J.M. Williams

A home for all things fantasy and sci-fi.

The Were-Traveler Open Call: Tribute to Douglas Adams

Nov
19

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Do you write humor stories on your blog? Do they sometimes have a speculative twist, even outright sci-fi roots?

I’m looking at you Shawn Cowling, E.A. Wicklund, and Biff!

The Were-Traveler has, among their Calls for Submissions, an issue they are calling “Mostly Harmful, Sort Of, Something Something 42 : A Science Fiction/Fantasy Humor Tribute to Douglas Adams.” Who doesn’t love Douglas Adams?

While this publisher doesn’t pay, they do accept reprints. You can send them a story from your blog, which is what I did. What you get is the added exposure of their site and social media. And, of course, you get to sit in the issue alongside moi!

Yeah, it’s not the fanciest or most well-known publishing site. But you probably weren’t sending that story anywhere anyway, right? The deadline for the Douglas Adams tribute is January 15th.

You can find Were-Traveler’s submission guidelines HERE.

Some Details About Me Posted Elsewhere

Nov
04

Some comments I wrote on my relationship with writing were posted by fellow blogger Richie Billing. My blurb is accompanied by that of another writer named Paul Freemanwho I had not heard about before now.

Richie is planning a series of posts like this, and I think it’s a interesting concept–looking at how writers got started in the craft and what keeps them going. I find it interesting that Paul Freeman responded to someone’s sarcastic jab by going all in on a book. My fall into writing was much more gradual.

Anyway, head over and read the post.

~J.M.

Random Updates

Oct
14

So one of my stories was just accepted for publication in Roane Publishing’s Flash Fiction Fridays. This was a story that I really liked, but I struggled to find a home for it. The story is a very broody tragedy, not my typical heroic stuff.

(Tangent: Is there a story of mine I don’t like? I always have good feelings about things I wrote, even when they are clearly not the best piece of writing, even the horrible stuff I wrote as an elementary student. Maybe it’s because they are mine and are part of me? I don’t really understand folks who hate something they wrote enough they are willing to just trash it.)

Anyways, the publisher has offered to provide a link to one commercial work, i.e. something I am currently selling. The problem is, I don’t have one! So, I need to get something out by December 1st, if I want it linked and promoted.

As you may know, I have been planning to publish the “Adventures of Iric” collection as my first Amazon ebook, though I was not rushing the project. Seems now it would be beneficial for me to have that done before this story goes live. Just like that, my priorities have shifted again. I need to get a cover made, need to withdraw any pending submissions, confirm all rights have been restored for anything that was previously published, edit the manuscript, and reformat to fit Amazon’s requirements. That’s a bit of work to do in the next month or so.

But maybe that’s not a bad thing.

~J.M.

Colonialism in SF/F

Oct
13
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Photo by Tongik Saejeam

I generally don’t like to get into politics or heavy topics, which is likely why I lean towards fantasy more than science fiction. However, I recently read something that irked me quite a bit. It’s an issue that has been pinching my nerves for some time.

It came about when I read what is a mostly amazing ARTICLE by Cecilia Tan entitled “Let Me Tell You,” where she defends the use of telling in science fiction and fantasy (SF/F). She argues that the absolute rule of “show, don’t tell” is a part of big Lit culture, and that SF/F authors should not bind themselves to it. SF/F as a genre, and particularly those sub-genres that feature alternate-world settings, require a lot of telling in order for the story to work. While there are many ways of world-building through showing or through action, such as dialogue, it is in no way practical to do that all the time. There’s not enough space, nor reader patience, for it.

Despite having a compelling general argument, Tan reveals some liberal naivete when she describes the “fantasy newcomer” trope as colonialist. These days a lot of folks, particularly college-educated folks (Tan has a BA in Linguistics and Cognitive Science from Brown), like to throw around complicated academic terms without have a full understanding or appreciation for them. I remember when I was an undergraduate majoring in English and was expected to discuss things like colonialism and post-modernism, which even the experts have trouble understanding, let alone explaining (I still think many of the graduate students who taught these classes were confused). It wasn’t until graduate school that I finally started to wrap my head around just how much I didn’t know. This came after my advisor told me to stop using the term “post-colonialist” until I figured out what it meant.

In her article, Tan suggests that the use of the naive newcomer in “stories that center the naive reader will always be about the impact that stranger has on the world that is new to them”–and that this is colonialism. But it’s not. It is simply the nature of cultural interaction. Two people or groups of different cultures who meet and interact cannot but impact each other. If our definition of colonialism is simply impact, then the Indians would be just as guilty of it as the British–which is, of course, an absurd notion.

