Simone Heller

astray in worlds and words.

Category: Writing Page 1 of 2

New short story: Keloid Dreams

My new story “Keloid Dreams” ist out in Future SF #8, a medical-themed issue published in September 2020. Read on if you’re interested in process and trivia, but beware, here be spoilers!

If you’d like to experience Carebot’s sensor input first and see to the patient’s wellbeing, please come along. And don’t forget to take a look at the other stories in this issue – I’m totally awed by the big ideas and scientific details my TOC mates came up with!



Future SF #8 coverFirst of all, phew! All my writing attempts since 2018 got shelved during first draft, and while people kept congratulating me on my last story, I plunged into a pitch-black hole. Then along came this healthcare prompt to yank me out of my comfort zone, with a tight deadline on top. And here we are, finished story! “Keloid Dreams” originated in thoughts about healthcare getting under your skin via implanted sensors, combined with the idea of robots caring for people. How would they become accepted, what would their humanizing features have to be so that you’d trust them with your parents?

I was planning to write about dementia first, about a patient losing himself, and a robot finding a personality, but the emotion-learning robot voice didn’t work for me. The refurbished warbot idea had been lurking from the beginning, and I truly hit my stride when I imagined the two veterans on a last mission together, despite the fallout of going to war.

Then it was a question of digging deeper. I connected bits and pieces to family history: my Dad, who was excluded from taking part in my life when I was ten. My Grandfather, who turned his back to fighting, but the whole story was obscured by the way German families don’t talk about their WWII past. On a lighter note, Overwatch inspired some details of the story, and if you played the game, you may find teeny-tiny easter-eggs and guess who my favorite character is. When I considered what Callas would do as a hobby, I settled on bird-feeding, partially because bird-feeding has gotten me through the worst of this pandemic. This decision made me pull one of my favorite graphic novels from the shelf, Enemy Ace: War Idyll by George Pratt, providing further inspiration.

My thanks go out to Ella Voss and Elena Kotsiliti who were lightning quick with their insights on very short notice, and Jennifer Hudak, who helped me make the story so much sleeker and more powerful. To firefighter/paramedic Meo, who was awesome at explaining complex physiological processes and effects (any bugger-ups are on the author’s side). And to my editor, RM Ambrose, who really got to the core of the story and helped me polish it. If you like his work for Future SF and feel the need to imagine the future of healthcare differently, consider backing his anthology Vital on Kickstarter, bringing you more stories soon!

Writing this piece of post-military SF has unlocked an achievement: true short story! I almost made it down to 5,000 words – and I’m in deep awe of people who truly master this and even shorter lengths!

Achievements remaining unlocked:
– write something that’s not 1st person
– write a story without reptiles (They’re invisible this time. Improved much?)
– write a story from the POV of an actual human.

Next time, maybe. Or maybe not. I have a roster of a dozen partially told stories, some mostly dead, some quite fresh, and some same old in a shiny new skin. Onwards!

Eugie Award

As promised, this bit of “news” gets an extra blog post, no matter how late I am: My novelette “When We Were Starless” is the winner of the 2019 Eugie Foster Memorial Award for Short Fiction.

This makes me incredibly happy, not only because I’m still having trouble believing my writing was nominated for awards, let alone won one! It’s an award celebrating short fiction (yay!), and it boasts an incredibly fine selection of finalists and winners in the five years of its existence. Previous winners are Catherynne M. Valente, N.K. Jemisin, and Fran Wilde, so I’m clearly the odd one out here. And on top of that, it’s awarded in the memory of a truly brilliant short fiction writer.

I can only recommend you go and check out current and former finalists, and read Eugie’s work, too, if you don’t know it yet.

Plaque of the 2019 Eugie AwardI deeply regret I wasn’t able to be in Atlanta for the award ceremony personally – financial and health issues upset my plans to go. I celebrated two times, though – once in the middle of the night when I discovered on Twitter that my story had won, and a second time when the beautiful plaque designed by Tangled Earth Arts came in the mail.

And don’t forget to look at this year’s finalists, too. (Yes, my bad, there’s already a new round, and they’re amazing!)

Things happened …

… and things didn’t happen.
Most amazing among the things that happened was the fact that my latest story resonated with readers and was nominated for awards, to my utter astonishment. “When We Were Starless” went on to be a finalist for the Hugo and Sturgeon Awards, and it won the Eugie Foster Memorial Award (which deserves an extra blog post, even if I’m horribly late). Yay! I mean, YAAAAAYYYYY! I still can’t believe that happened!

