Treating Myself

Things keep moving along well and I thought I’d check in. My reward for winning a Nebula is that I’m using part of teaching plus Storybundle money to upgrade my workspace. I just put in the order for a fancy standing desk and stool, and am going to retire my faithful IKEA hack deck that I’ve been using the last six years or so.

This will be a much wider workspace, so it also means I can pick up a second monitor and have a lot more real estate when teaching/writing. I had that with my former set-up and it really made a difference when working. I’ve been holding off on this while waiting to move and finally figured I might as well go ahead, since it seems likely we’re here for the duration.

As to why I feel justified in rewarding myself, it’s productivity and nose to the grindstone! Here’s some testimony to 2020’s work in the form of my current writing/editing projects and where they stand:

The space opera series: The copy-edits for You Sexy Thing are in and the editor didn’t mind that I shifted around a couple of scenes in doing them. The listing is up! Still waiting to see what the cover looks like. The second book is currently at incoherent first draft status. Need to start pulling notes together for book three.

The Tabat quartet: Finishing up Exiles of Tabat ASAP is the current big project on deck. I also have some notes for the final book that I need to start putting in one place.

Baby Driver: Need to catch up on writing this. I have someone interested in publishing the final product, and I would also like to do it as a comic book, so I’ve got 3-4 pages of that script written.

Books hovering in the wings: a rewrite of the MG book, a literary horror stand-alone, a Tank Girl/Harley Quinn/Doctor Strange mash-up set in post-apocalyptic Seattle (stand-alone?); fleshing out an existing project that will be a literary SF novella.

Upcoming publications: Because It is Bitter (novella) in AND THE LAST TRUMP SHALL SOUND; Every Breath a Question, Every Heartbeat an Answer (novelette) in BENEATH CEASELESS SKIES; Crazy Beautiful (story) in THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION; Snowflakes (story) in LAST CITIES OF EARTH; Stand and Deliver (story, with Wayne Travis Rambo ) in DARK MATTER MAGAZINE ; I Decline (flash) in DAILY SCIENCE FICTION).

Current story projects: a space western short story in collaboration for an anthology request; a space opera short story for an anthology request; a near future caper novella; a near future SF story, the usual smattering of flash.

I also have an upcoming anthology project that I just finished looking over the contract for; look for slush reader calls and guidelines soon but don’t mail me until they’re posted!

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Guest Post: Jeffrey A. Carver on How I Ventured into Audiobooks and Lost My Shirt—or Maybe Found It

Audiobooks are the current gold rush in publishing—or so they say, and you know “they” always know what they’re talking about. If you don’t get on the audiobook wagon, you are sure to lose out.

That might or might not be true. But one thing that is true, without a doubt, is that listening to a book narrated aloud is an experience unlike that of silently reading text. An audiobook can make or break a book for the listener. In the hands of a poor narrator, any book can be crushed. But in the hands of a skilled narrator, even humdrum text can take flight, and sparkling text can soar. The latter is an experience you might want to serve up to your readers. But if your publisher isn’t doing it, or you’re an indie writer and are your own publisher (I’ve been in both positions), how do you make it happen?

Cover of THE REEFS OF TIME.I’ve spent much of the last year getting some of my best work into audiobook, and I won’t kid you—it’s not easy. But you can do it. The landscape of audio publishing has changed quite a bit in the dozen or so years since my agent placed nine of my books with Audible, the 400-pound gorilla in the business. For that process, I didn’t have much to do beyond providing the text, except offer pronunciation guidance to the (Audible-chosen) narrators who asked. What I got from the deal was a mixed bag: some recordings I could be truly proud of, and others that made me wince.

As it happened, my best-known books were not part of that deal, because of the audiobook rights being held by my print publisher (who was not exercising them). It took years to get those rights reverted, and when the reversion came, it was just in time to miss a window of opportunity to get the books into Audible. Curses! Rotten luck!

Or… maybe not. Eventually, my failure to land The Chaos Chronicles at Audible (with a narrator chosen by them), led me to approach a narrator whose work I loved and admired—Stefan Rudnicki, a Grammy and Hugo-winning artist, whose natural voice is somewhere down in the frequency range of James Earl Jones’, and just as captivating.

Stefan liked the book I pitched to him, Neptune Crossing, and he secured a deal to have it recorded by him and published through Blackstone Audio. He did a great job, and Blackstone got it out in great shape, and all was grand. Except… it didn’t sell. Not very well, anyway. It’s a terrific audiobook (in my opinion), but it was the first and only book in the  series. Who wants to buy the first book and find that there are no more? Approximately nobody, apparently.

Blackstone, discouraged by the sales, didn’t want to fund the rest of the series. I was on my own if I wanted the books that I considered some of my best work turned into audiobooks. Stefan was eager and willing. Stefan is also a top-tier narrator who works with a top-flight director and top-notch engineers. I could pay Stefan out of my own pocket, and the rights would be mine forever. My books tend to be long. The cost for finished recordings clocked out at around $4000-6000, per book. Eeek. It seemed impossible.

