Jun 17

How to be a Light Hybrid Author

I recently participated in a thread on Google+ started by someone who was arguing for leaving self-publishing in favour of trad pub. Now, I’m not sure if he’s genuinely naive or just trolling, but his view of trad pub is, let’s say, rosier than the facts justify.

I’ve set out my views on traditional publishing before, but to summarise: the main remaining benefits of traditional publishing that I can see are wider exposure, including print distribution to bookstores, and some residual (and rapidly vanishing) extra credibility.

The two are intertwined. There are many podcasts, book review sites and the like which still only feature traditionally-published books and authors, often as a matter of explicitly stated policy, and the underlying reason is presumably that this gives them a straightforward filter to reduce the amount of crap coming across the transom. A high-profile site of this kind gets inundated with far more material than they can handle, and saying “no self-pub” reduces the volume by filtering out material that, additionally, is still statistically more likely to be of low quality.

The quality issue in self-pub is real, but things are shifting rapidly. As clueless trad-pub houses get rid of editors and savvy self-publishers take them on, the quality gap is shrinking. I have “shelves” (tags) set up on Goodreads for “needs-editing”, “seriously-needs-editing” and “well-edited”. At time of writing, I have 20 books marked “seriously-needs-editing,” of which 5 are from large publishers and one from a small press (the rest are indie). I have 39 marked “well-edited,” of which 33 are from indies. Now, disclaimers: I read a disproportionate amount of indie fiction, I’m pretty good at filtering out the bad ones, and out of those 33 well-edited books, 15 are by Debora Geary, who just doesn’t seem to put many typos in or else has an incredibly eagle-eyed editor. Regardless, the quality gap is smaller than it’s often portrayed, and as more and more of the most imaginative work is done in self-pub, the credibility gap will shrink.

Not only in editing, either. I occasionally browse the cover designs that Joel Friedlander features on his Book Designer website (link is to a post featuring a couple of my covers), and at a casual inspection, it looks to me as if they are getting much better than they used to be. Indies are aware now that they can’t stick a hideous cover on their book and expect it to do well. Trad-pub, on the other hand, can still put out cliched and awful covers sometimes. One of the reasons I choose to publish independently is exactly this: in trad-pub, the author is stuck with whatever cover the publisher comes up with, good or bad, even if it’s a terrible representation of their vision or undermines one of their main points. If that happens with one of my covers, I only have myself to blame, because I commission them and approve them.

As for print distribution, the value of that is shrinking rapidly, and Hugh Howey’s analysis shows that it isn’t financially beneficial overall (at least, not for the authors). It gets more eyes on your stuff, which is important in awards season, but it doesn’t get you more money if you publish with a traditional publisher who gives you low ebook royalties and print distribution to bookstores, vs getting higher ebook royalties and no print distribution. (In fact, if you publish through CreateSpace you can buy an add-on that gets you print distribution to bookstores, though whether it is worthwhile is another question – the answer will vary depending on the individual book, but my sense is that on average it is “no” unless you’re doing well already.)

The average traditionally-published genre book will have a couple of copies sent to each bookstore, where they will be displayed “spine-out” on a shelf in that genre’s section of the store for a limited period of time (3-6 months, I believe), after which they will probably be returned for a credit if nobody has bought them. That kind of exposure is increasingly not worth signing over lifetime rights to a publisher in exchange for low royalties.

I do have a point, which I’ll get to soon

I’m rehearsing these well-rehearsed thoughts (which many have stated before me) not so much for their own sake as in order to give background for my main point, which is this: there is another, backdoor way to get some of the “gatekeeper cred” and exposure that traditional publishing still, for the moment, grants.

If I did the submission dance and was fortunate enough to be one of the comparative few given a trad-pub contract – and I’m reasonably confident that I could eventually achieve that if it was a goal of mine – I would face four problems which are reasons I don’t participate in that dance (apart from the tedium of the dance itself).

The first problem is timeliness. From submission to acceptance to publication is a long and winding road in trad-pub. That’s time in which my work could potentially be earning me money, and in which I could be getting reaction to it which could influence the next thing I write.

The second problem is control. I’d have no control over the cover, no control over the price, no control over the blurb, and the final editorial decisions would not be mine. Now, you can argue whether my retention of that control produces a better or worse result. I think it produces a better result, but I do know this for sure: my preference is to have it.

