This is a short story. If you have been linked to it in lieu of a definition of its title, here is the definition of the title (though I welcome you to also read the story):
earth·fic (noun): a work of fiction which takes place in "the real world", without invention of a setting. Approximately mutually exhaustive with "speculative fiction". Compare "litfic".
This story is also available as a voice-acted podcast courtesy of Eneasz.
"You could have the dog talk," suggested Lanie.
"I can't have the dog talk. That would completely change what it means about the character, that he talks to his dog," said Harriet. "If he talks to a dog that talks back, then he's not a guy who's lonely enough to talk to his dog. He's just a guy with a dog that, for some reason, talks. It would be rude not to talk to a dog that talks."
"I'm just saying," said Lanie, "that there are things you could do to the story to make it publishable, without changing it all that much. So the dog can't talk, but there's a hundred other things. Set it ten, fifteen years in the future, sprinkle it with some gadgets for color. Make everybody an anthropomorphic skink. Have them live on Mars in an alternate universe where we colonized it in 1983. Or not on Mars in an alternate un-"
"My story isn't about people in 2026, or about skinks, or about Martians," interrupted Harriet, breaking eye contact and twisting the ball of her foot into the carpet.
Lanie shrugged, gave up, and put the manuscript back on the coffee table. "I do like it," she said softly, and she let herself out of the apartment and left Harriet alone.
Harriet's roommate was home half an hour later, excessive amounts of Chinese takeout dangling from both hands and his mouth. "Fffoo," he said, and then he released the baggage onto the kitchen counter and took in Harriet, the manuscript in her hands, and the neatly arranged cushions that neither resident ever organized. "Food," he clarified, and then, "Your sister was here, and told you nobody publishes earthfic, just like I told you, right?"
"That's why they pay you the big bucks, Mr. Dawes, clever deductions like that," said Harriet, dropping the printout back onto the table. "You're Sherlock Holmes. Oh, wait, I can't make that reference, can't possibly have read Sherlock Holmes, because nobody publishes -"
"Harriet," said Dawes. "I'll thank you to remember that we met in Literary History. Also, the "mister" thing, not so cute."
"Fine, Mrs. Dawes," she said, getting him to roll his eyes. "People used to publish earthfic, is my point."
"People still do, to be fair, they just do it on earthfiction.net instead of in print," he said. "You could say that people no longer pay money for it, but publishing, that you could do."
Harriet scowled. Her earthfiction.net account had a bunch of short stories on it, but she was holding a novel, an honest-to-goodness novel in her hands that she wrote and so what if the dog didn't talk, it was good. "Don't you like the book?" she asked.
"Nope. I missed a midterm to find out how it ends because I hate your book, Harriet. That is how much I hate it. I hated your book so much that I'm going to punish you with wontons." Dawes handed her a carton of punishment and a pair of chopsticks, and Harriet began mechanically chewing on the dumplings, watching her roommate to see what he'd say with the sarcasm out of his system. "Look, I like earthfic. And your book is right up there with some of the best stuff I've seen, although I kinda wish you'd pick a title and stick with it. But what am I supposed to do? I don't run a publishing house."
"I know. I thought Lanie might have pitched it to her agent, but -"
"Agent?" said Dawes.
"I told you Lanie writes," said Harriet. She picked at the corner of the cover page in front of her with six crossed-out titles, wondering if she could grab someone's attention from a slush pile with something catchy. Something that pretended to an inventive setting. Something with the word enchanted or space, or some four-digit number hinting at a year that wasn't the current one.
"You told me she writes. You write. You don't have an agent," Dawes said around half an eggroll.
"And you didn't think my advance reader copies of all the Melanie Nelson books were suggestive of anything?" Harriet asked skeptically.
"Melanie Nelson... Me-Lanie Nelson," said Dawes. "Christ. You have Melanie Nelson on speed dial."
"In theory, she'll help me if I need help," said Harriet sourly. "I thought you knew. I think I've told you her married name before."
"I never made the leap," said Dawes, sounding stunned. "Wow. It must run in the family, I guess?"
