Do a Little Dance

For the first time in a while I have some real writing-relevant news to share. A short story of mine Hostage was chosen by Flame Tree Publishing to be included in their upcoming Gothic Fantasy anthology Time Travel Short Stories.

The anthology is due to be published in July 2017 and will include a mixture of both new and classic time travel themed stories. This means, not only will a story of mine be found in a real book of the paper and binding variety, my writing will be alongside the likes of H.G. Wells and Mark Twain. How cool is that?

As evidence I’m not making all this up, the Flame Tree order page for the book is here. It can also be ordered through Indigo and Amazon. I have no idea how many, if any, Canadian/US stores will have hardcopy books in stock (Flame Tree Publishing is in the UK), but we all do our shopping online nowadays anyway, right (or is that just those of us who avoid taking a toddler to the store)?

This is one of those things that makes the whole writing endeavor seem a little less nuts. A feeling that will surely pass around the time I receive my next rejection. In the meantime, I’ll be dancing in the kitchen–probably the better you know me the harder time you’ll have picturing it, but the dance really happened.

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The More Things Change…More on Ray Bradbury

Some time ago, I wrote a post about Ray Bradbury’s story The Highway. I have since finished reading the collection of short stories it came in, The Illustrated Man (1999), and have a little more to say.

There are some timeless lessons to be learned from Ray Bradbury for wanna-be fiction writers. The way he approaches writing (according to the collection’s intro) rings very true and is excellent advice: writing comes from asking, ‘what if…?’ Then seeing what happens.

There is no doubt Ray Bradbury was a creative mind–in many ways ahead of his time I’m sure–and a talented writer. However, despite his vivid imaginings of the future, he must have been a strong believer in the adage: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

This collection was published in the late 90s, but most of the stories were written and originally published in the late-40s/early-50s time frame. There were some basic rules of life, particularly around marriage, that Ray apparently didn’t expect would change even with the advent of rockets and sentient robots.

For example, take the story Marionettes, Inc. This tale opens with two men discussing the difficulties of their marriages. The protagonist basically hates his wife and always has. The other man claims to love his wife, but he finds her tendency to over express her affection insufferable. Rather than consider how to best approach their wives and resolve these problems, the discussion leads to ethical verses unethical ways to deceive their wives. Thus making the men’s lives easier. Because men are people, and women are…inconvenient appendages?

How might one sneak out to have drinks with a buddy? They wonder. The options on the table include:

Sleeping powder = unethical.

Clone-like marionette to temporarily replace husband = ethical. What she doesn’t know can’t hurt her after all.

Seriously?

The idea that perhaps the man who never loved his wife should never have married her in the first place is briefly discussed and dismissed with reference to some family embarrassment that was prevented by the union (appearances are more important than happiness, of course).

The idea of actually talking with one’s spouse about what’s making the marriage unhappy? Not even worth a mention.

Leaving a relationship that has proven miserable for a decade? Parish the thought.

Thinking your wife might be able to tell the difference between you and a robot? Not of great concern.

I can’t decide if the wives have brain damage, or the husbands do.

All that said, Marionettes, Inc. has some good plot twists as well as the kind of ending that draws people to read Ray Bradbury and drives them nuts at the same time (in Ray’s defense, it turns out at least one of the wives may not be so superficial after all). It is a reasonable story and was probably even better to its original audience, in a decade before women were considered fully-actualized human beings. But in a more modern plot, I think there would have to be some kind of black mail, abuse, or mental illness involved to justify such lengths being taken to deceive one’s spouse.

I don’t think Ray Bradbury was oblivious the impact ‘the times’ had on his writing. In the intro (written in 1997) to the collection, he references the story The Other Foot, in which Colored people (he acknowledges, “that’s what they were called when I wrote The Other Foot in 1949”.) get to Mars before the Whites—what if?

Turns out, he couldn’t sell the story to the pre-civil-rights-movement American market—not because it isn’t a good, well-written story. He wound up giving it to a Paris-based magazine instead.

I’m sure this mark of time is an inevitable part of most writing, and I suspect it is most obvious in science fiction where authors are constantly trying to guess the complete unknown through the lens of our own lives, with no reliable frame of reference. Creative and timeless as any writer tries to be, it seems even the best sci fi will end up with elements that become comical. Look at Back to the Future. According to its timeline, 2015 is the year of the flying car.

With the 50s-style depiction of the future, I found it hard to become fully absorbed in some of the stories in The Illustrated Man. But I consider Marionettes, Inc proof such miscalculations about the future don’t have to ruin a story. And Back to the Future is still one of the best trilogies ever (in my humble opinion). Even if I’m not watching it while eating a pizza from my food rehydrator, with kids buzzing by my window on hover boards.

Maybe the greatest compliment for a sci-fi author is that their stories persists long enough to be made fun of in light of reality. If anyone is reading my writing far enough into the future to notice my generational fingerprint, awesome.

Review of a Classic: The Highway – Ray Bradbury

Some time ago, I received feedback on a story I had posted on a writing forum. The story I posted, Conditioning Phase, is among the first I ever wrote, and though I’ve since gone back to the story and can see the mechanics of it leave a lot to be desired, one of the reviewers on the forum seemed to really like it and compared it to Ray Bradbury’s work.

