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A collaborative blog by Locus editors, contributors, and other invited guests. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine or Locus Online.

(Earlier posts end here in April 2010)




Alvaro Zinos-Amaro


Alan Beatts
Terry Bisson
Marie Brennan
Karen Burnham
Siobhan Carroll
John Clute
F. Brett Cox
Ellen Datlow
Paul Di Filippo
Michael Dirda
Gardner Dozois
Andy Duncan
Stefan Dziemianowicz
Brian Evenson
Jeffrey Ford
Karen Joy Fowler
Kathleen Ann Goonan
Theodora Goss
Elizabeth Hand
Cecelia Holland
Rich Horton
Guy Gavriel Kay
James Patrick Kelly
Mark R. Kelly
Ellen Klages
Russell Letson
Karen Lord
Brit Mandelo
Adrienne Martini
Tim Pratt
Cat Rambo
Paul Graham Raven
Graham Sleight
Maureen Kincaid Speller
Peter Straub
Rachel Swirsky
Paul Witcover
Gary K. Wolfe
E. Lily Yu

Dario Ciriello Guest Post–“Art and Revolt”

The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

—Neil Gaiman


July 4 sees the publication of my contrarian guide to writing craft, Drown the Cat: the Rebel Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules. The book is a direct rebuttal of the formula-driven approach taken in the Blake Snyder’s cult screenwriting book, Save the Cat! which attempts to reduce everything to a tidy, predictable, one-size-fits-all formula. A glance at the “Blake Snyder Beat Sheet” will tell you that the theme must be stated on page 5 of a script; that the catalyst occurs on page 12; that all is lost on page 75; and that the curtain comes down on page 110. “Isn’t this pure? And easy?” the author tells us.

Here’s why I wrote this book.

A Clarion West grad from ’02, I’ve been writing since the late 1990s, and branched out into editing and publishing in 2009; if you know me at all (unlikely) it’s from the Panverse all-novella anthology series which I edited and published on a shoestring in 2009-2011, with very little idea of what I was doing.

Among the stories featured in Panverse Three was Ken Liu’s searing work, “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary”. Ken was just starting to sell at the time, but this unique and provocative novella was clearly considered too risky for every pro market out there. Since I was an unknown paying $75 a novella, I was well aware that any good story landing in my slush pile had been rejected everywhere else. I snatched it up, making both of us happy in the process, and the novella was nominated for the Nebula that year (it didn’t win, but Ken’s “The Paper Menagerie” did) 1.

My point in relating this anecdote is that, quite apart from its hot-button subject matter (the horrors perpetrated on Chinese prisoners by Japanese forces in the camp known as Unit 731 during the 1930s and 1940s), this core SF work with its externally-narrated documentary approach and cool examination of the rhetoric of denialism breaks a raft-load of rules and takes enormous risks.

Editors get set in their ways and don’t take well to risk. Since I wasn’t then a professional and didn’t need to see x page count as y reader dollars, I had no such inhibitions.

More to the point, editors, agents, and industry professionals are prone to forget that what readers want isn’t necessarily aligned with what the publishing industry sees as good fiction. As author, literary critic, and university professor John Gardner famously put it, “One should fight like the devil the temptation to think well of editors…. By the nature of their profession they read too much, with the result they grow jaded and cannot recognize talent though it dances in front of their eyes.”

As a writer and someone who today makes a good part of his living as a freelance editor and copyeditor, I believe the worst thing any editor can do is to forget that it’s about the reader. It’s always been about the reader, not the industry professional. And when I work on a client’s novel today, I always bear that in mind. And readers loved Ken’s novella.

Any young writer coming into SF (or any genre, or even literary writing) today will find themselves drowning in a deluge of writing books, websites, and blogs, most of which parrot the same, tired dogma to new writers desperate to publish by any means possible. Although there’s plenty of excellent advice out there, so much of it is buried among mountains of generalization, dross, and sheer nonsense that a writer just learning their craft is likely to become confused and overwhelmed or else feel straitjacketed into churning out the same cookie-cutter fiction as everyone else. It’s a sad truth that publishing industry professionals, from agents on up, and certainly Hollywood professionals, buy into the write-by-numbers approach.

Another multiple award-winning author, Aliette de Bodard, in a superb and heartfelt 2011 blog post on the prevalence of U.S. tropes in storytelling, wrote:

I’m tired of how genre(s) put(s) a disproportionate value on heroes who are active and not passive (and, by extension, belittles and dismisses every use of passive voice, and always asks for sentences to be frenetically punchy); […] I don’t want to hear about the Hero’s Journey, or the Three-Act Plot, or the Thirty-Six or Fifty-Five Basic Plots as if they were all some kinds of Holy Gospel). I want novels which can be complex and organic like life itself, and which don’t have to be neatly pigeon-holed in order to be read and enjoyed.

The best fiction defies pigeonholing and breaks “rules” all the time. For proof of this, you need only look at de Bodard’s gothic fantasy series, Dominion of the Fallen, or Ken Liu’s The Dandelion Dynasty series, or Andy Weir’s massively successful The Martian­—which, not being a name, he had to of course publish as an indie after getting fed up with the rejections.

Every art, from painting to film to literature, goes in more or less generational cycles. In both literature and film, the young Turks who came into the field a few decades ago and shook things up are now the establishment. Today, the signal-boosting power of the web and the ascendancy of suits and marketing people over creative professionals in film and publishing conspire to make it very hard for newer and intermediate-level writers to see beyond the dogma and rules and take the kind of chances that the New Wave authors of the early 1960s did, or that the early punks took to upend the cozy, staid music scene of the mid-1970s. Would someone like Cordwainer Smith, Roger Zelazny, or Norman Spinrad get a publishing deal today if they showed up as an unknown?

I wrote Drown the Cat for new and intermediate writers who are sick to death of being lectured about active prose, adverb use, story beats, character change, the Hero’s Journey, and all the rest. Yes, a (very) few rules are important, and it’s wise to understand the reason that people parrot them before you throw the rulebook out. But it’s time to call BS on writing-by numbers and empower writers to tell their story, their way.

