Tuesday, December 22, 2009


I think it’s important to take notes for works of fiction. Whether jotting down ideas for new stories or tweaks to existing stories, notes increase the chance of retaining flashes of brilliance.

Keep something with you at all times that you can use to record notes. Maybe it’s a paper notebook, but with technology advances, you might use a laptop, PDA or cell phone. Sometimes I email myself reminders if I don’t have a scratchpad within reach.

Try to limit your notes to the barest of essentials for recalling the ideas. This isn’t the same as creating a storyboard or a plotline. These are simply references to something greater in your brain. It might be something like: “Use mace, not sword” to indicate a character’s weapon or “Send Joe with Sue to cave.” My notes tend to look like incoherent thoughts, but that’s okay as long as my stories don’t.

If you’ve ever found yourself trying to recall a good idea that you had earlier and just can’t draw it back out, you can understand the importance of putting such hooks in place. Relying on memory alone isn’t completely reliable.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Magicera's Confession

My short story, "The Magicera’s Confession," is now available on MindFlights. I’m excited about seeing another publication before the end of the year. This is my second publication with MindFlights. Here’s the teaser: Beaten and exhausted, Thadryn's prospect is grim. Even if no one listens, he's willing to tell his tale.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Supporting Markets

If you find speculative magazines that you enjoy, support them. As writers, there are several ways we can do this:

1. Financially – Subscribe to magazines. Buy issues. Pay to access special online content. Every magazine has expenses, and when those expenses aren’t covered, magazines go under.

2. Promotionally – Now that you’re reading issues through your subscriptions, promote the magazines. Post reviews on your blog or website, discuss your favorite stories in discussion boards. Raise the awareness of the reading community of markets you enjoy so that they can increase readership.

3. Contributions – Submit your best stories to these magazines. If you get rejected, submit something else. Keep submitting as often as you. It seems reasonable that the quality of an issue depends on a decent selection of stories. If an editor is hoping to publish an issue with five stories and only receives six submissions, that doesn’t leave a lot of leeway.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Reading Aloud

It’s a good idea to read your stories aloud as part of the editing process. You might fly over too much when reading your words and miss something that needs to be addressed. As you read aloud, there are a few things to listen for.

Mouthful of marbles. Watch out for tongue twisters of any type. Also, be cautious of alliteration. “The droll drummer dripped dry.” Dreadful! In fantasy especially, writers often create unique names, but in doing so, make sure the names aren’t impossible to pronounce. I once had a character named Captain Trasifmer. When family members saw the name, no one could pronounce it correctly without slowing their speech dramatically.

Runaway trains. Don’t cram three hundred words into one sentence. If you find yourself unable to take a breath, this indicates a problem. My runaway trains have a tendency to appear in dialogue. Ping-pong comments between characters go shooting past. Suddenly I’ve read two pages without understanding much because I didn’t have a chance to ponder anything. I’m not saying that pacing can’t quicken, but it should be controlled so that a reader doesn’t feel like he or she is hurtling through your story.

Arrhythmia. Stories are not poems, but I’ve noticed that many of my favorite stories have an even rhythm to them. Sometimes this rhythm changes speed, but the pattern itself doesn’t change. I think sentence lengths offer some clues about a story’s rhythm; when short and long sentences are jumbled around arbitrarily, it feels like a car with a jumpy engine.

You might even ask someone else to read your story aloud or record yourself reading it. How does it sound?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

My Son is Born!

My son, William Wallace, was born on the morning of Friday, October 23, very nearly in the car. My wife woke me up at about 5:30AM and told me that she was contracting, but she didn’t think she was in labor. Regardless, I was informed by her that I would not be going to work. After an hour or so, the contractions remained at about four minutes apart, so I called the midwife, and we made plans to arrive at their birth center around 8:00AM.

Now, our former plan was to drop my daughter off with a neighbor, but she’d been sick lately, and we didn’t want to infect anyone else, so we decided to take her with us and let my wife’s mom pick her up from there. Right as we were heading out the door, my wife told me that she pushed a little with her last contraction.

I know you’re not supposed to race to the hospital or birthing center when your wife is in labor, but it’s an entirely different thing when your wife is actually pushing! She had a fast labor with our daughter, but I didn’t think things would progress this quickly. I got on the phone with the midwife once more, very panicked. They were on their way to meet us at the center, but we were driving through rush-hour traffic in the rain. “You need to drive erratic!” my wife shouted. “I have to drive erratic!” I told the midwife.

In the process of arriving, I ran two stoplights and greatly exceeded multiple the speed limits. Honestly, I was hoping for a cop to chase me so that I could get an escort. Unfortunately, my speed was hardly noticeable among other commuters, so I didn’t draw any attention.

When we arrived at the center, we were the only car there. I ran to the door, hoping that someone might have parked in front, but the lights were out, and no one answered. Suddenly, two cars veered into the parking lot, and a couple of women got out of their cars and ran. By the time my wife was inside, it was maybe ten minutes later before William was born. Talk about a close call! The wonderful part of it was that Elora got to witness her brother being born, to which she remarked, “Baby!”

William’s first name is one that my wife and I both like, and it’s a family name (on both sides). When we were thinking up middle names, either my wife or me (I don’t recall who) suggested Wallace, and it seemed like a great match.
Mom and baby (and big sister) are all doing well. We’re home, and at the moment, everyone is asleep except me. And I’m gushing with joy.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Heroic Fantasy Quarterly - Issue 2

“The Hand of Afaz” by Euan Harvey – Farid apprehends Hasan, who is accused of patricide. Hasan tells Farid that he is innocent, but Farid doesn’t want to believe his testimony, even though he can tell that Farid isn’t lying. Farid decides to investigate the matter further, trying to understand how to best serve Afaz and his superior without bringing shame to their House.

I liked the protagonist’s inner struggle through the story, and how he changes over time. Well written and engaging. I’d like to read more stories about Farid.

“Monster in the Mountains” by William Gerke – A man with a monstrous appearance named Gowther seeks shelter from a winter storm with a farmer and his family. Repulsed by his visage, they order Gowther to stay in the attached barn. During the night, the farmer tries to kill Gowther, and though Gowther is peerless in strength, he struggles against the farmer. After the fight, he learns that something on the mountain possesses the farmer, so Gowther departs from the house to seek the source of evil.

This was my favorite story in this issue. The details were vivid; I felt like I was there. Nice tension towards the end of the story to build up to the climax.

“The Waking of Angantyr” by Marie Brennan – Haunted and pestered by spirits of murdered men, Hervor seeks to silence their voices by traveling to their gravesite. Through the use of dark arts, she’s able to communicate openly with them at last to find out how she might finally be rid of them. The answer from the men’s leader, Angantyr, confronts her with a difficult reality and a path towards doom.

This tale is a retelling of an Old Norse poem (from the Poetic Edda). I might have liked it more if it had continued; at the point that the story ended, too little had been concluded. Likely this would have been difficult to do while staying somewhat true to the original poem, but I didn’t feel like there was enough plot churning with this one.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Fantasy & Science Fiction - October/November 2009

It took me a while to read through the gigantic sixtieth anniversary issue. Congratulations to all of the staff over the years for keeping the magic alive for so long.

“The Far Shore” by Elizabeth Hand – After his termination as a ballet instructor, Philip finds sympathy from his friend Emma. She suggests that Philip should spend some time at Camp Tuonela, a rustic camp that Emma and her husband own. Philip hadn’t returned to the camp since his youth, and he decides that perhaps the change in scenery might clear his mind of his recent dismissal. Though Philip is supposed to be the only one wintering at the camp, he soon discovers an aloof, adolescent boy of unknown origin.

This was a little predictable, but it moved at a good pace. I couldn’t really identify with the protagonist, so I never felt connected with the story.

“Bandits of the Trace” by Albert E. Cowdrey – Professor Keyes has been trying to find a hidden treasure, but his sleuthing skills are rather limited. When one of his students displays a knack for crossword puzzles, he decides to see if the student can decipher a decades-old clue to the treasure’s location.

This reminded me of “The Overseer” in the telling, with a story written within the story. “Bandits of the Trace” is not as engaging as “The Overseer,” but it’s still a good read.

“The Way They Wove the Spells in Sippulgar” by Robert Silverberg – The narrator tells of his investigation into the mysterious disappearance of his brother-in-law, Melifont. He journeys to the city of Sippulgar, a place filled with so many religions that he finds it difficult to traverse the streets without becoming blocked by ceremonious parades. His investigation takes him to the temple of a religion Melifont co-founded, but he’s unable to accept the eye-witness testimony of the religion’s new leader. To believe the leader’s story would mean that Melifont had some degree of authenticity, a point that the narrator finds implausible.

This was my favorite story of the issue. I guess I’m a sucker for a good sleuthing tale, but there’s just something about how a detective story unfolds that I find appealing. Yes, this is a fantasy tale, but it’s an investigation in fantasy, and I really enjoyed the narrator’s voice.

“Logicist” by Carol Emshwiller – When an instructor takes his students to watch a battle, he unexpectedly finds the enemy coming after them. During his retreat, the instructor wanders into an alien land, the land of the enemy, where he tries to use his logical skills in understanding his predicament and the people he meets.