The idea of colonialism we are discussing here is not the dictionary definition of having colonies, but rather the philosophical definition of cultural domination (a good explanation of which can be found HERE). Imperialism is the use of political, economic, or military power to control another group but not necessarily to change that group. Colonialism is imperialism with the goal of changing the dominated culture or location to be in line with the colonizers. Colonialism is a mix of power and coercion to compel assimilation to the culture of those in power. Thus, the British made the Indians speak English and don western clothes, and the Japanese made Koreans speak Japanese and adhere to Japanese cultural mannerisms.

Any fantasy story about a naive foreigner travelling to another land is not inherently colonialist. What matters is that character’s use of power and their relationship to the native culture. Let’s look at some examples:

The Lord of the Rings Series by J.R.R. Tolkien — This is one Tan cites as an example for her colonialism argument. However, it is far from the case. While Frodo does travel to foreign lands and interact with many new cultures, he does not feel superior nor try to change them. In fact, he seems to adore these cultures and takes on some of their characteristics, such as elven clothing and weapons.

The Sword of Truth Series by Terry Goodkind — In this set of books, typical country bumpkin Richard Rahl learns he is the blood relative of a great wizard of an exotic, magical land to the east and later becomes ruler of his adopted kingdom. This story is textbook colonialism because Richard knows better than the natives about almost everything and seeks to change their behavior (i.e. culture) to match his superior ways. There is also a very overt anti-communist thread in the later books. The series is very clear in its judgments of one culture being superior to another and often equates this to the typical fantasy good vs evil battle. Despite these obvious flaw though, I did enjoy the series, though I was a lot younger (and dumber) then.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain — Like the Sword of Truth Seriesthis novel finds an intelligent man in a foreign place who uses his superior culture to dominate the natives. Everything about the American is superior, and the character cannot stand the native culture or habits at all. Blatant colonialism.

The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise — This film gets a lot of flak from people who like to throw around terms like “colonialism” without understanding them. Again looking at the story in the context of power and coercion to assimilate, this film is exactly the opposite. Not only does Capt. Nathan Algren not try to change the culture of the people and the samurai he meets, he in fact, abandons his own culture and people in order to assimilate into the samurai village. Moreover, he goes into battle with the samurai, adopting their less-advanced technology and tactics, knowing full well it will likely mean his death. Assimilation into the native culture by those with power is precisely the opposite of colonialism. Most films like this, such as Dances with Wolves or The Forbidden Kingdom, are assimilatory, not colonialist. The hero becomes better by changing himself and adapting the native culture, but the effect on the native culture itself is negligible or non-existent.

Now, this is not to argue against other problems these films have, such as the cultural imperialism of white faces and Hollywood packaging and presenting non-white voices and cultures. But interestingly enough, these films actually do a much better job of presenting the culture accurately, and indeed have a greater desire to do so, that other Hollywood films that simply use the culture or setting for something else. This has everything to do with the naive foreigner point of view that Tan criticizes in her article. It simply makes no sense for two samurai to be in a scene discussing samurai culture, something they clearly would take for granted. The only way to have scenes where culture is taught directly to the audience, is to have a lead character in the same position as them.

I happen to love these sorts of films just for that reason–I feel I am getting a more authentic look of a foreign culture. Even foreign made films, particularly East Asian films, are not wholly authentic to their own cultures because, being under the dark shadow of Hollywood, they now try to hard to westernize their films for global appeal. Thus, Korean cop films play out like LAPD action movies, though that is not at all how cops operate here. Perhaps Bollywood is the only local market with enough power to not have to globalize their work.

I happen to find the naive foreigner protagonist to be one of the best vehicles for making overt telling in your story actually make sense and work for readers.  Forcing world-building into dialogue in a manner that the characters would never actually do is far worse of a crime. Neuromancer is one book that Tan cites as a great example of internal world-building, which is certainly true to some extent, though there were many times when I felt Case was being told things he should already know.

I don’t think the naive foreigner trope is going away anytime soon. In fact, I would argue it’s an entire sub-genre of itself, consisting of journey tales (The Hobbit) and portal fantasies (Neverwhere).

While I do find Tan’s argument for “breaking the status quo” in SF/F compelling, I wish she would not get so hung up on a concept she clearly doesn’t fully understand. Unfortunately, this sort of pseudo-academics is all too common today, and it gets on my nerves.

