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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.

 




 


Editor

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Contributors

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

Una McCormack Guest Post–”Writing Within Boundaries: The Challenge of Franchise Fiction”

I often think of writing as a process of entering into a contract with your readers: when you persuade someone to read your work, you’re making promises to them that your work will deliver in certain ways. Certain genres, it seems to me, make specific contractual demands on a writer–for example, I doubt that Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light is going to end with Henry VIII abdicating and the Catholic Church being re-established. Science fiction does the same; franchise fiction–at least, the kind that I write–makes its own promises to the reader. By having to pay attention to certain “fixed” events established on-screen, the franchise fiction writer sometimes has to be as much a writer of historical fiction as science fiction.

I sometimes describe my Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novel The Never-Ending Sacrifice as a historical novel that happens to be set on an alien planet. This novel is set on Cardassia Prime across a period of several years (roughly the same time period covered by the TV show) but from the perspective of the antagonists, the Cardassians, who are responsible for the war that comprises the main storyline of the later seasons of DS9. As such, I was bound to keep to events that had been established on-screen–the capture of DS9, the entry of the Romulans into the war, the fall of Cardassia Prime–indeed, that was the point of the story! My methodology writing the book was much as I imagine a historical novelist’s must be: establishing dates, compiling lists of significant figures such as political leaders (and their dates in office). Events in my book grew out of these limits: What must have happened between event A and event B? What could have happened, given those two events? I found this a very fertile mode of storytelling. Nothing in the book contradicts what is seen on screen (at least, I hope not!), but the story–and most of the characters–were completely new, patching together what was glimpsed on-screen into what I hope was a satisfactory whole. The pleasure of reading–the contract that I offered the reader–was to enjoy the retelling of a familiar story through an entirely fresh perspective.

Other books that I’ve written in Pocket’s Star Trek range have allowed me to expand this future history of the Cardassian Union, and have drawn on texts from the Star Trek expanded universe, aiming for consistency while establishing space for my own stories. The Crimson Shadow, which is set after the end of DS9, and during a period of stabilization on Cardassia, draws upon the world-building done by actor Andrew J. Robinson (Garak) in his novel A Stitch in Time. It was an interesting challenge to remain true to three separate creative visions: the original series, Robinson’s, and my own vision of Cardassian society and culture.

The Star Trek book range is currently a fairly complex universe, with many overlapping stories. (The Crimson Shadow was part of a five-book series, Star Trek: The Fall, written with four other authors: a thoroughly enjoyable project in its own right, working to satisfy all our various ideas for the series.) I think of the books as fulfilling a role similar to that fulfilled by the New Adventures when Doctor Who was off-air. They are the sole place where stories set in the Star Trek universe are being told (the J. J. Abrams films inhabit their own timeline). As such, the readership is dedicated, has bought into the continuing narrative, and is interested in seeing that narrative furthered.

*Spoiler Alert*

The space station Deep Space 9, for example, is now a completely new facility, crewed by an almost entirely new staff (there is crossover from Star Trek: The Next Generation too: the current commander is Ro Laren, and Beverly Crusher has been CMO on the station for a few books). Anyone new to the range picking up my current book, The Missing, expecting Sisko, Kira, Bashir, etc., might find themselves confused. They will find plenty of sniping between Odo and Quark, however. Some things remain the same.

I’m often asked whether writing franchise fiction constrains my writing in any way. I’ve found it’s much better to think of these boundaries as challenges rather than limitations. There’s as much fun to be had from writing a sonnet or a villanelle, in working with a tight form, as there is from writing free verse. Sometimes those limits are exactly what makes the writing process challenging and interesting.

 

About the Author

Una McCormack is a lecturer in creative writing at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, and a New York Times bestselling author. She has written six Star Trek novels for Simon and Schuster, including her most recent, The Missing, and two Doctor Who novels for BBC Books, The King’s Dragon and The Way through the Woods. Her audio dramas, based on Doctor Who and Blake’s 7, have been produced by Big Finish. She lives in Cambridge with her partner, Matthew, and their daughter, Verity.

Alex Shvartsman Guest Post–”The Art and Science of Anthology Editing”

Now that I have five completed anthologies under my belt, the number of questions I get–from friends and strangers alike–about various aspects of anthology editing has turned from an occasional drip to a steady trickle. And while I would love to presume it’s because I’m such an awesome anthologist, the truth is, there’s fairly little information on the web regarding this niche topic. I thought it might be a good idea to collect some basic suggestions in one handy blog post. (Also, I’m incredibly lazy, and pointing people to a link is easier than cut/pasting chunks of this between e-mails!)

So, here goes:

Develop a Unique Concept

The optimal place to start is to develop a theme that is narrow yet appealing to a sizable readership, which your professional or life experience can somehow contribute to.

There are three primary reasons for a reader to pick up an anthology:

1)      It contains a story or stories by some of their favorite authors.

2)      They’re interested in the concept of the anthology.

3)      They trust the editor’s selections.

Unless you’re Gardner Dozois, Ellen Datlow, or anyone else who knows a lot more than I do about this subject (and therefore wouldn’t be reading this post), you probably won’t be able to capitalize on #3. And while we’ll cover headliners later, anthology concept is what you have the most control over.

There are plenty of space opera, zombie, steampunk, and Lovecraftian horror volumes edited by well-established anthologists. And while it’s possible to produce another quality entry into any of these sub-genres, you’re much better off exploring a narrow topic that will appeal to a large enough number of readers for the project to succeed.

My inaugural project as editor was Unidentified Funny Objects, an anthology of humorous science fiction and fantasy. I felt that there weren’t enough pro-paying venues that seek out humorous and lighthearted stories. I did some digging and discovered that no similar volumes exist or had existed in recent memory; most humor anthologies cover a specific theme (Deals with the Devil, Chicks in Chainmail, etc). As a reader, I would gladly buy an annual volume that collected wide-ranging humor stories. Happily, other readers agreed: I’m at work on the fourth annual volume. Similarly, Coffee: 14 Caffeinated Tales of the Fantastic tapped into a large, unexplored demographic; there haven’t been any coffee-themed speculative anthologies before. The book is easy to market as a present for anyone who enjoys both reading and coffee.

4books

When Neil Clarke, award-winning editor of Clarkesworld magazine, decided to launch his first anthology, he found a subject that was near and dear to his heart. Literally. A year before he announced Upgraded, an anthology of short stories about cyborgs, he survived a heart attack and had a defibrillator installed, effectively making him a self-proclaimed cyborg. Clarke wrote:

As I began looking into the possibility of a cyborg anthology, I quickly noticed that the cyborgs most people think of are villains (Cybermen, Darth Vader, the Borg, etc.). My people make excellent villains, but that only represents the tip of the iceberg. The more I thought about it, the more certain I became that this was the anthology project I had been looking for…  a cyborg-edited cyborg anthology. I don’t think that’s been done before. Besides, cyborgs are cool.

So, what unique idea do you have, and how can your life experience contribute to the project? An architect might collect tales of fantastic cities and structures. A real estate agent could gather urban fantasy and ghost stories involving houses for sale. (Plus, they’d be able to market these books to other architects and real estate agents, in addition to SF/F fans.)

Have a Plan, Have a Budget

What’s your strategy for producing an anthology? While it’s possible for a first-time anthologist to sell their project to an established publisher, this is perhaps even more difficult than selling a first novel.

Your agent could contact publishers and pitch them your idea. You will need a brief write-up of the concept and a list of headliners who are tentatively willing to contribute stories. The more appealing your headliners, the more likely you are to land a deal. There are a number of (mostly much smaller) publishers whom you can approach without an agent. Even so, it’s a long shot unless you have some sort of a pre-existing relationship or a resumé.

If a publisher accepts your proposal, they’ll pay you an advance against royalties (usually upon delivery of the manuscript) which you can use to pay your authors and cover some of your time and effort. The amount can vary greatly and is extremely unlikely to exceed $10,000.

Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter are perhaps the best solution for such fledgling niche projects. Not only can you raise some or all of the funds needed to produce the book, but the level of interest during your funding period will be a good indicator of how well the book might sell upon release.

