Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Strange Economics: finding my niche

I’m fortunate to be included in Strange Economics.  Edited and produced by Canadian writer David Schultz, it’s a speculative fiction collection in which every story applies at least one economic concept in fantasy or science fiction settings. It’s unmistakably a highbrow piece of work, and as such, it tends to reward attentive, educated, and intelligent readers.

As a writer, I am prone to an unhealthy attitude towards anthologies.  The competitive side of my personality tends to take over, and I wind up comparing my work to the other works included.  This never takes me anywhere pleasant.  If I judge my work to be inferior to that of the other authors included, I wonder if I’m dragging the overall product down; whether I was the last one in the door; whether they’re all snickering at me behind my back.  If I feel my work is among the better pieces included, I wonder whether I couldn’t have sold it somewhere more prestigious.  Long story short: I am a cantankerous, neurotic bastard, and can't be dealt with.

My contribution to this particular work is entitled “The Rule of Three.”  Originally drafted shortly after Terry Pratchett’s death as a tribute piece, it explores a world in which witchcraft has recently come out of the closet as a legitimate scientific discipline with economic and industrial applications—and in particular, the attempts of middle-aged divorcee Hecate Bowersgrove to keep her small-business alchemy shop afloat while under siege from big-box rivals.  It’s a fun piece, but I can't say that it's likely to radically expand anyone's intellectual horizons.

This makes it something of an odd duck where this particular anthology is concerned, because there are some very profound, weighty pieces herein.  For instance:  the anthology opens with Neil James Hudson’sThe Slow Bomb”, which explores the oft-considered question “what is the monetary value of a human life” through a particularly grim and imaginative thought experiment.  Batting third is “Have Icthyosaur, Will Travel” by DK Latta, a sort of Jurassic World for smart people which takes seriously the economic and environmental implications of dropping a bunch of captive dinosaurs into the world.  And in between these two expertly crafted and deeply considered pieces is my own story, featuring the zany madcap antics of imps and trolls.

While I initially felt a bit beyond my depth, the story has been well received to this point, and in seeing that, I think I’m coming to a better understanding of how an editor might choose to construct an anthology of this kind.  Yes, you need strong, serious pieces of work to serve as the weight-bearing elements of the structure.  But even fans of that style of writing (and I’m a huge sucker for stories that test the limits of my thinking) will occasionally want to set down the burden for a while and enjoy something a little lighter. To that end, there’s stories like mine, and also M James’s “The Slurm,” a laugh-out-loud take on monster slaying with a playful style that’s entirely particular to the author, and entirely delightful.

Again, though, I’m mostly into the stuff that makes me think.  And man alive, there’s a LOT of that stuff in here.  I can’t restrain myself to my usual habit of highlighting three particular favorites, because there’s just so many; in addition to the stories listed above, there’s also Jack Waddell’s “The Short Soul,” in which the gods of death cope with the scarcity issues brought on by humans achieving clinical immortality; JM Templet’s “Shape, Size, Color and Lustre,” which introduces a South American-flavored mythology which is unfamiliar to me and may be entirely original, and Karl Dandenell’s “Supply and Demand Among the Sidhe,” in which Queen Titania’s trade embargo sparks a flurry of innovation by the fantastic denizens of her faerie realm.  The line-by-line writing in this last work is absolutely elite and the story itself worthy of contention for the highest awards in the genre.

And even THAT’s not my favorite thing in the anthology, because Jo Linsday Walton’s afterword essay is clever enough, and insightful enough, to leave us mere fiction writers deep in the shade.  I suspect that the essay also contains clues regarding Ms. Walton's involvement in the anthology in a different role, though others may find that take a bit rich.

In the end, in spite of my anthology-related neuroses, inclusion in Strange Economics is honor enough for me to set impostor syndrome aside and just enjoy the ride.  There’s some hardcore writers and thinkers here, and it’s a genuine pleasure to be seen in their company.  I’m glad to have invested myself in it, and I think many of you will want to buy in as well.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Coming Soon!

It's been a while since I've updated my adoring public on ongoing projects, and things are going to get fairly busy soon.

