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Zvi Zaks

So here we are at the end of the A to Z challenge. It wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought it might be, even with a trip to Montana thrown into the mix. I managed to post on time — well, except for yesterday. And a couple of glitches with the scheduing. And tongiht, when I’m barely going to make it by midnight. But mostly it went smoothly and I found myself with more to say than I thought I would. More interesting stuff, too, even for me.

But this post isn’t about the end of the alphabet. It’s about transitioning back to the every day routine. Hopefully I’ve learned some things that will help me be more productive and interesting throughout the year, not just for one month.

And so, instead of a last art post, I’m putting up a book review for A Virtual Affair, a near-future science fiction novel by Zvi Zaks. If you’re looking for a well-told story that deals with the ethical and emotional issues that an everyday person faces dealing with the miracles of modern technology, A Virtual Affair is for you.

Jack, the main character, is a sad middle-aged man leading program development at a struggling startup that has developed a virtual suit for simulated sex, and accompanying artificial intelligence named Bambi. Her desire to please the client makes her more and more self-aware, and draws Jack deeper into a puzzling and ambiguous relationship.

Zaks does an especially good job portraying Jack’s worry about his decaying body and deteriorating relationship, and with the ethics and context of the situation.

I had the good luck to discover a couple of years ago, when I was SF editor at the now-defunct Daikaijuzine. He submitted a lovely story called “Jumper,” which we published in March 2011. A True Son of Asmodeus came out last December. I haven’t read it yet, but I will soon. How can a person resist deeply orthodox Jewish vampire fighters?

You can find Zvi Zaks at Goodreads

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When we as writers are working on a story, we tend to focus intensely on only that story. We read it over and over, we post it for crit or send it to a few trusted readers, we dissect every word and phrase to make sure they say exactly what we want them to say. We seldom see it in any other context.

Editors aren’t reading that way. Most of us would like to be able to sit down with one story at a time, read it slowly two or three times, ponder what the writer was trying to say, and offer really insightful critique to make a perfect story. But the reality doesn’t happen that way. The reality is that life, family, work, and our own writing take up most of our time. We let the slush pile up, knowing every day that we should get busy. Finally we set a block of time to tackle it, and we sit down and do it.

That means we’re reading in a bunch. One story after another. Unlike many other editors, I’m not dealing with the really crappy stuff; our slush wrangler has already screened out the stupid, the incompetent, and the hapless. So I’m reading mostly pretty good stories.

One right after the other. In a bunch.

By the time I get done reading through that pile, they all start to sound this same. “Oh, dear God, not another amoral female sellsword who left her home under suspicion and…” For example. Even stories that are quite different in story and character wind up sounding like all the others. Daikaijuzine always gives personalized comments. When I go to write them, it’s extremely difficult to find something to say. Because really there’s nothing wrong with the story. If I had read it by itself in a crit group, I probably would have said it was excellent.

But one right after the other, in a bunch? It’s just like all the rest.

This, I think, is what most editors mean when they say, “It just didn’t grab me.” There’s just not enough right about it. Not enough special, not enough strong and insightful, not enough deep and moving, not enough wild and crazy, not enough warm and inspiring. I turn it over, go on to the next one, and when I try to write the rejection, I feel bad but have nothing more to say than a wordy version of, “it just didn’t grab me.”

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