J.M. Williams

A home for all things fantasy and sci-fi.

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.

A Chance at Twenty Big Ones!

Aug
10

I stumbled on to a little writing contest a couple weeks ago that looked too good to be true (is it?), so I thought what the heck and submitted.

The contest is the “International Flash Fiction Competition” by the Fundación César Egido Serrano, an international organization that promotes words over violence “in all areas of public opinion.” On of the big things they do is hold contests for and publish microfiction which have peaceful or socially positive themes. The current theme is “The Word, bridging the gap between different cultures and religions.”

While originally only in Spanish, they now cover English, Arabic and Hebrew as well. The last contest had over 35,000 entries, and I imagine this one will be bigger.

Here’s the skinny: submit two stories of 100 words or less each for a chance at $20,000. Let me repeat that, 100 words for $20,000. And the best stories in the other three non-winning languages get $1000. Entry is free.

Why wouldn’t you give it a shot?

Here’s an extra bonus for my Rabble. Look me up on Facebook and send me your stories. I will give you some quick feedback before you submit. Why would I do that? Because if you enter my identification code into the registration form when you enter, and you happen to win, I’ll get a thousand bucks, too! So of course I’m going to help you win.

The code is 42664. Even if you don’t want my comments on your work, I’d still be very grateful if you use my code.

The contest can be found HERE

100 words for 20 grand. How can you beat that?

Good luck with your writing. Don’t go easy on those words, you’ve got 35,000 rivals (including me)!

~J.M.

 

Engineering in SF and Fantasy

Jul
06

Tor.com recently had an article featuring a round-table of leading speculative fiction authors discussing engineering in Science Fiction and Fantasy. It is a very interesting discussion.

Engineering, and science in general, can be a great component to a science fiction story. But I find there are some key flaws or weaknesses that make it hard to incorporate. First, and most obvious (and seemed to be missed in this discussion) is that the author needs to know her science and engineering if she is going to write about it. The risk of getting it wrong and putting off critics and readers is a genuine threat.

Second, readers need to be interested in the science as well. Part of this is up to the author to write it well, but the other part is the whims of the public, which the author has no control over. Hollywood seems to think that people these days do not want to know how things work, they prefer action over intelligence. I haven’t become that cynical yet, but there does seem to be a desire for thrill over substance.

I also probably don’t have to mention that I disagree with Susan Lake’s suggestion that Star Wars is a great representation of engineering in SF. What engineering? Star Wars is Fantasy and Fantasy usually doesn’t have engineering. Once you start explaining how things work, you’ve moved into proper Science Fiction.

Anyways, here’s the link to the article. Check it out: Making All Those Gears Spin

Writing Updates

Jul
01

I’ve been pretty bad at updating this blog during the past few weeks. I’ve been on military orders and my work with the Army had been a lot more intense and rigorous than I expected. Add to that the deep academic nature of much of what I do, which tends to leave my brain melted at the end of the day. It’s an excuse, I know, but I haven’t yet figured out how to break through.

That’s not to suggest that things haven’t been happening with my writing. I have quite a few stories coming out this month in external publication. I’ve just seen the proofs for the two Bards and Sages issues I have stories in, and I must say, they look really nice. One is the July issue of the quarterly, which will feature one of my Iric flash stories. The other will be released in their Great Tome of Magicians, Necromancers and Mystics, and is related to my stone-age fantasy story that was published on Bewildering Stories. Both of the B&S works will be out in print.

I’ve received a couple more acceptances with publishers I’ve worked with before. Two stories will be published by Fantasia Divinity, one in their monthly magazine and one in an upcoming anthology. I also had another story accepted by Antipodean SF.

Speaking of Anti-SF, my story Webs was published in their previous ezine issue and will come out on the radio show a the end of July. I will post a link once the episode is out.

I’ve got another story awaiting a final read with The Centropic Oracle and some other stories pending with a few different anthologies. Nothing is set, but I have pretty good feelings about making most of them.

