Archive for February, 2012

Thirty Years of the Mississippi Review

Jeff VanderMeer • February 29th, 2012 • Book Reviews

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This 850-page rock thumped down on the doorstep yesterday with an emphatic “you’d best take me seriously” look in its eye.

Thirty years of the Mississippi Review, including fiction and poetry by Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Samuel R. Delany, John Barth, Rick Bass, Robert Olen Butler, Raymond Carver, Rita Dove, Miranda July, Ben Marcus, Rick Moody, Wells Tower, and, well, about 200 other contributors, it looks like.

All taken from Frederick Barthelme’s long reign as the editor. I kinda think you can’t miss this one.

Support a Worthy Cause: The SF/Fantasy Translation Awards

Jeff VanderMeer • February 28th, 2012 • Culture

Cheryl Morgan notes that her fund drive for the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Awards is entering its last day or so. You can easily donate by clicking the paypal button on this post. We’ve contributed some cool stuff to the cause, but there’s a ton of great material. Help them reach their goal!

Panic Attack: Understanding Your Work Cycles

Jeff VanderMeer • February 28th, 2012 • Writing Tips

Sometime in the past month or so I must admit that I had a kind of panic attack, one that had me stressed and depressed at first—especially in the context of so many writers producing a novel a year. Although I’ve never thought this was necessarily a good idea for me, except career-wise, it still exerts a kind of pressure if you start thinking about it too much.

My panic attack occurred while I was looking through a copy of my last novel, Finch, which came out in 2009 in the US and 2010 in the UK. I suddenly realized that I was still months away from completing my next novel. How could I have let that happen? What in the heck had I been doing the last few years?

The answer was that I’d done a lot of anthologies, like The Weird, which is after all like producing about seven anthos in terms of word length. Not to mention the nonfiction book The Steampunk Bible. Between The Weird, The Steampunk Bible, and our Lambshead Cabinet anthology, I along with Ann (and on the Bible, SJ Chambers) had dealt with over 800 creators, which is in itself a kind of crazy time-suck. Getting our ebook imprint Cheeky Frawg off the ground had taken more time, as had creating Weirdfictionreview.com and doing a lot of work for the Shared Worlds teen writing camp (a recurring, annual time commitment).

So, I told myself, with some sense of relief if not a bit of sadness at perhaps losing sight of my priorities, I had a great excuse. All of these other projects had taken up my time. That was the simplest explanation. It’s not healthy to beat yourself up for not being able to do everything simultaneously.

But then I took stock again after looking at what I did have in the works fiction-wise—and a different picture started to emerge. There had been a lot of time spent on a long film treatment entitled Jonathan Lambshead and the Golden Sphere that had taken a whole summer (and may still bear fruit). More time had been spent on conceptualizing a space opera trilogy, another project for the future. More importantly, I realized I had written about two-thirds of a novel entitled Borne, about three-fourths of a novel entitled The Journals of Doctor Mormeck (serialized on this blog), and another twenty-thousand words of another novel which we’ll just call Mainstream Novel #1 for now.

Seeing the amount of fiction I’d actually produced, even if most of it wasn’t finished, made me look back at the previous “cycle” of novels: Veniss Underground, City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek, and Finch. I realized that there had been significant overlap between those books, in terms of partial rough drafts. Veniss had lain dormant with about half of it done while I worked on much of City of Saints and Madmen (the first of my Ambergris novels), then come to life again. Shriek had been conceived of while writing the last parts of City of Saints—I had a 12-page summary of sorts—and a very early section of what became Finch was sparked by the original illuminated manuscript cover of City of Saints. I had about seven thousand words of proto-Finch well before finishing the extended City of Saints. While working on Shriek, additional ideas for Finch accrued over a period of years. Shriek itself took several years of work, although no one noticed the gap because Veniss was published after City of Saints.

Even though Veniss stands alone, it partakes of the same aesthetic as the beginning of the Ambergris Cycle. The two books speak to one another in some ways, and then Shriek and Finch, although written in different styles, are pursuing and following up on themes and issues first brought up in City of Saints. Thus, coming to the end of Finch was like coming to the end of the first part of my career.