I was a little jarred by the protagonist’s constant list-making, but it fits with his character. My main qualm was that I never felt grounded in the setting. I just felt lost. Maybe that was the intension, but it just made me apathetic about the characters.

“Blocked” by Geoff Ryman – A casino owner in Cambodia prepares for an imminent alien attack (according to the world governments) by selling his business and moving his family underground. Relocating causes the children to reminisce of a time when their father abandoned them and their mother moved them to Cambodia from Europe, and these negative emotions affect the former casino owner, giving him doubts about sealing them away in the confinement of the underground.

This tale had great tension. I could feel the protagonist’s dilemma in hiding in the cramped quarters of an electronic advertisement overload. Very intriguing.

“Halloween Town” by Lucius Shepard – Clyde Ormoloo tries to escape from the world after a head injury causes him to peer into the dark makeup of each person. He becomes a citizen (probationary for six months) of Halloween, a town that lines a river at the bottom of a deep gorge. The longer Clyde stays in town, the more oddities and dangers he observes, especially in those who run the town.

I haven’t read of such unique scenery for quite some time; it’s highly captivating. The overall tone of the story was that of morose depression shadowed in gloom, but it works. At times, I got tired of the protagonist’s nihilistic philosophy or dark view of humanity, but overall, I could tolerate him. I would have enjoyed this piece much more without the explicit scenes.

“Mermaid” by Robert Reed – A young man’s car breaks down outside Jake’s home, and though Jake has no interest in helping the young man, he does have an interest in the young man’s companion, a girl who seems underage. Jake learns what he can of his unexpected visitor, leveraging the help of a retired detective. He pursues his investigation relentlessly, but what is Jake’s true motivation?

This was a pleasant Reed piece, but not one that will likely stick with me for a long time.

“Never Enough Blood” by Joe Haldeman – Xenobiologist Travis Dobb wears many hats in his authoritative role on the planet Runaway. When he’s called in to the scene of a young woman’s apparent murder, he finds himself inadequate in the role of solving the crime, but that doesn’t stop him from trying.

A quick read, “Never Enough Blood” has a great science-fiction world and an unpredictable plot. I hope to see more of Haldeman’s work in future issues.

“I Waltzed with a Zombie” by Ron Goulart – Hix, a B-movie scriptwriter, meets with actress Marlys Regal after she asks him to do some detective work. She informs him that well-known actor named Alex Stoner died and was brought back to life in order to complete the shooting for a new film. Hix hopes to uncover this scandal in order to bring publicity to his idea for a new musical titled I Waltzed with a Zombie.

There’s a lot of humor in this story, especially around Hix’s character. I found it really amusing.

“The President’s Book Tour” by M. Rickert – In a small town, the survivors of war only give birth to children suffering from extreme physical disorders, likening them more as monsters than people. When the president stops in town to promote his book, they try to find the good in his speech, of the beauty he sees in their children. The president then decides to live in the community, though his motivations for doing so are not as benign as they appear.

I felt like Rickert was trying to make a political statement, perhaps about environmentalism (based on statements about “green” and destroying vegetation), but I couldn’t discern any clear statement. Perhaps this piece spoke against environmentalism, perhaps for it, or maybe it was about war or the deceit of politicians. Even when I wasn’t searching for a point to the tale, I couldn’t get a sense of what was happening – why these children were misshapen or why the president wanted to marry one of the children. I suppose the whole thing was just over my head.

“Shadows on the Wall of the Cave” by Kate Wilhelm – When Ashley and her cousins Nathan and Joey are children, they often play in a small cave near their grandparents’ home. One day, while the three of them are pretending to be in a pirate cave, Ashley finds herself enveloped in darkness. When she finally escapes, they can’t locate Joey. Ashley and Nathan have no explanation for Joey’s disappearance, other than what she experienced, and years later, Nathan is determined to reenter the cave to search for clues and prove his innocence. Though Ashley is terrified of what might await them, she agrees to return in hopes of understanding what happened to Joey.

This story took an unexpected turn, one that I found refreshing. I really felt pulled into the story and the struggles of the characters. It’s a great tale.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Adult Fantasy

I don’t like that the word “adult” has become synonymous with “explicit” or “vulgar,” as found in terms like “adult bookstore” or “adult language”. Though “adult fantasy” does not directly label a story as being explicit or obscene, this classification does indicate that such a story might contain explicit or obscene content.

Adult fantasy should simply categorize fantasy written primarily for adults. The vocabulary should be advanced, perhaps including archaic words. The subject matter may include political commentaries or focus on situations that occur in adult lives rather than in the lives of adolescents or children. There might be darker themes or really complicated characters, and the reader may need to do a bit more thinking and contemplating because the concepts might be difficult to grasp or challenge the reader’s imagination or worldview.

Some people might argue that in order to write a story for adults, the author must be allowed to use explicit content, but I don’t think we need all of the details accompanying such openness. For example, perhaps a story has a plotline involving rape. I would argue that readers don’t need to read the details of such a vile act to grasp the concept of the crime.

I do want to make one additional point very clear: I don’t have a problem if people want to write or read fantasy stories with explicit content. I just don’t want such stories to be labeled as “adult fantasy”.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Writing Short Stories

Short stories, by their very nature, are limited by length, but that does not mean they are equally limited by depth or purpose. In order to fully utilize the power of a short story, I have a few suggestions.

First, limit the number of characters in the story. The fewer the characters, the more you can drill into the core of each one. I’ve read one short story that worked well with numerous characters, but I think it was necessary for the type of story that it was. Unless you need a great many characters to make a specific point, I wouldn’t recommend doing so.

Now that you’ve cut the cast down to a paltry sum of players, keep the plot focused. Don’t include multiple subplots or unrelated flashbacks, no matter how cool those paragraphs felt when you wrote them. You risk confusing or agitating your reader. If you really like a certain off-topic narration, perhaps you could reuse it in its own short story.

Finally, don’t over-fixate on inconsequential things. For example, you may write two paragraphs that describe the details of a clock, but if the clock isn’t mentioned again, you’ve spent too much time on it (no pun intended). Now, perhaps you purposefully want to focus your readers on something of no real value in order to hide something of importance, but even so, I would caution against complicating the story. Along the lines of this precaution, try not to get too flowery with descriptions in general. I don’t know what the right balance is for “just enough” detail, and I’d rather err on the side of too much than not enough, so I think this comes down to personal style. Just be sure to be as concise as your style allows!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Rough Thoughts

After completing my latest rough draft, I had some additional thoughts, some of which may overlap with a previous post, but even if so, I feel they are important enough to rehash.

Don’t slow down. Keep the rough draft moving. I have a tendency to want to edit as I go, and that jeopardizes my train of thought. For example, I might write: “Her eyes were blue,” and think, “No, not blue. Better than blue. What’s another word for blue?” Then I rack my brain for words or open the thesaurus. Finally, I insert the word “cerulean,” but by now, I’ve forgotten everything else I imagined about the character or how I was going to unveil her appearance. Rather than trying to be overly poetic, I often revert back to my everyday vocabulary in order to keep things simple, even if the word “blue” appears twelve times in the same paragraph.

Another tip is to keep notes as you go. I’ll either have a separate document on my computer for this, or (as is more often the case) I’ll have a loose sheet of paper on my desk that I can scribble on. In my latest draft, I decided partway through a battle that I didn’t like the weapon one of the characters was using, but rather than going back through the previous paragraphs to figure out how and when to insert a different weapon, I simply made a note of the problem and continued writing as though the character had always carried it. So long as I read my notes (or at least pay attention while editing), I’ll correct this blooper later.

The important thing is to identify how you tend to slow yourself down during the rough draft and to find ways around those obstacles. Word choice (especially for character names) is probably my biggest downfall, but I know how to avoid it. What makes a rough draft rough for you?

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Aoife’s Kiss Giveaway

This Giveaway is now closed. Congratulations to the following winners: Nina Iordache, Desmond Warzel, and busweet. If you're a winner, and I have not contacted you directly, please send me an email (matt [at] matthewwuertz.com).

To celebrate my recent science-fiction publication, “fc01a9,” in Aoife’s Kiss magazine, I’m holding a special giveaway. Three winners will be selected at random from all entries.

The Prize: A copy of the September Issue of
Aoife’s Kiss.

What is fc01a9?

Before Dale can enjoy a weekend of reading manga in seclusion, Mark interrupts his plans with the news that they’ve lost contact with the rover on Phobos. The most recent download of its data contains a file that neither developer recognizes named “fc01a9”. When they’re unable to open the file within any standard applications, Dale decides to see what fc01a9 does by running it on a test rover in the building’s sub-basement. The mysterious program puts the machine into self-diagnostic mode, and as fc01a9 runs, it grows in size. When the diagnostics finish, the five-ton arachnid stands still. Or is it ominously waiting?

To read the entire story, it's currently available at the website for Aoife's Kiss.