While a lot of things have been happening on the short fiction side of the fence, the book side is still a struggle. I haven’t received a positive reply from a single agent yet. I’ve queried about 50 agents in total, 19 are pending. It’s looking more and more like my innovative novel structure is too much for agents to want to take on. I might have to consider an alternate publishing route with this one. Maybe submitting directly to smaller publishers might be the better course.

My work with Fiction Vortex has also stagnated a bit. The Of Metal and Magic StoryVerse–which I am a founding member of–just lost an author. We’ve had to push back our deadlines and release plans, and this has taken a lot of the wind from our sails. Things are still progressing, albeit slowly. I have the first two episodes of my series Call of the Guardian drafted and plan to write the next soon, once I can get past this slump and get back into writing. The cover for my project is almost done as well, and I will be sharing that once I have it.

One of the cool things about writing for FV is that the company takes care of most of the marketing and publishing work. They get the covers made, provide editing services, and provide an app and website to distribute your work. They also have a marketting team that operates on various social media platforms. It really is a great place to work. If you are a sword&sorcery writer, why not submit a sample and try to join Of Metal and Magic? If our StoryVerse head lets you in, you’ll be working with me directly! If you’re interested, contact me on Facebook and I can help facilitate the submission process.

Well, that’s about all for now. I hope everyone is seeing progress with your writing projects. Keep up the fight!

~J.M.

Are Most Writing Competitions Just Money Grabs?

Jun
14

Sorry I haven’t posted in a while. I am away from home on temporary duty and didn’t have a workable internet connection. I finally just changed my cellular plan to unlimited data and am now using my phone as a wifi hotspot. Here’s a post on a topic that has been bothering me as of late.

I’ve been at this writing thing for going on a year, and I have learned a few things about publishing. One of these insights is that most writing competitions don’t give writers a fair deal. They seem to just be fundraisers for the publisher or simply cheats.

I see posts on blogs and Facebook quite often promoting writing competitions. Most of these require an entry fee, and most do not offer prizes and returns that reflect these fees.

I’d like to offer a bit of advice. Avoid these sorts of shady contests. Especially new, and yet unpublished writers. Why should you pay for the chance at publication when there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of traditional magazines, ezines, anthologies and other publications that you can submit your work to for free? Same goes for magazines that charge reading fees to get work they’re going to sell and profit from anyways.

New writers need a chance to get kicked by an editor or two without risk of loss–well beside loss of ego, which is a good thing. New writers should start with non-paying publishers just to build their skills and confidence. Once you have that skill, there are more reading-fee-free publishers out there than you can imagine.

That’s not to say that all writing competitions are bogus or predatory. But you have to look closely at the details to know which ones are worthwhile. Let’s look at a couple examples.

The one that has irked me recently is Fiction War. They have been spamming their summer contest all over Facebook. Let’s check the details. Fiction War is running a contest for 15 pieces to be featured in a published issue of their magazine. It is essentially a call for stories that proper magazines run for free. But instead, Fiction War places a $30(US) entry price on submissions. AND they also charge a $2.64 fee that you don’t even see until you click to register! What the heck is the original $30, if not an entry fee?

Let’s do the math on this contest. They are pulling in roughly $33 on each entry. But what are they giving out? A total of $2400 in prizes. That means they only need 73 entries before they break even. After which, they sell the magazine for additional profit that the authors never see. Seems pretty shady to me, but let’s check out another contest to be sure.

I submitted a story to the Cincinnati Review and it seems I am now on their mailing list. I got an email from them about a summer writing competition called Robert and Adele Schiff Awards in Poetry and Prose. The entry fee for the contest is $20(US) and the prize money is two winners of $1000 each. If we do the math, that means they need 100 submissions to break even. There is definitely a better mathematical return for the authors with this one.

But the Cincinnati Review does something even better. They give every entrant a free year’s subscription, valued at $15. So in essence, you’re only losing $5 in real value when you enter this contest. There’s simply no comparison with the scam that is Fiction War.

The fundamental problem with these sorts of writing contests is that the more people that enter the contest, the worse the relative returns. It seems counterintuitive and illogical that the more popular a contest is, the worse it is for writers. But more entries mean more money for the publisher,  while the prizes remain the same. So more entries means winners get a lesser percentage of the total pot.

