Guest Post: Nerine Dorman on Making a Cooperative Initiative Work

It all started innocently enough about five or so years ago. A fellow author sent me a link to an article about the Book View Café, and we figured: why don’t we do something like this? By this stage many of us in our small circle of writerly folks were already rather jaded about the opportunities available in the industry—especially for those of us who live in far-flung places like South Africa where there isn’t a big market for SFF fiction. Some of us had already been agented, had sold novels to big publishing houses. Some of us were not making it out of the slush pile yet… or were exhausted by all those full requests for submissions that simply vanished into a sticky silence. Added to that, some of us also had had unpleasant experiences with small presses going under, taking their back catalogue out of print. And a good handful were simply daunted by the war stories told by their author friends who’d already had a mad whirl on the merry-go-round of getting published and had their fingers burnt.

When we put our heads together, we realised that within our core group, we possessed all the skills and experience already garnered in the publishing industry so that if we helped each other, we could do the same, if not better, than a publishing company.

But then why not set up our own small press?

I can give you one word for that: Freedom.

Instead we envisioned a co-operative, very similar to the one described in the Book View Café post, and Skolion came into being.

Our vision for our co-operative is underpinned by that one small word: freedom. Anyone who’s had a book stuck in a bad contract will understand why that one little word is so important to authors who’ve had a raw deal. We desired a situation where authors wanting to go their separate ways did not have to untangle their titles from a contract. We are a small group that works on a handshake, so it goes without saying that mutual trust is also highly valued.

So, how do we make it work?

While the group is a voluntary association, three of us have agreed to take on management positions in terms of editing, administration, and marketing. We are also looking into setting up as a non-profit organisation at some point in the future, and to that end, we’ve gone as far as drawing up a constitution for our co-operative that sets out clear goals and how we operate. While we aim to be flexible, we also believe in clearly defining how our processes work. This helps to keep us on track.

Pictured at the 2020 Blown Away by Books festival in Cape Town are Skolion authors Masha du Toit, Tallulah Lucy, Nerine Dorman and Toby Bennett.

The emphasis of our work as a co-operative is on quality, not quantity. These days, there’s an alarming trend of indie authors putting out a book a month. This often results in the minimum viable product falling into the hands of readers. And readers aren’t idiots. They know all too well when they hold an inferior product in their hands. We aim to avoid that. We recognise that a good book is a work of art that may require more than one set of hands and eyes to help shape it. And time. From within Skolion, we help each other by assessing each other’s work with care and diligence. We are attentive readers who love our chosen genres and know what to look for in terms of story-craft. Thereafter, a story will enter however many editing rounds as needed before it goes through to layout and formatting. And of course, the all-important proofing takes place as well.

We place emphasis that power lies primarily within the authors’ hands themselves. They get to make important decisions about how and when they want to publish, how they wish to set their prices. As a team, we stand behind them, help amplify their social media reach, provide encouragement and support. It’s a win-win situation.

But what about co-operative vs. traditional publishing?

So, the question people sometimes ask, are publishers even necessary in this day and age? The answer is simple: of course! Depending on the publisher, they can offer authors much in terms of reach, expertise, and marketing. Big publishers will have many resources upon which they can draw, be it an existing footprint in terms of marketing, access to professional editors, and of course print distribution (this last being where indie publishing often can’t compete.) Depending on the project, the right publisher will absolutely be the right option for an author. But these days, with many publishers being averse to risk-taking, it’s also safe to say that not all projects are suitable for a particular publisher. Hence the reason that many authors are embarking on hybrid careers that span the range of traditional and small press to self- or co-operative publishing. And it’s the latter that I believe marries up the best of both worlds when it comes to traditional and self-publishing. Skolion supports its authors when they have books that won’t quite suit the traditional publishing model.

Where to start, though? How can you set up your own co-operative?

A few years back I encountered an interview with a well-known film director who talked about collaboration, and about ‘making it’ in a tough industry. I also believe his advice is applicable to other creative industries. Now I’m going to paraphrase horribly, because for the life of me I can’t track down that particular interview. The basics were that authors should not glomp onto people who’re further up the feeding chain than they are. Don’t ride others’ coattails, in other words. Often enough, these luminaries in your chosen field already have their network set up, the people they’ve grown accustomed to working with on projects. And they’ll be busy. They’ll have many obligations. I can guarantee that.

I’m going to be brutally honest here. The chances of one of these public figures noticing you long enough to either give you a shout out that will have tangible impact on your career or even to give you a hand up are slim to none. These folks are where they are because they’ve worked hard, as should you. Now I’m no Neil Gaiman, I’m a freelancer, and I’ve got zero time to read someone’s story just to give an opinion. (And neither can Neil, I’m sure.) Unless you pay me. Then we can talk.

Instead of hanging onto your favourite celeb author hoping for morsels, create a network of authors and creatives who are in a similar space where you are. Sure, some may have a novel or two out already. Or a novel being submitted. Or even have a few they’ve self-published. The trick is to help each other, to create a semi-closed network of authors and creatives who are willing to help each other. And, most importantly, a close circle of authors who trust each other. This last is a vital ingredient in making a voluntary association of authors work well.

