Don't cliche yourself into becoming a hack writer

I'm tired of the writing cliches. You know, all those snappy little sayings about how if you want to be a writer all you have to do is write. Or that you should show not tell. Or start a story in the middle of the action.

To quote the great Kurt Vonnegut, so it goes.

The problem is not that there's no truth in these cliches. Of course there is. All cliches have an element of truth or else they'd never have become cliches in the first place. But if you need such cliches to understand writing, odds are you'll never become a great writer in the first place.

To understand what I mean, check out what author Jeff VanderMeer wrote as the ever-charming Curmudgeon on his Facebook account. Jeff's response sums up my own feelings about all of the "writers write" advice which abounds in our world.

"I'm finding the proliferation of this advice annoying: 'If you want to be a writer, write.' Well, duhhhhhh. If you have to be reminded of this continually or accept this 'wisdom' with some kind of rapturous awe...hit yourself in the head with a dead fish while repeating after me: "WRITE WRITE WRITE WRITE WRITE." You will not soon forget again. - Sincerely, the Curmudgeon

Look, writers write. If you don't have an instinctual understanding of that, you'll never be a writer. Chanting the cliche "writers write" like a repetitious mantra will do nothing to change this fact.

My suggestion? Writers should avoid all of the following writing cliches. Unless they actually work for you. But even then don't become so obsessive with the rules that they blind you to the truth behind the writing process.

Writers write

Reread what Jeff VanderMeer said above, then allow me take this cliche to the extreme. Writing is not merely the process of putting words on paper or screen or organic-cerebral implant—writing is a process. Part of that process is, yes, the physical act of writing. But reflection and understanding must also be present before the actual writing takes place, and editing and rewriting must occur afterward.

Do you know what types of writers merely write, with no other part of the equation figuring into their writing? Hacks. Anyone can crank out page after page of writing. But to be a good or great writer means you can't simply write. You also must reach into far more of the creative process than the simple physical act of writing. 

Show don't tell

Don't get me started about this cliche, which is so widespread it even has its own Wikipedia entry. Yes, showing is often better than telling. Except when it's not. For example, if you're describing an action scene, I'd say to generally go with showing. But many things in stories should be told and not shown, such as transition scenes which would otherwise bore a reader, or those moments when you reach into a character's head to reveal a startling insight to the world. And there are plenty of times when a writer should neither tell nor show (that's why few stories have their characters eating and drinking as much as humans do in real life).

There are authors who can "show" entire worlds in their prose, and those who would have been better off telling. And those whose "tellings" are richer than any attempt at showing could ever be.

As Neil Gaiman has said, "The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like." That advice totally applies to the show don't tell cliche. And notice how Gaiman told us that advice instead of showing it.

Start in the middle of the action

Also known as using a hook because you want to stab the reader through the torso with a curved piece of metal and toss their screaming carcass into a frothing river full of piranha. What's that, you say? Using a hook to start your story doesn't sound as attractive when I write it that way. I wonder why?

Look, I have nothing against starting some stories in the middle of the action. But I've also read amazing stories which instead first slowly set the scene, and even stories which succeeded by starting in the middle of philosophical reflections. Each story and author must find their own beginning.

Write what you know

Basically this advice implies that only arrogant know-it-alls can ever be writers. Please! I love reading stories where authors didn't stick with what they know. Where they ventured into unknown realms and tested new ideas and learned as they went.

Don't get me wrong—writers should have a strong knowledge of the world. And if you're writing about a topic, make sure you have an understanding of it or you will be called on your ignorance. For example, if you're writing about a Thai woman living in Bangkok, but have never visited Thailand and know nothing about Thai culture except what you've seen in the movies, it's the ultimate in arrogance to assume you can write her story. 

But as long as you're not arrogant there's no reason you must limit yourself to writing what you know. Almost all writers—hell, almost all people—know very little about life. Following "write what you know" to the extreme would mean no one could write anything since we're all ignorant about most major aspects of life and the universe.

If you can write in a great way about the little you understand in life, go for it. But if you likewise want to reach beyond yourself to embrace a story you wouldn't otherwise know, don't be afraid to take that chance. But if you write about topics or characters beyond the scope of your life and knowledge, do so humbly and with your eyes wide open.

Stick with a single point of view

I get it—switching back and forth between first person and third person can really throw a reader. And since most writing advice is aimed at new writers, who often have problems with point of view shifts, I understand why this cliche is so often given.

But Neil Gaiman's advice above also applies to shifting points of view. If an author can make multiple points of view work, then go for it. If you can't, then stick to a single POV. Or take a chance. 

I like writers who take chances.

Avoid cliches

Isn't it funny that writers are told to avoid cliches even as we are given so many cliches to guide our writing process?

Seriously, cliches are another area where a good writer can make them work while a hack merely wallows in the cliche. Don't be afraid of cliches, but likewise be careful about embracing them. 

How the hell can I ever become a writer without cliched advice?

So what advice would I give new writers, if they are to avoid the cliches listed above?

I'm tempted to tell every wannabe writer to figure it out for themselves. Not that I'm trying to be an ass or to thin out the competition. Instead, I want people to understand that writing is like life—a process we can share with others, and which is made great by our interactions with others, but which we ultimately live as individuals.

Instead of advice, I humbly give the following suggestions. This is what seems to work for my own writing and perhaps people will find this useful.

