A Sweep at the Nebula Awards

The Nebula Award winners for 2015 were announced this past weekend, and it was a sweep by women writers.  I’m not sure that has ever been done before, but even if it has, it’s still a great thing to see.  Women have faced a long, hard road for legitimacy and recognition in speculative fiction—and I’m sure there have many been Nebula-worthy stories written by women that were never given a fair chance—so to see success at this scale is long overdue.  Oddly, for a genre that is supposed to be forward thinking and is supposed to imagine a better future society, it sometimes seems like the speculative fiction community is still lost in the stone ages.  I look forward to the day where it’s not a surprise (pleasant, albeit) or even worthy of noting to see the Nebula swept by women or people of color.  But on to the winners!

Uprooted by Naomi Campbell took home the big prize for best novel.  I haven’t read this one yet, but I’ve heard good things about it, and I hope to read it some point in the not-too-distant future.  Nnedi Okorafor’s “Binti” won best novella, and Sarah Pinsker, who wrote on of my favorite stories in 2014 (“A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide”), won the best novelette award for “Our Lady of the Open Road.”   The best short story award went to “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong.

Congrats to all the winners and nominees.  The competition was tough this year, and a lot of worthy stories and their authors had to go home empty-handed and, I’m sure, a little disappoint.

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Balancing Character, Plot, and Setting

Whew, it’s been a busy couple of weeks, and I see I haven’t posted anything here in a while.  That’s not the end of the world or anything, but I made a commitment to keep posting here, even if it’s only once a week or so.  So why haven’t I posted?  Other than the usual busy-with-life-family-multiple-jobs thing, I’ve been working on revising a short story.  I thought it would only take me a week or so, but here I am, two weeks into the planned one-week revision, with still a long way to go.  Sounds like what happens when you renovate your house or garden!

So what happened?  Turns out the story needed a lot more work than I expected.  I’ve basically been tearing it apart sentence by sentence and rebuilding it.  This is a little new for me.  While I expected to cut/revise 50% or more of the words in my first draft—this is usually about par for me—I’ve kept almost nothing of this particular story.  After I started digging into the draft, it quickly became apparent that the story was too “superficial.”  It didn’t dig deep enough into the main characters or their problems, which has robbed the story of what should be its emotional core.  And this is a story that must resonate at the emotional level because it’s not a plot-driven piece; it’s more of a character study.

While all stories need plot, character, and setting, I’ve learned over the years that not all stories need the same level of development for each.  In fact, for some types of stories, I think too much development of one area can actually hurt it because it bucks against reader expectations.  How many hard-boiled detective or superhero stories have deeply developed characters?  Not many—the are usually characters interesting and serve their purpose, but most readers are in it for the plot .  Of course, I don’t deny that a “routine” detective story could be elevated with great character development; what I’m saying is it’s not necessarily needed to meet the conventions of that (sub)genre, and could actually make the story harder to sell (assuming that’s a significant objective).

One of the things I try to do when writing a story is to think about what kind of story I might have.  For me, this hinges on the primary conflict: is it an external or internal conflict?  An internal conflict generally necessitates deeper character development to pull it off in a satisfying way.  Conversely, I find that a primary conflict that is external often can get away with a less developed character (notice I say less developed, which doesn’t mean undeveloped), but needs a strong plot to be effective.  One type isn’t inferior, and like many readers, I enjoy both kinds of stories.  I’ve even published examples of both—for example, see “Thief of Futures” for a plot-driven story and “The Schrödinger War” for a character-driven one.

So the story I’m revising now is a “character” story.  I tend to find these harder to write than “plot” stories, but also a lot more rewarding when I actually manage to pull it off, which in my opinion doesn’t happen as often as I’d like.  For this one to work, I’ll need to dig deeper into my main character and mine every bit of loneliness and desperation I can find.  That cane be mentally exhausting, and it will take time, but if I do it effectively, I’ll have a very good story on my hands.  Wish me luck.

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It’s Hugo Season Again—Meh. . .

I used to look forward to the Hugo Awards.

That was until last year’s Sad and Rabid Puppy nominating fiasco turned me off sufficiently that I can’t even muster much energy to say “meh” this year because the Puppies are at it again, as expected.

For those not familiar with the Hugo Award, it has been given out annually for over sixty years to recognize what are considered stellar works of speculative fiction.  Unlike the Nebula Awards, the Hugo isn’t voted upon exclusively by “industry professional” (in contrast, the Nebula Award voting is open only to members of the Science Fiction Writers of America).  Anyone who attends the World Science Fiction Convention has a say in the Hugos, so it’s awarded by a mix of writers, editors and genre fans.  Overall, I’ve always found the winning works to be excellent, and those stories, along with the other non-winning finalists, were my doorway into science fiction when I was a kid looking for the “best” the genre had to offer.