How does Skolion handle the publishing process?

At first, we spend time beta reading and proofing for each other, and we maintain a list of the various skills folks have to offer. Various members can handle tasks such as layout, design or formatting, and if for some reason we need to outsource, we have a list of preferred professionals. We constantly pick up tips from our fellow indie authors to find out who they’ve worked with in the past and use people who have a good reputation in our chosen genres and who understand what we need.

We also set up a schedule and decide between ourselves on a realistic publishing timeline. This way we prevent books from releasing in clumps. We assign tasks to people, such as beta reading, editing passes, layout and formatting, as well as coordinating any marketing initiatives to help promote new and existing releases. With any outsourced work, we’ve found it best if the author herself pays for any work that needs to be done, be it commissioning illustrations or cover design. As far as possible, we split any costs that might come up to be as fair as possible. These could be related to hosting a website, paying for the design and printing of pull-up banners or booking a table at a convention. If any issues come up, our committee will discuss the best course of action and then inform other members of the co-op, in order to find a solution that will fairly accommodate everyone.

Perhaps the most important qualities we’ve discovered are patience, teamwork, and a willingness to play the long game without egos getting in the way. We understand that in this game of making books, we are in the process of breathing life into people’s dreams. After all, it was other people’s dreams made concrete in the books and films we adore that brought us this far.

The Skolion authors’ co-operative has been active since 2016, and for us it’s the journey that matters. Our authors include myself, Amy Lee Burgess, Cat Hellisen, Cristy Zinn, Carrie Clevenger, Icy Sedgwick, Jenny Rainville, Laurie Janey, Masha du Toit, Stacey Reilander, Suzanne van Rooyen, Tallulah Lucy, Toby Bennett and Yolandie Horak. Since working within the co-operative, many of our authors have gone on to win literary awards, or at least make long- and shortlists. For us it’s about having that all-important buddy system that helps us ensure that our work is the best that it can be. Find out more about us at www.skolion.org


Author photo of Nerine Dorman.BIO: Nerine Dorman is a South African author and editor of science fiction and fantasy currently living in Cape Town. Her novel Sing down the Stars won Gold for the Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature in 2019, and her YA fantasy novel Dragon Forged was a finalist in 2017. Her short story “On the Other Side of the Sea” (Omenana, 2017) was shortlisted for a 2018 Nommo award, and her novella The Firebird won a Nommo for “Best Novella” during 2019. She is the curator of the South African Horrorfest Bloody Parchment event and short story competition and is a founding member of the SFF authors’ co-operative Skolion, that has assisted authors such as Masha du Toit, Suzanne van Rooyen, Cristy Zinn and Cat Hellisen, among others, in their publishing endeavours.


If you’re an author or other fantasy and science fiction creative, and want to do a guest blog post, please check out the guest blog post guidelines. Or if you’re looking for community from other F&SF writers, sign up for the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers Critclub!

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Guest Post: Brandon Cornett on Creating Believable Characters in Speculative Fiction, With Diaries

A pop quiz for speculative fiction writers. Think about your current work-in-progress. Maybe it’s a short story, a novel, or a play. Now, thinking about your protagonist or main character, answer the following questions:

  • What are your character’s greatest fears from one day to the next?
  • What does he or she want in life, most of all?
  • What does your character want for those around her, the important people in her life?

If you can answer these questions without hesitation, you’re ahead of the class. You’ve done your homework. Kudos for that!

But if you’re like many writers, and you’re struggling to find the full depth and complexity of your characters, it might be time for a little journaling.

You’ve probably heard of this concept before. It’s simple enough. All you do is write some diary entries in the POV and voice of your main character. You slide into your character’s skin, into their world, and let the thoughts and ideas flow.

This technique has several names. Character journaling. Fictional diary. Et cetera. Call it what you will, just know that it’s a powerful method for breathing life into your characters. It can also be a lot of fun, yielding surprises and insights you never saw coming.

 

A New Twist on an Old Classic

The general concept is straightforward. You journal in your character’s POV, getting inside their head to reveal their innermost fears, hopes and desires. That’s the gist of it.

But let’s go beyond the basics. After all, stories have a beginning, middle and end. And your character’s headspace can, and probably should, be different at each of those points. So what I’m suggesting is that you write three diary entries for your main character (and maybe for your important secondary characters as well).

Write a diary / journal entry for each of the following:

  1. The beginning of the story, before the conflict has come to a head.
  2. The climax of the story, when the conflict and drama have reached a peak.
  3. The end of the story, post climax, when everything has changed.

For a short story, you might only need to write one or two diary entries. Short stories often “start in the middle,” from a dramatic standpoint. But for a novel, you’ll definitely benefit from doing all three. It forces you to think about how the events in the story affect your character, and how your character shapes those events through his or her actions.