If you use twitter, you can earn two entries:

For one entry: Follow MatthewWuertz on
For a second entry: Retweet the following message: “@MatthewWuertz is giving away a free copy of Aoife’s Kiss magazine: http://tinyurl.com/l3odse”

If you have your own blog site or web site, you can earn up to ten entries:

For two entries: Post a link on your site titled: “What is fc01a9?” that points to this URL: (http://tinyurl.com/l3odse). As proof, add a comment to this post that links to your post.
For ten entries: Write a review on your site (minimum of 50 words) about my story, “fc01a9,” that includes a link to the September Issue of
Aoife’s Kiss as well as a link to this contest (http://tinyurl.com/l3odse). As proof, add a comment to this post that links to your post.

Official Rules: This contest is open from now through October 4, 2009 (11:59:59 EST). There is a maximum of twelve entries per person, via the means described above. Each person may only win once. I am not responsible for merchandise lost or damaged in transit. The selected winners will be listed on an update to this post. Once the winners and I have come in contact, I will mail a copy of the magazine to each winner as soon as possible (yes, I’ll cover the postage – even for winners located outside of the United States).

Monday, August 24, 2009

Top Five Writing Improvement Articles

I’ve been writing this blog for nearly three years, and I thought it would be helpful to compile a list of my top five writing improvement articles for quick access.

1. Writing To Your Strengths Or Weaknesses – Should you write to your strengths or weaknesses? The answer varies depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.

Writing Tools – As writers, we need to consider which tools will help us the most with our craft and have them at the ready.

The Callous Editor – To edit our own works well, we must divorce emotions from the process and make hard choices.

Writing Exercises – When thoughts seem locked up tight, try some exercises to get the sludge moving again.

The Jab – We need good openings to our stories, and this article shares some advice and an example from my own writing.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #23

“Between Two Treasons” by Michael J. DeLuca – Periphas leaves his centaur master, Eurytus, to infiltrate a gathering of sorcerers who hope to gain enlightenment in defending their home nations against the centaurs. Though Periphas has lived with the centaurs for most of his life, the longer he remains with his own kind, the more he struggles between serving Eurytus and saving humanity.

This was one of the best stories I’ve read in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. The fantasy world is unique, and I found the interactions between Periphas and Eurytus intriguing. Nice pacing as well. At some point soon, I’m going to check out DeLuca’s “Of Thinking Being and Beast” that appeared in Issue #9.

“Oil Fire” by Kate MacLeod – Bearing the mark of an exile for theft, Puabi hides in the houses of the dead while continuing to read from the priests’ library, immersing herself in the ways of magic. When the father of her dearest friend, Enanatuma, dies, Puabi reveals herself for only the second time since her banishment ten years ago. Enanatuma asks for help in securing her household, but Puabi’s only solution is through the unpredictable magic she wields.

I liked the consequences of magic in this story. There are no simple solutions in life, and deceit and manipulation cause only further grief. Clever and thought-provoking.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Writing Dialogue

Dialogue is part of what makes a character stand out; it may even be one of the most telling things about a character. By no means is this an exhaustive list, but here are a few thoughts on the matter.

1. Listen to people talk. You don’t want all the characters to sound like you, so take into consideration how other people speak – the phrases and words they use, inflection and so forth. By becoming aware of the variety around you, you’ll have more ideas about how to give characters distinctive voices.

2. Be consistent with each character. Once you identify how a character speaks, don’t stray from it. This can be particularly difficult over a long stretch of time because you may forget what the character sounded like earlier in the story. If you’re not sure, review your previous dialogue for the character.

3. Allow your characters to break grammatical rules. Real speech is raw and broken. It isn’t polished.

4. Don’t try to capture dialects with sentences that are difficult to read. I hate reading stories with odd contractions that try to convey an accent: “He’da shun’t gawn ‘in dun s’well.” Fantastic! You’ve made me work so hard at picking apart your sentence that I’ve forgotten what I’m reading. Try subtler ways of reflecting an accent. Spell one or two words phonetically (e.g. “suh” for “sir”) or use words specific to a region (like luncheon).

Friday, August 07, 2009

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

I just came out of seeing “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”. I think a viewer’s opinion on the movie will depend heavily on how much he or she enjoyed the television show.

I’m probably in the target audience for this movie. The cartoon came out when I was around seven or eight years old. I collected the toys, quoted the taglines and wanted to be one of them. “Yo, Joe!” was one of the coolest phrases I’d ever heard.

The movie tried to capture all of that and bring it back relatively unchanged. This isn’t a movie that tries to make a realistic what-if scenario, like “Batman Begins”. This is about a cartoon in live-action form. You don’t ask questions about how a terrorist organization builds an enormous military base beneath the polar ice cap. You don’t think twice about how people walk away from spectacular car crashes or how futuristic/implausible many of the weapons and machinery are (after all, a caption indicated that this was the near future).

One thing I didn’t really like were the camera shots during fight sequences. It seemed like the cameraman was taking a few punches, too. I hope this doesn’t become the new trend of action movies: to violently shake the camera while carnage ensues.

Ah, but this is G.I. Joe, after all. We must have fights, we must have explosions, and we must have over-the-top plotlines that leave gaps. Someone has to give the obligatory, “Knowing is half the battle” (which I felt Dennis Quaid did with utmost dignity). And of course they have a colossal underwater base! They’re Cobra! (Incidentally, does anyone else understand why Cobra Commander became evil? I didn’t quite understand his motivation. Crud, there I go thinking again!)

It’s best to let go of logic and pretend you’re eight again; otherwise, I think you’ll be disappointed. The eight-year-old in me thought it was great, recalled many of the toys I collected (and still keep in the basement) and thought the characters were really cool. Balance that with my current age (32), and I think it’s a good movie so long as I don’t analyze it (or think about how many scenes were stolen from other movies – did anyone else feel like they were watching the Millennium Falcon escaping from the second Death Star?).

I’m sure I’ll have a few laughs with others about some of the logistics, but I had fun watching it. I’d recommend it for any Joe fans out there. Just don’t think like an adult.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Doctor Who

My wife and I rented the first season of the relatively new "Doctor Who" series. Yes, I realize it has been out for several years, but I’m just now getting on board with it.

"Doctor Who" has actually been around for quite a long time (dating back to 1963), but it is the iteration that began in 2005 that I’m watching. The series is about a time traveler known as “The Doctor,” who is accompanied by various companions as he explores space and time. There’s a good mix of humor and adventure, and though many of the episodes from the first season (I mean the 2005 season) are stand-alone, they fit together into one continuous plotline.

I was sad to discover that the ninth doctor (that is, the ninth actor to play the doctor since the show’s creation), Christopher Eccleston, only appears in the first season. Eccleston portrays a whimsical, winsome doctor with a hilarious smile (“that goofy grin” as my wife calls it), and it’s going to be a little odd for me to get used to a new face in the role. People who have followed the series since its inception would probably say, “Get used to it.”

The show has pretty good special effects, yet it retains some of the BBC cheesiness that I crave at times. The stories are well told, with great character interactions. If you’re a sci-fi fan, I highly encourage you to check this out if you haven’t already. Oh, and the theme song will stick in your head like glue, but you won’t mind.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Fantasy & Science Fiction - August/September 2009

“The Art of the Dragon” by Sean McMullen – A two-mile long dragon appears from nowhere and begins destroying all architectural works of art across the world. With the credentials of an art historian and survivor of the attack on the Eiffel Tower, Scott Carr is selected for an elite group in Britain who try to understand the dragon’s origin and purpose.

The opening was strong and compelling, but I found the concept behind the dragon disappointing and implausible, even for a speculative story.

“You Are Such a One” by Nancy Springer – The middle-aged protagonist is driving to a funeral for one of her distant relatives. Plagued by a recurring dream of wandering through a strange house, she is startled to discover the house of her dreams along her route. When she inquires of the caretaker, she discovers something even more peculiar than her dreams.

The second-person narrative is refreshing, and I think it works well for this story. I was hoping for more closure, but perhaps I simply failed to grasp the ending.

“A Token of a Better Age” by Melinda M. Snodgrass – An imprisoned centurion awaits his chance to fight for freedom in the morning. He meets a patrician sentenced to death who asks the centurion to listen to his fantastic tale and report it to his mother.

I enjoyed this story until it became so outlandish that it turned sour. The historical settings and characters were well written, but once the plot became laughable, I lost a lot of interest in this piece. I think the enjoyment of this story will depend upon the reader’s personal theological views.

“Hunchster” by Matthew Hughes – Out of the small group of poker players in Lee’s garage, a young man nicknamed “the hunchster” has an odd way of playing, relying upon hunches rather than trying to read the other players.

Simple, surprising and humorous. Hughes presents an interesting tale that’s a quick read.

“The Bones of Giants” by Yoon Ha Lee – After years of existing in the rim of the Pit with the undead as his caretakers, Tamim despairs of life and nearly commits suicide. He postpones his plan when a young necromancer asks him to accompany her as she attempts to overthrow the sorcerer who rules the rim. Should they complete her quest, she promises him the death he desires.

An appropriate amount of creepiness and dread sets the tone, and I really enjoyed how Tamim and Sakera (the young necromancer) interact. I think this has been my favorite story by Lee that I’ve read so far.

Icarus Saved from the Skies “Icare suavé des cieux” by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud (Translated by Edward Gauvin) – A man discovers to his horror that he begins to grow wings on his back, and he takes whatever measures necessary to hide them from everyone. His love interest, whom he eventually marries, sees his curse as an impressive gift and hopes to see them grow so large that one day he’ll be able to fly into the air in plain view of everyone.