Cover of THE CRUCIBLE OF TIME.However, fortune seems to favor the foolish, because some unexpected funds came to me that made it possible to pay for books 2-4 in the series. And around the time those were finished, some different unexpected funds came in that enabled me to contract for Books 5-6, my recently published The Reefs of Time and Crucible of Time. I had spent eleven years writing these books, and after a career of working with traditional publishing, found myself without a publisher—and put them out myself, as my first self-published originals. They meant a lot to me. And so I made the choice—not an easy choice, mind you—to take some money that I might have used for other purposes, and invested it in having my books recorded.

That point bears repeating: the money was an investment in the future. An investment for my readers to have new ways to discover my story, and an investment in future earnings, even if the time to recoup my costs is measured in years.

Great, I can hear you thinking. How does this help me? Well, you might not have the particular good fortune of money coming just when you need it. But there are other ways to fund these projects. You might crowd-source the expense. You might find a narrator who’s newer and charges less, or is willing to record for a share of the royalties. The two major audiobook self-publishing platforms both offer ways to do this. There are avenues.

And that brings us to the second big question: Even if you get your audiobook recorded, how do you get it before an audience? You may already know that and are the two big players. But which do you want to work with, and why?

How about both?

I started out by leaning toward Findaway, mainly because they distribute to more than 40 stores, including Apple, Audible, Amazon, Google, Kobo, Nook, Overdrive (library sales!), and many more. ACX distributes to just Audible, Amazon, and Apple. Add to that Findaway’s 80% of net royalty rate, versus ACX’s 40% (if you go exclusive), and it seems like a no-brainer.

But maybe not. If you distribute through Findaway to ACX (which is how they distribute to Audible and Amazon), you only get 80% of the reduced nonexclusive royalty of 25% from ACX. For many people, Audible, Amazon, and Apple are where most of the sales come from, so that might not seem like such a good deal.

Personally, I lean strongly toward wider distribution, both for philosophical reasons and practicality. (I don’t want Amazon to control everything, and I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket.)  So I went with Findaway for maximum distribution.

Uploading to Findaway is a pretty straightforward, if finicky, procedure. You learn right away if a chapter file flunks some fiddling technical specification. So you know when you’ve nailed it, and your book starts showing up pretty quickly, at least in stores like Apple, Nook, and the other big outlets.

But all was not rosy with the Audible/ACX distribution. The “ingesting” process is slowwww. Where things started going wrong was when it turned out that ACX has more exacting standards—not in quality, but in finicky attributes such as the exact amount of silence (room tone) at the beginning of a chapter, or the precise length of a sample. Two or three months can go by before you learn that your book failed acceptance at Audible. That’s a long time when you’re trying to rev up interest in a new book.

I finally came around to this: Submit your book to both places. At ACX, choose nonexclusive distribution. At Findaway, exclude Audible and Amazon from your distribution. It’s more work, but you get the widest possible distribution, you’ll be up at Audible much faster, and the royalty rate is better. You’ll also get a better reading of where your books are selling.

Support at ACX, in my experience, has generally been quite good. At Findaway it has ranged from meh to excellent.

Since last fall, I’ve released three books in audiobook format: Strange Attractors, The Infinite Sea, and Sunborn. Books 5-6, The Reefs of Time and Crucible of Time, are being prepared for fall 2020 release.

Has it brought me riches of sapphire and gold? What do you think? (The correct answer is no.) It’s a marathon, not a sprint. I don’t know when I’ll break even, so in that respect as in many others, this is a labor of love. But it’s also a way to more richly present my stories to the widest possible audience. A way for folks in their cars, or at the gym, or walking their dogs to discover my work. It’s an investment in every conceivable meaning of the word. So, yes—a labor of love. But one that I hope will pay dividends for a long time down the galactic road.

Author photo of Jeffrey A Carver.JEFFREY A. CARVER has been writing character-driven hard science fiction/space opera since the 1970s and is still hard at it. His novel Eternity’s End was a finalist for the Nebula Award, and his Star Rigger novels and ongoing series The Chaos Chronicles have gained a wide and appreciative audience. Battlestar Galactica fans will enjoy his official novelization of the 2003 BSG Miniseries. Last year he published an epic two-volume novel, The Reefs of Time and Crucible of Time, which are widely available in ebook and print, and will be out in audiobook in the fall of 2020.

You can read about his books at, where you can also subscribe to his blog and his occasional newsletter. Or you can find him on Facebook at

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 July Reading/Gaming/Watching

I have been remiss about blogging, and I thought I’d like to share some of the stuff I’ve enjoyed lately. I do want to start by pointing out there’s just a couple days left on a Storybundle that includes my Nobeula-winning novelette, Carpe Glitter, as well as one of my favorite reads of 2019, The Traveling Triple-C Incorporeal Circus by Alanna McFail.

