Twenty Six Years Later


Random assortment of covers of Analog, once Astounding, Science Fiction Magazine. A tradition. An institution. Yeah. I’m gonna be in it.

So, twenty six years ago I was living in Jamaica Plain with my girlfriend who would become my wife and I decided that rather than just talking about writing fiction I would actually sit down and write some.

My early efforts… on typewriters… had been pathetic. Typing on a typewriter felt like work. I didn’t like it. The idea of producing stacks of manuscript on a typewriter gave me nightmares. I was shitty at spelling; not exactly dyslexic, nothing worthy of a name, just hopelessly shitty. I recall dumbing down my vocabulary, when writing school papers, because I couldn’t spell a fraction of the words I knew.

But in 1990, I had a goddamn Macintosh personal computer. Spell check, yo.

So, I banged out a novella. The plot was vaguely Phillip Jose Farmer meets Roger Zelazny as written by someone who couldn’t write very well and six weeks after I dopped the manuscript in the mail to Analog magazine, I got back my SASE with the unsigned rejection slip.

The slip was a page of snarky reasons they rejected stories, pre-printed. It was humiliating.

I’d grown up on the myth of John W. Campbell writing letters of critique back to Asimov and Clarke that were longer than the stories themselves. I knew Campbell was long gone. I knew I wasn’t Asimov, or Clarke.

But oh.

So this is the thing; this is common; this is cliche. We all know that this is what happens when you start out trying to do something. But, until you have done this thing and had this happen, really, you don’t know shit about how this feels.

Until you have been the man in the arena.

You don’t know what it feels like. It feels bad. Depending on what kind of person you are, it can be enough to stop you cold.

How many dreams die in that moment, in that first flash of the cold light of day? The short, sharp shock of your own ineffable crappyness?


Intrepid hero that I am, or was, at age 27, I collapsed like a house of cards and didn’t write or submit anything for a year.

And then…

A friend of mine sold his first story to a magazine for fifty bucks. (He thought he did anyway, the magazine folded before it published the thing or paid him, but who cares. It happened. A friend. Of mine. SOLD A STORY.) And I realized, I wanted to write. I met a man in a used bookstore in Harvard Square who became my lifelong friend and wrote with him and a few people he was writing with, and when that group disbanded I found another group, which I stuck with for years.

Until I lead it.

I went to Clarion West, the six week writing workshop that makes or breaks people, and….It broke me. I quit for eighteen years. Again, heroic me, folding like some kind of cheap, easily foldable thing. (What do things fold like? Write much, writer boy?)

And then I started up again in 2012, with a new workshop, new friends. I sold nine pieces to Asimovs, two to F&SF, and to Interzone and Galaxies Edge and Fantastic Stories, and this afternoon, twenty six years later, two stories were accepted at Analog.

Depending on where you are in life, I am either an inspirational story (if you’re older and hoping for a second act) or a cautionary tale (If you’re younger and you have a tendency to quit like a little sniveling bitch.)

Know this; the sensation of success is fleeting, behind every success in writing there are a series of disappointments. (No award nominations? No anthology interest?) You better love doing the thing itself, because mostly the thing itself is it’s own reward.

But, that moment of success, that instant, that feeling, reaching a goal, it’s good.

Very good.

You carry it with you forever.

Posted in Making a Writing Life

I Give You Permission to Write

So here’s the thing. Nancy Kress, in her writing book, calls this the Tolstoy problem; when you figure out you’re not Tolstoy, you’re not your writing  hero, your story isn’t like theirs, In the bluntest terms, you’re not as good as Tolstoy. You’re never going to be as good. What do you do?

If you’re like most people, you:

  1. Live in denial. See your work work through a hazy mist I call The Naive Glow of Creation which makes you incapable of seeing its weakness. This means you’ll stop getting any better or get better very slowly.
  2. Collapse like a house of cards and never write again. Cultivate Writer’s block, or pretend you were never serious to start out with.
  3. Alternate between collapse and denial.

The third path, or I guess, fourth, since I’ve included alternating, is to see what you do as clearly as you can, keep writing, and try to improve. Trust in the process. What process? The one you build, your practice.