This summer brought a major milestone in my writing apprenticeship as my short story "The Lady of Pain" was awarded third place in the Baen Fantasy Adventure Awards.  The contest is one of the most substantial out there for non-professionals, and involved hundreds of entrants; previous winners include some of the more eminent emerging authors in speculative fiction, such as KD Julicher and Laurie Tom.  This meant a 500-mile road trip east on I-70 to Indianapolis and a stay in one of America's sketchier Motel 6s, but also the opportunity to attend GenCon for the first time and an awards dinner seated at the same table as Larry Correia, Mercedes Lackey, and other authors and publishing professionals whose work has given me a great deal of pleasure over the years. I'm grateful to Baen for the recognition and the opportunity. Combine this with last year's finalist status for the James White Award, and the evidence seems to be mounting that I'm progressing in my craft.

As for the story in question, The Lady of Pain--which is a sort of pulp-action investigation of the tropes of the fantasy healer archetype--is still on the market. At 7500 words, it's a little long for most markets, but I have a couple of specific targets in mind.

Numerous other projects have been purchased for publication, including:

The Rule of Three.  Written in the aftermath of Terry Pratchett's death as a tribute piece, this comic story of small-business alchemy will appear in Strange Economics, an anthology that's set to drop in the next couple of weeks.

Magic Beans. A dark and nasty fractured fairy tale in which flatulent pixies battle an amoral bioscientist for control of a potentially world-changing crop.  A print-only October release from Outposts of Beyond.

Invincible. Thirteen year-old Pythia's encounter with a god--or, at any rate, with something godlike--locks her into a unique destiny, and puts her on a collision course with history's greatest conqueror. Coming free to the web in November courtesy of Allegory.

Screaming Timmy Must Die.  He just MUST, is all.  To be epublished in January by old favorite Broadswords and Blasters.  

AppropriateA flash piece in which a high school gets serious about the problem of cultural appropriation. A free audio release, probably sometime in the next few months, from The Centropic Oracle.

Wipeout. A story of persuasion, set in the world of high school policy debate. This one is very personal for me; I feel it's the best story I've ever written. Coming in late 2018/early 2019 as a free web release from Strange Constellations.

And we also have a couple of reprints coming to market sometime in the next year, including my comic story of language policing The Princess and the P in Bards and Sages Quarterly (print sales only).  There's also a couple of adaptations of my work for high school speech competitors, including both The Commander and Revolution (a different take on post-mortal Benedict Arnold; I can't seem to let go of the concept) from Mushroom Cloud Press.

And, as always, there's more stories on the market, including Prodigal, a sci-fi biblical retelling set among the space Amish; Cravings, a story of Rawlsian dystopia and BBQ; and the soccer-centric The Redemption of Declan Kavanagh.

The side-hustle goes ever on and on.  Glad to have you all along for the ride.

EDIT:  No podcast of The Commander, evidently, as the market to which I sold it elected to go on hiatus eight months ago and never bothered to inform the writers with whom it had contracts. Editors: I shouldn't need to tell you this, but pulling a stunt of this sort provides an absolute guarantee that the writer in question will never submit work to you again.

Friday, June 29, 2018

American Heart: Haters Gonna Hate

Laura Moriarity’s American Heart—a dystopian YA novel which takes place in a near-future of Muslim internment, and which retells Huckleberry Finn as the story of a teenage girl trying to help an Iranian refugee reach Canada--has been the target of one of the more spectacularly ignorant campaigns in the annals of political correctness.

If you're not already familiar with the controversy, go ahead and read that link. And maybe also the New Yorker's rather savage take-down of Kirkus' behavior. I'll wait here.

Done?  Okay, then.

Young adult literature is near and dear to my own heart, and was crucial to my own development. I’m deeply aggravated to see it turned into a political football. 
And yet there’s some utility in what happened to American Heart. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the Streisand Effect was in play here, as the campaign against the book brought it to the attention of thousands who would not otherwise have heard of it. As one of those thousands, I’ve been waiting for a while for a library copy to come available. This week, I finally had the opportunity to read it for myself.

I find American Heart to be quality, well-plotted YA.  I was surprised to find that the action beats were my favorite part of the book. Sarah-Mary is a resourceful protagonist; there were numerous episodes in which I found myself wondering "how are they going to get out of this one?" and was subsequently satisfied by the resolution. These moments keep the pages turning. Moriarty also has a special gift for portraying anticipatory dread--those dark, ugly moments in which the fate of the characters rests in the hands of a secondary character who may or may not know their secret, or who does know and may or may not choose to help them.