I finished Rin Chupeco’s The Bone Witch and The Heart Forger and really liked them both. The third volume in the trilogy, The Shadowglass, is queued up on my e-reader right now. An elegant, enjoyable series.

The screen play of Jordan Peel’s Get Out features an essay by Tananarive Due as well as plenty of deleted material and Peele talking about the script. Really lots of stuff that interested me and I’m really glad I picked it up. I will be going watch to watch the movie again.

Rediscovery: Science Fiction by Women (1958-1963) is a terrific anthology with a lot of stories I hadn’t hit before. part of my self-directed reading this year (as with last year) is finding stuff written by women at the times when conventional wisdom says there weren’t a lot of women writing. Part of the fun of conducting the short story discussion group that’s part of the Chez Rambo community calendar is sharing and exploring some favorites. next up on our agenda, for example, is Kit Reed’s “The Food Farm.” Authors represented are Pauline Ashwell, Rosel George Brown, Doris Pitkin Buck, Otis Kidwell Burger, Sonya Hess Dorman, Joy Leache, Katherine MacLean, Judith Merril, Kit Reed, Jane Rice, Maria Russell, Sydney cvan Scyoc, Anne Walker

Alex Burcher’s alternative history As Ants to the Gods is dense but evocative prose that conveys the flavor of its world, where the Arab civilization has taken over Europe and is in the middle of its Industrial Revolution. The paperback comes out on the 10th and if the production values are as high as the e-book would imply, it will be a pretty book.

I hadn’t learned about the joy that is Rat Queens yet; currently on the 3rd book with the 4th on its way.

Since I love reading gaming supplements and systems, I was pleased to get the fulfillment for a Kickstarter I’d supported, the Monsters! Monsters! RPG Rules by Ken St. Andre along with a solitaire adventure, “Toughest Dungeon in the World.” Another system I picked up recently for reading is Tales from the Loop; I wasn’t entranced by the TV episode I watched, but I may be playing in a brief campaign of this so I wanted to check it out.

I’ve been watching season 2 of The Umbrella Academy (lots of fun but season 1 was better, IMO), Stargirl (so cheesy! so snappy and fun!), and Z Nation (halfway through season 3 and really enjoying it despite the fact I dislike zombies).

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Guest Post: B. Morris Allen on Writing in Harmony

Writing is inherently frustrating, because it’s a process of condensing imagination into prose–taking countless colours and dimensions of dreaming and stripping them down to a few crude black and white stick drawings that readers can expand back in their own imagination. It’s like using an asterisk to describe a snowflake–all you can hope to get across is the basic idea, and the hope that the audience will see something beautiful, even if it’s not exactly what you saw.

I’ve long been interested in the how this works–not the practicalities of construction and grammar (though those are important)–but the mental mechanics of winnowing down world into story and back again. As many writers do, I’ve tried a few tricks to get at this–for example, telling the same story at different lengths while still keeping it interesting, or telling a story entirely in the aftermath of key scenes. When I became an editor, though, it occurred to me that I had an opportunity to study the process more broadly empirically.

The result, thanks to the hard work and goodwill of several dozen authors, is what I’ve now grouped under the imprint Verdage–books that are, first and foremost, anthologies of great SFF, but that also look at the writing process. The first in the series was Reading 5X5, in which five groups of five authors each approached the same theme, to see how different authors work with the same material. The second, Score: an sff symphony, asked twenty authors to write stories from a common emotional score, so that while the concepts and settings are all over the place, each story evokes specific emotions on a path to goes from joy to despair and back to hope.

Cover of Reading 5X5x2The latest installment from Verdage, out 1 August 2020, is Reading 5X5 x2: Duets. For this anthology, I asked five talented authors: Douglas Anstruther, L’Erin Ogle, J. Tynan Burke, David Gallay, and Evan Marcroft, to co-write a story with each of the others, as well as a solo story. The substantive results are everything I expected–stories of loss and passion, of abandoned alien spaceships, of cross-galaxy revenge, of demonic software and clockwork universes.

Just as interesting, though, is the other purpose of the anthology–looking at how authors’ voices change when they collaborate. Most of the authors hadn’t collaborated before, and each pair found its own mechanism for doing so–all different, all effective–chronicled in authors’ notes at the end of the book. Read any of the authors’ solo stories and compare that voice with how they sound writing with any of the others, and with how that second author sounds solo–it’s a fascinating study in what makes an author’s voice what it is.

Writing is a careful process of culling and filtering decisions, using a (literally 🙂 ) limited alphabet to convey infinities of universe, emotion, and action. Doing that jointly with another person who pronounces all the letters a little differently can be a difficult process. But the resulting harmony of voices can not only have a unique beauty of its own, but can show us something new about how each of the voices sound on their own. I hope this anthology does that.

Reading 5X5 x2: Duets is out on 1 August 2020 from Verdage, an imprint of Metaphorosis Publishing.

Find out more at and on Twitter @Metaphorosis.