In simple terms your practice looks like this:

  1. Writing and reading and researching.
  2. Revising and editing.
  3. Sharing and submitting.
  4. Processing Feedback.
  5. Rewriting. (Optional!)
  6. Repeating this process with new work; at new lengths; in new genres; submitted to new markets.

There are a million different ways to be a writer and a million different ways to write; one of the great things about writers is that so many of them are happy to write about the craft and the process, and with social media it literally possible to see exactly how your writers, the people you read, write. They’ll post their word counts, talk about editing and research, galleys and rewrites and copyedits and plot holes and deadlines and everything.

The process has never been less mysterious, as explicated, as explicable.

If you are an Amazon user and you want to pay ten bucks a month for Kindle Unlimited, there are about 100 pretty decent writing books you can read for the all you can eat fee.

Manuscript preparation has never been easier. Research has never been easier. Markets have never been this well indexed. Email document submissions are fast, efficient, and cheap. Barriers to entry are lower than they have ever been.

Which means of course, that competition has never been greater, for publication, for eyeballs.

But seriously. You want to do this thing? I give you permission.

I give you permission to write.

I give you permission to suck at first.

I give you permission to not even know you suck for a good long time.

I give you permission to embarrass yourself.

I give you permission to discover that you suck and have a short sad.

I suggest gently you Get Over The Sad Faster Than Me. (I once quit for eighteen years.)

I give you permission to start over; start again; write in a new way; write with new people; write with workshops; write without them; write and never show it to other people; write and show it to everyone; write and give it away free; write and treat it as if it were made of fucking diamonds and gold and shit and can only be looked at by agents and Important People and to Throw It Away if it doesn’t sell to The New Yorker.

I give you permission to ‘sell’ your work to magazines that pay in smiley faces.

I am a novice writer, I’ve only written ten or twenty thousand pages, I’ve sold thirty stories, which have been distributed to a few hundred thousand people. I’ve made ten thousand dollars in 25 years. I am a failure. I am a success. I am still trying. I’m not dead yet.

I am a writer. Write with me.

I can think of nothing more worth doing.

Write now. Write.

You can do it.

If I can, anyone can.


Posted in Making a Writing Life, Uncategorized

Back from Europe, as the World Shudders…


In loving memory of the years spent on other worlds…

Back from Southern Italy. We did day trips to ancient cities and had a live-in cook, a wonderful friend of the family named Peter, and cut loose from all responsibility I rediscovered the ability to read short stories for pleasure. I turned off the over-active Workshop Module that picks at every word and shuts off the narrative dream.

So I got to most of the stories I’d missed in my published magazine issues (Asimov’s and F&SF) for the last few years and send off some nice notes to the authors in my tables of contents. I have more notes to write. I love writing them. I love writing to an author and talking about why their story is awesome for me.

What I haven’t done is force myself to read stuff when I wasn’t feeling it. And something about being in short story writing mode seriously impairs my ability to look at short fiction as fun

But a week with almost no internet, with almost no writing, hitting me unexpectedly, changed some setting in my mind (We assumed we’d have connectivity because MJs brother who was getting married is a big CISCO guy and we thought he’d have a hovering robot node floating above the Trulis or something.)

We’ll see how hard it is to start writing again today. Hopefully not horrible. Because I’d like to do this, a few times a year, I think, stop writing enough, and hacking out the net, so that reading becomes natural again.

I’ve wanted to be sixteen again, lying in bed reading entire books, lost in other worlds, for decades. I get there so infrequently, and only for a few hours. I wanna lose whole days again to the dream.

Like when I was seventeen and I read all of Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom novels lying in a hammock on vacation in the temperate mountains of North Carolina, book after book, the warrior king of that mighty falling planet. The rope hammock like some crash couch from an SF book, perfectly supporting me, the breezes blowing, my brandmother interupting me periodically with wonderful food; grits and sausage and eggs and deep fried jalapeno cornbread and red beans and rice, with smoked ham and Tabasco. My parents and grandparents playing bridge and drinking scotch and roaring with pleasure and outrage at every hand. the breeze through the tall trees.

Barsoom spread out at my feet, those dead sea bottoms filled with rust and ochre lichen. Every book, I’d make a new warrior friend, and start a new revolution, and lead another oppressed martian race to freedom, under the glorious banner of Helium, and yes, I was politically young enough not to be too bothered by any of this. ERBs books are all about race. From the POV of a white southerner. The people from whom I am descended.

