Tuesday, June 8, 2010

AE Micro Critiques. Round 2.

by Cait

"Why did you bring that? It doesn't work!"

"Does too, you skinless cretin."

We raced along the cylindrical paths, the sound of flyers chasing us.

"Even if it does work, what's its use now?" As Cecilia had pointed out, we were skinless. No suits, no engines, no use for it.

"I didn't say ..." She glared, as much as one can when sprinting away from Secs intent on jailing you.

I veered left as we reached the crossroads, but Cecilia's arm shot out and pulled me to the right, pushing us up against the wall.



The flyers neared. Cecilia twisted the useless thing until a rusty bolt flew off and hit me in the nose.



Cecilia tossed the noisy, steaming, thing out into the street and rounded on me.

"Get down, you empty headed ass!"

She jumped on me as the flyers reached us. There was an explosion and shrapnel and smoke and confusion filled the enclosed streets. We sprinted across the passage and headed for home, the Secs fooled.

"So, it's a steam bomb now?"

"Shut it."

"Well, it's tiny, loud, and annoying, just like its inventor."

She growled and slapped me.

Duff says: As I’ve said before, opening with dialogue is a potent device if done well. The first two lines do a good job of setting up tension and giving us a sense of character. My main gripe with the opening is “you skinless cretin.” Insults, in dialogue, are a difficult but vital thing to get right. It’s a mistake to get overly descriptive with insults, using them to provide exposition or to physically describe the characters. As with overuse of names, the end result is often more to knock the reader out of the story than to seat them more firmly in it. I have trouble believing a character who calls their friends by epithets like “you skinless cretin” and “you empty headed ass.” In reality, friends call each other things like “asshole” and “fucker” and “idiot,” generic insults that roll off the cuff easily. If the author of this story had just used “skinless” as an insult by itself, it would have felt more natural as well as tantalizing us with the setting. Okay, though. Enough about insults. The second thing that bothered me was that the tone of the dialogue (and to a lesser extent the description) throughout the story just doesn’t seem to match the action. Right up until I hit the word “jailed,” I assumed that the characters were involved in some sort of game or sport, rather than running for their lives. There is no fear in their affect. That can work if we get a sense that flippancy is their defense mechanism, or that they are so used to danger as to be unfazed by it. But we get neither. In the end, it was that mismatch of tone, and the resultant uncertainty about what was at stake, that kept me from getting engaged in what is otherwise a tight story with good action.

Helen says:It starts off well, with the title and a few terse lines establishing the tension, and the lingo of our “skinless” heroes chased by “Secs” giving us a sense of a foreign setting. But after a while it feels like the dialogue is being asked to carry too much weight, and the line “Cecilia twisted the useless thing until a rusty bolt flew off and hit me in the nose.” veers into slapstick. There’s a dramatic explosion, but it leaves us wondering: if the thing wasn’t a bomb to begin with, what was it supposed to be? It’s a good portrait of sibling rivalry and could be a great way to set up a story about these two characters, but taken in isolation, the ending undercuts the stakes and there are too many changes in tone for me to know how I'm supposed to take the story. “[T]iny, loud, and annoying, just like its inventor” is cute, but it doesn’t feel micro.

Small Price
by Moira Young

A middle-aged man met Karen at the docking bay. “Jim Tyler,” he said. “Welcome to Microtopia.”

She shook his extended hand. It was warm. “Karen Barnes.” She raised one brow. “You here to show me around?”

“That’s my job.”

Karen chuckled. “So what are you in for?”

“Embezzlement.” He shrugged. “Careful. It’s rude to ask that.”

Jim took her through the settlement, showing her the gym and the theatre, the cafeteria and the park. When they reached her quarters, Karen looked around and grinned. “You’d think people would scramble to get in here.”

Jim’s face darkened. “There are costs.”

“I shot my abusive husband,” she snapped. “Even if I’m an inch high for the rest of my life, better this diorama than a prison I don’t deserve.”

“The rest of your life,” he repeated. “Feel your forehead.”

Karen gasped. “I’m burning up!” she cried. “So are you.”

“I’m twenty-eight years old, Karen. I’ve only been here six months.” He grimaced. “Shrinking criminals doesn’t just save the taxpayers, it gets rid of us.”

She stared at him, horrified.