Headshot of Author from Amazon author page.BIO: B. Morris Allen grew up in a house full of books that traveled the world. Nowadays, they’re e-books, and lighter to carry, but they’re still multiplying. He’s been a biochemist, an activist, and a lawyer, and now works as a foreign aid consultant. When he’s not roaming foreign countries fighting corruption, he’s on the Oregon coast, chatting with seals. In the occasional free moment, he works on his own speculative stories of love and disaster.

Find out more at and on Twitter @BMorrisAllen.

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: Gustavo Bondoni on Argentine SFF

Last week, Argentina’s largest literary prize, sponsored by the government through the National Arts Fund, announced that it would only accept science fiction, fantasy and horror entries this year.

All hell broke loose immediately. In some cases, there were people outside of those genres who’d been working on their manuscripts assuming it would be a non-specific contest the way it always has been. I can see how those individuals might have been miffed.

But in other cases, the pushback owed more to the fact that the SFF genre is seen by many as less than literary in scope and ambition.

As an Argentine writer who spent his childhood outside the country and who currently writes for the English-language market exclusively, I find this last attitude surprising.

Why? Because, although Argentina doesn’t have a long-standing horror tradition, the science fiction and fantasy genres have traditionally been extremely literary and socially critical.

Argentina doesn’t have, in the gestation period of the genre, an equivalent to the Pulp Era in which different kinds of fiction were massively marketed to different kinds of readers.  While that lack did somewhat stunt the growth of the SFF genre in popular terms, it allowed writers to feed the tools of different genres into literary fiction without having to worry about any associated stigma.

Jorge Luis Borges, of course, is the first name one thinks of when discussing Argentine science fiction, but he was just the tip of an iceberg that included not only a tradition in Argentina but also around Latin America (writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and, to a lesser extent, Mario Vargas Llosa were using these tools as well).

Of course, it would be disingenuous to say that this wasn’t also happening in the English-language genre. It was. But perhaps the main difference is that in Argentina, no one was too concerned about classifying things as science fiction and fantasy. They were just books, written by better or worse writers, and only in the 1970s was the genre separated in any real sense—and that was only by taking the obvious spaceship tales and dragon stories out of the “literary” category. Magic realism was still perfectly literary, and no one would ever have dreamed of reclassifying it.

All of which was quite bewildering to me at first. I was brought up on the genre classifications of the English-language world in the 1980s. Since I was strictly a reader back then, not a student of the genre, my view of what was and wasn’t SFF was formed by what popped up on which shelf in the Walden Books near my house.

So when I moved back to Argentina, I found it a bit bewildering. Suddenly, SFF wasn’t meant to entertain people, but mainly to criticize society and expand philosophical discussions. It really wasn’t what I expected of the genre, and I found Argentine SFF difficult to read and much too politically engaged for my liking.

To this day, I still prefer genre work in which the story and characters take precedence over politics and philosophy, and I’ve been told my writing reflects this (in rejection letters as well as in reviews!), but I’ve made my peace with the fact that the genre in Argentina has different roots and that I’ll never find a plot- or science-driven novel on the shelves here.

Along with this realization, I’ve come to understand that most of my own work wouldn’t be aligned with the national taste either. While the market for a more traditional style of SFF still exists in the English-language world, especially among readers who grew up reading the Golden Age greats and their descendants, it has never truly existed in Argentina.

But those who enjoy China Miéville—hailed as quite possibly the greatest genre writer of this generation down here—will find Argentine SFF very much to their liking… if you can read Spanish (I’d be delighted to point anyone interested in the right direction, just drop me a line).

Author photo of Gustavo Bondoni.BIO: Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over three hundred stories published in fifteen countries, in seven languages. His latest novel is Jungle Lab Terror (2020). He has also published another monster book Ice Station: Death (2019), three science fiction novels: Incursion (2017), Outside (2017) and Siege (2016) and an ebook novella entitled Branch. His short fiction is collected in Pale Reflection (2020), Off the Beaten Path (2019) Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011).

In 2019, Gustavo was awarded second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Contest and in 2018 he received a Judges Commendation (and second place) in The James White Award.  He was also a 2019 finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest.

His website is at

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: Mark Engleson on When Lack of Social Grace Crosses the Line

When Lack of Social Grace Crosses the Line

An autistic responds to “The Shealy Logs” (Burgin Mathews, No Depression, Spring 2020)

In “The Shealy Logs,” Burgin Mathews relates the story of John Shealy, who created decades of logs of performances at the Grand Ole Opry. There’s a wrinkle: in 1999, police found that he’d “stalked, harassed, or bothered” 89 women. His lawyer obtained a psychological evaluation, and Shealy was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Engleson with three-time Grammy Award-winner and alt-country hero Steve Earle, after his performance at the Birchmere, 2018.

At the time, Asperger’s was diagnosed as a developmental disorder distinct from, but related to autism; the most recent edition of the DSM collapsed them into a single category, Autism Spectrum Disorder. As opposed to autism, in Asperger’s, per the Autism Society, “there is no speech delay.” The diagnosis also excludes intellectual disabilities. Some individuals with Asperger’s are profoundly gifted: Bill Gates, musician David Byrne (lead singer and songwriter for the Talking Heads), and the late Derek Parfit, one of the most prominent philosophers of the contemporary era, are prominent cases.