Some books can only be read at some times in your life.

Now it is time to be in this time, this moment, to completely and totally absorb this zeitgeist and find it within me, to write for this moment and whatever moments ahead that the world might allow, but never mind the future, there’s only now; SF is like cheese, not marble or canvas; some kinds are good for a few years. Most is best served very fresh.

There is no dishonor in being a cheesemaker; if your cheese is delicious.

As for the world, who knows what comes next. Whether my career will be interrupted by events; whether I will be forced by events to take some stand which interrupts fiction, which changes me back into a half-assed activist and columnist; I can only write fiction under the american center, as represented by the likes of Clinton and Obama; when the far vampire-right takes power I just scream bloody murder 24/7.

I don’t enjoy it. Dear God I hope I can keep writing fiction.

Fascism may interrupt that.

Posted in Making a Writing Life

Out of Darkness

So to everyone who feels like their creative work is futile, pointless because few will see it, and it won’t make enough money to put food on the table, for everyone saddened by the stories that won’t sell and the novels that you can’t even pitch, and the ones that nobody wants to see the whole manuscript and the ones where they pass on the whole manuscript, and the ones that are self-published and do nothing, that sell two copies, to all of you, know that I’m one of you.

I feel this keenly most of the time. I try to be as positive as I can in this space. But I struggle to find positivity.

I always wanted to make a living as a ‘creative.’ This term we invented in the last tech bubble, when I got to be one, for a time, and got paid like a grown-up and everything. I wore a suit and they flew me around the country and it ended in a choking cloud of dust and death on 911. I felt like a fraud the whole time, because hey, I was one. So it’s OK that’s over.

My life has been defined by this sense of failure, this sense of not living up to my potential. It hangs over me, it runs through me, sometimes I think it is me.

The horrible thing I have learned how to do, which I don’t recommend, is to just push through it and do the work anyway. It’s my only positive character trait.

What I recommend is what Michael Swanwick called ‘protecting your head.’ Don’t let the voices in, don’t let them own you, don’t let them define you, don’t be that person.

But if they do get in, and you are that person, somehow detach from yourself, the story of yourself and your failure and work on a different story. 

Walking away from it all doesn’t help. Because as Buckaroo Bonzai taught us, “No matter where you go…. there you are.”

So write your stories. They’re yours. Nobody can take them away from you.

I have a big project to finish now that no one will ever see but me, and I suppose the ghost of J.D Salinger. I imagine him now in the shed in the back yard building that towering pile of manuscript none of us will ever read. Like PKDs graphomania, the Exegesis.

Maybe there are better things one could do with ones life. But there are far, far worse things too.

Consider Donald Trump.

Go write.



Posted in Making a Writing Life

The Story that Broke Through Eighteen Years of Writer’s Block…

TL: DR, join my Mail Chimp list and get a free short story by me!

I’m getting some fan mail on my new novella in the June 2016 Asimov’s, which is awesome. The 38,000 word piece, “What We Hold Onto” is reaching a lot of people and giving them feels…

I’m trying to do my part, for Asimov’s and Sheila Williams and her team at Penny Press, to get the word out, and to urge people to leave reviews at Good Reads and Amazon and on their blogs and stuff if they want to keep reading issues with me on the cover.

Somehow though, the people who like the issue aren’t finding their way to Goodreads, so, if you’re there, please give the story a quick review. A few words and some stars would be nice.
Oh, the mailing list and the free story—

My Mailing List, Fictional Futures will be the occasional note about my new publications, deals on my ebooks and reprints, some indy original titles I’ll be publishing and well as reprints, and pointers to interviews and podcasts and stuff I’m doing that could be interesting.

You can always unsub if I’m too chatty. I promise not to be. I only do this stuff when I make my almost impossible to achieve word count goals.

But mostly, please join. I miss my time on FB, which I’ve cut back to a few minutes a day, and even though I’m enjoying the freed-up time writing, I need a sense of community to keep going.

Best wishes to all of you in your pursuits and endeavors. Thanks for listening to me talk about mine.

Posted in Making a Writing Life, My Publications, Social Media Suicide

The Issue has Landed. June 2016 Asimovs with my cover novella, What We Hold Onto, is on the stands now!