In recent years I’ve seen more and more “hybrid” projects, where an anthology would raise its initial funds on Kickstarter, then become picked up by a publisher who would handle subsequent sales and print distribution. For example, Bryan Thomas-Schmidt’s space exploration anthology Beyond the Sun was crowd-funded, then published by Fairwood Press.

Whatever your strategy, please be sure you are able to fairly reimburse your writers, cover artist, and everyone else involved in the project. Your contributors should be paid at least $0.05-0.06 per word, perhaps more for your headliners (some won’t write for that little). If you plan on including reprints, you can pay $0.01-0.02 per word for those. Always provide at least one contributor copy to each author.

“I can’t afford to pay much” is not only a common excuse I hear from token-market publishers, but also a terrible business strategy. Most of the accomplished authors will not submit their work to penny-pinching projects. In the end, you will have a much weaker pool of stories to select from, and the project will be far less likely to get noticed by readers and critics alike.

cover-hi-res

Headliners

As I mentioned above, headliners are the top reason a reader might buy your anthology. Established authors will each have sizable fan bases who will gladly cough up a few bucks for their story alone; they might discover new authors as a bonus, which is an excellent reason to combine works from well-known authors and talented new writers alike.

Once you’ve established your anthology’s concept, think of popular authors who are especially good at writing the sort of stories you seek. Reach out to them directly. Send a polite query, including your pay rate, desired word count, and deadline.

If you plan to crowd-fund your project, be sure to mention that. Don’t ask them to begin working on the story until you’re certain you can afford to pay for it, but it’s okay to ask for tentative commitments. The same applies to anthologies you are shopping to publishers: so long as you don’t ask the author to begin the work, soliciting tentative interest so you can present your list of authors who are “on board” to the publisher is fine.

Keep in mind that popular authors are incredibly busy. Many won’t be able to commit to the project. Some will never respond to your e-mail. That’s okay–there are lots of great authors to approach, and some of them will say yes. If you’re having a hard time coming up with potential headliners for your project, you may not be quite well-read enough yet to edit an anthology.

Your e-mail should be brief, personal, and professional. Here’s a sample:

Dear Mr. Melville,

I’m in the process of putting together an anthology of short stories about whales. I greatly enjoyed Moby Dick and was hoping you might consider writing a short story for this project.

I’m seeking original stories of 2000-6000 words for Whales, Whales, Whales, and am able to offer $0.10/word for First Print and Electronic English language rights exclusive for 6 months after publication and non-exclusive rights afterward. Each contributor will also receive two paperback copies of the book and a lifetime supply of whale oil.

The submission deadline is December 31, 2015 and the publication date is August 1, 2016.

Thank you very much in advance for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Hopeful Editor

Other Contributors

Once you have a few solid headliners lined up, it’s time to fill out the rest of the book. There are two ways to go about this: you can open to submissions from the general public, or you can invite a bunch of authors directly. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach.

Opening to submissions will likely allow you to find gems by little-known authors. Who knows, you could be the editor who discovers the next Octavia Butler or Robert Heinlein. Nothing about this process is more satisfying than nurturing and promoting brilliant new authors. However, this approach is extremely time-consuming. By posting the submission call on sites like The Grinder, Ralan, and Duotrope, you’ll likely receive hundreds of submissions. By the time you’re finished, you might sink enough hours into the project to earn less than minimum wage, but your anthology will be stronger for it.

The second approach is to identify and invite a number of authors whose work you’ve enjoyed to contribute directly. (Shameless Hint: I very much like getting invited to projects). These would mostly be neo-pros, not established best-selling authors.

The trick here is to catch people who are on their way up. Two years ago, any decent anthology could’ve gotten a story out of Ken Liu, who is one of the most brilliant short story authors writing today. By now, he’s too busy with bigger projects and has to turn down most anthology invitations. Be sure to approach authors whose work you already know and enjoy: they’re much more likely to write stories you’ll want to accept.

Cast your net wide: it’s important to solicit stories from a diverse group of authors. Let your potential contributors know that you welcome material from authors of all backgrounds, and actively seek out promising authors from traditionally disadvantaged groups. There is a ton of talent there, but even if you do an open submissions call, don’t just assume that you will get enough diverse submissions; be proactive about encouraging them. Also, I’m partial to encouraging the submission of translated stories, so English-speaking readers may be exposed to works from other countries and cultures.

Finally, it’s important to note that an invitation to submit is not a guarantee of acceptance. In fact, closed anthologies will generally invite more authors than they have room for, so that the editor can select and buy only the best of the available stories.

Selecting & Editing the Stories

If you do your job right, you will end up with more great stories than you can use. This is a good thing. An anthology isn’t just a random collection of tales united by theme: it is a work of art. The interplay of voices, styles, and plots should fit together like a symphony performed by an orchestra with you as the conductor.

To this end, most editors will whittle the submissions down slowly and only send out acceptances at the end of the process. They’re looking for material that isn’t just good, but fits well with the rest of the accepted stories.

Once the stories are in, don’t just spell-check them and throw the ones you like into the book. A good editor will work with an author to polish their story like a gemstone. In many ways, this process is similar to beta-reading and critiquing stories for fellow authors, except your opinion has more weight and you must be more careful to help rather than hinder the story. In addition to selecting the best stories, this is where your own skill and talent will matter most to the quality of the project.

Finally, there’s the devilishly difficult task of assembling the table of contents (TOC). There are many schools of thought on the subject. Some editors subscribe to “open strong, close long”–they place their one or two strongest stories at the beginning and close with a longer piece. Others prefer to mix up lengths and close on a light note, with their one humorous story at the end of the book.

This process is more art than science and no two editors will build the TOC in exactly the same way. Ultimately, it will come down to the interplay between stories, as described above.

I recently had the pleasure of designing the TOC for my own short story collection, Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma and Other Stories. This is generally a bad idea, because authors are famously poor at judging the quality of their own work. Fortunately, most of the stories in this collection are reprints from pro venues, which means they were vetted by other editors. For this TOC, I took a rollercoaster approach: hopping from humorous to dark, from space opera to urban fantasy, in an effort to emphasize fun and enhance the sense of wonder for the reader. Did I succeed? Can you deduce my reasons for story placement? In a shameless act of self-promotion, I invite you to pick up a copy and find out.

 

About the Author

Alex Shvartsman is a writer, translator and game designer from Brooklyn, NY. Over 70 of his short stories have appeared in InterGalactic Medicine Show, Nature, Galaxy’s Edge, Daily Science Fiction, and many other magazines and anthologies. He won the 2014 WSFA Small Press Award for Short Fiction. He is the editor of the Unidentified Funny Objects annual anthology series of humorous SF/F. His collection Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma and Other Stories was released on February 1, 2015. His website is www.alexshvartsman.com

A Cheery Holiday Roundtable

In December 2014 I approached our esteemed panelists with the following:

On his blog Michael Swanwick recently addressed a reader-inspired question: “How do I cope with the despair endemic upon being an unpublished or little-published writer?” In an essay first published in 1991, Robert Silverberg wrote about spending his adult life as a successful professional writer but still facing the “long despair of nothing well.” The word “despair,” and related terms, like “defeat” and “depression,” appear with some frequency in discussions of writing.

My question for this group is: if this is something you experience, how do *you* cope with despair as it relates to your professional SF/F/H endeavors (writing, reviewing, editing, scholarship, etc.)?

Are your coping methods now the same or different as when you were unpublished/little-published/trying to break in?

Cat Rambo

Strangely enough, when I am feeling particularly angsty, I mail Michael Swanwick, who was one of my Clarion West instructors. I mail him a long tortured letter and then he mails back and tells me to go write.

Paul Graham Raven

The most honest answer in my case is probably “scuttle sideways into a world where there’s marginally better odds of landing a regular paycheck given your skillset”–with the rueful caveat that I’m fully aware that the academy isn’t exactly a stable employment market for the majority of its participating Rational Actors, but also that I’m too old to pass the eye-candy selection standards at Starbucks.

More true to the spirit of the question: deadlines are the great and final motivator. A promise to deliver must be fulfilled, and commissions–regular or irregular, paid or otherwise–bring a certain productive rhythm to one’s writing life, and also provide a justification for sustaining it, if that doesn’t sound too pompous. (It totally does, but whatevs.) So I guess volunteering for things is a good motivator, as is reading new stuff by writers who inspire you, and stuff by writers you think are idiots. Whatever warms the engine-block, right?

