Dean Francis Alfar: Read New Fiction, Buy His New Collection

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Dean Francis Alfar is an excellent short story writer whose second collection How to Traverse Terra Incognitais now available on Amazon and elsewhere in e-book form. The book comes with blurbs from such luminaries as Hugo Award winners Ann VanderMeer and Lynne M. Thomas, among others.

Not familiar with Alfar? Here’s what you need to know.

Alfar is a Filipino playwright, novelist and writer of speculative fiction. His plays have been performed in venues across the country, while his articles and fiction have been published both in his native Philippines and abroad, such as in Strange Horizons, Rabid Transit, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror and the Exotic Gothic series. His literary awards include the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature and then Manila Critics’ Circle National Book Award. He is an advocate of the literature of the fantastic, editing the Philippine Speculative Fiction series, as well as a comic book creator and a blogger. Alfar is also an entrepreneur who runs several businesses. He lives in Manila with his wife, fictionist Nikki Alfar and their two daughters.

So here’s a proposition for you, since I’m a big fan of Alfar’s work. Below the cut, Alfar is allowing me to post “Enkantong-bato,” his entry from the bestiary anthology Ann and I are editing—totally new fiction, not found in the collection, free for you to read. Exclusive to this blog post and only available here for the next month. BUT, if you read and enjoy it, please do me favor and go buy How to Traverse Terra Incognita. The fact is, you’ll actually be doing yourself a favor!

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More Weird…

Just a few things to mention in the aftermath of the Weird Tales debacle. I’m speaking for myself only in this, not for Ann VanderMeer. And if you’re not interested—no worries. There’s lots of interesting stuff upcoming on the blog that has nothing to do with this issue, including updates on Weirdfictionreview.com.

I’ll start with some links that I think are relevant:

—Adam Mills puts the entire incident into a wider context, which lacks only a few items, such as Marvin Kaye posting on author walls on Facebook soliciting stories prior to the announcement of the change in editors; the new editors discarding the electronic submissions portal; imposing erratic submission windows; and offering a terrible e-issue for last year’s World Fantasy convention made worse by a bizarre postcard advertisement that implied Neil Gaiman (or “Neil Fucking Gaiman” as they referred to him) and other World Fantasy Con guests of honor were in the e-issue (they were not). Maybe some of the information in Mills’ post and here will be of use for aspiring magazine editors re what not to do. Although, frankly, most of this appears to fall under the category of Duh.

—SFFWorld has an interesting discussion worth reading in its entirety.

—Larry Nolen offers up a cogent analysis of the controversial novel itself, with which I concur. There are certainly controversies that arise in which the interpretation is debatable. This is not one of them.

—The Guardian also offers a review that hits on some key issues.

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Dreaming Well: Does the Future of Publishing Need More Imagination?

For the past three or four years, the book world has been inundated with advice, predictions, and knowing winks about the next phase of what it means to be a writer. We’re told to exploit social media, to cater to our fans, to turn to self-publishing through e-books, to eschew copyright in favor of giving readers material for free. But what value does any of this actually have? What actual results, and at what cost? Is the salvation for writers the same thing that will wind up killing off good books? Who is rendered invisible by all of this, and what does it mean for the future of literary quality?

Just for those who don’t know me, I’ve been a writer for over 25 years, with novels out from major and indie publishers, as well as self-published titles. I’ve got multiple awards nominations, and wins, and write-ups in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. I’ve run an award-winning publishing company. I help run a teen writing camp and write book reviews for major national newspapers. I’m also the author of what is still the only internet/new media-based book on what it means to be a writer in the modern era, Booklife, which has such spin-off sites as Booklifenow. I’m not at all shy about using social media, and getting my hands dirty with promotion and all of the other things that we are increasingly told we must do.

