Aurora Awards 2018: Holy Crap, I’m Eligible!

Hello again!

In addition to everything else going on in my writing life, I have some works eligible for this year’s Prix Aurora Awards, specifically in the Short Fiction category. Normally I don’t focus on the various SFF awards out there, but I’m pretty proud of my eligible stories, and it would be a huge honor for even one of them to be nominated. Here are the details on all three, for your humble consideration:

Clearing Out Nests,” published in PULP Literature – Discover the ghoulish side of gentrification, as two monster hunters wonder if there’s something sinister behind how many coffee shop chains are opening up in their city…

Pop and the CFT,” published in Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-speculation – Aging rockstar Gabe has to wrap his mind around the government’s carbon footprint tax, while he negotiates how much his late father’s life affected the environment.

The Last Best Defense,” published in 49th Parallels: Canadian Alternate Histories and Futures – Louis Riel meets otherworldly monsters in this tale of a very different Red River Resistance, where the Canadian government and the Métis must work together to protect Manitoba from a dangerous supernatural threat.

The deadline for nominations is May 26, just over a week away. If you’d like to nominate in any category, visit their website here: https://prixaurorawards.ca/. I’ll be doing the same for the works I feel strongly about. And if you’d like a review copy of any of my stories for consideration, please let me know!

 

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Dude, Where Have You Been?

Once again, it’s been a while since I updated anything here. I’m definitely not dead (though my students joke I’m a vampire) but I also haven’t been gallivanting across the cosmos on crazy adventures (we also joke I’m a Time Lord). What I have been doing is working on a bunch of different projects, some of them professional and some of them pure fun, which means I’ve had to parcel my time very carefully. One of the key lessons for any creative person is to maintain a careful balance, and in this case let things like regular blogging go, instead of killing yourself trying to work on everything. This time last year I was teaching full days and in the evenings as a college professor, plus serving at a publishing house and helping plan for Can*Con, and was honestly a little miserable because of being too busy, so I think I’m doing better 😉

However, it also means I haven’t been announcing things here like I have on Twitter, so here’s a round-up of some recent news, what I’m up to, and what you might see from me in the future.

Recent Publications & Events

Last month my short story “Rainclouds” was published in the debut issue of Electric Athenaeum, as part of their series For Future Generations. The story centers on an unconventional family struggling to survive on a colony world where it almost never rains. You can read it for free here. I also had a blast taking part in a Twitter chat with some of the other Athenaeum contributors recently, discussing scientific innovation and fiction. Check out the hashtag #eaSFFchat for the questions posed by moderator Trip Galey and our responses.

Speaking of Twitter chats, I also co-hosted a separate one with Michael de Luca of Reckoning Magazine, discussing solarpunk and climate change and how writers promote things like optimism and kinship. The plan is for this to be a monthly event on Twitter, and I highly encourage you to check it out. I’ll make it to as many as I can!

You also might have seen me posting on Twitter or Instagram about a project I’m working on for Jay Odjick’s Outsider anthology. I’m calling it a comic, but the layout is a teacher’s personal records during the end of the world, while he tries to maintain normalcy for his students (and himself). It’s tentatively titled Anecdotal Notes, and will be included alongside other “snapshots of the apocalypse” when The Outsider is released. Stay tuned for news on that!

What I’m Up to Now

My current novel WIP, tentatively titled Three Coins of Silver, is partway through draft 3. I’m applying some major revisions for this draft, after which it’ll be stylistic edits and polishing. The plan is to revise a chapter a night until I’m done with the major stuff. So that’ll be my main focus for the next while. Expect some tweets and whatnot if and when I start pulling my hair out.

I’m also back as programming director for Can*Con this year (with the stalwart and entirely corporeal Evan May). We’re putting together the draft list of panels right now, and looking for panelists and programming suggestions between now and June/July. We’re also announcing our Guests of Honor and Special Guests! Check out more here: http://can-con.org/

And in case you haven’t seen the tweets, one of the greatest things I’m doing these days has nothing to do with my career, and everything to do with storytelling for fun: a D&D campaign with a bunch of writers. We’re playing in the Tal’dorei setting created by Matthew Mercer, and I have to say that it’s the most fun I’ve had with an RPG to date. My writer friends are brilliant, and the way they run their characters always keeps me guessing and is making for some excellent storytelling. Keep an eye on Twitter for the #WritersinTaldorei hashtag as we tweet about some of what’s going on!