The third problem is scope of rights. Under the usual traditional contract, my rights in that work – and possibly other subsequent works – would be severely restricted, and the publishers would effectively control them for what amounts to an unlimited period (from my perspective, anyway, since copyright freedom 70 years after my death does me no good). The problem here is not that the publishers have the right to publish the work – that’s what they’re buying, after all – but that they retain it indefinitely.

The fourth problem, of course, is earning potential, and anything I could say about that is covered much better at Authorearnings.

The Answer

So what’s the answer? How can I get the benefits of trad-pub (exposure and perceived legitimacy) without the drawbacks I’ve just enumerated?

The answer is short stories.

There still remains a vigorous, and if anything increasing, market for short stories, especially genre, especially fantasy and science fiction. There are anthologies coming out all the time, and numerous magazines, not to mention many competitions. There are different kinds of markets; some pay only royalties, others a token upfront amount, but many pay an upfront per-word rate ranging from 0.5c to 25c. Professional rates are considered (by fiat of the SFWA) 6c/word, and according to The Submission Grinder, there are currently 35 pro-paying markets for SF and 29 for fantasy (many of them, of course, the same markets).

Now, nobody’s going to get rich just selling short stories for 6c/word. But what the short story markets provide is a more flexible, more timely, less rights-grabby version of trad pub.

Anthologies, even from small presses, get reviewed in places that are closed to indies. The major short story magazines (and there are several) are highly regarded in the field. Short stories get on awards ballots; there’s a special place for them in several of the major awards. And all these markets have editors, so you can prove that someone other than you thought your fiction was worth publishing.

At the same time, their turnaround is relatively quick – few take as long as three months, much faster than the query process for traditional book publishing, and then publication usually follows in short order. That solves the problem of timeliness. (Exception: tor.com, a short fiction market which is owned by a book publisher, has a notoriously slow turnaround).

In terms of control, I don’t expect control over the cover of an anthology or magazine that includes my story among several others. I hope it’s not awful, and usually it isn’t, but nobody else thinks of it as representing me either, so if it is awful, the splashover onto me is minimal and people will believe me when I distance myself from it.

Scope of rights is something that short story markets mostly make very clear upfront. Usually, their submission guidelines will say something like, “We’re buying first serial rights with an exclusive period of X”. X can vary from zero (you’re free to use it elsewhere as soon as it’s published) to a year, rarely more, and seems to average about 30-90 days. Anthologies usually have a longer exclusivity period than magazines, since magazines have a faster churn time – once the next issue is out, they’re usually not worried about someone republishing a story that was in the last one. Anthologies are either one-off or annual, and in either case often call for a one-year exclusive.

And once that period is up, your rights revert, and you can try to sell the story to another publication (though not many take reprints, and those that do often pay less for them than they do for first appearances). Or you can put it on Amazon, alone or in a collection, and people can buy it from you there. (You might, if you’re lucky, get into a Best Of anthology of some kind, though some of those primarily pay in exposure.)

And that’s the earning potential issue addressed. Sell your story to the highest-paying market you can (knowing in advance how much you’ll get), potentially resell it to another market afterwards, then stick it in Kindle Direct Publishing and make some more money from it. You’re not stuck earning 25% royalty while the publisher cleans up for the rest of your life. You can rewrite it, turn it into a novel, collect it, whatever you like, because you have your rights back.

Pink Moped
Kanaka Menehune / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I’ve got a collection coming out soon, in fact, from HDWP Books, including several stories I’ve published with them or elsewhere before, as well as some new ones. I joke in the back of the book that this makes me a “hybrid” author, though not like a Prius – more of a moped.

This, along with the good things it’s doing for my practice of the craft of writing, is why I’m working on short stories a lot these days. I’ve placed one in New Realm magazine (royalty-only, and I haven’t hit the threshold for a payout, nor do I seriously expect to – but it’s a publication credit, and the story is mine again now); three in the Theme-Thologies from HDWP Books (again, royalty-only, and I’ve had one small payout so far); and I just the other day got the news that I’ve sold one to the Alternate Hilarities 3: Hysterical Realms funny-fantasy anthology, which is another step up the ladder. There’s an upfront payment (at least 1c/word, and up to 8c/word depending on how their Kickstarter goes) and a share of royalties.

I have five or six more stories on submission and several more that I’m working on. My plan is to work my way up through the semi-prozines and semi-pro anthologies to the big time: Strange Horizons, Sword and Sorceress, Unidentified Funny Objects (to name three that have sent me encouraging emails saying they wished they could buy my stories but they weren’t quite right for this time).