But I feel passionately that some of the information we are getting is increasingly wrong and motivated by selfishness and, yes, to some degree, a form of hyperbolic illogic. We are so hung up on predicting the next big thing, on getting in on the next gold rush when it comes to ways for authors to promote themselves and market their work that we often seem to be active participants in our own destruction. We are voluntarily committed at times to dismantling those elements of traditional publishing that actually work and adopting the new simply because it’s shiny and seems to offer an easy way out. We may talk now about accessibility and visibility instead of distribution and publicity, and the delivery system and format of books may be changing, but those are just matters of terminology and translation. At the same time, we’re not able to truly dream well about what e-books might mean beyond things like making them look more like videogames or annotating them. Honestly, who cares? That’s pretty much dressing something up, not dreaming well.

The problem right now really isn’t the “tyranny” of big NYC commercial publishers or an Amazon monopoly. The problem is the virus of mediocre and received ideas coursing through the collective brains of the book world, infecting too many of its writers, commentators, reviewers. It’s a kind of fundamentalism at its heart, and we want to believe in it because it’s easy to do so. Then we don’t have to think for ourselves and we can also worship at the altar of a God of E-Plenty.

Just a few prominent examples, although there are more, and more subtle, cases…

War on copyright and the fervent belief that content should be free. This belief isn’t based on any scientific facts showing that this will benefit the majority of writers (the midlist, which often is the bedrock of literary quality) but often based on anecdotal experience from gatekeepers who mistake their own immense personal power for signal boost as distributing evenly across the book culture.* When it most assuredly does not. The idea, meanwhile, that non-US/British Commonwealth writers do not in fact want some form of international copyright in place is just plain wrong for the most part, not to mention insulting to the wealth of diverging opinions across countries, regions, and traditions. (This is leaving aside the ridiculous length of copyright in the US/UK right now; it is too long.)

Mega-selling self-published authors war on traditional publishing, specifically the Mighty Konrath. This belief, again, isn’t based on scientific fact—note the recent study showing less than 10 percent of self-published authors make any kind of money at all—but on anecdotal evidence related to a unique situation in already having an audience built up through traditional publishing. Any crusade against traditional publishing is selfish to the extreme—it wants to replace diverse ways to publication with One True Way. The same call is often taken up by budding writers, because it can be very seductive to think publication is so very, very much closer than ever before…even if time put into getting rejected can be extremely important to developing writers. Self-publishing is a tool and like any other tool it can be used well or poorly. Putting it on a pedestal is a pointless exercise. I AM BOLDING THIS STATEMENT SO I DON’T GET ANY COMMENTS ABOUT HOW I HATE SELF-PUBLISHING, BECAUSE I DON’T. (Any such comments will be deleted.)

Advocating against the use of an agent. I’ve seen more than one experienced writer who should know better rail against the use of an agent in the new publishing atmosphere. All I can say is, if you think agents are evil sycophants who want to suck all of your money out of you and cheat you, feel free. I’ll be over in this corner getting a lot more done for more money because of my agent.

No one at New York publishing houses edits books any more. This is something I really find to be propaganda in the worst sense, in the context of bolstering the case for self-publishing (the case for which doesn’t need bolstering, depending on the context). All I can say is that everywhere I’ve been published in NY, I have had amazing editors who rolled up their sleeves and suggested, in some cases, major changes that had a big impact on the quality of the book in question. And many of my friends who also publish with NY publishers will tell you the same thing. This little inaccuracy used to be relatively benign back in the day, but it now more and more harmful, since it also suggests that since writers with big houses don’t get edits, editing in general really isn’t necessary. Not true.

Claiming you know how things are going to look five years down the road and recommending strategies based on your Sacred Knowledge. There are a lot of different elements in play right now in a market in flux. No one can really be sure of what book publishing will look like in five years except that e-books will be a hugely important part of it. But one thing you can be sure of: that future will have built-in tumors and cysts due to your promulgation of shit-ass ideas now, infecting the mind-stream of the internet and taking hold when they needn’t have.

Telling writers to establish some social media presence well in advance of finishing or selling a novel or other type of book. Another one-size-fits-all approach that isn’t useful for all writers or all kinds of books. For some writers, depending on their personality, it is downright destructive. For others, it is like being a hamster in a wheel trying to power your career, and expending lots of energy for little gain. Writers over-extending themselves, losing track of their art, all concerned that otherwise they’ll be rendered invisible.

