How I Review SFF Short Fiction

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Does the story hook me and then hold me?

This is the first question I ask myself after I’ve read the story in its entirety. Fiction ought to effortlessly suspend the reader’s belief, and if it’s done its job the details won’t matter.

If the story hooked me, I ask why. Did I like the character? Was the setting so imaginative that I had to know more? The initial conflict of the story should be on the first page.

 

Is the conflict compelling?

Let’s say a story starts out, as it should, in the middle of the action: Oh shit, space whales have attacked a transport carrier traveling to Vega!

This is pretty cool, but it’s not yet compelling. Why should I care if space whales, or anything, attack a transport carrier?

Our hero paces back and forth in the Arrivals section of the Vega system, twirling the engagement ring in his hand. He will propose as soon as she arrives on the transport carrier.

Oh shit, space whales have attacked a transport carrier traveling to Vega!
Isn’t that better? I don’t know much about the characters yet, but I’m already on their team. I want to read on.

Is the ending fair?
There’s nothing worse than rooting for a story and then getting to the end and feeling cheated. The stakes have to be high enough to pull the reader through the narrative. The characters have to pay the appropriate costs to re-affirm those stakes. No coincidences or accidents, unless those coincidences/accidents get your hero into trouble.

Characters with nothing to lose are not characters worth reading about.

Is the story bad, or am I biased in some way?

When I first started writing reviews for Tangent Online, I confessed that I was sick of zombie stories and would be tempted to give them bad reviews. I wasn’t chided for this opinion; rather I was told to be honest and to back up all my opinions. A bad story does not deserve a good review, but I’m not supposed to eviscerate the writer either.

This means that if a zombie story gets assigned to me, I start my review with something like, “While the undead are not fresh in smell or in concept, this author takes a familiar-trod tale and elevates the reader with wonderful prose that pulls them through.”
That said, don’t write zombie stories. Please.

The story is bad. How do I convey this?
There’s usually something good in every bad story, so my strategy is to pick those things out and use them as a buffer around the Big Bad Review. I do this because I’m (sorta) nice, and because it’s a good exercise that ensures I’m not missing anything.

Am I being honest?

Reviewing is no good if it is without self-reflection. I’ve learned some things about my personal tastes and about what makes a story one that resonates.

Tolkien Would Have Hated the LOTR Movies

Art produces secondary belief , and story-making is the highest form of art. It’s not about bewitchment or delusion, but, as Tolkien says, “[it seeks] shared enrichment, not [slavery.]”TOLKIEN

We love movies. Blockbuster after blockbuster punching our eyeballs, and we don’t have to do any work for it. Just sit there and let the colors and the noise and the nonsense pummel you. Tolkien states in his essay on Fairy-Stories that drama is a bogus, substitute magic. “A visible and audible presentation of imaginary men in a story. That is in itself an attempt to counterfeit the magician’s wand.”

Sorry, Elijah Wood! You may have nice, expressive eyes but you contributed to a medium that Tolkien describes as de facto flawed.

So what do we do about this? Are all movies, and all scriptwriters just doomed to occupy the lowest levels of story-making? To languish in the lowest levels of Dante’s Heaven (or Hell?) What are the reasons Tolkien gives for this? Pure story-making, he thinks, is different than stage-plays (or movies) because they focus on characters instead of things. This is a key distinction he is making: writers have to think through their characters to give a story verisimilitude, but Tolkien wants the setting to be a character too. Care about the trees, the grass, the roads and the skies. This doesn’t mean that Fantasy is only about being fanciful, rather it is about truth. It’s not enough to tell a reader that the your world has pink grass unless you have a reason for it. “The keener and cleverer is the reason, the better fantasy it will make.”

The best television I have ever watched, now that it comes to mind, are stories that try to give a place a personality. The first season of True Detective does this, as does FX’s first season of Fargo. These stories are not Fantasy; rather tales about the human condition contending with a world that is mostly absurd and hostile. Tolkien might approve of the way in which well-don detective stories invite viewers to participate in catharsis, and then re-orient their view of life after being pushed to the edge of the surreal.

But the surreal is not “Other Time,” the surreal is attached to our world. The fantasy writer has to make a sub-creation, a Secondary World the reader’s mind can enter. We don’t like fairy-stories because there are tiny creatures in them, we like them because we like stepping behind the curtain. All stories are true unless they betray our trust.

 

 

What’s Your Writing Schedule?

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I’m writing a book! I have no idea if it’s good, but I have to start somewhere or I’ll let a crisis of confidence be a personal ball-and-chain.

Every morning I scribble: at least 500 words, some of it terrible. Oh well. I take time every week to edit. That’s the serious writing time; because writing is about revising something 20 times and then being told by an editor that you need to revise it at least fifteen more times.