Coming Up!

Besides Can*Con, you’ll be able to find me at two other cons over the next while. Limestone Genre Expo is really soon (May 26 and 27), featuring a number of excellent genre authors at the Waterfront Holiday Inn in Kingston, Ontario. I’ll be there on the 26th on two panels, discussing Young Adult fiction and Travel Stories. Then in July I’ll be hitting Readercon for the first time. Hope to see you there!

I’ve also got a couple more short stories coming out sometime this year. First should be a reprint of “Teachable Moments” (involving a disaster in near-future New York City) in Digital Science Fiction, followed later by “Decoys” (an homage to Men in Black, with a twist) in Hyperion and Theia. Stay tuned for more info!

And that’s pretty much it, except for super secret or still-cooking items. But I’ll try to do my best to post here more frequently. Rambling is good for the soul, especially the busier you are.

Until then, happy writing!

How the Fans Apparently Ruined Sherlock for Martin Freeman

Amid my procrastination this week, I stumbled upon various articles discussing a recent Telegraph interview with Martin Freeman where he briefly discussed whether there will ever be a fifth season of Sherlock.  The point of the interview was probably to discuss Black Panther (highest-grossing superhero movie ever, by the way, which is pretty awesome) but every headline I’ve seen focuses on Freeman’s comments about Sherlock, and the fact that he’s enjoyed playing John Watson less and less. Why? Freeman came out and clearly said it was because of the fans, some of whom are so intense in their passion for the show that they put too much pressure on the cast and writers to produce better and better content.

I broke one of my cardinal Internet rules and checked out the comments on a few of the sites who published this story, and sure enough there were a bunch of people either proclaiming that it’s Sherlock‘s declining quality that must have made the show less fun (because they know Freeman better, apparently) or that Freeman should suck it up because he’s a highly-paid actor whose job is to entertain us. Dance, monkey, dance.

Sorry, folks, but I’m with Freeman on this. One of the great parts of social media is you can share your praise or gratitude with actors, musicians, writers, etc – but the downside is that anyone who wants to shit on a project or the people behind it has an easy outlet, too. And people don’t understand or maybe don’t care that the film or TV industry is a business like any other, involving people who are working to collect a paycheck. The difference is that teachers or life guards or plumbers don’t have the masses hounding them across the Internet. Does acting have a lot of perks? Absolutely. But it’s also a busy and demanding job that I can imagine gets pretty tiring when you add the demands of the public to the mix.

I don’t buy this idea that the fans should be able to demand things of the creative people they follow – and yet, people do it all the time. For famous writers, it seems to be just as bad, particularly if they’re not producing new content at a pace that fans approve of. One of the first blog posts I ever wrote here was about giving George R.R. Martin a break instead of demanding that he pick up the pace on finishing A Song of Ice and Fire. And that pressure put on writers hasn’t gone away. I get notified about comments on my Jim Butcher interview at ConFusion, and sure enough people were quick to complain that they’re still waiting for the next Dresden Files novel (My favorite comment was: “First question should have been, ‘are you ever going to publish Peace Talks’? 2nd, ‘when?'” First of all, since Butcher isn’t self-pubbed, it’s Roc publishing it, not him. Second of all, of course Peace Talks is going to come out, you fucker.) My favorite response to this sort of pressure, though, comes from Pat Rothfuss, a master of cleverly speaking one’s mind and putting haters in their place. In  a recent talk at a con, he explicitly asked the audience to not ask him about the next Kingkiller book, and told them straight up that if anyone would benefit from it being finished, it would be him – because then people would get off his back.

As much as I truly want to be a successful novelist and see a line of my books on shelves at Indigo, or attend big cons and actually have fans, there’s a side to being that big that actually scares me. And I feel bad for celebrity actors or writers who feel too much pressure from their fans. If an individual backs away from a project because of the fans, that’s wrong on several levels. Creative work is often fun, but it’s still work. If you admire someone’s work and want to see more of it, leave them the hell alone and let them do it.