Harriet huffed and tried to poke a hole in her last wonton with the end of a chopstick. "Lanie writes high fantasy. I don't."
"Why don't you?" asked Dawes. "You could just tweak the book a little. Hey, I know - the dog could -"
"Shut up," said Harriet.
He shrugged. "She can't really pitch earthfic to her high fantasy agent or her high fantasy publisher, can she? It'd be pointless. They'd be all, "Well, Mrs. Nelson, your sister certainly seems to have a solid grasp of character, pacing, word choice, plot, and mood, but this story has no worldbuilding, so please, do let us know when she writes a real book, one that's less derivative and shows that she can create her own settings" and your sister has clout, I imagine, but not enough to change their business model. The business model that puts her on shelves."
Harriet's hands clenched steadily tighter on her knees as Dawes speculated. "There's nothing unreal about my book."
"Which is the entire problem," declared Dawes. "Anybody could travel to Minnesota -"
"It's set in Montana, Dawes, you read it -"
"To a state the name of which begins with an M," Dawes continued, "and meet real live people who really talk to their dogs and really work as actuaries and really suffer from - hang on, I'm trying to think of an amusing way to get this wrong - nope, I fail. Suffer from blindness. It costs a plane ticket and some looking, but there's a dude wandering around out in the world suspiciously like your protagonist, even if you made him up."
"Does that make the story any less interesting?" challenged Harriet. "Or even less fictional? There might not be a guy like him. If there is, he's not why I wrote the character that way."
"Okay, geez," said Dawes, holding up his hands. "I am not the incarnation of the traditional publishing industry, nor do I have the wherewithal to alter said industry. Shouting at me will not help you get your novel in stores unless you also want to take my suggestion about how the dog could -"
"The dog does not talk," Harriet snapped.
"I was going to say "do math", actually," said Dawes. "It could help with the actuary thing."
"It doesn't do math either. It's a dog." She finished her wontons and shoved the box away. "I'm going up to campus."
"Okay," said Dawes. He was halfway through the fried rice. "Later."
Harriet didn't have any classes for the rest of the day. She was a week behind on reading for her Shakespeare class and hadn't run off a copy of the commentary they were using yet, but she didn't head for the library. She didn't want to stop at her usual café haunt either, because they sold pastries there, and even full of wontons she'd wind up buying one and then regretting it. Instead she went to the little cluster of trees around a bench with someone's name on it that she'd never read.
It was already occupied.
"Harriet," said Lanie, surprised.
"Lanie." Harriet tilted her head, and then sat, nudging her sister over with her knee. "You didn't go home?"
Lanie shrugged. "It's empty right now. No reason to go there instead of here, as long as the weather's nice."
"Dawes didn't know you were Melanie Nelson," Harriet said. Lanie didn't have anything to say in reply, so Harriet changed the subject again. "I don't want to change the story in some pointless way that it doesn't need to make it respectable. But I don't want it relegated to obscurity either."
"I wish I could help, Harriet. But I don't think my imprint would take earthfic even if I wrote it."
"I was thinking I could mess with the title," Harriet said. "Just the title. It wouldn't be actually wrong for the book to call it something like -"
"Harriet," said Lanie reproachfully. "If you just want my agent to read your story, print out a spare copy and I will get him to read it. You don't need to cheat your way out of the slush pile. That's not your obstacle, unless you've sprouted an objection to nepotism in the last twenty minutes. But pretending to be maybe-not-earthfic for the first chapter - or ten, I published a book that didn't have the faerie realms doing anything of consequence until chapter eleven - won't get you in print. I don't have a way to turn earthfic into a new niche."
"It doesn't need a speculative element," said Harriet, stubborn. "It doesn't need it. This is ridiculous. A hundred and fifty years ago earthfic wasn't considered so low-status."
"The funny thing is, in every other way but worldbuilding, you're a better writer than me," said Lanie.
Harriet looked over at her sister with surprise. "You're joking. I'm not."