But the fact that my latest story was, and is, still my latest story also serves as a hint to the things that didn’t happen.
I started a few new things and stopped in the middle of the process because I didn’t like where they were going. Some others simply refused to go anywhere. I dropped into that big black hole that keeps opening and swallowing me whole. I usually retreat and hunker down with (translation) work then, but last year was not great for translations, at least from my point of view. So the hole gave me some trouble this time around. Anyway, this is where I am. I haven’t given up; it’s just that my brain didn’t put out a lot of useful stuff these past months.

But things happen even when we sit in holes, and I’m lucky enough to have wonderful friends who keep nudging even if I’m at my worst holed-up self, and so the future doesn’t look all bleak: right now, a really wonderful (and challenging) translation is waiting on my desk. Friends have written amazing stories (and sometimes books) I want to talk about. And I might have been talked into doing a thing or two myself, one of them coming up right at Halloween! Which is, in the amorphous ways of 2020 time both forever in the future and sneaking up on us in a week or so.

Island Quest at Viable Paradise

It begins with an ocean.

You cross the water, waves nipping at your ankles, salt stinging on your face. You have hopes, but you don’t know it yet: this is a real transition. You leave familiar shores behind, and all certainty about what kind of creature you are, what you are allowed to do, what you are able to achieve. What you thought safe. What you thought sound. Your concerns that this endeavor was maybe just an error, a misapprehension. Now you are here, on a boat.

You’re entering new, unexplored terrain.

You are welcomed by kind spirits. And while they tell you in no uncertain terms that you are on a quest, that you have challenges before you and obstacles to overcome, they assure you that no harm will befall you in their domain, nor shall you ever go hungry or cold. They care for you, heart and mind and belly, and they provide you with the strength to push on when things get rough.

There are giants on the island. You might be nervous about meeting them, a little bit afraid even. Then you discover that what makes them giants is not something that separates you, but something you have in common: a shared passion, a disposition to strive for better words, better tales, a will to explore and learn and marvel. And they want you to grow into a giant, too.

You find companions, true soulmates. They are on the same quest, and you’re in this together and get to know and love each other until you can be sure you have each other’s backs. You form a fellowship of the pen, a fellowship of quiet keystrokes, a fellowship of sealed plot holes and salvaged story arcs. You share meals and songs and ideas. Sometimes, you also share the horror, because there are times of plight.

But you are given tools to take paths you didn’t risk before. You are encouraged to mold your perception and find new ways to see yourself, your work, and all the stories you encounter. Most of all, you are given a place of acceptance, of companionship, of belonging. You are right where you are supposed to be, and this is a powerful gift.

Time behaves strangely on the island. Hours glide languidly into everlong midsummer-like days full of adventure. One night can stretch into an eternity, enough time to get you to the edge of the galaxy and back. But all too soon it will compress and accelerate and rush madly towards the end.

Things have to end, to circle back, to move onward, you know this by heart now. You cry, there is no way around that. You leave, eyes swollen, heart full. A multitude of ideas in your head, but they won’t form into something coherent until you are less overwhelmed, less miserable because you have to go.

It will take some time for you to discover: part of the island stays with you. The winds, and the knowledge you’ll smile at them again after all you have mastered. The waves, rocking your old shell off of you to make room for growth, rippling with ongoing change. The hearth fire, telling you you are not alone in this. The jellyfish, glowing in the darkness when you need a spark of inspiration. You set out on an ocean of possibilities.

This, you know, is a beginning.

———

I spent a week on Martha’s Vineyard at the Viable Paradise writing workshop in October, and this might have been one of the best things I ever did. Viable Paradise 22, squinting in the sunI’ll probably get back to this with a more practical and down-to-earth post at some point in the future. Because if next year’s chosen ones are like me and my classmates, they will google every scrap of information, and they’ll need to know to bring warm socks without holes and such!

New novelette: When We Were Starless

My new novelette When We Were Starless was published in the October issue of Clarkesworld, and I wanted to provide a little bit of trivia and background for readers with an interest in such things. There may be mild spoilers. If you want to read the story first, here it is – you could go chasin’ ghosts among the ruins of a fallen world with Mink right now!

Clarkesworld 145

It is my second story set in a world I call the Shrouded Earth. It’s not a direct sequel to How Bees Fly, but they follow a shared trajectory, and WWWS holds some spoilers for things that are revealed in the course of HBF.