This isn’t a writing class and there aren’t any hard-and-fast rules. You could approach this project however you want. But, having done it many times myself, I would offer the following tips:

  • Don’t show the diary to anyone. Keep it private, just like a regular diary. Give your character the confidence to “open up” without fear of judgment.
  • Turn off your internal editor and let the words flow, grammar be damned. It’s a diary after all.
  • Embrace the turbulent stream of consciousness. Let your character’s thoughts, fears and hopes stream forth, unrestrained. Bust the dam wide open.

What it comes down to is this: If you give your characters the space and opportunity to surprise you, they probably will. And your story will be richer for it.

 

Notes from the Field: A Real-World Example

I’ve used this exercise many times, but it never ceases to surprise me. Just when I think I’ve got my characters figured out, I write a few journal entries and BAM… revelations.

Here’s one example. My current WIP is a sci-fi horror novel set in the future, in which a woman travels to a huge shopping mall to retrieve her errant teenage daughter (who is supposed to be at the library studying). Long story short, the mall’s service androids go bananas and turn murderous, and what began as an ordinary trip to the mall turns into a survival scenario.

I did some journaling on behalf of the mother, the main character in the story, and discovered she harbors a lot of guilt. She got into some trouble in the past, got kicked off the police force, and ended up with her face all over the news. I knew those things, because I wrote them. What I didn’t know—even halfway through the novel—was how much guilt she carried for putting her daughter through all of that turmoil. She had failed her daughter, at least in her mind. That particular insight emerged as the mother was “speaking” through me in the relative safety of her private journal.

(Thankfully, she gave me permission to carry some of this over into the novel.)

Think of it as an exercise in trust. Your character uses you as a kind of medium. They share, and you write. That’s the arrangement. And while much of the journaling won’t ever see the light of day, it will breathe new life into your characters. It will make them more real in your mind, and in the reader’s mind.

And who knows, you might even produce some usable material you can add into the story. With your character’s permission, of course.


Headshot of Brandon Cornett.BIO: Brandon Cornett is a longtime writer whose stories have appeared in the Mississippi Review and other journals. His first novel, Purgatory, is a horror-based thriller with a reality TV tie-in, available now on Amazon. His next novel will be out in 2020. Brandon also blogs about speculative fiction with a nerdy level of enthusiasm over at https://www.cornettfiction.com/blog/.


If you’re an author or other fantasy and science fiction creative, and want to do a guest blog post, please check out the guest blog post guidelines. Or if you’re looking for community from other F&SF writers, sign up for the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers Critclub!

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Chez Rambo in the Time of the Pandemic, First Week of April Check-in

My mason bees are all hatching and it’s quite entertaining to sit out on the porch and watch the tiny perfect new bees encountering the world for the first time. When they reach the sunlight they stop and preen themselves like cats. Grocery deliveries have become a source of great excitement, and I am currently on Fall of year 2 in Stardew Valley. The move to Portland is on hold for at least a couple of weeks while we figure out where the world is going.

While existence has become more circumscribed for many, my life has, weirdly enough, become a bit more social as a result of recent events. I’ve been doing daily co-working sessions, at least one, sometimes two, each day, for a group that includes a bunch of friends and family, current and former students, mentees, and Patreon supporters as well as trying out some different things like videocalls where we all log on and clean our workspaces at the same time while chatting or Netflix Party.

I wrote a piece for Medium on how to run a successful and productive co-working session, and I cannot recommend them highly enough, although I know that mileage will wildly vary, according to people’s process. If you miss coffeeshop writing or working in an office, though, this may be a reasonable substitute. Remember there are scholarships for the Discord server.

I’ve also been doing some consulting for people turning their material into online versions. If you’re undergoing this process, here’s Things to Consider When Converting Your Live Class Into an Online Version. I also turned in book three of the Tabat series, hurray hurray!

Coming up this weekend:

  • Get Weird! How to Make Your Fiction Original, Compelling, and Deeply Weird with Evan J. Peterson Saturday, April 11, 2020, 9:30-11:30 am Pacific Time. Taking cues from classic stories as well as contemporary literature, film, and pop culture, workshop leader Evan J. Peterson teaches you the ways to make your writing original, compelling, and deeply Weird. From witchcraft to spirits to unnameable entities, you’ll learn what makes a story unsettle audiences and stick with them for years.
  • Writing Interactive Fiction with Kate Heartfield, Saturday, April 11, 2020, 1:00-3:00 PM Pacific time. If you’ve ever found yourself choosing between possible endings or plot twists, why not try a storytelling format that lets you explore them all? Games and interactive fiction invite the reader to join in the storytelling process, and invite the writer to consider multiple facets of agency, characterization, pacing and plot. Learn some fundamental principles and techniques for interactive formats, or just gain a new perspective on ways to develop your non-interactive prose.
  • The Writer’s Guide to Handselling Books (Social Isolation Edition) with Michael R. Underwood, Sunday, April 12, 2020, 9:30-11:30 AM Pacific time. Author and publishing professional Michael R. Underwood shares lessons from a decade of hand-selling books to readers, booksellers, and sales reps. Learn how to put your work into a market context, showcase what makes it special, and connect with readers when selling at conventions. There’s no one way to sell any book, so this class will help you learn to find several different ways to pitch each project for greater success. In this edition, we’ll talk about how to sell books while practicing social isolation via virtual events and social media.
  • Fearless Writing: Learning Not to Hold Back with Evan J. Peterson, Sunday, April 12, 2020, 1:00-3:00 pm Pacific Time. What are you afraid to write about? In this class, we create the supportive space to write the things we haven’t yet. We will discover what fears hold us back from writing about the topics and experiences we want to, in the forms and styles we want to. We will move past these fears and write fresh, honest, compelling work. We will practice sharing our writing with one another to dispel the fears of judgment and replace them with encouragement and strength. This class welcomes those writing in all genres and levels of experience and confidence.