Of the public criticisms of the book, the one which seems to be most rooted in truth is the claim that Sadaf lacks agency. Indeed she does. We live in a world which frequently denies agency to people. I don't think that sanitizing that reality would improve the book. Nor would this be a better novel if the author were to disrupt the structure of the plot in order to create moments in which Sadaf becomes an action heroine. She makes the best use she can of the moments of agency she has, which serves the author's argument that we all should.

As a perspective character, Sarah-Mary is believably the product of her experiences and influences, and also of core qualities which exist in a place beyond society's reach. We watch as that core drives her towards a new set of experiences which lead her to develop new values. The transformation of the misnamed "Chloe" into Sadaf occurs not as an external reality, but within the scope of Sarah-Mary's perspective. This is her story, even if some readers wish it wasn't, and the exploration of her perspective has literary value. Critics of the author's perspective choice are asking for a different book rather than evaluating the one they're reading.

My own major criticism is the ending, which is driven by a deus ex machina involving a secondary character who would better have been left out entirely. Protagonists this clever deserved the opportunity to complete their journey under their own steam--or at least to have made their way to the location of Sadaf and Sarah-Mary's parting on their own.

So four stars for the book as a whole. And then subtract one for the ending. And then go grab that star that Kirkus took away because they chose to value the opinion of a baying mob over that of their hand-chosen Own Voices reviewer, and give it back to American Heart, which deserves it.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

All That Glitters...

"All That Glitters" is a mere 1000 words long and features the most original story idea I've ever had. It's available now in the July issue of Bards and Sages Quarterly.

As the title suggests, it's not gold. But it has other merits. Keep your mind on the money, and the money on your mind...

(Edit:  the link now takes you to the Amazon page for the issue)

Sunday, June 3, 2018

"Don" and the perils of accidental plagiarism

I'm very proud to have my short story "Don" in the June edition of Andromeda Spaceways. The original version of the story was drafted almost three years ago, and was inspired by the research I did into wind energy generation as a high school debate coach, as well as my lifelong fondness for the Broadway musical "Man of La Mancha". The story retells Don Quixote as the story of a rogue climatologist, and offers a sci-fi take on his struggle against the windmills.

It was a fun story to write. Any author learns to love the moment at which they find themselves in possession of a wholly original idea--those visits from the muse are few and far between, and inspire a white-hot burst of writing energy as one pours the idea out onto paper.

So the story emerged, and was revised, and revised again, and submitted, and submitted again, as stories are. I never doubted it would land somewhere; the idea was just too much fun not to see print.

And then, about six months after writing the story, I ran across this XKCD cartoon:

Huh. Well, that's...awkward.

This provoked no small amount of disappointment in me (NOOOOO! MY ORIGINAL IDEAAAAA!!!) as well as a mini-crisis of conscience. Because my inspirations for the story, and my research into its plot points, were exactly as I said.

But, on the other hand...I do read XKCD on occasion. And this strip tracks the plot of the story pretty closely. While I had no specific recollection of reading this particular strip, it seems very likely to me that it influenced me when I wrote the story, at least at a subconscious level. Which raises the question: is it possible to be a plagiarist without intending to be one?

I've served as a reviewer of other people's stories at a couple of sites, and I occasionally run across examples of plot points or even character names which I've run into previously in mass-market fiction. I'm not talking about Tolkein pastiches, so much; I'm referring more to things like referring to your main character as "the Bloodless," ala Patrick Rothfuss. And researching the issue, I discovered it happens to professional authors fairly frequently--and that some of them go so far as to avoid reading within their genre for fear of "idea contamination."

I have, in the past, re-read an old favorite only to find a section of text that's suspiciously close to something I've written myself--I've inadvertently taken copy from Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Harry Turtledove, and others. Whenever I've come across an instance of this, I've removed the relevant text from my own work. Using another author's words, intentionally or unintentionally, is plagiarism, full stop.