Why I Write Science Fiction & Fantasy

Before March Break I gave a talk to a Careers class at work about what being a writer is all about. My caveat right away was that every writer works a little differently, and that aside from the fact that every writer is a little nuts and most need to balance writing work with a paying day job, any piece of advice a writer might give needs to be taken with a grain of salt, since there are no absolutes. Pretty sure I lost 3/4 of my audience at that moment, since these students hadn’t been deprogrammed out of the “there is one answer and the teacher will give it” belief system.

However, a student who knew me put her hand up partway through and asked, “So why do you focus on sci-fi and fantasy, and not literary?” (I had explained that I got my start writing literary short fiction). The true, if canned answer is: “because it’s way more fun.” But these are my students, and I like to give them more truth when I can, so I explained in more detail the real reason I write SFF: because it lets me exorcise my demons, fears and worries without actually focusing on them. I could write a story, I said, about divorce or struggling with debt or the challenges my family has faced and set it in the here and now, but if I do that it becomes a little too real. If I write a story involving one of those things but set 300 years in the future or with a boggart as the main character, it allows more of a remove, where I can slip in little bits of things I understand, but more for flavor than as a direct focus.

I was thinking about that more this week while I finished the draft of Three Coins of Silver (my current novel WIP). As the last few chapters came together, I could see more of myself reflected in some of the characters’ behaviors. My lead protagonist, Mavrin Leed, is a scholar turned street performer who’s about fifty years old, looking closely at retirement, flails in the face of danger and was originally a researcher studying the many facets of his world’s deity. Obviously that’s not me. But there were moments in writing Mavrin where his regrets, the pain he feels, and his awkward moments with other characters felt familiar. The same is true of Eyasu (the overly-formal, stubborn warrior-priest) grappling with his anxiety of the future and Deyeri (the retired soldier) who feels guilty about people she’s failed or disappointed. In her case, those people are dead soldiers under her command, but exploring guilt and loss shouldn’t be strange to anyone. And so by touching on these things without dwelling too deeply, I get a little catharsis – and fun – all at once.

Or at least that’s how I explained it to my students. And while I’m sure most of them zoned out at some point during my talk, hopefully the more creative ones took away a useful lesson: that even if you’re writing about made-up characters (who may or may not be boggarts) your writing should offer a little healing, as well as being fun.

When My Protagonist Caught Me By Surprise

I’ve been talking quite a bit about my current novel WIP, tentatively titled Three Coins of Silver, but haven’t actually shared any excerpts from the draft (at least I don’t think I have; correct me if I’m wrong). I tend to keep early drafts pretty close to the chest, but I want to share a scene I wrote last week, because it’s one that caught me totally by surprise.

Three Coins focuses on three estranged friends – Mavrin, a street magician who doesn’t believe in real magic; Eyasu, a priest who questions the gods; and Deyeri, a retired soldier who avoids conflict – who lost touch after discovering a lost secret about the gods that Mavrin rejected. At the start of the novel, he’s carrying a lot of baggage that starts to get hashed out when he’s reunited with his friends, but the three of them spend the story largely not talking about what they’re really feeling until they’re forced to – cuz that’s what people do.

When I started the scene below, I expected the walls to come down between them a little, almost like old friends falling back into comfortable habits. But while I was writing, I could see Mavrin sitting in front of his friends, and I knew that this was the moment that things were going to suddenly be too much for him – not a few chapters later, when shit really hits the fan, but in this seemingly calm and quiet moment with people who used to be the closest thing he had to family. It was like he was speaking to me, showing me how he would react to the situation I put him in.

And here’s what I came up with (at least the first draft; we’ll see what it looks like after revisions) as an example of how some of the best writing sometimes comes out of nowhere:

***

“Is there something particular troubling you?”

“Just one thing? Try this entire madcap situation.” A corner of Righteous Authority was poking against Mavrin’s stomach, so he plucked it out and tossed it onto the bench between them. “I can’t decide whether talking with Breck and Kedar made me feel better or worse.”