I kept thinking of the scenes around Angel in X-Men: The Last Stand as I read this. I empathized with the protagonist, which is a sign of good writing when I consider how fantastic his condition is.

“The Others” by Lawrence C. Connolly – Clone iterations of a woman named Cara explore a new world, one clone at a time. The third clone, Gamma (who thinks of herself as Cara), was injured while defending a village of intelligent natives from a deadly fang-claw. Alpha, who orbits the planet, creates more clones to assist Cara in destroying a nest of thousands of fang-claws in order to save the villagers and prevent the fang-claws from overtaking the entire island.

This was my favorite story of the issue. I’d read Connolly’s prequel to this, “Daughters of Prime,” and this is a great continuation of that story. It isn’t necessary to read the other story before reading this, but if you have the chance, I highly recommend it as well. I like the action and tension throughout the tale, and I’m hoping Connolly might keep this series going.

“Three Leaves of Aloe” by Rand B. Lee – Amrit’s daughter has caused too many problems in her school and is facing permanent expulsion unless she’s implanted with a nannychip as a safeguard against disobedience. Amrit faces a great deal of opposition from her daughter at the thought of being chipped, and Amrit isn’t certain about how she feels about the idea until she has an insightful and disturbing conversation with her uncle’s young wife.

The setting and culture of India seemed unique to me, and I think the freshness of the scenery kept the story moving more than the actual plot. Don’t get me wrong. I liked the story; I just don’t think I would have liked it much if the author had tried a similar plot set in America.

“The Private Eye” by Albert E. Cowdrey – JJ Link has psychic abilities, talents he uses at the local casino until he’s banned due to his winning streaks. When a local girl is kidnapped and held for ransom, the local police and FBI run out of leads and turn to JJ for help. The young man learns how far his powers can go towards solving mysteries, but JJ’s interest is to simply retreat and live a life of solitude.

I don’t know how Cowdrey consistently writes so well. Honestly, I’m dumbfounded. If he hasn’t run a writing clinic yet, he needs to. And if such a clinic takes place, I need to find a way to attend. Yes, this is another good story. Read it.

“Snowfall” by Jessie Thompson – Harlan Ellison’s pick for the 60th anniversary of Fantasy & Science Fiction is “Snowfall,” and I can see why he picked it. This was a really moving, artful piece, and I won’t even attempt to summarize it. I highly recommend reading this if you can.

“Esoteric City” by Bruce Sterling – Achille Occhietti’s lifetime of successes are a result of his prowess as a dark magician, particularly in the art of necromancy. A long-term associate named Djoser, an ancient Egyptian priest he raised from the dead, comes to escort Achille to hell in order to meet with Achille’s former boss and master. Achille’s master warns him of a dreadful encounter he must soon face.

The humor around Djoser carried this piece for me. I wasn’t that interested in the main plot of the story, but I’d like to read other stories featuring Achille and Djoser.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Author Bio

An author bio (short for biography) is something every writer will need, regardless of whether he or she has been published or not. I suggest using two types: one used with query letters and another used in public areas, such as what would appear with a published story.

For query letters, your bio, in most cases, should only list your previous publications (if you have any) unless an editor specifically requests more information in their submission details. If you haven’t had any stories accepted for publication yet, I would avoid pointing that out; the editor will assume that, so there’s no reason to throw an enormous flag up to identify yourself as a complete amateur; you still want the query to appear professional. If you actually sold a story, be sure to use that keyword “sold” in your details. I highly doubt that all editors have heard of all paying magazines, so rather than leaving them to guess, note it as a sale. If you’ve attended a credible writers’ workshop, you might mention that as well. Keep this area brief, though, and try to emphasize your biggest accomplishments up front. Here are some examples: “I sold a short story that was published in Matt’s Cool Magazine.” “I sold three short stories that were published in Matt’s Cool Magazine, Matt Weekly and The MW Insider.” “I attended Matt’s Workshop last year. I sold one of the stories I wrote at the workshop to Matt Weekly, and it’s scheduled for publication later this year.”

When you need a bio to accompany a published piece, or if you’re creating a short bio for a website or blog, write about yourself in the third person. Yes, it feels quite strange to do this at first, but keep in mind that it should look like someone else is writing about you. (It’s not a writer’s autobio, after all.) One other note: whereas I think it’s important to emphasize the word “sold” for query letters, it looks pretty tacky as part of the public bio. For the public, mention your publications (or at least the ones you want people to be aware of) along with some personal information. You might include information about where you live, if you’re married, how many children you have, the kinds of pets you own, etc. I always like a bio that is a bit quirky, too, like the author is testing whether or not you’re actually reading it. Here’s an example for an author named Bob Author: “Bob Author lives in Seattle, Washington, driving everything from forklifts to steamships. His stories have appeared in Matt Weekly and The MW Insider. To find out more about Bob, check out his website: www.bobauthor.net.”

Do you have a bio yet? If not, what are you waiting for?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Elora's New Room

With the new baby coming later this year, my wife and I decided to move Elora into a new room. The theme: butterflies.

We managed to complete most of the work this past Saturday with a lot of help from Bess’ parents. Now my daughter has an actual bed to sleep on rather than a crib, although it’s still a very small bed. Since nothing seems to dim Elora’s mood except for teething, she was naturally excited about the change. If she could elaborate clearly about it, I think she would say, “Nursery, shmursery; this new room rocks!”

Still, it was a bittersweet dad moment for me. I’m glad to see my daughter growing up, but it’s hard to realize she’s no longer a baby. It’s probably only a matter of time before the butterflies are replaced by the next age-appropriate theme, and one day that room will be empty. Bess and I were married for years before we had kids, and even though I’ve only been a dad for around eighteen months, it’s like it’s all I’ve known. I hope the butterflies stay around for a long time.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #20

It’s hard to believe that Beneath Ceaseless Skies has been around for twenty issues already. It’s impressive to see a new magazine that can maintain great, consistent content for so long. I wish them the best for the next twenty issues.

“The Land of Empty Shells” by Caroline M. Yoachim – Terra and Dziko form children from their own clay bodies, following the traditions of their people. Their daughter, Urvara, is chosen for service in the temple, which greatly upsets their son, Joren, who felt that he should be the one selected from their family. The events that follow break Urvara’s faith in the priestess and disturb the natural course of life for her family.

It took me some time to adjust to the people in this story due to their cultural and physical differences, but I’m glad I stayed the course. The combination of lore and a detailed account made the story intriguing and engaging.

“The Bone House” by James Lecky – Mikulas and his father live in isolation as fugitives from a long-lasting war. His father was a great mage, but the cost of exercising his talents left him poisoned, which eventually killed Mikulas’ mother, and it deformed Mikulas into a being of flesh and stone. Each day, Mikulas pulls some of the dead from the river, stripping these casualties of war of their valuables and carving their bones into various items. He rescues a young woman floating among the dead because she reminds him of his mother, but he soon discovers that the two aren’t that similar at all.

This story was original and drew me in very quickly. All of the characters seemed very distinct, and I loved the ending. This is the second tale by Lecky I’ve come across this month (the other was published in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly), and both were impressive. I’m not sure where his stories might be found next, but I think he’s an author to look for.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Personal Rejection Letters

When I first began submitting stories more than ten years ago, I was quickly introduced to the type of form letter used by most magazines and agents who weren’t interested in my works. Form letters in general were nothing new to me, but I was foolish enough to believe that such things weren’t used in the publishing industry.

Within a year, I became bitter at the form letters. Why was this piece rejected? What didn’t the editors like? A series of such questions went through my mind, and the question I most wanted answered was: what, if anything, can I change in this story so that it is accepted by another publisher? Without any feedback, I felt lost and completely uncertain of my writing skills (or lack thereof).

When I finally began to receive personal rejection letters on occasion, I felt like my questions were answered. I would change what I could with the feedback provided in hopes of making the story better. Unfortunately, I didn’t understand that each editor has his or her own viewpoint. They aren’t all hanging out in the same club waiting for a new revision to satisfy a common desire in storytelling.

I’m now at a point that I prefer form rejection letters. I’ve realized that magazines need to stay focused on their core business, which is publishing stories. Commenting on rejected stories doesn’t make any money. As writers, we need magazines to stay in business and keep up with their deadlines, and I would rather receive a form rejection that came from an editor reading two paragraphs of my story if it meant that the magazine remains profitable and on schedule. Even if I look at it with a purely selfish motivation, what good would it do to have a story accepted at a magazine that has to close because it can’t meet its own business needs?

As writers, if we want feedback on our stories, we need to seek other writers, critique groups or seminars. It isn’t the responsibility of editors to make us better writers. They need to focus on the works they have accepted and on the other priorities necessary in meeting deadlines and growing subscriptions.

Form letters are a good thing. All we need to know is that a story was not accepted. Put a fresh manuscript in an envelope and send it to the next place. Trust me, the time I spent in years past grumbling and complaining was wasted. It’s fun to get a personal note at times, but don’t use it to guide your entire writing career.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Heroic Fantasy Quarterly

A new online fantasy magazine has made a strong appearance, deubuting earlier this month. Heroic Fantasy Quarterly publishes short works (poetry and stories) of heroic fantasy and strives "to hearken an older age of storytelling - an age when a story well told enthralled audiences." The premier issue was an impressive one, and I highly recommed checking them out. I will bestow the small honor of adding their link to this blog site.