The truth is that most readers aren’t writers, agents, or editors. They’re not prose wonks. They aren’t swayed by technical mastery or compliance with the latest fashion taught in the prose madrassas. Nor do they care whether a book neatly fits into a genre, category, or reader demographic. Readers want a story, pure and simple. If you don’t believe that, then I guess J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, Dan Simmons, Jacqueline Susann, E.L. James, Robert James Waller, Dean Koontz, Ayn Rand, Dan Brown, and Isaac Asimov’s bestsellers were all just accidents. Because although some of these are good writers and others arguably mediocre, all of them have and do flout one or more of the “rules”, flagrantly and often. Their readers love them, and it has not hurt their sales one bit.

In conclusion, I think part of being a professional in any field is to always question received wisdom. Yes, you certainly should learn the protocols and conventions; but slavish adherence to other people’s dogma and assumptions not only limits your range, but also buys into what I believe is an unhealthy, timid mindset. What’s important is to tell your story in the way that best serves the reader.

Ultimately, only two things matter: to keep the reader turning the pages to the end, and leave them satisfied, feeling that their time and money was well-spent. All the rest is chaff and passing fashion.


About the Author

Dario Ciriello is a professional author and editor as well as the founder of Panverse Publishing.

His first novel, Sutherland’s Rules, a crime caper/thriller with a shimmer of the fantastic, was published in 2013. Free Verse and Other Stories, a collection of Dario’s short science fiction work, was released in June 2014.

His 2015 novel, a supernatural suspense thriller titled Black Easter, pits love against black magic and demonic possession on a remote, idyllic Greek island. Dario’s nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Skópelos (the real Mamma Mia! island), was an Amazon UK bestseller for several months in 2012. Drown the Cat: the Rebel Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules (Panverse, July 4 2017) is his second nonfiction work.

In addition to writing, Dario, who lives in the Los Angeles Area, offers professional editing, copyediting, and mentoring services to indie authors. His blog is at




  1. Alan Smale’s terrific novella, “A Clash of Eagles” (Panverse Two), which won the Sidewise Award and went on to become an acclaimed trilogy (publ.: Del Rey), was also rejected by every pro market.

Scott Westerfeld Guest Post–“Sisters and Family in Spill Zone”

Spill Zone is about what we’re left with after our family is destroyed.

It’s about two sisters, Addison and Lexa, who’ve lost their parents and hometown in an event called the Spill. The older sister, Addison, is left with the task of raising and providing for Lexa, which is in some ways like trying to keep a culture alive. Every family is its own world, after all. Only the people inside it really understand the rules and customs. So when a family is shattered, the leftover members are like survivors of Atlantis or Krypton.

The problem that Addison faces in preserving what’s left of her family culture is that her younger sister, Lexa, hasn’t said a word since the night of the Spill. (Neither have any of the kids she escaped with, the sole surviving group of the event.) Lexa communicates only in a psychic link she shares with her rag doll, Vespertine, who was changed by the Spill into something more than a doll. Addison doesn’t hear those conversations, so connecting with her little sister is hard.

Sibling relations are a venerable topic of YA. Little sisters can be sweetness and light, pesky and sarcastic, or Bad-Seed-level psychopaths. Brothers can share unbreakable tribal loyalty or have primal Cain-and-Able conflicts. And, of course, these somewhat gendered roles can be switched around in myriad ways.

But Addison has two sisters—both Lexa and her doll Vespertine are part of the family now.

A friend of mine who teaches at a girls’ middle school, grades 6-8, regales me with stories about how transformative that stretch of growing up can be. His sixth graders (mostly) love rainbows and unicorns, while his eighth graders (often) are cynical and swear like truck drivers. Half of his job is helping the parents through this transition.

In Spill Zone, Lexa represents the beginning of that process, and her doll Vespertine the end. Lexa has been frozen since the Spill; though fearful, she’s still full of child-eyed innocence. So her doll has taken on the process of growing into a savvy and insubordinate young teen. Vespertine is acerbic, worldly, and mean.

On top of this, Addison wasn’t exactly a great older sister before the Spill, sneaking out and leaving Lexa alone when she should have been babysitting. She was gone on the night of the Spill, so guilt informs Addison’s protectiveness.

She supports herself and Lexa by sneaking into the Zone at night, taking photographs of the strange manifestations there to sell as outsider art. She’s both reliving the trauma of the Spill and seeking answers. But the answers may not exist—the Spill may be fundamentally unknowable. And she may be trying to rebuild a family that no longer has enough pieces left.

Of course, that’s just the starting point of Spill Zone. Sometimes a stranger comes to town and makes new answers and new families possible.


About the Author

Scott Westerfeld is the author of the worldwide bestselling Uglies series and the Locus Award–winning Leviathan series, and is co-author of the Zeroes trilogy. His other novels include the New York Times bestseller AfterworldsThe Last Days, Peeps, So Yesterday, and the Midnighters trilogy.

Salik Shah Guest Post–“Unmaking the Post-Truth World With Global SF”

Mithila is a glorious kingdom ruled by philosopher kings in the Sanskrit epic Ramayana. Millennia later, say in an alternate universe, it’s a decolonized terrain beset with intolerance and violence, a symbol of a civilization in decline.

Science fiction and fantasy that draws its power from actual science and history—a scientific spirit based on evidence, logic and rationality—could be a fluid and powerful language of protest in the new era of demagogues; science fiction could be a new language of awakening and enlightenment in the post-truth world. This was the core belief around which Ajapa and I built Mithila Review, a new kind of open journal with an inherently global bent in an increasing privatized and closed world.

Mithila Review grew out of our innermost fears, needs and concerns. We wanted to counter the growing climate of hate and injustice that surround us, and we knew we couldn’t do it alone, from an invisible, electrified patch of our planet. From the beginning, it was self-evident that we couldn’t hope to win against our enemy—the ideology of segregation and hate—without recognizing, addressing, or overcoming the many differences within and outside SF communities.

We chose to stubbornly believe that Mithila, as a referent, could speak to the times when we have felt that we don’t quite belong; when we liberated our anger and pain in ways that have fed the creative river within us. It’s been deeply gratifying to see that we were not wrong in our belief. Flash-forward a year, Mithila Review is a beautiful example of what we can accomplish together; it’s the result of a global mindset and collective effort. With contributors from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, Mithila Review has evolved into a global platform for a spectacular gamut of humanity—not a single language, gender or race, its singular tribes or colorful nationalities.