Do you agree with my analysis? Prefer Tan’s interpretation? Let me know what you think.

~J.M.

SHARE: The Key to an Engaging Story is Conflict

Oct
07

Even a novice writer knows the truth of this: fiction is driven by conflict. It simply wouldn’t be interesting to read about someone going about their day and having everything go their way. The uneventful is boring. We crave big events, flashy and even crazy events. We don’t go to concerts to watch some dude stand around doing nothing. There’s gotta be sound, and lights, and maybe a little rough-housing!

Conflict is critical to any work of fiction and it becomes more critical the shorter the piece is. This is largely due to the connection of conflict and action. Conflict forces a character to make a choice, and ultimately to take action. And the shorter your work of fiction, the more action-centered it needs to be, in order to provide a pleasing experience for the reader. Flash fiction is not a good place for complex world-building or convoluted plots.

I stumbled on the following article in my Facebook feed and found it to be a very well-articulated summary of one half of the conflict topic, namely external (or physical) conflict. These days, Lit is usually concerned with internal (or emotional) conflict, but speculative fiction–especially Fantasy, and soft sci-fi–tends to favor external conflict. We fantasy fans love our villains. It’s no surprise then, that most of the examples given in the article are SF/F works.

I have to say, I really like the look of this site. It feels more like a fiction ezine than a writing blog. Near the end of the article, the author provides a good seven-point checklist for working out your story’s conflict. But I will let you read that at the source.

Head on over and read the full article, linked below.

~J.M.


What is external conflict?

by Kristen Kieffer

As humans, our curiosity piques when two forces oppose one another. “What is happening?” we ask. Why are these two forces at odds? How will the conflict play out? Who will win? What would I do if I were in that situation?

These are the questions readers ask, more or less subconsciously, as they read. Which means they’re also exactly the kinds of questions writers should ask themselves when crafting plots for their stories.

In stories, as in life, there are two types of conflict: internal and external. Internal conflicts are the mental, emotional, or spiritual struggles a person faces—Character vs. Self—which we’ll talk about in a new blog post soon! Today, however, we’re going to focus on the second type of struggle: external conflict. Shall we dive right into the breakdown? … READ MORE

The Best Scene of Discworld 37

Sep
23

1

Are you sick of Discworld posts? Is that even possible? Well, try and stop me. Actually, you’ll probably be successful at that, since I am planning to wrap it up with this post.

Maybe you haven’t read any of Terry Pratchett’s work yet. If that is the case, you should really stop what you’re doing an binge-read the fourty-odd books right now. Stop everything, don’t go to work, don’t eat–you’ll be fine, trust me.

If you haven’t read a Discworld novel, Unseen Academicals is probably not the place to start. It’s part of a mini-series of books with recurring characters–the wizards–which you should probably have some sense of before jumping in. It’s also not as good as many of the other books. While I loved this book, as I have loved all the others, I think I’d rank it pretty low on the list.

I still think Small Gods is the best place to start learning about the wonderfulness that is the Discworld. It’s a stand-alone novel that does not connect directly to any of the others. Thus, you need no knowledge of the series going in, and there is no compulsion to continue if you did not enjoy it because you are clearly a gang of squirrels in a trench coat. (Thought I didn’t know?)

My favorite book is still Monstrous Regiment, which also is a decent stand-alone book, and would not be a bad place to start, especially those who like works with a slight feminist slant.

When I was younger, I was a crazed fan of Star Wars, in all its incarnations. I dove deep into the Expanded Universe novels and played all the games. And while I still love Star Wars, the Discworld has overshadowed the Galactic Republic as my favorite place to spend my time.

There is one very good reason for that–Terry Pratchett creates characters that are deeper, more memorable, and more meaningful than any I have encountered elsewhere. His writing is not the best–a bit too many adverbs and fancy dialogue tags–but his stories, and his characters are peerless.

In this book, the characters Nutt and Glenda are the best, in my opinion. One of the things that makes Pratchett so great is his ability to take any sort of genre–from prose fiction, but also film, TV, stage–and craft a great new version of it that walks a fine line between honest interpretation and parody. In the case of Unseen Academicals, the obvious genre being parodied is the sports film, which Pratchett does in an almost cinematic way. But there is also a sub-genre of romance that colors the plot, particularly between Nutt and Glenda.