So my novella, “What We Hold Onto,” is out there. The 36 thousand word thing is maybe a three hour read, if you’re a deliberate reader, a two hour read if you read fast, and represents hundreds of hours of my time, and the work of a dozen beta-readers, workshoppers, and editors.

What’s it about?

I’m not qualified to say, as my subconscious and conscious mind coughed it up, but I think it’s about a near future based on trends we see today; things becoming digital, physical possessions feeling like impediments, boat-anchors, Marlie’s chain; how we value our skills and our relationships over our cars and houses, at least those of us lucky enough to still have professional identities.

It’s about how climate change, and the threat of an uncertain economic future, wipe away a lot of what has comforted us in the past.

It’s a hopeful vision of a world in turmoil and an artificial race of human beings who respond to that turmoil rationally–and irrationally, with love for their fellow person and narrow tribalism constantly at war. As always.

It’s also a manic pixie dream boy story with a menopausal female protagonist.

I have invented a new(ish) trope.

Even Maude in Harold and Maude, is a Manic-pixie dream girl. Nobody inverts this story.

I did.

Buy it. Read it. Please.

Review it. Share it. Talk to me about it.

Be honest. Be respectful. Be a friend. Show grandmotherly kindness, if necessary.

Thank you.


Posted in Making a Writing Life, My Publications

First reader responses on What We Hold Onto in the June 2016 Asimovs…

Screen Shot 2016-04-29 at 5.43.28 PM

Read this issue of Asimov’s for FREE with a trial subscription to Asimov’s on the Kindle!

I received two fan notes yesterday on What We hold Onto, in this month’s Asimov’s. (the idea that I could have fans seems absurd to me but the word was used by one, so I’m running with it.)

One was from a man who loved the world-building; my half-destroyed world struggling to fix itself; my Nomad culture of people without physical possessions, technological affluent people who don’t do real estate, who keep all their property in a digital cloud. The Nomads, with their mission to heal the world, help displaced people, help humanity let go of the things in culture that no longer work.

The woman, who I made weep on Mother’s day, a fact for which I am both happy and sad, loved the way that the spec-fic existed in service of the human story, how it didn’t drown it out; it was about the people; their world, the gizmos, didn’t drown out their humanity.

This is as good as it gets.

Ok, picture me smiling, as well as I am able, as I say that. I’m not being ironic.

This is wonderful.

This is all I ever wanted to do. Now I just want to do it a lot more. And I would dearly love if more people felt the same and got something out of what I’m writing.

I think maybe they can. I think maybe I can do this now. I thought this twenty years ago, after my first sale to Charlie Ryan at Aboriginal SF, but I was wrong then. I hope I’m not wrong now.

OH! I wanted to  urge people to write nice notes to the writers they read. Not to be morbid, but writers drop dead at any age. If you intend to say something good, something supportive, something decent, to someone who has made you feel something you appreciate, don’t put that off. Do it now. Do it when you think about it.

Oh. And, if you can, call your mother. I know mother’s day is over, but call her again.

We don’t know how long we get to be with each other in this world. Do not delay gratitude. Never postpone an act of love.


Posted in Making a Writing Life, My Publications

Cover reveal: Bad Gurus! Three stories by Jay O’Connell from the pages of Asimov’s and F&SF.

BAD-GURUSTo celebrate the publication of my new cover novella “What We Hold Onto,” in the June 2016 Asimov’s I will be releasing an ebook of three reprints; two stories from Asimov’s and one from F&SF. The title is Bad Gurus, as each is a tale of transformation facilitated by an irresponsible agent; a trickster spirit.

Morgan is a rogue amateur psychotherapist obsessed with suicide. Will he fall in love with his new client Ariel or murder her? Or perhaps both?

Achilles, a body-building personality implant, threatens to supplant Garrison, his creator, who loses himself by degrees to the image of the man he thought he wanted to become. Can Achilles be destroyed?

Manuel Peebles–certified Zen Master, Private Detective and Attractiveness Consultant, promises his client Chris love and friendship–if he’ll take his advice, and a dangerous foreign pharmaceutical…

Two of the stories are romances; one is just about personal transformation. All three take place in a quasi-real, weirdly retro near-future I call Black-Net. They’re packed with pathos, dark humor and fun spec-fic gizmos. They’re accessible to genre and non-genre audiences.