Genre Matters

Science fiction and fantasy can educate and inform us about the world and the ways that we live today; it can prepare us for the incremental advances and interventions to come in personal, social, economic, political and technological spheres. As a student of science fiction and genre cinema, I have always felt an acute need for a responsive and nurturing market for readers and writers of this exciting form of literature in South Asia. Despite our rich heritage, there is a feeling that original science fiction and fantasy is absent from our mainstream culture, its literary and cinematic landscapes.

Mithila Review helped me come out of a phase of idleness, a sabbatical that lasted for almost two years. I’ve often felt out of place, emotionally and intellectually, in the regressive world, and I consider myself extremely lucky to have found a home in the genre. Over the years I’ve drawn immense joy, inspiration and insight from classic and contemporary speculative fiction. And I feel we’re only beginning to realize how a collaborative literary project like Mithila Review could fill a literary and artistic void in the lives of our readers, editors and contributors.


Global Movement

Mithila Review is first and foremost an international community movement. Our Asian Science Fiction and Fantasy group on Facebook includes prominent writers, editors and publishers from around the world, or those with a meaningful connection to the region. As a global community of readers, writers and scholars in the field, we consider ourselves lucky to be able to have some of the world’s best minds on our platform.

Science fiction has always inspired and captivated many generations of scientists and innovators in the West. Today China is the biggest market for science fiction and fantasy, and Chinese scientists are making their presence felt in the world. As an editor and indie publisher, I sincerely hope that Mithila Review attracts, entertains and inspires a new generation of outliers, thinkers and innovators in days to come, one excellent issue at a time.

In our first year of publication, Mithila Review published fiction, poetry, non-fiction or interviews from several award-winning and emerging authors from around the world. With the exception of a few first-time or emerging poets and writers, most of our contributors are “professionals,” each with an impressive, critical and significant body of work. I can’t tell how much I value their contribution and support; I’ll remain forever grateful to each one of them for their excellent work.

Every month we receive hundreds of submissions from around the world. Our average response time was about a week, but it’s increasing now due to the volume of submissions. As I am returning to a full-time career soon, we’re seeking volunteers to help our small team—which is comprised of Ajapa Sharma, Isha Karki and me at the moment—with many aspects of running a high-quality literary journal.


Funding #WorldSF

There isn’t a single moment when I am not hyperaware that we are taking more from this community than we could give it back right now. And we desperately want to strike a balance by raising funds to pay semi to pro rates defined by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association of America (SFWA). I don’t think we can lay a strong foundation for a vibrant literary culture in any part of the world without being highly professional and up-to-date in how we work and collaborate. Any new publication that enters the field must find ways to match the professional pay rates enjoyed by contributors to the speculative journals in America to ensure they get high-quality, excellent submissions.

Starting with Issue 7, which came out in January 2017, we are paying some of our contributors with the limited funding we have. While we’re still far from reaching our Patreon goal, we are energized by the slow but steady show of support from our readers and patrons. Unfortunately, we couldn’t pay our contributors for the first six issues, but we are now paying semi-pro to pro rates for original fiction and poetry thanks to our Patreon supporters. (We’ve had to turn down funding from established regional publishers since we didn’t want to lock Mithila Review behind a pay wall.)


Editors’ Wishlist

We want excellent, powerful, personal stories with real science and magic. And we often publish stories from minority or underrepresented groups within the field—all of which go through a rigorous editing process. The best way to get a sense of what we publish is to read our existing issues—they are available to read online. American science fiction magazines rely on readers’ patronage to provide access to great content to world citizens, and we don’t want to be any different.

Work published in Mithila Review has been mentioned, excerpted or reviewed by leading writers and editors in the field at diverse venues such as Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld Magazine, Apex Magazine, Kirkus and Wired. As a niche magazine, we attract a lot of science, history and technology nerds from within and outside the academia. Most of our readers come from United States—the center of SF publishing—closely followed by India and the U.K.. China, Russia, Canada, Germany, Singapore, Australia and Nepal are other countries where we are beginning to gain traction.

The best part of my job as an editor is reading submissions from young writers around the world. They are not even sixteen and already so ambitious! I find that very inspiring, and try my best to guide them with personal feedback and encouragement whenever I can. Science fiction is the literature of the future, and we strive to learn daily how to encourage these young and discerning readers from the leading editors in the field.

Starting Mithila Review and the journey so far has been a labor of love, a year of great humility. As indie publishers and editors, we can only do our part and do it well, and pray that the love, encouragement and support we receive from our readers, contributors and patrons grows stronger with time. Magic happens when we are busy reading slush, editing, or creating a new story, designing the next issue. And if we manage to somehow give our readers hope and strength to survive the onslaught of history, its immoral and heinous transgressions, its super villains, then, as a young editor and indie publisher, that’s a rare payoff that I have come to value immensely.

You can read all issues of Mithila Review online for free: http://mithilareview.

Please consider supporting us if you can on Patreon:

Many thanks to Alvaro Zinos-Amaro and the Locus team for having us here!


About the Author

Salik Shah is the founding editor of Mithila Review. His fiction, poetry and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Asimov’s and Juggernaut, among other publications. You can find him on Twitter: @salik. Website:

Jess Nevins Guest Post–“How It All Started”

1905 was a landmark year as far as global pulp culture was concerned, because that was the year that Street & Smith, at the time the purveyor of a number of very successful dime novels, decided to expand its operations into Europe. The countries of Europe had not been without their own versions of dime novels, in some cases for decades, but Street & Smith–which was looking to expand its operations in the face of sagging magazine sales and a generally flat American economy–had a secret weapon: Buffalo Bill Cody, at the time an international phenomenon thanks to a fabulously successful European tour with his Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. In 1901 Cody had signed a contract with Street & Smith to allow them to print fictional adventures about him; the resulting dime novel, Buffalo Bill Stories, was one of Street & Smith’s best-selling magazines. Europe, which had been fascinated with the American frontier since the international publication of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, must have seemed like a natural set of markets to Ormond G. Smith, the publisher of Street & Smith.