Eyasu picked up the book and thumbed through the pages. “Everything we found, it was always just theory. Only Ammendul knows the truth about what She wills.”

“And do you honestly still trust in Her? I saw what happened last night, and it was the same thing that happened with Augustina.” Mavrin snatched the book from his friend. “Either these dead people are right, or your magic is all bullshit, just like I thought. I’m not sure I could live with that, in your shoes.”

He regretted his words as soon as he saw Eyasu’s expression darken.

“Bloody hell,” he muttered, studying Damisar’s name on the book’s cover. “I’ve had this thing ten minutes and it’s already making me argue with you.” He tossed it aside again. “I don’t mean to challenge your beliefs. Certainly not now.”

“You are not the only one challenging them. And I understand why you do not believe.”

Mavrin rubbed at his face again, wishing he could pry the fatigue from his eyes. “And I thought those coins floating in my room were the strangest things I’d be dealing with.” He scanned the deck in front of him, and when he caught himself noting every patch of darkness where the sunlight didn’t reach, he said, “There’s something in the shadows, Eyasu. Or there isn’t, and I’m finally losing my mind.”

Trying to pick his words as carefully as possible – for clarity, not to hide anything – he explained what had happened in Vertsa, and what he thought he had seen with Deyeri the night before. As he described it, he sounded crazy to his own ears – or would have, if the last few days hadn’t already been filled with varying levels of crazy.

When he finished, Eyasu said, “I have not seen anything specifically like that. I am afraid I am at a loss.” He let out a thoughtful grunt. “There have always been tales of creatures hiding in shadow. But if it has not harmed you yet…”

Mavrin arched an eyebrow. “You’re not suggesting I just ignore it?”

“We have somewhat more pressing concerns.”

“Lovely. If I get sucked into the void, you’d better save me, so I can throw it in your face later.”

“You have my word,” Eyasu said, without even a glimmer of amusement.

Somewhere nearby, he heard Atera loudly asking if everyone was ready to get underway – not barking orders, but asking for the opinions of her crew, which in his eyes made her a better captain than most. As the sails were unfurled and the Soul started to pull away from the docks, Mavrin decided he should have tried to convince her to kick everyone off her ship. At least then he would have helped somebody.

“Well … are you going to tell me what’s going on with that,” Mavrin said, pointing at Eyasu’s rucksack, “or do I have to guess?”

He thought Eyasu would refuse again. But he said, “On our way here, the Spawn inside those coins … spoke to me.”

He explained what had happened while Mavrin was performing for the Soul’s crew, though he glossed over what the Spawn showed him once it got into his mind. Mavrin didn’t pry. When Eyasu finished, he didn’t look any less tired, but some of the somberness seemed to leave his voice.

Mavrin considered kicking the rucksack across the deck until it fell into the bay. “Have you heard it since you carved that second box?”

Eyasu shook his head.

“Well, hopefully that means those charms of yours worked, and it isn’t just sleeping or something.” He frowned. “Is it strange that the box is containing that thing, but your other magic hasn’t worked?”

“Magic is inconsistent, it seems,” Eyasu admitted.

“Uyekel described Spawn as having different kinds of power. Maybe the one in there is less powerful than the one we saw yesterday.” Mavrin thought about what he had just said, and for the first time in a while a genuine smile crept onto his face. “It’s never dull talking to you, is it?”

“I have always tried to keep you on your toes. It is the cows’ job to knock you off them.”

When Mavrin glanced over at him, a mischievous smile had crept onto Eyasu’s face. A low, throaty chuckle rumbled somewhere deep in his chest, and that set off something in Mavrin. He put a hand over his mouth to stifle it, but that only made it worse, and soon they were both laughing so hard that Mavrin eventually ran out of air and started coughing.

Eyasu’s steadying hand on his arm made him giggle all over again.

By the time they were both under control, Mavrin massaged his weathered face and noticed Deyeri standing across the deck, arms crossed.

“Did you two take up day-drinking?”

“That was only one time,” Eyasu started saying, at the same time Mavrin said, “It’s this bastard’s fault,” and when they looked at each other they almost broke into another fit of exhausted, worn-out laughter.