Remember that there are Plunkett scholarships for classes; even if you’re strapped for cash, these classes are available. If you’ve enjoyed Rambo Academy classes in the past, please spread word of the school!

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Guest Post – Knives Out: A MICE Case Study by Ziv Wities

Rian Johnson’s superb Knives Out has stabbed its way into our hearts and minds. It’s not often that a screenplay so expertly crafted makes this kind of a splash. So, let’s use Knives Out to learn about MICE⁠—a handy approach to story focus and structure, incredibly useful for writers and re-writers. And as we go, we’ll use MICE to examine some aspects of Knives Out’s intriguing construction.

The MICE Quotient, developed by Orson Scott Card, observes that there are different kinds of reader tension or investment in a story.[1] MICE suggests four typical kinds of reader investment that a story can court:

  • Milieu: “Look, an interesting setting; let’s explore it!”
    g. touring strange sights; immersion in a particular period or culture.
  • Idea: “Look, a perplexing question or concept to puzzle over!”
    g. solving a mystery; following the consequences of an SF-nal premise.
  • Character: “Look, internal conflict!”
    g. the hero overcoming their flaws, or questioning their role in life.
  • Event: “Look, external conflict!”
    g. facing looming danger or a powerful foe; resolving a battle or a contest.

This is a rudimentary introduction to MICE’s elements, but in this piece, rudimentary is enough. Enough to understand that there is a selection of elements, of “kinds of tension” a writer can craft. With that, we’ll demonstrate MICE in action. We’ll see how to use MICE to interrogate a story, figuring out where its focus is, what kind of tension it’s building, and what makes it tick.

Knives Out, whose structure and focus are a fantastic mix of the conventional and the surprising, is the perfect case study. This piece assumes you’ve seen the film; spoilers ahoy![2]

Let’s Practice

Here’s our question: What kind of story is Knives Out?
Obviously, every story has many elements. But which feels most central? Is this story exploring a Milieu; investigating an Idea; following a Character’s development; or struggling against a threatening Event?

Seems easy enough: it’s a murder mystery. It begins by asking “Who killed Harlan Thrombey,” explores that question, and ends when it’s answered. The very model of an Idea focus.

But there’s something unusual going on; something more nuanced. The first act—let’s mark the first “act” as being everything up to the big twist—the first act, sure, is classic Idea. But that act ends with a vivid conclusion, revealing Marta as the tragic culprit.

And then we move into the second act. Where suddenly, we’re not following a murder investigation.

Instead, we’re following the ostensible murderer.

What kind of story does that give us?

Let’s see how we use MICE to answer that.

Identifying Focus

One way to tease a MICE focus out of a story is to ask what kind of buttons it’s pushing. What kind of promises is it making? What is it signaling as “the interesting part”?

Character relaxing smugly in a chair as he observes investigation.For example, Act I, with its Idea focus, is all about questions. Not only the big question of who the murderer is⁠—it builds up lots of little questions that keep us curious. Who’s the stranger sitting in on witness interviews? Did all three of you show up at the same time? Who hired Benoit Blanc?

Many of these little questions earn an immediate answer, which helps us feel we’re constantly discovering new and significant information.

But Act II isn’t about questions; not at all. It goes out of its way to avoid them. For example, Marta doesn’t care who is blackmailing her; only how she’ll get out of it. Likewise, “What’s in Harlan’s will?” has a startling answer—but the question is initially coached as a dull one, “a community theater performance of a tax return,” Blanc predicts. It’s the family bickering that looks like the interesting bit.

Act II doesn’t lack for critical clues towards the real murderer. But there’s not a single moment that’s framed as a discovery, as progress with the case, as a question being asked or answered.

All right, then. If Act II isn’t playing on our curiosity, what is it playing on? Let’s look at those same scenes and ask what is presented as the compelling part.

Family pressing in around Marta as she tries to escape into a car.Where is our attention in the will-reading scene? It’s on the family’s intense, simmering animosity. How they all detest Ransom; how none of them can sit in the same room together. And then, when the will is revealed, all that anger and rage turns full force—on Marta.

Where is our attention for the blackmail note? It arrives when Marta is beset on all sides; Walter’s threatened her mother and Blanc is looking for her. As soon as she and Ransom have read the note, we cut to the torched, smoking crime lab. This blackmailer is ruthless.

