The World of the Graphic Novel

The excellent New England Science Fiction Events blog has just alerted me to a necessary event for those living in the Massachusetts area who are interested in comic books. The Fitchburg Art Museum will launch a new exhibit at the end of September called LitGraphic: The World of the Graphic Novel, which will run September 25-January 1, 2012. Here’s the description:

LitGraphic: The World of the Graphic Novel will examine the use of sequential art as a significant form of visual communication, and place specific emphasis on the art of the contemporary graphic novel. This special exhibition will feature over 200 original art works, including paintings, drawings, storyboards, studies, books, photographs, and a documentary film, offering insights into the lives of the artists and the nature of their work.

I’ll be looking to head out there once the show opens.

The Blogenning 3.0

Sadly, my blog has been largely abandoned for some time. But I have now been roused from slumber by a group of friends intending to shame each other into returning to our musing avocations. The goal is to post a set number of times per week. And as I keep the blog stumbling along into its fourth year, I am reminded that actually doing things always has its slogging moments.

I’ve recently been reading C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters (quite different as an adult), and came across this passage. Lewis writes the Screwtape Letters from the point of view of a tempting devil, so everything is backwards (i.e. “The Enemy” actually refers to God):

Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman. The Enemy allows this disappointment to occur on the threshold of every human endeavour. It occurs when the boy who has been enchanted in the nursery by Stories from the Odyssey buckles down to really learning Greek. It occurs when lovers have got married and begin the real task of learning to live together. In every department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing. The Enemy takes this risk because He has a curious fantasy of making all these disgusting little human vermin into what He calls His ‘free’ lovers and servants–‘sons’ is the word He uses, with His inveterate love of degrading the whole spiritual world by unnatural liaisons with the two-legged animals. Desiring their freedom, He therefore refuses to carry them, by their mere affections and habits, to any of the goals which He sets before them: He leaves them to ‘do it on their own.’

And indeed, even with the help of the Blogenning, there is a slog ahead. Still, glad to be back. Here are my fellow travelers:

I’ll be keeping the blog on the subject of writing, stories, and books, but I expect this to be a bit challenging considering a Blogenning rule called The Rotation:

The Rotation is a thematic challenge, started every week by a rotating member of the Blogenning. The first post of this week by the scheduled member becomes the challenge theme, and the same topic/category of post must be written by all members of the Blogenning that week. This means that if I write about rabid bunnies on my week as my first post, you all have to write about them at some point. Or if my first post of the week is a poem, you all have to post a poem by the end of the week. This post *does* count towards your weekly total, so it is not “extra.” The punishment for failing The Rotation is to produce an extra post the following week to make up for it. If I still fail to produce said post… the group shall think up an appropriate punishment.

We’ll have to see how well I can find short stories about rabid bunnies or what have you.

That ‘Empire Strikes Back’ Feeling

I recently finished Changeless, the second of Gail Carriger’s Alexia Tarabotti novels. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would absolutely recommend it, but it ended on a painful note. I was left wandering Logan airport with a hole in my heart that rightly belonged to a fictional character.

It’s that ‘Empire Strikes Back’ feeling–the deep slump that comes in the middle of things (though I should note that the Alexia Tarabotti novels are not a trilogy–there are at least five planned). It was refreshing to get that deep depression.

I can’t think of the last time I read a second volume that so unabashedly ended with a serious downer. Are we generally spoiled by happy endings?

When that pain is done right, it’s a special kind of rush. To this day, Empire Strikes Back is my favorite of the original three Star Wars movies.

Hickey of the Beast

A couple years back, I posted about a really fun zombie story by Isabel Kunkle, who I’ve since had the pleasure of meeting. I’ve just discovered that Izzy’s new book, Hickey of the Beast, is being serialized by Candlemark and Gleam, an intriguing e-book publisher.

Here’s the description:

Bad dreams? No big deal. After all, Connie Perez is starting her first year in the prep school her mom runs. Anyone would be a little stressed, right? When she starts dreaming about strange creatures and places that don’t make sense, she doesn’t think much about it: there’s other stuff on her mind. Then she starts noticing that the people she dreams about get sick right afterwards.