Smith had no idea. The arrival of Buffalo Bill Stories in Germany in 1905 was revolutionary. The prevailing model for the German heftromane- (lit. “hero-novels”) had been either single-appearance heroes or limited-run serials. The idea of an ongoing hero dime novel was hugely appealing; that it was a Western added to the appeal; that it starred Buffalo Bill Cody simply made it irresistible to the German audience. The German translations of Buffalo Bill Stories sold in the tens of millions–by some estimates, 1 in 7 Germans bought the translated Buffalo Bill Stories at its height–and when Street & Smith began selling translated issues of the detective dime novel Nick Carter Weekly, they sold outrageously, as well.

German heftromane publishers immediately took notice and put out heftromane of their own with ongoing German heroes. Those domestically-produced heftromane sold by the millions. When French romans d’aventures publishers heard about the profits that their German counterparts were making, they began importing and translating the German heftromane and then began publishing their own romans d’aventures with French heroes. The craze for ongoing dime novels about local heroes spread–across Europe, across Scandinavia, across North Africa and the Middle East, and into Russia–so that by 1907 dime novels, in their various local incarnations, were selling tens of millions of copies a month, some of which were translated Street & Smith dime novels but most of which were local productions.

World War One temporarily put an end to the dime novel fever–that, and the inevitable backlash by the self-appointed guardians of literature and culture, who were horrified by the popularity of “trash literature” and did their best to ban it or suppress it. But the dime novel model of open-ended adventures about a single hero or group of heroes stuck, and after the war ended the dime novel (and then pulp) publishers of the West quickly resumed cranking out hero dime novels and hero pulps as quickly as they could. In China, Japan and Korea the series heroes appeared in newspapers; across Southeast Asia, series heroes appeared in local versions of dime novels and pulps.

The hero machines of the world continued unabated through the 1920s and through the Great Depression, only slowing down (but not stopping) during World War Two. After the war, dime novels and pulps died off, as outdated media models do, but by that time other media–radio, movies, tv, comic books–had learned that emulating the open-ended series model of the hero dime novels and hero pulps could be enormously profitable. More than seventy years later, this remains the case.

My book, The Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes (self-published, 2017), is a reference book about all those pre-World War Two series heroes. (I use the word “pulp” in its broadest sense, as what Barthes called “a metaphor without brakes”). I’ve always been interested in bygone media, forgotten authors, and stories and characters obscured by time, and when I began doing research into the world of pre-WW2 global pulp culture I discovered that there were thousands of characters, many of them with a lot of potential, some of them surprisingly well-done, waiting to be brought into the light. So I did just that. Years of research followed–I began writing the book in 1999, and carried out research across the United States and, when necessary, at the British Library in London, at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, and at the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek in Frankfurt. I spent…well, I don’t know how many hours I spent translating non-English dime novels and pulps, but it was a lot, and I ended up translating everything from Finnish to Hungarian.

The end result is an encyclopedia of pulp heroes (and in some cases villains) from the years 1902-1945 (and a few from after 1945). The book has over 6800 entries from over 50 countries, with characters from dime novels, pulps, slicks, newspaper serials, comic strips, novels, movie serials, and radio shows. The encyclopedia is over 730,000 words long–1539 manuscript pages–much too long for a publisher to be interested in, so I made it available as an ebook.

The encyclopedia is not exhaustive. It couldn’t be, considering that I was limited in how far I could go to research (never did it make it farther east than Frankfurt) and considering how posterity has dealt with the products of popular culture of the past. In the US over half of all the pulp titles ever printed are gone, with no issues surviving. The situation outside the US is far worse. I’d love to know about the numerous detective heroes who appeared in the Arabic-language Malay journals of the 1920s, and the martial arts heroes in the Indonesian wuxia dime novels, and the heroes in the Korean newspapers of the 1910s and 1920s, and the genre material which must surely lurk in pre-1939 Persian newspapers, but all of those are either gone beyond recovering or are held in fragmentary numbers in libraries I can’t get to.

Nonetheless, I did what I could, and the encyclopedia manages to provide what I like to think is a portal into the past. There’s a quote by Lytton Strachey that I used as an epigraph in the encyclopedia:

“It is not by the direct method of a scrupulous narration that the explorer of the past can hope to depict that singular epoch. If he is wise, he will adopt a subtler strategy. He will attack his subject in unexpected places; he will fall upon the flank, or the rear; he will shoot a sudden, revealing searchlight into obscure recesses, hitherto undivined. He will row out over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen, from those far depths, to be examined with a careful curiosity.”

I’d like to think I’ve done just that, so that anyone interested in the Indian detectives of the 1930s, or the Burmese version of the Count of Monte Cristo, or the Spanish space opera series of the post-WW1 years, or the Mongolian Communist animal fable, or the talking gorillas of Soviet theater, or the Finnish Tarzan (he was raised by polar bears), can find them in my book. I of course included the Shadow, and Doc Savage, and all the rest of the American pulp heroes, and much can be discerned about America’s past through them, but I paid special attention to characters from non-Anglophone countries, many of whose adventures were never translated into English, and over 1500 of the characters are from outside Anglophone countries.

It was a labor of love, and now that it’s out in the world I feel a bit melancholy. But if just one person is turned on to the delights of the pulp heroes of the past, then I’ll be content in a job well done.


About the Author

Jess Nevins is a college librarian in Tomball, Texas, and is the author of eleven reference books, including The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana (Monkeybrain, 2005), The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger: the 4,000-Year History of the Superhero (Praeger, 2017), and The Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes.

Steve Rasnic Tem Guest Post–“The Long Gestation Period of UBO”

The journeys taken by my most recent novels from idea to completion have been lengthy and complex. Deadfall Hotel (Solaris, 2012) began as a novelette first published in Charlie Grant’s Shadows series in 1986. My southern gothic Blood Kin (Solaris, 2014) started with a few paragraphs written during my senior year in high school in 1968. And now comes UBO (Solaris, February 2017), a dark science fictional exploration of violence, begun during that eventful summer of 1969 (Woodstock, the first man on the moon, the Chicago 8 trial, the Manson murders and the Stonewall riots).

