Saturday, April 23, 2011

New novel from M-Brane alum S.C. Hayden


Writer S.C. Hayden, whose fascinating short story "End Day" was a highlight of M-Brane SF #3 two years ago, has had a string of publications since, and his new novel, American Idol, is just out from Black Bed Sheet Books. Hayden describes it as a dark social satire that takes some swipes at religion, consumerism, and politics.  

In a twisted yet somehow familiar version of America where militias, doomsday cults and self proclaimed Prophets are as commonplace as gas stations and fast food restaurants, The American Idol Company is born. Their goal: resurrect Idolatry as a prominent religion and get rich manufacturing and selling Idols. They publicly promote their fledgling company as if it were a legitimate religion and they themselves Prophets. The company becomes quickly and wildly successful but outrages millions across the country and around the world. Operating under the belief that scandal and controversy will increase sales, Augustus and Desmond manage to insult everyone from the Pope to the Ayatollah, and come dangerously close to starting World War 3. Meanwhile, a shadowy group of religious fundamentalists manipulate a naive young man named Robert General. Robert, a repressed homosexual and member of the Sweethaven Chapter of the Righteous American Nazis, is used as a pawn in a plot to  destroy The American Idol Company. The looming threat of disaster comes to fruition in the city of Galapagos, Texas, when Rob General, confused and drug-addled, flies a small ,explosive laden airplane into The American Idol Company headquarters.

I have only read the first four chapters of this book, and so I cannot provide an actual review of it. But Hayden is a good writer with an engaging style. Very often, satirical speculative fiction that trades heavily in contemporary situations does not appeal to me because it is often too contemporaneous, too self-consciously about current affairs and often quite blunt in an inartful way. But I am not finding this to be the case at all with Hayden's book a few chapters in. Readers who are into this kind of story ought to check it out. It's also available at Amazon.

By the way, I like to offer plugs for M-Brane writers when they have a new book out, but I have probably missed a lot of such opportunities. So if you are a writer whom I've published in M-Brane SF or in one of our anthologies, and would like a shout-out for your current work, do let me know at mbranesf at gmail dot com. I cannot promise reviews because reading time is so precious nowadays but I'll do my best to help get the word out.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

A little bit of well-earned recognition


I was delighted to see that M-Brane SF rated a couple of mentions in this Tangent Online list of reading recommendations for short fiction published in 2009. Cheers to Sue Lange ("Zara Gets Laid") and Edward W. Robertson ("Steve Kendrick's Disease"), both in issue #5, June 2009. A few months ago, we did get a quite favorable review of that overall issue from Tangent. I believe that's the only issue of our eleven last year that was seen by a Tangent reviewer, so it makes me wonder if we might have received a couple more nods if more stories had been reviewed. I should probably make a better effort to get these issues in front of more reviewers. In any case, getting these mentions for M-Brane and a couple of my writers gave me a nice feeling of legitimacy, a sense that I have, in fact, made some good decisions with the zine.  The second year, already about to see its third issue, is going to be even better. My decision to decrease somewhat the number of stories per month is actually making it easier rather than harder to put together some really solid monthly collections, and I think we will see a lot of M-Brane stories and writers showing up on a lot of lists in another year's time.

Sue Lange also appeared in M-Brane #9 with "The Kangaroo War" (there's a link in the right-hand column to get #9 for free), and Ed Robertson will appear soon in The Aether Age.


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Antonelli's FANTASTIC TEXAS released



Prolific speculative fiction writer Lou Antonelli, whose story "Good News for the Dead" appeared last year in M-Brane SF #3, has a new book out, titled Fantastic Texas, from Fantasic Books/Wilder Publications. It can be found by way of Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and some details about it are posted here as well. Lou's work has long been well-regarded by readers, and he has appeared in dozens of magazines and anthologies in recent years.

By the way, any M-Brane writers who have new stuff coming out are always welcome to let me know about it and I will try to put up a notice about it here. I used to make a better habit of keeping track by myself of new publications from writers who have appeared in my zine, but there are so many such writers and so many new publications anymore, that it's hard to keep up.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Updates on current affairs...


1. Please note that the GreenPunk website has launched. It's brand new and rather sparse still, but it already has a little bit of interesting content on it, and it is very, very open to much, much more. It's easy to interact with founder Matt Staggs via that site and also at Enter the Octopus. Also, I have admin access to the GreenPunk site as well, and am happy to review and pass along or post content if anyone wants to hit me up with anything from over here. It's a new Movement, so have fun throwing in on it at the the beginning if it appeals to you (see previous post on the this page, which links to Matt's original call to action).

2. Speaking of fresh new things, note also that the Outer Alliance, just a few days old, expands rapidly. Hit that little Alliance badge at the top of the right-hand column of this page and visit the main site. From there you can join the group if you wish. You can even get your own badge (it was designed by Mari Kurisato, naturally).

3. A few months ago, I announced with great confidence and self-satisfaction a Grand New Vision for M-Brane SF in which I vowed to take the zine into professional status and huge (by sf zine standards) circulation by a year from the date of that proclamation. As the months have passed, and as I have not gotten a whole lot closer to completing that vision yet, I wonder if I need to push back the deadline a bit. On the other hand, I have a strange and rather pleasant sense of movement in some direction, and I still think that the Vision could be realized. I can't discuss in detail right now some of the plans that I am kicking around, but I will say that I envision a number of new book projects following after Things We Are Not which should help solidify M-Brane as a growing presence in the world and shore up the zine itself.

4. Writers: You have a few more days to submit for Rick Novy's special issue (M-Brane #12). Deadline is 8/31. After that deadline passes, Rick will make his decisions and then I will resume normal reading for submissions (I will actually be backtracking a bit and acquiring a few more things for #1o and #11). Once those issues are all filled, there may be a reading hiatus for a little while, but I'll make sure I update guidelines promptly if that happens.