This invisibility concerns me the most, especially in the context of those who scoff at traditional publishing these days. Trad publishing offers something to the shy writer, the introverted writer, the writer who will *always* trip over themselves trying to yank at the levers of social media. And that thing is advocacy and support. Is the advice we’re being given actually coming with the subtext that “if you’re not good at social media and selling yourself, don’t become a writer”? If so, fuck that. Some of my favorite writers wouldn’t know a facebook from an effing hole in the wall and yet, gasp, somehow manage to have careers.

Taken together, advocates for the wholesale dismantling of the current system and, to a lesser extent (lesser because it’s not as prevalent) other advocates who too frequently defend the inadequacies of the current system represent the biggest threat to the majority of writers. By spreading a more-or-less ideological virus that is then repeated by ever-growing numbers of people who do not stop to analyze what they then put out there as gospel, a self-fulfilling prophecy occurs that may do long-term damage to the ability of writers to survive in this new age of publishing.

As noted, I’m no luddite. I use social media strategically and well. I write very surreal books that reach a larger audience than they otherwise would because of these tools. But I also know what doesn’t work, and that old-fashioned word-of-mouth and many of the traditional ways still hold true. I am not at all interested in being complicit in the impoverishment of the literary community by adopting new ways without thinking them through thoroughly first. I also am not at all interested in some becoming more visible at the expense of making others into ghosts.

Now, of course, you’ll ask if I have the answers. Well, I don’t. I’m smart enough to know I don’t, but also savvy enough to know bullshit solutions when I see them, and not to promulgate them to new writers. We live in an exciting age for books, but the jury’s out on whether we’ll have enough imagination to make it a Renaissance or a Dying Fall. And lest anyone misunderstand, I am as at-fault as anyone in not yet having been able to see clearly on this issue. I just know there must be better ideas out there, better ways of doing things. Before we become Locked In to just One Idea or Two Ideas.

* In other cases, artists coming in from other media suggest ludicrous things like “all you have to do is have your own popular band and then you can write a novel that easily reaches people.” Yes. Form your own musical group. Then use that popularity to write a novel. Next idea, please.

On the Road: Newport

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I had to buy a hat in Newport, RI. I had to buy suntan lotion. I had to buy a smoothie and dump it over my head. It is hot here. But I didn’t let that deter me, and I went and took the Cliff Walk in a light drizzle, and then decided to take the scenic drive…as a walk..which was a war of attrition after awhile, about 10 miles in all. You can see photos on my facebook, using this link (which I think is public).

Oh yeah–and I had one of the most perfect cheese plates ever at the White Horse Tavern, before my hike. Highly recommended.

Off to Richmond tomorrow! Nine hours! Huzzah!

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On the Road: Stonecoast, Maine, ReaderCon

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(Core samples I have taken, which tend to manifest as organisms; thanks to Eric Schaller for his help with taxonomy, although all mistakes are my own.)

I am in New Hampshire at the moment, with a short break hanging out at Matt Cheney’s house before driving on to Newport and then to Richmond, Virginia, with the goal of winding up in Spartanburg, South Carolina, by Friday—in preparation for teaching at the Shared Worlds teen SF/F writing camp for two weeks.

Stonecoast: Memory and Fantasy

It’s been an eventful and fun time on the road thus far. I started out in Maine, giving a presentation at the Stonecoast MFA program and then doing a reading that night. I had a wonderful time. The Stonecoast house is near the water and the grounds are lovely. I stepped out of the car and all of the stress in my body just left me…and then came back as I came to realize we wouldn’t be able to print the notes to my presentation. But someone—someone miraculous whose name I’ve lost—managed to do a kind of split screen thing where the slides showed up for the audience and my notes, on the same computer, just showed up for me…

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(Art by Myrtle Von Damitz III)

The presentation was on Memory, History, and Fantasy: Urban Landscapes and Characterization, focusing on my novel Finch—basically swooping down from an eagle-eye view to a street-level view to talk about the ways in which characterization and settings interact. It’s not presented like Finch is the be-all and end-all, as that would be presumptuous, and indeed I told the audience that what I was about to show them was predicated on an ideal of the novel, including thoughts I’d had about it since publication. Since it was an MFA group, I thought I’d just bring it re the complexity and have the visual element and some bullet point lists strewn throughout help make it not too dense.