Generally speaking, I’m a “quiet” writer, preferring subtlety and understatement over graphic imagery, but violence has always preoccupied me–it’s that aspect of human behavior which troubles me most. So as I’ve done with all things which disturb me I’ve studied it obsessively, holding it close in order to keep it far away.

I began UBO at a time when I knew I wanted to be a writer but I had no idea how to become one. But I knew how to read and study, and although these activities had never kept me safe, at least they kept me occupied. I started collecting books on violence, reading extensively about its most iconic progenitors: Hitler, Himmler, Stalin, Jack the Ripper, et al, and I made copious notes for the novel I knew I would someday write.

I have no good excuse for the length of time many of my novels have taken. It’s not as if I worked on them every day. In part, I suspect, it’s because I fell in love with completion, and so I’ve built a career out of all those short stories (over 400 now) I’ve completed. Novels require a tolerance for delayed gratification. This is exacerbated by my tendency to drop the current novel every time an intriguing short story idea appears.

The other factor is that I’ve usually had a pretty good sense of both my abilities and my limitations. Although I’ve started many an ambitious project, I generally procrastinate until I believe I’ve acquired the skills necessary to do them justice.

And so it was with UBO (Except that wasn’t its name at first. Initially it had no name—it was just “that novel about violence.”) At the time it was first conceived I didn’t know how to write a decent short story much less tackle a novel. And so I continued to read, and study, and dream.

A dream, in fact, gave me the title, and the first hints at some sort of narrative. I dreamed that I had awakened, and found myself flying through the air in excruciating pain. A giant insect had hooked its claws through my hands at the base of my thumbs, and looking around I saw hundreds of other people in similar straits. Eventually we passed the moon, and after a period of unconsciousness I witnessed our descent onto a structure either man-made or natural which resembled the letters “U,” “B,” and “O.”

By this point I had finished a Masters in Creative Writing at Colorado State and I had achieved some success at selling my short stories. In the early 1980’s I was invited to attend a “mini-Milford” writers’ workshop high in the mountains of Leadville, Colorado. Ed Bryant was the organizer, and like the original Milford workshop, both local and out-of-state professional writers would be offering up their work for discussion and critique. I decided to workshop the first few chapters of UBO.

It was an unusual experience. Leadville is over 10,000 feet above sea level. At some point they brought in oxygen tanks for our guests from the east coast, but even the Coloradans were struggling with the altitude. Between critiques writers were passing these tanks around. The night before we workshopped the fragment of UBO we went out for spicy Italian food. I woke up in the middle of the night with intense chest pain, thinking I was having a heart attack. Then I felt the acid rising in my throat. Later I would discover I had developed a hiatal hernia. I spent much of that night sitting in the cool windowsill gazing at the stars because somehow that comforted me.

Many of the attendees didn’t much like what I’d done with UBO, although most admired its ambition. Some questioned whether you could write about that kind of violence in any palatable way. Of course it was a different time then, but it was also clear that I still had some tonal challenges to solve. Writers like Ed and Connie Willis and James Kelly and John Kessel had useful suggestions which I would eventually use in my rewrite of those chapters. And the book did have its champions, Dan Simmons and Carol Emshwiller among them.

I continued to work on UBO for the rest of that year. Our two youngest children were 7 and 5 at the time. My daily schedule was to work on UBO for about half the day, as deep in the minds of the Himmlers and the Stalins and the Rippers as I could go, and then go take care of my kids, playing games and reading them stories. Eventually the discrepancy between these two worlds was too much for me—I wasn’t up to the task either psychologically or technically—and I put UBO aside. But I continued to read, and study, and dream about the violent content of that book.

I’m not sure exactly why, but in 2014 I picked it up again. I did feel more skilled as a novelist, and I better understood some of the character and descriptive choices necessary to make it readable for a more general audience. I’d also written a brief description of UBO that was apparently intriguing enough that my editor Jonathan Oliver wanted to see an outline. Novel outlines were something I’d discovered with Deadfall Hotel—much to my surprise they made a morass of inspirational materials much more manageable. I would also soon be 64 years old. What if I didn’t live to finish it?

And I must confess—I was ready to get rid of all those violent research materials. I wanted the shelf space for new and more pleasant things. So I created a “physical outline.” I sorted all those books according to subject matter (types of violence, historical figures covered, etc.)—hundreds of them—into piles on a table along with folders full of notes. I then started removing stacks of materials which represented characters and sub-themes I didn’t think would fit into the full narrative I was imagining. A dozen or more volumes on Hitler were the first to go. I played with the ordering of the piles for a while. Then I looked at the historical characters more closely. I tried to pick a day or an event in Stalin’s life, in Himmler’s life, etc. which best embodied the themes and the traits I wanted to accentuate. Once the research materials and story notes roughly resembled the novel I wanted to write I recreated that physical outline on a few dozen single-spaced pages. All that remained was to write, and read, and study, and dream, and write some more until I found the right scenes and the right language to fill in the holes so that this 46-year-old project could be delivered to the world in February.


About the Author

Steve Rasnic Tem’s last novel, Blood Kin (Solaris, 2014) won the Bram Stoker Award. His new novel, UBO (Solaris, February 2017) is a dark science fictional tale about violence and its origins, featuring such historical viewpoint characters as Jack the Ripper, Stalin, and Heinrich Himmler. He is also a past winner of the World Fantasy and British Fantasy Awards. Recently a collection of the best of his uncollected horror—Out of the Dark: A Storybook of Horrors—was published by Centipede Press. A handbook on writing, Yours To Tell: Dialogues on the Art & Practice of Fiction, written with his late wife Melanie, will appear soon from Apex Books. Visit the Tem home on the web at:

Chuck Wendig: An Invasive Interview

Joe M. McDermott Guest Post–“The Writer Industrial Complex”

There is the writing, then there are the publishers, and then there are the consultants to writers and publishers. I refer to the third category as the “Writer Industrial Complex” and they are in the business of selling services that may or may not help books and stories along. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that this industry exists, and it can provide valuable services at critical stages of a writer’s practice. However, there is always a dark side where there’s lots of hope, a limitless supply of wannabes with money, and no accountability whatsoever. You see, the Writer Industrial Complex can always place the blame for your failure to implement their system successfully upon the feet of the phrase “Write a better book”. There are very few meaningful professional standards, and no licenses to lose. If poor student performance and bad reviews build up, it doesn’t take much to burn the website down and start over.