Underneath lab report handwritten message reads "I know what you did."So the stress is on the danger to Marta, mounting higher and higher. Marta’s choice is to obey the instructions. Protecting herself is what’s important now, to Marta and to the story.

So we see that what drives Act II is threats, danger, uncertain outcomes. Will Marta be caught? Will she be exposed? Will she be bullied or guilted out of Harlan’s inheritance?

It’s an act full of external threats to Marta, and all the tension is on how they’re going to be resolved. That pegs Act II’s driving force as being Event.

Stark Separation

Most stories have multiple threads, of multiple MICE types—but usually, they’re intertwined, woven together. Knives Out does something different: it distinguishes between them, sometimes to startling extremes. One reason Knives Out makes a great case study is that it sets its Idea and Event threads cleanly side by side for comparison.

Act I was full of interrogations; questions being asked and answered. Act II introduces Ransom, in exactly the same situation. But this time, when the Lieutenant says, “We’d like to ask you a few questions⁠—”, Ransom blows right past him. Or, when Blanc thinks Greatnana has a piece of the puzzle, he doesn’t have any questions for her. He doesn’t know what to ask. He doesn’t have a line of inquiry. What a difference from Act I!

And you’ll find that threats, danger, uncertain outcomes—the bread and butter of an Event thread—are as absent from Act I as questions are absent from Act II. None of the tension is the “success or failure” variety; there is no moment of “I hope this works.” Act I offers no stakes, no consequences to finding the murderer or letting him escape; nothing beyond the promise of a complex, satisfying puzzle.

Harlan with his hand over Marta's mouth, keeping her from revealing her ostensible crime.Even where you’d expect that a sense of danger would be absolutely necessary, it’s not there. Marta’s entire motive in following Harlan’s plan is the threat to her mother, yet she’s not the one who realizes it, who feels threatened. It’s Harlan who puts that together, while Marta gapes at him. That, right there, is the difference between “Marta’s mother could be deported” serving the story as an imminent threat, vs. as the answer to a question.

MICE as a Lens

Once you have a sense of your various MICE threads, you can use them to understand your own story better. Here are some questions MICE can help you ask and answer:

What’s my beginning? What’s my end? Each MICE type makes a different kind of promise to the reader. A thread begins when a promise is made, and ends when it’s paid off.

Marta shocked and crying after Harlan has killed himself.For an Idea story, the promise is a question; the payoff is its answer. Sure enough, Knives Out opens on a dead body, and ends with the culprit revealed. Even Act I, though, feels complete: it, too, ends with an answer, and a very definitive one. When Marta sees Harlan slitting his own throat, that’s the moment where the question has been firmly and completely answered—at least in Marta’s own mind.

Close-up of cracked phone dialing 911.For an Event story, the promise is a situation of crisis; the payoff is how that crisis is resolved. Act II’s crisis is “Will Marta manage to avoid detection,” and that thread’s start is Marta trying, really really hard, to destroy the evidence without being caught. Where does it end? When we resolve the tension: when Marta stops trying; when she accepts defeat. When she decides to dial 911 rather than let Fran die, that’s Marta hitting her limit. Discovering that limit is the conclusion of this story thread.

How do I increase tension? Each kind of tension needs to be handled, and heightened, in its own particular way.

An Idea thread’s focus is a fascinating puzzle. So, increase tension by demonstrating how interesting, complex, and rewarding the puzzle is. Knives Out plays up complexity by introducing a family full of lies and intrigue; and shows it Does Puzzles Good by asking, and then solving, some small ones along the way.

In an Event thread, the focus is external conflict. So here, demonstrate how dangerous and overwhelming the threat is, and tease any potential reward. Act II keeps showing us new ways that Marta’s in great danger, but also her realization that she might become safer than ever before.

How do I introduce something important? If you want readers to care about something new, it’s easiest to connect it to something they already care about.

In an Idea thread, that means being relevant to the driving question. The family members are interesting because they’re suspects. Some of Marta’s earliest introduction is as a living investigation aid; someone who knows all the secrets and can’t lie.

In an Event thread, anything that can make the conflict go better or worse is automatically interesting. Consider Ransom, who fans the flames of the family infighting, and then swoops in to save Marta from an immediate threat. We’re interested in him not for answers, but for how he affects Marta’s situation; as a mover and shaker in the Event thread.

Conclusion

We’ve seen the clearest structural threads in Knives Out. (If you’re curious for the rest, the film has Milieu and Character threads as well. Identifying those is an excellent exercise…)

Hopefully, I’ve demonstrated how to use MICE to find those threads, and gain insight into them.

Don’t think of MICE like a Sorting Hat, squeezing any story into four arbitrary boxes. Remember the goal we’ve seen here: understanding what makes your particular story tick; how your story pulls readers forward, and how it pays off its promises. MICE gives you a stepping-stone to those big questions—an easy question first, to get you in the right ballpark.

Usually, you can take it from there.


All screencaptures by KissThemGoodbye.Net.

[1] MICE is detailed in Card’s writing books, How To Write Science Fiction & Fantasy and Characters and Viewpoint.
Here is a good summary, hosted by The Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction.