So it saddens me to see the award hijacked by a small group of individuals who have turned the award into their own political statement, and have taken a my-way-or-no-way attitude.  They would rather see the award destroyed than not get what they want, much like a tiresome toddler.

I’m not going to go into the details of the Sad/Rabid Puppy movement (a quick search will turn up lots of information), but essentially it’s a bloc voting approach that has found a way for a small group of people to game the Hugo nominating system and load the final ballot with their desired works/publications.  Last year, the Puppy slates were incredibly successful, dominating the final ballot in nearly every award category.  In the end, however, award voters (a larger group of people than those who tend to nominate) decided only one of those Puppy-pushed works was worthy of the award—and it likely would have won regardless of inclusion on the Puppy slates—and for the first time, no award at all was given out in five of the major categories.  No award to honor the “best” in speculative fiction.  Pretty sad.

This year the Puppies are back and have again gamed the system, but with a twist (technically, the Sad Puppies have “changed” their approach a little and offered up a “recommended list” based on reader recommendations, although I don’t know the specifics to say how different this actually is from last year’s slate).  The Puppies have actually included some worthy works/publications on their list (and which likely would have gotten nominated regardless), and some of the categories look only half bad, actually.  I suspect this is so they can claim success this year when one of these works wins.  But the nominees in many categories are again chock full of stuff of questionable quality, much of it directly from the publishing house of the Rabid Puppy ringleader.

So sadly, I say “meh” again, and I won’t bother to post the nominee list (you can find it here, if you’re interested).  At least there is hope that next year things will be different because a change to the award process is expected to go into effect for the 2017 award cycle (proposed changes need to be approved at two consecutive conferences to go into effect, so it actually hinges on getting approved at the business meeting this year, which it sounds like it will).  For this year, however, I suspect we’ll see a lot of no awards again, and future generations of readers who rely on award lists to locate some of the best of the field published long before they were alive (like I did) will miss out on another year of speculative fiction.

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Walden Planet and Other Stories

When my writing group, Hopefull Monsters, disbanded last year, I wondered how many of the members might be done with writing.  I suspected a few might be (only time will tell if I’m right), but I knew Richard Zwicker wasn’t.  Rich was probably the most prolific of the Monsters—I think he sold 50+ stories over his years in the Hopefull Monsters, and if not fifty, it sure seemed like it.  I still see his stories popping up here and there in a variety of magazines and anthologies.  Rich’s stories are almost always droll, clever and very inventive, so his continued success isn’t really any surprise.

If you missed Rich’s work in various magazines, you now have a chance to get a good sample his stories all in one place.  Rich recently published his first short story collection, Walden Planet and Other Stories.  It’s chock full of fifteen stories filled with “Wise-cracking robots, slow-motion bullets, time machines that don’t work the way they’re supposed to, evil holograms . . .” and quite a bit more—yeah, I stole that from the jacket blurb, but why reinvent the words when the author has already said it so well.

[I guess I should officially make the disclaimer, if it’s isn’t obvious already, that I know Rich personally, and even critiqued early drafts of some of the stories in the collection, but I haven’t been paid to say nice things about him or his book—heck, I didn’t even get an advanced copy of his collection!]

I’ve read many of the stories included in the volume (I haven’t read them all, I must admit), and my favorite would have to be “Holo, Goodbye.”  It’s filled with Rich’s trademark humor and wise cracking characters.  Also, like many of Rich’s tales, it’s a science-fiction mystery with clever twists and turns and a “gumshoe” in the most classic of traditions.  Rich has truly excelled in this “guilty-pleasure,” subgenre of speculative fiction.  But this collection has more range than that, as stories like “Stellar Dust and Mirrors,” set on a delivery ship with an unusual cargo, show.    No matter the topic, the writing is lively and fun, and these stories go down as easily as your favorite dessert.

In all, Walden Planet and Other Stories is an enjoyable read, and highly recommended.

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Milestone for an Ex-Monster

I was in a writing group called the Hopefull Monsters for many years, but sadly we disbanded last year.  While in the group, I made several pretty good internet friends (I’ve never met any of them in person, but would like to at some point) and had a chance to learn from a lot from some very good writers.  With confidence, I can say I wouldn’t have accomplished half of what I have as a writer without their help.

The writing group may be no more, but I’ve managed to stay in touch with several ex-Monsters.  Some have gone on to publish short stories and books (more on that in my next post), some appear to have left writing all together (best I can tell, that is), and one went on to edit and produce his own podcast.

