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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Worlds Without End

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

Fourteen years ago, I taught my first college-level writing class. Let’s face it, I was verySO-2 green, an adjunct hired to fill an unexpected gap in the wake of a fast-departing faculty member. Whether I did well or poorly I do not claim to know, but of my eleven students, two had their final projects subsequently published, and one went on to get an M.F.A. in creative writing (which means he’s now flipping burgers in your local Mickey D’s, so next time you’re there, be nice).

The other fact of which I’m sure is that my toss-the-feathers syllabus mixed fantasy and literary readings. Yea and verily, it’s a wonder I wasn’t burned as a heretic – but perhaps the resident firemen, Montag & Smaug, Inc., were extra busy that season.

I’m now on my third go-round as a writing teacher and while my reading selections remain whimsically mixed, I do have one fresh challenge on my plate: for the first time, I have a student invested in writing out-and-out science fiction. And not just any sci-fi, we’re talking guns-a-blazing space opera.

By the glowing rings of Saturn, what am I to do?

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The H.P. Source: Why I Chose Mythos and Magic to Launch my Publishing House

Saturday, April 12th, 2014 | Posted by Neil Baker

Dark Rites of CthulhuLet’s get the unpleasantness out of the way. There’s a new book in town called The Dark Rites of Cthulhu and I strongly suggest you buy it, if not in glorious paperback form, then as a Kindle edition. Hell’s teeth, shell out for a special edition and you could have your very own shoggoth beermat, something you never knew you needed until I just mentioned it.

I opened with this subtle sales pitch not just because I have children to feed, nor that I would really like to publish another book, but because I believe that my editor, Brian M. Sammons, and I have tapped into a rich vein that has been somewhat overlooked in this (some might say) Lovecraft-saturated landscape.

It cannot be denied that the cold climes of R’yleh have never been hotter. Mythos-based novels and anthologies have been materializing with the regularity of jellyish monstrosities drawn to a resonator, the well-received TV drama, True Detective, teased elements from The King in Yellow, which was a huge influence on Lovecraft’s own writings, and now rumors abound that HPL himself will pop up in a planned Houdini biopic.

This led me to a couple of conclusions. One, there would be a built-in audience for my planned book, and two, I would have to make my book stand out from the crowd. This is why, when Brian pitched his ‘dark magic’ angle, I leapt at the chance to pursue it.

A great many of the books in the market at the moment deal with the physical conflict between humans and the Elder Gods, and rightly so. The very nature of cosmic horror lends an epic quality to even the shortest of tales and hugely entertaining anthologies abound that place the Mythos in historic, contemporary, and even futuristic settings.

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A Writer’s Inspiration

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014 | Posted by Jon Sprunk

The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard-smallSomething I’m often asked in interviews and by readers is what inspired me to write a book. Where do I get my ideas? It’s a difficult thing to pin down because there are so many elements involved, but I’m going to try to answer as fully and honestly as I can.

My source of first inspiration is myself. Not that my life is so very interesting, but what I mean is I’ve been a lover of stories for as long as I can remember. So when I’m brainstorming for a new book, the first person’s approval I seek is my own. What kind of story would I like to read? Because if I’m not writing stories I enjoy, then there’s no point.

My second inspiration is always my readers. This is the “performance” side of my writing. I’m not comfortable on stage or behind a microphone, but for some reason crafting a story to tell the world is my niche. In a way it feels safer than standing on a stage, all alone and vulnerable. Yet one of the first lessons you learn when you’re published is that not everyone is going to love your baby as much as you do. I always tell novice writers they better have thick skins because the world can be cruel. However, for all the slings and arrows lobbed in my direction from time to time, the experience of hearing from a happy reader is thrilling beyond words.

I’m also inspired by all the great writers who have come before me and those working now. I don’t think there’s ever been a time since I was eight or nine years old that I haven’t been reading fiction. I finish one book and pick up another. I also enjoy re-reading my favorite books/series. Glen Cook, Robert E. Howard, Robert Heinlein, Leo Tolstoy, H.P. Lovecraft, and many others — these are the foundations of my universe.

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House of Cards Kicked the Cat

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Houseofcards_RichardsonI mentioned Netflix’s wildly successful House of Cards in a recent Public Life of Sherlock Holmes posting. I’ve written a couple of screenplays that will be made into movies shortly before the Earth plunges into the sun.

Or more likely, sometime after that event. Just as I enjoy reading books on writing, I’ve also found lots to learn from books on screenwriting (which is a very different proposition).