5. Shared World: Bear with me guys. I know I've been promising a re-boot of the Shared World discussion for a while now. It's coming. In the meantime, interested parties may want to review posts here and at Brandon Bell's page under the "Shared World" label at both sites.


Sunday, July 26, 2009

News and notes from M-BRANE 7


[The following is the complete text of my news/notes column from the upcoming M-Brane #7--the article by Carolyn Crow mentioned in the first item is NOT up yet on the blog, but will be within a day or two. I'll hyperlink some stuff in this blog post for convenience--I can't do that on paper, obviously, and it works so poorly in the PDF version of the zine that I have quit bothering to try. So this is meant to be a sort of online companion to this column in the regular versions of the zine.]

Some news and info:

Read Carolyn Crow’s article about Bruce Golden’s recent novel Evergreen. It’s on page 79, and is based on an interview that she did with Golden. I am also publishing it as a guest post on the M-Brane blog.

My ally in fighting the good fight for the future of short fiction magazines, Jason Sizemore of Apex Book Company (see the ad for some of their titles on page 5), has relaunched the excellent Apex magazine after a short hiatus. I am so happy that he is trying a pay-to-play concept for this new iteration. The Apex website now presents teaser portions of the fiction items which lead to prompts to purchase the issue in PDF form or in the new print version, via MagCloud’s print-on-demand service. To read my recent comments on the matter of monetizing short fiction, along with some reader comments on it, see the blog entry for July 24 [immediately below this one].

Open for submissions this month is the 8 Minutes contest, operated by D.D. Tannenbaum of the newly reconfigured Infinite Windows Press. You can find information via infinitewindowspress.com or 8minutes.info. I hope this contest is successful because it will result in a really cool anthology. Yours truly has made himself available as one of the early-round judges, and final judging will be done by the great Mike Resnick. In addition to cash prizes for the top stories, the twenty-five best entries will appear in the book. I know a lot of writers hate when they see a fee for a contest entry, but if you have a good story that fits the theme and can spring for the fee, please do so because all that money is going directly into paying out the prizes and defraying the publishing costs of the book.

Speaking of contests, our good friends at Brain Harvest are conducting their 2009 Mega Challenge contest (yeah, there’s a fee for this one, too, but also for a good and worthy purpose—like paying writers pro rates). They are challenging writers to use tired tropes and clich├ęs from a list compiled by Strange Horizons and to make them work, to “untrope the tropes.” Winners will be chosen by celebrity guest judge Jeff Vandermeer (whom you can see in a photo on the Brain Harvest site wearing one of their hand-knitted mustaches).

As of this writing, I am all but done with story selections for the queer anthology. I am not ready to announce the full table of contents yet, but you can expect to see it soon on the blog. I’ll mention now that you can look forward to new stories by a few M-Brane alumni such as Abby Rustad, Brandon Bell and Derek J. Goodman [links to all their personal sites are in the M-Brane Writers Links list on the right hand side of this page]. I’ve also scored a couple of excellent reprints, stories first seen in some rather prestigious places. The cover art, which I have not seen yet, but am eagerly awaiting, is being created as I write this by Mari Kurisato whose portraits have become well-known among the genre-oriented Twitterati, so many of whom have enlisted her to create their avatars. If you’re on Twitter, you may have noticed that writers Jay Lake and Shannon Page have fine new public images, both created by Mari. As for the publication date on the antho, that remains to be seen. Selecting the content is the first major step, but there are a lot of other things to tend to before announcing the date. The goal, however, is to have it out not later than sometime in October, because I want to be able to plug it as a finished thing at Gaylacticon 2009 in Minneapolis, which happens in October. I won’t be at the con myself, but I’ve found a couple of nice volunteers to do some promo for me.

The reading period for M-Brane #12, guest-edited by Rick Novy, remains open until August 31. While I don’t doubt that we’ll end up with a great issue, I am a little dismayed at how slow the rate of new story submissions has been. Somehow it has fallen from an almost unmanageable volume in June (prompting me to go to form rejections) to a trickle in July. It is true that June followed a reading hiatus in May, and for #12 we are setting a specific reading period for that particular issue, which may mean that some writers are newly writing and revising stuff specifically for it and will be sending it along closer to the end of the reading window. Maybe summer is a slow time anyway—I don’t know, this being the first summer of M-Brane.

Though there hasn’t been a lot of fresh content added to it during the last couple of weeks, we are still percolating the “Shared World,” a new collaboratively created alternate-historical milieu which will be the setting for a future M-Brane project, possibly issue #13 or possibly a stand-alone special publication. Writers who wish to throw in on the creation stage of the world may join anytime on the blog. Just call up any post with “shared world” in its title from the archive and use the shared world label at the end of the post to pull together all the relevant info. We’re pretty well set on the general alternate history premise, but a lot more needs to be figured out yet before it’s ready for use as a fictional world.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Novy MIRror #5 live; Novy to guest edit M-BRANE #12


A reminder to writers who may be interested in submitting stories to M-Brane: issue #12 will be guest-edited by Rick Novy, and all submissions received between July 15 and August 31 will be forwarded to him for consideration. See the original post about this for more info.

Also, the fifth installment of Rick's video podcast Novy MIRror, is live and accessible at his website. This one features a good interview with Analog editor Dr. Stanley Schmidt. 


New crit group


I have really fallen behind on almost every project in the last few days. I don't really understand why since I have had plenty of time. I keep starting something, setting it down, then starting something else, and so on. Anyway, over today and tomorrow, I will probably make some little posts here to try to get some M-BRANE-related business and other news and notes out in into the world.

Right now, I want to mention a new critique message board for writers that D.D. Tannenbaum has started. It's literally brand new, just set up yesterday, and I don't think it yet has many registered users, so maybe some more people will read this and join up. I have not myself participated in at all yet beyond registering, but evidently one can post stories on the message board and then other users can read them and offer critique. It should be fun and useful.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

BUNCH!