  • Understand life. Or at least try to reach an understanding. If you don't have a decent understanding of the world around you, your limited vision of life will transfer into a similarly limited vision within your stories.
  • Understand your written medium. If you write fiction, read fiction until you can understand stories on an instinctual level. Same with the other respective writing mediums. No matter if you're a journalist, poet, screenwriter, game writer or so on, understand the storytelling in those mediums until it becomes second nature.
  • Let the writing consume you. And that doesn't mean merely writing 24/7. Yes, write as much as you can, but realize there are also times when you need to recharge and think about what you're writing. For example, which of the following makes me a writer: The 10 hours I spent thinking about a story or the one hour I spent writing it? The truth is my story wouldn't exist without both aspects of my creative process.
  • Don't be arrogant. Yes, I know many writers have big egos, but that's not what I mean by arrogance. Instead, don't assume you know everything. Don't assume your viewpoint is the only viewpoint in the world. If you're open to the people and experiences of this world, everywhere you go you'll find stories waiting to be told.
  • Understand that each person's creative process is unique. The act of creation is so singularly dependent upon the individual that it's silly to universalize any fixed set of rules. Take from others the advice which works and ignore what doesn't.

And that last point is actually the point of this essay. If you rigidly follow the writing rules laid out by others, all you'll end up doing is becoming a shadow of those who created the rules. In other words, a hack. Someone who can create words but lacks the insight and ability to make those words into something great.

Two of the saddest things in the writing world are stories which could have been amazing, and writers who had the potential for greatness but never reached it.

Don't be a hack. 

Gen Con Writer's Symposium

This weekend I'm appearing at the Gen Con Writer's Symposium in Indianapolis. This Symposium is part of Gen Con Indy, meaning the author panels are free for any Gen Con attendees. So come see tons of great authors, including Guest of Honor Mercedes Lackey along with Saladin Ahmed, Bradley P. Beaulieu, Maurice Broaddus, Jennifer Brozek, Jim C. Hines, Mary Robinette Kowal, Lucy A. Snyder, and many more.

For anyone interested, I'll have copies of my short story collection Never Never Stories there, along with both Million Writers Award anthologies.

Here's my schedule. Please note the Symposium rooms are rooms 243, 244, and 245 on the 2nd floor of the Indiana Convention Center.

Friday, August 16

  • 2 pm: Author's reading with me and Kelly Swails (Room 243)
  • 5 pm: Short fiction panel with Donald J. Bingle, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Saladin Ahmed (Room 245)

Saturday August 17

  • 11 am: Aliens panel with George Strayton, Chris Pierson, and Gary Kloster (Room 244)
  • 2 pm: Hard SF panel awith George Strayton, Wesley Chu, and James L. Sutter (Room 244)
  • 3 pm: Author's Avenue appearance alongside Brad Beaulieu, Gregory A. Wilson, and Jay Kristoff.

If you're attending Gen Con I hope you'll stop by and see me.

Million Writers Award update: Last days to nominate stories, judges and donations needed

We're into the last days for nominations to the storySouth Million Writers AwardThe deadline for nominations is August 3rd.

Judges needed

As always, we need preliminary judges for the award. If you want to volunteer please let me know. As a judge you'll get to select up to 10 stories for inclusion on our award's notable stories list. These stories can come from the reader and editor nominations or from any other means you desire (i.e., you can hunt down the stories on your own).


So far a number of donations for the prize money have come in, but we still need a few more. Last year we had nearly $1000 in prize money for the winners. All of this prize money was raised through donations from writers, editors and readers. I hope we can reach these amounts again.

To donate, go to the main Million Writers Award website.

And a big thanks to Spotlight Publishing, which is donating copies of the two retrospective anthologies of Million Writers Award stories to this year's winners. For complete information on these anthologies, including how to order, go here for the SF/F anthology and here for the New Online Voices anthology.

Tenth annual storySouth Million Writers Award now open

The storySouth Million Writers Award is now open. This is the 10th annual edition of the award, which is for any fictional short story of at least a 1,000 words first published in an online publication during 2012. By "publication," we mean an online magazine or journal with an editorial process (so self-published stories are not eligible).

The deadline for nominations is August 3rd.

As many people have noticed—and commented upon, oh my how people have commented—this year's Million Writers Award is starting rather late. In addition, the more sharp-eyed among our fans may notice that the award website and nomination process has a new design and feel.

Well, there's a reason for this, which comes down to me. After nine years of running the Million Writers, I no longer have the time to devote to this annual project. Between family and work and my own fiction writing, the MWA has been suffering because I rarely have the time to focus on it.

Which leads to the following annoucement:

Spring Garden Press takes over Million Writers Award

Yes, Spring Garden Press, the publisher of the online literary magazine storySouth, has now taken over running the award. The award process will not change but the great people at Spring Garden Press—including Terry L. Kennedy, Associate Director of the UNCG MFA Writing Program and editor of storySouth, and Shawn Delgado, Million Writers Award editor—will be able to give much more attention to the award than I can. This also allows the award to expand and live beyond the work of a single person, so many thanks to Terry, Shawn, and Spring Garden Press for doing this.

Donations Needed for Prize Money!

But even though we have a new crew running the MWA, we still need donations to fund the award's prize money. Last year we had nearly $1000 in prize money for the winners; all of this prize money was raised through donations from writers, editors and readers. I hope we can reach these amounts again.

To donate, go to the main Million Writers Award website.

Thanks to everyone who has taken part in the award in previous years, and I hope you enjoy it again on our 10th anniversary. I will be posting updates on this blog throughout the award process. For more frequent updates, be sure to check out my Twitter account.

