Helsinki’s 2015 Worldcon Bid and a Cornucopia of Finnish Speculative Fiction (free e-book)

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We here at Cheeky Frawg had no idea that Helsinki would be vying to host the 2015 Worldcon when we started to acquire books by Finnish writers for our line, supported by generous grants from FILI, the Finnish Literature Exchange. We just knew that there as a rather amazing amount of talent in Finland when it came to speculative fiction, weird fiction, fantasy, SF—whatever you want to call it. And that this talent was backed up by a very strong and knowledgeable SF/F community.

But we now find the release of our books (in October) coinciding in part with Helsinki’s bid, and we’d just like to say how strongly we support that bid—in part because their home grown talent is so great. You’ll note the names on the image above, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. And one reason we think a Helsinki Worldcon makes so much sense is the number of really interesting writers you’ll discover—as interesting in person as on the page.

In fact, in celebration of that bid, we’d like to offer, for free, an ebook of Finnish writer Leena Krohn’s World Fantasy Award finalist Tainaron, one of our favorite short novels of all time. Just through today, midnight Eastern Standard Time. Just email me at [email protected] with the subject line Free E-book and specify mobi (Kindle) or epub and I’ll send it to you. I’ll send them out in batches, so don’t worry if you don’t hear right away. All requests will be filled by tomorrow afternoon, tops.

Not only are we releasing Krohn’s Datura in October, but next year we are putting out a 900-page omnibus of Krohn’s collected novels in English, along with some short fiction and commissioned essays.

The Care and Feeding of the Structures We Build

Assuming for the sake of argument (because it doesn’t need to be this way in reality) that we must delineate fiction as realistic or non-realistic (read, “fantastical” if you like or surreal or magically real or magically delicious if you really must)… then thinking for a moment from the point of view of someone passionate about nonrealistic fiction…Imagine for a moment any and all organizations or institutions or awards systems that exist in the service of such literature…Wouldn’t you want these organizations and institutions and awards systems to have true interest in true diversity of this kind of fiction?—for example, the same passion for it wherever it might be found around the world and with an appreciation for and delight in how it differs and where it is the same—and to be willing to learn different ways of reading and to become attuned to and aware of different traditions of literature?

For example, too, no less passion for the magically real or the magically delicious if found in mainstream lit journals rather than in genre publications (able to recognize it even in the “wrong” context, not rendered invisible merely by the company kept)…or that in aggregate understand and approve of and actively support the elation of, for example, a reader in one language finding the amazing fantastical stories of some neglected writer in another language, glimpsed in the form of just a couple of tales or even a fragment of translation—this reader whose elation is not really even about the treasure itself but how it suggests the outline of something greater that is still excruciatingly only half-seen, texts time-traveling from the past to the present that help to form a more complete picture and a more complete conversation…

Wouldn’t you want institutions and organizations and award systems that while they recognize and appreciate the center of things also have a sense of stewardship for those most experimental examples of the form that need help to find an audience and that through their adventurousness allow other brave, but not as brave, souls to travel farther than they might? Institutions and organizations and award systems that have the wisdom to bypass tired binary arguments about high and low art, genre and mainstream, that largely ignore territorialism and ideology while correcting for the kind of territorialism and ideology that negate a level playing field and make us all, in a way, more selfish. In short, wouldn’t you want organizations and institutions and award systems that possess in the very syntax of their bylaws the same roving curiosity and passion that make of us as individuals vast and generous and joyful and omnivorous readers?

Wonderbook: An Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction (out in October)

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(early draft of the cover)

One reason I’ve been so quiet here on my blog is that I’ve been working nonstop on Wonderbook: An Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. This is the world’s first fully illustrated, full-color guide to creative writing, with many of the images replacing instructional text. Jeremy Zerfoss did most of the art; his instructional diagrams are based on my rough sketches. The remaining art comes from over 30 artists from all over the world. More than 80 writers contributed to the book through sidebar essays, spotlight features, or just quotes in the main text. (I’ll have a full TOC posted closer to the publication date.) There are over 250 images in Wonderbook.

I cannot thank Abrams Image, my publisher, and David Cashion, my editor, enough. They gave me the budget, time, and support to go off and create the entire 352-page book from scratch–overseeing all aspects of the art and design–and to deliver it to them complete. I cannot think of another time that this has occurred, and it may never again. I feel incredibly lucky.

But as we finish up on the book–we’ve turned in the layouts to the publisher, and are just working on a last few images–I thought I’d share some teasers here from the book so you can begin to get an idea of it. I’m not going to post much from the innovative instructional diagrams, but you can probably still get some sense of the scope. Basically, this book is meant to be of use to any beginning or intermediate writer, but its foundation is in the fantastical. Most general writing books use realism as their foundational stance…

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Molly Gloss’s Phenomenal “The Grinnell Method” at Strange Horizons