But getting yourself into writing the stuff you’re always promising yourself you’ll write, those odd-ball back-burner secret pet projects that you’ve poked at for half a decade or so, but never have time to work on properly because you have to pay the rent and writing? Damned if I know–if anyone’s got tips, I plan to copy them down!

Jeffrey Ford

Honestly, I never felt despair when I was unpublished. Writing was too much fun. It was a lot of the other shit in life that at times caused despair, but even then, not much. It took me ten years of writing without much acknowledgement before things took off. I wouldn’t trade that time for the world. Also, I was young and basically didn’t give a fuck. I’d decided I was gonna write come hell or high water. When you have kids, though, things get deep pretty quickly. Then I had a full time job where I taught five classes a semester and drove an hour and a half each way to work and back. Writing time was precious, but I used the drive to think up story ideas and my students, to a great extent, taught me a lot about writing. Writing has never made me feel despair. Sometimes frustration. But often elation and accomplishment as well. Only bad things happening to the people I love can really get me down. In these situations, writing has saved me more times than not.

Cecelia Holland

Despair is part of my process. I don’t get into the meat of the story until I’ve destroyed all I already know about it and am reduced to sitting, staring out a window, and eating chocolate chip cookies. Then, against my will, drop by drop like acid falling on the heart, through the awful grace of god, comes wisdom. Read more »

Roundtable on 2015 Releases

Being close to the end of the year, it occurs to me it might be interesting to talk about some of the books we’re most looking forward to in 2015, and why. I will mention three to get the ball rolling. Daryl Gregory’s Harrison Squared (March 24, 2015). I love Daryl’s writing, and this Lovecraftian teen story promises to be dark, comical and poignant all in one. Kit Reed’s Where (May 12, 2015). Don’t know much about it, but consistently find her work intriguing and worth checking out. Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson (May 19, 2015)–Stan returns to pure space exploration. (And I love the cover).

Ellen Datlow

Afraid I can’t participate in this one. Too busy reading for 2014!

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

That’s a great reason, Ellen! Maybe you can mention a few of the projects *you* have in the pipeline for 2015, which will surely be on some of *our* lists of books to look forward to? :-)

Ellen Datlow

Okay. A quickie (I’m learning a new computer and email system today, which is taking wayyy too much time).

To be totally self-serving, my antho for Tor called The Doll Collection will be out March 10th–and it will hopefully satiate anyone who loves/hates/is afraid of dolls. With illos by Ellen Klages, Rick Bowes, and my doll collections :-)

Cecelia Holland

I have a book coming out next year also, Dragon Heart, from Tor. If Ellen can do it, I can.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

You certainly can, Cecelia–thanks for sharing. Any 2015 releases you’re looking forward to as a reader?

Jack Skillingstead

I always look forward to Daryl’s work. I read Harrison Squared in manuscript last year, and, yes, it’s very good.

Nick Gevers

A few books I’m looking forward to in 2015:

Gene Wolfe, A Borrowed Man (Tor)
Michael Swanwick, Chasing the Phoenix (Tor)
Neal Stephenson, Seveneves (William Morrow)
Catherynne M. Valente, Radiance (Tor)
James P. Blaylock, Beneath London (Titan)
Ken Liu, The Grace of Kings (Saga Press)
Ian McDonald, Luna (Gollancz)
Charles Stross, The Annihilation Score (Ace)
N. K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season (Orbit)
Jeffrey Ford, A Natural History of Autumn (Small Beer)
Paul Witcover, The Watchman of Eternity (Bantam UK)
Paul McAuley, Something Coming Through (Gollancz)
Robert Charles Wilson, The Affinities (Tor)

And Stan Robinson’s Aurora.

Karen Burnham

I definitely agree with looking forward to Daryl Gregory’s Harrison Squared–I always love Gregory’s stuff, and the related novella, We Are All Completely Fine, which came out from Tachyon in 2014, was excellent.

Filed under “guilty pleasures” are the new Atrocity Archives book from Charles Stross (The Annihilation Score) and the (presumably) final book in the Tao trilogy from Wesley Chu, The Rebirths of Tao.

It’s always interesting to see what new door-stopper anthology will come out from Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, so while I haven’t had the chance to dive into their Time Travelers anthology yet, I’m looking forward to Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology. Whenever I’m reading as a scholar, volumes like this are invaluable.

I’d be looking forward to Robert Charles Wilson’s The Affinities more, except that his most recent book, Burning Paradise, didn’t grab me. But on the basis of all the books of his that I’ve loved, I’ll give this one a try as well.

Karen Lord’s The Galaxy Game will be likely be intriguing, a follow on to her previous The Best of All Possible Worlds.

And isn’t everyone waiting for Kelly Link’s new book Get in Trouble?

Fabio Fernandes

I’m looking forward for the usual suspects, naturally–Gene Wolfe’s A Borrowed Man, Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, Stan Robinson’s Aurora and the next Richard Kadrey Sandman Slim novel (I’m a huge fan). Also:
Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest (the sequel to The Three-Body Problem).

And I’m really interested in the upcoming anthologies: Rose Lemberg’s An Alphabet of Embers, Nisi Shawl and Bill Campbell’s Stories for Chip, Seanan McGuire’s Queers Destroy Science Fiction, Matthew David
Goodwin’s Latino/a Rising, and Sam Wilson’s The Near Now (with a personal interest in this last one, cause I have a story innit–but there are stories by Lauren Beukes, JY Yang, Charlie Human and Sarah Lotz that I’m dying to read, so).

Russell Letson

As a reviewer, it would be tactless of me to indicate which books I look forward to–and by implication, which books I might not be so excited about. Of course, anybody can look at the forthcoming-books pages of Locus and at my reviews over the last few years and make some educated guesses, but I’ll leave that parlor game to–well, I can’t imagine who would find it amusing. I’m sure I’ll find a couple dozen titles that will at the very least engage my attention. (I’m reading one right now, but you’ll have to wait for the review to see which one it might be.)

Paul Graham Raven

I’ve never been much of one for thinking far ahead about books, to be honest–which is more a reflection of my general inability to plan than anything else, perhaps. (I was always terribly laggard about even my favorite bands, back in the days when the number of new album releases was still something one could reasonably be expected to keep up with.) And the demands of a PhD aren’t exactly freeing up extra braincycles, either–so I’ll politely excuse myself from this thread, while noting that reading it is clueing me in to a few titles I’ll try to remember to look out for in the year ahead. :)

Cecelia Holland

Yes, I think this round is going to be for the critics, not the writers.

Paul Graham Raven

Heh–I assumed that more people would think of me as the former than the latter, despite (or is it because of?) my unbalanced attempts to keep a foot in both camps. :)

Fabio Fernandes

I’m more of a writer (and editor) than critic. :)

Karen Burnham

Apropos of what Russell said (although I don’t share his take on reviewers avoiding mention of favorites) I should say that probably what I’m most looking forward to next year is the thing I’ve never heard of that I’ll end up loving. In 2013 that was the anthology Glitter & Mayhem–I would never have picked it up based on its cover copy description, but when I was assigned to review it (for Locus, I think) it totally hit my sweet spot. The array of authors and the way they tackled the subject matter turned out to be my favorite of the year. I don’t think any 2014 releases hit me quite that way, but I haven’t been reviewing much this year, either. So I’m looking forward to the things I don’t know about yet in 2015!

Stefan Dziemianowicz

I’m of the same frame of mind. As a critic who reviews horror fiction, had you asked me last year at this time what books I was looking forward to, I would have mentioned Stephen King’s Revival mostly out of a sense of obligation. It’s always interesting to see what new tricks the genre’s bestselling author has got up his sleeve. But it wasn’t until this year, when I actually read Revival and was totally blown away by it, that I realized how long it had been since I had reacted so strongly to one of King’s novels. For 2015, I’m looking forward to books by authors whom I’m not familiar with that make an impact, and books by authors whose work I do know that exceed expectations. That’s about as vague and indefinite as you can get, but it’s what keeps me reading as a reviewer.

Peter Straub

This is a funny thread. The writers say they won’t, and the critics say they can’t.