Writer Brandon Bell, who has appeared twice in M-Brane SF (in issues #1 and #5) and who contributed an article here on the blog last month appeared in Everyday Weirdness with a new flash-fic story called “Ward of the State.” I won’t bother to summarize it—just go read it. It only takes a few minutes. In this story, he pays a little bit of respectful homage to the tone and style of the late David R. Bunch, a remarkable writer (and one of my fellow St. Louisans) whom I hadn’t thought about much lately and who has been largely overlooked in recent years.

Bunch’s work is really odd, even singular, and I could see it being an either “love it” or “hate it” kind of thing for readers. In a syntactically dense style, he compresses a lot of emotion and a lot of bizarre events and unexpected ideas into pieces of fiction that, while usually quite brief, are not always the easiest things to read. The effort to take it in slowly usually pays off, however, and I found Bunch’s writing rather inspiring stylistically in my younger days. Unfortunately, I discovered David Bunch at a probably not good time in my development as a writer. He inspired me to try my hand at a lot of twisted, tortured, crazed prose that never made a lick of sense…and I mistakenly thought that I was working in a Bunchian mode. In particular, I remember at age 20 writing, in a single hot summer day, a calamitous ten-thousand-word catastrophe of a story called “The Glitter and the Obscenity of Babyl Pi.” So inventive and stylistically engaging did I find this piece of decroded crap that I actually entertained the idea that I was already writing at a pro level. For several months (boneheaded boy that I was), I submitted it to magazines. Though it was supposed to be sf, I didn’t even limit its submissions to genre mags: I thought so highly of it that I thought it best to submit it to “mainstream” journals because I considered it to be literary, Literary and LITERARY. But as it turned out, I had no idea what I was doing. I’m still not sure that I “get” David R. Bunch, but I have been reading once again the stories in his self-titled collection, and I am seeing a lot of stuff in them that I am certain that I missed years ago.

As a result of that recollection of my own failure at trying to write in that way, I have also been reminded that Bunch, in these stories, wasn’t just wreaking pretty havoc with conventional mainstream story-telling but that he was also telling a lot of quite easy-to-understand stories if one is willing to deal with the style in which he does it and open one's mind to its angle. In my youthful attempts to mimic his unconventional style, I forgot that I needed to actually say something, tell a story, clarify meaning rather than obfuscate it. Five years after the failure with “Babyl Pi,” I received my first acceptance for publication on a story. It was, oddly enough, the one and only “mainstream” story I have ever written, and it was told in a totally transparent fashion that resembled in no way those past excesses.

And then, gradually and at last, I make my way to the point of this post: Brandon’s new story in Everyday Weirdness is the kind of thing that I think that David Bunch, had he lived to read it, would have liked. It’s Bunch-weird but not a youthful excess…and it’s something shiny and new from a newish writer with a unique voice.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

RETRO READS: STAR BRIGHT...Review by Derek J. Goodman


[Derek J. Goodman reviews a somewhat obscure but evidently rather interesting novel. Watch for more "Retro Reads" columns in the future right here (I've labeled the two so far as "Retro Reads" so they may be called up together from the labels list), and also stand by for Derek's short story "Rental Property" forthcoming in M-Brane #6.--CF]

Today we’re going to take a look a writer who, even if you don’t recognize his name, you’re still probably familiar with his most famous creation.

Martin Caidin (1927-1997) wrote prolifically, but a large portion of his output was not science fiction but aeronautical fiction and history. He was even known to restore old aircraft in his spare time. His actual science fiction varied from the novel Marooned, which was turned into a 1969 movie starring Gregory Peck, to two Indiana Jones novels. His biggest claim to fame in sci-fi, however, is the 1972 novel Cyborg which introduced the character of Steve Austin, better known to fans of classic television as The Six Million Dollar Man. What I’ve read so far of his fiction would imply that he may have been an influence on Michael Crichton, as Caidin was writing techno-thrillers long before Crichton turned the genre in best-seller material.

Caidin’s 1980 (although the cover shown is from the 1990 reprint) novel Star Bright, while not one of his better known works, often feels hauntingly prescient, as the premise starts with an idea that is perhaps even more relevant now than when it was originally published: the search for alternative energy.

Dr. Owen Kimberly is an aging professor that was formerly the most brilliant scientist involved in experiments with hydrogen fusion. Abandoning government work after his higher-ups refused to acknowledge his concerns with the unknown factors involved in creating the hydrogen bomb, Kimberly one day finds himself called out of the blue to Washington, D.C and a meeting with the president himself. While Kimberly has been gone for so many years, lesser men have been trying to take his theories about sustainable fusion energy and make them a reality. And unfortunately for the world, they have succeeded. Instead of creating a simple working fusion reactor, they have actually created a microstar, a pinpoint of energy that has all the energy of the sun yet is smaller and denser. And even though they are no longer feeding the microstar the fuel it should need to continue burning, it’s still working, even growing.

Since the people in charge of the microstar, known as Project: Star Bright, basically ignored all the safety measures Kimberly once recommended in their hurry to create a new sustainable energy source, the growing microstar has become a serious danger not to just the immediate area of the project but the whole world. As the microstar becomes denser it appears to be well on its way to becoming a black hole, and the magnetic field surrounding the star can only hold back its increasing energy for so long. If Kimberly doesn’t find a way to put out the microstar soon, then it will become so heavy that it will sink to the center of the Earth and rip the whole world apart.

As the microstar grows in power and density it begins to have numerous adverse effects on the planet, and this is where Caidin really starts to shine. While his lengthy explanations of the science involved can sometimes come off as dry, he still shows us through beautiful and amazing imagery just what would happen to the planet if it had a barely-controlled space-time anomaly sitting on it. The book comes across much like a Bruckheimer summer disaster movie would if, you know, a Bruckheimer movie ever involved something resembling ACTUAL SCIENCE. It also differs from a summer popcorn muncher in the ballsy-ness of the ending, where Caidin actually goes for a more realistic ending for the characters than a typical deus ex machina where they all make everything better and no one important is any worse for wear in the end. Caidin actually has the guts to give us something of a downer ending, even if it is disguised as a success.