Recently, in an online forum for adult autistics, a young man posted about being kicked out of places for making women uncomfortable. As it turned out, this young man was looking up women he’d met on Facebook to make romantic overtures to them. I explained to this young man that what he’s been doing is cyberstalking.

This man found little sympathy from his fellow autistics. The responses, many of them from women—and female autistics, though less visible, very much exist—emphasized that it was his responsibility to understand what he’d done and correct his behavior. He protested that he can’t figure that out if no one will tell him what he’s doing wrong. Again, little sympathy: we emphasized that he just had to figure it out. I went so far as saying that, if he didn’t correct his behavior, he needed to curtail his interactions—up to the point of locking himself in at home.

“The Shealy Logs” also mentions that John would not accept his diagnosis. The article quotes him as writing, “There’s nothing wrong with me.” He then violated the no-contact list that was part of his release, trying to make personal apologies for his behavior.

Neither of these is acceptable. Refusing to take advantage of his diagnosis meant that Shealy also refused to investigate the resources that were available to help him learn about and improve his behavior. No disability, including autism, can excuse a failure to meet basic obligations to treat others in a respectful manner that recognizes appropriate boundaries. If autism makes it more difficult to do that, then the answer is that you work harder and find a way.

When I shared Shealy’s story in the same online forum, one response was that this stalking behavior can’t be related to his autism, that it would have to have been due to a comorbidity. I wish this were true, but it’s not. While this behavior is unusual and deeply aberrant even within the autistic community, autistics—especially autistic men—can be prone to violating social boundaries. Combined with the intensity of interest that autistics tend to develop, this can lead to some ugly outcomes.

As a child and teenager, I crossed that line three times. In grade school, I biked over to the house of a classmate in the next town after looking up her address in the phone book. My freshman year of high school, I put a friend up to calling a neighbor girl who I had a thing for. And my senior year of high school, I badgered a girl’s friends to give me her phone number.

The last two resulted in blowback that shaped me permanently. The neighbor girl’s mother came to my house and gave me a severe verbal lashing. The second incident followed a two-hour phone conversation that, had I not screwed up, was probably headed to me dating a girl I had a years-long crush on.

I learned hard, and I learned well. Like any other group, people on the autism spectrum have different capacities for learning. Mine is pretty good, and once a lesson is hammered into me, it sticks.

Even when I’m not violating social norms—and I’m pretty good about that—I can still make people uncomfortable at times during interaction. I speak too loudly, or I stutter, or I laugh like a hyena, or I am “making a face,” as my mother likes to say. My affect tends to read as “a coiled spring that did a giant line of coke.” Especially now that I’ve met other people like this, I realize just how very unsettling that can be. (I’m not sure if it counts as irony, but autistics can be put off by other autistics just as much as neurotypicals can.)

Engleson with author Lev Grossman at George Mason University, 2018.

I know that, despite my best efforts, I will make a mistake, and it will be some degree of spectacularly cringeworthy. I have a memory like the subject “The Shealy Logs,” so I know that, after it happens, I will never forget. This, as one might imagine, leads to fairly severe social anxiety. I’ve gone to parties and even spent entire days at conventions without having a conversation. I’m not good at knowing when people are approachable, and if I’m not certain it’s acceptable to approach, I don’t. For a few years, I came back from Capclave with many of the books I’d lugged around in my backpack unsigned, until I finally—maybe someone explained it to me—learned the etiquette around signing requests. (As it turned out, that there was a “mass signing” did not mean I couldn’t ask in other circumstances!)

There are books I may never get signed because I wasn’t willing to go out on a limb. I’m fine with that. I’ve accepted that I will miss some opportunities because I’ve chosen to act with an abundance of caution. I exclusively try to meet potential dates online, because I don’t trust myself to work out what’s acceptable IRL (in the last 13 years, I’ve broken this rule once, but only after a woman clearly indicated her interest by striking up a conversation). The equation here is I’m that losing out on far fewer real opportunities than I am preventing someone being made uncomfortable.

Most people on the autism spectrum will never engage in any kind of stalking behavior, and we overwhelmingly do not accept autism as any kind of excuse for that behavior. Unfortunately, like autism itself, there is a whole spectrum of bothersome behavior, which can range from barraging people with undesired (but, honestly, mine are HILARIOUS) puns to genuinely creepy behavior (had I gone through with my idea of hiding in the dark basement outside my roommate Gennady’s room, waited for him to come out, and hissed, “I’m the leprechaun, don’ ye steal me pot o’ gold”). These can be hard things for some autistics to get their head around, because they inherently rely on someone else’s subjective state of feeling bothered or threatened. But—to hammer home a point—the autistic community overwhelmingly believes that it’s on us not to make others feel bothered or threatened.

Author cuddling with his sister’s dog Ollie, who is objectively the best doggo ever.