All the street cred of traditional publication, without the lifetime rights grab and the long delays. More like being a contractor than being a low-level employee. This is how publication ought to work.

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Jun 12

Lost Books

As I gear up to publish Beastheads, the next Gryphon Clerks novel, and my short story collection Good Neighbours and Other Stories, I’ve been reflecting on the books I haven’t published.

It’s sometimes pointed out that one of the problems with self-publishing is that there’s nothing to stop people publishing novels that should never have seen the light of day, “practice” books that are useful for learning, but will only put your potential audience off your writing if anyone reads them. In the biz, these are known as “trunk” novels, because back in the pre-digital day they were kept in trunks.

Trunk Novels

I have two. The first I wrote in my mid-teens. It’s SF in the vein of Harry Harrison (only serious) and Heinlein, two authors I was reading a lot at the time.

Earth has interstellar travel, but the only thing they’ve been using it for is to exile criminals to a planet of Alpha Centauri. The criminals have taken over this planet and named it Joli Rouge, after the original name of the pirate flag, because I loved that sort of trivia. They have a cruel, but effective society there, and are gearing up to invade Earth.

Earth is populated largely by pinko wussies (I think that bit was Heinlein), but there’s a secret organisation that protects them without their knowledge, because someone has to. The hero, Jim Grey (named in honour of Slippery Jim diGriz, though he’s a lot closer to James Bond) is sent to Joli Rouge to scout, and discovers the invasion plot. He goes back with a female agent to thwart it, and they’re shot down, if I remember rightly. He goes forth in his armoured battle suit and shoots people and blows things up on a wholesale basis, assisted by his female sidekick. Partway through this, they hook up.

With the plot thwarted, their boss decides to blow this pinko popsicle stand and leave Earth to its fate, taking all the agents in a space ark along with as much Earth culture as they can carry, because that’s the really valuable part of Earth: its past cultural productions, not its people.

I was, as you can tell, a cynical, arrogant and snobbish teenager, which is the main reason this book is staying trunked (quite apart from the pulpiness). A literary agent friend of my aunt’s liked it enough to take on its representation, but never sold it, and that’s probably a good thing. I wouldn’t want it on my permanent record.

My second trunked novel is a Tolkienesque fantasy, involving members of a number of fantasy races in a quest for seven magical swords (made from unicorn horns) which render their wielders invulnerable and unaging. It developed out of a cyberpunk novel, never finished, in which the fantasy plot was a game the characters played, but I decided that the fantasy made a better story and dropped the cyberpunk frame.

Unfinished Novels

I have several unfinished novels, as well. I don’t remember what their working titles were, or even if they had any. The first was my first attempt at fiction, when I was about 12. It involved a youth organisation for teaching survival skills and assisting in search-and-rescue. Several members were sailing a boat from New Zealand to Australia to train the Australians in their techniques, but I never figured out how to write a plot, and abandoned it.

Then there was the cyberpunk frame for the fantasy novel that I already mentioned. The characters were high achievers who had been given brain implants and were figuring out creative things to do with them, such as controlling a second set of (robot) hands.

I re-used one of the characters, a red-headed Welsh jazz musician named Miranda Llewellyn, in my unfinished post-cyberpunk novel Topia. The main character of that one has cerebral palsy, and speaks using a brain implant. He’s grown up in a highly unusual faith community extrapolated from the one that I’m a part of, which emphasises creativity and innovative thinking, and he works as a greyware engineer, helping other people to go beyond their natural limitations through brain-implant technology. Miranda hires him to enable her to play the saxophone and sing at the same time, and they become friends and, later, a couple. I may finish that one someday.

The only unfinished novel I have that you can actually read is right here on the C-Side Media site. The Y People (the title is a nod both to the X-Men and the Tomorrow People) is a YA novel about a group of orphaned teenagers with powers who discover one another when a man calling himself Mr Brown comes after them. Mr Brown doesn’t seem quite human, and they don’t know why he wants them, but they do know they don’t want to go with him. I got twelve thousand-word chapters in before losing momentum, between the press of other priorities and not knowing where the story was going. I do know this: the mysterious adversaries are either aliens, interdimensional beings, time travellers, or Fae, and which ones they are will not be clear to the kids for some time.