"Well, you don't have an editor," Lanie said. "If you saw my drafts before she hacks them to bits you'd laugh. I should credit her as coauthor, honestly." She sighed and worried her lip, looking up at the trees. "I know you don't want to go to a vanity press, or I'd buy you cover art and a small print run for your birthday, but -"
"Ugh," inserted Harriet.
"But, even if this particular novel has to be on earthfiction.net only, you can still write in the publishable genres."
"I don't know," Harriet said, looking sadly at Lanie. "I'm no good at that sort of thing. I doubt I could even make a superficial change to the existing book that didn't ring false - like you suggested putting it in 2026 or something, but I don't know what 2026 will be like, it's sure to be laughably wrong if I guess. And then my decently polished, thematically whole earthfic turns into bad near-proximity sci-fi lousy with obvious, tacked-on technology with bumped up version numbers and computationally intractable imaginary features."
"I could authorize you to do shared world fiction," offered Lanie tentatively. "You can have all my notes on the faerie realms and do a Ruby Faerie Realm book - then it's not earthfic, and you don't have to tack on spec stuff to a story that grew without it, and you don't have to do worldbuilding. Although you really should learn, it's a core skill. I couldn't write earthfic if I tried, it'd be like writing a story without any characters in it."
"Shared world..." Harriet mused, ignoring the thousandth encouragement from the aggregate population of Lanie, their parents, every creative writing teacher ever, and the bewildering percentage of earthfiction.net reviewers who were looking forward to her talents being turned to "serious" fiction so they could recommend her to their friends who wouldn't suffer earthfic to clutter their reading lists.
"I kept the sharing authorization rights for Ruby Faerie Realm," Lanie said. "I couldn't let you do Spiderworld or Mercury Maze without checking with the publishing house, and they'd probably say no for a debut author - although I'll try if you'd really rather do one of those - but you can do Ruby Faerie stories all you want, and I can make my agent read them and talk my editor into backing them and they won't be dismissed as earthfic."
Harriet clutched her wrists and leaned her forearms on her thighs. "Maybe," she said, at length. "I wish this book could be on shelves."
"Harriet. I like your book. I really, honestly like it. But I'm not a Ruby Faerie and I cannot mind-control my publisher for you. What are you trying to accomplish, mourning your earthfic? You're twenty-one, for crying out loud, you have lots more books to write if writing is what you want to do. If you want your name in print you have to live with the market."
On one level Harriet knew she was being petulant, and Lanie was being more helpful than she had to be, and that while writing a Ruby Faerie book would be harder than writing earthfic, it would also be much, much likelier to establish her as a serious author among people who mattered.
On another level, she was really attached to her first novel.
"Ugh," she said again.
"Think about it," said Lanie. "I'll e-mail you my notes. You can ask any questions you want about the Realm and I'll tell you the answers. I don't know what else to do for you, Harriet - I'd offer outright coauthorship on something but I don't expect to have the time to start a new project for the next year."
"I'll think about it," Harriet agreed.
"What were you going to write next, anyway?"
Harriet muttered a synopsis of a novelette starring a med student and a single mother, but she wasn't that enthusiastic about the plot she had in mind. She did like the characters... and the Ruby Faerie Realms intersected with a fairly normal Earth in places. The characters could stay. "Maybe I could fold them into a Realm book," she mumbled. "They could do something faerieish."
"There you go," said Lanie. "That sounds great. Look, I'm starving. I'm going to go home and polish off some leftovers. You'll have the notes by tomorrow morning, okay?"
"Okay," said Harriet.
Lanie hugged her and left, and Harriet sat on the bench until it got dark and then walked back to her apartment.
When Harriet got home, Dawes was reading her copy of Ruby Faerie Prince. "I'm going to need that soonish," she said, having made up her mind to at least try putting her med student and single mom in a Realm-related plot.
"What for?" he asked. "Hey, can you ask your sister why the Prince didn't bother warning Penelope about the brackish demons when he brought her to -"
"Because there's about five thousand things that could kill you in the Realm, and she barely listened to him when he told her the most probable hazards, so he figured it'd be better overall to leave her for five minutes while he got her an amulet," said Harriet tiredly. She'd thought Dawes had known about her sister, and just didn't feel inclined to relay a lot of questions about the Realm and Spiderworld and the Mercury-goddamn-Maze even though he liked Melanie Nelson books. His lack of grilling had been half the reason she'd made friends with him in freshman year. "I'm going to need it because Lanie says I can do shared world Realm stuff."