To highlight this sub-plot, and to offer an bit of insight as to why Pratchett is so popular, to those who haven’t experienced his storytelling yet, I’d like to share my favorite little scene from the book. As is typical with his best, this scene offers philosophical insight into the way people think and live. The people of the Discworld are not so different from us. And in the end, it’s just a lovely, emotional exchange between two people who care for each other but can’t get around that social awkwardness that is all too real.

~J.M.


from Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett

‘Why were you running away?’

‘Because I know what will happen,’ said Nutt. ‘I am an orc. It’s as simple as that.’

‘But the people on the bus were on your side,’ said Glenda.

Nutt flexed his hands and the claws slid out, just for a moment. ‘And tomorrow?’ he said. ‘And if something goes wrong? Everybody knows orcs will tear your arms off. Everybody knows orcs will tear your head off. Everybody knows these things. That is not good.’

‘Well, then, why are you coming back?’ Glenda demanded.

‘Because you are kind and came after me. How could I refuse? But it does not change the things that everybody knows.’

‘But every time you make a candle and every time you shoe a horse, you change the things that everybody knows,’ said Glenda. ‘You know that orcs were—’ She hesitated. ‘Sort of made?’

‘Oh, yes, it was in the book.’

She nearly exploded. ‘Well, then, why didn’t you tell me?!’

‘Is it important? We are what we are now.’

‘But you don’t have to be!’ Glenda yelled. ‘Everybody knows trolls eat people and spit them out. Everybody knows dwarfs cut your legs off. But at the same time everybody knows that what everybody knows is wrong. And orcs didn’t decide to be like they are. People will understand that.’

‘It will be a dreadful burden.’

‘I’ll help!’ Glenda was shocked at the speed of her response and then mumbled, ‘I’ll help.’

The coals in the forge crackled as they settled down. Fires in a busy forge seldom die out completely.

After a while, Glenda said, ‘You wrote that poem for Trev, didn’t you?’

‘Yes, Miss Glenda. I hope she liked it.’

Glenda thought she’d better raise this carefully. ‘I think I ought to tell you that she didn’t understand a lot of the words exactly. I sort of had to translate it for her.’ It hadn’t been too difficult, she reckoned. Most love poems were pretty much the same under the curly writing.

‘Did you like it?’ said Nutt.

‘It was a wonderful poem,’ said Glenda.

‘I wrote it for you,’ said Nutt. He was looking at her with an expression that stirred together fear and defiance in equal measure.

The cooling embers brightened up at this. After all, a forge has a soul. As if they had been waiting there, the responses lined themselves up in front of Glenda’s tongue. Whatever you do next is going to be very important, she told herself. Really, extremely, very important. Don’t start wondering about what Mary the bloody housemaid would do in one of those cheap novels you read, because Mary was made up by someone with a name suspiciously like an anagram for people like you. She is not real and you are.

‘We had better get on the coach,’ said Nutt, picking up his box.

Glenda gave up on the thinking and burst into tears. It has to be said that they were not the gentle tears they would have been from Mary the housemaid, but the really big long-drawn-out blobby ones you get from someone who very rarely cries. They were gummy, with a hint of snot in there as well. But they were real. Mary the housemaid would just not have been able to match them.

So, of course, it will be just like Trev Likely to turn up out of the shadows and say, ‘They’re calling the coach now—Are you two all right?’

Nutt looked at Glenda. Tears aren’t readily retractable, but she managed to balance a smile on them. ‘I believe this to be the case,’ said Nutt.

Where to Publish? – The Centropic Oracle

Sep
21

1

Continuing my series of publisher recommendations, I’ll like to highlight another audio-story venue. The Centropic Oracle is a online publisher who focuses on science fiction and fantasy stories with some sort of emotional depth. On their submissions page they suggest that “good fiction – particularly SF and Fantasy – should challenge us to examine our own lives and beliefs. It should force us to reflect on how we fit into the world and what it takes to make the world a better place by our being in it.”

This is likely the reason I had so much trouble getting an acceptance from them early on. My stories are less thinky and more punchy. But I knew from the first time I came across their page, that I wanted them to audio-ify one of my stories. I had five stories rejected by them–five!–before one finally made it through. I think the trouble was that I did not write the sort of philisophical stuff they were looking for. Most of my stories were, and still are, very pulpy. That is, until on a whim I wrote “A Brief Glimpse of Everything.”

The productions are pretty darn good, and they also are also a paying venue (CAD$0.01/word). Even better, they only ask for audio rights and do not consider works only published in print to be reprints. So you can send them stories from your blog or that have been published in print-only venues. Or you can print publish something they have already published in audio for you.