People think I’m prolific, but part of that is simply that I initially had so much trouble finding publishers for my work and thus I had a back-log. So I think I’m only just beginning to see the complete outline of my long-term work cycle, obscured in part by the pattern of publication, not creation, of my prior novels. It may seem odd to not have recognized this, considering I’m 43 and been writing for three decades, but sometimes you need to take a step back to really see everything clearly.

Now I feel that I’m at the beginning of another cycle, one that’s more various despite certain connections between Borne and The Journals of Doctor Mormeck. And to some extent the process is similar: stops and starts on the novels prior to publication, overlap in writing parts of each of them, and a slow inching toward completion. At this point, I’m not entirely sure which novel will be finished first, because I’m equally passionate about each of them. What I do know is that they will be finished, especially because in each case I have a good idea of the overall structure and an image in my mind that corresponds to a rough understanding of the ending of each novel.

I’ve come to recognize that it’s important for me to realize that after living in Ambergris for so long it was natural that there be a break before the next book—and to give myself a break about that. It’s even more important to realize I’ve actually made significant process over the past couple of years—enough so that if I had just been working on one novel, it would have been completed and turned in. Understanding that this is part of my process, remembering that I’ve worked on multiple books in the past, is now helping me relax into this next phase of finishing the novels. I just have to be patient and ignore the idea of turning in a novel a year. Right now, apparently, I’m working simultaneously on the novels that I’ll have published over the next few years.

Still, I have to say that the part of me that requires instant gratification is thankful for finally returning to short fiction. It was a weird feeling to realize that a story I finished last month, “No Breather in the World But Thee,” was only the third story of any kind I had finished since Finch, the others being “The Quickening” in my collection The Third Bear and a story for a Vance tribute antho. (Not including, of course, meta-fiction for Steampunk Reloaded and the Lambshead Cabinet and something set in the Halo universe).

Now I’m working on another story entitled “The Last Redoubt” and a long novella entitled “Annihilation” and I’m excited about completing both. But I’m no longer stressed about the situation with the novels. I know I’ll finish them eventually and I’m confident that my organic approach to them is the right one. The fact is, your career has to follow and fit your fiction and the rhythms and cycles of that fiction—the needs of a career can’t dictate those things. Not if you want to remain sane and retain whatever makes you unique as a writer.

Weirdfictionreview.com Features Kali Wallace’s Short Story The Liberators

Jeff VanderMeer • February 27th, 2012 • Culture

This week on Weirdfictionreview.com, I want to direct your attention to Adam Mills’ editorial about taking over as managing editor, Ann VanderMeer on Weird Tales, a great interview with Steve Duffy, and “The Liberators” by Kali Wallace, a new story from a rising star.

A trace of road skirted the dead city, the same road the platoon had followed months ago on the last days of their desert march. Bloody blisters had made every step agony, and the soldiers had passed nervous nights beneath the city’s walls and windows as aimless wind moaned through its streets. And during the day the sun, the blinding, inescapable sun had quivered from dawn to dusk, throbbing in Francisco’s eyes, peeling the skin from his neck and melding the scaled armor to his body like a carapace. When they rested, stinking of sweat and blood, the soldiers shared stories of what they might find in the city. Alien riches and encampments, enslaved colonists and mountains of human bones, every possibility more outlandish than the last.

Wallace was part of the Clarion San Diego 2010 class, during which Ann and I were lucky enough to be the instructors for the last two weeks. She has already had short fiction appear in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction with a story workshopped at Clarion, the stunning “Botanical Exercises for Curious Girls,” and you can read an interview with her about that story at F&SF’s website.

In the comments on that interview writer Carolyn Ives Gilman rightly notes that “This was an awesome story. Creepy, yes, but really original. I’d never read anything like it, and that’s getting harder and harder to say. I want more.” We really love her fiction—it’s sharp, unique, always has depth, and it consistently surprises. She also has stories forthcoming this year in Lightspeed and Asimov’s SF Magazine, and made a cameo with a short entry in our Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities antho.

The 2010 Clarion class was incredibly talented, and as far as we’re concerned any or all of them could go on to have major careers— already readers are discovering writers from that class like Karin Tidbeck (Weird Tales, Unstuck), John Chu (The Boston Review), Tom Underberg (Weird Tales), Jennifer Hsyu ( Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword & Sorceress XXVI), Gregory Bossert (already published in Asimov’s before Clarion), and Tamsyn Muir (Fantasy Magazine and Weird Tales), to name just a very few.