“Enjoy your stay,” said Jim. “You won’t be here long.”

Duff says This was one of the last stories cut from the short list when we were paring down to the five stories eventually printed in AE Micro. “Embezzlement.” He shrugged. “Careful. It’s rude to ask that.” I was sold on the story by that one line. It echoes so many familiar prison dramas that, regardless of whether such an exchange has ever happened behind real-world bars, it casts the story in a mold we can understand. This, always, is the key to making the premise work in science fiction. The problem with the story, for me, was that the ending fell flat. Right up until ”I’m twenty-eight years old, Karen.” I was rapt, but then the story floundered, trying to hold the reader’s hand through the twist ending. Also, replacing a couple of the speech attributions (“repeated,” “chuckled,” “gasped,” “snapped”) with “said” would have gone a long way.

Helen says:This story has an intriguing premise, one that stood out among the entries and even from those with a “shrinking person” theme. Even within the span of 200 words there’s foreshadowing about the characters’ fate. The setup, pacing, and payoff work well — no mean feat in a story of this size — but the dialogue, while it helps drive the story, sounds a bit flat. This was a close one, though!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Stop the presses

No, wait. Start them.

We have reached our funding goal.

AE - The Canadian Science Fiction Review is now open for submissions.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

AE Micro Critiques. Round 1.


So, a lot has happened since the last time I clicked post. Most significantly, AE Micro is now available for you to read.

Within the pages of AE Micro, you’ll find five excellent stories selected from those submitted by our readers. But there were certainly more than five top-quality entries. We were thrilled by the overall calibre of stories submitted and had no easy task is choosing just five. This prompted us to offer critiques of those stories which didn’t make the cut, and quite a few of our writers agreed to take us up on that. So this will be one of a series. We are excited at the chance to revisit these stories, as well as to offer you a glimpse into what makes a piece particularly suited to AE.

by Richard Edgar


"Not now. Deploy aft weapons system."

"Aft weapons system, aye."

"And… now."

"System is nominal. Now, Joe?"

There was no response. Blue light from the screen bathed Lt. Forsyte's face. I knew exactly what he was looking at, looking for. The numbers that would tell him we had—or hadn't—accomplished our mission.

"Chemical sensors, check. We have a following of biologicals," he said looking up from his screen with a grin. "They're gonna have ants in their pants, ants led by us."

"Yes, sir."

"Now what was the question, Marine?"

"Sir. I feel like I have insects crawling on my skin. Sir." Sometimes it's best to do things by the book with a jarhead.

He laughed, mostly at me, but partly at himself. "Microwarfare doesn't have the same ring to it as armored cavalry, it's true," he said. "But how are they going to keep us out? Fire ants are small enough to go in through mosquito netting. And they'll follow our trail, right into the enemy camp."

My leg began to burn, just above the boot. Unlike Forsyte, I'd lived with fire ants. And now, I will die with fire ants.


Duff says: This story leads strong. I have always had a soft spot for opening with dialogue. It is certainly effective at thrusting us into the action. And the fact that the dialogue is unattributed only heightens the immediacy. We don’t even need to know who is speaking. All we need to know is that they are saying: “Joe.”

And the response is likewise excellent. “Not now.” Already we have the sense of two characters and suspense. Something important is happening, and it’s happening too fast for the people involved to communicate about it. Unfortunately, this response isn’t attributed either, nor framed with narration. And the same for the next line, and the next. So that, by the time we actually get some exposition, we have well since transitioned from excitement to disorientation.

And with such a short piece, it can be nigh impossible to recover from an early stumble. The story finds its legs in the middle and it is clear that there is an interesting scenario developing. But, when we reach the end, we still don’t have a strong sense of who is doing what to whom, and why.

Helen says: The military atmosphere is pretty well done; the dialogue strikes the right tone, so you get a sense of the setting right away. It’s a little difficult to follow exactly what’s happening, though. Beginning with dialogue can be an effective device, but in this case it’s hard to get a sense of who’s talking to whom. Who’s Joe? Is that Lt. Forsyte? What’s the relationship between him and the narrator? What are their relative ranks/roles? (Actually, it threw me a bit when it turned out this was a first person narrative.)

“Sometimes it’s best to do things by the book with a jarhead” sounds a bit off, especially since the narrator is, apparently, a Marine. It feels odd for him to take that attitude regarding Forsyte. It sounds like Forsyte outranks the narrator, yet he addresses him as “Joe”?