As Mavrin caught his breath again, he noticed Deyeri smiling. Not ironically or by force; this was the natural smile he remembered, the one that just slightly pulled at the corners of her lips, as though she was keeping most of her amusement to herself and letting the world catch a glimpse. He could remember how that smile could grow, when they were alone and comfortable, and wondered how many other people had seen that effect on her.

The soreness in his lungs melted away, replaced by a deeper ache that started somewhere below his diaphragm and drifted upward into the rest of his body, as he looked at the two people who had been his closest friends, long ago.

“I’m sorry,” he said. Eyasu gave him a curious look, while Deyeri lowered her gaze and tapped her heel idly against the deck. “I’m sure if I wasn’t so much of a fool I could come up with a more eloquent way to say this. Or maybe there’s too much for me to apologize for.”

Now that he had looked at them once, he couldn’t again, since he knew all he would see is the scars that both of his friends bore. All because of me. He hadn’t run from ideas or truths before; he had turned his back on them. Not because he thought they would judge him, but because they would have supported and helped him, and he had been more comfortable accepting his fear and hiding from it.

And the more he thought about it, the more he realized that was just the start.

“I walked away from it. Twenty-seven years, thinking none of it mattered. Not paying attention. And people are dead. That poor girl is dead because of me,” Mavrin said, unable to control the shaking in his voice.

Looking away from them didn’t matter. He could still see the scars gouged into Eyasu’s scalp and the way his shoulders shook as he desperately tried to save the ignorant in Tanardell. He could hear the hurt in Deyeri’s voice as she told him to never call her love ever again, and her gasp of pain as the Spawn pierced her mind.

“Everything is my fault. And I don’t know how to apologize for it.”

His hand was trembling even worse than his voice when Deyeri crouched in front of him and took it in both of hers. He couldn’t meet her eyes, not wanting to see the blame or disgust in them. He waited for her to call him a fool, or slap him, or tell him he had no right to try to apologize, knowing he deserved all of that, and maybe worse.

“Mavrin.”

Deyeri’s eyes were glimmering and wet, and before he could blame himself for that, too, she squeezed his hand.

“It’s okay.”

For an instant, Mavrin was back in their room in the Citadel, twenty-seven years earlier, when he told her he was researching something that scared him, and that he didn’t know when he could tell her about it. She had leaned against him in their bed and he had known she understood, that she trusted him and could wait for him, because of two simple words.

The same words she said now. Only this time, they hurt in ways he couldn’t articulate.

Deyeri kept holding his hand. Eyasu gripped his shoulder.

And Mavrin hung his head, as old tears fell at his feet.

On the Nature of Slumps

I’ve been a posting a fair bit of awesome writing news the last little while, so it might surprise you that amid all of that the last month I really wasn’t feeling it creatively. All of January I was getting solid words done on draft 1.5 of Three Coins, mostly thanks to my weekly check-ins with KT Bryski – if you can find someone to regularly report to as a writer, it works wonders, FYI – and forcing myself to write 800 words minimum every weeknight, on the advice of another writer friend of mine. But more often than not (with the exception of the last couple of days), it was a slog getting those words done; I felt like my regular energy and excitement weren’t there, even seeing the fruits of my labor in a variety of ways.

Maybe it’s partly because of semester turnover at work, which is always a bit draining. Maybe it’s because I caught up to where I stopped in Three Coins before going back for early rewrites, so I’m drafting entirely new content, and that’s a little scary. Maybe it’s because of the hundred other things I have buzzing around in my head, courtesy of the universe tossing things in our path. Maybe it was one of those little burnout periods every creative goes through. Whether or not there’s a definite explanation doesn’t really matter, since either way I’ve had to suck it up and deal with it.

One really interesting thing lately is that I’ve hardly been watching any new television or movies. Usually I’m following a few shoes at once, mixing up what I’m watching when, but for a while I haven’t felt the desire to get into anything new (except Critical Role and The X-Files). So I’ve been rewatching my old favorites, like Human TargetFringe and Castle, almost as though I needed a guaranteed jolt of what I love about storytelling. Ironically Castle helped the most in the last couple of weeks, by reminding me about the kind of writer I want to be. Not the cocky, stupidly rich side of Richard Castle (which is obviously unrealistic) but the side that gets excited about the strange, has a wealth of knowledge from book research, and understands that acting like a kid isn’t a bad thing, since it lets your brain relax.