"The Black Flowers of Sevan" by James Lecky - Tulun serves the Melik in Sevan as a mercenary, captaining soldiers in various skirmishes as he attempts to bring peace to the Ten Kingdoms. When Tulun hustles one of his soldiers, Abbas Bedvian, out of a considerable amount of gold, Abbas asks for a final wager as a double-or-nothing. The stakes are that Tulun must bring Abbas black poppy from around the neck of Lady Shimshal, who is the Melik's woman. It is a risky proposal, and as Tulun considers the beautiful and secretive lady, he finds himself more interested in her than in the wager itself.

This was an intriguing tale of passion. Though somewhat predictable, the characters and well-written prose carried the story along quite well. Everything came together nicely for the ending.

"Man of Moldania" by Richard Marsden - The last dragon slayer, Golorus von Zekwit, follows rumors into the east in hopes of finding employment. The aged man enters the small town of Moldania, boasting of his experience with slaying dragons and offering to solve their problem with a local dragon for a certain fee. Dimitru, the town's leader, has his doubts, but he's willing to let Golorus try so long as he can accompany him. When the two men find the dragon's lair, Golorus finds that his previous experience cannot compensate for the beast he encounters.

It isn't often that I come across original dragon slaying tales, but this is a good one. I liked the limitations an older dragon slayer and felt his surprise at the dragon he attempts to slay. Humorous at times with ample tension, Marsden shares a fun story.

"Beyond the Lizard Gate" by Alex Marshall - After watching his father slain at the hands of his older brother, Agenor, Prince Inarus has sought revenge for the past eleven years, draining all of the resources of his kingdom to the point of poverty. With the final battle won, his sister begs him not to pursue Agenor further, but the hatred Inarus feels for his brother overrides his reason. Unable to dissuade him, his sister joins the other forty soldiers who follow Inarus into a valley for a final confrontation with Agenor.

This was my favorite story of the issue. Great tension, flow and angst. Highly entertaining.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Beneath Ceaseless Skies – Issue #19

“The Mansion of Bones” by Richard Parks – Lord Yamada and the fleshly priest Kenji explore the ruins of the Fujiwara compound. In addition to being guarded by murderous ghosts, a demon lurks within the area, keeping close watch on the treasure Yamada seeks for his client.

I’ve read other stories by Parks that feature Yamada and Kenji, and this one fits right in with the others. Parks has a way of building tension by leaving the reader in the dark with each mystery presented, and then he carefully reveals their secrets, leaving you with an admiration of Yamada’s cleverness. If Sherlock Holmes lived in historic Japan replete with demons, ghosts and the unexplained, his name would be Lord Yamada. Great fun!

“Havoc” by A. C. Smart and Quinn Braver – Marcoen the bard travels to find the best stories that he can translate into song, experiencing things first-hand as much as possible. His latest adventure is to accompany a legendary Roen scout named Havoc. Havoc is a young man with about a dozen followers who pesters the Cumberan enemies through assorted pranks and tricks.

This tale has well-written prose (by that I mean that it has a poetic quality about it), but I had difficulty in keeping track of the characters and plot. It took me a long time to get a sense of who Havoc was allied with and what he was doing. I never felt secure with where I was at in the story, and the uneasiness kept me detached from the characters.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Insert Title Here

The title is an important part of a story. It’s the first thing a reader will see and creates a point of reference for your tale. I don’t think there’s an exact science to creating the title, but I do have some thoughts on the matter.

The most obvious title is one that describes what the story is about. “Matt’s Workday” would hopefully involve a character named Matt in a work setting (assuming we’re using this method). Similar methods include titling the story after a character or setting.

Some titles that seem cool to me are ones that are part of a sentence from the story. Think “The Catcher In The Rye.” Okay, technically that might be a reference to the protagonist, but when I read it years ago, I thought it was interesting how the title suddenly made sense towards the end of the novel. The only caution I’d throw out is to not choose something completely unrelated to the story as a whole. Just because you came up with an impressive metaphor on page seven doesn’t mean you should flash it at the top of the story in bold print.

Another approach is to reference another literary work. One of the fun things you can do with this is to reference something in hopes of connecting with others who also read the work. It’s like you’ve put a secret message into your story that only like-minded people will understand! Unfortunately, you may quote or paraphrase such an archaic passage in the referenced work that no one catches your allusion. Then again, perhaps you enjoy creating titles that are an esoteric enigma in order to flaunt your sublime cleverness to yourself.

Regardless of the method used for creating your title, it should at least be interesting and somewhat unique (if possible). The goal is to create one that sticks with the reader without annoying the reader. I don’t read the title of most stories and think, “My, what a wonderful title,” but if I come across a bad one, I cringe.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Think It Through

When I have an undeveloped story idea, it doesn’t always work its way out on the page. My current strategy for storytelling is to think the story through before I begin writing it. Not that I will have the entire story in my mind, but I like to have a solid idea about the characters, setting and plot.

It is tempting to take a fuzzy idea and run with it, but I have a plethora of unfinished tales that seemed like good ideas at the time. For me, a story idea is like a dust ball rattling around in my head. So long as I don’t put the idea on paper, the dust continues to collect, accumulating into something tangible and exciting that eventually demands to become a story.

To develop the fuzzy idea, I like to ask myself certain questions. Who are the characters in this story? What is each one like? What is the main plot or struggle in the story? How will the plot be resolved? Is this interesting enough to be a story?

It doesn’t bother me too much if I get stuck on certain points. Sometimes it takes days or weeks to work through an idea, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The important thing is to not get frustrated. Think time is writing time; it just doesn’t seem like it because there’s no typing.

Keep writing, but take time to think!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Fantasy & Science Fiction June/July 2009

The June/July issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction was another good one. Great job, staff and authors!

“Firehorn” by Robert Reed – Gabe and his friend Morgan create a myth about an elusive creature called the Firehorn to fool kids in their club. As the years pass, the myth grows into a legend of such proportions that even beings of artificial intelligence believe in it.

I thought this story had an interesting take on future artificial intelligence, that they cling to superstitions or various faiths, becoming odd imitations of humanity. It’s a satisfying tale, in typical Reed fashion.

“The Motorman’s Coat” by John Kessel – A struggling antiques dealer in the future encounters a woman with a rare item for sale, a motorman’s coat used by a transportation company in 1911. Such an item intrigues the dealer, as it might draw in more customers, but can he afford the risk?

A bit humorous and a little quirky, Kessel’s story unfolds rather nicely. I think I was drawn to the protagonist out of pity.

“Retrograde Summer” by John Varley – Timothy lives with his mother on Mercury and awaits the arrival of his older clone-sister, Jubilant, who is arriving from the Moon. Timothy wants to find out the details of the relationship between his mother and sister, but these are secrets that his mother refuses to reveal. His only hope of discovering the truth is to befriend Julilant, and based on her attitude about him and his home planet, it seems a nearly impossible task.

This was the first classic reprint of the issue. The protagonist’s voice is perfect in this tale, really drawing you in. The science-fiction elements seem fairly realistic and plausible. I do have qualms with the gender-swapping themes and the negative ideas about a traditional family, but I could still find entertainment in the story itself.

“Corona Centurion FAQ” by Terry Bisson – This story is literally an FAQ about the Corona Centurion rotary heart that is designed to endure for a hundred years and all of the strange nuances that accompany the artificial organ.

This was a quick spot of levity in the issue. Quite enjoyable.

“Paradiso Lost” by Albert E. Cowdrey – The Councils of State determine to pull back the outer space colonies as a way of strengthening their defense against their enemies from the First Alien War. Robert Kohn’s military assignment aboard the Zhukov is to help evacuate a distant world populated by a colony of religious zealots. After the lieutenant’s commanding officer is murdered, however, Kohn has the additional duty of solving the crime.

The narrative is superb in this novella. I felt included with all of the terminology (military and technological). I enjoyed the mix of humor and tension. Really well done, but given who the author is, I didn’t expect anything less.

“Adaptogenia” by Wayne Wightman – Insects begin adapting in an unprecedented way: they combine to form illusions of reality, such as people or cars. As a writer for Conspiracy Theorists’ Weekly, Eliot investigates the incidents cautiously, but he soon realizes that the motivations for such adaptations are horrific.

I’m not a fan of insects in general, so reading something like this makes my skin crawl. There was an appropriate amount of creepiness to the story’s telling. I’m not sure if it classifies as horror or not, but I think readers who like ominous tales will enjoy this.

“Sooner or Later or Never Never” by Gary Jennings – Missionary Crispin Mobey sets out for Australia to win the souls of the Anula tribe. Though great of heart, the missionary is devoid of reason, such as his idea for taking two trucks full of glass beads with him as a way of gaining their trust and impressing them.

The second classic reprint of the issue is hilarious. I laughed aloud several times. This was a great choice for a reprint.