Cecelia Holland

It’s all in the life of the mind, Peter.

Ellen Datlow

The editors also can’t (at least this one can’t) :-)

Andy Duncan

Karen beat me to it, but I was going to say Link’s collection, absolutely. Heard her read from it at World Fantasy. Terrific, of course.

Peter Straub

Karen and Andy, I’m with you on this one. Kelly’s new book, for sure.

Ellen Datlow

Even I will say YES, although I’ve read all the stories, I think :-)

Siobhan Carroll

I echo the enthusiasm for Kelly Link’s new collection. Andy, don’t you also have a collection coming out? Or is it just wishful thinking on my part?

I’ll be on the lookout for Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix, Karen Lord’s Galaxy Game, Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory, and others. I’ll add that I caught Randy Henderson’s highly entertaining reading of his forthcoming Finn Fancy Necromancy at the World Fantasy Convention, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for that.

Andy Duncan

Siobhan, yes, thanks, but it might not be 2015.

Elizabeth Hand

I’m late to the party, sorry! My answer echoes Russell’s–I review so much stuff that I feel that I can’t play favorites. I will say that there are MANY titles already mentioned here that I’m really looking forward to!

Nick Gevers

Oh yes, another 2015 title I’m looking forward to: Liz’s Wylding Hall.

Paul Di Filippo

I confess to being out of the loop on this discussion–please forgive!

But if no one has yet mentioned Reif Larsen’s I Am Radar, allow me to do so. I did not read his previous novel, The Selected Works of T. S. Pivet, but recall being attracted by its different vibe. With galley of the new one in hand, my interest in this author is further stoked. Looks totally Pynchonesque!

Marie Brennan

I’m afraid I’m way too out of the loop as to what’s coming out in the next year. (I have to stop and remind myself which of *my* books is coming out next year–the perils of a timeline where you’re working on #4 when the general public has only read up through #2.)

Siobhan Carroll

I loved the new Fitz & Fool book, so I’m looking forward to Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Quest, and I hear great things about Jo Walton’s The Just City… honestly though, I’m most looking forward to discovering titles and authors I don’t yet know are out there.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

Okay–let me chip in a few titles from the horror side. I’m looking forward to Joe Hill’s fourth novel, The Fireman, an excerpt from which I heard him read some months back at at New York’s KGB Bar Fantastic Fiction reading series (and which, at the time, he alluded would NOT be out until later than 2015). It’s a 1,000-page post-apocalyptic thriller that–say, wait a minute… wasn’t there some other guy a few decades back whose fourth novel was also a 1,000-page post-apocalyptic thriller? Hmmm….

I eagerly anticipate Ellen Datlow’s anthology The Doll Collection, because any original anthology that Ellen edits invariably yields a handful (or more) of stories that wind up in the various year’s-best compilations. (Plus, who among us doesn’t have some creepy childhood memories–or fantasies–of dolls?)

Melanie Tem has the novel Yellow Wood coming out, and Steve Tem a stand-alone novella In The Lovecraft Museum. Both of the Tems write stories whose supernaturalism seems perfectly in synch with the rhythms of everyday life. They’re writing a sort of fiction for the twenty-first century that Shirley Jackson was lauded for in the 1950s and ’60s.

And–what the hey–I’m interested in Clive Barker’s The Scarlet Gospels, because it revisits themes and moments from his Books of Blood era.

Fabio Fernandes

Alvaro, if I may add one more title: Victor Milan’s The Dinosaur Lords. Knights and dinosaurs: what’s not to love?

Three Recent Associational Items

While the print and online versions of this magazine do an excellent job of monitoring and reviewing new SF/F/H texts, and non-fiction books closely tied to SF/F/H, it occurs to me that at times there might be other “associational” books that are worth bringing to the attention of readers. This is one of those items.

First, a book related to Christopher Nolan’s latest movie, Interstellar (2014), reviewed here by Gary Westfahl. I’ll say right upfront that I haven’t seen the film yet, but in this instance I don’t think it makes much of a difference. As someone with an interest in science, I was delighted to learn that renowned physicist Kip Thorne acted as consultant (and executive producer) on the project. Better yet, as I recently discovered, he has written a beautifully-illustrated popular science book on the subject: The Science of Interstellar. From what I’ve read so far, I can heartily recommend it. (The only reason I haven’t read all of it is that it contains spoilers, so those sections will have to wait until after I’ve checked out the flick). Ursula K. Le Guin recently used the phrase “realists of a larger reality” to talk about writers of the fantastic, and I think that phrase also applies to scientists who conceive of far-out possibilities. That’s what Thorne has done, and his book nicely bridges cutting-edge theories with thoughtful extrapolation. In this video Nolan and Thorne talk about their collaboration; and in this piece, Matt Williams describes how the film-making process may have led Thorne to make a discovery.

Continuing this thread of interest in science, there are two other recent films that chronicle pivotal moments and key contributions of two great minds, one deceased, one still alive. Both of these films are largely based on fascinating non-fiction books.

One is Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, which is the inspiration for The Imitation Game. The other is Travelling to Infinity by Jane Hawking, which is the primary source material for the movie about Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything. These are movie tie-in editions of older books, and the texts have been updated with new material, so I recommend the newer editions. For anyone who is curious about cryptography, computation, algorithms, the nature of time, the Big Bang, and black holes, these are good gateway texts that provide the very human contexts of these ideas.

 

A Note About Asimov’s Essay “On Creativity”

In late October various fine publications (including this one) reported that a previously unpublished essay by Isaac Asimov had appeared in the MIT Technology Review. In a prefatory note to the essay, Arthur Obermayer describes how he was the one who suggested, back in 1959, that Asimov be approached to join a group of “out of the box” thinkers on an ARPA-related project. Asimov participated briefly, and wrote the piece, “On Creativity”, as his single contribution. Obermayer notes that “his essay was never published or used beyond our small group.”

Interestingly, however, the core ideas in Asimov’s recently published piece did, in fact, see print, back in 1960, in a similar essay to the one just published. I’m referring to Asimov’s essay ”Those Crazy Ideas”, which was published in the January 1960 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and included in his collection of essays Fact and Fancy (1962, Doubleday). [This collection which was republished as a paperback by Discus in March 1972 and is easy to find secondhand.]

Here are two of the similarities between the pieces, strongly suggesting that “On Creativity” was the precursor of “Those Crazy Ideas”:

  • Asimov develops the same example of Darwin and Wallace arriving at the theory of evolution by natural selection independently in both essays. This includes the reference to Malthus. He provides a lot more detail in the F&SF version, which is considerably longer.
  • In both essays, when discussing groups dedicated to generating new ideas, Asimov intuits/guesses that five participants is the maximum desired number. In the MIT piece, Asimov refers to these think tanks as “cerebration sessions”; in the more informal F&SF piece, he calls the practice “brain-busting.”

If that isn’t enough to illustrate the connection, consider that in the introduction to “Those Crazy Ideas” Asimov describes how a “consultant firm in Boston, engaged in a sophisticated space-age project for the government, got in touch with me,” and asked him “where do you get those crazy ideas?”.

FCTNDFNCSX1962

Based on all this, I think it’s safe to say that “On Creativity” is an earlier version of what would become “Those Crazy Ideas”, with a different intended audience. It’s clear from the tone and treatment that “Those Crazy Ideas” is meant for a lay reader while “On Creativity” isn’t (it includes explicit references like “your company”). It’s also clear that “Those Crazy Ideas” is more fully fleshed-out, thoughtful and systematic about the problem of creativity.

For readers who don’t have easy access to the F&SF essay, I’ll leave you with the summary of what Asimov considers the five key criteria needed for creativity:

“A creative person must be

1) broadly educated

2) intelligent

3) intuitive

4) courageous

5) lucky.”

(“Those Crazy Ideas”, 1960)

The details behind these five points are developed at length in “Those Crazy Ideas”–I recommend it.

 

 

Brad R. Torgersen Guest Post–”What Value the ‘Traditional’ Path?”

An aspiring writer recently asked if there was any value in doing short fiction, as a way to break into SF/F publishing. Versus merely penning novels and pitching them at the editors in New York.