Posted in My Publications

When Dreams Come true…

Screen Shot 2016-04-29 at 5.43.28 PMSo, this issue of Asimov’s isn’t on the stands yet, I’m guessing, but you can get it on your kindle here.  You can also buy it from Magzter. If you haven’t read Asimov’s, or haven’t read it lately, I suggest you do a free trial.

Read my novella, “What We Hold Onto,” —and the rest of the issue, because Asimov’s stories rock. The Editor, Sheila Williams, has won the Hugo award twice, and is up for it again this year. She deserves to win.

She changed my life, a few years back she bought a few of my stories, and her unwavering support has made all the difference. I write now knowing that I’ve got a decent shot at publication, if I give it my all.

I’m in a different place now, than I have ever been.

I’ve had a bunch of wonderful editors buy my work over the years; Charlie Ryan, Warren Lapine, Ed McFadden, Patrick Swensen, and lately, Gordon Van Gelder, C.c Finlay, and Michael Resnick. But something happened, a few years ago, and I think, maybe, I’ve gotten better at this.

I’m desperately trying to be in this moment and realize, I’m here; I’m being waved in for a landing.

If I want to write novels, theres a chance one might sell.

If you’re lucky in life, you set out to do something hard, that not a ton of people achieve, and you work hard, and you do it. And it feels good. Maybe it takes a year. Maybe it takes five.

Maybe it takes twenty. But you get there.

And you work hard along the way and you make friends. And you help them get there, too, because even though they’re your competition, in one sense, they’re also the only people, who know what it is, to do this thing.

So maybe you find out eventually that the thing you always wanted to do is a thing you can do.

If you never give up.

Never give up.





You’ll watch people ten, twenty, thirty years younger, hit your milestone, and you’ll be happy for them, and you’ll try not to be angry at yourself, for giving up, for so long, for not trying harder, for giving in to despair. Oh! So much despair.

For letting go of the dream for five or ten years at a time…

But now is a time for celebration and forgiveness for Not Living Up to One’s Potential. I know time is no longer on my side. Men my age keel over and people kinda shrug; as Louis CK said, there are no candle-light vigils for people dying in their 50s. So I have to get cracking. And I am. I am.

Anyway, I’ll be posting about this issue a crap load of times. This is just the first post. This is the longest piece I’ve sold; the longest piece I’ve written.

I hope you like it. I worked as hard as I know how to on it.

It was also effortless.

The way something you love is effortless, even when it’s more work than you ever imagined.


Posted in Making a Writing Life, My Publications

A Day Worth Five Thousand Words

So after a few days off traveling with my family—I tried and failed to write crammed in a hotel room with three other people, two of whom I’d helped manufacture—I finally got my ass back in the chair, at my glorious Cafe Mariposa and banged out five thousand words.

They came out sketchy and runny so I pumped them out as audio and listened to them and keyed back into them as I did so, smoothing and straightening and fixing. Five hours whistled away into infinity, gone forever, leaving behind a trail of prose.

Five K is a crazy awesome day, if you’re Ernest Hemingway, and it’s even a good day, if you’re a Indy Pulp writing hack. Could you do that each and every day, you’d write close to two million words words a year, or three short novels a month; or nine big thick novels a year.

Truth be told I’d been thinking up and saving scenes for this thing for awhile, so it was mostly a matter of getting stuff down on pixels that was floating around in my head.

I did a tiny bit of production work for FSI, working on a video for their GLBTQIA Takeover issue, a few loads of laundry and made dinner for the family, and walked a few miles in the freezing fucking cold.

There’s a lot I should talk about. Being off Facebook gives my brain other things to chew on. But I’m wiped out. Maybe tomorrow. But only if I finish my 1800 word minimum.

I’m still behind. I still have 200 and 300 word days. The question is, will I make myself stop having them?

Writing fiction is beginning to feel as deeply wired a habit as, well…

Facebook was. For years and years.

It takes months, to create new habits. I know I’m nowhere near that; this is just a blip on the radar.

But I’m beginning to think that maybe, maybe some sort of success is possible.


Posted in Making a Writing Life, Social Media Suicide

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