[2] For reference, the full script, via Deadline.


Selfie of Ziv Wities on a path through a forest.BIO: Ziv Wities is a short-fiction evangelist, a devoted beta-reader, and an Assistant Editor at Diabolical Plots. If you enjoyed this piece, Ziv’s website collects a selection of writing Q&A and his expert overanalyses of Too Like The Lightning and Star Trek: Discovery. He tweets, vaguely, as @QuiteVague.


If you’re an author or other fantasy and science fiction creative, and want to do a guest blog post, please check out the guest blog post guidelines. Or if you’re looking for community from other F&SF writers, sign up for the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers Critclub!

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Guest Post: Krakens Are Friends, Not Food by AJ Fitzwater

“But ser,” broke in one of the deckpaws. “The greatest jewel in the world is said to be guarded by the fearsome kraken, as tall as the queen’s castle with tentacles longer than ten vessels nose to tail!”

“Which is why, m’dear, we not be partakin’ of the flesh of the inkton,” Cinrak explained. “Kraken’s cousins have proven intelligent and good friends of Rodentkind. Friends not be eatin’ friends. The mer archives tell us, yes, once beasts of Kraken’s size did exist. It be not our place to tempt The Depth’s wrath.”

The entire crew undulated two digits in a v shape of warding.

– “Search for the Heart of the Ocean”

In Thor: Ragnarok, a motley collection of hunters challenges a confused Thor with, “Are you friend, or are you food?” It’s a play on the hail “friend or foe,” building a dangerous world reveling in its violence and cannibalism in one swift sentence.

Cover of The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper.Cinrak’s rodent pirate world is one of fun, love, silliness, and respect. I wanted to create a through line about balance in community, nature, body, and spirit. What if pirates oversaw the equal distribution of resources? What if trans people had easy and equitable access to the health care they deserve? What if the monarchy answered to the people? What would keeping balance in the oceans look like?

As the quote above suggests, respect for the sapience of ocean creatures is baked (see: puns most definitely intended in this book) into the myths, legends, and superstitions of Rodentdom. The great kraken, the protector of sea creatures, has not been seen for hundreds of years. Rather than take this as carte blanche to chow down on the crumbed calamari with chili sauce, the rodents ask what so upset the balance of life that an entire species would suddenly disappear.

In early drafts, I made strong points about climate change and over-fishing disturbing not just the way of life, but magic. This too upset balance; the sweetness and respect for letting the world building bleed in from the edges and the unspoken had been compromised. Opting for a softer approach, I let the silent Agnes—the enormous kraken of myth—speak for herself. She forms a bond with one of Cinrak’s crew, shows them the wonders of the ocean, and becomes a mascot to the Impolite Fortune. Playful as a puppy, and knowing her worth, Agnes unapologetically takes up space. She just wants to hug… the whole ship.

Agnes becomes the herald in “The Hirsute Pursuit.” Her link to the ocean grapevine (seawood tangle?) allows her to be first with the news that a once in a generation harvest is ready. This story introduces another significant piece of Rodentdom’s ecosystem: a food source with properties that acts like hormone replacement for trans people. The only magic in this microcosm is how it has been guarded to ensure equal distribution of resources. Are the fairies rodent-flesh eaters? Their biology and behavior suggest something to that effect in their distant past. Or they could have found a solution to defending their land against colonial invasion. Either way, when left alone they understand and undertake balance, sharing their bounty with the rodents.

The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper is full of women who enjoy their food. Not for the spectacle of observers, but for pleasure and the nourishment of their bodies. As a pirate captain, Cinrak understands keeping her crew full, fit, and happy is a tool for community bonding and efficient livelihood. The food is in the detail. No one goes without a good cup of tea, or breakfast.

Including Agnes. Who cronches that shark with relish (pun alert!). Because she knows who is friend and who is food.


AJ Fitzwater Headshot.BIO: AJ Fitzwater lives between the cracks of Christchurch, New Zealand. Their work focuses on feminist and queer themes, and has appeared in venues of repute such as Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer, Giganotosaurus, GlitterShip, and in various anthologies. They are the author of rodent pirate escapades in The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper and the WW2 land girls shapeshifter novella No Man’s Land. With a background in radio, AJ lends their voice to podcast narrations, including for the Escape Artists universe. They enjoy maintaining a collection of bow ties. A unicorn disguised in a snappy blazer, they tweet @AJFitzwater. Their website is pickledthink.blogspot.com.

Purchase The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper from your preferred retailer or directly from Queen of Swords Press.


If you’re an author or other fantasy and science fiction creative, and want to do a guest blog post, please check out the guest blog post guidelines. Or if you’re looking for community from other F&SF writers, sign up for the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers Critclub!

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Video: Decluttering, Rewarding, and my Three Favorite Breyers

Cat reports on how the first co-cleaning session went, talks about upcoming Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers events and classes, and then discusses goal-setting and achievement-celebrating for writers, showing three examples.