“Economancer” by Carolyn Ives Gilman – Simon leaves England to interview for a job with Sinoa Bank in the distant land of Nanonesia. Though applying for a much lower-level position, he finds himself meeting the entire board of directors who seeks his help in taking down the United States’ economy through his powers in sorcery, powers he has no knowledge of.

I liked the letter-writing narrative presented in this story. The protagonist is humorous and engaging. I also enjoyed the unpredictability (no pun on the tale’s plot intended).

“The Spaceman” by Mike O’Driscoll – Twelve-year-old Freddie enjoys his younger friend Mouse for his imagination, as does Jenna, the most recent addition to their trio. When Mouse tells Freddie about finding a spaceman, Freddie finds himself wanting to leave the games of imagination behind in favor of winning Jenna as his girlfriend. When the three of them are confronted by the impossible, Freddie finds that he’s less accepting of the fantastical than his other friends, and it drives an uncomfortable wedge between them.

This was my favorite tale of the issue. I felt Freddie’s internal struggles, whether over reality or his newfound feelings for Jenna. All of the characters were quite strong and believable. I hope to see more of O’Driscoll’s stories in future issues.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Kentucky Ren Faire

This past weekend, my father-in-law, Ron, and I donned our knight outfits and went to the Highland Renaissance Festival. The Kentucky Faire is located just outside of Louisville in the small town of Eminence. They’re open from May 30th through July 19th on Saturday and Sunday from 10AM to 7PM, rain or shine.

I’ve attended four different faires in my short span of faire hopping, and this was the friendliest. The cast do a good job of including everyone, from human chess to singing songs or just conversing. Also, it’s family friendly. The more bawdy songs are kept for a 21 and up area, so parents shouldn’t have to be as guarded as they might be at other faires.

There was an abundance of shade provided by all of the surrounding trees (beautiful landscape – I’m a sucker for forests), and even the jousting field had awning over the fan sections. The temperature reached the mid eighties, but even with all of my armor, I was pretty comfortable.

Ron and I are really interested in going back again this year if we’re able to work it out in our schedules. If you’re within driving distance (or don’t mind long car rides) and enjoy faires, I highly recommend this one.


Thursday, June 04, 2009

Baby 2 – The Return of Sleep Deprivation

My wife and I are expecting our second child towards the end of October. Perhaps my son (yes, it’s a boy this time) will be born on Halloween so that we can continue to cover the holidays (Elora was born on Christmas Day). It’s still a bit surreal at the moment, though it helped to see him moving around yesterday and learn that he’s a boy, adding some definition to what was previously a very abstract concept. I’m not sure how much Elora understands what’s happening, and since it’s difficult for me to grasp, I’m sure it must be even more complex to her. I wonder how soon my new squire will be able to hold a sword…

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Jab

Short stories work very well if the opening jabs the reader. Often called “the hook,” this is when the first paragraph or two draws the reader further into the story (some argue that the jab should happen within the first sentence or two). Without such a device, your story may not see the light of publication or may be skipped over by readers even if it is published.

I used to think that jabs were unnecessary. Why must my story start out with a bang? I preferred to build the story slowly and eventually get into some more interesting plot later on. The problem with such thinking is that it isn’t what people want to read. This again goes back to my motto that if you’re writing for yourself, you should never be upset when you can’t get published because you’ve already reached your target audience.

I remember one of the first times I tried to come up with an effective jab in a story. I was thinking about the movie “Fight Club” and how it unfolds. For those who haven’t seen it, it begins with a climactic scene that doesn’t make a lot of sense. The narrator then decides to back up the story to an earlier point and begin again, and by that time, we’re already engaged in the movie. So keeping “Fight Club” in mind, I wrote the opening for what turned out to be my first sale. Here it is:

Before the final war with Uthov, I became one with the elves. It was the elves who gave me the name I now use. Beloved, they called me years later, further demonstrating their compassion rather than the more sinister attributes that were supposed to go along with elves (according to my mother).

But though I was beloved among the elves, this was not the life I wanted. It is what Onarre willed for me, I know now, but I had only one desire when I came to the elves. “Uthov has them now,” an elf told me, and the sound of that name has made my hands clench ever since. But the tale begins before this, so I must start anew.

(For those interested, the full story is still available here:

My tricks, if you will, are rather simple: I want to frame the story in general but leave readers with questions. My original opening started with the protagonist waking up and going about his business, but without a jab, there wasn’t much to keep readers interested.

Here’s a simple suggestion for those who wonder if their opening jabs readers: think in terms of Beethoven’s Fifth. Trust me, you’ve heard part of this symphony, even if you didn’t know what it was called (I found a clip of it on YouTube if you’re still not sure:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6K_IuBsRM4). It opens with four notes that can’t be ignored and leave the listener unsettled. Open your story in a similar manner: don’t leave things in a nice, neat package; force the reader to go on because it would be uncomfortable not to. Stories I stick with are stories that start out well. Stories I set aside are ones that haven’t made me care after the first few paragraphs (yes, I stick it out a little longer than some readers).

One word of caution, however: don’t overdo it. If you start by blowing readers out of the water, the rest of the story will be boring. Likewise, the entire story can’t be extremely heart-pounding from one sentence to the next, or it loses all flavor. If I shout at you for twenty minutes, my raised voice loses its significance. By contrast, if I speak in mixed tones for a while, you’ll especially notice when I shout.

Start jabbing.

This article is part of the Top Five Writing Improvement Articles:
1. Writing To Your Strengths Or Weaknesses – Should you write to your strengths or weaknesses? The answer varies depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.
2. Writing Tools – As writers, we need to consider which tools will help us the most with our craft and have them at the ready.
3. The Callous Editor – To edit our own works well, we must divorce emotions from the process and make hard choices.
4. Writing Exercises – When thoughts seem locked up tight, try some exercises to get the sludge moving again.
5. The Jab – We need good openings to our stories, and this article shares some advice and an example from my own writing.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Staffs & Starships #3

In the world of fantasy and science-fiction publications, there are numerous markets for short fiction, many of which seem to pass unnoticed by the general public. I would like to draw attention to one of the smaller markets that I came across about a year ago. A promising, quarterly magazine dedicated to “traditionally-inspired speculative fiction,” Staffs & Starships is one that I hope readers and writers take notice of.

Issue #3 is a mix of science-fiction and fantasy short stories, as expected. I liked the majority of the stories; the ones I didn’t care for might be more due to preferences than anything else, but I will elaborate further as I review each story in order of appearance. Certainly this magazine was well worth the cost of the issue (a paltry three dollars), so if you’re looking for some extra short fiction to read, try an issue of Staffs & Starships.

“In These Shoes” by Lindsey Duncan – The assassin Rosh returns to Tentril, a city she escaped from thirteen years ago. She struggles with her emotions when she confronts her former lover, Lord Sathren, and her hesitation to complete the job forces her into an undesired encounter with Sathren’s young sorceress.

This was one of the better stories in the issue. The narrative flowed well, and the plot fit together nicely without revealing anything early.

“Devolution of Life” by Tamara Wilhite – Mekah draws near to a world far beyond its home systems in order to establish life forms that its kind desires. Overcoming the obstacles of existing life forms proves to be a difficult task for Mekah and requires much more time than originally planned.

This story seemed to drag for quite a while and then blossomed into something I would either label as expected or clichéd. Mekah wasn’t enough of a character for me to react to in any way, so I grew apathetic towards its struggles.

“H +” by K. E. Spires – Unlike the other transhumans created from the genetic construct, Toymaker has a unique mind, one that allows it to reason and even disagree with the genetic construct. It desires to search for the reason of its uniqueness, but rather than travel alone, it injects a clone of itself into the construct in hopes that one day, the transhuman created from the clone will find its way to Toymaker so that they can begin the search together.

I was unable to grasp this science-fiction world. I could follow the plot, but there were so many strange concepts that I never felt rooted in what I was reading. It was like being unable to participate in a sport because the rules don’t make sense.

“The Kite” by James Bloomer – Over time, Fernando adds length to the string of his kite, allowing it fly to incredible heights. When his sister discovers him with it, he begs her not to reveal the secret to anyone, especially when a message descends to them along the kite’s string.

This was a compelling tale with an endearing protagonist. I enjoyed it.

“The Leftover” by James Hartley – An astronomer detects alien ships and seeks advice from Mentor Bartlo. Bartlo tries to delicately handle their first contact with aliens without upsetting the rest of the cluster, especially Priest Zezno, who reminds him that the very notion of aliens is blasphemous unless they have actual proof of their existence.

There is perhaps a bit too much foreshadowing at points and a hint of cliché, but the humor in the story more than makes up for those flaws. This was a fun read.

“Balesat’s Silence” by Betsy Dornbusch – Cursed or blessed by the god Balesat, depending upon whom is asked, Braedon carries the god’s fire within him and is able to unleash it upon anyone he chooses. Though titled the king’s Lord Virtue, Braedon only desires to stop the Armidian soldiers from inflicting sorrows upon their own country by their lawless deeds. The king desires peace as well and suggests that Braedon reconnect with Balesat, which only upsets Braedon further, for the god no longer speaks to him.

This was my favorite story of the issue. Well-written and engaging, with an interesting protagonist. I’d like to read more stories about Braedon.