Spoiler mockery of World War Z

You must understand two things about World War Z the movie.

One, never forget that the only thing the film has in common with World War Z the novel is the title. If you read the novel you must remember this point or massive disappointment will smack you upside the head.

Second, make sure to turn off brain upon entering the theater. Do this and you'll enjoy the film. But if you accidently fall into thinking, be warned—logical loops and bullshit will erupt from all frames of the film, and you'll emerge from the theater arguing that this couldn't actually happen. Not because of the zombies, mind you, which are now acceptable SF tropes despite having no means of existing in the physical, entropy-dictated world.

No, you'll go crazy trying to explain the other silliness in World War Z.

Because—"Argh! here be spoilers" (said in pirate talk for no particular reason)—the world of World War Z is saved from zombie infestation by infecting humanity with a deadly disease. Wait a moment and let that tickle through your brain. You see, Brad Pitt discovers, at immense risk to himself, that zombies won't attack someone who is already ill with a fatal disease. Because, you see, those zombies want to spread their infection and infecting someone who is already going to die won't spread it.

Get that? In a movie where zombie infections spread person-to-person in less than 10 seconds, zombies don't want to infect a man with cancer who will die in a year or two.

Brain. Exploding. Which might not be a bad thing, if I was a zombie you needed to kill.

But ignore that logical loop. Instead, think on how Brad Pitt saves humanity. By infecting himself with a disease which will kill him. Meaning the zombies won't kill him. But as the other characters say, "He's a dead man anyway."

Except he's reunited with his family in the end. So obviously that fatal disease wasn't overly fatal, or they could cure it, which makes you wonder why the zombies couldn't sense this and decide, heck, he'll live longer than the 10 seconds we need to turn him into a rapid zombie vector.


Still, World War Z is a fun movie. Just don't over-think it. Or think at all during the film.

Interesting observation about Rotten Tomatoes and film reviews

One of my favorite sites is Rotten Tomatoes, which did the Nate Silver poll averaging thing—only in this case for film reviews instead political polls—long before Nate Silver became "Nate Silver." Forget what friends and family say about a film. For me, the reviewer averages and audience ratings on Rotten Tomatoes are my go-to guide on risking a small fortune to see a movie in an actual theater before it's available on the cheap via Netflix, Red Box, Hulu and a billion other services.

That said, I've recently noticed a fascinating trend regarding the site's Tomatometer and Certified Fresh rating. (Quick digression: In case you're living in the stone ages and think tomatoes are for eating and pelting at bad actors, Tomatometer is the averaging system used by the site. As Rotten Tomatoes states, they award their "Certified Fresh accolade to theatrical releases reviewed by 40 or more critics (including 5 Top Critics) with a steady score of 75% or higher on the Tomatometer. A film remains Certified Fresh unless its Tomatometer falls below 70%.")

Digression now passed. On with the story.

Anyway, a few days before Man of Steel came out it had a Tomatometer rating of 70%, which was good enough to be Certified Fresh. For people like myself who check out Rotten Tomatoes in advance of a film's release, that rating seemed like a decent reason to brave overly crowded theaters.

However, as the days passed an interesting thing happened to the Man of Steel's Tomatometer rating—it fell, going from 70% shortly before its release to 56% a week later. The film is no longer fresh and now exists as a simple rotten tomato.

This might not seem like a big deal. After all, averages can change as more diverse reviews are added to the mix. But this is a pattern I've seen repeatedly on Rotten Tomatoes with regards to large Hollywood movies. Early reviews of blockbuster films, and hence the early averages, are more positive overall than later reviews.

While you can't see the old averages for Man of Steel, you can sort the reviews by date. And sure enough, the earlier reviews appear to be generally more positive. A similar pattern is now taking place with Monsters University, where yesterday the film's average was 85% and today, on the opening day, it is 76%. 

Of course, not every blockbuster film drops so sharply. World War Z has maintained a somewhat stable rating, going from 71% on June 19 to 68% this morning. But what's strange is that if this pattern was totally random, as you'd expect from an overall averaging of film reviews, then we should see both sharp climbs and falls in some blockbuster film averages, along with many films like World War Z which stay relatively stable. But in my experience blockbuster film ratings either tend to fall sharply as more reviews come in or stay stable. They rarely climb sharply.

Again, you expect some statistical noise with averages like this. But the noise should go both ways.

One other observation—I haven't seen this weird pattern occurring with most non-blockbuster films. Once independent films and smaller Hollywood productions reach the threshhold of 40 reviews, they are relatively stable in their rankings.

So what does this suggest? As Hollywood has made clear in recent years, their bottom line is heavily dependent on the money raised by a film in the first few weeks, when they don't have to share as much revenue with theaters. This is especially true for a blockbuster movie's critical first week, which helps set the film's trajectory to success or failure. Studios have also long been known to use fake critics, to pay critics, and prefer critics who seem to almost write PR copy for studios.

So I wonder if studios have realized how important an early Rotten Tomatoes film ranking can be—duh—and, as a result, make sure that sympathetic critics who publish early are given advance screenings. Or, alternately, this pattern could simply emerge from studios using sympathetic critics to push out positive reviews in the run-up to a film's release (instead of as a deliberate attempt to skew Rotten Tomatoes). Either way, while such attempts wouldn't change a blockbuster film's overall ranking by much in the long run, they could skew the ranking in the lead-up to a film's release.