Of course, I had heard of Ray Bradbury–a famous, 50s era, sci-fi author–and was thrilled to be compared to him. It was a good confidence boost early on in my writing attempts. But here’s a confession: With the exception of A Sound of Thunder (great story), I’d never read Ray Bradbury.

Farenheit 451 might have been on the reading list of my one university English class. I can’t recall for sure, but I remember the entire reading list was dystopian themed: A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, etc. It’s very possible Farenheit 451 was there too. The thing is, I didn’t read any of those books. I was a first-year engineering student in a class of first-year engineering students, 90% of whom were only in the class because it was mandatory (I’m assuming about 10% of the class had some genuine interest in English Literature. I could be wrong).

Luckily, the professor spent so much time telling us what we were supposed to think about these narratives, rather than encouraging anything in the way of original thought (not sure if he was like this with all students or just had a low opinion of his unmotivated engineering students) that all I had to do come exam time was regurgitate what I could remember from the hours of class I was actually awake for. That was enough to come out of it with a C (possibly one of my better marks that semester) without cracking a single book from the assigned pile. Well, that’s not quite true. I read the first page or two of A Clockwork Orange before giving up. Tricky linguistics is not my strong suit.

I digress.

Recently I was in the bookstore, browsing the sci-fi section. I came across Bradbury’s short story collection The Illustrated Man. I decided it was time to fill this gap in my literary repertoire.

Most of the stories in The Illustrated Man highlight societal trends and norms of the time most of them were published ( around 1951), often exploring the darker side of these trends. The stories don’t all end in doom and gloom, but there isn’t a guaranteed happy ending either. I like that about them.

Normally, when I’m reading for fun, I try not to analyse what I’m reading. It’s a good way to ruin a good story and start overly obsessing about how my own writing compares. However, since I went into Bradbury’s collection knowing someone had already compared my story style with his, it was hard to avoid this time.

I found myself comparing his writing to the various writing to-do’s and not-to-do’s I’ve come across since I started learning the craft. I made some observations that I think are worth sharing with the aspiring-writer community, particularly while reading The Highway.

Quick summary: The Highway is told from the perspective of a Mexican man who lives on a highway leading to the US border. First he observes that there is an unusual lull in the traffic, and suspects something is up. This is followed by a deluge of cars going by, all in the same direction, with panicked-looking passengers. One of the vehicles stops in need of water for an overheating radiator. The protagonist, Hernando, learns from the passengers that the atom war, and the end of the world, has finally come. When the truck leaves, Hernando goes back to working his field as if nothing of significance has happened. I guess this shows how differently the threat of nuclear war was perceived by cultures not directly involved in it, or how the concept of ‘the world’ differed outside the USA?—In the last line Hernando says to himself: “What do they mean, ‘the world’?”

Back to the to-do’s and not-to-do’s. From various sources, I have read writing tips warning against the following:

1) Trying to establish a character’s foreign origins by throwing a few words of their native tongue into dialogue of otherwise perfect English, particularly using the simplest words, which would be the first English words any foreigner would learn. ‘Sí’ and ‘Señor’ are given as specific examples to be avoided.

In The Highway, Hernando’s English has a few grammatical flaws, but nothing that screams ‘Spanish accent’. His first language is identified by his use of Spanish words. And the only Spanish words used in the entire story are, you guessed it, ‘Si’ and ‘Señor’.

2) In dialogue, using speech tags other than ‘said’. More often than not, avoid other speech tags—screeched, divulged, questioned, pontificated, etc—as the familiarity of ‘said’ will allow most readers to gloss over it and focus on the dialogue itself. Also, don’t weigh down speech tags with redundant adverbs, adverbial phrases, or unnecessary adjectives. In fact, avoid these in general, in dialogue or otherwise.

Quote from The Highway: “Oh, please hurry!” one of the girls cried. She sounded very high and afraid.” An exclamation mark, a descriptive speech tag, and follow-on clarification of her tone of voice. I’d say it’s more than clear that this girl is freaked out.

3) Scenes/stories where nothing actually happens. Example: An entire story going on in the head of a protagonist sitting on the bus. What characters are thinking and observing certainly matters, but for the most part the reader is interested in what is happening to the protagonist and what they are actually doing about it.

In The Highway, the entire story consists of the protagonist becoming aware of a situation–the ‘atom war’ has started. Then the story is over. Short stories do have some leeway compared to novels when it comes to what is considered a complete story arc, but the entire emotional impact of The Highway seems to depend on the statement: “It’s come, the atom war, the end of the world!” having a significant effect on the reader without any description of what this end-of-days actually looks like.

I suspect in 1951, when the story was first published, the hint alone of atomic war was enough to give readers chills. However, even though have as good an idea as the next person what the implications of dropping a nuclear bomb are, from the perspective of someone who didn’t grow up in 50s USA, convinced a bomb was going to fall on me at any moment (I know, lots of countries have nuclear weapons and it’s possible they will use them, but I don’t spend much of my day worrying about it), this particular story didn’t resonate with me all that much.