When We Were Starless had a rough start. I was struggling with what felt like the certain knowledge that my first story had been a fluke, and I wasn’t convinced it would be a good idea to revisit this world. But the image that stuck with me was nomad herders with 3D printer spiders!!! I imagined a trickster story first, about a stranger shaking the tribe up and inducing change, before leaving them again. It took me some time to realize I didn’t want another outcast story. So the only thing I kept was Mink’s ability to change her color. The trickster goddess whom this would have been attributed to (as well as the ability to drop tails) sadly had to go.

My main source for research was Vanishing Footprints: Nomadic People Speak by Ann Perry and Anthony Swift (not a perfect book, but it makes an effort to feature the voices of nomadic people). As I figured out the plot, I visited a planetarium (for the first time ever!). Huge parts of the story clicked into place while I was there.

Nikolaus-Kopernikus-Planetarium

Nikolaus-Kopernikus-Planetarium, Nuremberg: For a very brief moment, I thought this might be the ghost Mink meets …

There are some direct inspirations: part of the opening was inspired by the framing narrative of Clifford D. Simak’s City; and when I began to think about the exhibits in the dome, I couldn’t resist the urge to write a happy ending for xkcd’s super sad Mars Rover episode.

The music was a happy accident, more or less: I always envisioned Mink’s people as musical, but the strong focus on music snuck into the text almost without me noticing. The moment I found out how it would play into the ending, I knew I could make this story work. I also listened to a lot of music and have my own Paean of Manifest Horizons (more of a Paean of Manifest Finishing Line, because it took me forever to get there …).

Last but not least: Many thanks for encouraging me, and your brilliant ideas and editorial help, to Juliana Socher, Maike Claussnitzer, Catherine Brennan, Miriah Hetherington, and Sonia Focke! <3 And thank you, Clarkesworld, for publishing me a second time!
And thank you, readers, for spending time with my stories! Your comments, shares, and reviews mean the world to me!

There might be more of what I secretly call lizardpunk coming up at one point, more Shrouded Earth to unveil – or maybe space nomads? Or something else altogether. I’m not decided yet. Gotta go writing now to find out which egg will hatch next (or, you know, at all)!

Thou shalt have no other stories …

After another few months spent in translator-bot mode, producing daily word-counts I can only dream of as a writer, I have some thoughts about writing and having a day job as a freelancer in the publishing industry at the same time. It seems like a dream situation – to gain a foothold, to learn the business … and when I started this line of work over 10 years ago, it was a dream job. Second best thing to publishing my own stuff. A chance to work with words, with languages and their intricacies, in the genres and with the authors I loved. Translating has always been very close to my heart – it’s a special kind of approach to a text and can be extremely rewarding (for everyone involved, yay!).

Some aspects didn’t turn out quite the way I had hoped for, but that’s a different story. A job closely connected to writing is, in some ways, a major boost for writing. I learned a great deal about language and how to construct stories while translating superb novels, and then some more by editing not-so-superb-yet novels. The moment you have to propose a solution when something isn’t good enough, a vague feeling of “I don’t like it” just doesn’t do. You have to get to the root of the problem, and that makes you see what will work and what won’t.

So I doubt I’d be able to write the way I do without my job, without being surrounded by professional words and stories daily.

But.

My own words inevitably dry up when I am deep in the translating game. I’m surrounded by another person’s story and strive to get into its style, mood, tone. If I try to start writing then, I might end up emulating the thing I’m working on at the moment.

Mostly I don’t even try: I simply can’t bring myself to hack out another word on my keyboard after I already spent 6 hours straight doing just that. Braindead. Daily amount of words used up. Instinct for stories vaporized.

I’m aware that the majority of writers out there are writing in their free time, and surely there’s no shortage of jobs eating your brain. I’m in awe of everyone who sits down to tell their story anyway.

I seem to be at a point where my day job isn’t producing synergies for writing anymore, or even just some (mildly lucrative) background noise; it has turned counterproductive. I guess that’s mostly because I’m working and writing in exactly the same genres. It’s just so close to my own words, and if I want to do it justice, I have to live the to-be-translated text in the same way I have to live my own stories. So my own writing is always relegated to the backburner.

Add in the precarious nature of freelancing, which makes you inclined to always take on another rush job, another project, because there’s no way to know whether and when the next thing might come up. And soon there is no room left for your own stories to unfold. I can relate to every writer who just wants an unobtrusive, not-too-demanding job.

What I do now, accompanied by a lot of anxiety, is decline some jobs. And try to shift a certain portion to other modes and genres, mostly non-fiction, to create synergies again. (But who am I kidding here – offer me a cool science fiction or fantasy project, and I’ll bite).

So, fair warning: having a second dream job apart from writing might not be the best strategy for producing a lot of words, especially if said dream job is, well, also writing, just for other people in another language.