Now again, all of this is merely based on my observations. But the great thing about Rotten Tomatoes is their linked reviews, and the dates when the reviews were posted, are all available to see. Perhaps someone with a statistical bent could import the data and run an analysis. It would be fascinating to discover whether or not my observations hold up across all Hollywood blockbusters from the last few years.

If I'm wrong, I'll be the first to admit it. But something does appear to smell rotten in the land of blockbuster Rotten Tomatoes rankings.

XB-1 is reborn. Again.

XB-1 April 2013

With all the negative things bubbling around science fiction and fantasy these days—a la SFWA and a certain racist troll who is a member of the organization—it's easy to forget that the beating hearts of our genre are great SF/F stories. Our love of SF/F brings us together and, if we're lucky, keeps us going when the negativity hits. 

Well, here's some good news for the genre. After reporting last week that they were shutting down, the Czech SF/F magazine XB-1 has experienced a second rebirth. According to a post on their website, XB-1's publisher has found new sponsors, which will enable their July issue to come out on time. I'm already writing a new column for them, per my editor's request. 

This is the second time the magazine has defied death. The first close call came two and a half years ago when the SF magazine Ikarie closed. Ikarie's editors immediately found a new publisher and launched their first rebirth as the new XB-1.

In XB-1's announcement, the publisher and editors say the magazine will continue as before but that some changes will be forthcoming. The first change is to raise the cover price to make ends meet.

Congrats to XB-1. This is a good day for the genre.

Czech SF/F magazine XB-1 shuts down

XB-1 April 2013

Sad news today out of the Czech Republic—the SF/F magazine XB-1 has announced that their June issue will be their last. Economic problems and a lack of advertisers were among the issues mentioned as being responsible for the magazine's death.

XB-1 ran for two and a half years and was the successor to the groundbreaking SF magazine Ikarie. When Ikarie's publisher closed that magazine in late 2010, Ikarie's editors immediately started XB-1.

Now, I must admit more than a passing connection with XB-1. They've published translations of a number of my stories and, for the last two years, I've written a monthly SF column for the magazine. In addition to publishing great original stories, translations and non-fiction articles, XB-1 fostered and supported the entire Czech genre community. I've also found XB-1 editors and readers to be extremely passionate about their magazine, as detailed in the comments below the announcement of their closing.

There's some hope that the magazine can be revived just as the earlier Ikarie was brought back from the dead—in the announcement XB-1's publisher says they are very open to offers to purchase the magazine. And if a print magazine isn't possible, perhaps an online version will continue. I'm definitely hoping one of these options happen.

Ironically, this weekend I received my contributor copies of XB-1 covering all twelve months of 2012. XB-1 is a beautiful magazine, with amazing design standards and artwork. While I know e-publishing is both the trend of today and for the future, holding a copy of XB-1 reminds you of the power still held by printed magazines.

Time for the men of SF to tell the sexists to go to hell

Over on Twitter, K. Tempest Bradford writes:

This would be a good time for the men who write science fiction who aren't douchecanoes to step up and tell the other dudes to go to hell.

Amen to that. This sexist crap wouldn't happen if these men were continually called on their sexism. All genders must stand up against this problem.

And before you think this isn't a problem, consider this: Ann Aguirre writes about the problem of sexism in our genre, and immediately receives hate mail. Silvia Moreno-Garcia writes about the problem and receives hate mail. Starting to see a pattern?

Anyone who has attended SF/F conventions has met the sexists in our midst. They are tolerated because they've always been a part of our genre. Many of them are the authors and fans we loved when we were younger, so their sexism is excused with a wink and a roll of the eyes like they're our beloved senile grandfather passing gas at the Thanksgiving dinner.

But that attitude merely prolongs the harm they do. So let me be blunt to the sexist farts of the SF genre: We're tired of your sexism and hate. Clean up or ship out. You're holding back the genre we love. And it's time for the men of SF to step up and also say this behavior is not acceptable.

SciFi Strange, an interview with me

The Apex Publications blog has been focusing on Weird Fiction this month, so they decided to interview me about SciFi Strange. If you've ever enjoyed SciFi Strange, disagreed about SciFi Strange, or wondered what the hell is SciFi Strange, then you should go check out the interview.

Here's the link:  SciFi Strange, an interview with SciFi Strange author Jason Sanford

Many thanks to Krissie McMakin for doing the interview.

Feeling heat for your ideas is not censorship or thought-control

Update: This essay only focuses on why it was wrong for Resnick and Malzberg to use the terms censorship and thought-control against people criticizing the depiction of women in SF art. For my overall view on sexism in SF, see "Time for the men of SF to tell the sexists to go to hell."


Yesterday the summer 2013 issue of the SFWA Bulletin arrived in my snailmail box and I immediately read Jim C. Hines's essay "Cover Art and the Radical Notion that Women Are People." Now, since this is the official publication of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, it makes total sense that the Bulletin is a print-only affair. We SF/F authors don't need no fancy futuristic techie-online stuff! So if you want to read Hines' excellent essay, you'll have to hunt down a print copy.

But that said, if you've been following the online discussion about how women are depicted in SF/F art, you likely already have a sense of Hines' powerful arguments. So kudos to the SFWA Bulletin for publishing his essay, especially since the cover for their previous issue played a major part in the debate.

And kudos also to the Bulletin for publishing a rebuttal to Hines' points in the same issue, in the form of the newest dialogue between SF authors Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg.