Star Bright
sometimes lacks very good characterization, but in the end it succeeds exactly where it was intended: it’s a quick, rousing read with some interesting science. Overall it is a book worth picking up and checking out if you ever find it.


Monday, June 8, 2009

Novy MIRror Episode 3 features Tobias Buckell


Online today, complete with a snazzy new logo, is the third installment of Rick Novy's show Novy MIRror, featuring special guest Tobias Buckell

This is a very interesting interview, touching on a number of topics of current interest to readers and writers of sf. Buckell is a writer of sf adventure whom I know really only by reputation (having somehow not actually read much of his stuff yet, save for maybe a short story in an antho here and there), so it was great to learn some more about him, his career and his outlook on the genre. Go see the show and stop in at Buckell's website, too. (Also, stand by for M-Brane #6 on July 1 featuring some new fiction by Novy.)


Friday, May 29, 2009

Merc's got a story at DUNESTEEF!


Writer Abby "Merc" Rustad, whom all our readers will remember from M- Brane  #2  ("Unpermitted"),  has a story newly live at  The Dunesteef Audio Magazine "Hangman" is a highly entertaining little tale, presented in audio form with great flair. I mentioned this recently (because Derek Goodman also has a new item there), but I'll say again that I am becoming a bigger and bigger fan of these audio zines, and I like Dunesteef particularly well.

The format of each "show" consists of the presentation of the story followed by a segment of the producers hanging out talking about something for a while. In this new segment that starts with Merc's story, they chat for a while about the new Star Trek movie. Some other examples of this "dudes-talking-about-scifi-stuff" format can be found online, but this one is particularly good because of the lively and witty nature of their banter. Go listen to "Hangman" now!


Thursday, May 28, 2009

GUEST POST: Derek J. Goodman..."RETRO READS: THE CACHE by Philip Jose Farmer"



[Derek J. Goodman's short story "Northern Girls With the Way They Kiss" appeared in M-Brane #4. He will appear in M-Brane #6 with "Rental Property," and is live now on Dunesteef Audio Magazine with "In Absence of Mind Wiping Thingies."--CF]

Welcome to what will hopefully be the first in a series of guest blog-posts where I will be looking at obscure sci-fi books. Before I go into my first book, I should probably take a moment to explain how I’m defining “obscure” for this. I decided to write this after reading some similar columns on other blogs that, while incredibly informative, did not go into the kind of stuff I wanted to read as much as I would have liked. In trying to find such a blog, I came to the conclusion that if I couldn’t find other people who would point me in the direction of older, harder-to-find works I might like then I would just have to be that person myself. The problem with this was that A)my access to older works is limited, being that I live in a small town and the nearest used book store is an hour away, and B)my personal knowledge of any sci-fi older than ten years old is somewhat limited. So when I say that I’m going to be looking at obscure sci-fi what I mean is I’m looking at sci-fi that was obscure to me before I started looking into it. So if I go into something that you don’t necessarily find “obscure,” then please bear with me. I’m learning about some of this stuff right along with you.

My first find for this column is The Cache by Philip Jose Farmer. Farmer by himself is a writer who is well-known enough in certain circles, and well he should be. He has two major claims to fame within the spec-fic world. First, he was one of the first science fiction writers to inject a sense of sexuality into his work. Prior to Farmer most sci-fi writers stayed away from the taboo subject of sex, but Farmer explored it as just another part of the human condition. Many of his works that delved into this, especially his short novel The Lovers, are considered tame by modern standards but were revolutionary at the time. Secondly, Farmer is considered by many to be the father of fan fiction. Through his Wold Newton stories he found a way to connect many famous pulp fiction heroes together into one universe, including Tarzan, Doc Savage, Sherlock Holmes, Fu Manchu, and many others.

While The Cache does not readily fit into either of these two famous Farmer motifs it still showcases his playfulness with existing ideas and his use of sensuality even when it isn’t central to the story. Published in 1981, The Cache is technically a story collection, although it only contains three stories. The two shortest ones, “Rastignac the Devil” and “They Twinkled Like Jewels,” while worth a read, would not by themselves be enough to recommend this book. “They Twinkled Like Jewels,” telling the story of a man who meets the sinister beings that infected him with unexplainable wanderlust as a child, reminded me in some ways of James Tiptree Jr.’s famous story “The Screwfly Solution” (although I think Farmer might have written this story first, as it was originally published in 1965), while “Rastignac the Devil,” about a man trying to start a real revolution on a world where rebellion is mandated and required by the government in order to keep unsavory types satisfied with their lives, is a great idea that unfortunately reads very flat.

So the true treasure in The Cache is the short novel that opens the book up, “The Long Warpath.” Originally published by itself in 1965 under the title The Cache from Outer Space, this story managed to have me fascinated and scratching my head from the opening page. “The Long Warpath” is a rare piece that keeps you engaged from the get-go yet still manages to not even let you know what you are reading for most of the story. Based on both the blurb on the back of the book (which woefully fails to summarize anything about the story) and the first couple pages I at first believed I was reading a fantasy. Then I thought maybe I might be reading an alternate history. By the time I finally realized I was reading post-apocalyptic science fiction I was thoroughly engrossed.

The story starts out focusing on two youths, Joel and Benoni, as they are coming back to their city of Fiiniks after helping the men of their people prepare weapons with which to fight the rival tribes that threaten their land. Joel is brash and tends to get under everyone’s skin while Benoni is quiet and honorable and instantly recognizable as the hero. Both boys are in contest against each other to win the hand of the same young woman, but before either of them can try wooing her they must go on the Warpath, a right of passage among their people that requires young men to go out naked into the desert wilderness and not come back until they have scalped a man from the competing Navaho tribe. This is the point where Farmer really starts to mess with the reader’s expectations, as the people of Fiiniks show many aspects of a Native American tribe but are very clearly described at white.