We really count it a blessing to have encountered their work at Clarion and thus to be on the look out for all of the great writing they’re doing. I’ll be blogging about more writers from this class as the year progresses, I’m sure.

Staying in Touch with Your Writing

Jeff VanderMeer • February 26th, 2012 • Writing Tips

Sometimes I think writers, on their blogs and when giving advice, over-emphasize word count. It’s certainly important for writers to understand that discipline is important and that no work exists without getting butt in seat and words on the page. But there’s a wider context to writing that sometimes gets lost.

That context? Thinking about writing is vital, and staying in touch with your characters and story can be as important as the actual writing. Words on the page created without finding the time to exist fully in the world of the story often means a writer misses possibilities that would deepen a work of fiction. I don’t like hard-and-fast rules, but if I had to lay one down, it would be to set aside the time to live with your fiction, not just write it. Sometimes a compulsion to not sit in front of the computer and type isn’t laziness—it’s the subconscious saying you’ve missed something, that you haven’t gone far enough, that you haven’t made all the connections you need to make. So to some extent the continuous living within the fictive dream of the narrative is more important than a continuous physical act of writing.

Every writer is different in how s/he approaches the act of creation, and that has to be kept in mind at all times, including while reading this post. But for me, it tends to take the form of a kind of circling and layering. I will write for three straight days and then take a day or two off. But I’m not really taking those days off. I’m writing down ideas and fragments as they occur to me and I’m continually re-living the scenes I have down on paper and imbuing them with additional life and nuance. On those “off” days, I’m staying in touch with the material, and the material often changes in surprising ways as a result. Without this slowing of the process, without this “work-avoidance,” the stories suffer, and I find myself with much more revision on the back-end—and sometimes the sense that what I’ve accomplished at the end is more of a “patch” than an organic edit.

These notes and fragments also develop a life of their own. They start as scribbling on torn pieces of paper and then I type them up into a Notes document, and in typing them up much of it gets fleshed out and I suddenly have little mini-scenes and additional impulses or connections created with the actual partial draft document. And in finding where these mini-scenes and snippets fit, the partial draft changes once again.

This thinking about the fiction is especially important given the Age of Fragmentation we live in. It’s extremely important to do this thinking away from the internet and away from mobile devices. Distractions of this kind—multi-tasking distractions—tend to dull our ability to really think deeply about what we’re working on. And then, our brains lacerated by so many other voices, through social media, blogs, etc., we turn to the actual writing without having had the time to live in the fictive dream ahead of time.

The imagination is a muscle, and like any muscle, you get out what you put in. If you neglect a muscle in your work-out or you only intermittently pay attention to it, it begins to lose mass; it begins to atrophy.

I also think that thinking about writing is a form of meditation: it’s restorative to peace of mind. It’s one of the most enjoyable parts of writing—the sense of excitement as connections form you didn’t know existed, as characters take on texture and depth you hadn’t suspected. As you push it further and farther than you would have otherwise.

It’s in this context that word count matters: with the proper undivided attention having been devoted to the writing beforehand.

Weird Tales: Ann VanderMeer’s Last Issue and Her Future Role

Jeff VanderMeer • February 25th, 2012 • News

At the Weird Tales blog, you can find an update that includes information on the forthcoming release of the last issue with my wife, Ann VanderMeer, serving as editor-in-chief. That issue has an incredible line-up, including Stephen Graham Jones, Joel Lane, Emily Jiang, and Conrad Williams. It also includes a first English-language story by Finnish writer Leena Likitalo, a near-first story sale by the talented Tom Underberg, and a story by Tamsyn Muir, “The Magician’s Apprentice.”

“The Magician’s Apprentice” by Tamsyn Muir isn’t a first sale—I think it’s a second or third—but it is one of the finest stories by a new talent I have read in recent memory. It is deadly, uncompromising, and perfectly written. In fact, it’s the kind of story that makes me think that Muir is a rising star in that wonderfully ambiguous area occupied by writers like Kelly Link, Shelley Jackson, Kevin Brockmeier, Karen Russell, and Steven Millhauser. On the basis of having read other of her work at Clarion in 2010, I’d bank on it.