Wait. What? I'm okay with Resnick and Malzberg saying there's no problem with how women are depicted in SF artwork? What kind of sick SFWA liberal fascist joke is this?

I raise that last question because in the dialogue Malzberg calls people troubled by these types of sexist covers "SFWA liberal fascists." Resnick and Malzberg then talk at length how the campaign to raise awareness on how women are depicted in SF/F art is nothing more than thought-control and censorship.

Now, I think Resnick and Malzberg are taking the issue a bit personally because in the previous issue of the Bulletin they discussed female genre editors, and took flack for commenting on the looks of one of the editors. I also know that they are trying to stir the pot on this issue—hell, they basically admit as much toward the end of their discussion (right before they say this type of thought-control and censorship leads us straight into a world full of Joseph Stalins and Chairman Maos).

But even though I disagree with their views, I have no problem with Resnick and Malzberg presenting them in the Bulletin. I've long enjoyed their dialogues and believe it's a good thing to have their views offered alongside Hines' thoughts. I should also note that Hines' essay nicely rebuts every reason Resnick and Malzberg raise on why sexpot SF/F covers are not offensive.

However, that doesn't mean Resnick and Malzberg's essay didn't piss me off. And the reason for said urine-anger is simple—they throw around the words "thought-control" and "censorship" merely because they've been made to feel uncomfortable for their beliefs.

News flash: Feeling heat for your ideas is not censorship. Having to defend your beliefs when challenged is not thought-control.

The only time I've ever agreed with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was during his concurrence in a Washington ballot initiative case. You see, the people in that state who'd signed petitions to ban same-sex marriage protested the disclosure of their names, saying it "subjected them to harassment from supporters of same-sex marriage." But as Scalia wrote in the Supreme Court ruling forcing the release of their names, "Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed."

Basically, what Scalia and the Supreme Court were saying is that while there might be discomfort and pain in stating one's opinion, this is actually a good thing. 

When Resnick and Malzberg compare the heat they're feeling for stating their beliefs with censorship and thought-control, they are playing a version of the political correctness card. We've all seen this before, where someone complains because they—horror of horrors—have to actually stand up for what they believe in instead of automatically having their beliefs agreed with.  But as the Supreme Court said, this is actually a good thing because it results in honest debates and discussions, which is how both societies and people grow and change.

So yes, I'm glad the Bulletin printed their thoughts. I have no desire to censor their opinions, nor does anyone I know. If you want to live in an economic free market, you can't then whine about defending your beliefs in the marketplace of ideas.

This is a hard post to write because I've met Resnick a number of times and really like him; I also love many of his stories. I've never met Malzberg but I've long respected him for his principled stands and writing style.

But they are absolutely wrong about this being a case of thought-control or censorship.

The Art of Adam Pizurny

Adam Pizurny's illustration for "Heaven's Touch"

As an author, there are two big fringe benefits to having your stories reprinted around the world—you get to meet new readers, and you discover new and exciting artists when they illustrate your work.

Allen M. Steele - The Emperor of Mars1

Illustration for Allen M. Steele's "The Emperor of Mars"

Adam Pizurny is a Czech artist living in Prague and he illustrates stories for the magazine XB-1. I love Adam's black and white illustrations, which are designed to fit in a single vertical column of the magazine. At right is his take on my story "Heaven's Touch," which appeared in the April 2013 issue of XB-1. The story focuses on a stranded astronaut whose space suit is infected—or haunted, if you will—by the ghost-like proxy of her dead crewmate. I think Adam did an amazing job capturing the essence of the story.

Another of his illustrations I really like is for Allen M. Steele "The Emperor of Mars." The space-suited face is what draws me to this illustration. The art both tells the story of what is happening and draws the reader deeper into Steele's story.

As you can imagine, Adam is a big fan of science fiction, and says he has loved the genre since childhood. Other samples of his XB-1 art you should check out includes illustrations for Nina Allan's "The Silver Wind" and Gregory Benford's "Immersion." 

Adam doesn't only do black and white illustrations. He works full time in graphic design and has a long list of impressive design and illustration credits, including music art, movie posters, and advertising murals. You can check out more of his illustrations here.

Do authors' obsessions with daily word counts result in bad stories?

A few years ago I wrote about how long it took me to write a typical short story. Long story short (I know, bad joke) I'm a slow writer, taking around 20 hours to create a 5,000-word short story. I continually write and rewrite and edit, these different creative aspects of fiction writing merging and mingling until I often do all three within seconds of each other. But as that post also makes clear, other writers have different processes. For example, John Scalzi stated that with "20 hours of butt in chair, I wrote and did the initial edit of 'The God Engines,' which is 30,000 words."

Since that post, my glacial pace has not increased or slowed. But compared to other writers, I might as well be literally turning into a giant hunk of ice. I mean, it sometimes seems like every author I know tweets or posts Facebook updates about how many words they wrote today. 1000 words. 2000. 5000. The other day my Facebook news feed even proclaimed that someone wrote 10,000 words in a single afternoon, which is astounding (or a big lie, or a joke, it's sometimes hard to tell with author's Facebook feeds).

But—be warned, here comes the rant—enough is enough. Come on authors. Stop the bragging. Or if you're going to brag, mention the total fiction writing package, not merely word count. Mention the hours you spend rewriting and editing, or plotting out and contemplating your novel. Mention how you gave up on a story and returned to it three years later. 