Butt Ugly

One of the central ideas of the presentation is that spaces and buildings are not neutral, inert things in novels—or shouldn’t always been seen as such. That in fact structures are important opportunities in fiction, related to characterization. I tie this into the following idea, a note from the presentation: “Everything we see around us, whether functional or decorative, once existed in someone’s imagination. Every building, every fixture, every chair, every table, every vase, every road, every toaster. The world we live in is largely a manifestation of many individual and collective imaginations applied to the task of altering reality.” I like to pull back to the abstract level here because it helps the audience to envision these elements as not inert but as kinetic and alive at the level of idea and metaphor.

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On Reaching the Curmudgeonly Age of 44

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I’m sure it’s July 7 somewhere, so I might as well admit it’s my birthday and I’m 44. Turning 44 doesn’t bother me one bit, to be honest. I’m in the best physical shape of my life, getting about 2 hours of exercise a day, and feel strong as an ox. I’ve also had a monstrous first half of the year creatively, returning at full strength to fiction and completing a novel, Annihilation, the novelette Komodo, and several short stories. As well as finishing off parts of other novels, a long essay on literary fakes, and part of Wonderbook, my forthcoming illustrated book on writing.

Strangely, getting bronchitis after several dental surgeries was a blessing. It made me slow down and focus. Ever since then, near the beginning of the year, I’ve felt refreshed and rejuvenated. A far cry from the last couple of years, during which, quite frankly, the looming shadow of The Weird really impacted our lives in negative ways, even if we’re quite proud of the achievement embodied by that anthology. It just devoured our schedule, our routine, etc.

Although the balance in my life still sometimes goes back and forth, the one thing I haven’t ever given up during this year is the work in the gym, and it’s been a huge part of why I’ve managed to be so productive. I’m also happy to be 6 years out from the last time I held a day job, and very grateful to be able to do what I love.

I’m looking forward to a great rest of the year, with Wonderbook being turned in soonish, and several amazing new projects to announce in the next couple of months. I’ll also be completing Authority, the sequel to Annihilation.

Finally, as ever, thanks to friends and family–and to my wife Ann, my love, who keeps me sane, makes me laugh, and who is always there for me.

Foyle’s War…Unaired Episode with Cockroaches

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I think our current all-rain all-the-time situation, which is increasing the incidents of encountering my mortal foe, the cockroach, is getting into my head—along with Foyle’s War, the Masterpiece Theater mystery series, which we’ve been devouring….

I had this dream last night that we were watching Foyle’s War, and the episode was about the search for a giant human-sized murdering cockroach. Except there were a lot of law-abiding giant cockroaches in England, so the case was difficult. At one point early on, Foyle decided he needed someone to go undercover in an apartment complex full of giant human-sized cockroaches.

So Sam speaks up and says, “Oh, sir, I’d love to go undercover to help get this cockroach, if it’s all right with you, sir. I think I’d enjoy it, as a break from driving.” So Foyle reluctantly agrees to this, and Sam goes undercover.

From there, the episode gets really strange. First of all, they keep cutting to Foyle’s sergeant, who has called in sick. But you see recurring shots of him, and he’s dressed in a black tuxedo and attached to the ceiling of his house, and just kind of hissing and there’s white stuff coming out of his mouth, that he’s affixing to the ceiling.

Meanwhile, the scenes with Sam infiltrating the apartment complex are as if through the holes in her cockroach disguise that allow her to see out, so you just see a lot of confused, claustrophobic dark shots of exterior feelers and cockroach mandibles and terrible glossy bug eyes, along with this chittering that you gradually realize is Sam trying to speak cockroachese.