None of these observations are intended to paint Ray Bradbury as a bad writer. He was a great writer. It says something that A Sound of Thunder has stuck in my head (in a good way) since I read it in high school. And there’s a reason people are still reading his stuff.

My point is, he was making all the same ‘mistakes’ the rest of us do. Given his stories are still in print decades after they were written, I find that encouraging. There’s hope for aspiring writers yet. A good story can overcome a few imperfections, and perfect writing doesn’t make for a good story.

Why Some Shows are Popular—or Not

Science Fiction fans are used to seeing their favorite shows cancelled. Of course, this is not unique to sci fi, and it happens for a number of reasons: money, network decisions, actor availability, etc. As far as sci fi goes, the computer geek and sci-fi geek demographics have a big overlap. Perhaps some shows have had a larger audience than their producers were aware of because the viewers were ahead of the curve in sharing online rather than watching on cable. Whatever the reason, shows disappear and the world moves on.

Or does it? What I find interesting is how many of these shows become hugely popular years, or even decades, after going off-air for ‘lack of Fireflyaudience.’

A semi-recent example would be the much-loved Firefly. It struggled to survive for even one season back in ’02-’03. Ten years later, it has a huge following, a successful movie under its belt, and a 9/10 rating on IMDB.

star trek

Then there’s Star Trek, the benchmark for geekdom for as long as I can remember(when someone calls you a trekkie they don’t usually mean it as a compliment). The original series had low ratings in the 60s followed by a decade of nothing. Since 1979, however, there have been four spin-off series and twelve movies. Twelve. With number thirteen on the way. What once had a cult following in the shadows is not only still alive four and a half decades after it began, but is now fueling a series of blockbusters.

What gives? Though all fiction is a medium for broaching topics that society may not be ready to shine a light on, science fiction is particularly powerful in this regard. It can take us far into the future or create entirely new universes where we don’t have to feel threatened by the politics or social norms that clash with our current beliefs and expectations. This is its strength, and sometimes, maybe, its downfall—at least in the short term.

We love to be feel open minded. We like to see people have their boundaries pushed, but we prefer to do it from the comfortable position where we already have the right answer. This is at least part of what makes historical fiction so popular. Continue reading

An Interesting Question

I came across this article from a few weeks ago: Women of Mad Science, posted by Mad Scientist Journal. The question they pose is, “Why Aren’t There More Woman Sci-Fi Writers? Not a new question, but an interesting one. There are some good points–and I added my two cents to the comments.

If the topic interests you, I’ll leave you to give the article a read (and add to the discussion of you wish) rather than reproduce it here. I’ll be interested to see any new comments that come up.

A Swirl of Chocolate Published

My latest flash fiction, A Swirl of Chocolate, is now available for reading on 365 tomorrows. This story is a quick little take on the twists and turns of time. Time travel is impossible…or is it? Have a read and, if you feel so inclined, let me know what you think.

I mentioned 365 tomorrows in a previous post on the pros and cons of different places where I’ve tried to publish. Now that I’ve completed the process with them, my opinion hasn’t changed all that much. The biggest pro this site has to offer is the variety of stories they are willing to publish. If you have a piece of flash fiction (<600 words) and aren’t sure what to do with it, they might be worth a try.

However, the biggest con is communication. For me that’s a big one and will likely prevent me from trying these guys again. I had to contact them through twitter to ask about a publishing date. They told me that informing authors when they were expected to be published was too costly.

I find this hard to believe–I mean really, we all have email accounts (and I would have settled for a tweet). I’m only asking for one line: ‘you’re projected publishing date is X.’ Everyone else I’ve worked with seems to manage it so I’m not sure why these guys think they can’t. Anyway, regardless of the cost, I consider open communication to be necessary in any business transaction. In the end, they didn’t even tell me that my story was published today. I only know because I checked the site.

Something else to consider is that they don’t include author bios with their stories. Not that this is a must, but bios give the author a place to tell anyone who likes there story where to find more of their work. Though I’m not a huge fan of writing bios I’ve come to appreciate their benefit.

All that said, it’s nice to have another story out there. I’m happy to add this experience to my repertoire.

Find Mad Scientist Journal on Amazon!!

As I have previously posted, Mad Scientist Journal is an ezine that publishes new fiction weekly on its website–that you can read for free. They also amalgamate their stories into quarterly anthologies and add some exclusive content to give more bang for your 99-cent download.

Initially published through smashwords in a number of formats, these anthologies are now available in kindle editions on Amazon. Links to all four, currently available, anthologies are on the MSJ website. My own contribution in the form of a classified ad, Experienced Osteo-transplant Specialist Seeks Work, from Dr. Coccymandible, can be found in the Autumn 2012 Anthology.

Feel free to write a review of one (or all) of these anthologies on Amazon, your own blog, or elsewhere. Help MSJ expand its audience.

An upcoming anthology (Spring 2013, I expect) will also include my short story, Mabel’s Mission, which was published by MSJ on Apr 1st.