The other thing that’s been helping me lately is listening or watching live music from some of my favorite artists – the ones who are clearly having a good time performing, even after decades of shows. There’s something magical about watching Eric Clapton at age 70 busting out “Cocaine” or “I Shot the Sheriff,” or the Killers at the Royal Albert Hall, or Elton John and his band live in Hyde Park. You can tell that they’re having an absolute blast, and that’s inspiring as a creative person. Better yet, seeing the way they feed off the audience’s excitement (and vice versa) helps get my own creative energy pumping. Because at the end of the day that’s why I tell stories – not because I’m looking for adoration, but because I want to give people something they enjoy.

Tonight, that little jolt of energy comes from a source that might surprise people who don’t know me very well: Sir Tom Jones. While I grew up on classic rock courtesy of my parents, from my grandparents I developed an appreciation for legends like Elvis Presley and Tom Jones. I’ve always loved the latter’s music, and I keep an eye out for new clips from The Voice UK, so I can see him in action. Watching the clip below from this weekend’s episode is actually what got me to sit down and write this post (and when I’m 77, I hope I’m half as active as Tom):

My point? Everyone has slumps, and I think it’s important to talk about them, and what works when you’re in them. And even in a slump, keep writing. Otherwise, to quote the Eagles (another favorite of mine), you’ll be “worrying ’bout this wasted time.”

The Power of a Single Dungeons and Dragons Encounter

What is this? Two posts in a single week? From the guy who can barely manage to post once a week on this thing? Hell yeah. This is what happens when I have a lot on my mind and working on actual writing doesn’t help.

So I have a Pathfinder campaign that I play in, and last night we had a slightly nerve-wracking combat against an undead druid and his minions masquerading as paladins. Why was it nerve-wracking? Because he threw down in a pavilion crowded with civilians that he promptly started killing with impunity, while we tried to get to him to shut him down. Yes, these are not real people, but just markers on a table. But I’m a writer, so I can see the scene in front of me as our DM describes it. And my character is basically a Harry Dresden look-alike, so each round of combat came down to me asking, “How do I get between these guys and the civilians without getting myself killed?” And with the knowledge that if my character got killed defending innocent NPCs, he’d be okay with that. I get invested in D&D, so situations like this actually evoke an emotional response in me.

We won the fight without too much loss of innocent life (and none of the party dying) and I was able to relax. And then as we’re wrapping up the DM turns to me and says he forgot something. I had missed the last session, and he says that during my character’s downtime, he started having nightmares where he sees himself committing violent crimes and feeling nothing. Sort of like sociopathic criminal activity. And the most recent nightmare involved my character torturing the woman he loves (who happens to be a fire nymph he summoned once, and rescued from being imprisoned and tortured by demons – D&D is like a soap opera sometimes). No clue as to what’s causing these nightmares.

And to be honest, that thing stuck with me. My character is a good guy. He makes mistakes sometimes, usually risking himself stupidly and not thinking things through, but it comes from a place of altruism. He doesn’t hurt people unnecessarily. And there’s enough going on in the campaign that the idea of him being compelled to go dark and hurt the people he cares about is actually a danger, so now I’m legitimately worried that he’s going to become dangerous to the people around him or something, and I have to wait until our next session to figure out what to do with it.

That, my friends, is the power of proper storytelling, and one of the reasons why I love Pathfinder or D&D. Played with the right people, you can have some properly emotional and vivid experiences, like reading a great book or watching a captivating film. The fact that you can act on that world with a freedom a video game doesn’t often allow just makes it all the more compelling. (And in my case, legitimately terrifying.)

If you play D&D or something similar, I’m sure you understand. If you don’t, you probably think I’m nuts.

Either way, I need to figure out what’s wrong with my character, and make sure he doesn’t hurt anyone he cares about.