“B is for Boy” by David Loel – Colum and his father live on the dirty world of Clarins where his father works in the shipyard, scrapping retired ships. As he approaches his sixteenth birthday, Colum tells his teacher and mentor that he’s ready to leave the planet, even if the best option is to enlist in the Space Corps for a ten year tour of duty.

I really liked this up until the end, where I couldn’t relate to what I was reading. It’s not that there was necessarily anything wrong with the ending; it just didn’t seem to mesh with the rest of the tale from my perspective.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Blood of Ambrose

I recently finished reading “Blood of Ambrose” by James Enge, a novel I had been anticipating for quite some time. Like many readers of Black Gate, I’m always eager for another tale featuring Morlock the Maker. Even though Morlock is not the protagonist of Enge’s novel, I think Morlock fans will be pleased with his role.

Young Lathmar, a descendent of Morlock’s sister, Ambrosia Viviana, becomes the rightful heir of the Ontilian Empire after his parents die under mysterious causes. Too young (and perhaps unwilling) to take the throne, Lathmar finds himself with few supporters as his uncle, Lord Protector Urdhven, brings more soldiers under his own banner.

When Lord Urdhven arrests Ambrosia, her only hope is that someone will defend her through a trial by combat. Her brother Morlock becomes her champion, and so begins his involvement in supporting Lathmar as they attempt to overturn the Lord Protector’s reign. Yet things are not as simple as they first appear, for there is a darker power at work that aids Urdhven, an unknown entity they refer to as the Protector’s Shadow.

I enjoyed the characters of this novel. Morlock is a given, but Enge adds to the dynamics with other strong stand-outs: Ambrosia (whose centuries-old love for her brother allows for very pointed conversations and references to Morlock’s past), Wyrth (the humorous and wise dwarf who is Morlock’s apprentice), and Lathmar (the inexperienced protagonist we get to grow up with). Morlock’s character emerged more than I’ve seen in short stories, especially his internal struggles, adding to the complexities of an already enigmatic character.

The plot moves pretty quickly, and just when it seems to resolve into a simple package, everything becomes turned on its head, causing you to rethink everything. Well written, highly addictive and edgy. I’m really looking forward to the next novel coming later this year.

Incidentally, if any of the Morlock novels become movies, I think I would go in one of two directions for casting the role of Morlock. I’d either choose Hugh Laurie (best known for his role as Dr. House) or Brent Spiner (best known for his role as Star Trek’s Data).

Thursday, April 30, 2009

L: Change the WorLd

Last night, my wife and I met one of my friends at the theatre to watch a recently released Japanese movie titled “L: Change the WorLd.” The movie is based around the character L from Death Note (a popular manga title and anime series). In the U.S., the film is playing on two nights, with subtitles in last night’s showing and an English dubbed version playing tonight. I’m not a purist when it comes to manga/anime; I prefer dubbed versions, but last night was our only chance to go, and I honestly didn’t mind having to read the dialogue (plus, parts of it were in English).

A world-famous detective and recluse who identifies himself with the initial L has seemingly wrapped up the Kira case, in which a villain named Kira uses an unworldly notebook (known as a Death Note) to write down the names of any person he wishes to die. In order to outwit his nemesis, L writes his own name in a Death Note, thus precluding anyone else from writing his name. The only problem is that any person whose name is in a Death Note must die within 23 days, so L describes his demise as dying peacefully from a heart attack in 23 days.

An environmental extremist group develops a virus designed to kill anyone infected who isn’t vaccinated, thus cleansing the earth from humans. The only problem for the group is that the man they tricked into creating the vaccine hides its secret with his daughter and then takes his own life. L ends up in custody of the twelve-year-old girl along with a boy who managed to survive in a town that was used for testing the virus. L must find someone who can create the vaccine and stop the extremist group from succeeding in their attempt to unleash the virus, all before his 23 days expire.

The movie had a good mix of action and humor. L’s quirky behavior steals many of the scenes, but that’s as it should be since it’s his movie. It's an interesting “What If” tale from the Death Note universe, one that I think fans of the manga/anime would find amusing.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Black Gate Issue #13

Happy is the fantasy reader who opens his or her mailbox to discover the latest issue of Black Gate. Sad is the fantasy reader who finishes reading that issue because the next will not arrive for another six months.

Overall, I liked this issue because it combined returning writers with new writers, pumping some fresh blood into the pages. I did notice a bit of a boat theme that was probably unintentional (words like “prow” and “gunwales” were found in multiple stories). Congratulations, John O’Neill and Howard Andrew Jones, for putting another great issue together.

“The Beautiful Corridor” by Jonathan L. Howard –A skillful thief named Kyth infiltrates a mausoleum-temple, seeking a safe route to Maten Shal’s throne room, but she has to outwit the architect who protected the building with numerous traps.

I liked how this story flowed up until the final scene. The tension dropped considerably, and it seemed to last too long.

“The Good Sheriff” by David Wsley Hill – Displaced from his own time by millions of years, Charles Duke seeks help from Rascale, a wizard with the power to send Duke back home. Rascale requires that Duke pay him in good, a tangible item in this alien world of gods, demons and humans. Duke accepts a position as sheriff in order to earn what Rascale covets, and he works the job with the demeanor he’d learned as a hired gun of the Wild West in 1879.

This was one of the most unique stories I’ve seen in Black Gate for a while. Duke is a great character, and it’s fun to read about a western lawman working among demons and other odd creatures.

“The Face in the Sea” by John C. Hocking – After rescuing the chieftain’s daughter, Brand and his comrades sail back to their home. Before they can celebrate their efforts, they find the girl’s captor in close pursuit, aided by his powerful shaman, whose face taunts them from the sea as he works against them.

This had the feel of a good Viking tale. Fantasy works well in a Norse setting, I think, and Hocking did a good job delivering it.

“Naktong Flow” by Myke Cole – Ch’oe and his men accompany the mysterious yangban in an effort to thwart the ever-encroaching Waegu by using a machine to turn the river against them. The yangban departs alone with the machine and asks the men to wait for his return, but when he fails to rejoin them, Ch’oe considers disobedience, especially as the Waegu begin to pick off his men one at a time.

I liked the tension in this story, and it certainly didn’t go where I thought it might. It seems like this should be part of a longer work. Not that it wasn’t a complete tale, but I wanted to know more about this world.

“The Murder at Doty Station” by Matthew Bey – Easy and Gonzo stop at Doty Station for supplies, and during their stay, a giant manikin kills the station’s ogre. Easy is arrested even though the evidence clearly shows her innocence, so she seeks to solve the crime after Gonzo frees her from jail.

This story is quirky and funny. The role of manikins seemed akin to the science-fiction of Asimov’s I, Robot. This felt like a very atypical story in Black Gate, but I enjoyed reading it.

“The Evil Eater” by Peadar Ó Guilín – Toby steals a gold leaf invitation to Ahriman’s, an extremely exclusive restaurant, to impress his girlfriend. When they arrive for dinner, they find the simple meal to be quite overrated until they taste it, discovering that the food unlocks blissful memories. Unfortunately, the bill is so steep that they must work in the restaurant to pay it off, and it is a perilous service.

Creepy, but in a good way, Guilín’s story adds a dash of horror to the issue. I became attached to the protagonist despite all of his lies and tricks just to get into the restaurant to begin with. Toby is simply a loveable character.

“Bones in the Desert, Stones in the Sea” by Amy Tibbetts – Aleem’s sister was alienated from the rest of her village after conceiving a half-breed child from one of the uttuk pillagers because she sought to carry it to full term. Aleem arrives after her death that occurred during childbirth, and he must deal with the tragic loss of his sister as well as figure out the most merciful way to kill her offspring.

I felt like this was the heart of the issue. A brother torn by the loss of a sister he’d had little contact with once they became adults, forced to confront his duties of honoring her wishes to have a child that she conceived out of rape. This was a really moving piece that seemed to go beyond just the story itself, one that I’d like to see up for an award.

“The Merchant of Loss” by Justin Stanchfield and Mikal Trimm – Galen brings a wagon of strange wares into the Bitter Hills, an assorted collection of “effluvia of daily life.” He encounters a secretive woman who seeks a trade between the breath of her name and a locked box from Galen’s wagon.

This was my favorite story of the issue. Haunting, captivating and engaging. The story grabbed me and pulled me through to the end.

“Return of the Quill” by John R. Fultz – In the city of Narr, one of the eight sorcerer kings, Grimsort, is lured from his necromantic arts by Artifice the Quill, an exile who seeks to perform a play in exchange for a rare skull. Grimsort agrees to the deal, but the play has a power that sorcery may not be able to contend with.

Another marvelous tale by Fultz, this is perhaps a bit stronger even than “Oblivion is the Sweetest Wine” from Issue #12. It was quite ambitious to give the full history of Narr in the form of a play, and after reading it, I thought, “I can’t believe he just pulled that off.”

“Spider Friend” by L. Blunt Jackson – As a boy, Ch’bib receives a blessing from a spider in gratitude for his kindness, and it extends through all spiders. Though his blessing grants him freedom from pestering flies and the ability to mend fishing nets in a remarkable way, he seeks to end the blessing in order to please the whims of his love interest, Ri’lili.

This was interesting and amusing. I gasped at the climactic ending.