Then everything gets weird.

There’s something bad on the campus of Springden Academy. Something that feeds on students and warps their minds. And, as Connie and her friends try to figure out what’s going on, it starts to look like she’s the only one who can stop it.

Freshman year was hard enough without having to fight evil after class.


You can sample the first chapter here.

I enjoy Izzy’s writing, but I’m also interested in Candlemark and Gleam’s approach. They’re selling a basic subscription to the serial for $5, but then they offer a variety of bonus packages. Many of them include bonus stories, but the Plutonium package takes the cake: for $25, you get the subscription to the book, the bonus stories, an iron-on patch, and a custom one-shot tabletop RPG scenario written by Izzy. You can choose whatever RPG system you want.

I bought the Plutonium package just to make Izzy work 😉 — but seriously, I am not sure how sustainable that is. I love the concept of subscriptions with bonus features. I think that’s very clever, and probably the way you have to do things these days. On the other hand, I hope the custom RPG has some sort of formula that makes it easy to put together. It seems underpriced to me.

Authors already have to work very hard for very little money, unless they’re JK Rowling. I am a little worried about setting a precedent for that degree of personalized attention for the price of your average hardback.

As far as logistics of distribution go, I found Candlemark’s system a little confusing. They’re linked to PayPal, which is good, but require you to make your own account for their site, which I don’t love doing. If I didn’t know Izzy, I might not have gone through with that. After I bought the book, I received a confirmation e-mail right away, but it actually took me a while to figure out where to read chapter one, and I’m not sure how or when I’ll get the rest of my stuff.

My verdict on Candlemark’s approach is that I’m totally intrigued, but I think it needs more polish. I love the idea of bonus material, but I worry about placing too much burden on the author.

But enough geeking about e-book distribution! Go read the first chapter!

Clarkesworld Experiment


Clarkesworld is experimenting with the pricing of their ebook edition, dropping it from $2.99 to $0.99 for the March issue, #54.

The post announcing the experiment explains how Amazon and Barnes and Noble create incentives for ebooks to be priced at certain rates:

70% royalty (minus delivery fee) for books priced between $2.99 and $9.99, 35% royalty for everything else
B& 65% royalty for books priced between $2.99 and $9.99, 40% royalty for everything else

Vocabulary Words

The elevator in my office building has a screen in it that shows headlines, stock quotes, polls, and vocabulary words. Over time, staring at its vocabulary words has made me realize a real failing in how the idea of a richer vocabulary is generally presented.

To be blunt, these vocabulary words come off as ridiculous and pretentious. This isn’t a real example, but this is the sort of thing I see:

Pulchritude: (n) beauty

Example: Laura was thrilled by the pulchritude of her new four-inch heels from Bebe.

This use of the word irritates me because there’s no reason not to just say “beauty.” There’s no sense of what might make pulchritude a better word to choose. There’s no sense of how it differs, or how it shades meaning. It must be different, because it rings so strangely in that sentence and that context, but I’m not given any understanding of how.

I think vocabulary lessons like this, which are similar to how I learned vocabulary in school or how it shows up on standardized tests, give the impression that you use these “50-cent” words to show off and exclude stupid people, not because they are really better words to choose. As a journalist, I’m trained to write simply, so I have been doubly biased against these words.

What’s recently cured me of this impression is the prose of China Mieville, Joseph Conrad, and other writers who love those less commonly used words and care deeply about choosing the right ones. I have to read Mieville with a dictionary at my side, but I’ve come to really appreciate the subtle shadings he creates with word choice, both in terms of meaning and in terms of mood.

It’s made me think that these example sentences for vocabulary words need more context.

Maybe there need to be example paragraphs, not sentences. There might be a reason to use “pulchritude” to describe Laura’s shoes, but I think it’s likely stylistic and more prose is needed to illustrate this.

Also, vocabulary words should probably be taught in groups. Teach “pulchritude” alongside “beauty” and “allure,” and really illustrate the cases where one is a great choice and the others aren’t. Synonyms don’t actually mean the same thing-they are shaded differently, and vocabulary words should be presented with that sense of connotation and context.