BIO: Mark Engleson is a hunchbacked, autistic aspiring fiction writer and former stand-up philosopher who works as a technical writer/government consultant in Arlington, Virginia, leeching off the bloated carapace of America. He regularly posts on Twitter as @MarkJEngleson, providing updates on his life, which he describes as “a stack of flaming tires in a trolley in a collapsing mine shaft.” His music criticism can be found at ParkLifeDC and Lyric Magazine.

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: Michael R. Underwood on Five Tips for Cultural Worldbuilding Without Building a World Bible

Cover of science fiction novel ARIA by Underwood.Worldbuilding can be an intimidating part of writing science fiction/fantasy, whether it’s an epic fantasy or a distant far-future space opera.

There are many ways focusing on worldbuilding first can go awry, chief among them the possibility that worldbuilding becomes such a focus that the writer never moves on to the writing.

If you want to strike a balance between strong worldbuilding and not getting bogged down, here are some tips from my decade of experience writing novels and degrees in Folklore and Mythology before that.

1) Do I Have to Start with Mythology?

Culture is made out of small pieces and big pieces. And most of the big pieces are made out of small pieces. How people greet one another is a part of power dynamics. Formality, gendered language, social context, and more.

Thinking about everyday life can be a great way to start creating the small pieces that will make up the big piece OR small pieces that reinforce the big ideas you’ve already created. If you have a culture that worships a benevolent sun god, think about how little things in daily life reflects that practice. They’re likely to see the daytime as the time of goodness. Which may mean that breakfast and lunch are framed as more important meals because they’re done under the watchful eye of the sun. Or maybe weddings are always conducted in the morning to represent rebirth alongside the sunrise.

2) How Does the Tale of Prometheus Relate to Greek Conceptions of the Nature of Humanity?

Few cultural elements are created in a vacuum. Folklore about medical practice likely developed alongside folklore about agricultural practice. How are they interconnected? How do the hero legends of the culture reflect its ideas about what heroism means and what important technologies/blessings the culture needed to become who they are?

The Greeks tell the story of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humanity—an essential blessing. But they also tell of Prometheus facing eternal punishment for that theft. What does that say about how the ancient Greeks viewed humanity’s relationship with the gods?

Thinking about what elements of culture should resonate with one another and which elements make sense to be in tension can help develop a world that feels real.

3) How Do Different Forms of Power Intersect?

One of the best pieces of advice about worldbuilding that I can give you is to think about power. Who has power, who doesn’t, how people navigate the systems of power to achieve what they want when they have access to power and especially when they do not.

Cover o BORN TO THE BLADE by Underwood.It makes sense when worldbuilding to think about what groups within a nation or culture have greater access to power and which are excluded from holding or wielding power. And there’s a good chance that not all of the types of power are wielded by the exact same group. So sometimes you’ll have a character that has access to some power but is disempowered along another axis. An influential member of a minority/marginalized religion. A superhuman on the run from the law in a society where superpowers are outlawed. A male anti-imperial freedom fighter in a patriarchal society.

Characters like these can display the tangled, interesting, and scary interconnectedness and tensions between systems of power, and a story can show how these interactions play out in material ways—how people can and cannot navigate through social systems and access to resources (material, social, etc.).

4) Do I Have to Get It Right the First Time?

I think it’s okay for a first draft to be really messy, to include contradictions and continuity errors. Editing is a really good time to put all your worldbuilding affairs in order. It’s possible to bake in a fundamental flaw to a work if you make a big enough mistake in the first draft, but for the textual worldbuilding—names of places, material culture that doesn’t serve as the backbone of the plot, the local festival going on while the characters visit the city—all of that is well within the range of things that can be reconciled and corrected in the editing stages of working on a novel.

5) What Else Can I Do?

When in doubt, set yourself up with more tools before you even begin. Read fiction set in real-world cultures written from an insider’s point of view or from that of a well-researched, respectful outsider. Read histories and books on mythology, folklore, linguistics, architecture, and more. Learn to see the choices made in fictional worldbuilding that would otherwise go unnoticed as “the default.”

The more you grew up with your identity centered by majority culture (in the USA that’s white, Christian, straight, cisgender, middle or upper class, etc.), the more important it is to cast your attention more widely and to escape the default thinking that presents the USA or the UK or other global colonial powers as the protagonists of history.

Another way to put this—if you’re designing an element of worldbuilding, it’s easier to do so when you already know ten different cultures’ analog of that element than if you only know three.

The wider your view of the world and the myriad ways that people live in it, the better-prepared you’ll be to apply that pattern recognition through extrapolation and interpolation with your own work. This is the work of a lifetime, but it’s worth doing, and not just to improve your writing.

Final Notes

As someone who studied world cultures and how to study cultures, I definitely get the impulse to spend a lot of time rounding out a bunch of details and laying a ton of groundwork.

But I’ve found that my desire to write and finish books has pushed me toward less exhaustive prep and more toward improvising in the moment, relying on my training and my judgment, and in the fact that I can come back and make sense of things later if I really need to.