Again, I may start the book up again sometime, if the mood takes me.

Ideas Not in Active Development

As well as all the books I have planned in the Gryphon Clerks series (which you can read about on my Books page), I have several SF novels that I may eventually get round to. They are, I think, in the same general setting as Topia and/or Gu, and are relatively near-future, near-space or Earth-based. One is a sequel to Topia, State of Lunacy, and involves the moon declaring its independence. Canned Goods Inspector is about the last honest cop in the inspectorate which, under a successor to the UN, is in charge of making sure that massive human rights abuses are not occurring in the cheap orbital habitats being built from asteroids. It’s a companion novel to Up the Line, about a kind of interdenominational chaplain working at the base of the Space Elevator as refugees from ethnic wars and climate change emigrate to those same habitats.

As the saying goes, ideas are easy, execution is hard. The thing I’m really pleased about in my writing life is that I’ve started to execute consistently. By next month, I should have seven titles out (four Gryphon Clerks novels, City of Masks, Gu and the short story collection), I’m about halfway through writing the stories for Makers of Magic, and depending on what else happens in the second half of the year it’s likely that I’ll finish another novel or two.

That puts all the unfinished stuff in perspective.

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May 30

Makers of Magic: New Project

I’ve been working on this one for a little while now, but I decided it’s time to announce it on my blog.

Makers of Magic will be a single-author themed anthology, thirteen stories in twelve settings (two Gryphon Clerks ones), each with a different kind of magic-user as a character. Mostly, the magic-using character will be the protagonist, but sometimes the antagonist, or maybe even a secondary character.

A single-author anthology unified by theme rather than setting is unusual. I’m sure someone else has done it, but I’m not aware of any. The reason I’m doing it is simple: I like stories about magic-users, and I noticed I’d written several and decided to go for a collection.

I’m submitting these stories out to magazines and anthologies, in the hope of getting as many as possible published before I do the collection. It’s a kind of social proof thing. The downside of that is that I’ll have to wait for the rights to revert, and that sometimes takes a year from the date of publication, so the book is unlikely to be published before late 2015 (more likely early 2016).

Given that I’m planning 13 stories, and my stories average about 3000 words, it’s probably going to have a total wordcount around 40,000, unless I find a story that needs to be longer.

The Wizard
seanmcgrath / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

So far I’ve written four stories which are out on submission, and which cover Necromancer (“Axe Stone: Svart Detective”), Sorcerer (“Family Curse”), Wizard (“Alix and the Dragon”, though I may write another wizard story and substitute it), and Alchemist (“Lock and Key”). I have another one in beta (“Mail-Order Witch”), and a sixth story partially written (no title as yet; it’s about a thaumaturge). The settings include a mashup of a sword-and-sorcery city with Damon Runyon’s noirish 1930s New York; a city that could possibly be Edwardian London; a secondary-world dukedom; a sword-and-sorceryish place with similarities to the Crusader kingdom of Outremer; and more-or-less contemporary Alaska.

The rest of the stories will cover Mage, Shaman, Adept, Illusionist, Warlock, Theurgist and Enchantress, unless I have better ideas, which is always likely.

The tone of the stories I’ve written so far generally includes some humour, though that’s not always the case (the sorcerer story is pretty serious, and more like an old-style Weird Tale of the 1930s). That’s not to say that they don’t also include drama involving love and/or death.

I’ll be sure to post about any of the stories that get accepted for publication elsewhere, so you can pick them up if you want to get in early, and it’s likely that one or more of them will end up as bonus content for members of my mailing list.

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May 23

Is Speculative Fiction?

I’m going to do a foolish thing here. I’m going to set up a distinction.

Nothing is more likely to lead to arguments than definitions, but here we go.

Speculative fiction. It’s a term that’s used to cover SF, fantasy and (supernatural) horror, and the bits and pieces that fall in between and across those genres. Bizarro, weird, surrealist, magical realist, slipstream – you could toss them all into a broad definition of spec-fic, though it’s more often used for SFF: science fiction and fantasy (“oh, and horror, I suppose” as an afterthought).

Let’s look at the first word, though. “Speculative”. Spec-fic is based around the idea of “what-if”. In science fiction it’s usually “what if this technology existed?”, and in fantasy “what if magic existed?”, though there are vast numbers of exceptions to those generalisations.