That, after all, is the interesting part, and the part that makes it worthwhile to expand vocabulary.


I’ve been reading the excellent new run of Demo, comics by Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan. If you are at all interested in comics, you should be reading these. They’re a series of standalone stories, so each week’s issue is self-contained. They have some supernatural element, but so far it’s been slight–the sort of supernatural element that you could chalk up to imbalanced perceptions on the part of the narrator.

This week’s issue of Demo, called “Pangs,” was the best read of my week by far. It’s a story about a cannibal, and at some point I’m going to have to go through it panel by panel to figure out how the creators achieve the effect that they do. They don’t pull punches on the horror of cannibalism. It’s awful, and I spent the whole comic terrified of what the main character was about to do to himself or the people around him. On the other hand, they create so much sympathy for him that I wanted him to succeed, to be all right, to find a way to get away with it.

For one thing, this comic has excellent use of the second person. In the past, I’ve written on the confessional power of this tense:

“But as the reader gets more deeply into these stories, it becomes clear that the “you” isn’t really instructional. It’s more of the “you” that substitutes for an “I” in certain types of conversations. It’s used for statements like: “You know how sometimes you’re just angry at people who don’t deserve it.” But what I really mean is, “Sometimes, I’m mad at you when you don’t deserve it, and I’m sorry, but too afraid to say so.” It is a “you” that signifies a frightened “I,” and so contains a plea for identification, an upfront assumption that you and I participate in exactly the same sins.”

I stared in awe at the power of lines such as, “You realize it’s no good. You just can’t eat anything else…”

But before I go off completely on a rant about this particular issue, I also want to point to the other thing I find fascinating about Demo. Both Wood and Cloonan have included material in the back of each issue about how they stretch themselves for this series, playing with different concepts and different ways of telling stories. This material provides a shining example of the benefits of experimenting with style and genre.

Here’s something Cloonan wrote in the back of issue 1:

“Back when we started, I was actually surprised by how much Brian trusted me. I barely trusted myself–I had what I could only describe as stage fright, which I guess is a weird feeling to get while drawing, but as the issues went on (I’ll be the first to admit some more successfully than others), I came into a sort of sense of self about my art. For the first few issues I felt schizophrenic, but then I realized that all of this, all of DEMO was just aspects of me, and of Brian, and together the issues became more than just a sum of their parts.”

I think that’s beautiful, and I’ve experienced that feeling of stage fright when I have an idea that I like but am not sure I can pull off. Go read these.

How to Find Out What Editors of Online Journals Like

I love the Million Writers Award for many reasons, but one great reason to pay attention to the nominations might not be obvious to all. Over at this page, the editors of dozens of online journals have posted links to what they believe to be the three best stories they published in 2009. You can’t buy a resource that good. Not only is it a great place to find out about online journals and see if you like what they publish, you can get a pretty good sense of what the editors are looking for and what they’re proud of.

I also find it interesting to gain insights into related magazines. Some writers have been nominated by several different editors. So, if you like the work of X writer and think yours is similar, this might give some clues as to where you should be sending your own writing.

Jason Sanford says this year there have been more nominations than ever before. My observation is that there are everything from very obscure niche publications (Stymie, a magazine that until recently was devoted entirely to literary stories about golf) to professional speculative fiction markets such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

Every writer should have the page I linked above bookmarked.

Best of Every Day Fiction

My story, “Home to Perfect,” has been included in the Best of Every Day Fiction Two anthology. The book is now available for order in both hardcover and paperback.

Every Day Fiction posts one flash piece a day and has developed a great community that comments intelligently on the day’s stories. It’s definitely worth dropping into the feed reader. If reading online’s not your thing, here’s your chance to check out what they do.

I’m very proud of “Home to Perfect,” and I’m glad to see its life extended this way. I thought this might be a nice occasion to talk a bit about what goes on when I write a piece of flash fiction.

I’ve seen a lot of discussion online recently about how long it takes to write various types of fiction. Most of what I read about flash fiction suggests that these are quick, easy pieces that you can dash off in a morning. That’s not my experience at all. The only reason I can afford to write flash is that I have a day job.