“Silk and Glass” by Sharon E. Woods – Under the promise of freedom, Jas infiltrates Issen to bring a master glassmaker back to her masters in Saria, where his craft secrets will be forcefully drawn from his mind. As a Nonyx, Jas can transform from her dragon-like appearance into that of an attractive woman in order to tempt men. She targets a glassmaker named Yullo, but she’s unable to tempt him without falling in love with him. With her time short, she must decide whether to deceive him for freedom’s sake or to return to Saria alone.

I really enjoyed this one, with its twists and turns and uncertainties. Jas is a very striking protagonist with complex issues that draws readers in.

“The Naturalist, Part III: St. George and the Antriders” by Mark Sumner – After another narrow escape from the antriders, Mr. Brown helps evacuate all the settlers of Selvanos in hopes of sailing out from St. George before the antriders arrive. Unfortunately, the soldiers in control of St. George have other ideas.

As with the previous two parts, this story moves pretty quick. At times, it’s like an older horror movie, when you find yourself spurring the characters out of harm’s way by shouting, “Run! Go!” This was a fun series to read, and I’m glad that I was able to catch all three. For those who haven’t read all of these, I highly recommend collecting some back issues (see page 85 of the issue for details).

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Goal of Improvement

When I was much younger, I had dreams of becoming a best-selling novelist. Imagine, millions of people waiting to purchase my next book as soon as it comes out, flooding my inbox with questions and comments, and my only job would be writing. I know that there are best-selling authors in the world, and despite how few of them there are, I find a lot of beginning writers share a very similar dream.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with lofty aspirations, but I suggest a goal that all of us can work towards regardless of whether or not anything we write ever becomes published: to improve our writing. We should be able to look back on something we wrote a few years ago and recognize the fact that we’re writing better now than we were then. Why do swamps smell? Because the water is stagnate. Our writing can become fairly putrid as well if we stop moving forward.

By focusing on the craft itself, we find something achievable to set our sites on. No more disappointment (or at least not devastation) because the last story written didn’t make it into a professional market as we’d hoped. No more pity parties because we just turned X years old and still don’t have a novel published. Instead, we look to the improvements at hand and say, “Yes, this story is better than the ones I wrote a few years back, and I’m going to work on some weaknesses to make sure the next few I write are even better than this.”

Let’s work on getting better. No one can stop that dream but us.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Toddler Fun

At some point recently, my daughter became a toddler. She can run, open cabinet doors, unspool rolls of toilet paper and bring terror to our cats in her excitement to play with them.

Elora loves going outside now, and we run around sporadically in the backyard. I tried to teach her to play tag, but she doesn’t grasp that concept and remains “it” constantly. The grass is less scary for her than it was several months ago, but when she falls, she still likes for me to pick her up rather than pushing herself up off the ground.

One of Elora’s favorite outdoor items is her tricycle. She’s not big enough to make the pedals turn, but she doesn’t care. The tricycle has a detachable pole in the back that I can use for pushing and steering (though sometimes I have to compensate for Elora jerking the natural handlebars). Together, we go up and down the sidewalks, and she waves to everyone she sees like she’s a parade princess.

It’s hard to see my baby turning into a little girl, but we have so much fun together. It warms my heart when I come home to see her because she runs up to me and shouts, “Matt!” (Once she found out my name, “Dad” slid by the wayside, and I haven’t been able to change my identification back yet.) My toddler is a blast.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

April Fools

My mom lives for today. It’s a day when she can try to dupe unsuspecting family members into believing incredulous tales. She tries to base her deceptions on a grain of truth in order to increase plausibility. Her other tactic is to strike early in the morning before her targets become aware that the month of March has passed.

I remember one April first morning when I was in middle school. Mom came into my room to tell me that there wasn’t any point in getting ready for school. When I inquired about this, she informed me that the recent roof construction at the school (the nugget of truth) had gone awry. Debris had smashed into a boiler, causing a terrible explosion that wiped out half of the building. After gleefully telling me the date, she told me that she wanted to fool my dad the same way, so I stayed in bed feigning sleep. Dad had been up for a while, so his reaction was instant shock. Had Mom continued the lie for much longer, I think he would have had time to process the fact that she wouldn’t have access to such information without his knowledge (this was before the Internet had taken off). Instead, he was yet another victim. To fool my much younger sister, all she needed to say was, “Your school blew up last night.”

I think the only time I actually fooled anyone was the year I fooled Dad. That was Mom’s idea as well, though, so I can’t really take credit for it. In our upstairs bathroom, we’d had some trouble with the toilet overflowing periodically, but Dad thought it was fixed. I waited until he came inside from doing something else (activities tend to distract someone from the current date) and flushed the toilet for effect. Then I shouted, “Dad, the toilet’s overflowing!” The man bounded up the stairs, taking three steps with each stride. Mom and I were both up there laughing. Clearly, he didn’t care for the jest, but he let it go.

I haven’t been duped in a while, and I don’t try to dupe anyone else. Still, each year when the day hits, I become a bit wary of any information that comes my way because I’m never quite sure if someone’s trying to take me by surprise. And don’t bother trying to get me this year, Mom. I already know what day it is.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Fantasy & Science Fiction, April/May 2009

“The Spiral Briar” by Sean McMullen – Tordral, the master armorer, seeks help from those who have suffered from the actions of the elves. Tordral desires revenge against those in Faerie by combining elements, a necessity for anything, weapon or person, to cross worlds. The disparate group of men know only pieces of Tordral’s scheme, a secret kept to protect the project in case any single person becomes enchanted by the elves.

I liked the shifting point of view that drove each scene forward. I’m always a bit awestruck by the elves – their magic and enigmatic ways – but I also like to see their limitations and weaknesses. I think it’s the smug, prideful attitudes of the elves that gets under my skin, so stories like this that jab back at the elves make me grin.

“The Brave Little Toaster – A Bedtime Story for Small Appliances” by Thomas M. Disch – Five appliances, abandoned by their owner in a summer cottage, desire to leave the home they know to find their owner’s apartment in the city.

This reprint is a classic. It’s like a Disney cartoon (on paper). Though I’ve never read it before, it seemed familiar, like a story I might have heard as a child and forgot.

“The Avenger of Love” by Jack Skillingstead – Norman chases a thief who has stolen pieces of his memory – not the memories themselves, but the strong emotions connected to the memories. His pursuit takes him into a lawless world under the guidance of his childhood imaginary friend.

I felt a bit confused at times when I read this, but overall, the story made sense. I just wasn’t that into this one.

“A Wild and a Wicked Youth” by Ellen Kushner – Richard and his mother, Octavia, live outside the city, supported by the funding from Lord Trevelyan. The lord’s son, Crispin, is Richard’s best friend, though Crispin is not always an easy friend to have. When a drunken swordsman collapses near Richard’s home, Octavia compensates the man to train her son in the art of swordsmanship.

The narrative is something to be studied by writers, for the narrative and dialog come together impressively. The sexuality wasn’t explicit, thankfully, but I didn’t like where it went, particularly between Richard and Crispin.

“Andreanna” by S.L. Gilbow – Andreanna, an android tour guide, suffers injuries from a high fall, and technicians attempt to repair her.

The unique method of narrative was refreshing. All dialog or thought (as in the beginning), it tells quite a bit without focusing on anything distracting. Really interesting story.

“Stratosphere” by Henry Garfield – The narrator tells about his days playing professional baseball on the moon with the legendary Joe “Stratosphere” Stromboni who once hit a ball so hard that it went into orbit.

I grew up following baseball, so stories like this hit home with me (pun intended). In recent years, I’ve stopped watching ballgames in favor of other sports, so I could identify with a narrator who also seems a bit tired of the game yet still has nostalgia for days gone by. This was a nice surprise in this issue.

“Sea Wrack” by Edward Jesby – Gunnar, a man from the sea, visits humans on land while recovering from recent injuries. One of the humans, Greta, is drawn to Gunnar, if for no other reason than the fact that he is different.

This reprint wasn’t one that I cared much for. I wasn’t drawn to the characters in the story, and without that connection, I lost interest.

“The Price of Silence” by Deborah J. Ross – Devlin has recently joined Juno’s crew as their new medic. The ship’s assignment takes them to a planet named Winter that had been colonized ten years ago, yet neither the colony nor the orbiting space station respond to any hails.

I enjoyed the protagonist and narrative in this science-fiction story. Except for the sex scene (too explicit for my tastes at that), I really liked this one. It’s the type of space science-fiction I enjoy: intriguing, mysterious and moving at a good pace.

“One Bright Star to Guide Them” by John C. Wright – Thomas, middle-aged and displeased with life, discovers the fantasies of his youth and recalls the adventures he shared with three of his friends. A talking cat, Tybalt, calls upon Thomas to once more combat the forces of evil that now threaten to control England and the present-day world.

By far, this was my favorite story of the issue. Reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, I felt like Wright’s fantasy world was well-established and adventurous. As a Christian, I found so many symbolic meanings that at times I felt like I was reading something by Lewis. That isn’t to say that Wright himself is a Christian (I don’t really know), but if not, he seems to know much Biblical truth. There is so much darkness in this world, and many are blind, bound in promises of pleasure that only lead to misery and death. Wonderful tale. Well told!