Last year, ex-Monster J. S. Arquin started  The Overcast as a way to sate his inner performer (he’s also an “outer” performer: actor, musician, stiltwalker) and his love of speculative fiction.  Last week, The Overcast celebrated its one year birthday, a big milestone in the tough publishing industry.  While I haven’t heard every episode of The Overcast, I’ve heard enough to say that this does not surprised me.  J. S. does a wonderful job picking and reading the stories, and he has featured some great writers, both from the U.S. Pacific Northwest (the podcast’s focal area) and elsewhere around the world.

So a big congratulations to J. S. and everyone else who has helped out with The Overcast.  The next time I’m in Portland, I owe you a celebratory beer.

If you haven’t had a chance to listen to The Overcast, head over and check out the latest episode, featuring Cat Rambo’s story, “Villa Encantada.”

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Proofs! Page, That Is.

What-the-Is-That-rev-final-cover-678x1024While I was traveling last week, I received page proofs for the What the #@&% Is That? anthology which will contain my story “Now and Forever.”  It’s always exciting to get page proofs, because it’s the first concrete evidence that one of my stories is actually going to see print.  It’s extra exciting when the publisher sends proofs for the entire book, like they did this time.  Proofs of the whole book give me a sneak peek at the other stories, and I get to see where my piece sits in the larger work—this time my little piece of fiction is nestled between stories from the incredible John Langan and equally amazing Seanan McGuire, which are certainly nice (and admittedly intimidating) neighbors.

I’m quite excited about this anthology because it’s got a table of contents ful of heavy hitters in the horror and speculative fiction field: the aforementioned John Langan and Seanan McGuire, Laird Barron, Alan Dean Foster, Gemma Files, Maria Dahvana Headley, Tim Pratt, An Owomoyela and many others.  So you can bet it’ll be chock full of amazing, all-original horror stories.  A real can’t miss, as far as I can see, so get your pre-orders placed today if you haven’t already done so.

What the #@&% Is That? is scheduled for release from Simon and Schuster in August 2016.

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Taking a Break: Into the Wilds

in-the-fog-thumb(edit)I haven’t posted here in over a week because I took a vacation and headed off into the wilds of the Pacific Northwest of the United States.  I wrote little during the last week, but I’m not going to beat myself up over it because I spent several days hiking through temperate rainforests, viewing waterfalls and wave-swept beaches, visiting historical sites, and spending time with family.  The Olympic peninsula and the San Juan Islands were beautiful–wet and cold, sure, but also I think some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.  (I’d like to think that’s saying something having visited some truly amazing places on this planet.)

While I think writing consistently is important, sometimes I thinks it’s just as important to “recharge the batteries” by getting away from the daily pressure of putting words on the screen.  Once I accepted that I wasn’t going to be writing much last week, my mind was set free.  I was amazed how a few days away from the word processor and lost in the mist of the Olympic Mountains caused new ideas to percolate up from the subconscious and allowed me to work through some issues that were blocking a few story ideas I had.

I got back late Sunday, and yesterday I wrote a little (no fiction; a critique of a story for another writer) and outlined in my head a short story that I plan to start today (as soon as I finish posting this).  I hate missing a writing day, but I think the time off did me more good than I thought it would: I’m refreshed and ready write again.

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How’s that Book Coming?

I have some book updates:

I received the next iteration of the cover art from artist Hans Binder Knott, and it’s really starting to come together.  At this point the basic composition is complete, and Hans is filling in the finer details.  Hans continues to be great to work with—responsive, efficient, and incredibly talented.  With every iteration he sends, I get more excited about the final product.

Also, this past weekend I decided it was time to actually tackle ebook formatting and production.  I’ve been putting it off for a long time, primarily because I was intimidated by the whole process because I didn’t know what to do or where to really start.  I had no idea how to properly format a manuscript to turn it into something that could be read on a Kindle, Nook or whatever a person’s e-reader of choice might be.  Fortunately, I have the internet!

Writer David Gaughran has made the original edition of his ebook on indie publishing—Let’s Get Digital—free to download.  This edition of the book is six years old (he has a more recent edition for sale), but I found it to be an incredible resource that’s full of practical advice, “how-to” information, and links to valuable online resources.  In the chapter on formatting a manuscript for ebook production, Gaughran directs readers to a step-by-step guide by Guido Henkel called “Take pride in your eBook formatting.”  I have no idea if Henkel’s guide is still used by writers today, but I found it easy to follow, informative, and thorough (he explained the why as much as the how).  Most importantly it worked: I produced a final a mock-up of book one of the Calypto Cycle in multiple ebook formats—complete with a mock cover, title page material, professional looking typesetting, hyperlinks to web resources, etc.—and it took me about six hours spaced over two days.  Considering my starting point was complete ignorance about the process, I don’t think six hours is all that bad, and I’m confident that with the “style” guide I assembled as I went along that I could repeat the process on a new novel-length manuscript in 30-60 minutes.  It really wasn’t hard after the steps got demystified for me.  If I can do it; anyone can.