So, let me distinguish the two sides to a writer’s career thusly: there is the creative portion; there is the business portion. The creative portion includes making brilliant books and stories and poems. The business portion includes things like tracking book sales, accounting, marketing books, and contracts. The latter is a very dull, but necessary part of the gig.

The Writer Industrial Complex is committed to helping you sell a book with a strong hook, a marketable property, and a Hollywood-style script. None of these things are, independently, necessarily detrimental to creative energy. But, I find that inferior work is often produced when the thought patterns of the Writer Industrial Complex are permitted to blur the way writers think about their creative work as a professional endeavor. Some writers are inspired by Hollywood-style scripts. Some aren’t. Pushing everyone down the same path, and systematizing the trajectory of a career around a set of expectations–manuscript length, query letters, agents, networking, blog, business cards, etc.–creates a set of expectations that is not true to a large number of authors.

For the majority of writers, writing is not a career. This is not a profession. There are no licenses. The professional organizations that exist have very low standards for entry and being exiled from them seems to mean very little to readers and editors. This is not a job, like lawyering or doctoring or even journalism. The systems that exist around the world of publishing can be a job, sometimes, but it’s more like renting a boat as a fishing guide to tourists more than a consulting service for professionals, most of the time. Well, there is one difference between the fishing boat: Tourists who rent fishing boats will be led where the fish are. Professional writing guides and services don’t actually have to help anyone do anything beyond just spout opinions that may be sold as truth. These less-ethical writing guides just need to help you feel more confident about identifying yourself out at sea as a writer, mostly.

Now, it ain’t all bad. There are workshops and services and even academic programs that can or may help, but the questions to ask before considering paying any money to anybody include checking out the qualifications of the folks selling the service, and ensuring that what they are selling is part of the spiritual and artistic practice of the act of writing, not the fishing boats chasing whales. Clarion is part of that Writer Industrial Complex, for example, and I don’t think anyone would rationally suggest such an endeavor would be a waste of time to an aspirant of fictional practice. There are workshops and editorial services I would buy into tomorrow from writers whose opinions I respect, if I could afford them. There are editors and artists that I have hired and would hire again to help a specific project along. But, I have no expectation that any of this will do anything to help the sales of my books, or help me land a big deal somewhere. It’s all just ways to feed the creative energy that builds up inside of me, and that energy is indifferent to some vision of what a career in publishing is supposed to look like.

In the same sense there is the business side, and I am always interested in learning more where I can about that aspect of the industry. However, when I see folks suggesting that the business side of the job should start driving the creative energy by selecting projects, or changing projects to more closely match a vision of “blockbuster” writing, whatever that means, I often find the work that is produced to be an inferior sort to what came before the shift in consciousness where a writer went from amateur to professional. The business side matters, absolutely, and there’s a lot to learn. But we are better served as practitioners of the sacred trust of fiction by separating those two sides of the gig in our minds, and making absolutely certain the business end serves the artist, not vice versa. The danger of failing to do so is burning out by choosing projects that don’t feed the fire of our creative spirit, or looking back on a career where we aren’t really proud of anything we did except make money. Even worse, we may even buy in to parts of the Writer Industrial Complex that don’t have our best interests at heart, and end up not only going down a bad path, but paying for the privilege.

The Writer Industrial Complex exists, particularly on its deep and murky end, because there is this myth that writing is a profession. The only professional standards I’m aware of include not plagiarizing and not libeling. Neither one of these leads to someone losing their license to practice writing. There is very little money to be made, most of the time, and the work that aspires to money generally fails to make any. The authors that make money did not, generally, set out to do so. This is just not really a profession, or a job, or a career, in the traditional sense of these words. Thinking that way can lead to poor creative decisions, in my opinion, and to books that might sell well for a little while, but ultimately don’t stand the test of time. Our work will outlive us, if we let it. We are architects building dreams that will pass down to all who care to witness them. Reaching for a moment, or for heat in this moment, generally means our imaginary structures will burn down with that moment passing.

Writing is more like prayer and protest and painting than it is like being a lawyer or a doctor or a plumber or any other sort of profession. It is a kind of non-denominational spiritual practice that focuses our will and intellect to a point of clarity and social purpose. I see advertisements all the time for workshops and mentors and programs that attempt to sell things that systematize and professionalize the art of fiction. Query letter workshops, for example, seem like an operation of limited worth in the grand scheme. Tips to turn one’s book into a bestseller all reek of lies. The Hollywood-i-zation of our plots and outlines take at their heart a genre of storytelling that is openly considered inferior to the more rambling, less rigid structures of our great serial television programs.

Protect your practice, I guess, is what I am saying. Protect it from the fear that you aren’t doing enough, aren’t doing it right, or could be doing it better in a way that is measured externally to the self. The art of writing is the art of editing your own writing. Have faith in your first editor.

Have faith, and build a practice.


About the Author

Joe M. McDermott is the author of seven novels and two short story collections. His latest novel, Fortress at the End of Time, comes out on January 17, 2017, from

He holds a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston, and an MFA in Popular Fiction from the Stonecoast Program of the University of Southern Maine.

Jaym Gates Guest Post–“The Landscapes of Horror”

The most frightening self-inflicted experience of my life was when I developed an unfortunate taste for horror fiction as a teenager living in the middle of nowhere, California. I snuck The Oath, by Frank Peretti, out of my grandparents’ library and read it in the evenings, when I was supposed to be taking care of the horses.

For those who’ve never read the book, it’s about an impossibly powerful monster preying on a small town. Normally this wouldn’t have been an issue, but I was reading it after dark, in an ancient barn, in an area that gets a lot of wind. The ambience of deep shadows, creaking wood, and whining wind left a deep mark on my psyche and my visualization of horror.

When it comes to creepy American settings, the deep South is probably the first one thought of, with its swamps and old racial divides, its cryptids and devils. Sweltering, plagued with storms and poisonous reptiles and too many insects, the South certainly has its place in the American nightmare.