Weaponized fire ants sounds a bit implausible to me, but perhaps fatally (for an entry in this contest), ants did not feel sufficiently micro. I did like the cadence of the ending, though: “Unlike Forsyte, I’d lived with fire ants. And now, I will die with fire ants.” I just wish I understood the rest of the story better ...

“Don't Wake Up”
by Michele Marques

Every night, a new generation of nannites is born. Last week they cured my cold. Last night I dreamt that they had clustered and formed a monster. Somehow the nannite monster got out of my body and was chasing me down the street. The buzzing cry becomes my alarm, and I slap it off.

My eyes are still fuzzy with sleep as I stumble to the washroom. I could splash myself awake with cold water, but instead I grip my toothbrush, apply toothpaste, and open my mouth.

What's that? I glimpse silver scales ducking behind a molar. I pursue with the brush. I'll scrub him out.
Something tickles my gums, and I chase the beast around. White froth fills my mouth.

That's it! I'll drown the interloper! I slap my toothbrush on the sink and fill my cup with water. I rinse heavily, imagining the micro monster cresting the waves.

I spit out the water, and a few grey specks. Is that's all that's left of him? Just to be safe, I swill a dose of mouthwash, hoping the sting of alcohol corrodes his lungs.

I ignore the thrum of my blood.


Duff says: The prominent misspelling in the first sentence was an immediate turn-off. On its own that would not have prevented us from selecting the story as a winner – it is clear what the author intended – but it doesn’t make a good first impression.

And then, in sentences two and three, the author makes use of two of the most fickle implements in the fiction writer’s toolbox: the dream, and the word ‘somehow.’ Both of these things can be used skillfully, but a developing writer would be well advised to consider carefully each time before employing them. In the case of this story, I think that they would have been better omitted.

The dream, particularly, leaves a sense in the reader of being uncertain as to the degree that the story is science fiction and the degree to which it is an exploration of delusion. That particular distinction, of course, is a favorite stomping ground of science fiction. Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut have been here before, and there is certainly room for it to be revisited. I just don’t think this story quite manages it. The reader is left with a furrowed brow rather than a blown mind.

All that said, the last line is tremendously potent. It backs a story’s worth of creeping horror into a scant seven words. “I ignore the thrum of my blood.” Yes, please.

Helen says: I confess, I have a soft spot for nanites. Misspellings (“nannites”) make me sad, though. This may be a little harsh, but for a contest where you’re only allowed 200 words to make an impression I believe that every one should be perfect.

The first paragraph starts off promisingly enough, but in the end the story is fundamentally one of the “it was all a dream ... or was it?” variety (or “it’s all in your imagination ...”) My quibbles with the execution are relatively small (you don’t need to specify “micro monster” just to hit the theme — the nanites got you there already). Unfortunately there’s only so much drama to be mined from brushing one’s teeth, and there wasn’t enough here to stand out from the crowd.

by Wayne Myers

Crow mounted his hover, blinking in the Martian sun. Adjusting his helmet, he bit down and retched as the stelazine hit.


The airlock slid open and the bike shot forward.

Let the stelazine work today. Enough little green men.

Three kilometres of Martian desert and he heard the sickly voice.

"My Crow."

Piss off.


Go away.

A tunnel gaped before him. The hover plunged into darkness. Blinded, he pulled to a halt, waiting for his helmet to adjust. It was cool here, a gentle downward slope.


The little green man sat in mid-air.

"I don't have time," said Crow. "You're not real."

The little green man laughed.

Crow bit on the pipe and retched. Nothing.

The little green man held out a handful of pebbles.


Crow stared, then grabbed at the pebbles and swallowed one, retching some more.

Tunnel and homunculus vanished. Done. Back to work.

Four hours later he brought the hover home, dusty and exhausted.

"Any little green men today, Crow?"

"Nah," said Crow. "Stelazine worked a treat."

He fingered the pebbles in his pocket. A week's supply, maybe two.

Enough little green men.


Duff says: I love the rhythm of this one. The opening sentence primes us for some unapologetic science fiction and I’m ready to lap it up. I had never heard of stelazine before reading this story, but it’s such a seamless part of the protagonist’s world that it doesn’t matter; its purpose is clear. This is a good trick to master when writing SF because, though stelazine is real, the same technique can be used to introduce any sort of phlebotinum without needless exposition.