Before Benoni and Joel can go on the Warpath, however, they are each selected by their elders for an additional task. The land around Fiiniks has become increasingly unstable with earthquakes and volcanoes, and it will not be possible for their people to live there much longer. And so they are instructed to go even further out into the wilderness than the Warpath has ever required before in order to search for possible new places to settle. Although Benoni is not sure that he wants to do this, he ultimately decides to continue on after Joel betrays him and leaves him for dead. Not only does he need to explore the world in the name of his tribe, but he also feels the need to extract his vengeance.

It is as the reader experiences Benoni’s account of his travels that it starts to be understood that all this is taking place in the far future. The names of all the places are bastardizations of names in the real world (I didn’t even realize until Farmer said that the boys’ city is named after a bird that rises from the ashes that it is actually Phoenix, Arizona), and the geography matches that of the United States. Something has happened at some point in the distant past that sent civilization back to the stone age, and Benoni unwittingly finds himself slowly uncovering the secrets of the ancient alien race that almost wiped humanity out. And by the time Benoni finishes, he realizes that he wants more from life than just the hand of simple girl. He has seen the world and the wonders it once had, and he wants to be a part of it.

At times Farmer’s prose can seem a little archaic and stilted, but this is overcome by Farmer’s imagining of an America that has been forcefully returned to the wilderness of the past and civilizations rebuilt on ancient models. While still not on par with Farmer’s better known works, The Cache still has much to offer for anybody who seeks it out. To the best of my knowledge this has not been in print for a long time, though, so you may need to do some hunting to find it.
Do you have any thoughts you wish to share, on either this book or obscure books in general? Do you see any errors I may have made in my research? Do you have other books you would like to suggest for future Retro Reads columns? Please feel free to leave a comment and let me know. Remember, I’m not an expert, here. I’m more than open to anyone who might be more knowledgeable and would love to hear from you.


Sunday, May 24, 2009

GUEST POST: D.D. TANNENBAUM...Where’s the Joy in Writing?



[D.D. Tannenbaum will appear in a matter of days in M-Brane #5 with his story "The Hole that Max Found." He is a writer and computer technology expert who lives in the Austin area, and he's been a great friend to M-Brane. Here he talks about the thing that charms and obsesses and sometimes frustrates so many of us, whether it's our profession or our pastime, and suggests that it really needs to be for the love.]

I have been writing full time for almost two years and part time for the two years prior. I have read many blogs and websites of other authors, agents and editors and have been struck by their tales of “struggle” and the “sacrifices” they have to make to write and do their jobs. Almost everybody has these stories of how they suffered for their art. My question is this: Why do it if it doesn’t bring you joy? Why do something that takes more out of you than you get out of it? Ask yourself why you write. Is it because you think you should? “Shoulds” are one of the heaviest anchors we wear. If you do it just to make money, try something else, like ditch digging or tending bar. Far more rewarding in those cases and it pays better. Writing should be a rush! Argue with your characters, give them the same emotions you have yourself. Let them take on a life of their own, and let it be a good one. One of my favorite authors, A. Bertram Chandler wrote a series of science fiction stories concerning a spaceman named John Grimes. He must have written at least fifteen novels about his and the Worlds of the Rim. His character became so out of control, Chandler wrote himself into the story to take control back. Sir Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond series, tried to kill his character off, but he wouldn’t die. This is what I mean about the joys as opposed to the struggle of writing. Also, don’t lock yourself in a sterile environment and pound away at your keyboard. I spend my days writing in a comfortable room, coffee at hand, with a big window to see the bright sunshine outside. I always have music playing, and have constant contact with friends and peers on the web.

Now, granted I am a novice at this, but my experiences are vastly different. There is a joy, both visceral and spiritual, when I am working on a story a story. There is something mystical about giving form to thought. I’m one of those writers who believes the story writes itself and I am just the instrument of its expression. The creative rush of writing a story is comparable to meeting your first love, or having a precious moment with one of your children.

I intend to support myself with my writing, but I am a realist in how long it takes. I am in no rush, I just keep writing stories. If I worried about getting published, or worried about what I was sacrificing for my art, I wouldn’t get any writing done at all. My stories are written; hopefully they’ll get published. But if not, they were still given form and my friends and family enjoy them.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

New Goodman story at The Dunesteef!



Writer Derek J. Goodman ("Northern Girls With the Way They Kiss," M-Brane #4, "Rental Property," forthcoming in #6), has his new story, "In Absence of Mind Wiping Thingies,"  live right now in The Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine. There are a bunch of cool audio fiction sites nowadays, and Dunesteef is one of the coolest. It stands to reason that I would think so since it appears that its editors and I have at least a fair amount in common as far as the kinds of stories we like. In addition to Derek, I have heard that M-Brane #2 alum Abby "Merc" Rustad ("Unpermitted") has something going up there shortly.  Also, I noticed that S.C. Hayden ("End Day," M-Brane #3) and Joshua Scribner ("Conductors," M-Brane #1, "Tortured Spirit," #5 forthcoming) have been published there as well.

I really need to somehow make more time to actually listen to and pay attention to more audio fiction: I am constantly playing some of it, but get too distracted by trying to write or edit or blog or email or Tweet at the same time and I miss most of the story.  I need to treat myself to some uninterrupted periods of kicking back and just listening. Dunesteef and all "my" cool writers with stories there are inspiring me to do exactly that.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

"Novy MIRror" launches!



So many of the writers that I have met as a result of running M-Brane SF have such interesting projects going on (aside from their writing, their day jobs, their families and everything else). Speculative fiction writer Rick Novy ("Road Rage," M-Brane #1, "Plan R,"  #4, "The Trouble With Truffles," #6, forthcoming), who shows up all over the place nowadays with his fiction, is also a videographer and has started the fascinating Novy MIRror. (click that name) This is an online video-cast featuring interviews with people in the spec fic world and news of genre goings-on. It is super-cool, and episode one, featuring writer and Klingon language expert Lawrence M. Schoen, is online now. I'll shut up now, so you have time to watch it!