I lived in the South for a number of years, and understand why it is such a rich setting for horror–driving through the pouring rain in the early hours of the morning, the road crowded by kudzu and devoid of human life, it feels like some awful other planet, with monsters surely lurking just around the bend.

And yet it never had the sharp edges that I was used to.

I grew up in the foothills of Northern California, just outside of Sacramento. Colloquially referred to as ‘Calabama’ for its deeply conservative culture, the area has more than its share of infamous serial killers, mass murderers, and other horrors. Everyone owns multiple guns, knows at least three conspiracy theorists, and can probably tell you of at least one haunted building in their town.

My homeland is Gold Rush country, stained with vast amounts of blood, riddled with collapsing mines, and trying to reconcile a deeply independent, pioneer spirit with the growing pressures of modernization from the coast. My family came from the central part of the state, where the drunken perfume of orange blossoms warred with the rotting scent of stagnant canal water in the spring, and the pall of smoke from the heaters needed to keep the citrus trees alive blanketed the region in winter.

The California I know is a barely-tamed land, full of danger and contradiction. As a kid, growing up in the country, the cackle of coyotes and the screams of mountain lions became normal. While most people only have nightmares of monsters, I tended the deep claw-marks on my horse after a mountain lion attack and struggled with a deep paranoia of attack after a couple of joggers were attacked by the huge cats. Rattlesnakes were a common fear, too, nesting beneath rocks and in brush piles, while coyotes would lure dogs out to kill. And, if that wasn’t enough, the biggest economy of the area was drugs. Between meth labs and Mexican/South American cartels, it was wise to learn the signs of a place you should avoid at all costs. When I was a kid, some transients shot the neighboring ranch’s foreman in the back of the head and stuffed him down a well because he tried to chase them off the land. The local ranchers rode with guns on their saddles after that.

When I was 18 months old, my family got caught in the mountains by an early snowstorm. Miles from their vehicles or civilization, they had to finish the hike to get back to safety. We regularly went to Death Valley, too, where you can suffer heat stroke in the day and freeze to death at night. People die there every year because they didn’t bring enough water or shelter or common sense. Go west, to the northern coast, and it’s riptides, sharks, and treacherous cliffs.

The landscape of horror, to me, is barren, rather than lush, filled with the babble of coyotes and the whining wind rather than the sound of rain. Hungry oceans, mines full of restless ghosts, and forests of poison oak, manzanita, and crumbling oaks.

It was this background that inspired my current project, Strange California. Jason Batt and I were talking about our backgrounds in California–I was a native who moved away for a while, he was a transplant–and our fascination with the endless weirdness and wild spirit of the state. We both had dozens of stories, and it got us to thinking about the contributions California has made to science fiction, from Bradbury to Robinson, and its inevitable contributions to its future, as well.

The stories we got introduced me to so many new elements of my state’s culture and history, and rekindled my fascination with it. Tales of Russian sisters outwitting trickster magpies, Mexican girls facing off with Spanish witches in the orange groves, surfers chasing a transformation on the waves, Gold Rush ghosts, and magical rollercoasters are just the beginning.

I may have cut my teeth on traditional fantasy, but it was California that gave shape to my voice and dreams, and I owe it a debt for shaping so much of the science fiction and fantasy that I love.



About the Author

Jaym Gates is an author, editor, and publicist. Her anthologies include War Stories, Genius Loci, Upside Down, Broken Time Blues, and more. She recently Kickstarted Strange California

J. Daniel Batt Guest Post–“Towards the Frontier”

The Santa Lucia mountains hug the California coastline between Monterey and San Luis Obispo and stare out at the dark, cold waters of the Pacific. For centuries, perhaps back to the Chumash legends, lore tells of dark figures materializing upon the edges of these mountains to gaze across the ocean. When the early migrants came to California, these figures were waiting for them. The myth of the Dark Watchers was reinforced by John Steinbeck, the Golden State writer that championed the plight of the migrant agricultural worker. In his story “Flight”, he described one of these watchers as “a dark form against the sky, a man standing on top of a rock.” Steinbeck’s reference of these creatures is even more shocking against his usual cast of common, authentic American characters.

The mythology was picked up by Steinbeck’s son Thomas. Thomas Steinbeck, remembering his father and grandmother’s retellings of the phantom observers, collaborated with artist Benjamin Brode to craft an art book in honor of the Dark Watchers: In Search of the Dark Watchers: Landscapes and Lore of Big Sur. Thomas Steinbeck begins: “And if for a brief moment they entertain the least suspicion… the Dark Watchers will literally evaporate in front of your eyes like the fog.” Later, attempting to establish their history, the younger Steinbeck notes “The early Spanish explorers, as well as the later Mexican ranchers and their vaqueros, called them ‘Los Vigilantes Oscuros.'”

On the Weird California forums, a user named Joey gave his own account: “I’m a long distance runner and most of my training is in up in the good old Californian Mountains. I had a long run scheduled so I headed out. I headed to Veterans Park here in the San Fernando Valley. Time of day was 2:00 pm I was running and up in an area where no human could climb without gear I saw a black figure in plain day light. I never seen anything like it up in the mountain. Was darker than dark could not explain it. A year past and today again January 24th I saw it again and in the same spot.” Another user, C. Gardner, commented: “Up here in the Eastern Sierras, we see the Dark Watchers all the time. They are always out at dusk and dawn. All you see is just a tall dark silhouette. They almost look like horses standing on their hind legs with the assistance of a walking stick. Its pretty creepy, and nobody has ever seen them close up. They disappear the moment you try to get closer.” They are watchers and observers only.

Imagine the immigrants slowly venturing into the expanding frontier–to the unexplored, unknown wild. California was so far removed from early European settlers that some maps showed the territory as a separate island. Those pioneers crossed the Sierras and settled the varied topography only to discover the mythological Watchers, looking at another frontier. The Dark Watchers are a unique mythology representative of the Golden State–spirits ever gazing into the unknown.

California is seen simultaneously, alternating throughout history, as both the frontier and the staging area to explore the frontier. For the early wanderers coming from the north to settle the western coast around 17000 BCE, California was their frontier. From then until now, for millions, California is synonymous with the frontier–the embodiment of the unknown and, within the unknown, the possibility for the strange and wonderful.