The combination of hallucinatory little green men and the Martian setting was a little facile, but I don’t think it counts as a demerit. Also, I felt that certain repetitions throughout the text (“retched” and, to a lesser extent, “little green men”) needed to be either made more deliberate or avoided altogether, but I likewise felt that to be a minor matter. What stopped me from endorsing this story wholeheartedly was simply that I didn’t get the feeling that anything was at stake. It’s a compelling sketch of character and setting, but nothing is ventured and nothing gained.

Helen says: Well, I learned something about stelazine because of this entry. This one came in with a tweet, “Hope ‘micro’ connection is not too tenuous.” Well, it was, a little. We were open to a pretty broad interpretation of the theme, however. The main problem for me was that I’m not entirely sure there’s a story here. “A story implies motion. It’s not just description. Something needs to change.” This description comes from Ben White, editor of the Twitter publication @nanoism, who was running a contest for even shorter stories than us at the time of AE Micro. In “Crow,” we get a portrait of a schizophrenic on Mars, but I don’t know quite what to do with it. I’m probably missing the significance of the pebbles, but it reads to me as just another delusion displacing the first, so that we end in a state almost indistinguishable from status quo.

It’s hard to write a story in the space we allowed that includes a truly transformative moment, we know. It’s a feat of agility that makes the winning stories all the more impressive.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Short Meditation on Medium

Much has been written of the impact film has had upon science fiction literature. From Le Voyage dans la Lune to Planet of the Apes, from Star Wars to Avatar, film’s role in bringing science fiction to the mainstream in undisputed. But there is another medium that’s doing just as much, if not more, to expand the audience of the genre.

From the very beginning, science fiction and video games have seemed a natural, almost inevitable, match. In the earliest days, perhaps it was simply that verisimilitude was unachievable. When the world is composed--as in Space Invaders or Star Castle--of half a dozen undentifiable blobs, “They’re aliens” is one of the more satisfying explanations. Or perhaps part of it was that science fiction and video games are both so often ghettoized. When people ask whether video games are art (or even, mind-boggingly, insist that it can never be) it carries a certain echo of older debates about whether genre fiction is literature.

Regardless of first causes, the fact remains that science fiction thoroughly dominates the narrative of the modern video game. And with the game industry now a bigger money maker than either film or literature, the implications of that dominance can not be ignored. Master Chief and Samus Aran have taken their seat alongside Ellen Ripley and Paul Atreides in the science fiction pantheon. And Eve Online has done as much as “Orphans of the Sky” to give real emotional strength to the immeasurable vastness of space.

But what does this mean for science fiction literature? Firstly, video games have become a breeding ground for new thinking about the genre, feeding directly back into the world of literature. The most undeniable instance of this is the simple existence of novels based directly upon video game franchises. These books are often ghettoized even within the boundaries of science fiction, but more people read “Halo: The Fall of Reach” than read most of the books nominated for Hugo awards. Refusing to accept these novels into the halls of SF literature would be as short-sighted as is trying to define art in such a way as to exclude Ico or BioShock. But that debate is moot anyway when authors such as Iain M. Banks and Cory Doctorow freely admit to being influenced by ideas from video games.

And then there are all the new voices video games bring to the genre. Will Wright, Sid Meier, Cliff Bleszinski, Casey Hudson. These are people whose stories might never have made their way onto paper or celluloid.

But more than anything else, the audience itself is important. For too long there has been a barrier of entry to science fiction; tropes and conventions that are old hat to the initiated, but impenetrable to the novice. Much of today’s best science fiction assumes that the reader is familiar with SF as a whole. And so we end up with a genre which necessitates beginner’s texts. A dire situation, indeed. Fortunately for us purveyors of science fiction, video games are taking up just that role. And if the only price we have to pay is that, when that “Ringworld” movie finally gets made, people say ‘Oh, just like in Halo,’ I say we gladly foot the bill.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Value of Rejection

In one of my earlier posts I discussed how magazines provide a vital stimulus to the world of literature by the simple fact that money, in amounts large or small, flows from the publisher to the writer. Almost nonexistent are the authors who make their first sale in the form of a best-selling novel, and few would pen that first novel at all without the encouragement of smaller sales.