Everyone’s process is different, but if you find yourself wishing you could spend a bit less time on worldbuilding before you start your draft, I hope these tips will be of use.

Author photo of Michael R. Underwood.Bio: Michael R. Underwood is the author of over a dozen books across several series. His latest book is Annihilation Aria. Mike lives in Baltimore with his wife and their dog. He is a co-host on the actual play show Speculate and a guest host on The Skiffy & Fanty Show.

Find him online on his website, Twitter, and Patreon.

Buy Links for Aria:

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, mid-July Check-in

Wow, it’s been a long time since I last checked in. By now, pandemic existence seems somewhat normal. We have masks, plastic gloves, and sanitizer by the doorway; we’ve been out for fast food maybe once a month and felt quite daring about it. The move to Portland is on hiatus for now as we wait to see how the world shakes out.

I have a StoryBundle up today, focused on glitter and hope! Please check it out and spread the word.


  • I’m wrapping up the final edit of Exiles of Tabat and am on track to hand that in to the publisher on July 31.
  • After that I’ll spend August working with Devil’s Gun and getting ready to hand that in at the end of the month.
  • I’m up to installment 12 of serial novella Baby Driver, have found a publisher for it, and am also working on a comics script, while thinking about eventually funding that via Kickstarter as a comic book series.
  • Forthcoming stories include “I Decline” in Daily Science Fiction and “Crazy Beautiful” in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, as well as a story I co-wrote with my spouse in issue three of Dark Matter Magazine, “Stand and Deliver.” Anthology publications include “Snowflakes” in The Last Cities of Earth.
  • I’m one of the three writers behind And the Last Trump Shall Sound, which appears in August, and I’m beyond the moon at the chance to work with James Morrow and Harry Turtledove. Thank you to David Boop for acting as our development editor.
  • Also in the pipeline: an awesome space western collaboration; the final Tabat book, Gods of Tabat; book three of the space opera series, tentatively titled Flower Power; a 3/4s-written novella I’ve been tinkering with; at least three other novellas I would like to be tinkering; and a literary horror novel.

Other Non-Writing Stuff:

  • I have an anthology project in the works and am establishing some of its structure. Stay posted for announcements and slush reader calls.
  • I’m also thinking about a game module set in Tabat after having listened to Monica Valentinelli talking about adapting novels into games in her class last weekend.
  • Continuing to build my Patreon, which is currently at 241 patrons (!), who are getting fiction, snippets, Zoom events, co-writing, chat server access, and free/discounted Rambo Academy classes.
  • Finishing up the on-demand version of Writing Your Way Into Your Novel. There’s some other cool on-demand classes in the works from Evan J. Peterson and Jamie Lackey, along with others!
  • I started some little bonsai trees and have named two of them, Groot and Augustus.
  • Continuing to sous-vide all the things. Recently have been making homemade sandwich bread as well as my own butter. One recent success: garlic chili oil
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Guest Post: Kathy L. Brown on Miss Lutra’s Squirrel Stew from “Water of Life”

Cabin photo by Kathy L Brown.In my prohibition-era, urban fantasy novelette, Water of Life, investigator Sean Joye searches the Southern Illinois hill country for Caleb, a missing moonshiner. His trek, beyond a flooded river and through a forest bristling with ice and fae ill intent, leads him to a strange old mountain woman. Miss Lutra would just as soon shoot him as feed him squirrel stew; but feed him she does, and the meal is delicious.

Dinner with Miss Lutra

Letting old ladies feed me hasn’t failed me yet. The stew and bread smelled great. My stomach growled as I sat down at the oak-plank dining table, and I realized I hadn’t eaten all day.

Miss Lutra invited me to say grace over our meal, but apparently found my “For these thy gifts make us truly thankful” a poor effort and jazzed up the prayer with a blessing on the squirrel, the forest, the other animals of the forest, the creek, the farmland, Caleb—“who is lost from us but will be delivered whole and sound, if not now, at the final trumpet,” me, my people, her people, and herself. Although mostly focused on my rumbling stomach, at the final “amen” I remembered not to cross myself, the Church of Rome not so very popular in these parts.

Miss Lutra had filled out the scant meat from a single squirrel with potatoes and turnips, and the meal was quite tasty. Between mouthfuls of hot stew, only marred by the occasional buckshot pellet, I said, “I don’t mean to be abrupt, ma’am, but was Caleb here today or not?”

The old lady cut off a hunk of hot bread with her enormous knife and wiped her bowl with it, sopping up the peppery gravy. “You ain’t from around here, are you, Mr. Sean Joye? Sound like you could even be from over the waters.”

“Do I now? Does that make a matter where Caleb went?” Through the tiny window, I could see dark clouds full of snow gathering low over the woods. “Or does it make a matter of what you’ll tell me?”