A brief aside: Amazon (which should give me stock with the number of purchases I’ve made from them) includes screenwriting as a subcategory of “Humor & Entertainment.”

Not every screenwriting book is funny. In fact, the most useful ones generally aren’t! That said, we resume our normal programming.

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The Kick That Did Not Start

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014 | Posted by FraserRonald

Not all Kickstarters will fund. Farewell, Something Lovely didn’t.

That was unfortunate, but it was not a complete loss. Some of the backers hadn’t backed Centurion: Legionaries of Rome, my successful Kickstarter, so I had increased my network. I also learned some lessons which helped me prepare for my ongoing Kickstarter for Nefertiti Overdrive: Ancient Egytian Wuxia. Since I’m a generous guy, let me share my lessons learned with you.

1) Expect failure and you can expect failure.

I went into Farewell, Something Lovely with a strong suspicion that I would fail. I’m not saying that I created my own failure… actually, I am saying that, but not that I gave up on the Kickstarter.

I kept pushing until the end. I wonder, though, if that expectation of failure curtailed my efforts in some way. Perhaps I could have done more if I believed the Kickstarter would succeed.

It’s similar to an explanation of backer psychology I heard: backers will only pledge to a Kickstarter they expect to fund. Just as a backer will create a failure by expecting a Kickstarter to fail, I have a feeling that if you go in with your parachute on, maybe you’ll bail out of the plane before absolutely necessary. Maybe if I had put more effort into the Kickstarter, I could have saved it.

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Doctor Who and the Daemons – the Novel!

Monday, March 31st, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

Daemons002 More than once on Black Gate, I’ve heard that the seventies were a dead zone for science fiction and fantasy. For teens in search of readily available genre “gateway drugs,” I suppose this might have been true for many, but my particular experience of growing up managed, against all odds, to be different. Ohio was my home base, a vanilla environment for “culture” of the fantastical sort, but luckily I had a smorgasbord of British relatives. One especially perceptive and sibylline aunt started sending me Doctor Who novelizations.

Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion, that was the first I tried. Next, one of the best offerings in the canon, Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion.  I was in third grade and after facing down those blank-eyed Autons and their Nestene masters, I was hooked.

Note that I wasn’t in any way watching the TV show. In Columbus, Ohio, it simply wasn’t available, not until the early eighties, and then, when PBS did pick up a few random episodes, it was Tom Baker’s roost to rule. The Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton, and William Hartnell adventures I first encountered were absent entire.

What Tom Baker’s run taught me is that talented actors can be mired forever in substandard scripts and even worse special effects. This was a total and unpleasant surprise, because the novelizations were fast-paced genre gems, especially those penned by Terrance Dicks.  (Malcolm Hulke was the other regular adapter for the Doctor Who franchise, with a rotating cast of fellow contributors including Gerry Davis, Ian Marter, and David Whitaker.) How could such pacey, adrenaline-filled books arise from such hokey, hamstrung screen material?

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Why We Keep Weaving These Webs

Monday, March 24th, 2014 | Posted by Nick Ozment

uncle hugosMy buddy Gabe and I, when we first met almost two decades ago, we knew — man, we knew our stuff was better (or was going to be better) than just about anything out there. It was the haughty arrogance of youth and ego, plus the fact that we just hadn’t read nearly as much of what was out there as we have now.

Consider, too, the impressions we’d formed in our teen years of what was most prevalent in the various popular-media streams: the (much smaller) fantasy book aisle was dominated by Terry Brooks and many lesser Tolkien imitators churning out derivative high-fantasy formula. Comics were still stuck in stunted-development adolescence, just on the cusp of the revolution when writers like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman would kick that medium in its juvenile ass. Films were mostly sci-fi knockoffs of Star Wars or B-grade fantasy with special-effects budgets so meager they wouldn’t fund a single episode of a typical SyFy TV show. And television animated fantasy didn’t aspire much beyond Hanna-Barbera cartoons and He-Man.

In short, based on that narrow and selective assessment, any cocksure young tale-weaver could survey that crop and think, “I can do better than that.” But we weren’t the only Gen Xers who nursed such thoughts. Many others could also do better, and they have.

With our generation, speculative fiction has entered into what seems a golden age, borne out in all those mediums — books, comics, film, television (and add another medium that was just emerging from its nascent stages when we entered the fray: video games). Individuals with tastes and perceptions kindred to our own are drawing on the best of the past like never before, fusing with modern sensibilities what they mine from those rich veins to create some of the finest work the genre has ever seen.