If that’s not bad enough, Foyle spends the entire episode from then on in a chair by the fireplace of his home, and every once in a while he’ll move his head really fast to face the camera, and he gives this really fiendish smile, and we see a ghostly overlay of a cockroach head over his own head.

So, finally, Sam gets in a lot of trouble, and they just manage to rescue her, but when she returns to Foyle’s place, he’s still in the corner just staring off into space, and we cut to the sergeant on the ceiling, who has kind of married the ceiling—like, he’s now kind of decomposing into it, or becoming something else entirely.

We then cut to Sam on the white cliffs of Dover—no idea how she got there—and she’s staring out like she’s expecting to see something on the horizon, and she says “They weren’t really cockroaches, were they? They weren’t. They weren’t.” Then the next-to-final shot is a close-up of Foyle’s son flying through the air, but when the camera pans back, we see he’s not in a fighter plane but instead on the back of a giant flying cockroach, high above the white cliffs of Dover. Except, as we pan back in, we see that it’s the son’s *head* growing out of the back of the “cockroach”.

The very *last* shot is of Foyle again, in his chair, except we realize it’s not really a chair. That it’s a kind of weird carapace. And he looks right into the camera and screams, “For England! For England! For England.”

The end.

Recently Experienced: Thumbnail Reviews of Books, Movies, Music, TV

I’ve been hoarding up little thumbnail reviews of books, movies, TV, and music experienced over the past few months—offered up to you here in a long post that hopefully has something for everyone. There’s not as much in the books section just because of all of the sampling I do for Omnivoracious features, the editing (so I’ve been reading manuscripts, really), and the writing. I’m too lazy to provide links—and too busy—but all of this stuff is easy to find.

If a movie or TV show is starred **, we saw it on Netflix On Demand.

Books

(Just a note that I’m currently reading and enjoying the hell out of the 1970s novel The Death of the Detective by Mark Smith—so far, I’d recommend it most highly. I’m also half-way through Chiina Mieville’s Railsea, and I think it’s his most relaxed novel yet—he’s clearly enjoying himself, and I think that helps the reader enjoy the book even more, too. Definitely recommended thus far.)

THE CRONING by Laird Barron. Alas, although I like Barron’s short fiction, this first novel wasn’t that good. From my review on the Amazon sales page: “Unfortunately, this novel is a mess. The main character is tediously boring, the main situation relies on the main character being something of an idiot, and there are chapters and chapters of family history that display very little talent for knowing what is useful and interesting. The rituals described are right out of old pulp fiction. Allusions to Machen et al only spotlight the problems. The last chapters, which are meant to be epic horror, are instead pretty unintentionally hilarious, with a portal described as being as big as a bowling ball and then a hula hoop not helping the atmosphere much. Opening scenes set in Mexico that feature a fairly cliched-sounding university rep and generic detail don’t help. The other problem is that the novel could’ve been written in the 1930s, 1940s, or 1950s, and the author wouldn’t have had to change more than a few words, really. The writing on a sentence level is often good, but can’t save the novel. It’s a real disappointment, as I went in wanting to like this novel very much–I am a fan of much of Barron’s short fiction. I hope the next novel is better.”

VLAD by Carlos Fuentes. I enjoyed this one a lot, with a review forthcoming, so I won’t say too much here except that he manages to mix satire and dark humor with something also very serious and Grand Guignol, and refreshes the vampire trope rather nicely. Creepy and hilarious.

GONE by Mo Hayder. A surprisingly emotional and twisty detective story from a writer who is hit-or-miss for me. Hayder can be great, as in Birdman, or just plain effed up as in Pig Island, which plays out as a horrendous bait-and-switch (first half great, second half from some other novel). Here, she’s done a great job with the characters and writing, and it’s a riveting read but had depth as well.