But cheques and publications are not the only currencies in which magazines trade. There is a third essential coin in the market of literature. I speak of course of rejection letters.

There's a famous line that Chuck Jones used to use with his animators, encouraging them to keep drawing at all times:
"Every artist has 100,000 bad drawings in him, and the sooner you get through them, the better it is for everybody."

I've always felt that the sentiment applied equally well to writing. In my mind, I usually set the equivalency at 500 pages, though that's a rather substantial discount on the usual picture-to-word exchange rate. And, while I believe that it's nigh impossible to write something truly brilliant without a good 500 embarrassing pages in the round file, the truth is that many people keep writing drek well beyond that.

Writing is a learned skill. Like any learning process, it needs feedback. And, with a task so complex as crafting a story from whole cloth, positive feedback will only get you so far. Family and friends will tell you when something works, but to learn when it doesn't you need to open yourself up to strangers. You need to embrace criticism, destructive as well as con-.

Trading stories of harsh and repeated rejections is a time-honoured pastime among writers. Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano was rejected by one publisher with the opaque observation "Its quality is too rare to be successful" and John Irving's best-selling The World According to Garp was turned away by one early editor for "contribut[ing] nothing new to language or form."

But these letters serve far greater purpose than simply to provide amusing war stories. I remember one of the first rejection letters I ever received, in response to a science fiction story of some seven thousand words sent to a now-defunct magazine. It was a form rejection. "Sorry, this is not for us, but good luck in placing it elsewhere." That sort of thing. But penned in at the bottom of the slip was this: "Too long, and the characters are flat."

What? Who do they think they are? I'd like to see them do better. No-talent editors of some two-bit rag.

And then, after the rage had worn off, I slipped the manuscript into a fresh envelope and sent it off to another magazine. Of course, it was rejected again. And again. And when, I finally decided to try rewriting the thing, I ended up cutting about two thousand words from it. The story was much better for it. I never did sell it, though. The characters were kind of flat.

As the years wore on, I came to cherish the accumulating rejections. They, as much as the far rarer acceptance letters and attendant cheques, were a badge of the craft.

The difference between the writer who has never been rejected and the writer who has is huge. In comparison, the gap between a best-selling author and an unpublished writer with a drawer full of rejection slips is a trivial thing.

And at no point in an author's career does criticism cease to be of value. The world of literature is littered with writers who achieve just enough success to find an editor willing to buy anything with the right name on it and too meek to send a manuscript back for changes. Invariably, these writers cease to improve and the true extent of their talent is never known.

Now, the accumulation of rejection letters can be a slow and arduous task. Each story can generally only manage to produce one rejection every six to eight weeks. Fortunately for the devoted collector, there is a second avenue for criticism: writing workshops.

Over the course of my life, I have been a member of several face-to-face writing circles and workshops, and I greatly enjoyed each of them. But I believe that only through the Internet was the full potential of the writing workshop realized. For years, I have been a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Online Writer's Workshop, a group which includes in its membership such luminaries as Elizabeth Bear, Karin Lowachee, John Klima and C.C. Finlay.

It is a thing of beauty. An author can upload a draft of a story to the server and, within days (sometimes hours), be treated to several harsh but invaluable indictments. I can't imagine a more potent recipe for improvement.

Thus, I am particularly excited that the folks at SFF-OWW have been so generous as to sponsor AE Micro. If nothing else, I am confident that by steering two new writers into their arms we will have wrought a significant good upon the institution of science fiction.

So keep writing those pages and remember that, unless you open yourself up to rejection, you'll never know when you've got through the bad ones and started on the good.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

AE at PAX East

This past weekend, I piled into a rented car with my wife, my daughter and my good friend Max for the long drive to Boston and PAX East.

I'm not afraid to admit that in addition to being a science fiction nerd, I am also something of a gaming nerd. And PAX is the undisputed mecca of gaming. I've mentioned before my fascination with the overlap of video games and science fiction. I have a post brewing about the collegial relationship between the two. That post is not this one but, in service of that future post, consider filling in the brief poll down at the bottom. This post is about the amazing people you can meet at a place like PAX.

On Saturday night, after a panel on Interactive Fiction, I sat down over beers with Jim Munroe and Jeremy Freese.