And they’ve infiltrated all levels of the creative business. When I watch old He-Man and She-Ra reruns with my kids, I get the impression that those writers were just lazily phoning it in for a paycheck and couldn’t give a damn about the words they were putting to paper or the stories they were slapping together. Contrast that with the short-lived He-Man relaunch (2002-2004). It wasn’t a stand-out show by any means, but it was heads above virtually anything that cynically aired in the early ‘80s to sell us toys from Mattel and Kenner and Hasbro. Yeah, that particular corner of the market still exists to sell toys — to our kids and grandkids now — but the people who are creating the product were kids like Gabe and me, who thought, “Man, if I could have a job writing that show, I would make it so cool.” And they do have those jobs, and they are.

So where does that leave us, web-weavers in a surfeit of webs?

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Is the Original SF and Fantasy Paperback Anthology Series Dead?

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Orbit 9 Damon Knight-smallI miss the era of the original paperback anthologies. It seems to have faded away without anyone really noticing and I’m not sure why.

Well, I guess I do know why, but I’m grumpy about it. Short fiction isn’t really viable in mass market anymore. Ten years of trying — and failing — to publish a fantasy fiction magazine taught me that.

That wasn’t always the case. For decades, SF and fantasy readers supported several prestigious, high-paying paperback markets for short fiction and they attracted the best writers in the field. Damon Knight published 21 Orbit anthologies between 1966 and 1980; Robert Silverberg edited New Dimensions (12 volumes, 1971-81) and star editor Terry Carr helmed 17 volumes of the Universe series (1971-1987), for example.

I’d be hard pressed to tell you which of those three was the best source for original SF and fantasy, and I don’t really feel qualified to anyway, since I didn’t read them all. (Or even most of them — we are talking a combined 50 volumes, just for those three. I read pretty fast, but I’m not Rich Horton.)

In any event, those days are gone. And now that they are, I wonder — was it the sheer editorial talent of Messieurs Knight, Silverberg, and Carr that allowed their respective anthologies to continue for decades?

Or was there simply more of an appetite for short fiction forty years ago? Could an editor with the same talent and drive accomplish what they did today? Or is it futile, like trying to argue football with the Borg?

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It’s About Time

Friday, March 21st, 2014 | Posted by Violette Malan

WestWe don’t tend to think of time as a literary device, but along with such other abstract concepts as the sublime, time is something that authors often use deliberately to create specific effects. What effects, specifically? Disorientation. Confusion. Dislocation. Even the feeling of something alien.

How is it that something as relatively simple as time can do all these things? The 17th-century philosopher John Locke, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, said that humans don’t have a direct perception of time. We don’t actually perceive time at all. What we perceive is the passage of time, or what he calls “duration.”

Want something a little more modern? More physics, less philosophy? Einstein explained it in the form of a joke: When a pretty girl sits on your lap for an hour, it seems like a minute. When you sit on a hot stove for a minute, it seems like an hour. That’s relativity. In other words, your perception of duration is subjective.

And that’s something writers can play with.

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Conan in Manhattan: The Relationship Between Urban Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery

Thursday, March 13th, 2014 | Posted by Jonathan Wood

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian-smallUrban fantasy? You mean that genre where everyone gets to shag a vampire? What the hell has that got to do with fighting off the corruption of civilization with only a broadsword and a loincloth? At least, that’s pretty much where my head was at a few months before I started writing No Hero.

See, I never really expected to write an urban fantasy novel. Except now I’m on my fourth…

Back when I started writing my first urban fantasy novel, No Hero, what I really wanted to capture was my love of the old pulps, to create some good old-fashioned two-fisted action. Men of moral fiber refusing to bow down and be beaten. I was flailing around for a way to channel that when a friend said to me, “You know, urban fantasy is just sword and sorcery with a modern day setting.”

Now, obviously this is a slightly problematic statement. But as I thought about it, I realized the argument had more heft than I’d originally considered.

In an article in this magazine, “The Demarcation of Sword and Sorcery,” Joseph A McCullough V lays forward a pretty clear blueprint for the subgenere. First he deals with characters, stating that they are: 1) self-motivated, 2) outsiders, and 3) of heroic stature.

The first two of those characteristics are perhaps taken best together. The quintessential urban fantasy character is probably the private investigator. By definition these are outsiders: they are not part of any larger legal organization, they operate alone or within a small support network of other loners and social oddities, and they are outside of the world they investigate. They stand apart from the criminals they pursue. What’s more, they are self-motivated: they decide the cases they take. They decide how to pursue them. While not all characters are private detectives (none of mine are), they do all tend to share these traits (yep, I’m covered).

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