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“She followed Grinnell’s famous method of note-taking: Her notebook, small enough to slip in her pocket, was an abridged record of bird sightings, cryptic behavior notes in a shorthand of her own invention, quickly-sketched drawings and maps, details of weather and vegetation, travel routes and mileage that would be difficult to remember with precision later in the day. It was scribbled in pencil, and none of it well organized—it all ran together….The Journal, written in pen at the end of every day, would be considerably fuller and neater, her notes organized, sorted out, edited, expanded, with detailed observations of behavior recorded at the back, on separate pages for each individual species. For the Journal, and for Species Accounts, she created a narrative, free of sentiment or much personal reflection—a scientific document, not a diary, but with the skeleton of facts dressed in the clothes of complete sentences, so as to be readable by any stranger looking over her shoulder. All manner of facts might prove important to a student of the future, this was Grinnell’s belief. Nothing in nature should be assumed insignificant.” – From Molly Gloss’s “The Grinnell Method”

Sometimes you encounter a story that speaks to you on many levels at once, in which you recognize something very personal. Molly Gloss’s “The Grinnell Method,” serialized (Part 1 and Part 2) at Strange Horizons the last two weeks, is one such story for me. “The Grinnell Method” does many things wonderfully well, but at the forefront is its ability to convey a sense of the natural world in a clear yet lyrical way. I recognize, transported to a different terrain, many of my own hikes at St. Marks Wildlife Refuge here in North Florida. I recognize also those elements of silence, surprise, observation, and strange beauty that one encounters when immersed in that world. The details in Gloss’s story feel personal, they feel lived-in, and they reflect a profound sense of place. These are remarkable achievements that also push back against ideas of false urgency in narrative and the idea of what is or is not interesting in fiction. “Nothing in nature should be assumed insignificant,” she writes, and she makes the reader experience the truth of these words. There are so many tour-de-force descriptions that I’ll reference only one and let you read the rest in the story, because that is, in part, the point of the story: “When she came out of the trees onto the bayshore, a great flock of wigeons and pintails flew up in unison against the dark sky, turning so the undersides of their wings caught the seam of sun at the horizon. The tide was out, and her shoes left a trail of shallow pug marks in the narrow strand of bayside beach. Crab molts were thick, and the mud was stitched with the lacy tracks of sanderlings and plovers as well as the spoor of deer, who liked to come down to graze the tidewater marshes at evening.”

What is the story about? It is in a sense irrelevant because of the way the story lives in both the moment and the past; this is not what some call a “plot driven” story, even though that idea comes fraught with all kinds of faulty assumptions. But the details are these: in the early 1940s, a woman naturalist is cataloguing bird and other life in a Pacific Northwest coastal landscape when she encounters an odd phenomenon. This phenomenon appears to the main character in the constrained, narrow way in which it must: to be observed and documented but without a wider explanation. To say the story is not plot-driven and that it contains indelible portraits of the natural world does not mean that “The Grinnell Method” isn’t aware of the era it depicts—exactly the opposite. We are made aware of it abruptly and pointedly from the beginning when she “sat on the dirt like a Jap”—this from the perspective of the young boy who helps transport her gear for her expedition; Gloss does an excellent job of remaining in a place with regard to point of view where she can be tight-in on her protagonist but also open up at times to give us glimpses of other people’s thoughts and opinions. (For example, both a postal worker and a girl who may want to also become a naturalist.)

We are also aware of the role of women in the world—the ways in which her interaction with the natural world are impacted by the world of humans beyond. For example, the observation a few pages in that “Universities don’t mind teaching girls, they just don’t like to hire them”; this in reference to the woman’s attempt to pursue a scientific career as a naturalist. Indeed, throughout the story she conveys the recognition that in order to survive in that world she must be a magnitude better at her job than her male cohorts; thus, the careful way in which the story opens, in which we are presented with her careful observations of nature, the great care that she takes with everything. It is not just the marker of someone good at what they do, but also someone who has to be superb at their job. And this: “Employment opportunities would disappear completely if she were to marry, and therefore she would never marry.” The awful power of this—that this means so much to her, despite the possibility of an impulse for another life—is not undercut by sentimentality. This is just the way things are—and the very descriptions of nature undercut sentimentality, explain the allure of her work; the “backdrop” is foreground in part for this reason.

This immersion in nature from the first page to last is not just about understanding the natural world but also about understanding character: this is the world the woman works in and has developed a deep understanding of. Immersing the reader thus makes it all the more startling, all the more wrong, when the strange phenomenon makes its appearance. It is a feeling of wrongness that permeates the page in a way it would not otherwise. Merging with the sense of something wrong is the way in which Gloss weaves in the past, in the tragic story of the woman’s brother, and his impact on her life. By the time the reader comes to the last pages, the story has added momentum and depth and sense of mystery. There is a thematic, subtextual confluence with the surface of the story that feels unforced and natural.

“The Grinnell Method” will leave the reader with questions about the inexplicable, but all of the answers the story provides are there, in the moment, for readers who understand that some tales satisfy utterly and completely in this sentence, and this one, and the one after that.

(Still, I would follow this woman anywhere, across any landscape, and some small part of me hopes that she will reappear in some future story. I also hope that “The Grinnell Method” receives some awards consideration at year’s end.)

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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Goodreads and the Steampunk Deletions

A very good blog entry here about the recent Steampunk book deletions on Goodreads, with all the context. From past behavior of the individual involved, I have a hard time believing this was accidental.

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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