THE VANISHING by Heidi Julavits. Ann read and really liked this weird fusion of the uncanny and other elements. Psychic attacks. Mysteries from the past. Lots of layering-in of elements from different genres.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. I think it’s no surprise to anyone given prior blog posts that I loved this one to death (with a review forthcoming). As I said commenting as a reader on the Amazon sales page, “2312 is an amazing feat of the imagination: a plausible view of our solar system three centuries from now, one that combines genre and mainstream literary influences to create a rich tapestry of adventure, intrigue, and extrapolation, with strong, strong characters. What holds the whole thing together is the love story—yes, I said it. A love story. As brilliant an interesting a love story as you’re likely to find in all of science fiction. I thought this was the best SF novel I’ve read in the last few years.”

I HOTEL by Karen Tei Yamashita. This book is beyond brilliant. I can’t believe it didn’t win the National Book Award. I could rave about this novel all frickin’ day. It’s a nuanced fusion of both traditional and experimental approaches to fiction, detailing the experiences of Asian American characters and others during the time of social upheaval in San Francisco during the 1960s and 1970s. Composed of ten novellas, each one unique, each one amazing, I Hotel is notable in part for how adroit Yamashita is at negotiating such a complicated landscape with such ease. Despite the weight of the subject matter, there is a lightness to the book, and a clarity, that is remarable. What it illuminates about race, culture, class, and other important issues—and how it takes the didactic and renders it in artistically compelling ways—is stunning. And it beggars in its complexity and its sheer exuberance and compassion and…well, in every other way just about any SF/fantasy novel dealing with similar issues over the past decade. It really underlines for me why it is so toxic and so inbred to just, as a writer or reader, read only SF/fantasy, or only any one kind of approach to fiction. It’s like walking around with only part of your brain engaged. Or walking around with blinders on. Such balkanization leads to all kinds of missed opportunities for cross-pollination and for understanding.

Movies

Reminder: the ** means I saw it on demand; those stars aren’t a reviewing scale or anything.

AND SOON THE DARKNESS. A cult British film about two women biking through France who make a series of increasingly stupid decisions with a serial killer on the loose. The annoying thing about this movie is that it holds your attention for the first third, with a kind of growing tension and great use of the landscape…and then it just becomes dumber and dumber until it becomes Super Dumb. Avoid.**

ANTIBODIES. A pretty absorbing German serial killer movie, with the right weight and emphasis given so you care about the people involved. It, however, decides on a kind of semi-mystical ending that involves CGI deer that don’t look real and don’t fit the rest of the flick. Just turn it off right when you see the first deer, and maybe that experience won’t scar you.**

BAJO DEL SAL. A great-looking Mexican serial killer murder mystery that I haven’t finished yet due to deadlines. Also because it looks like it’s setting up one particular individual to be the killer, and he’s not particularly interesting. But definitely worth a look-see, depending on what you want from this kind of movie.**

CABIN IN THE WOODS. Joss Whedon can renovate rather brilliantly at times, but he’s not good at subversion. So in tackling horror movie tropes and putting his subtext on the surface in a ham-fisted attempt at social commentary or satire…all he winds up doing is perpetrating the same clichés he’s trying to make a comment about. The fact is, any bad horror movie already parodies the horror genre, things have gotten so bad in that regard. Whedon would have been better off just trying to create a horror movie that renovated and riffed off the genre instead of this meta-mess.

CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS. This documentary by Werner Herzog actually wound up not being our favorite, as it seemed to go on a little long and end with white crocodiles for no reason, but the core of it has some breathtaking visuals of the prehistoric cave painting, and Herzog’s ruminations are always great. Worth it for that alone. See it back-to-back with Prometheus. Heh.**

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Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria: Free Chapbook Preview!

I received an advance copy of Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria from Small Beer Press a few months ago and unfortunately—I feel pretty guilty—have been so busy that all I’ve been able to confirm is that it’s really well-written and looks like a great debut. BUT, now you can preview the novel, as Samatar is letting everyone know that Small Beer is offering a free sampler. So go forth and get an early look at a promising new writer.