Jim Munroe is a science fiction writer, indie video game auteur and DIY-publishing agitator from Toronto. I've known Jim for years and it's always a treat to hang out with him. At the aforementioned panel, Jim's graphical interactive fiction Everybody Dies was held up as being one of the best examples of original voice in video games. You should play it.

Jeremy Freese is the author of Violet, the first place winner of both the 2008 IFComp and the 2008 XYZZY Award for Best Game. You should definitely play it as well. I had never had the opportunity to meet Jeremy before and it was a real pleasure. He did an admirable job of appearing interested as I ranted manically for hours about publishing, AE and my own efforts at indie game programming. A real gentleman.

Another person I was thrilled to meet was Chris Dahlen of Kill Screen Magazine. The first issue of Kill Screen is hot off the presses and it's a really top-quality publication. It's definitely worth checking out. Of particular note is the fact that Kill Screen raised its start-up funds using Kickstarter. Maybe this isn't such a crazy thing we're trying to do here after all.

I even had the chance to talk briefly with Penny Arcade's Mike Krahulik (a.k.a. Gabe). We didn't get a chance to chat for long, but he scrawled his tag across my badge before rushing off to his next checkpoint. Simply attending PAX is overwhelming enough, I can't imagine how much more so trying to steer the craft.

And, of course, I took lunch with AE's own Helen Michaud who makes her home in Boston and across a physical table from whom I don't get to sit nearly often enough.

It was a whirlwind weekend and I'm still unraveling it. As I do so, there will be more to say, old puzzles seen under new light and novel tangents ripe for exploration. But for now, let me leave you with this:

Science fiction has solidified as one of the core elements in the world of video games. Starcraft and Mass Effect and Bioshock (just to name a very few) bring the worlds and ideas of the genre into the living room and introduce them to a wide new audience. It is certainly the case that far more people have played Halo than have read Larry Niven's Ringworld. What does this mean for SF literature?

Register your opinion in the poll. It can be found in the sidebar to the right.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Small Press

Back in 2004, I wrote a novella. I thought it was pretty good. Of course, the problem was that novellas in the modern market (by which I mean the post-18th century market) are a really hard sell. In fact, from an unknown writer, they're an impossible sell.

So I shoved the manuscript into a drawer, hoping that happenstance would deliver me some idea of what to do with it. Happenstance was generous. I had a friend who was the proprietor of a successful local independent record label and events promotion company. I mentioned the forsaken novella idly one day in conversation. He asked if he could read the manuscript.

My friend, it turned out, also thought the novella was pretty good. "I want to print this," he said. "But I have no idea what's involved in doing so."

The arrangement we worked out was that his label would publish the book and I would come on board without charging a fee to help them make it happen. We talked some more, signed a contract, and then his label basically dumped a bunch of money in my lap and said: "Bring home a print run."

As a result, I did all the things that someone self publishing with money from their own pocket would do. I talked to dozens of print shops, meticulously comparing prices. I arranged for cover art, for editing and for internal design. And in the end I brought them a small perfect bound print run of 500 copies.

We had a launch event and I promoted the book online1. I took part in Jim Munroe's Perpetual Motion Roadshow, a reading tour that took me to a dozen cities in Canada and the northeastern USA. In addition to selling books online and at these readings, the label hawked copies at their events and got the book on shelves in a few dozen, mostly independent, bookstores in the USA and Canada.

We ended up selling out completely and having to do a second print run to meet demand. Eventually, that sold out in entirety as well. The label earned back their outlay and then some, and I too ended with some money in my pocket. All in all, the whole endeavour was a tremendous success. But more than any financial benefit or personal recognition, what I gained from the experience was a whirlwind tour through an entire microcosm of the publishing industry.

Books, I realized, were not brought into being by any arcane means. The entire process is something that people can just do2.

This seed of realization germinated in my mind for a long time before eventually sprouting in the form of AE.


1 - Though the book is out of print, you can still read it--in its entirety--online thanks to the Creative Commons license: Free E-Book.

2 - I remain leery of the idea of self-publishing and print-on-demand. My main reservations come from the fact that they make it too easy to skip essential steps in the process. A tragic number of otherwise meritorious books find their way into print in this way without a thought to promotion, distribution or even proofreading. That said, there are plenty of people who do it right: one example and another and another.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Magic of Money

Let me share with you a little meditation on what literary magazines, genre or otherwise, bring to the world.

