestle with the contradictions of trying to create a live theater experience in a recorded medium. Working as a theater company is so much about being together… and we simply weren’t. Or at least, we aren’t yet.

I hope you’ll consider joining us for the premiere of the show. Tickets are on sale now, and all of the $15 ticket price goes to the artists in the company. You can attend from anywhere in the world, at any time convenient to you, during the Ottawa Fringe, which runs from June 17-27. We will be getting up some watch parties, and if you keep an eye on our social media, or the Parry Riposte Productions site, you should be able to find out when those are scheduled.

But what is Dressed as People, besides three monologues by award-winning writers, performed by an award-winning actor and served straight to your home in just a couple weeks? Obviously I don’t want to spoil, but first of all it’s Skinless  by Kelly Robson, a shot of ice to the veins that tells the story of a school haunted by troubled children. It’s The Shape of My Teeth  by Amal El-Mohtar, about an ancient hunting wood and the mysterious disappearance of a young woman’s most important childhood friend. My Repositioning  is a bit of a romp, with myriad pop culture influences including The Love Boat, Legend of the Blue Sea and even a slight takedown of Madmen, all set now, or ten minutes from now, in this moment when a very lucky and privileged few of us might soon expect to pick up the strands of our lives… though it’s also the story of someone whose life strands were fraying pretty badly before 2019.

All three monologues are performed by Margo MacDonald, directed by Mary Ellis, and we were lucky enough to have original music composed and performed by SIESKI. Our technical director at Parry Riposte Productions is the luminous and multi-talented Titus Androgynous , and we also have support from wonderful graphic designer K.

All our socials, for easy following:

It’s going to be really fun, and all of us in the company hope you will join in.

ACCESSIBILITY

Closed captioning and a sensory-friendly transcript of the show will be available to viewers.

Dealbreaker is out!

Those of you who know about my (formerly) sekrit cli-fi life as L.X. Beckett may already know about my optimistic solarpunk novel, Gamechanger, and the related short works, like “The Immolation of Kev Magee” which appeared in Clarkesworld, both in print and as a podcast.

But now the actual sequel to Gamechanger is out. It’s called Dealbreaker, and this is its beautiful beautiful cover:

Want an excerpt? You can read the first chapter here!

I will have other stories out in 2021, in both Asimovs and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and I’ll tell you more about those soon, here and on the socials, and on my L.X. Beckett site.

Not all drafts are created equal (the sequel)

Many years ago, when I first found myself giving people grades for their fiction projects, for the first time, I realized several things that may seem self-evident to you all…

–A huge part of being a writer is learning to turn a flawed draft into an utterly awesome work of fiction.
–The ability to revise a draft into something good develops with time and experience.
–Experienced editors can tell the difference between drafts with a lot of potential and those facing massive challenges.
–When we think we have nothing left to learn, we tend to stop learning.

To be clear, I do not submit immaculate stories to workshop! When I am writing drafts, a high level of craft is at the bottom of my list of priorities. I’m a pantser at this stage in my life. I’m not above naming incidental characters things like CousinTwo, or even getting halfway through a paragraph and writing “Insert kick-ass detail here!” or “WTF does this house look like?”

The compulsion to get the story onto the page, to drag the character’s journey into the light, is my first and overwhelming imperative. By the time something of mine hits a workshop, I’ve had to go through it three to five times… and even then, it’s still pretty much a shambles.

So. Drafts are crap. Even more, we routinely tell people to write drafts that are crap! It’s so important to have something to revise that we urge writers to, you know, spew whatever they can onto the page in service of getting finished.

So this leads to an apparent contradiction, which is explaining to my students that I can look at their crap drafts and evaluate their commercial potential. To assert that I am qualified to say “This manuscript is this far along the road, while this one is further behind,” even though I will never see what their authors might accomplish in rewrite.

What makes the difference in such cases is the task list, the things the author needs to do to the story, and how tough those challenges might be. If the author of a given draft is writing vivid scenes that give the reader a sense of immediacy, if their characters are relatable and in conflict, if they’re more or less telling a whole story and that story has something fundamentally cool about it, they’re close. Closer, anyway, than a writer that hasn’t learned some of those basics, or whose line by line writing hasn’t yet begun to carry the reader smoothly through their story.