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

GUEST POST: BRANDON BELL...On the Well Written Story, Well Told



All the writers among us will enjoy and benefit from this special post by Brandon Bell (M-Brane #1 and #5). --CF

I have been writing since I was a kid, and I have been writing and submitting to genre magazines since I was a teenager. And without reservation I can say that everything I wrote prior to the last five years was crap. Occasionally well-written crap, but crap. In the last five years I transitioned into writing promising crap. But still crap. And I finally, much more recently than I want to admit, started producing fiction editors were willing to buy. Here are some thoughts on this journey.
A heuristic for the fiction writer: you'll write a lot of garbage getting to the good stuff.

Young or new writers make excuses for themselves in regard to this. They are "just writing for themselves" or don't want archaic conventions to stifle their genius or creativity. Bullshit. If you want to write for your self, get a journal and have at it. If you are writing fiction, then market and audience is always a consideration.

Another heuristic: identify your market and audience, write with that in mind, and then submit based on the guidelines of your target market(s).

One of my best decisions as a writer was joining the Online Writers Workshop, submitting all my stories for review, and learning how to review other people's stories. I believe it is invaluable to review work comparable as well as better and worse than one's own. I found that I wanted "big picture" input on my stories and thought that giving this kind of input more valuable than mere line edits. I was wrong. Line edits are the heart of good critiques and you need to learn how to line edit your own work. Editing another's work leads to insight into your own. Through line editing, I came to see what I previously thought stylistic choice as mere wordiness. I came to see simplicity as beauty even in long, ornate stanzas of prose.

And another heuristic: join a group that will give you honest and useful reviews and learn to do the same.

Most articles about writing suggest books to read, and I'll do the same. The best book I have ever read that was about becoming a better writer was Lajos Egri's The Art of Dramatic Writing. I also sing the praises of Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces, despite the book being over-hyped in some quarters and subsequently maligned by writers like David Brin. I dig Brin, by the way. I'd suggest reading the book and then seeking out why others disagree with it.

Much of the specific suggestions I offer are culled from these two books.

So, you're going to write. A lot. At some point you're going to want to put it out there, try for publication. Go for it. You may be baffled why an excellent story is rejected. Join the critique group and learn what works and doesn't work for your readers. Become a great critter of others stories. Focus on line editing, and work up from there to the big picture stuff.

Here's a template for doing story reviews. I'm sure I grafted this from various sources among OWW critters, but if the net result is better story crits in the genre world, I don't think anyone will mind:

Summary:
Good:
Critique:
Suggestion:

Opening/Hook:

Plot:

POV:

Conflict:

Setting:

Characterization:

Dialog:

Show vs. Tell:
Style:

Line By Line:


I always start with the "Line by Line" section, commenting as I read, then go back and make short comments in the prior categories. If diligent and helpful as opposed to smarmy (that kind of a crit 'sucks', which is a technical term we writers use for pompous bastards who review our work from the end of their noses), you will tend to do great reviews for people and get the same in return. I should note, lest it be misconstrued from prior parenthetical comments, that good crits are critical. They point out weaknesses and faults. Fawning will make you feel good, but it won't get you published.

So get some practice critting, and get some great reviews in return. Edit based on the input. Learn to spot accurate criticism as opposed to personal predilection in your critters and have enough backbone to decide when a story is done.

And then return to write a story for a particular market that you want to get published in (or submit the one you have vetted against your crit group, since you vet all your stories against them).

I did this and found the markets I wanted to publish in (I realized I might get rejected at market #1, so I wanted my story to fit the general guidelines of several markets) had word count limits of about 5000 words. Many of the online markets have less: 3500-4000, so apply these guidelines appropriately.

Determine your premise. I chose for one story, "Real love lets go." Then I began to understand who my protagonist must be, because she would prove my premise through the course of the story. She would necessarily start out clinging to the object of her affection. By the end, she would let go. It is through this sort of transition, love to hate, fear to fearlessness, triumph to loss, that we identify characters as real and their story compelling. And good stories flow from believable characters properly orchestrated.*

There must be a pivotal character: someone or a group of someones (or possibly a force of nature or magic, etc: this is genre after all.) who does not change but is in fact a perfect opposition to your hero. Faced with the pivotal character, the protagonist has no choice but to act.

Your 5000 words are spread out over 5 phases: Exposition, Rising Conflict, Climax, Falling Action, and Denoument. Egris argued that there should not be a separate expositional section in a play or other fiction, but that exposition should constantly occur throughout the narrative, leading us toward an inevitable conclusion.

I still list Exposition first because while I agree with Egri, I recognize that the short genre story has several tasks to accomplish in its first two pages: hook the reader, establish character, setting, tone, and plant the seed of what will become the Climax. Starting with dialog is often a good choice. I have begun stories with lines that are shocking or odd, though there is the danger of not delivering on that initial weirdness.

Regardless of one's approach, I find it rare to have that meandering, pointless start when trying to accomplish so much. In fact, it is a great way to practice one's skill as a genre writer to seamlessly pack all this information into a mere two pages (tops), and compel the reader to continue.

Rising Conflict will compose the bulk of your story. Again, as noted by Egri, all good conflict is either foreshadowed or rising. There is a rumor of icebergs in the water, but the captain insists on full speed ahead. Later comes the crash and shriek of metal crumpling in the night as the ship lists. Water rushes into the lower levels and passengers begin filing out onto the deck where it becomes obvious there are not enough life rafts. The waters are freezing, the ship is sinking fast, and there is no one near to come to rescue. Conflict rises naturally, progressively, and we are urged along with our protagonist toward the proving of our original premise. Here is where the protagonist slowly transitions, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, from one pole to the other. Here is where the hero struggles along, overcoming increasing challenges, stiffer odds. I've heard it described as "three bumps" on the road to the climax. Rising Conflict will last for ten to thirteen pages.