"Really? That is awesome," said Dawes. "Hey, if your sister wrote these why didn't she sign them for you?"
Harriet stuck her head in the fridge so he wouldn't see her roll her eyes, and emerged with juice. "She's my sister. Her signature's not really special to me and it's not like I'm going to sell my books. You could buy your own copies and she'd sign them."
"I might do that, at least the faerie books you'll be using. Are you going to put the novel online or sit on it for a while hoping for a miracle?"
"I don't know yet," she said.
"Second thing, then," Dawes said.
Harriet sighed, but didn't have a retort ready. She drank her juice, and added try outlining realm story to her to-do list between attend yoga and lunch meeting with Spanish club.
Before she retreated into her room to turn in for the night, Dawes returned her copy of Prince, and she put it back on the shelf next to Ruby Faerie Regent and Ruby Faerie Usurper. (Usurper wasn't actually out yet - Harriet's was the ARC.) Next to the red-spined faerie series were Spiderworld and Spiderworld's Net and Into the Mercury Maze. Lanie was almost a decade older than Harriet and had started writing at the same age as her sister, finished a novel at the same age as her sister...
Only, Lanie'd had the fortune to choose a marketable genre. To be good at a marketable genre.
Harriet looked at the shelf of Melanie Nelson books for a long moment, and then switched off the lights and got into bed before her eyes adjusted.
Harriet had her creative writing seminar first thing the next morning, and brought her manuscript, though no one in the class had been interested before it was finished and she didn't think it likely that they'd want to read it just because it was done. It was currently titled "Seeing-Eye Dog". She expected she'd cycle through three more titles by the end of the day.
The seminar met once a week, and was worth a credit hour with regular attendance, but it was small and informal compared to most of Harriet's classes, and they usually met outdoors when the weather permitted. She found Professor Ngo sitting on the same bench where she'd met Lanie the prior evening, talking to two students who'd arrived earlier. Harriet sat on the grass next to one of them, who was talking about his space opera novelette. The other student interrupted with a comparison to her time travel short. Harriet resisted the urge to glower.
The six other students in the seminar trickled in, and Professor Ngo passed out handouts, which were about realistic dialogue. For someone who held earthfic in as much contempt as did the general population, Harriet thought, Ngo talked about realism a lot...
Every week, there were twenty minutes left after Professor Ngo's planned lesson. These were taken up by discussion about the students' own projects. Harriet had spoken up about her novel... once. Her classmates had laughed at her and Professor Ngo - sounding like she was trying to be kind - informed Harriet that she was in college now.
Harriet fidgeted in her seat, listening to progress reports on an alternate history and a steampunk romance and an urban fantasy and a post-apocalypse dystopia.
"Harriet?" asked Professor Ngo tentatively, when everyone else was done. She always asked.
"I'm going to start a new project today," said Harriet, resisting the temptation to shriek I finished a novel, none of the others ever finished a novel, damn it -
"What is it?" prompted the professor, tentatively, obviously hoping that it wasn't more earthfic.
Harriet twisted her hands in her lap. She didn't want Ngo to smile at her, didn't want to be taken seriously only because her new project wasn't earthfic.
Except that she also did. She wanted to look her teacher in the eye and name her next work and have everybody in the class know that she was probably going to be published (because your sister has connections, said Harriet's brain mutinously, but still).
The professor looked at her expectantly.
"I'm starting a new story today," Harriet said, and her voice only trembled a little bit. "It's shared-world of the Ruby Faerie Realm."
"Oh, how lovely," said Professor Ngo, beaming. "What do you have planned for it?"
And Harriet told her about the characters she was importing from the old story, and that she still had to figure out where the faeries came in, but was going to outline it right after yoga, and she avoided looking any of her classmates in the eye.