I think a proper writing contest should have relative prizes, like a gambling pool. Winners get a set percentage of the total, as do the publishers. That’s really the only fair way to run this sort of thing. It also takes away much of the publisher’s risk, too. Though I doubt any publishers will ever do it. The least they could do is offer the authors a share of the royalties on their published work.

But I say this knowing full well that there are better contests and publications out there. Perhaps the best contest for writers, at least for speculative fiction writers, is Writers of the Future which hands out $2250 in prizes during each quarterly contest. An yet the entries are completely free! You cannot beat that.

On a sad side note, my last entry for WotF was rejected…

The whole point here is that you should not, and do not, need to pay to submit and publish your work, or to make money off it.

That goes for magazines that charge reading fees. Most are probably cheating you. But not all are bad. I submitted to The Vestal Review which charges a $3 reading fee. But they give you a free copy of the issue you submitted for, even if your story is rejected! That’s the same value as the fee you paid, so you’re not losing value. It just means you need to look over the details careful before you hand over the cash.

So think twice before you pay to enter a writing contest. And please review the contest and check the math before recommending it to other authors. Don’t be the vampire’s patsy.

If you’ve got a story you are looking to publish, but don’t know where to send it, I can help. In the comments below, let me know the genre, theme and word count and I will try to recommend a publisher. Or if you like your privacy, message me on Facebook.

The Wonderful Rikki-Tikki-Tavi

Jun
11

One of my favorite cartoons when I was young was the 1974 Chuck Jones animated version of “Rikki Tikki Tavi,” narrated by Orson Wells. The classic video can now be accessed in a public archive HERE.

This might seem a bit odd, since I was born exactly a decade after this production was released and had many newer choices like He-Man, GI Joe, and Ninja Turtles to choose from. There’s something magically heroic about the story of a little rodent fighting of frightening snakes and saving a gentle family. Of course, you could read a bunch of post-colonial stuff into Kipling’s work, but if you treat your entertainment too seriously you’ll never be happy.

Now before you call foul for me discussing this sort of story on my fantasy/sci-fi blog, remember, its a story about talking animals. If that is not fantasy, I don’t know what is.

Recently I showed the cartoon to a group of Korean fifth and sixth graders in one of my English classes. I wasn’t sure how they would react. When they first saw the animation they laughed and mocked the outdated look. But eventually, they were drawn in, just as I had been when I was young. This was the case, even without Korean subtitles and with the students’ limited English. There’s truly something enchanting about the old show.

After this most recent viewing, I decided to read the actual story. (The work is in the public domain and I will post a link to the full text below.) I was surprised at how closely the cartoon followed the original text. It was a very faithful rendition.

Here’s an ARTICLE suggesting the story to be the “best short story of all time.”

The story is not without its problems, at least for modern readers. The POV jumps from time to time without sufficient warrant. Also, being a story about animals, there is often little motivation offered for why the characters do what they do. Why is Chuchundra always scared, for example? At the time it was written, writing was not as tight of an art as it is now. Author’s have learned and developed a great deal over the past century. One of the things that stands out to me now is how fast Rikki goes into fight and kill mode. Killing is easy for him and this is never questioned. Of course, its natural for a mongoose, but strange in comparison to modern stories that are perhaps more prudish than the wanton violence and prejudice of the past.

I had another though while I was reading the original story: Why hasn’t this story been retold? Has it, and have I just missed it? Many fairy tales have been reproduced and reinterpreted hundreds of times. Speaking of fairy tales, I have written a novella draft for a re-imagining of the old Hans Christian Andersen story “the Nightingale,” changing the Chinese myth into a traditional medieval fantasy story.

That got me thinking, why not try my hand at Rikki Tikki Tavi? I’m thinking to extend this one out to a novella as well, and likely going to do a first-person perspective. It’ll probably be Rikki’s POV, but maybe I could do Darzee or even Chuchundra. There is so much detail in the story already, but so much that is left unsaid. There’s so much that happens off stage–Rikki growing up and learning from his mother, Rikki getting swept up in the storm, the origin of the British family and the politics surrounding their estate, Darzee’s family’s encounters with the cobras. There are even characters mentioned that never really appear, such as Chua and the Coppersmith. I really want to dig into these characters and see where they take me.