I’d like to argue, though, that after a particular trope becomes familiar enough, it’s not “speculative” in the strongest sense any more. It’s just a counterfactual setting. Everyone understands space opera, now. You have spaceships, probably warp or wormhole drives, quite possibly blasters and stunners, usually some kind of artificial gravity/antigravity, there’s interstellar trade, there are space colonies, there may or may not be aliens of fairly predictable types (comedic, antagonistic, just plain weird). A space opera that only uses these tropes, that doesn’t introduce anything new to them, can be an excellent and very enjoyable story, but it doesn’t really speculate all that much. It’s using a set of trope technologies established in the mid-20th century (notably, the computer technology isn’t usually very advanced, sometimes not even as advanced as our actual present-day tech in a story written today), and has not very much to do with the current state of science. Writing a space opera of this kind is like writing a planetary romance: it’s a literary genre that’s become established with a certain set of assumptions and understandings about how things work, and we continue to enjoy it even though we know now that things don’t really work that way.

Everyone, likewise, understands paranormal romance. There are supernatural creatures, most commonly vampires, werewolves, and/or Fae (in roughly that order of popularity). There may or may not be witches/wizards. These elements are, in many ways, background. They’re furniture. They’re not what the story is, in any strong sense, exploring, any more than a cosy murder mystery explores crime or a spy thriller explores international espionage.

In the short story field, in particular, referencing a trope can be a useful shortcut in a limited space, which enables you to get to the story itself without a lot of tedious explanation. I’ve become more aware of this as I write short stories. It’s one of the tricky things about short stories in my Gryphon Clerks setting, especially, which is very different from the usual tropes in ways that I don’t always want to dwell on, but which need to be conveyed somehow if the story is to make sense.

As well as these heavily troped settings, there’s also a rising phenomenon – you can see it in the award nominations and the Best Of anthologies – of “literary” stories that have small, sometimes vanishingly small, spec-fic or counterfactual elements. For example, the Hugo-nominated short story “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love,” while a good story, is not speculative fiction by any rigorous definition. It contains speculation, but the speculation is counterfactual within the world of the story.

Scaring !
blavandmaster / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Now, I’m aware that I’m not going to bring about a revolution in which we all agree to save the term “speculative fiction” for fiction that actually, you know, speculates, and does so in fresh ways, and in which that speculation is at the heart of the story and couldn’t be removed without killing the patient. For better or worse, and quite probably it’s for better, “speculative fiction” has a broad definition rather than a narrow one. It includes the troped settings in which no new speculation is taking place, and the literary stories with a minor counterfactual that may not even make a difference to how the story goes.

What I would like to do is start at least a small amount of discussion about whether we could do with a few more terms. Maybe a spectrum of “tropedness” for subgenres like space opera and PNR, so we can talk about whether the story has just taken all its furniture ready-made from the archetypal space opera and pushed on with the action, or whether it’s a story about what it might actually be like to be in space. Whether it’s a vampire romance according to the usual template (so far as worldbuilding goes), or whether it’s playing with, subverting, even adding to the tropes.

I’m starting to sound evaluative, so I want to make clear again: A heavily troped space opera can be highly enjoyable to read. Not having much original worldbuilding in your book can leave more room for character and plot, and if that’s what you do with it, more power to your arm. If I’m reviewing, I probably will mention that it’s on the familiar end of the familiar-to-fresh spectrum, and that I personally would like more freshness, but many other people will love it exactly because of the familiarity, and it is meet and right so to do.

Likewise, maybe a spectrum of “light” to “heavy” would be a useful way to talk about whether stories have speculative elements at their core or are using them more as decoration.

And finally, I personally would like more freshness and heaviness from time to time in my spec-fic. I hear good things about Anne Leckie’s book Ancillary Justice in this connection, and I will probably read it at some point soon, even though it sounds darker than I usually like. There are still people writing spec-fic with a high level of speculation. The trick is finding them when there’s not a clear vocabulary to describe such a thing.

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Apr 16

Technique: Parallel Stories, Slow Reveal

I review books from Netgalley, and I recently got two significant short story collections: Writers of the Future Volume 30 and Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Eight. So far, I’ve only read the first one, but it’s taught me something.

Of course, that’s exactly why I read it; I wanted to see what is considered really good spec-fic short story writing these days, rather than just reading classic short stories. I’ve been writing a few short stories lately, mostly for the collection I’m doing with HDWP Press, and based on the feedback I’ve had I seem to be getting better. I’m yet to sell a story to a major magazine, but I’ve had a very encouraging personalised rejection from Strange Horizons and some good comments from critique groups.