Speaking of which, I should try to get “A Brief Glimpse” printed somewhere…

Like AntiSF, the editor at The Centropic Oracle is kind and easy to work with. With my last one they accepted, I forgot several times to send them the signed contract. The editor was well within her rights to chew my head off, but she was very patient with forgetful old me.

Right now they only accept flash stories, since they have too many shorts and those take more time and resources to turn into audio productions. Even so, if you have a SF/F flash story that has an emotional or philosophical slant to it, you would be doing yourself a favor by submitting. There are no submission fees and the turn around time is pretty quick (a few weeks at most).

Give it a try!

~J.M.

Discworld 37 – Quotes on Horses

Sep
20

1

I am nearing the end of the book, I think. It’s hard to tell with an audiobook, since never actually look at what track is playing. I always get a little sad when I know the story is coming to an end.

During my last listen-through, a particularly funny line caught my attention and then I ended up thinking about horses all day. Gods know why, I never cared much for horses myself. I’m more of a wolf person. But I even got a story stuck in my head that I’m going to write after this post. (Stay tuned!)

Anyways, here are a few Pratchett quotes about horses:

“Contrary to popular belief and hope, people don’t usually come running when they hear a scream. That’s not how humans work. Humans look at other humans and say, ‘Did you hear a scream?’ because the first scream might just have been you screaming inside your head, or a horse backfiring.”

This was the quote that made me chuckle. I don’t know what’s funny about a horse backfiring, whether it’s just the absurdity of it or that I can picture it regardless and even see the crotchety grey-haired old driver that is having problems with his cart. It’s also funny because it has nothing to do with its precedent. I don’t know how a person would confuse a scream with a backfire, but there’s a lot to the idea that screams do not, as the common wisdom suggests, bring people running.

“She had stopped pushing her luck a long time ago. Now it was out of control, like a startled carthorse that can’t stop because of the huge load bouncing and rumbling along behind it.”

This one and next are a bit philosophical. Here is a good metaphor for losing control, or letting your ego get ahead of you.

” ‘It’s rather like being a carthorse,’ said Vetinari. ‘After a while one ceases to notice, it’s just the way of life.’ “

One thing I love about Pratchett is his ability to distill human idiosyncrasies, the human experience, into easy to understand states by using ridiculous analogies. It is true that humans are creatures of habit, and they will stick to behaviors they are familiar with, even if those behaviors are negative or even harmful. Often in his books, the character Vetinari is the one offering these bits of sage advice.

Hope you guys enjoyed these quotes. I will be posting my horse-related story soon.

~J.M.

It’s Been a While

Sep
18

I just spent some five hours revising a short story. I got a rejection with a rewrite offer from a publisher a couple months back, so of course I was going to heed their feedback and resubmit.

I just spent five hours writing and revising. Last night I had a muse, took a bunch of notes and went to bed thinking about my story. This morning I woke up and couldn’t wait to get started. Even when I had to take a break to drive somewhere around noonish, the story was stuck in my head. I finished the story. I think it’s much better now that the previous draft I submitted. But even though I’m done with it, it’s still stuck in my head.

I just spent the last five hours writing, and never realized that it’s almost 4pm and I haven’t eaten anything today. Not a crumb. Damn, I’m hungry.

It’s been a long time since I had as good a day of writing as this.

~J.M.

More Quotes from Discworld 37

Sep
16

1

I’m about halfway through the book and wanted to share a few more quotes that jumped out at me this go around.

“And there were more flowers flying and people standing and cheering, and music, and in general the feeling of being under a waterfall with no water but inexhaustible torrents of sound and light.”

A waterfall without water is the most original and perfect description of heavy applause I think I have ever read. It captures the sound perfectly without any reference to the action or cultural context.

“Cunning: artful, sly, deceptive, shrewd, astute, cute, on the ball and, indeed, arch.  A word for any praise and every prejudice.  Cunning…is a cunning word.”

A great little examination of the flexibility, and ambiguity, of language.

“Arguing with her friend was like punching mist.”

Another example of what Pratchett does best–absurd metaphors that convey the intended meaning clearly, perhaps more clearly than standard language could ever hope to manage.

“Ponder plunged on, because when you have dived off a cliff your only hope is to press for the abolition of gravity.”

Sometimes Pratchett waxes philosophically, and usually his divergences are deep and on target.

Hope you guys enjoyed these quotes. Now back to the book.

~J.M.