By the time we reach the Climax our hero, in Campbell's parlance, has Answered the Call to Adventure in the Exposition and set off into the Underworld to meet both Challenges and accept Aid on the road to confrontation with Father/Mother/Tyrant/Diety/Satyr/Self, and to either bring back the fire of the gods or to come back to the world changed by the ordeal.

In the Climax the pivotal character stands absolute and the protagonist has grown into the equal opposition to that character or force. She acts because of the truth of our premise, and wins or loses based on the absolute necessity of taking action. The Climax will last from one to three pages.

Falling Action and Denoument address the repercussions of what has happened and should be as short as possible: a few words, a sentence, paragraph, or a few paragraphs. It should not be more than a page, possibly two.

Through these methods I suggest that anyone willing to accept the above three heuristics can draft the well-written story well told.

And then you find the number of editors who bemoan the glut of just such stories. Technically fine, and not lacking in any specific department, but not must-buys, either.

Just as I continue to work on writing well-written stories (I am totally a little tuna, and just sharing with anyone interested), I also struggle to fit my own uniqueness of approach and vision into my stories so that I might wow the next editor who reads my stuff. It is a challenge, but a fun one. Good luck to us all!

* "But!" you say. Pointing out the genre examples that defy this statement. Twenty Evocations. Red as Blood. The squid section of City of Saints and Madmen. Yeah, nice point, but you're not that good yet. Focus on writing from character, then experiment.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Electric Brain Storm...Literally


I've been thinking about M-Brane writer and friend Brandon Bell (issues #1 and #5, upcoming) off and on all day, and I decided I'd like to show some solidarity with him and come out as a person who also has some sort of undiagnosed neurological situation.  Read Brandon's startling blog post about his recent event, my comment there about it, and then come back here for the rest of this post.  I'll wait for you.

I feel very lucky that the similar episodes that I have been through (the one at 18 being "Worst Episode Ever") have been 
few and have not recurred in full-on form since that last one half of my life ago. Reading Brandon's account of it brought back vividly the creeping fear of it, the near certainty that it will happen again someday. A few weeks ago, in fact, I felt it coming back. It started exactly like Worse Episode Ever. I started feeling nauseated, my vision seemed to darken and lose periphery, I felt some numbness and weird muscular twitches. Also, I lost the ability to speak properly (and that's a clumsy, dubious prospect for me anyway even under ideal conditions), both in the sense of my mouth not functioning correctly and also not being able to come up with words that make sense. I was sure that I was going to black out...but then it passed over me somehow, I stayed conscious, and after about an hour I was feeling reasonably normal again. And lucky.

So anyway, I feel a lot of sympathy for people who live with these kinds of seizure events all the time. It's horrifying to lose control of your body like that. And even though no there's no rational reason at all for this feeling, it made me feel humiliated and weak when it happened to me. And now that I said that out loud...I don't feel that way anymore. Amazing how that works!

The accompanying image is the first draft of the cover of M-Brane #5, leading off with Brandon's outstanding story "Abraham Discovers an Object Impenetrable to All Harm." I'll be announcing the issue's complete contents in a few days.


Wednesday, May 6, 2009

GUEST POST: "We're On Our Own" An appreciation of JG Ballard by Mel Cartagena


The following is a perceptive commentary on the work and legacy of the late J.G. Ballard by writer Mel Cartagena ("Relearning Touch", M-Brane #1). --CF

I just finished reading "Love in a Colder Climate," one of the stories featured in War Fever, the collected short fiction by J.G. Ballard (William Colins Sons & Company Limited, Great Britain, 1990; Farrar-Strauss-Giroux, New York, 1991.) Each new reading from the collection is a set of quiet, stunning revelations about the world, detailing fetishes and atrocities that seem unreal, but have been here all along. Most of them for quite some time now, but our senses are too saturated with media-generated sensation to notice. Ballard put forth the idea that at a subconscious level, we’re aware of the dangers of giving in to primal urges, but we don’t care. We ignore the warning clarions and stare at the pretty shiny things hanging in front of our eyes.

It takes a unique intellect to see the finger-traps hidden in the unexplored crevices that progress brings, and in reading War Fever, I’m sad to learn that the brilliant, unique mind that created The Atrocity Exhibition and The Crystal World among other major works of literature is gone, silenced forever from complications with colon cancer. I’m sad to learn there won’t be any new Ballard books, no more explorations in the interstitial spaces of the mind. I’m also worried. Now that we have lost the Seer of Shepperton there won’t be a new voice to warn us of the dangerous curves ahead. In a career that spanned four decades, James Graham Ballard laid bare the inner workings of the twentieth century, exposing the violence and techno-fetishism bursting through the skin of civilization. His collected works can be seen as user manuals to help us navigate the twenty-first century.

And yet this isn’t accurate enough. Having never met him, from reading his essays, interviews, and watching documentaries produced about him, I gather the impression that he resisted flamboyancy, self-aggrandizing, and the idea of appointing himself as some sort of clairvoyant. It was as though he was afraid of becoming one of the self-conscious, stylized, pseudo-humans he wrote about. It’s more fitting to say that Ballard, by immersing himself in surrealism in all its form (and participating as well, staging art displays that drew hostile reactions from the viewers), and using a style of writing modeled on psychoanalysis, Ballard decoded a language that at the time was in its infancy stages. He saw the coming trends that would result from the merging of Hollywood and advertising.