This weekend’s events include Catherine Lundoff’s So You Want to Write an Anthology class (http://www.kittywumpus.net/blog/so-yo…) and Fran Wilde’s Journaling for Creativity workshop (http://www.kittywumpus.net/blog/journ…) as well as a co-writing session and our first Netflix movie night. Limited enrollment; 3 free scholarships available in each class. For more info on how to join the fun, you can go to http://patreon.com/catrambo for info on supporting Cat or http://www.kittywumpus.net/blog/join-… for chat server scholarships.

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Announcing the On-Demand Version of Writing Interactive Fiction with Kate Heartfield

I’m hoping eventually to have the bulk of the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers classes up as on-demand versions, but it’s slow going. I’m so delighted that Kate Heartfield has turned her awesome Writing Interactive Fiction live class into an on-demand version and she’s very generously suggested making it free this first week in order to offer another resource for folks practicing social isolation to entertain and educate themselves.

I book teachers for classes that I personally want to take, and this was definitely one of them. After the first time Kate taught this class, I felt inspired to start noodling around with an interactive novel, although I’m still very much in the planning stages.

Here’s a link for the new class.

If you’ve ever found yourself choosing between possible endings or plot twists, why not try a storytelling format that lets you explore them all? Games and interactive fiction invite the reader to join in the storytelling process, and invite the writer to consider multiple facets of agency, characterization, pacing and plot. Learn some fundamental principles and techniques for interactive formats, or just gain a new perspective on ways to develop your non-interactive prose.

Photo of Kate HeartfieldKate Heartfield is the author of two interactive novels for Choice of Games: The Road to Canterbury, which was published in 2018 and shortlisted for the first Nebula award in the game writing category; and The Magician’s Workshop, published at the end of 2019. She is also the author of the historical fantasy novel Armed in Her Fashion, which won the Aurora Award for Best Novel and was shortlisted for the Locus First Novel, Crawford and Sunburst awards. Her two Alice Payne time travel novellas were shortlisted for the Nebula and Aurora awards. A former newspaper journalist, Kate lives in Ottawa, Canada.

If you’d prefer to take a live version in which you have a chance to talk with Kate, she is teaching it on Saturday, April 11, 2020, 1:00-3:00 AM Pacific time.

Live versions of the classes are performed in realtime, are limited to 15 students, and include a chance to interact with the instructor as well as a recording of the class. You can find the current list of upcoming live classes through June here. There are free scholarship slots available in every class.

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Guest Post: Mystery Cults and the Secret World of the Occult in Urban Fantasy by Laurence Raphael Brothers

In my romantic-noir urban fantasy novella The Demons of Wall Street, magic and the existence of demons are secrets kept hidden from most people. Only a relatively small number of sorcerers, bankers, and their agents are in on the conspiracy, on the order of thousands of people worldwide.

Cover of THE DEMONS OF WALL STREET.The premise of magic-done-only-in-secret is not exactly an original conceit, and indeed it has become so familiar over not just years but generations of fantasy literature that it is hardly something to be questioned when it appears. It’s a convenient explanation for how magic can possibly exist in our familiar and ostensibly non-magical world.

Still, the idea of a very widely-kept secret to which thousands of people are privy may seem rather implausible. Surely someone would let the information slip? But as it happens, there are quite a few historical examples of widely-held secrets that were kept so well we aren’t sure what the truth of them was anymore.

I refer you first to the mystery cults of the classical world. In ancient Greece, and subsequently throughout the Hellenized and then the Romanized world, a great many people subscribed to the mystery cults of Eleusis, Samothrace, and (in Roman times) Mithras, among others. These cults required terrible binding oaths from their aspirants, and in many classical-period cities, substantial percentages of the middle and upper classes were members. But we don’t know, apart from a few scattered hints, what the cults believed, what their rituals were, or how members were expected to recognize and support one another outside of the ritual centers. It might be that the masonic phrase “I have seen the sun at midnight” was originally part of the Eleusinian mystery, which we know had something to do with the myth of Demeter and Persephone. But then again, that might be just wishful thinking on the part of the masons based on some modern invention. The names of the deities worshipped by cultists at Samothrace were forbidden to be uttered aloud, and while it’s believed they were mostly chthonic female members of the Greek pantheon, we really don’t know for sure. And even the cult of Mithras, to which millions of Roman legionaries and a great many other citizens belonged (including the emperor Julian the Apostate) is almost opaque to us now. There was probably the sacrifice of a bull involved at some point, but we know very little more than that of their beliefs and practices.
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Rambo Academy Certificates

The Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers now has a certification program! I wanted students to have a way to represent the work they’ve put into the live classes when applying for jobs, workshops, and other opportunities, and so I’ve put together four categories.

How it works: If you have taken five classes in a category, you have earned a certificate. Mail me with the category or categories and the names of the classes, and I will send you the certificate as a .pdf. You have permission to display it on your website.

I’m working on something similar for the on-demand classes — look for that coming soon.
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Guest Post: “We Get By with a Little Help from Our…” by Vincent Scott

So, love’s great, right? All types. It’s a fascinating quirk of brain chemistry that leaves us caring about each other so much we’ll sacrifice resources and fight against oppression for someone else’s wellbeing. Spending time with people you love is, to my mind, what life is all about. I just want to preface this with that little disclaimer, so nobody feels like I’m attacking love or romance.

