Monday, November 30, 2009

November 30, 2009 Links and Plugs

RIP Robert Holdstock (1948-2009).

This month's International Research in Children's Literature has an article by Anna Katrina Gutierrez on Mga Kwento ni Lola Basyang: A Tradition of Reconfiguring the Filipino Child (PDF). And here's a new blog on children's and young adult books set in Asia and/or with Asian characters: Asia in the Heart.

Robert Holdstock Obituaries
From Night Shade Books:
Rules of '48 by Jack Cady

Book/Magazine Review: Child of Fire by Harry Connolly

Every Monday, I'll be doing bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

Disclosure: The author sent a review copy for the purposes of this review.

The fad for the past few years has been the urban fantasy genre. With the exception of Jim Butcher, the rest of the field seems to be dominated by female protagonists, and sometimes crosses the line into the paranormal romance genre. Child of Fire by Harry Connolly is one of those rarities which features a male main character, although the rest is expected formula: a mystery to be solved, a secret organization/conspiracy, and lots of inevitable action. Connolly tries to be different by using the Walking Tall archetype as our hero enters a frontier town and cleans up the corruption present there (which happens to be supernatural in nature).

So how does the entire novel fare? I'm honestly unimpressed. Which doesn't make it a bad book but it's not one that's compelling enough. Connolly gets it right by starting in the middle of the action, in this case a reformed thief coerced into serving the mysterious organization known as the Twelve Palaces. Necessary background information is fleshed out via flashback and there's always something new popping up to keep our protagonist preoccupied. Even the deus-ex-machina tool of our hero, a magical knife-that-isn't-a-knife, is pretty cool and sees much usage. Unfortunately, it's the other areas that falter.

While the pace is relatively fast, it's not as compact or tight, at least compared to a Harry Dresden novel: while I am curious about the plot, it's not one that you can't put down. The city and the action scenes could also use more fleshing out. There are points where I doubt the veracity of the hero's exploits, such as the lack of recoil when firing uzis. The characterization is competent enough, except for the parts where Connolly resorts to telling us his hero is tempted by the magic of his handler. It's the only out of character detail, or at least not backed up by descriptive scenes.

At the end of the day, Child of Fire is a decent book, but there are areas that need polishing. I can see how Del Rey picked up this series, but right now, it lacks that extra effort which would make it stand out from the other urban fantasy novels out there. Which is a waste because the book does have something different to offer, but as it is, it's simply good instead of being outstanding. Perhaps die-hard urban fantasy fans will bite into this but as for me, I'll read it but it's not a must-buy.

Book/Magazine Review: 7th Son: Descent by J.C. Hutchins

Every Monday, I'll be doing bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

Disclosure: The publisher sent a review copy for the purposes of this review.

I'm one of the people who've bought into the hype of podcast authors (who've been published in print) like Mur Lafferty, Scott Siggler, Matt Wallace, and yes, J.C. Hutchins. I've heard of his name, and parts of his plot in various interviews, even before I got to actually read his book. And because of that, I'm wary: is Hutchins' writing as good as his marketing? Thankfully, in the first few pages, it's clear to readers that Hutchins can write. A criticism that might be levied upon podcast authors is that they self-publish, but in this case, the author backs it up with actual skill. I can see why St. Martin's Press picked up this novel as it feels right at home with what's being released by traditional publishers.

7th Son: Descent is best described as a thriller infused with science fiction elements. When it comes to the former, it's formula in the sense that it contains techniques and beats that are the lifeblood of authors like Brad Meltzer: it starts out with a strong beginning, features a conspiracy of some sort, and constantly baits you with cliffhangers and mysteries. Hutchins isn't original in that sense, but one must admit, he can write a compelling thriller, and is sure to please anyone who loves that genre.

The other aspect I'd like to highlight is the science fiction. At first, the premise of clones isn't unique. In fact, cloning to a certain extent has stopped being science fiction. The "secret sauce" present in the story, so to speak, deals with memory and psychology. With the first, how can clones--identical as they are--have the same childhood memories? This science is not hand-waved but tackled extensively in the book; perhaps not as in-depth by hard science fiction standards but it is given some thought. The second aspect, psychology, is probably what'll catch science fiction readers' attention. As can be surmised from the title, there are seven clones in the story. Each one has identical genes but they look and act different. On one end, you have a fit man who entered the military. On the other, you have this anti-social hacker who's overweight and plagued with voices in his head. It's the nature vs. nurture argument exaggerated in a way only science fiction can. Admittedly, there is some oversimplification here, as the clones are more like aspects of the main test subject, with certain personality traits becoming more dominant.