Don't get me wrong. I've bragged about my word counts before. I also realize word-count crowing is how many writers motive themselves. Hey, I did my 2,000 words for the day! Time to tell the world so I can keep my bonafide author credentials for another 24 hours!  But here's the question I'm pondering: Does an obsession on word counts hurt writers more than it motives them?

I mean, cranking out words doesn't matter a bit if your words don't make sense. Or if they're a jumble. Or if you write a 5,000-word digression which takes the reader out of your novel.

Despite this, it's still word counts we authors brag about. In fact, the highest profile fiction writing event each year, National Novel Writing Month, is built around word count alone. They even brag about participating authors writing more than 3.2 billion words in November 2012. The premise behind NaNoWriMo and our obession with producing daily word counts is that cranking out words indicates a productive writer. It's a belief that the hard part of writing is in the initial creative process. Once you bring words into existence, so goes this line if thinking, you can always go back and rewrite to your heart's content.

But what happens if that rewriting never happens? 

I've talked to a number of authors in recent years who say they hate rewriting and editing their stories. That's possibly how many authors have always felt, but I also wonder if our obsession on word counts is making new authors believe rewriting isn't as important as the initial spurt of creation. But here's a truth for you—without rewriting and editing, odds are the suck level of your precious story will be rather high. While creating words may be more fun, rewriting is what ensures your story will actually be read by people.

Because when you get down to it, readers don't care how long it took an author to write a story—all they care about is if the story's worth reading. And without rewriting and editing, odds are a story won't be worth much at all.

The Gordian Knot of the Night Shade Books Deal

This is a hard post to write. I'm a big fan of the novels published by Night Shade Books, which has published such groundbreaking works as the Hugo and Nebula Award winning The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. However, NSB has a history of not paying their authors on time, a trend which has intensified in recent months as the publishing company came under financial pressure.

A few days ago came word that NSB would be selling their assets — ie, books under contract — to Skyhorse Publishing and Start Publishing LLC. The deal will only go through if a majority of NSB authors agree to the new contract terms for their works.

Unfortunately, it appears the contract is a bad deal for authors, as Michael Stackpole details. You can also view a leaked copy of the contract on Scribd (assuming it isn't deleted in short order).

Night Shade Editor in Chief Jeremy Lassen claims "This is the last chance to make sure all of my authors get paid" and that otherwise these author's contracts will get tied up in bankruptcy for months and years to come. But I wonder about that, and about other aspects of the deal which are now emerging.

Know this — I don't have a dog in this fight, aside from the fact that I'm an author and support the rights of my fellow authors. But the more I learn about the proposed NSB deal the more this seems like a Gordian Knot which simply can't be untied without cutting everything apart.

There are so many unanswered questions. For example, as was posted on the blog Brillig,  Jarred Weisfeld is evidently tied in with this deal through the companies trying to purchase NSB assets. However, Jarred also is tied in with a literary agency called Objective Entertainment, which was mentioned in a SFWA Writers' Beware post. That immediately sets off warning bells, as does Michael Stackpole's previously mentioned analysis of the contract.

In my opinion, this asset deal is a way to cherry-pick the NSB's lineup, a view Stackpole shares. And as Stackpole adds, "Skyhorse and Smart are not buying books here, they’re buying Intellectual Properties, and at a bargain price."

The contract terms, and the fact that Objective Entertainment is, if not directly involved at least possibly tied in with the deal, leads me to suspect that the intent is not to publish NSB authors but to have their secondary rights to those books, which could then be sold to anyone and everyone.

Perhaps I'm wrong. But when a deal is so convoluted and non-transparent as this one, who can say. It appears NSB authors are screwed if they agree to this deal, and, since many of them are owed large amounts of money, also screwed if they don't.

Which is a damn shame.

End the Hugo Award 5 percent rule

The 2013 Hugo Award nominees have been announced and overall it's a strong list. I'm particularly pleased to see so many authors I know and stories I love make the final ballot.

However, there is one irritation — only three short stories are Hugo finalists in that category, while all the other categories have five finalists. This is due to the Hugo five percent rule, which states

3.8.5: No nominee shall appear on the final Award ballot if it received fewer nominations than five percent (5%) of the number of ballots listing one or more nominations in that category, except that the first three eligible nominees, including any ties, shall always be listed.

Cheryl Morgan has an excellent post about the rule and why it was established. She also invites the SF/F community to have a discussion on if the rule needs to be changed.

I personally believe the rule does need changing. This is the second time in the last few years where the short story Hugo category has run afoul of the rule (the other being in 2011). The changing nature of short story publishing — where there are more short stories being published in many more online magazines and venues — means it's harder for any particular short story to meet the five percent rule. It also wouldn't surprise me if other categories begin having similar issues with the rule in the coming years.

The Hugo Award are intended to promote and honor the best works of the SF/F genre, not be a slave to statistics and rules from three decades ago. I know the rule was well-intended when it was created, but it is not helpful in this current age.

Reviews of "Monday's Monk"

AsimovsMarch2013Review are coming in for my novelette"Monday's Monk" in the March 2013 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction. So far people are loving the story, which is really gratifying.

Lois Tilton in Locus gives "Monday's Monk" a coveted "recommended" rating, adding the story contains "A powerful scenario, carried by strong characters – not only Somchai but Seh Náam, the leader of the Blues, whose treatment of the monk is part reverence for his role, part cruelly taunting him with his own religious beliefs."
John Sulyok in Tangent Online calls the story a "must read," adding "Jason Sanford is able to create an astonishing amount of detail in his characters, setting, and rules, using few words. The prose is able to breathe without being bogged down in the details. More can be said, but the story should be allowed to speak for itself."
Sam Tomaino in SFRevu says "Monday's Monk" is another "great story" from me.
Primary Sources says of "Monday's Monk" that "I was entirely caught in Somchai’s crisis of faith and its eventual resolution; this was certainly my favorite story of the issue."