Let’s talk about how we often centralize romance in fiction, how friendships get short shrift, and how the romance that we get is usually pretty one dimensional. First, let me own a bias. I’m asexual and aromantic. If you’re not familiar, that means I don’t experience sexual or romantic attraction. Platonic love is my everything. So, romance and sex don’t usually top the list of priorities for me in any storytelling context. That said, from a distance, I’m all for it. Unfortunately, fiction has gotten into some bad habits when it comes to dealing with friendships and romantic relationships.

Friendships are rarely given the focus they deserve. They are one of the most common types of relationships people have in their lives, and yet rarely do they get any nuance. In most fiction, friends are just there. They’re taken for granted. A friend is a person you talk to about your dating angst. It’s not uncommon in a lot of fiction for the entirety of two people’s platonic relationship to consist of them talking about their paramours. I’m not saying friends don’t do that with each other, but is that everything you do with your friends? In reality, friendships have just as much drama and excitement as romantic relationships. There is a moment when two people become friends, and it’s an exciting and fraught moment filled with insecurity, hope, and intrigue. There are events that cause those relationships to deepen, and tragically sometimes friendships end, and those endings can be heartbreaking.

Meanwhile the general lack of focus on platonic connection undercuts romantic relationships. Healthy romantic relationships have a platonic component. The old cliché is two people don’t get along, but it secretly means they like each other. In every longstanding romantic relationship I’ve ever encountered, the people involved liked one another. They had common interests. Two people have to be something when they’re not in the throes of sexual ecstasy or performing grand romantic gestures. Most of us are going to spend the lion’s share of our time together in sweatpants farting into the couch cushions, a set of circumstances that is far from the pinnacle of grand romance.

Sometime when you’re reading a romance novel, a story with romantic subplot, or watching a movie or television show that falls into the trope “two good looking people alone in a room: they’ve got to get together,” ask yourself, “Do these two actually have anything in common?” To be clear, I’m not saying everything in common. Great friendships are often defined by the differences between people, but amidst the differences there have to be points of commonality.

Cover of THE HEREAFTER BYTES: A FUNNY SCI-FI NOVEL by Vincent ScottSo, why does this happen? The honest answer: it’s easy tension. Two good looking people, they don’t get along, but they’re so good looking. How could they not be interested in each other? It’s plausible they would date, then their totally incompatible personalities give writers a deep well of conflict and drama to draw from. And frankly, that’s okay. Who among us hasn’t leaned into a trope or two? Let those who have no ink on their fingers throw the first pen. However, it does become a problem when it’s done so ubiquitously that it starts to influence people’s conception of real-world relationships.

Here’s the thing: fiction matters. It has real-world implications. Fiction without diversity normalizes a segregated world. Fiction with diversity challenges the status quo. Fiction rife with fundamentally incompatible romantic relationships makes fraught, tense, and incompatible romantic relationships seem normal. Meanwhile, when we treat friendships like they’re set dressing, we end up with a society where nobody puts the time and effort into maintaining friendships that they deserve.

So, what’s to be done? Well, next time you’re writing a romantic relationship, ask yourself, “What do these two do when they’re just hanging out?” In the space between grand romantic gestures and passionate lovemaking, who are they to each other? Do they like the same movies? Maybe they both like to cook. Maybe they’re big board game nerds. That doesn’t mean you can’t have the grand romantic gestures and the passionate lovemaking; just add the platonic love as well.

Next time you’re writing a friendship, ask yourself, “What holds these two together as friends?” There must have been moments in the past when they could have drifted apart. Why didn’t they? What do they see in each other that the myriad other people they’ve met in their lives didn’t quite appreciate? Who is this friend to your protagonist besides a useful literary device to move the plot along or an excuse to explicitly state some romantic subtext?

I’m not trying to lay all the problems of the world at fiction’s feet. There are a lot of forces in our society that diminish the significance of friendship and promote the idea that every problem in life can be solved by getting a date. But all too often, fiction isn’t helping. It’s not that hard to add that extra bit of nuance to relationships. There are good stories to be told that center friendships, even if they include romance. Superficial romantic relationships, with drama built on cheap interpersonal tension, are lazy. Spend a few moments thinking about your best friend. Think about how they make you feel. I’ll bet it’s a love story for the ages.


Vincent Scott HeadshotBIO: Vincent Scott is a comedy science fiction writer and green tea… well, addict is a strong word, let’s say enthusiast. His new novel The Hereafter Bytes is being launched via Kickstarter to raise funds for a full release later in 2020. The campaign runs from March 11th to April 1st, 2020 and can be found here.

You can connect with Vincent at twitter.com/writeitowldown.


If you’re an author or other fantasy and science fiction creative, and want to do a guest blog post, please check out the guest blog post guidelines. Or if you’re looking for community from other F&SF writers, sign up for the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers Critclub!

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