Part of the point of writing short stories is to improve my craft by working at the short length, and then take those lessons into my novels. Here’s the lesson I learned from several of the stories in Writers of the Future, which I call “parallel stories, slow reveal”.

The clearest and best use of the technique is in Shauna O’Meara‘s story “Beneath the Surface of Two Kills”. At the opening of this story, we learn that the narrator, a professional hunter, is hunting a rare animal for the last meal of a convicted felon on death row. As the story progresses, we discover more about the “two kills”: the one which the hunter is working towards, and the one which we know occurred in the past to place the killer in prison awaiting execution. The hunter thinks about the news coverage he has read of the killer’s stalking of his victim as he, in turn, stalks the rare beast.

This works for a few reasons. Firstly, the parallel stories obviously reflect on each other (and the conclusion differentiates the two characters). Secondly, as also happens with several other stories in the same collection, we start out knowing the ending of a story that occurred earlier, and gradually learn how that outcome occurred.

Now, given how some people react to “spoilers”, you’d think that would be a problem, but done well it actually keeps the reader’s interest. We know the outcome, but we don’t know how it came to be, and we want to.

Here are some ways I can think of to use the slow reveal:

  • Hint at something surprising about the character early on that doesn’t match up with what you’ve revealed about them so far.
  • Let the reader see a terrible (or wonderful) outcome looming, of which the characters remain ignorant until it happens.
  • As the story opens, let the reader know that the character feels a strong emotion (fear, anger, sadness) about something that happened, but don’t tell them why (or what) until later.
  • Show a character learning something that another character has already learned, and tell their stories in parallel.
  • This is a classic: Start the character out in a fix. Gradually show how they got into it as they struggle to get out of it.

Like any technique, this can be done badly and fail. Used well, though, it holds the reader’s attention and keeps them reading. Watch out for it in my future stories.

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Apr 10

Review Books, Win Books

So, review deal, involving free books for you.

I want to increase the number of reviews I have for several of my books, mainly so that I can use promotion sites that require a minimum number of Amazon reviews.

If you post a review of any of the following books on Amazon, let me know, including the link to your review, and I will send you another of my books, of your choice:

Now, most of those promotion sites also require a minimum of 4-star reviews, or an average above 4 stars.

I want to be clear here. I am not saying that I will only give you the free book if your review is 4 or 5 stars, because that would be undue influence.

However, if you’ve given one of my books a review with less than four stars, you will need to explain to me why you would want to read another book of mine, given that you didn’t enjoy the previous one that much. “So that I can assassinate your book” is not going to be a reason that convinces me to facilitate that process.

Your free book doesn’t have to be one of the three above. It can be Gu or Realmgolds if that’s the book you want. You can see all my books, including blurbs, on this page.

Contact me in the comments or via the gmails (mikermnz) if you want to participate. Thanks!

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Mar 07

UPDATE: Anthology Plans

This is an update to my previous post, in which I announced a small short story collection.

I’ve now pulled that collection off Amazon, for the best possible reason. I’ve agreed with Charles Barouch of the small press HDWP Books to issue a solo anthology later this year under the HDWP imprint, including my contributions to HDWP’s Theme-Thology collections.

Charles’s vision for the anthology is that it’ll have 10 stories in total (there may be more). Here’s a partial summary of the contents, which includes the three stories I mentioned last time:

Good Neighbours: An elderly woman must answer the classic question: Who is my neighbour? (Formerly appeared in New Realm magazine in December 2013.)
2700 words.

Vegetation: In an old Elvish city, plants are everywhere. And goodness knows, someone has to look after them. A lighthearted, Wodehousian piece involving the petty politics of volunteer organisations.
2300 words.

Gnome Day: An idealistic young clerk helps out on the night the gnomes are freed, and meets three people who will change his life: the woman who will become his wife, the gnome man who will become his best friend, and the gnome woman with whom he’ll share a tragedy.
6000 words. (This story is available for free to subscribers to my mailing list.)

Not Like Us: A beasthead clan leader contends with the botched Human Purity invasion of her village (as mentioned in Realmgolds), and must decide how much she wants to resemble the invaders. (Originally appeared in Theme-Thology: Invasion.)