PragoFFest appearance on Saturday, Feb. 2

I'll be appearing virtually at the PragoFFest convention in the Czech Republic on Saturday, Feb. 2 at 8 pm local time. I'll be discussing SciFi Strange and why I believe this style of science fiction is so relevant to today's SF-influenced world.

PragoFFest looks like a blast and I wish I could attend in person. The Czech magazines XB-1 (and their predecesor Ikarie) have published a large numbers of my stories. I also write a monthly column for XB-1, which Martin Sust is kind enough to translate. Translations will be available for my talk and I'll also take questions from the audience.

So if you're in the Czech Republic this Saturday, look for the virtual me at PragoFFest.

Ssh. We're not supposed to talk about latest SFWA drama

After three successful terms as president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, John Scalzi has finally fallen to his knees and prayed "Oh Great Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke, deliver me from all this SF politicking!" Seriously, John's done a great job at SFWA, helping grow the membership and set up reforms to ensure the organization's future. He's entitled to a well-earned break and he fully intends to take it.

Which, of course, brings up the question of who will be SFWA's next president. And from there comes the latest drama to play out on the SFWA discussion forums.

Now before I talk about that ... let me say I'm not supposed to talk about that. SFWA has a long tradition of keeping its discussion boards private and frowning upon anyone who breaks said silence. As as SFWA member I have no desire for a frowning upon, so no talkie on the private fun and games.

However, that doesn't mean I can't talk about what people have said in public. Theodore Beale has publically declared his candidacy for SFWA President. Now if you don't know Beale, he's published a number of genre books and also writes columns for WorldNetDaily under the name Vox Day. While I can't confirm or deny or even speculate if Beale's candidacy is causing any drama on the SFWA forums, I can point to a public comment from two years ago on how he felt 

"... inspired to run against John Scalzi for SFWA President next year. My platform is going to involve disenfranchising all of the female members and endorsing a Federal law banning women from writing any science fiction or fantasy that does not contain vampires or wereseals and comes with a warning label: WARNING: this is Vampire/Wereseal fiction, not actual science fiction or fantasy."

Beale has also made a number of other fun comments, including that "educating women is strongly correlated with reducing their disposition and ability to reproduce themselves" and that Americans need to expel all Mexican immigrants and "reclaim their traditional white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture."

Oh yeah. Nothing controversial about this candidacy.

But the good news is that Beale is nothing more than an attention seeking candidate. Soon other candidates will throw their hats into the ring and we'll all breathe a big sigh of speculative fiction relief.

Until then, welcome to the SFWA madhouse.

Victoria Foyt again explores her own racism with Save The Pearls, Part Two

When last we left Victoria Foyt, her young adult novel Revealing Eden (Save the Pearls Part One) — about a future where white people wear black face to survive the cruelty of life under their black overlords, who are not-so innocently nicknamed "coals" — was justifiably denounced as racist and a piece of literary excrement firmly dropped in the stereotyped toilet. And that was before Foyt and her enablers questioned the ability of anyone but themselves to correctly identify racism. In case you don't remember, this bizarre train of thought derailed spectacularly when Weird Tales editor Marvin Kaye proclaimed the novel "a thoroughly non-racist book" and promised to excerpt it in his legendary magazine. Or at least, that was his plan until his boss, the publisher of said legendary magazine, went "Oh crap" at the emerging storm and pulled the plug.

If you want to catch up on all those fun and games, I suggest you read these insightful posts from N. K. Jemisin, Jim C. Hines, and Foz Meadows. And catch up you should, because Victoria Foyt is about to release the sequel to her novel, titled Adapting Eden, Save The Pearls Part Two.

According to the book's promo page, it's scheduled for release in early spring, while the book's Amazon page indicates a release of January 25. Since that's also the date B&N is giving, I'm betting on the January 25th date.

According to the book summary on Amazon:

"In the sequel to the award-winning, dystopian novel, Revealing Eden, Eden Newman must adapt into a hybrid human beast if she hopes to become Ronson Bramfords mate. She has no choice but to undergo her fathers adaptation experiment at his makeshift laboratory in the last patch of rainforest. But when the past rears its ugly head, Eden and Bramford must abandon camp along with their family and friends. Luckily, an Aztec tribe that has survived with the aid of a healing plant provides them with sanctuaryor is it? Too late, Eden realizes she is at the center of an epic spiritual battle between love and war. To survive, she must face her deepest fears or lose everything, including the beastly man she loves."

First off, Foyt must want us to ignore the grammatical mistakes in her summary. And she'll also likely want no mention that the award her novel won is questionable at best, or that the sentence about how the main character "must adapt into a hybrid human beast if she hopes to become Ronson Bramfords mate" indicates that Foyt is no more knowledgeable about racial issues than in her first novel. After all, that novel described the African-American character of Ronson Bramfords as a "beast-man;" this time the summary avoids that term and merely calls him "beastly." So if the white main character must adapt into a "hybrid human beast" to become a black man's mate...well, I can't even begin to comment on that.