So at this point, the copy editing on my manuscript is done, and I’ve learned how to do the proper ebook formatting (I’ve even created a step-by-step “style” guide).  The cover art is getting close.  I’ve developed the title page information (copyright information, disclaimers, design credits, etc.), and I’ve started thinking about what I want in the back of the book besides an author bio.  Many things remain, however, before my book can be made available to the world.  I need to figure out how to format the manuscript for a paperback version (most likely CreateSpace) and how to format for submission to Smashwords (to hit the “non-Amazon” half of the ebook markets).  I need to find a graphic designer to do the cover.  Back cover blurb?  Arrange for reviews and promotion?  Yup, need to do those too.  That’s still a long list, but I’m steadily tackling the tasks.

Oi!—I almost forgot the most important thing: I need to keep writing stories.

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If You’re Looking for Something New

Are you looking for a fresh voice in speculative fiction?  If so, I have a recommendation for you.

Every year, the John W. Campbell Award is given to the “best” new writer in the speculative fiction genre—you know, science fiction, fantasy, and horror.  What exactly is meant by “best” isn’t really clear to me, but that’s besides the point because all of the nominees bring serious writing chops to the table.  But who will those nominees be?  Good question because it’s not always clear who is a new writer (as opposed to a infrequently published one) and it’s not always easy to find their stories.

In recent years it’s gotten easier with “Campbellian” anthologies.  Started in 2013 by M. David Blake and originally published through Rampant Loon Media (who also publish Stupefying Stories), the Campbellian anthologies were a showcase for John W. Campbell Award eligible writers (I had a few of stories in the 2013 edition, but I’m no longer eligible).  Its purpose was to expose the writers and their stories to potential award voters who otherwise might not have been aware of them.  The anthologies also happened to collect together some great fiction from up and coming writers—for example, the 2013 anthology contained early stories by several of this year’s Nebula Award nominees!

Mr. Blake decided not to assemble the anthology this year (he had concerns related to slate voting, and giving last year’s Hugo Award fiasco . . . .), but with his blessing, S. L. Huang and Kurt Hunt have taken up his idea and assembled “Up and Coming: Stories by the 2016 Campbell-Eligible Authors.”  Packed with 120 new writers and coming in at a hefty 1.1 million words, it’s sure to contain a new voice (heck, voices!) in science fiction, fantasy or horror that sings to you.  And it’s free to download until March 31st (when the Campbell Award voting closes).  So don’t miss a chance to read some of the new voices of speculative fiction, and if that’s not enticing enough, remember that there’s a good chance that someone in this year’s anthology will likely be a household name in the not too distant future.

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2015 Nebula Nominees for Best Novella and Novel

Last week, I posted the Nebula Award nominees in the novelette and short story categories, and I promised to follow up with a posting of the novel and novella nominees.  I had hoped to have these up earlier this week, but a looming deadline in the day job kept me busy (I barely found time to meet my daily word-count goal).  Here they are, as announced by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA):

Best Novel:

“XXX” • Raising Caine by Charles E. Gannon
“XXX” • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
“XXX” • Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
“XXX” • The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
“XXX” • Uproted by Naomi Novik
“XXX” • Barsk: The Elephants Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen
“XXX” • Updraft by Fran Wilde

Best Novella:

“XXX” • “Wings of Sorrow and Bone” by Beth Cato (Harper Voyager Impulse)
“XXX” • “The Bone Swans of Amandale” by C.S.E. Cooney (Bone Swans)
“XXX” • “The New Mother” by Eugene Fischer (Asimov’s)
“XXX” • “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” by Usman T. Malik (Tor.com)
“XXX” • “Binti” by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com)
“XXX” • “Water of Versailles” by Kelly Robson (Tor.com)

Hmm . . . the best novel category has a lot of the same names as last year (Novik, Schoen, and Wilde are new), which is a little disappointing, but I won’t hold it against the these authors or their books.  I’m sure they are all worthy publications.

Tor.com dominated the novella category this year.  For those not aware, they closed in January to unsolicited submissions, so I’m intrigued to see how this affects the publication (is this their last big hurrah?).  I suspect it won’t change much, as they admitted that while they bought some unsolicited manuscripts, much of what they published they obtained through other sources.  In their message announcing the closure, they even said that in recent years very few of their slots went to stories found in the slush, so while this is unfortunate news for those of us with no connections inside Tor.com, I suspect it won’t hurt their publication in the long run.

I’ll probably not read any of these stories in time to vote in these categories (I wish I had more time to read longer fiction), but I congratulate all of the nominees.  At some point in my life, I hope to have more time to catch up on the wonderful books I’ve missed.

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