Brothers: When a highly literate Asterist scholar meets a smelly Earthist shaman, things don’t go the way anyone expects. (Scheduled to appear in Theme-Thology: New Myths.)

Weave: (Non-Gryphon Clerks.) All of a sudden, everyone in the world is connected in strange and frightening ways. (In progress; for submission to Theme-Thology: Real World Unreal.)

Intrusion: The story of the dwarven hack of the farspeakers in Hope and the Clever Man, told from the dwarven side. (In progress; for submission to Theme-Thology: Mad Science.)

Names: (Non-Gryphon Clerks.) In an afterlife in which everyone is a collective being, made up of everyone who’s ever lived who has the same name, a person with a unique name has an advantage. But what advantage? (Currently on submission to a well-known genre magazine.)

Fixer: The man called Fixer knows everyone, and helps connect people with needs to those who can meet them. What happens when a confidence man wants to exploit Fixer’s network? (In progress.)

You’ll note that’s only nine. I’m sure another will come to me in due time. (It might be that noir dwarf detective story in the style of Damon Runyon that I started once, in frustration at the story of a noir dwarf detective that was so clod-hopping and ponderous that I just couldn’t stand it. Or not.)

Earliest publication date is probably around June for this one, assuming I sell “Names” to the magazine I’m targeting. They gave me a very positive personalised rejection for another story which was all about why that particular story didn’t quite work for them, despite its many good qualities, so I’m having another go. Their exclusive period is two months from date of publication.

More bulletins as events warrant.

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Feb 24

Short Stories, and an Announcement

I’ve put three short stories up on Amazon as a collection for 99c. I plan to publish more short stories this year – potentially, I’ll add them to this same collection, and get Amazon to alert purchasers to an “update” so that people who’ve already bought them get more stories at no extra charge. (Edited to say: There’s at least a possibility that the small press HDWP Books will bring out an anthology collecting the stories I’ve done for their Theme-Thology volumes as well as some other short stories of mine later this year, so I’ve pulled the mini-collection. Further details in this follow-up post.)

The three stories are:

Good Neighbours: An elderly woman must answer the classic question: Who is my neighbour? (Formerly appeared in New Realm magazine in December 2013.)
2700 words.

Vegetation: In an old Elvish city, plants are everywhere. And goodness knows, someone has to look after them. A lighthearted, Wodehousian piece.
2300 words.

Gnome Day: An idealistic young clerk helps out on the night the gnomes are freed, and meets three people who will change his life.
6000 words. (This story is available for free to subscribers to my mailing list.)

Speaking of writing, I’ve been accepted as a contributor to the popular Fantasy Faction fansite. I’ll be sharing some of my reviews there, and I also hope to publish some blog posts. These will be posts that I would previously have put up here with the category “Manifesto-esque Rantings” or “Craft”. Instead of publishing those posts here, I’ll focus more on making this a site for my readers, not so much for fellow writers. I’ll share any Fantasy Faction posts as they’re published, via my Google+ profile. I may also make a page on here as a directory to them.

Fantasy Faction gets about 2000 visitors a day and has already won a couple of minor awards, so I’m pleased to be writing for them. Since what I write for them will be reviews and posts I was going to write anyway, I promise it won’t slow down the production of Gryphon Clerks fiction.

 

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Feb 11

Writing Two Stories at Once

I recently read C.L. Moore’s Judgement Night (review here), and it got me thinking.

Moore was writing in the pulp era, very successfully. She and her husband Henry Kuttner (whose first contact with her was a fan letter he wrote, believing she was a man) often collaborated on their stories, but in the interests of not disappearing down a pointless rabbit-hole I’m going to assume that the stories with her name on were primarily her work.

Moore’s stories, while definitely in the pulp mould, had extra elements that lifted them out of the ordinary. Her Wikipedia entry notes her use of the senses and emotions, but I’m going to talk about something else she did, which I refer to as “telling two stories at once”.

External and Internal Stories

Drastic oversimplification time: one of the key differences between “genre” fiction and “literary” fiction is often that “genre” fiction has a lot going on externally (events that you’d see on a movie screen), whereas “literary” fiction has a lot going on internally to the characters (thoughts, emotions, internal dialogue, reflections on the meaning of life). This makes it unsurprising that most of the top-grossing movies of all time have been “genre” movies: science fiction, fantasy or thrillers, primarily.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. Sometimes, I’m in the mood for a story that doesn’t attempt to do anything more than entertain me with the external events. As a matter of taste, I’m personally seldom if ever in the mood for a story that has very few events but a lot of internal reflection. What I really like a lot, though, is when someone manages to pull off both at once, which is what Moore did in many of her stories.