As for the changes at Weird Tales, as the WT blog notes Ann has decided to accept the new management’s offer to stay on as a “senior contributing editor”. In this role, she will be selecting one story by an up-and-coming writer for each issue of the magazine, for a special section. I know Ann in part accepted this offer because of her commitment to publishing new talent. This has been a consistent part of her philosophy throughout her years of editing. The new administration also will be consulting with her from time to time, although she will not be responsible for any other element of the content in the print magazine. The status of web-only fiction and the One-Minute Weird Tales is still being determined, and Ann may also have a role to play in those departments.

In addition, I’d like to point out that the cover for Ann’s final issue, pictured here, features a look-and-feel that former WT creative director Stephen H. Segal came up with and that Ann heartily endorsed. These changes are enhancements Ann had wanted to enact for quite some time—including the more sinister/horrific approach to cover art and a more traditional approach to the title treatment. In her last issue, then, with certain constraints gone, you can in essence see more clearly the direction Ann was beginning to chart for Weird Tales magazine.

Weird Tales Magazine’s John Harlacher has expressed an interest in cross-promotion of WT with Weirdfictionreview.com and our ODD? anthology, and inasmuch as this makes sense, and is of general use, we will do so.

Reading the Weird: John H. Stevens with Eight Weird Thoughts

Jeff VanderMeer • February 23rd, 2012 • Culture

John H. Stevens has a wonderful contemplative piece on reading our THE WEIRD compendium up on SF Signal. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Understanding is not knowledge, but revelation: What’s the difference? Knowledge is “the name of that thing is Ook.” Revelation is “there are creatures like Ook in the world!” Weird fiction is about the recognition of what I discuss in #2 above. It is about coming into contact with things that are difficult, contentious, or impossible to know. It about prophecy, divulgence, consequence, afflatus. It is coming to terms with powerlessness, lack of vision, the cosmic smallness of humanity. It is learning the true costs of living, feeling it deep inside you, as in Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “The Hell Screen.” It is what eats us from the inside out and impels us inevitably towards death, even as we struggle to come to terms with life.

Also, Stephen Graham Jones is teaching a class using THE WEIRD, and he’s had his students do flow charts about the reading experience. Here’s a teaser of Jones’ own flow chart. We hope to feature some of these at Weird Fiction Review later on.

weird flowchart

You can buy THE WEIRD here in ebook form, with the US print edition out in May.

The Steampunk Bible: For Best Related Book, Hugo Awards

Jeff VanderMeer • February 22nd, 2012 • News

I’m decidely under the weather for a variety of reasons and won’t be blogging much this week, but I did want to remind Hugo voters that The Steampunk Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Imaginary Airships, Corsets and Goggles, Mad Scientists, and Strange Literature (Abrams Image), by myself and S.J. Chambers, is eliglble in the best-related book category.

The Steampunk Bible features over 250 full-color images and over 60,000 words of text covering all aspects of the steampunk subculture. In addition to being featured on the CBS Morning Show, it was written up in the NYT and lots of other national media outlets, in addition to a full-on feature in the LA Times.

I do very few of even the softest of sells re nomination posts, but so many amazing creators are featured in the book I’d like to see them recognized. More importantly, this just reminds you the book came out in 2011.

steampunk bible cover new

Weirdfictionreview.com Features M. John Harrison, Reading the Weird, and More

Jeff VanderMeer • February 20th, 2012 • News

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Check out the latest on our Weirdfictionreview.com, which includes Desirina Boskovich’s wonderful essay on M. John Harrison’s short story “Black Houses,” the finale of Leah Thomas’s Reading the Weird comic, selections from three unpublished novels by Michael Cisco, the art of O.L. Samuels, and much more!

Also note the editorial on what’s upcoming–some really exciting things!

What Cheryl Said

Jeff VanderMeer • February 17th, 2012 • Uncategorized

Pretty much everything Cheryl Morgan says here about panels makes sense to me. It’d be really nice, too, if con organizers as a rule got ahead of this issue and didn’t put participants in the position of having to suggest female panelists or to point out the problem.