“Home to Perfect” took me a solid 15 hours to write. I’ll try to break down how those hours were spent. You should read the story (linked at the top of the post) before reading my explanation–I’m not going to worry about spoilers.

I got the idea when I was poking around the Internet one day and found a video on YouTube of a kid pulling off 100 percent FC on expert of “Through the Fire and Flames” on Guitar Hero. At the end of the video, the kid is visibly trembling, cursing in disbelief, totally overwhelmed (I’d link it now, but I can’t find it anymore–if you search for this on YouTube, you get totally overwhelmed by bots and parody videos). I found myself thinking over the next several days about the kid’s awe and how he shared it with an audience on YouTube. I wondered if his parents had any idea what that moment meant to him.

I spent about 3 hours over the next several days developing the idea. I asked myself who Vic (my main character) was, why he cared about 100 percent FC, and what else was going on in his life. I wrote extensive notes on him, his mom, his dad, and his brother Kurt. This was the point at which I realized that I was writing about domestic violence. I could tell you a lot of details about all of these characters that never made it into the story. I believe a story should be an iceberg–what’s visible should be only a small amount of the material that’s in the author’s possession.

At that point, I wrote my first draft, spending about 2 hours on it. (My first draft rate for longer pieces is much faster, but my speed of writing seems to be inversely related to the length of the piece).

I put my first draft down for about a week. When I picked it up again, something was wrong with it, and I couldn’t figure out what. After much rereading and consideration (which I’m not counting towards the total time spent on the work), I figured out that “Through the Fire and Flames” was the problem. I had no emotional connection to the song, and I hadn’t spent much time playing Guitar Hero. I had, on the other hand, pulled many all-nighters playing Rock Band. There’s a song on Rock Band called “Green Grass and High Tides” that I love deeply and find wickedly difficult (I can beat it on hard, but that’s the best I can do). I changed the story so that Vic is playing Rock Band, and spent about 5 hours writing a new draft. While I wrote this draft, I played “Green Grass and High Tides” on repeat and periodically took breaks to watch videos of people playing this song on Rock Band.

[As an aside, when the story was first posted on Every Day Fiction, fellow writer Deven Atkinson pointed out that the lyrics of “Green Grass and High Tides” are actually very inspiring and appropriate to Vic’s situation. Though I normally pay a lot of attention to song lyrics, I hadn’t in this case. However, the story just didn’t work for me until I saturated it and myself with the mood of this song. I think it’s quite possible that I was subconsciously aware of what the song is saying to Vic.]

At that point, I thought I’d finished the story, so I let my husband read it. As always happens, he made me realize that I was far from finished with the story, pointing out several problems with how it was structured. I spent about 3 hours restructuring and fixing those problems. Then, I spent 2 hours doing a final polish and preparing the story for submission. For me, this consists of reading the whole thing out loud several times, fixing anything that trips me up and fiddling with things until I’m sure I really want to send this out into the world. I run spellcheck. I obsessively study the guidelines for the market to which I’m sending the story.

And that’s a wrap. I’ve wished that I could write faster, but I’m much happier with the version that’s on the Every Day Fiction site than what I would have come up with if I’d stopped after the first or second draft.

Million Writers Award Needs Genre Judges

If you’ve been reading this blog a while, you know that I go crazy around here when it’s time for the Million Writers Award. But guess what? I don’t have to have all the fun alone. Jason Sanford, who runs the award, is looking for preliminary judges, particularly people who are familiar with SF/F/H, crime, or romance.

I did this job last year, and plan to do it again this year. It was incredibly rewarding, and it introduced me to publications and writers I continue to follow. Jason writes:

So if you are an experienced writer, reader, or editor in the fields of horror, SF, fantasy, romance, or crime fiction, please apply by e-mailing me at lapthai (circle a sign) yahoo (dot) com.  Be sure to tell me why you’d make a good preliminary judge (i.e., mention your writing, reading and/or editing experience).

I wholeheartedly suggest you get involved if you’ve got the appropriate background and interest.