The real struggle for Hutchins as a writer is the fact that his narrative has seven protagonists. Not a lot of authors can work well with that many characters. And in fact, the lowest point in the book is probably the beginning, as seven random kidnappings culminate to the revelation of the top-secret project. I'll be honest: I'm not good with names and with all the generic names of the clones, I didn't really track all of them. Instead, I relied on Hutchin's conceit, which is describing the characters by their profession: soldier, priest, geneticist, etc. It might be an inelegant technique but it works.

The other problem is that as much as Hutchins tries to share the limelight on all the clones, one can only do so much with the limited page count. Some of the characters do get the shaft in terms of characterization, but that's not so bad when you look at it from the perspective of a series (well, Hutchins better be planning to write a sequel!). It also falls prey to the first-book-in-a-series syndrome in the sense that most of the novel is spent setting up the dilemma and providing exposition. 7th Son: Descent answers all of your questions before diving right into the action, and that takes some time. Hopefully it'll be non-stop action in the succeeding novels, but as for this book, it ensnares you not because of the actual developments, but because it's preparing you for the coup de grace.

7th Son: Descent is fun and engaging for what it is. There's material here to satiate both thriller and science fiction readers, and Hutchins has a firm grounding in both.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Plug: Telling Modern Time: The Life and Art of Botong FRANCISCO Coching

This landmark exhibition traces the discourse between the high art of painting and the low media of komiks and graphic design in the works of Botong Francisco and Francisco Coching. It offers an intelligent account of the complex and often ambivalent relationship between art and popular culture, which signaled the emergence of Philippine modernity.

From the hectic postwar years to the advent of Martial Law, Botong Francisco and Francisco Coching articulated the visual ­sensibility of their era. Botong transformed sly notebook caricatures and ­design sketches into sprawling murals. Coching delved into abstruse ­historical sources and the widely circulated Tagalog novels of his time to create stirring narratives of Filipino heroism and nationhood in his komiks. Together they forged an iconography of the folk and the popular, the mass and the national, in kindred registers.

Telling Modern Time: The Life and Art of Botong Francisco ­Coching, on view at the National Museum of the Filipino People from 11 December 2009 to 11 January 2010 and curated by Patrick D. Flores, will feature approximately 100 works by ­Botong and Coching, spanning a fascinating range of material, ­including komiks excerpts, murals, prints, sketches, and memorabilia.

The exhibition is accompanied by a limited-edition numbered box set, available only at the opening night. The box set includes the exhibit catalogue of Telling Modern Time as well as the hardbound editions of the books The Life and Art of Botong Francisco and The Life and Art of Francisco Coching, both edited by Patrick D. Flores.

November 27, 2009 Links and Plugs

Happy Thanksgiving to the folks in the US.

And this just came out:
Total Oblivion by Alan DeNiro

Thursday, November 26, 2009

November 26, 2009 Links and Plugs

While still busy at work, last night I got a genuine Last Drink Bird Head as well as contracts for my short story. Yay!

Also, this Sunday, two of my favorite guys, Rick Kleffel and Jeff VanderMeer (and Ann VanderMeer and Jacob Weisman), will be on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday, in the 5-10 AM slot on KQED. Do try to check them out.

This just arrived in the mail:
Child of Fire by Harry Connolly

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Philippine Speculative Fiction V tentative Table of Contents

Philippine Speculative Fiction V
edited by Nikki Alfar & Vincent Michael Simbulan
Kestrel, 2010 (Feb release date)