The class dispersed; Harriet heard footsteps behind her like Professor Ngo wanted to catch up to her and put a hand on her shoulder and congratulate her, but she sped up and didn't feel such a hand fall.
Yoga passed, and Harriet sat in the cafeteria, waiting for Spanish club, staring at her notebook.
She didn't think Ruby Faerie Realm stories were inferior to earthfiction. She liked her sister's work.
She didn't think they were worse. But it felt like she should, just to counterbalance everyone else.
She regretted telling the seminar about her new project. They'd looked at her like the correct response was aw, she's maturing as a writer, look, not she's trying a new area, no better or worse, just new.
It didn't help that she was mostly doing the Realm story because she thought it would get her published, rather than for the creative stretching implied by either thought.
Harriet tapped her pencil on the notebook and sighed and started sketching a loose outline of a plot that suited her characters and incorporated enough faeries that they wouldn't feel extraneous.
That afternoon, she typed up the outline and sent it to Lanie. Not expecting you to hold my hand through the actual writing, I just want a once-over on the plot skeleton, she added. Like if I missed some problem that the faeries would just fix by gemcasting something.
Lanie answered her after dinner: Looks awesome, have fun with it :). Harriet stared at her computer screen. Dawes was playing loud symphonic metal in his room. The manuscript of Harriet's novel - she'd settled on titling it "Actuation" and hadn't changed it since Spanish club - was leaning over, trying to slide out of its binder clips, in her bag.
Harriet opened the file on her laptop, updated the title, and uploaded it to earthfiction.net. She considered putting a little note in her author profile while she was there: "Keep an eye out for my next project - it's Ruby Faerie Realm shared-world! I'm authorized and you can expect it on shelves if everything goes according to plan!" She opened the editing box and the cursor blinked expectantly at her.
Then she closed it, and pounded out three thousand words of a first draft of chapter one of her Realm book, and went to bed.
In the morning, "Actuation" had two new reviews attached to early chapters. One was standard illiteracy - "u kep up the good wrk plz sequel? read my fic TEh Pet Store also r&r". The other was flaming her about some minor factual error regarding the geography of Montana, which she fixed without replying to the reviewer.
Harriet wrote another thousand words in her draft, then wrote to Lanie: What kind of feedback do you usually get on your books?
Lanie didn't get a chance to answer until midafternoon, by which time Harriet had sat through her Hispanophone Literature course and her art elective in ceramics. Lanie's reply read, My agent filters out the unreadable stuff (though he passes on the really hilarious ones) so I mostly just see nice things. Somebody named their baby Penelope after the character, people want stuff autographed - my agent has to filter a lot of that too b/c we can't provide our own postage for everything, they have to do it - somebody once told me they set the Mercury Chant to music and sent me a CD, it was pretty. Why?
Harriet didn't answer right away; she had six more comments on "Actuation". They ran the gamut from more incoherent squealing to a notification that she'd been listed on someone's recommendation hub to a glowing review of the treatment of blindness: I'm sick of reading blind characters in mainstream stuff because there's always some doodad or spell that can cure them or they have a magic power that makes them practically speaking not blind, and that's not gonna happen to me anytime soon, it's great to see a regular blind character who's going to stay that way but gets along fine, thank you :D
She answered her sister. Just curious about how it compares to the stuff people are saying on ef.net is all.
Come over to dinner tonight, Lanie wrote back. Me and your brother-in-law would love to have you. Spaghetti squash <3
Harriet tapped her fingers on the keyboard, typed awesome, pick me up whenever, and went back to her Realm draft. If she gave the antagonist enough graphite dust - maybe he should have access to a pencil factory - he could choke off the faeries' flashier powers at will... that made it easier not to solve all the problems by magic. The humans could do things. They could have realistic problems. And some of the characters would have wings and complain about there being too much graphite dust for them to gemcast, that was all.
She started chapter two. It had faeries in it. But she could still do what she was good at. She could keep most of what she liked about earthfic. Harriet chewed on her lip, then went back and edited in a limp for the female protagonist's son, which he was going to keep through the entire book.
She had a lot of writing left in her.