Squirrel Stew For Two

While Miss Lutra has a long lifetime of putting together a bit of this and a pinch of that to keep her household fed, I need recipes. She’s not one to share her secrets, of course, but hinted at the following squirrel stew instructions:

  • A squirrel or two, cleaned and cut into pieces (or, 1 pound of chicken thighs with skins and bones)
  • 1 teaspoon salt, divided
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper, divided
  • ¼ teaspoon red pepper, divided
  • 1-3 Tablespoon bacon fat, as needed
  • A handful of mushrooms (if you got ‘em)
  • 2-3 Tablespoons flour (Depends on how much fat the meat renders. You need equal portions fat and flour.)
  • ¼ cup moonshine (Irish whiskey works OK.)
  • 2-3 Cups chicken broth (divided)
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, chopped well
  • Several sprigs of rosemary
  • Several leaves of sage
  • An onion, chopped well
  • 2-3 potatoes, peeled and chopped into bite-sized pieces
  • 2-3 turnips, peeled and chopped into bite-sized pieces
  • A carrot, peeled and chopped into bite-sized pieces
Squirrel photo by Yinan Chen from Pixabay.

Squirrel photo by Yinan Chen from Pixabay.

Melt two tablespoons of the bacon fat in a cast-iron stew pot or Dutch oven. Salt and pepper the squirrel (or chicken thighs, if you can’t get one) with about half the seasonings and then brown for five to ten minutes in the bacon fat.

Remove the meat and brown the mushrooms, if you’re using them.

Next, brown the chopped onion.

Now use the bacon fat and rendered grease to make a gravy. (You need equal amounts of fat and flour for the roux—the gravy base. Add more bacon fat, if needed—depends on how much fat was soaked up by the mushrooms. Dissolve the flour in the fat and brown it—about as dark as a pecan or an acorn—over low heat. Keep stirring the roux, scraping up any bits of meat stuck to the pan. This might take a while, depending on how dark you like the roux. Don’t rush it. Then stir in the moonshine and two cups of the broth. It’s gravy!)

Warm the herbs and garlic in the gravy until they smell good, then add the vegetables, half a teaspoon or so of salt and red and black pepper if you like it, and more broth to cover. Stir it a bit. Nestle the browned meat among the vegetables.

Bring the stew to a boil, then lower heat to simmer, covered, for an hour or so.

After about an hour, uncover and fish out the meat to cool a bit (ten minutes or so) on a cutting board.

Add the cooked mushrooms to the stew and continue to simmer, uncovered if it seems a bit too thin.

After the meat cools, cut it away from the bones, chop, and put back in the stew. Adjust the seasonings as needed.

Serve with hot, crusty bread and apple pie for dessert.

Author Photo of Kathy L Brown by Daniel Brown.BIO: Kathy L. Brown lives and writes in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. Her hometown and its history inspire her fiction. When she’s not thinking about how haunted everything is, she enjoys hiking, crafts, and cooking for her family. Her novella The Resurrectionist and novelette Water of Life are available as paperback and e-books from Amazon.comThe Resurrectionist is also available from Ingram. Kathy’s short fiction has appeared in the Bards and Sages Anthology Great Tome of Forgotten Relics and Artifacts (The Great Tomes Series, Volume One), with earlier works in Bards and Sages QuarterlyGolden Visions Magazine, and Mused Literary Journal. Hippocrene has published several poems. Follow her on Instagram at kathylbrownwrites, Facebook at kbKathylbrown, and Twitter at KL_Brown. Kathy’s blog, Kathy L. Brown Writes The Storytelling Blog, lives at

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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How to Apply for My Online Short Story Workshop

I haven’t offered my short story workshop in about five years but I am going to do so in July/August, and there will be an application/selection process. I know that the international folks get cheated by the times often, so this quarter I will be offering two sections during the day. (If I decide to teach it again next quarter I will offer two sections, one on the weekend and one in the evening. I do not currently know if I will.)

There is a limit of 12 students per workshop; 2 Plunkett scholarships are available in each. Cost is $299 for Patreon supporters and former students; $399 for new students.

Each session is devoted to a specific focus; sessions 2-6 will include workshopping student stories. Foci are: (1) story structure, (2) plotting, (3) worldbuilding, (4) character, (5) editing and revision, and (6) everything else.

Here are the two sections that will be offered. Each class is six two and a half hour sessions.

  • Section I is 1:00-3:30 PM Pacific time on Tuesdays. The dates are July 21, 28, August 4, 11, 18, 25.
  • Section II is 7:00-9:30 AM Pacific time on Fridays. The dates are July 24, 31, August 7, 14, 21, 258.

There is no application fee. To apply, mail me with the subject line: Short Story Workshop Application. In your e-mail, please include:

Which section you are applying for (I or II)
A statement about what you would like to get out of the class, from 100-500 words.
A piece of fiction 1000-2500 words long. It does not need to be a complete piece, but it will probably represent your strengths/weaknesses better if it is. Include this in the body of the e-mail or as a .rtf or .doc attachement.

Deadline for application is midnight July 1; participants will be notified by July 7.

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