Once upon a time, doing short fiction was the established path. From the 1920s through the early 1980s, almost everyone who was anyone came up through the magazines first: short stories, novelettes, novellas, and serialized novels. Go back and look at the covers of old issues of Analog magazine (formerly Astounding) and one will see the names of some of today’s top sellers. Including people who aren’t commonly known for having cut their teeth in a “Hard SF” market like Analog, such as George R.R. Martin. Other authors who figured prominently in pages of Analog (prior to going “big” in novel publishing) include Frank Herbert, Piers Anthony, Anne McCaffrey, Joe Haldeman, Greg Benford, Vernor Vinge, Orson Scott Card, and many others.

These days, the statistics tell us that it’s easier to break in with a novel than with a piece of short fiction. Starting in the 1990s, new writers began to have a lot of success going directly to books, as opposed to short stuff. There are far more “slots” for new novels, from year to year, than new short works. For every first short piece appearing in an issue of Asimov’s or on Tor.com there are dozens of first novels hitting the market. So what is the advantage to “going traditional” when the odds clearly favor the novelist, whether indie or paper pub?

I know for me, I wouldn’t have a career without my short works.

A little history: I came of age reading the short fiction of Larry Niven, and fell in love with how Larry was able to tell “big” stories in relatively confined spaces, and because Larry had come up through the magazines (in the 1960s and 1970s) I determined (in the 1990s) that this was the way I wanted to come up too. Granted, the process of learning my craft proved to be much more protracted and challenging than I thought it would be. Enjoying well-told short SF/F is very different from being able to actually write good SF/F short work. I’d been a novel reader (mostly) as a teen, and my unconscious novel sensibilities made re-tooling for short works a much bigger project than I thought it would be.

The-Chaplains-War-by-Brad-R-Torgersen

It paid off, though, in 2009, when I finally got the call from the Writers of the Future contest: one of my novelettes had won me a spot in the 26th volume. Within 60 days I also got a nice note from Stanley Schmidt at Analog magazine, telling me he was taking another novelette of mine; a piece called “Outbound”, which eventually won me my first Analog AnLab readers’ choice award. Now, both of these triumphs (and they were triumphs, believe you me, after the better part of two decades of rejection letters!) presaged a quick rise in the ranks. My proverbial “iceberg” was surfacing from the depths, after many years of honing craft and learning by doing—and failing. Which inevitably got me on the radar of editors like Toni Weisskopf, who is the chief editor and publisher of Baen Books.

Now, it was unknown to me at the time that Toni has a particular enjoyment of “Hard SF” stories; those SF/F tales that try to stick close to what we actually know about physics, chemistry, math, cosmology, etc. Or at least rigorously extrapolate from same and/or work hard to be self-consistent about technology and science. But when I started having other publishing success at Analog, the premier “Hard SF” magazine in the English language, and also the most-circulated print SF magazine in the West, this was a green flag for Toni that I was a guy to watch out for. Had she received a first novel from me without any bona fides (e.g: no track record in Analog) I am not sure I’d have gotten the close attention I got because I had bona fides. So in a sense, selling a first novel to Baen (for me) would not have been possible without prior sales to Analog first. That some of those Analog stories (“Ray of Light”, “Outbound”, “The Chaplain’s Legacy”) would land on Nebula and Hugo ballots, or win readers’ choice awards, was merely icing on the cake. A marker (for any editor to see) that this new Brad R. Torgersen guy was turning heads in the readership.

So yes, to answer the question posed originally, I think short fiction can be a very valuable tool for any aspiring writer seeking to enter the field. Provided (s)he enjoys the form. Not everyone likes short stories, novelettes, or novellas. In fact it’s a safe bet that the vast majority of people reading this article probably prefer novels to short works. And may only occasionally read a short piece if they pick up one of Gardner Dozois’s annual Best Of books, or the similar volumes done by other editors. This is not 1960, and the population of actual SF/F readers in 2014 come to the genre mainly through long form; not short. Which means they will be thinking and feeling “long” when they sit down to begin writing their stories. Which means re-tooling for “short” is a whole other ballgame.

Still, it can be done. And in my case, all my best PR and success has relied upon my traction in the short fiction world. Even my first novel (Baen Books: The Chaplain’s War, fresh out on October 7, 2014) relies on two linked short fiction pieces which previously occupied space in Analog: “The Chaplain’s Assistant”, which made the top 5 in the reader poll for short stories in its year, and “The Chaplain’s Legacy”, which made the 2014 Hugo ballot, and won Best Novella for the AnLab, publishing year 2013. These short works are the backbone of the book. And while the book does tell a bigger, broader story, it could not exist without the “vertebra” of the short works being there first.

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Something else: most of my short work to date has been compiled into two collections, Lights in the Deep, and Racers of the Night. I’d initially thought (in 2009) that one should wait until one has a long-lived career, before embarking upon any “best of” albums. But in the run-up to the publication of The Chaplain’s War I had a lot of readers ask me if I had any other books for sale. It occurred to me that there was a lot of economic sense in compiling my short pieces into a book-length treasur(ies.) Kevin J. Anderson agreed, and brought me into the fold at WordFire Press, a consortium publishing enterprise which was able to rapidly and professionally put my collections onto the market well before any traditional small press could. Both Lights in the Deep and Racers of the Night have done well for me, and served as “appetizer trays” for readers wanting to get a taste of my work, prior to investing in something like a novel. These collections also help put the stories into the hands of awards voters who can’t otherwise get their hands on copies of back-dated issues of Analog.

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So there’s no reason why a short work, having sold and been published once, can’t be re-sold and re-published again and again; to include overseas sales and translations, which merely introduce overseas audiences to you in a brief format. Paving the way, as it were, for those overseas audiences to expect your longer stuff when it eventually comes.

I think short work also serves as a reinforcement for good craft. As has been said by Steven Barnes and many others, learning to tell a “big” story in a small space forces you to learn an economy of prose that might not otherwise manifest, if your first instinct is to type up a thousand-page epic. True, many readers like and enjoy thousand-page epics. But the heightening of tension, suspense, and the preservation of reader enthusiasm, can all be aided by learning to work at short length. Even if you may have to then turn around and develop a different “tool box” for going long again. Habits developed at short length can do wonders for a person extending to long again.

If nothing else, short works can also serve as good “rest stops” for both writer and reader alike. If you’re in the thick of your novel and your brain simply needs a productive break—something new upon which to dwell—a short story or novelette can be just the thing to take your mind off the novel. So that you come back to the novel fresh, with renewed energy. Assuming the short piece sells and is published, this then keeps your name and work in front of readers during the publication troughs between books. In other words, fans eager to see more from you won’t have to wait a full year (or more) to get their hands and eyes on something they enjoy. Which just further increases their anticipation for your book(s) when it/they eventually see print.

So, short fiction: worth it? Damned right! And I would add: good luck!

 

About the Author:

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Hugo and Nebula award nominee Brad R. Torgersen has won the Writers of the Future award, and two Analog magazine “AnLab” Readers’ Choice awards. A native of Utah, Brad and his wife lived for fourteen years in Washington State, before returning to the Wasatch Front late in the last decade. A healthcare tech geek by day and Army Reserve Chief Warrant Officer on weekends, Brad’s first novel (from Baen Books) The Chaplain’s War hit store shelves in October 2014.

Jennifer Brozek Guest Post–”The Anthology Balance”

Sitting down to write this article was a debate between expressing an observation and my willingness to be metaphorically punched in the nose if I didn’t express myself well enough. This is because diversity is a hot topic and there are vocal opinions on both sides. There are two looming concepts that I’m looking at: “How do you make an anthology that actually sells?” and “Making sure that the anthology reflects a diverse set of authors and stories.”

The first thing I want to get out there is that diversity does sell. It sells because there is a need to hear all of the voices of today’s SFF and because those who have been disregarded due to race, sexual orientation, and gender are also excellent authors with stories worth reading. Readers are clamoring for their fictional universes to be opened up to a more diverse world of science fiction and fantasy. The recent Hugo awards reflect this.

However, in the mainstream, diversity sells to a more limited extent. Reasons for this are vast and varied. In traditional publishing, a lot of it comes down to marketing and established authors. Going with what sells now, and has been selling for decades, is the safer bet for the publisher. It is a numbers game.