Do what you love and you'll work super fucking hard all the time with no separation or any boundaries and also take everything extremely personally

This has been all over the place recently … I simply had to add it. (from adamjk’s Instagram )

Reanimation

Hey, what have you been up to since November, Simone?
November, huh? It’s been so long, I even need a lousy fake interview set-up to get these rusty gears going.
Mostly, I’ve been a good little translator-bot. I translated a net total of 532,000 words of text, fiction and non-fiction, one of them an epic MCU in-universe encyclopaedia which nearly killed me with its legions of weapons and gadgets, half of them real things, half of them Marvel inventions (yeah, thanks for nothing, Captain America!). I copy-edited a smaller amount, about 364,000 words, also fiction and non-fiction, one of them an epic DC Comics encyclopaedia which nearly drove me crazy with its (sorry, DC) stupid timelines. Superheroes galore for me!
I read 25 books as a judge of the Seraph (original works) and the Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis (translated works), both German sff awards. I co-conceptualized and co-hosted an awesome three-day workshop about storytelling as a tool for photographers with my camera-wielding partner in crime Chrononauts Photography.
And I last-minute-applied for Viable Paradise, because it sounded like pure workshop goodness. Which turned out very well so far: I don’t think I have ever experienced such a warm (virtual) welcome anywhere.

Did you write stories?
I wrote a thing for my VP application. Next step: improving my miserable story/workshop ratio. Feeling like the fraud of frauds here …

But you did write something, somewhere, didn’t you?
I didn’t even do much social media. Just work, eat and see to it that my back won’t give out, work again and then some more, sleep, repeat. Every single day (I had three free days over Easter, yay!). It felt like a never-ending nightmare, and that’s why I’m taking some time off now. Otherwise things would become an endless slog towards self-annihilation. Not cool.

What about stories, passive mode?
I didn’t read much apart from the nominated titles for the awards. There was T. Kingfisher’s romance/rpg adventure novelization hybrid Clocktaur Wars, which I thoroughly enjoyed (gonna write more about that one). I went to the movies a few times, to avoid becoming a hermit and such: I liked The Shape of Water – not the deep story about encountering the Other I expected from the trailer; but a beautifully shot film about misfits. Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok where my favorite MCU movies so far, one for its vision and coolness, and the other for combining heroics and fun.
I played some Overwatch. I also played Fortnite, but that was for a job (and it’s probably not my cup of tea). Ah, but now, as this full-frontal march towards burnout is at its end, I’ve been reading nice things again. A short story collection by Roger Zelazny. What a feast! I started reading the Sword and Sonnet anthology recently. And after that, Murderbot vol. 3 is waiting for me. Oh, and I picked up Divinity 2 again, so good (gonna write about it).

What now?
There’s still some editing work and small jobs to do. Probably should be looking for bigger jobs, too, but apart from that, I feel like I could sleep a whole month.
Most of all, I miss my lizards and robots and powerful ladies, and my random ramblings about stories and stuff. But I’m beginning to find back to my own words, so stay tuned. Winter is coming! Again! Ugh, this has been a long time off …

My Primal Apocalypse

It all began with Gremlins.

When I was a child, VCR was the shiny new gadget you needed to have. Well-meaning, but ill-informed, my father brought home Gremlins as one of the very first rentals.

I wasn’t old enough to read stories on my own then (and to choose from any shelf I wanted to), so I had mostly encountered children’s stories. Gremlins might have started like a totally acceptable children’s story, but it soon turned out to be pure horror for me.

Gremlins movie posterI didn’t even make it very far, and my father, who must have felt that I was a little bit too terrified, sent me to bed before it got wild. Which was a bad decision. I knew that suspiciously cute Gizmo would turn into something nasty, and I had learned the rules: The thing with the water and the thing with the feeding. I got it all mixed up when I applied my own logic to the concept: So they turn nasty and grow bigger and multiply when they get wet and eat? You can get wet anytime. And they are monsters, so they’d want to eat people, and BAM! They become even bigger and nastier!

I didn’t only lie awake the whole night in terror. Over the next few days, my imagination led me into a desolate, dark future, where fat, ugly, grown-huge-as-houses Gremlins roamed the streets, looking for more people to feed upon. I thought about how I would sneak through the shadows to hide from them. I felt a little better when I realised that at some point, they would have eaten most of us. Then they wouldn’t find anything else, and the cycle of feeding and growing and multiplying would come to an end. But most of the time, I was half crazy with fear. It could happen anytime. It would be the end.