‘A Game of Quam’ by Andrew Drilon

‘A New Hospital’ by Raymond G. Falgui

‘A Yellow Brick Road Valentine’ by Charles Tan

‘Carbon’ by Paolo Gabriel V. Chikiamco

‘Death and Noy’ by Fidelis Angela C. Tan

‘Embedding’ by Aileen Familara

‘Eyes as Wide as the Sky’ by Gabriela Lee

‘Heart in the Flesh’ by Mia Tijam

‘If We Catch Fire’ by Marla Cabanban

‘Just Man’ by Rica Bolipata-Santos

‘Keeper of My Sky’ by Timothy James Dimacali

‘Leg Men’ by Dominique Gerald Cimafranca

‘Monsters’ by Eliza Victoria

‘New Toy’ by Joseph Anthony Montecillo

‘Rogelio Batle and the Curse of the Crimson Court’ by Alexander Osias

‘Sink’ by Isabel Yap

‘Strange Weather’ by Dean Francis Alfar

‘The Autochthonic War’ by Joseph F. Nacino

‘The Creature’ by Christine V. Lao

‘The Goodlyf’ by Kate Aton-Osias

‘The Left-Behind Girl’ by Veronica Montes

‘The Sparrows of Climaco Avenue’ by Kenneth Yu

‘There’s a Waterfall in Your Rainbow’ by Ejay Domingo

‘Three Stories’ by Angelo R. Lacuesta

‘Very Short Fairy Tales’ by Apol Lejano-Massebieau


‘A Novel Escape’ by Celine Roque

‘Bio Notes’ by Monique Francisco

‘Beyond Flight’ by Kristine Draei Dimalanta

‘Carnivale’ by Sarah Catherine Ureta

‘Moving Houses’ by Oscar Bryan Alvarez

‘Robots, Eyeballs, and a Slice of Pizza’ by Raydon L. Reyes

‘The Beloved Servant’ by Elyss Punsalan

‘The Void’ by Spencer Simbulan

‘Under a Mound of Earth’ by Celestine Trinidad

‘Upstaged’ by Gerard dela Cruz

‘Watchmen and Puppetmaster’ by Erica Gonzales

‘Wolf Man’ by John Philip Corpuz

Essay: The Attack on Harlequin, Not Self-Publishing

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

Last week's controversy revolves around Harlequin's soon-to-be-renamed imprint Harlequin Horizons. Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, and Science Fiction Writers of America have issued statements on the matter. There's also a couple of opinions being thrown around. Kat Meyer, for example, asks whether aspiring authors and readers are truly at risk. Victoria Strauss also asks why the big fuss over Harlequin Horizons, and not with West Bow Press (which provides something similar minus the brand name).

Before I begin, let me state my background. I'm an author in the Philippines who's been published by both traditional publishers and self-publishers (books like the Philippine Speculative Fiction series are products of self-publishers). Personally, I've even self-published the Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler, albeit not in print. And before we continue, while the terms self-publishing and vanity publishing tend to be interchanged, they don't mean the same thing in this particular context: Jennifer Jackson clears up some definitions. For a quick breakdown, self-publishing entails the author publishing his or her book, while vanity publishing entails the author paying someone else to publish their book.

Traditionally, self-publishing has been frowned upon. The most common complaint is "why didn't a regular publisher agree to publish your work?" It also entails a lot of work on the part of the author, who has now taken on the role of publisher: getting quotations from printers, working on marketing, arranging for distribution, and collecting sales. In the past decade, through a combination of the Internet and cheaper technology (i.e. print-on-demand), self-publishing is slowly becoming a more viable business model, not in the sense of getting rich quick (haha!), but in terms of getting your work out there. A couple of indie publications are self-published, and the reasons why some authors and editors self-publish is because the bigger publishers don't see a large enough market to produce them in sufficient quantities. And sometimes, yes, it's the rejected manuscript which is rejected because it's crap. There are a couple of success stories, but bear in mind, these are the exceptions. Reviewers such as myself are wary of authors who self-publish: while there is a chance that the said work is genuinely good (or at least "publishable"), it's also likely that they are horrible (in the sense of having atrocious spelling, erroneous grammar, or an awful plot). I've personally encountered both. (For a different look at things, you can read Josh Jasper's Self-Publishing Done Right.)

Vanity publishing, on the other hand, is loathsome to professional authors because of the adage "manage flows to the author". There is an acceptable loss of cash flow in self-publishing because the author takes on the role of the publisher, and one hopes that they will recoup the expenses eventually (unfortunately, there's no sure thing in business, much less publishing). In Vanity publishing, the author is clearly not the publisher. And from the finances of the vanity publisher, whether the author sold one copy of his or her book or ten thousand, they've already made a profit.

From my perspective, if you're just going to use a vanity press, why not just become a self-publisher? It's going to be more time consuming, but you have more control over your work and it's arguably cheaper, as well as you not sharing your profits with someone else. Does that mean I'll never recommend vanity publishing as a possible route? No. I see rare circumstances when working with a vanity publisher could be helpful to an aspiring author. For example, if you're a talented, aspiring author who doesn't want to do the legwork, and happens to have a lot of cash available on hand, then this might be the route to take (but let's face it, when was the last time you heard of an aspiring writer having lots of money available?). The issue here is picking the right vanity publisher, and being objectively confident that your book will actually sell. (Unfortunately, there is truly no "objective confidence"--most people enter the self-publishing and vanity publishing arena [or even traditional publishing] thinking that their work is the best in the world and everybody will buy it, even when a professional doesn't think that's the case.)

Now let's begin to tackle the scenario with Harlequin. Here are the complaints based on the statements of the various author organizations:

Romance Writers of America (RWA)
  • Disqualification in RWA-provided conference resources because Harlequin is now a subsidy/vanity publisher. This isn't an attack on self-publishers (which, again, is different from subsidy/vanity publishers), but a binary policy of the group against vanity publishers (either you qualify or you don't). Perhaps room for argument here is that Harlequins Horizons is an imprint of Harlequin as opposed to its main business model, thus enabling certain imprints to qualify.