In traditional publishing, an anthology is required to have a certain number of “House” authors. These are the publisher’s moneymaker authors and the ones that bring in the book buyers. Most stories are set in established worlds and are known for quality. Money is key. Publishing is a business. And, truth be told, most anthologies don’t earn out their advances. Some do and those are gold. Thus, every anthology must be presented to the publisher as a means to sell more books—either the anthology itself or the novels attached to the stories within the anthology.

It is in the small press arena that the balance between selling and diversity evens out. With a smaller overhead, editors can take more chances and get lesser known voices into their anthologies with less risk. Popular short story authors, who may not have any novels out there, are not only acceptable, they are in demand. Topics that may be considered too fringe for the mainstream are welcome in the small press arena. These are the anthologies that sell because of their fringe, diverse nature.

I adore anthologies and anthology creation. It has introduced me to so many authors I might never have looked at before. I’ve opened my eyes to the need for diversity in authors and stories. I have more latitude in small press anthologies because smaller markets move faster. But, I’m pleased to say that with Shattered Shields, Bryan Thomas Schmidt and I made certain that there were diverse authors and stories. I’m even more pleased to state that this wasn’t ever a question between us. It was an expectation on both sides. We were in complete agreement on the final table of contents and story selection throughout.

Shattered Shields has seven female authors and ten male authors. The stories include all female military units, older characters, non-white characters, and LGBT characters. The stories don’t make a fuss of this diversity. It just is. One of the things Bryan and I looked for was a parity between fictional and real world mixed genders, races, and ages. I’m not saying the anthology is perfect—most of the PoC authors we invited were unavailable to contribute—but I’m saying we made a specific effort to be part of the changing market.

This is an effort we plan to continue going forward. Both of us believe that the changing marketplace can handle the expanded range of humanity in fictional worlds. We believe there is room, a need, and a want for diversity in genres that have not traditionally been diverse. It is an effort we believe that is worth the risk because the reward is great.

Though, this does mean work on our parts as editors. We need to closely monitor our author selection and story selection while appealing to the intended audiences of our publishers. It is a balancing act between known “named” authors and “up-and-coming” authors. I was once asked how many “named” authors needed to be attached to an anthology to sell it to a publisher. In my experience, five is the threshold. However, I have heard of other anthologies that required a roster of NYT Bestsellers and nothing less. Fortunately, I’ve never had that requirement.

What does this mean for diverse anthologies and the marketplace? It means we need to keep working at it. The changing marketplace is a moving target. Bryan and I creating one diverse anthology is not enough. We must continue our efforts. We need to be aware of who is invited to an anthology and the types of stories we want to read. It also means getting good stories out there for anthology readers to enjoy. To link them to the fictional universes that might have gone unnoticed and to be aware of any personal biases that could stand in the way of accepting stories that are uncomfortable because of race, gender, sexual orientation, or age.

In the final story selection, we must choose the best stories, not a quota of authors. But, if we invite a diverse group of authors to start with, diverse results will naturally follow. That is exactly what we intend to do.

 

About the Author:

Jennifer Brozek is an award-winning editor, game designer, and author. She has been writing role-playing games and professionally publishing fiction since 2004. With the number of edited anthologies, fiction sales, RPG books, and nonfiction books under her belt, Jennifer is often considered a Renaissance woman, but she prefers to be known as a wordslinger and optimist. Read more about her at www.jenniferbrozek.com or follow her on Twitter: @JenniferBrozek.

Roundtable on Lucius Shepard

On March 18, 2014, Lucius Shepard passed away. Since then a number of touching tributes have been penned, focusing on his life, personality and accomplishments. I thought it would be fitting for our Roundtable group to celebrate Shepard’s rich literary body of work. What are some of Shepard’s finest pieces, and why are they worth visiting and revisiting? Overlooked or out-of-print gems we should hunt down? Where should readers unfamiliar with his stories start? Stories that personally impacted you? What makes his work–at the risk of sounding banal–special? 

Paul Graham Raven

I found Shepard fairly late, and haven’t read enough to consider myself qualified to speak to his career in depth, but I think I can answer this one:

> What makes his work–at the risk of sounding banal–special?

Voice. Shepard’s thing was to get right under the skin of his narrators and speak with their voices, even when–perhaps especially when –they’re hiding something, whether from the reader or themselves (or both). I’m thinking especially of the long, dreamy run-on sentences of Viator here, but my abiding memory of Shepard’s work in general is one of drinking secrets straight from the spring. I wonder if that, alongside his fascination with the redemption (failed or otherwise) of losers and f*ck-ups, is what kept him from greater commercial success; neat conclusions and happy endings were never his stock in trade.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

Agreed with what Paul said. Shepard was that rare writer who could punctuate dreamy, evocative prose passages that conjured mood and atmosphere with authentic dialogue that sounded as though it was being spoken by the guy sitting on the barstool next to yours.

I also admired his versatility. He wrote fantasy, science fiction, and horror, as well as non-fantastic fiction, but he was able to transform genre tropes and shape them to his own design. You never felt as though you were reading vampire story, or a ghost story, or a high fantasy tale about a dragon–you felt like you were reading a Lucius Shepard story.

John Clute

I’m just about to receive and read for review what seems to be Shepard’s last collection, and feel like a baby duck ready to imprint again. So have nothing to say here at the moment, beyond the crass assertion that, in the terms I like to use to characterize significant work, he is a planetary writer. At his best, you feel the world turn inside his stories. At his most generic, there is always a subterranean buzz of fix. [Alvaro’s note: John’s review has since been published and can be found here.]

Elizabeth Hand

I first heard of Lucius in 1980, when Paul Witcover returned from the Clarion Workshop and spoke about a fellow student who sounded like a character from a lost Hunter S. Thompson novel. So I read “Salvador” and “Solitario’s Eyes” when they were published in F&SF within a few months of each other, in 1983-1984, and was utterly blown away by both stories, and by Lucius’s novel Green Eyes when it came out not much later. He wrote even better stories in the years to come, but those very early works made a huge impression on me. So did Lucius himself, who seemed not a character from a Hunter Thompson novel but a figure from one of his own stories. Extravagant and otherworldly and darkly gorgeous as his fictional worlds could be, they always seemed drawn from a place that Lucius himself had inhabited. For someone unfamiliar with Lucius’s work, I’d suggest starting with the 1987 collection The Jaguar Hunter, which showcases a writer who was brilliant right out of the gate with stories like “Salvador”, “R&R”, “A Spanish Lesson”, and the classic “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule”. Much of Lucius’s work was published by small presses, which can make the books expensive and hard to track down, but Bantam published a paperback edition of The Jaguar Hunter, and you can find cheap copies of that online. I’d love to see a complete (and affordable) edition of his collected short fiction–I think Lucius is one of those writers, like P.K. Dick and H.P. Lovecraft, whose mainstream reputation will, sadly, soar only after his death.

Marie Brennan

Alas, I don’t know Shepard’s work well enough to contribute on this one.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Marie, thanks for the response anyway :-) Have people’s comments, or what you’ve seen posted about him, encouraged you to try his work? I remember being blown away the first time I read him, the novelette “Only Partly Here” (2003), and then starting to look for his stuff everywhere, realizing, like Paul Graham Raven, that I’d come late to the party.

Paul Witcover

I would like to contribute to this thread but simply can’t do so right now. It’s just bad timing! There’s going to be a memorial reading of Lucius’s stuff here in NYC at the KGB Bar on June 15. Ellen Datlow is organizing that; perhaps she can weigh in or solicit stuff from participants that might be useful here. I’m trying to prepare something for that but can’t get to it for another couple of weeks. Sorry! [Alvaro's note: This roundtable was conducted in May 2014.]

Rachel Swirsky

I have read a few of his short stories, but not enough to make any cogent comment. :/

For no good reason, I get him confused with Tom Disch. Literally, no good reason; I can’t figure out why. I must have learned about them at the same time.

People’s comments on Shepard’s work totally make me want to read it. But I haven’t yet and am unlikely to in time to be useful for this roundtable. :/

Can I suggest you find two or three people who are really informed on his work and have them do a break-out roundtable? Karen Burnham did that sometimes.