It couldn’t have been too long until my father noticed something was wrong, but as I remember it, I spent something like a fortnight silently descending into fear and depression. At some point, my father reassured me it was just a movie. A funny movie, even. And it had a happy ending.

But it didn’t matter. I knew now. I knew that something like this could happen, that the world as we knew it could end. That everything could (and would) be gone. And it terrified me.

But it also fascinated me. It was my first what-if extrapolation, my first post-apocalyptical world. I don’t think my final disaster scenario had a lot to do with Gremlins anymore. But until today, I haven’t watched the whole movie, and every time I see a picture of those little pests, they give me the creeps. Even the “real” gremlins, the mechanically inclined imps, make me shudder because they remind me of them. But I’m not entirely sure whether I should condemn director/writer team Joe Dante and Chris Columbus (and my father, I guess) for introducing existential crisis into my life, or thank them for fueling my doom-driven imagination.

Of Cats and Chickens

Writing buddy Sam of Moyas Buchgewimmel passed the baton of the Versatile Blogger Award, so I guess that’s what you get this week: 7 random (yikes!) facts. And I’ll gladly pass it on to whoever likes to share their own random facts. I must admit I love to read those from time to time, so go on and jot something down!

1: I like limits
I don’t like to follow them to the letter; on the contrary: give me a limit, and I will test it and stretch it and try to break it. But I think I get inspired by the challenge, by having something to chew on. Form, length, theme, or character constraints – anything is better than starting with an anything goes premise.
So, first of all, this list needs a limit. Seven facts about me finding words.

2: I’m wordy
I could drone on and on about those facts. Tl;dr is my worst nightmare. Social media and the need to have your say in way too less characters or as a caption for a picture (to stand in for the remaining 995 words) go against my instinct to get to the bottom of things. But I learned to cut. See?

3: Copy-Cat
Clever ways of saying things, phrasings, lyrics, and expressions get stuck in my head like blueprints. I try to be aware of that.

4 (copy-catted at Sam’s place): I only write when it’s dark
Not entirely true, but also not completely false. I am the night. Leave me to my own devices, take away dependancies on other people’s schedules and opening hours, and I’m guaranteed to mutate into a nocturnal creature.

5: The chicken is IN
All words are great in the night. So it’s best to re-evaluate them in the morning. As. If. I. Could ever read them again. So many brilliant ideas lost in the realms of chicken scratch. Woe is me!

6: Chicken out
I tend to leave things unfinished for lack of a perfect ending. Maybe it would be better to put them out anyway, instead of chewing on them forever or letting them perish incomplete in the drawer/drafts folder/wip shelf?

Worldcon & Work Done

Attending Worldcon 75 in Helsinki made the deadline of my last translation project a real challenge (and I had to switch to translatorbot mode upon my return). But I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Welcome in HelsinkiHelsinki was quite welcoming, giving out free public transport rides and a warm, fuzzy feeling in between the frequent showers. While it felt a little bit disorganised in the beginning, Worldcon got better by the day at managing its huge crowds of fans.

A workshop about societies in post-apocalyptic fiction taught by dramatist Taj Hayer was a great way to start the con and meet new people. It wasn’t only fascinating to learn about all the different backgrounds people brought up that got them interested in post-apocalyptic settings. We also did a cool group exercise about world and plot building and ended up with a world reminiscent of Mary Rickert and Octavia Butler stories, where only children are able to communicate, and form an anarchist society. I wonder which one of us will end up writing it … Anyway, I really appreciated Taj’s teaching, so if you’ve got the chance to attend one of his classes, go for it!

I could totally relate to the things stated in a panel about writing while multilingual (with Ken Liu, among others), fell in love with the sheer display of knowledge in “The Times that Shaped the Science” (mostly about the birthing age of modern science and how it came to pass), and had the best of times with an epic snark battle-panel between Babylon 5 and Star Trek, shortly before rushing back to the airport (no big spoiler: Babylon 5 won).

But my favourite panel was “True Grit: The Appeal of Grimdark Fantasy”. So much thoughtful input here, especially from Scott Lynch, on a fascinating topic. You can watch it on Youtube, too (with appropriately gloomy lighting).

Posing with Major Ursa

Posing with Major Ursa

Apart from that, there was a small Taos Toolbox meet-up, a visit to a glorious steampunk bar, meeting old and new friends, and discovering cool Finnish artists and a really flourishing sff scene. I didn’t know that so many books are translated into Finnish (and they’re beautifully designed, too).

Oh, and the Hugos were a blast, of course: I loved the fact that many of my favourites won, and they were dominated by women this year! Bam!

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