Double Double Toil and Trouble...
Arbron / Foter / CC BY

Most of the stories we recognise as “classic literature” do this. Shakespeare has murder and walking spirits and Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, but he also has “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” and “Out, damned spot!” Dickens, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, most of the authors whose names everyone recognises tell two stories at once: the story of the outward events, and the story of the significance of those events.

By the significance of the events I don’t just mean their significance to the characters, though that is how we encounter it, through the characters’ eyes. The authors who are best at this manage to make the characters’ thoughts, reactions and emotions point beyond them to something more universal about being human.

For example, the story “Judgement Night” in the collection of the same name is about the fall of a galactic empire. However, it’s also about the heir to that empire, and her close brush with a love affair, and how her training as an amazon warrior makes her reject the emotional and relational side of life, and how that influences the empire’s fall. And that, in turn, is about masculinity and femininity, relationship and connection, competition and conflict, love and death. It’s all woven together. If you told just the story of the fall of the empire, it would work as a story by itself, but it wouldn’t have the richness and depth of the story that Moore does tell.

How I’m Applying This

If I look at someone else’s craft, it’s at least partly to improve my own (that’s a big part of why I write reviews).

There’s a writing concept called “scene and sequel” that Jim Butcher describes very well. In this context, a “scene” is what I’ve been calling the outward story: some things happen. A “sequel” is where the characters reflect on it and make it part of their internal stories (and hopefully the greater, more universal story).

My first Gryphon Clerks book, Realmgolds, has lost some readers because they felt that I didn’t do enough of the internal story sometimes. Other readers don’t seem bothered by it; perhaps it’s just that they’re already enough like the characters (and me) that they get what I was going for without my spelling it out, that they naturally understand how a character like that would feel. However, if I’m to improve as a writer and satisfy more readers, I need to take that criticism on.

When I was writing Hope and the Clever Man, I had a scene in it where two of the characters get caught up in a riot. Bearing in mind the lessons I’d learned, I added a couple of sentences of sequel to the end of it, in which the characters said something like, “I’ve never been so frightened in my life!” “Me either.”

Starting to deepen your stories can be that simple: taking a moment to show the reader what the events the character has just experienced mean to them.

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Jan 31

New Release: Hope and the Patient Man

Hope and the Patient Man is out today, and you can get it on the Kindle Store.

This is the sequel to Hope and the Clever Man. I’ve already referred to it as “Hope 2: The Patienting” and “Hope 2: Compressed-Air-Powered Boogaloo“, but it’s quite a different story. The potential romance at the end of Clever Man becomes actual, though there are several knotty problems: Hope’s splashback curse from when she cursed her first boyfriend, a fairly serious head injury that indirectly results from it (I don’t count that as a spoiler, since it happens practically on the first page), and the mystery of why her mother is so hostile to her.

I started writing it in August, while my beta readers were looking at the first Hope book, because the characters would not shut up. This is a good thing.

I now need to decide what’s next. I have a largely drafted book set in the same time period as Realmgolds and most of the first Hope book, but it has multiple issues (as they say on Wikipedia). I’ll probably toss it over to my miracle-working editor and she’ll give me a two-page summary of how to rescue it and make it my best book so far. This is likely to involve several months’ work, of course.

There are two more books to come out of the Hope characters. One is hinted at in Patient Man, and involves Mister Gizmo the gnome and his team as they try to rediscover the techniques for making an ancient elven material that will indirectly help the cause of gnome freedom. I’ve got a few chapters drafted, but it’s not really singing to me yet.

The other involves Bucket, the Clever Man’s gnome assistant, and Hope’s best friend Briar as they navigate the choppy waters of politics.

Then I’ve got a heist novel planned, and then a kind of steampunk Star Trek airship voyage of discovery and diplomacy. Somewhere in there there may be another book or two that I’m currently vague on or unaware of. There’s a general plan, but I uncover the details as I get to them.

All of which to say: the Gryphon Clerks series continues, there’s plenty more to come, but right now, Hope and the Patient Man is fresh and new and I’d love you to take a look at it.

(Edited to add: With excellent timing, and much to my flattered surprise, the New Podler Review of Books has included Realmgolds in their Best of 2013 today!)

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