Foyt has posted a short prologue of her novel, and guess what, she's embraced an additional stereotype — that of the romantic natives who teach "civilized" people about the folly of their ways. But don't worry. The novel's white girl is still the world's only hope. The prologue has the Aztec sun god Huitzilopochtli saying as much, right after he muses how the glorious 1960s was his heyday because it produced great songs like “Here Comes The Sun" (never mind that you'd think an Aztec sun god's heyday would have been during the Aztec's heyday).

Yeah, this novel is going to be way more uplifting and racially sensitive than its predecessor.

Dead online magazines and journals

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the storySouth Million Writers Award. Hard to believe only a decade ago online magazines were so looked down upon by the literati that we had to start our own award to honor online-published fiction. Now online publishing and ebooks are all the rage. Go figure.

I'll be writing more about the award in the coming weeks, but until then I wanted to share a list collected by author Robert Laughlin. Robert went through the archives of the last nine MWA award cycles and collected those magazines and journals which have passed into the great literary afterlife, both in the last year and in the last ten years.

The reasons for this vary — sometimes the editors lost interest in their magazines or no longer had the free time to donate. In a few instances, editors passed away. Others shut down their magazines in fits of angst and anger at whatever injustice they believed was keeping their magazine from reaching wider audiences. Others were shut down by their corporate owners because they didn't generate enough revenue (yeah, I'm looking at you, Sci-Fi Channel, now known by the disease sounding name of Syfy).

WARNING! BLATANT PRODUCT PLACEMENT! In case you're interested, I touch more upon the nature of online magazines in the introductions to my two recent anthologies of MWA stories: Million Writers Award: The Best Online Science Fiction and Fantasy, which focuses on SF/F stories, and Million Writers Award: The Best New Online Voices, which highlights non-genre stories. The anthologies also collect stories from some of these defunct magazines (and are available in ebook editions for only $2.99).

So what happens to the stories which weren't collected in anthologies or reprinted elsewhere? Hard to say. Some of these journals can be found in the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. Maybe some day a reader will stumble up a long-ignored story and bring it to the attention of the larger world. But I also know that some of the stories published in these dead online magazine are gone forever. When I was editing my MWA anthologies there were several stories I wanted to reprint but I could no longer locate either them or their authors.

Such stories now exist only in the minds of those who once read them.

Now that we're done with such a depressing thought, here are the lists. Please note that all of these magazines and journals are named because they placed at least one short story on the listings of MWA notable stories of the year. If there are any errors or missed online magazines, please add them into the comments below.


  • Cezanne’s Carrot
  • Dark Sky
  • dispatch litareview
  • Dragonfire
  • The Dublin Quarterly
  • elimae
  • Girls with Insurance
  • In the Snake
  • kill author
  • Lost Magazine
  • Night Train
  • (parenthetical note)
  • Rough Copy
  • Saltimbanque Review


  • 3711 Atlantic
  • 42opus
  • 5_Trope
  • Aberrant Dreams
  • Abjective
  • Absent Willow Review
  • Afterburn SF
  • Alsop Review
  • Arkansas Literary Forum
  • Arriviste Press
  • Atomjack Magazine
  • Baen’s Universe
  • Big News
  • Blithe House Quarterly
  • Bosphorus Art Project Quarterly
  • Bullfight Review
  • Cautionary Tale
  • Cherry Bleeds
  • Conversely
  • Coyote Wild
  • Crime Scene Scotland
  • DayBreak Magazine
  • dead drunk dublin
  • The Deepening
  • Demolition
  • Dogmatika
  • The Edge of Propinquity
  • Edit Red
  • Eleven Bulls
  • The Exquisite Corpse
  • Fantasy Magazine (merged with Lightspeed Magazine)
  • Farrago’s Wainscot
  • Fawlt
  • Fiction Attic
  • Fiction Warehouse
  • Fiction Weekly
  • Figdust
  • FlatmanCrooked
  • A Fly in Amber
  • Fortean Bureau
  • Gator Springs
  • Gowanus
  • Green Integer Review
  • Hardluck Stories
  • Helix
  • The Hub
  • The Infinite Matrix
  • Infinity Plus
  • Ink Pot
  • Kennesaw Review
  • The King’s English
  • Lamination Colony
  • The Land-Grant College Review
  • Lit Rag
  • Lone Star Stories
  • Me Three
  • MWU: Muslim Wake Up!
  • Nerve
  • Newtopia Magazine
  • Noneuclidean Café
  • Outsider Ink
  • The Paumanok Review
  • PERIGEE: Publication for the Arts
  • Pindeldyboz
  • The Pittsburgh Quarterly Online
  • Plaztik Press Literary Magazine
  • Poets & Artists
  • Poor Mojo’s Almanac(k)
  • Potion
  • The Quarterly Staple
  • Raging Face
  • Reflection’s Edge
  • Rouse
  • Rumpus
  • (listed b/c they no longer publish fiction)
  • SCIfiction
  • Serendipity
  • Shred of Evidence
  • Small Spiral Notebook
  • Socialist Review
  • Southern Gothic Online
  • Southern Hum
  • Spoiled Ink
  • Steel City Review
  • Susurrus: The Literature of Madness
  • Taint
  • Thieves Jargon
  • Thirst for Fire
  • Three Candles
  • Thunder Sandwich
  • Tryst
  • Twelve Stories
  • Velvet Mafia
  • Verbsap
  • View Unplugged
  • Weekly Reader
  • Writers’ Bloc
  • You Must Be This Tall to Ride