Karen Fowler

I’ve been slow to answer, because I read a great deal of Lucius’ early work, but have to confess that I lost track of him during his hiatus and never found my way back. He arrived in the field about the same time I did, and with a great deal of heat and visibility. I remember thinking back then that, although there is often much lip-service paid to the idea of transparent, not-at-all-showy prose in sf, every time I went to read someone everyone was all excited about, they turned out to be exceptional stylists. Lucius was inarguably one of those; he had a voice.

For me, he was often excessive, but that was so much who he was as a writer, to ask for something else would have been to remove his superpowers entirely. I would never wish it. He was imagistic, careful and artful (which sounds like a contradiction of excessive, but in Lucius’ case never was). What I remember most from his stories are moments of high drama and scenes of brutality. He was at his best when things were very bad. His depiction of women rarely pleased me. His prose could be so beautiful or else so startling, you had to stop and read it aloud, which is both a good and a bad thing, but for me, for the kind of reader I am, it was good. He was impressive.  But all this is me trying to remember stories I read long ago and the impressions, sometimes vivid, that they left. I really should do some rereading before I say more, see how I feel now about those same stories and the later ones.

I have often used excerpts from his work when I’m teaching and talking about setting, though always with this cautionary note:  if you can make your descriptions of landscape as immersive and imbue them with the sort of tension that Lucius does, then feel free to be this lengthy. For everyone who isn’t Lucius Shepard, short is probably better.

Jim Kelly

I also am willing, but the timing is off. I’m at the Rio Hondo Writers Workshop and Sleep Deprivation Experiment until Sunday, and then I’m off on a family visit for another five days. Sorry!

Jeffrey Ford

Shepard’s writing did have a certain density to it, reminding me somewhat of Conrad, but he had a more readable style than Conrad’s, and the wealth of description never came across as burdensome to me. Instead it gave me the feeling, especially in his short novels and novellas, when I was finished reading one, that I had experienced the richness of a fictional world and depth of character I might get from a much longer work. He was one of the few writers in the genre to create fiction from a working class or, at times, poverty class perspective, something he lived and something the genre is fairly lacking in. He eschewed the Romantic, which has classically been and still is a major part of the Fantastic, and replaced it with a hard edged realistic outlook that doesn’t turn away from the grittier aspects of a life less economically privileged. His characters were drawn from the people who inhabited the world he lived in and passed through. They were certainly not meant to embody social ideals but were meant to represent the people he knew as they actually were and how they actually lived. Shepard was also one of the early writers whose work was conscious of the fact that there was a whole world out there beyond the boundaries of American and European culture. For instance, his short novel, Floater, is the only piece of fiction I can remember having read that had Voodoo as a basic theme that wasn’t some Hollywoodesque zombie bullshit, but focused on the life affirming theology and philosophy of its spiritual practice. There was a lot of real humor in his work as well. Some of my favorites are Handbook of American Prayer, Floater, ViatorSoft Spoken, The Dragon Griaule collection and pretty much all the novellas that were in that giant collection Trujillo that came out from PS. My favorite of his long stories is “Hands up, Who Wants to Die?” His themes were quite varied and his approaches to established tropes were usually unique. There’s just so much fiction of his out there, much of it I’ve yet to read, but intend to slowly make my way through in the coming years.

Gardner Dozois

I strongly agree with Jeff. One of the striking things about Lucius was that he was one of the first to write about working class or poverty level people, a perspective rarely seen in SF or fantasy (the guy driving into the gas station in the big car is much more often the protagonist of a story than the guy pumping the gas), and also one of the first to write convincingly and sympathetically about Third World people, and to evocatively and complexly describe Third World settings. I generally like his short stories and novelettes more than his novels (most of which were actually novellas by word count), so I would second somebody’s recommendation that the best place to start with his work is probably The Jaguar Hunter, his first collection. “Salvador” is still a very powerful story, and years ahead of its time. For all his hell-raising–and he could raise hell higher and harder than practically any other writer in the field–he was a sweet guy, and at heart a very gentle one; I suspect he was frequently hurt by the darkness and cruelty of the world, but he wrote about it better than almost anyone else has done.

I hope that most of his work will eventually be made available in cheap ebook editions, rather than in the expensive small-press hardcovers that are currently the only alternative.

I would strongly suggest that you bring Ellen Datlow in on this conversation, as she was one of the editors who worked with him the longest and most closely.

Elizabeth Hand

Ditto Gardner, especially as regards Shepard’s work being reprinted in affordable editions.

Paul Witcover

Let me quickly jump on the Jeff and Gardner bandwagon. One other aspect of Shepard’s writing that has always struck me is that in a way, he wasn’t writing speculative fiction. There are speculative fiction writers who do very well for themselves by grafting speculative elements onto stories that don’t require them. Then are sf writers who just think and write in sf ways: everything they write is speculative fiction; they can’t help it, whether they would like to or not. But Shepard didn’t fall into either of these camps, in my opinion. I don’t want to be so reductive as to claim that he was writing allegories, but I do think that he was writing about big issues of human responsibility, love, and existence, often from the viewpoint of the disadvantaged and disinherited, the dregs of society, as it were, and he would have been quite happy to write about them in another medium, or through another lens, had one existed that he considered useful to him. But there wasn’t one, so he made use of speculative fiction, bending it to fit his own obsessions. Maybe every writer worth anything does that to a degree, but Shepard, I think, knew very well that he wasn’t using the best tool for the job: just the only tool that lay to hand. And that may be why so much of his fiction has that quality of painfully and painstakingly working its way toward the clear expression of something urgently necessary to express yet which fights expression every step of the way. I think that’s where the density of his writing comes from.

Marie Brennan

>Marie, thanks for the response anyway :-) Have people’s comments, or what you’ve seen posted about him, encouraged you to try his >work?

Oh, definitely. I don’t know if what’s being described here would be my personal cup of tea, but unquestionably it’s worth giving his work a shot.

Kathleen Goonan

In either the fall of 1987 or the spring of ’88, my husband and I were going through our mail next to the pool in our Honolulu
condo. My issue of F&SF had arrived. I opened it, began to read, and the world fell away. The story I happened upon was vivid, dark,
and powerful. I don’t remember the name of the story, but it was written by Lucius, and was one of the turning points in my decision
to write sf. It was mature, intense, and at the same time magical.

In 1993, Lucius wrote a marvelous blurb for my first novel, Queen City Jazz. Any blurb is an act of generosity, and his phrasings went the extra ten miles.

I always read his film column, and, quite recently, I read “Stars Seen Through Stone” in F&SF, and though it had darkness, it was a a mild darkness compared with much of his work, tempered by a resolution that was filled with hope. It was moving.

Perhaps the title was a metaphor for Lucius’ outlook and life. Whatever the stony demons were that ringed him round and made
him the person that so many of us knew, he could still see stars–an act of pure courage.

Paul Witcover

Beautifully put, Kathleen. I wonder if that story was “Solitario’s Eyes”.

Kathleen Goonan

Thank you, Paul. “Solitario’s Eyes” does sound familiar.

John Clute

About a Complete Stories. Three good reasons for one. 1. Exceeding high quality of the entire corpus as a whole, pretty obvious. 2. As Gardner says, I think, the fact that several of the 12 collections to date came out in small or limited editions, one of them–Skull City– only released bundled with another title, I believe, and not now available. 3. I did a rapido count, saw at least 10 stories not yet assembled in a one-person Shepard collection.

Marie Brennan

>>As Gardner says, I think, the fact that several of the 12 collections to date came out in small or limited editions, one of them– >>Skull City–only released bundled with another title,

!!!!!!!!!!!

I take back what I said. I have read a Lucius Shepard story. In fact, I have a quotation from one on a t-shirt.

When I was twelve, I participated in Duke’s TIP program–one of those things where you take the SAT and if you score high enough, can go take a three-week summer course. I did several of those in junior high, and when the first of them was a course wherein we read and discussed science fiction short stories. I remembered “Skull City”, but had completely forgotten it was written by Shepard. The quote we put on the shirt was:

“Like all those things that imbued the place with its special flavor, it was unique but worthless, and its inconsequentiality was in the end what you took from it. It embodied an illusory richness, and however compelling and artful the surface, it masked a twisted exhibitionist intent. And there was, I realized, a lesson to be learned from that.”