Near the end of 1890s, with the settlement of California, the US government declared that the American frontier had vanished. Yet, from California, hinted at by the occasional glimpses of the Dark Watchers, the vision for further frontiers was glimpsed. The frontier is that unexplored, uninhabited territory on the border of what is known.

Moving from mythology to science fiction (often called the literature of the frontier), Captain Kirk has challenged us to explore the “Final Frontier.” In the fiction of the future, California is home to Starfleet. In Roddenberry’s vision, the exploration of the new Final Frontier is staged within the Coastal State. As an unintended potential precursor to that future, SpaceX, based in Southern California, has recently laid out the plans for humanity to become multi-planetary. In Northern California, citizens and industries in Monterey are working towards the establishment of a spaceport.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction extols California as “pure [science fiction], that California was not discovered but invented… California [is portrayed] as the promised land, where the streets are paved with gold; and California as a place in which one may construct an advocated world.”

Out of this spirit of the invented frontier, myself and my fellow co-editor Jaym Gates have launched an anthology titled Strange California–a collection of 26 all-new speculative fiction stories exploring the complex mythologies of the Golden State. Viewed as the ever-present frontier, the borders of California are easily imagined to contain a myriad of oddities and wonders. With a brilliant artist, support team, and publisher, we’re now raising support for Strange California through Kickstarter. Visit the project at:

Whether you’re from California or not, if you’re a fan of science fiction and fantasy, this anthology has something for you.

Strange California celebrates the frontier that is at the heart of speculative fiction. The land of California has been a draw to those seeking the frontier for centuries. California not only creates this diversity of thought and experience, but invites it. It calls for us and we find from it a call to it akin to Carl Sagan’s own words, “Somewhere, something wonderful is waiting to be known….”


About the Author 

jasonDaniel Batt is an editor, writer, and designer. He serves as the Creative and Editorial Director for the 100 Year Starship and is the founder and organizer of the annual Canopus Award for Excellence in Interstellar Writing. His novels include Young Gods and Dreamside and his short fiction has appeared in Perihelion, Bastion, Bewildering Stories, A Story Goes On, and other periodicals. He’s most recently edited the science fiction anthology Visions of the Future published through Lifeboat Foundation. He lives in California, where he has had firsthand experience with its weirdness.

Traveler of Worlds: All Kinds of Enwonderment

Today is the release day of my new book, Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg, so it seems appropriate to say a few words about it in this space.

The word “enwonderment” is not a real word; it’s one that Bob Silverberg made up in the 90s. In one of the conversations in this book, which roams far and wide–travel, art theory and history, music, films, politics, reading habits, and of course Bob’s long and prolific career, in and out of science fiction–I asked him what he meant by the term “enwonderment.”

His answer:

“There are words like ’empowerment’ that are bandied about very freely, especially here in California. Enlightenment is also frequently heard. As well as I can remember this, I thought I would create ‘enwonderment’ as a kind of analogous noun that explains what science fiction is supposed to do.”

If you read Bob’s monthly editorial at Asimov’s, or his occasional essays elsewhere, it’s clear that he has managed to preserve his own sense of “enwonderment” over sixty years as a professional writer, no small feat. I was curious about the role that community, particularly the science fiction community, might have played in that, since the human brain seems to require access to and frequent engagement with other people’s neurons to thrive and be healthy and experience wonder. Bob didn’t think community played much of a role:

51HAwq2-+BL“I don’t think it’s related to community. I rarely talk about science fiction with my colleagues. What I talk about with them is writing, or the business side of writing. We are not discussing the miraculous new Earth-like planet that was discovered the other day, or the flyby of Pluto. That has not been my experience of the community. Though we’re all watching the same things.”

Like many of Bob’s observations throughout the book, that struck me as interesting. Before I had had much interaction with other members of the s-f community, I think I had idealized what the subjects of discussion might be, naively imagining that there would be much fevered discussion about artistic responses or intellectual discoveries or scientific breakthroughs. In reality people tend to be more pragmatic, and they don’t necessarily want to get into long, detailed conversations about something they’ve just spent eight or ten hours working on in a professional sense (i.e. science fiction). But of course once in a while, unabashedly nerdy raptures or rants do happen. Those impromptu sessions are delightful. And on subject-specific panels at conventions it’s always possible to go deep on a particular technical or thematic aspect of s-f, even “enwonderment” itself.

I was also curious if anything besides literature sparked in Bob the “sense of wonder.” He suggested that some of the exotic plants in his far-out garden might, or might have at least done so once upon a time. But ultimately familiarity “leads to a lack of strangeness. And wonder requires a certain amount of strangeness.”

Again, how true.

And yet my experience in writing this book, and in the long correspondence and eventual friendship with Bob that presaged it, may provide a flip-side to the grimmer extrapolation of that comment (namely, that as everything becomes more familiar to us, we lose all wonder). Bob is an exceedingly complex man. As Gardner Dozois points out in his lovely introduction to Traveler of Worlds, “the depth and breadth of his erudition, and the range of topics that interest his restless intellect” are remarkable. I find that no matter how many times we’ve talked about something, I always discover something new and unfamiliar in the workings of Bob’s mind, even if it’s just a subtle shading of opinion or unexpected witticism. And in those little startlements–in those glimmers of strangeness–there’s ample room for my curiosity and my wonder to be born anew.

It happened many times throughout the year of working on this book, and I expect it will continue to happen indefinitely.

May the same experience hold true for you when you read it.


About the Author 

Alvaro is co-author, with Robert Silverberg, of When The Blue Shift Comes and Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg. Alvaro’s more than thirty stories have appeared in magazines like AnalogNatureGalaxy’s EdgeLackington’sMothership ZetaFarrago’s Wainscot and Neon, as well as anthologies such as The Mammoth Book of the Adventures of MoriartyThe Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper TalesThe 2015 Young Explorer’s Adventure GuideCyber WorldThis Way to the End TimesHumanity 2.0 and An Alphabet of Embers. Alvaro’s essays, reviews and interviews have appeared in The Los Angeles Review of BooksThe First LineAsimov’sStrange HorizonsClarkesworld, SF Signal, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation and Intergalactic Medicine Show; he also edits the roundtable blog for Locus.



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