Does that mean I can look at ten drafts and say which writers will be successful? No. Almost anyone who writes ‘how to become a published author’ essays will inevitably will tell you that success in publishing often amounts more to being persistent than to any kind of innate talent.

The same person whose 2019 draft story suffers from insurmountable weaknesses might write a very workable story on their very next outing! They might then whip through an intriguing third project, and then dive into an experiment that almost succeeds wildly before it crashes and burns. Meanwhile, the person who seems to be halfway to publishable in the same workshop might stall out, or give up before they reach their next artistic breakthrough.

As editors and agents and teachers–as professional readers–we look at the pieces submitted to us and say “Yes, there’s a terrific story in here.” Or, alternately, “This one isn’t ready yet.”

I do sometimes get feedback from students that I shouldn’t be subjectively grading their stories at all. That they should get full marks for submitting them, without any evaluation. They’ll point out that many of their other instructors don’t give them any component of a grade that measures quality or merit, that indicates how well a given piece is doing. So it’s tempting to go that route… it’d save me argument and negotiation, and intellectual energy, and all sorts of work.

I get this, I do! In fact, the lion’s share of the grade in most of my courses is awarded just for showing up–doing the assigned work, writing the critiques, following the guidelines, submitting fiction on time. I give these grades because of the aforementioned persistence factor, but also to reward professional working practices. It is by and large the people who show up and do the work, after all–the ones who seem at first glance to merely be putting out quantity–who are building an artistic practice that will probably lead to sales.

Why hand someone back a story worth 10 points, then, with a 7 on it, and a note amounting to: This is 70% of the way to being salable in a professional market; for the things that are still in its way, see my workshop critique? It feels to the recipient much as a rejection does, after all, and rejections are painful.

(Spoiler: The answer is no. I don’t strive to have people practice feeling rejected.)

Most beginning writers, especially the serious ones, want desperately to know if they’re getting closer to publication, and what’s holding them back. When I speak at conventions, you can sense a hunger for that answer in the questions that come from the audience: How close am I? Will I get there? What do I do to get published? What does it take?

Some of what it takes is accepting, in your bones, that sometimes your stories need major rewriting.

Now that I’ve been at this awhile I have seen, time and again, that when I critique a story or exercise and attach a 100% grade to it, their authors take the problems I’ve identified within that work of fiction–and the need to address those problems–far less seriously than when they get that sobering 70%. It’s getting less than a perfect mark that brings people to my door or inbox with follow-up questions about how to embark on revision.

Universities require that students be graded. I can’t not do it. And for me, making those grades meaningful means awarding them in a way that brings writers more deeply into the revision process. If that also brings them back to my door with follow-ups questions and demands for resources, so much the better.

Another tale from the Clawback: “The Immolation of Kev Magee,” in @Clarkesworld

Those of you who know about my formerly sekrit other life as L.X. Beckett may already know about my novelette, “The Immolation of Kev Magee” which appeared in Clarkesworld, both in print and as a podcast. It’s about three teens trying to make it in our increasingly precarious near-future. Two are trying to chase their dreams in the slices of time when they’re not keeping body and soul together; the other has gone full predator.

Here’s an excerpt:

Could all these hundreds of thousands of tons of man-made ice, literal drops in a literal ocean, truly make a dent in the ongoing global overheat? Perhaps not. But Magee was a billionaire, and as long as he was creating gigs and homing refugees, that meant something. Breeze figured—knew—that serfing for a megaphilanthropist was as close as it came to getting a fresh start. It certainly beat trying to scrape by in the cross-continental shooting gallery south of the Great Lakes.

This particular novelette is one of three I’ve written (so far!) about the period after “Freezing Rain, a Chance of Falling,” takes place and before the events of my 2019 novel Gamechanger, which will be out in trade paperback just about any minute now, and the sequel, Dealbreaker, which will be out in January.

Story Release in @LightspeedMag – “Living the Quiet Life”

Houston, we have a reprint. It’s the far future, most of us have phenomenal psychic powers and, well… somehow, humans haven’t changed that much.