Story and plot concepts fall into a more ambiguous space. For instance: both my YA novel Axis of Eternity and my short story "Monsters in Heaven" involve an extraplanetary afterlife not altogether dissimilar to the one Phillip Jose Farmer explored in his Riverworld novels. AoE also involves a plot concept which had been previously explored by Ivan Stang, inventor of the Church of the SubGenius, and which I later discovered as the central concept of still another author's story in Broadswords and Blasters. Where this sort of thing is concerned, I think some allowance has to be made for good faith on the part of the author, provided that he or she is acknowledging his or her influences and giving credit where it's due. And there's also going to be some instances of two different people just having the same idea. Great minds think alike, and occasionally, even my mind meanders into those realms normally reserved for the truly talented.

In the end, I elected not to kill the story, and the editors, having been made aware of the issue, elected not to kill it either. I do think, though, that it's appropriate to give xkcd's Randall Patrick Munroe a shout-out and a thank you for his subliminal inspiration. His stuff is so great that it ends up making my stuff better. And if he's reading this, I hope he won't have me killed.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

*erilous *rincesses

CBAY Books has just released its latest anthology for middle-grade readers, *erilous *rincesses. As the title would suggest, it’s themed around stories in which the *rincess is the source of the danger as o**osed to the victim thereof. Readers who love heroines with agency will find no shortage of them herein, ranging from fairy-tale ty*es to modern s*ies. My *articular favorites from the anthology are “Aurora in the Dreaming,” Alison Ching’s account of Slee*ing Beauty’s secret adventure, and Madeleine Smoot’s “Redem*tion,” which successfully marries the flavor of a children’s classic to altogether original content.

My own contribution is “The *rincess and the *.” Fans of modern *hilosophy are well aware that the language we use not only reflects our reality, but also creates it in many ways. In the Kingdom of Lexico, that’s even truer than elsewhere. When *rincess Mynda determines that a *articular letter of the al*habet (I won’t say which one) is the source of all her nation’s *roblems, she engages in a *articularly aggressive form of s*eech-*olicing which *roduces disastrous consequences for all involved—and is forced into a des*erate scheme to undo her handiwork.

More than that I dare not say, exce*t that I have seldom had more fun writing a story, and less fun editing one.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Ayn Rand for Gay Teens

There’s no Hollywood trope that’s further from reality than the “hero teacher” story.  Movies love the idea of a Jaime Escalante or a Joe Clark dropping out of a clear blue sky and turning around a classroom or building full of troubled youth.  Teachers—myself included—know better.  We’re useful and helpful people, and we need to be competent or better for a school to be the best version of itself.  But any school that achieves anything does so because its STUDENTS are heroes.  Every high-achieving school I’ve ever been involved with (and I’ve been part of several) has risen on the tide of its students’ drive and talent.

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is…well, it’s many things, isn’t it?  An astonishing break with the moral orthodoxy of its day, for one.  Prone to interminable passages of purple prose, for another.  One of the more interesting things about Atlas Shrugged, for me, is its transgressive attitude towards labor relations.  It asks the question: what if capital went on strike, as opposed to labor? Rand posits that the people putting in the important work all along aren’t necessarily the people you’d assumed.  But she also posits a unique strike strategy.  Rand’s “men of the mind” don’t march with placards; they aren’t directly defiant in any way.  Instead, they disappear into the woodwork.  They stop innovating.  They remove themselves from the occupations in which they have talent and do menial labor, working only with their muscles.  They aren’t noncompliant, they’re hyper-compliant.  In enacting this strategy, they reveal how important their volunteerism has been all along.

As a teacher, I’ve often wondered what would happen if the uncelebrated innovators responsible for a high school’s success—the students--implemented Rand’s strategy. What would happen if a group of kids decided their efforts were being taken for granted, and took an educational approach based on the idea of doing exactly what was required of them and nothing more?  In truth, this is every teacher’s nightmare.  The power of students is in many ways invisible to them; they have no idea just how little authority over their behavior teachers really have, how much of our power is a function of willing partnership.  With the events surrounding the Stoneman Douglas shootings, students are awakening to the realities of how much power they actually hold.  If anyone ever successfully organizes them as a unified block…

I knew early on, when I made the transition to short stories, that I would at some point make an attempt to rewrite Atlas Shrugged as a story of teen rebellion.  The final product, enhanced by romantic and science fiction twists, is “Been There, Done That,” which you can read in this quarter’s issue of TheColored Lens.  I generally workshop my stories with other writers before seeking to have them published, and edit based on the suggestions I’m given.  Among these beta readers, BTDT is by far my best-received story.  I hope you’ll enjoy it as well.