Short fiction. This is what they offer us. To some, myself among them, this is enough. I love short fiction. Salinger's Nine Stories, Nabokov's Dozen, Gibson's Burning Chrome, Poe's entire non-poetical oevre. There's a magic of immediacy in the length. A story, read in a single sitting, can deposit itself beneath your skin entirely undigested--its payload whole and potent--in a way that no novel can.

Alas, not everyone agrees with me (a state of affairs not limited, I might note, to issues of literature). There are those--an astonishing number of them, really--who regard short fiction as a frivolity. A beast entirely different from and wholly less than works of a more sober length. You, reading this now, may even be among their number. I account it a sin to think this way, but I will not try to correct you just now.

I can hold off on this (much needed) reeducation because the independent merits of short fiction are quite superfluous to the value of literary magazines. For there is something else offered to us by these publications. They give us writers.

An autobiographical aside: I have dreamed of being a writer all my life. In elementary school, I bound my schoolyard fantasies in cardstock and slipped them onto the shelves of my school library. An elegant shortcut, I thought.

I was twelve years old when I received my first rejection letter from an editor and seventeen when I received my first acceptance. It was for a short piece set within the world of a commercial role playing game and it appeared in a magazine printed by the publisher of that game. It was, in other words, fan fiction (a quite poorly regarded endeavour within the geek hierarchy). But any question of the merits of the piece or the caliber of the publication was rendered entirely moot by the fact that the acceptance letter was accompanied by a cheque for $42.00.

This cheque conveyed something that no amount of praise from family or peers could ever hope to. There were people, people who didn't know me at all, who thought that my writing was an actual contribution to society. Enough so that they were willing to part with hard-earned money to encourage it. And, in fact, they believed that they could turn around and resell it.

With that cheque, I had transitioned from aspiring writer to writer. It would be almost four years before I successfully sold a second piece. If one were to try to stretch out those forty two dollars across all the writing I did in that time, I am certain that my hourly rate would be measured in fractions of cents. But no matter. I was a writer. Published and paid.

That single cheque (and the all-important byline) was enough impetus to keep me writing through heaps and mounds of rejection letters and ill-mannered manuscripts.

In Annie Dillard's words:

"It takes years to write a book--between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant. [...] Out of a human population of four and a half billion, perhaps twenty people can write a book in a year. Some people lift cars, too. Some people enter week-long sled-dog races, go over Niagara Falls in barrels, fly planes through the Arc de Triomphe. Some people feel no pain in childbirth. Some people eat cars. There is no call to take human extremes as norms."

Writing a novel is such a massive undertaking--and a first novel, with no advance or guarantee of publication, such a terrible risk. Without a market for short fiction on which to cut their teeth, to learn what works and what doesn't, how many great authors would never dare to write a longer work?

It is no coincidence that the vast preponderance of literary giants, both in science fiction and mainstream literature, launched their careers from magazines. Without Astounding there would likely be no Asimov, no A.E. Van Vogt. Without the Paris Review would anyone have read V.S. Naipaul or Jack Kerouac?

And without AE to send out $42.00 cheques (though they will be for rather more, on average), who knows what masters of the future might never buckle down and take the great gamble of penning a first novel.

A Little More About Me


So, over on our Kickstarter page, I've posted a short bio and exploration of just what it is that brought me to AE in the first place. Rather than duplicate the whole thing here, I thought I'd just leave you with the link: Who We Are (1 of 3): Duff

The Beginning of Something New

Hi, my name is D.F. McCourt and I love science fiction. It's in my bones

Last summer, I was lamenting to a friend that there was not a single Canadian science fiction magazine left that payed SFWA rates. Well, Maya Angelou said it best: "If you don't like something, change it."

So, here we are. AE is three people. In the role of editor, I am one of them. The others are Adam Lonero (Art Director) and Helen Michaud (Editorial Director). I think that between us, we have the skills and the passion to pull this off. We'll see. If I am right, six months from now a potent new entry in the world of science fiction will hit mailboxes and newsstands across Canada and the world.

Success or failure, it'll be quite a ride. And I'll be chronicling it all here, as it happens. So stay tuned.

Relevant links:

AE website
AE Kickstarter profile
AE on twitter