What do you think, dear readers? Do you think a novella starring Rikki the Valiant would be a fun idea?

Originally, I was going to post the full text here, but I came across a website that has great illustrations with their text.

The story can be found HERE.

REBLOG: The #1 Rule Of Writing

Jun
10

Victor has some great thoughts here, presented in parable, which is always a useful technique. I fully agree with his point, though I don’t know if I have enough authority yet to demand others listen to my opinion. All I can say is that I agree that writers need to work up from the bottom, and it’s a rough struggle.

I don’t see myself as a Whitney or Flynn. I was top of my class in college, I know I am a decent writer. But I also know that I am entitled to nothing, that I need to prove myself the same as any other new writer. I’ve encountered people like Victor’s John, people just out of college that think having a degree means then are suddenly a professional entitled to professional work and pay.

My encounter was with a graphic designer. She had just graduated from art school. She never made a book cover in her life. Her online resume was only a dozen pictures, all or most being her school assignments. And yet expected me to pay her professional rates for a product whose quality I couldn’t begin to judge.

In my case, I started out targeting the bottom. I sent my work out to publishers offering little or no compensation, just to prove myself, get feedback, and make a name for myself. I’ve recently hit my twentieth acceptance. I feel like that is a pretty significant milestone. I have been at it for about 8 months, and have yet to get accepted with a professional-level publication. But I know my writing is getting better, and my reputation and fan-base is growing, slow but steady.

I already have a book deal, though is only a novella and with a indie publisher. I also have a job with a serial fiction company. I am making inroads into the fiction business. Sooner or later I will get that first professional credit, which I like to think will come sooner rather than later. I have a few good pieces in the submission cycle that I think can make it. I’ve had a lot of help revising and editing those pieces, which is critical. I also have my finished book, which will find a home eventually. I am not rushing it. I know traditional publication takes time and I am investing that time to ensure maximum success.

I believe that is what makes a successful author. Though, I’m not yet a proper authority on the subject. I’ll get back to you on this once I’m a genuine pro.

How (not) to Use Real History in Your Fantasy World

Jun
08

Here’s a quick tip to help you polish your fantasy novel outlines and world-building. While it is common–perhaps unavoidable–to add historical inspirations to your fantasy world, you should do so in moderation. And you should be sure to differentiate your fantasy world from its real-world inspiration. Copying too much from a historical example can come off as lazy and not creative.

I can highlight this with an example. I am currently reading–or more accurately, listening to–the good fantasy book Dragon of Ash and Stars, by  H. Leighton Dickson. Overall, the book is very good. The story is compelling and the writing decent. It also lends itself well to the audiobook format, which is how I am enjoying the book. I’m not going to offer a full review here, as I am still in the middle of the book, and since my focus here is on a singular issue.

I must admit, I have a short attention span when it comes to fiction. I often don’t finish books if they are problematic or just not interesting enough to keep me engaged. Despite this habit of mine, Dragon of Ash and Stars has kept my attention very well. But there are times when I get knocked out of the story. This mostly has to do with the story world the author offers us.

There is nothing wrong with using ancient Rome as a starting point in developing your fantasy world, besides Roman-style worlds being a bit cliche at this point. However, there’s a huge difference between being influenced by Roman culture, and filling your world with very Roman-named senators, prefects, citizens and centurions who spend denari on opulence and slaves. Dickson does little to hide the Roman roots of her world. She calls her land Remus, which comes directly from the origin story of Rome and the legend of the brothers Romulus and Remus. While it is fine to create a fantasy city inspired by Venice, you should be sure to name is something different. Dickson’s Venice stand-in is “Venitus,” literally only 2-3 letters and one syllable different from its obvious reference. Names are a critical way you differentiate your setting from its both historical and fictional peers, don’t settle for an easy choice. On a whole, this strikes me as an incredibly lazy sort of world-building. Readers are good at detecting an author’s laziness.