In reading "Love in a Colder Climate," before I’m even done with the story, I find myself running through my mind all the ramifications of sex in a loveless age, the thread of fear through all contemporary male-female interaction, the parodies that men and women makes of themselves in the search for ‘love’, the church’s constant involvement in private affairs, and the sexual act reduced to a set of items to be checked off a list, the way contracts for adult stars are hammered out in the million-plus dollar porn industry. All of this in an entertaining story that runs a swift eight pages. (As one who grew up during the rising AIDS epidemic and now lives in the era of the compulsory condom, I am envious and resentful of the sexual liberation of the seventies.)
And this was the power of Ballard. Through his use of clinical and detached prose he dissected the moving parts of the world around us to show the darker impulses that stoke the engine of progress. The highly ritualized and apparently complex modern society is cut open like a corpse at the autopsy table to reveal that thousands of years of evolution amount to an arm’s length of mental advancement. We see in High Rise that the hunter-gatherer cave dweller primitive man lurks under the suit and shirt and aftershave lotion. In Concrete Island we see how life can thrive in the forgotten spaces of the metropolis, the invisible junctions of concrete and dirt where human refuse tends to gather and become a source of survival. In showing how Robert Maitland becomes marooned on one such concrete island after a car crash, Ballard takes the idea further, exploring the possibility that Maitland has wanted this situation all along, the make the outside world a reflection of his mind. To rule the patch of overgrown weeds and junked cars becomes a personal triumph of sorts. In Crash the moment of impact between cars becomes the ultimate S & M fetish, a means of awakening a new form of sexuality in men and women. (This novel is particularly uncanny in foreseeing the extreme body-piercing subculture as a means of enhancing boring sex lives, and the implied knowledge that the car is weapon of sexual conquest. This is something you can see for yourself next time you’re at the car wash. Look at the young men with their low-riders, lovingly polishing their dashboards with Armor-All, while music blasts through the sound system. Watch their styled poses as they admire each other’s rides and trade customizing secrets. Talk to them. You’ll be amazed to find how big a portion of their paychecks goes towards installing DVD players with LCD screens mounted in the rear of the front seat headrests, and twenty-inch Torq-Thrust M rims. For this type of young man, home is just a place to eat and rest the body. Real life happens inside the car.)

And through the decades, Ballard sees the coming trends each new technology brings. (As he referred to it, writing about the future, “five-minutes from now.”) In Rushing To Paradise, the nostalgic idea of Eden rediscovered takes a dark turn at the hands of extreme environmentalist Dr. Barbara. In Cocaine Nights he explores the lives of the idle rich wasting away in their sleepy villas, and how they are roused to live again through crime. In Millennium People, the middle class are an endangered species. The social contract with the government has failed them, but with no real moral causes left to fight for, anything that justifies violence will do, even something as bland as a cat show. In Super-Cannes, psychopathology instead of yoga or meditation becomes the new weapon to protect bright inventive minds from mental burnout, and in Kingdom Come, the cult of consumerism—the only religion left—is taken to its perverse logical conclusion.

In Ballard’s able hands, the subliminal hum of the post-modern is brought to full volume, much in the same way that William S. Burroughs used the cut-ups technique to break through the apparent meaning of language and reveal something more profound than the words alone could say. Unlike Burroughs, Ballard was a more coherent, more forceful messenger, bringing us news from the future, five minutes ahead. Heady messages wrapped in mind-bending tales that exhorted us, to rather than deny these impulses, embrace them. To see the dark craving for what it was and submit to it, go through it, and see what came at the other side of the experience. He was telling us, perhaps, to look elsewhere for the cure to that immediate craving. It was a clear, unafraid, amusing voice. A voice we needed to hear more often. It was a voice that was silenced on April 19, 2009.

I never met him, but in some ways I feel a kinship to him. Through his work I learned to express things I felt but couldn’t articulate when I was younger. A primal existential ache in me was lifted when I discovered there was someone else Out There who saw the world the same way I did, but could write about it lucidly, even with amused detachment. His tone was distanced, yet projected warmth and a sense of humor in a combination that was so natural, it seems almost inevitable. He was an explorer of mental terra incognita, a cosmonaut of inner space, always returning from his trips with missives that seemed from another world, but were all the more frightening because of their proximity to now when fully absorbed. His voice was vital and necessary, and now the Seer of Shepperton is gone.

And we’re on our own.


Monday, April 27, 2009

Uncircumcised M-BRANE origins


Writer Brandon Bell ("Do Men Dream of Bloody Sheep, M-Brane #1 and "Abraham Discovers an Object Impenetrable to All Harm," #5 forthcoming), in the April 26 post on his blog, discusses a recent discussion with some friends about religion and the nature of "god," the universe and multi-verse. Strangely, just minutes after reading this item by Brandon, I hit upon the curious website of Noesis, the Journal of the Megasociety (a high-IQ society of some sort).

One Richard May says in an article called "Universe Had No Unique Beginning" on that site:

"I’ve always suspected that both atheists and theists were partially correct and now also perhaps to degrees varying over time. Presumably some proportion of the Multiverse beginnings were entirely naturalistic, occurring according to various physicalistic M-Brane scenarios, which for convenience we may call uncircumcised M-Branes origins. The remaining unknown proportion of the Multiverse beginnings occurred according to every conceivable and inconceivable theistic scenario. Some Multiverse beginnings were Created by Osiris, others by Zeus, others by Ahura Mazda, yet other Multiverse beginnings were Created by the adorable Yahweh, which for convenience we may refer to as circumcised M-Brane origins." [italics mine]

Well then. Hmm.


Friday, April 17, 2009

EXTRA: Brand new Vardeman to appear in #4


A little amendment to the issue #4 contents preview from the other day: I'm thrilled to announce that I will, in conjunction with Zumaya Publications, publish the first chapter of Robert Vardeman's previously-unpublished novel The Genetic Menace in M-Brane #4 on May 1. I will write much more about this later, but I just wanted to start getting the word out now. Vardeman is a writer that I first learned of when I was a little Trekkie kid because he wrote a couple of the first few Pocket Books Star Trek novels, so I am positively star-struck that I get to be involved in a small way with the publication of a brand new Vardeman book. Zumaya Publications, operated by Elizabeth Burton, is a super-cool indie publisher and has been re-releasing some of Vardeman's earlier stories as well as this new material. Publication of the complete novel from Zumaya is scheduled for shortly after the M-Brane preview. 


 

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