. . . which went onto the shirt because no matter how smart we were, we were still twelve, and did not have the faintest bloody clue what Shepard meant by that. But I still have all the copies of the stories from that course; I should go back and re-read “Skull City” to see what I make of it now. (Apart from “holy mother of god the amount of swearing and sex in here; how the heck did Roger get this past the AC and into the syllabus.” I think they had tightened things up a bit by the time I went back to teach last summer.)

Andy Duncan

Marie, who taught that summer course? Kudos to whoever it was, for reading that deeply into contemporary sf.

Marie Brennan

A fellow named Roger Ladd; I don’t remember where he was from or anything of that sort. But yeah, he gave us Connie Willis and Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Greg Benford and Jim Kelly, plus a lot of others whose names aren’t as familiar to me these days, and I’m pretty sure that’s where I read the original “Beggars in Spain”, too. I’ve still got all the stories in my filing cabinet–now I’m seriously tempted to go back through them all, and see what I make of them now. When I taught for TIP last year, I was told to scale my syllabus to what you might throw at college freshmen, and Roger pretty much did the same.

Ellen Datlow

Alvaro, chiming in now that you’ve actually reached me. (The whole roundtable series of posts when to the wrong email address for me).

I  started publishing Lucius regularly in OMNI between 1988-1992. At least two of the stories I published then are still favorites: “Life of Buddha” and “A Little Night Music”, the former a story of love and redemption, mixing stark realism with a jolt of mysticism and fantasy and the latter a brilliant zombie story. Both are emblematic of a certain type of Lucius tale about love lost/being lost. He often put his characters (male and female) through the wringer of bad love. He was a romantic, both in his fiction and in life.

Aside from one story he wrote for an anthology of mine in 1994, he  produced hardly any fiction between 1994-1999 but then came back with a bang with tons of stories, novelettes, and novellas until 2011, when his health began to decline. (There are apparently story and novel fragments.)

I only read his early novels as I didn’t have time to read novels later on but I enjoyed them–Green Eyes and The Golden. I gather A Handbook of American Prayer is excellent.

Yes he sometimes overwrote, getting carried away with his own gorgeous language, but I found even his excesses a joy to read. There should be several volumes of his complete fiction published. His novellas alone could probably fill a couple of volumes.

He also wrote passionate essays on politics and current events, several for Event Horizon, the webzine Rob Killheffer and I edited just after OMNI online folded. One was on Columbine, another on Charles Bowden’s book Juarez: The Laboratory of Our Future, condemning the new colonization of Mexico by NAFTA, and a third about policiers and an alternate to what he saw as stale sf. You can still find them online here.

There’s going to be a celebration of Lucius and his work at KGB Bar June 15th. Several writers who were friends and/or were influenced by him will be reading pieces of his work–fiction and nonfiction.

Mike Allen Guest Post–”Stranger than Strange”

At no point during the slow learning curve of my writing career have I ever said to myself, “I want my writing to be the weirdest anyone has ever seen.”

At first glance my influences seem quite mundane by the standards of a genre writer: as a kid I did, after all, read The Lord of the Rings, The Foundation Trilogy, numerous novels by Stephen King.

And yet somewhere along the way there came a strange turn. Hell, a strange spiral. A Möbius knot. Witness these excerpts from Rich Horton’s review column for the print version of this very magazine:

Mike Allen’s “Sleepless, Burning Life”, perhaps the strangest story here, and the most erotic….

Mike Allen is good again… with a very odd SF story, “Twa Sisters”… beginning with a deliberately retro painter encountering a person half tree/half woman and just getting stranger from there.

Mike Allen’s “Still Life With Skull”, set in the same very strange world as his “Twa Sisters” from last year, is about the most adventurous story here… it’s not always easy to get what’s going on, which is part of the point, I think.

My first collection of short stories, Unseaming, is on the verge of being released from teensy Antimatter Press. The book doesn’t contain any of the stories listed above; it’s a collection of tales that I personally thought of as uncomplicated, bloody-meat-and-potatoes horror, though Publishers Weekly, in granting the book a starred review, didn’t support that notion:

His unsettling Nebula-nominated “The Button Bin” is as disorienting as it is disturbing… Never obvious, sometimes impenetrable, Allen’s stories deliver solid shivering terror….

Unseaming_MD_web

Disorienting… impenetrable… by Jove, I think I see a pattern. Or as a good friend of mine just put it to me, “Your stuff is also batshit bonkers.”

Another friend informs me that at the most recent WorldCon in London, when someone on a short fiction panel complained of a dearth of experimental stories pushing at narrative boundaries, a fan in the audience brought up the anthology series that I edit and publish, Clockwork Phoenix, as a counterexample.

Proud as this makes me, there’s a part of me that can’t help but side-eye the Jim Butcher and Joe Hill novels on my shelves and wonder, how did I end up here?

How odd. How fundamentally weird.

It’s hard to put my finger on a starting point. My fascination with the movie and then the book The Lathe of Heaven? The way I loved L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door even more than A Wrinkle in Time? The morbid childhood freak-outs caused not just by Poe, Lovecraft and King, but Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”, Jackson’s “One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts”, Disch’s “Descending”? The thrills I got from the boundary-pushing stories in The Books of Blood?

It wasn’t just literature. A vague notion that I might pursue visual art led me to the Surrealists, whose images from dreamscapes spoke to my teenage imagination as profoundly as the fantasy landscapes of Le Guin and Zelazny. My admiration for films like Brazil and City of Lost Children surely emerges from the same place.

And as it turns out, my creative palette uses many of those same colors. Not out of any kind of conscious agenda–the process, I suspect, has been more akin to osmosis. I arrived at the aesthetic that informs Clockwork Phoenix and my magazine Mythic Delirium over a period of many years. The grimmer but taxonomically related aesthetic that informs my own writing took even longer; it’s still mutating and changing, even. Perhaps the mutating and changing is all that’s constant.

So, yes, I grew up on Tolkien and follow the adventures of Harry Dresden. My favorites, though, are Thomas Ligotti and Laird Barron, opposite poles on the same dark star. I’m honored that Laird was willing to endorse my Unseaming with an introduction, and just as honored that Tom endorsed it too, and even gave me useful feedback. Ligotti called my stories “fun”–I want to wear that blurb like a medal.

This spring, I was delighted to finally experience Livia Llewellyn’s Engines of Desire, the darkest, most brazenly twisted and beautiful book I’ve read since Brian McNaughton’s The Throne of Bones.

I am reveling, this summer, in the triumphantly weird crossover hit that is Jeff VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach trilogy. This is not because I see it as striking some sort of grand blow for the cause of “The Weird” (though given that Jeff and his wife Ann co-edited the epic anthology The Weird, his novels may in fact be doing just that). It’s more just that I’ve really enjoyed a series that is strange, disorienting, impenetrable yet hugely entertaining, too.

I’m looking forward to the release of Nicole Kornher-Stace’s young adult novel Archivist Wasp, a mashup like nothing else out there that blends a high-tech sci-fi adventure with a ghostly descent into the underworld. Nicole has appeared in the Clockwork Phoenix books, and she’s already committed a short masterpiece of the weird in her should-not-be-overlooked novelette The Winter Triptych.

My idea of perfection, for the moment, might be along the lines of Cormac McCarthy as adapted by Federico Fellini. I haven’t pulled that off myself, yet, and I’ve not seen it anywhere out there, yet. I’m working on a new novel, though, and planning to launch a Kickstarter campaign for Clockwork Phoenix 5 next year.

So here’s hoping.

 

About the Author:

Mike Allen’s first novel, The Black Fire Concerto, came out last year from Haunted Stars Publishing, and he’s written a sequel, The Ghoulmaker’s Aria, that’s in the revision stage. He’s just released a new poetry collection, Hungry Constellations; his first short story collection, Unseaming, will debut at the 2014 World Fantasy Convention. He’s also the editor of the critically acclaimed Clockwork Phoenix anthologies and the fiction and poetry webzine Mythic Delirium. He and his wife Anita live in Roanoke, Va., where he works as the arts columnist for the daily newspaper.

 

 


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