If you want to write a story about dragons in Rome, then just write Dragons in Rome. If you’re going to try to sell your reader a new fantasy world, then make sure it is indeed new.

Using historical references can be quite useful for fantasy authors. For my Valley of Magic fantasy world, I have borrowed bits from the cultural history of different regions of Europe and Asia. For naming conventions in Marudal, the City of Magic, I chose to use Old Saxon and Old Norse names for my characters. I also created a social-class division through the use of these different types of names–Norse for the lower classes, Saxon for the aristocracy. For the rising militaristic empire in the West (I’ve swapped the East vs West dynamic, marking the Westerners are the “barbarians,” at least from the current point-of-view), I’ve borrowed from the Mongol and Roman empires to generate something new. At least I hope it’s new. The City of Magic is ruled by a triumvirate, also a Roman concept. But none of these polities are direct copies of one specific historical entity or another.

I feel like Dickson spent a lot less time on her world-building than on the actual story-crafting. That is truly unfortunate, since a story, even a great story, cannot exist separate from its world. There is another major narrative issue that I find hurts the story, but I will leave that for a latter time.

All that being said, the story is great and despite falling out from time to time, I am still entertained by the book and expect no problem with finishing it. I would even go so far as to recommend the book to any general fan of fantasy, offering that recommendation even before I have finished it. I cannot say the same for Dune, or the first Witcher book, both of which I started but will likely not finish because their problems are killing the joy of reading/listening.

To sum up, ensure to make your fantasy world distinct from its real-world influences. That will ensure a more engaging and polished setting for your readers.

REBLOG: Where Ideas Come From

May
29

There’s nothing wrong with writing stupid or pointless things. I think, that’s maybe the best bit of advice you can offer a new writer. Much of the content of Douglas Adams’s work is stupid and pointless, but done in such a majestic way. Sometimes we just want to read something totally ridiculous, to remind ourselves that our lives are not so bad after all.

I imagine every writer has trouble coming up with ideas from time to time. We get the occasional muse, but otherwise we are just as boring as the rest of the world. I think the trick is keeping hold of those muses, those ideas, when they spring up. Whenever I get a story idea in my head, if I don’t have time to write it out immediately (which is pretty much always), I create a notes page with all the details I can think of.

I just made one for a new story that came to me last night, after watching John Wick II, and just before crawling into bed. I had to fight the urge to just let it go–I’m one who loves his sleep. Instead, I booted up my slow-as-slugs desktop and typed out everything that was filling my head. Never let a good muse go to waste, certainly not for an extra 30 minutes of sleep.

I think Lisa here is too hard on herself. She’s got some talent with words, as her article suggests. The hardest part about starting to write is casting aside your ego and jumping in. You will never know if you can write a novel until you try. Investing in a long project makes you nervous? Write a short story. Write anything. Just write.

The ideas will come once you’ve provided them a space to sit and enjoy their tea and biscuits (those would be cookies for my countrymen). Imagination is a muscle. If you don’t exercise it, it will atrophy. But the more you train it, the stronger it will become.

Don’t be discouraged, Lisa. Just sit down and work that mental muscle.


Writing, like any art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my […]

via Douglas Adams on Where Ideas Come From — ZEN AND PI

Tips Straight from the Horse’s, er Judge’s Mouth

May
26

One of my current goals as a science fiction and fantasy writer is to eventually get into Writers of the Future. This has been a target for me ever since one of my literature teachers in college won and was published by them. If you can survive the brutal competition and professional-level judging, you can proudly declare yourself to have made it.

My perception–as limited as it is–is that if you get into Writer’s of the Future, people will start taking your seriously. Agents and publishers will take a closer look at your manuscripts; readers will seek you out. That’s the step from being an amateur to being a professional, respected, money-making author.

To that end–and to help anyone else who is considering entering the contest–I have found an article with ten tips from one of this quarter’s judges. What better way to get ahead but to know what the reviewers are actually thinking?

I sent a story to the last quarter of WotF, so this guy probably looked it over. I feel like I avoided all of these issues, so maybe I have a chance to get in. My current story is certainly better than the last one I submitted to them. Wish me luck!

You can find the article HERE.