I’m stacking up rejections pretty faithfully on the side, but I’m determined not to tinker with the stories looking for homes. If I get 50 form rejects each, then maybe they’ll go to the trunk.

So tomorrow, it’s coffee shop time for serious edits and organizations. I work best in the morning, as the tiny sticky-fingered creatures in my house demanding food or something tend to occupy my days.

Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead.

Being a Comic Book Artist

The pay sucks, the industry is brutal.

Don’t produce a masterpiece, just be on time.

I heard this growing up as a starry-eyed artistic kid, enamored of the comic-book shop smell that was probably just dust, body odor, and the old plastic sleeves on the back-issues stacked in boxes in the back.

I went to conventions and grilled the artists. How did you do it? What was your big break? I practice drawing panels every day!

Nobody wants to crush a kid’s dreams, but they wanted to be honest. I know people in the industry, one of them told me.  Very rarely do unknowns make a big break, get discovered.

I remember not liking that answer. I explored wed comics; dreamed of being that freelance rising star that got a book deal after becoming popular online. I tried that out in high school. I was consistent, uploaded a page every day. Got a few followers, but not the attention I thought I’d get.

“If you can live a happy life without making comics, then I suggest you don’t make comics. The industry is brutal and soul crushing. The pay sucks. You could work for months or years on a project only to be met with a resounding “Meh” from the public.”Christopher Hastings

The realization that I could work very hard, get discovered, and then not even make a living wage was one of the biggest disappointments of my young life. The life of a creator, as reiterated to me over and over by artists that gave me their ear, was one of being a cog in a machine.

And yet, I keep dreaming. I’m on spring break from art school, where I’m studying traditional methods. It’s grueling, hard, and expects perfection. So to sort of unwind, I’ve returned to my love of comics. I started drawing fanart, depicting traditionally male superheroes as female.

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Robin the GIRL WONDER!

You can check out the gallery on my Deviantart. Only if you are so inclined.

And yet, foolishly, doggedly, I find myself looking up “how to become a comic artist.”

Because I’m just a silly dreamer after all.

The Oxford Comma That Cost Millions

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Photo Credit Stefan Kuhn

Ever been told that you’re a grammar snob, that your pedantry over correct usage is out of touch with colloquial humankind? (It’s not, “can I go to the bathroom,” rather it’s “may.”) Get out the schadenfreude, because the milkmen and women of Maine have brought a successful challenge to the dairy industry because some lawmaker didn’t check the grammar books!

I’m talking about the Oxford Comma. In Maine, the dispute over the meaning of an overtime law came down to the placement of said comma. Dairy delivery drivers were seeking overtime pay. It was understood that the overtime law did not apply to food production and all related industries around it, but the law was ambiguous when it came to distribution.

Casey C. Sullivan Explains over at FindLaw:

If distribution was meant to be exempted, an Oxford comma would clearly separate it from packing: “packing for shipment, or distribution.” But if packing was meant to be a singular activity, applying both to packing for shipment and packing for distribution, no comma would be needed, and delivery drivers would not be exempted.

The language not being clear, the court decided to side with the drivers.

Pay attention in English class, folks.

Of Course I Spent St. Patty’s At A SciFi Book Club WTF Did You Do?

Yup.

I spent St. Patrick’s day at a science fiction book club discussing John Scalzi’s Redshirts with a bunch of guys my dad’s age.

Just to contrast ourselves to socially amiable people wearing greenshirts. Also there was no booze, also fanny packs were present.Why are you asking how high school went? Why is that relevant?

Shirt color aside, Redshirts was amazingly fun and hilarious.

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The Picardigan!

“The pulse gun is ineffective against Borgovian Land Worms!” Davis heard Science Officer Q’eeng say over the unspeakable noise of thrashing worms. “The frequency of the pulse sends them into a frenzy. Ensign Davis has just called every worm in the area!”

You couldn’t have told me this before I fired? Davis wanted to scream. You couldn’t have said, Oh, by the way, don’t fire a pulse gun at a Borgovian Land Worm at our mission briefing? On the ship? At which we discussed landing on Borgovia? Which has fucking land worms?

I needed it. Read it if you find yourself needing a laugh.

Short Fiction News: Pulphouse Is Back

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I’m a bit green when it comes to fandom, but I noticed a stir of excitement among the older fans I know at the announcement that Pulphouse Publishing is back.

The publishing house will return in 2018 after a twenty year break, and be run by the husband and wife team of Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Big  news for short fiction markets indeed. They are not taking submissions, but Dean announced that he’s bought some great stories for Pulphouse Fiction Magazine’s revival and will let everyone know when they’re taking subscriptions.

A scan of their contents shows that many of the authors who got their start publishing in Pulphouse went on to have successful careers as science fiction and fantasy authors. Good magazines are the gatekeepers!

Sign me up, I say.