Mystery Writers of America (MWA)
  • Declining membership with the MWA and ineligibility to qualify for the Edgar Awards. Honestly, the stance of the MWA is more of an ethics issue.
  • The ethics issue here is the inclusion of the Harlequin Horizons program and the eHarlequin Manuscript Critique Service which is embedded in the manuscript submission guidelines for all its imprints. There is a conflict of interest here as Harlequin is recommending its imprint to all of its prospective authors (i.e. if you can't get published traditionally, try our vanity press!).
  • This isn't an attack on vanity publishers in general, but more along the lines of a traditional publisher advertising its vanity press to all of its clients.

Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA)
  • Ineligibility to qualify for membership. The SFWA has three complaints.
  • One is arguably faulty advertising (no distribution on brick-and-mortar stores, no editor so the author's skills doesn't actually improve).
  • The second complaint is brand dilution of the authors involved (what's not elaborated is that low sales can impact whether bookstores will stock your books in the future or not, hence why some authors take up new pen names).
  • The third is the income stream, the adage "money flows to the author" adage.

There are other concerns of course, which I want to bring up:
  • A lot of the complaints stem from the assumption that prospective participants in the program are ignorant and unaware of the risks, hence Harlequin is seen as predatory (it doesn't help that the imprint shares the brand name of Harlequin--at least before Harlequin comes up with a new name). Whether this is true or not is best left for readers to decide. I just want to remind people though at how many writers don't read the fine print, or even follow basic submission guidelines.
  • Dilution of the house brand. In attaching the Harlequin name, it certainly boosts the reputation of the imprint (especially compared to other vanity publishers). On the other hand, it also *possibly* (this is best left for customers to decide) diminishes the main brand (along with all the authors involved) as it associates itself with vanity publishing.
  • A lot are also assuming that the practice that would follow from such an endeavor is that rejected slush pile manuscripts will apply for the program in the hopes of not only getting published, but catch the eye of traditional publishers. At least as far as Harlequin's marketing spiel is concerned, there's a conundrum between "we respectfully reject your manuscript" and "sign up with us now!". It is possible however that the latter is not exclusive to the former, and that the latter's target audience is very different.

Some people are interpreting this incident as traditional publishers (and everyone under them) acting defensively against the not-so-new trend that is vanity publishing (and other alternative methods such as self-publishing). Unfortunately, several of the responses, such as statements from Stacey Cochran, feel more like knee-jerk reactions rather than actually reading and deliberating on the stances of the various people involved. The reason I outlined the stances of the three writing organizations above is to highlight that they have different stances on the matter, and it's not a scenario of "traditional publishers and their ilk are out to attack self-publishers" (and even that is a misnomer as it's not the self-publishers that the RWA has a policy against but vanity publishers). For example, Michael Hyatt (of Thomas Nelson) has a blog entry Why Agents May Be Opposed to Self-Publishing, in response to the recent fiasco. He cites three reasons, but as far as the three writing organizations are concerned (yes, I know, he was originally addressing it to agent complaints--but which agents, I wonder since that's not what I'm reading from other agents), only his third argument, "Self-publishing rips off the authors," is valid (the other two aren't brought up at all). And even then, it doesn't properly address the ethics issue brought up by the MWA or SFWA (Lee Goldberg has more on that particular issue).

I'd also like to stress that the reaction is also due to Harlequin's specific circumstance. Dear Author, for example, points out that Random House has a partnership with Xlibris, and there was no public outcry then (or at least not as loud as this one). And Victoria Strauss asks why industry people commend West Bow Press but not Harlequin Horizons? Is it just the brand name? (Personally, I see it as me being vested in fiction as opposed to nonfiction, hence me paying more attention to this incident.)

Some people are using this a segue-way to go into a traditional publishers vs. self-publishing argument when that's not necessarily the case here, at least as far as the three writing groups are concerned. (Individuals, whether authors, agents, bloggers, etc. will obviously have their own opinions.) Is it too much to ask from fellow readers to actually read what's actually being discussed, instead of reacting to what they think is being argued against? I know it doesn't help that jargon is being thrown around, especially since a lot of people (myself included) don't understand the differences between self-publishing and vanity publishing. I'm not saying that the three writing groups is completely in the right, but it would be more helpful if the critics actually addressed the issues brought up. For example, the change in imprint name might satiate the RWA but not the MWA or the SFWA. Changing policies and the copy writing might alleviate MWA concerns but not the RWA.

November 25, 2009 Links and Plugs

Lots of work to do, not enough time...

From Chris Barzak, he points out this article on Does an Anti-Gay Character Make (Gay Author) Bennett Madison's Teen Book Homophobic?

Happy release day!
Devil's Alphabet by Daryl Gregory

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

November 24, 2009 Links and Plugs

Be sure to drop by the World SF News Blog. Lavie's gearing up for some content as of late.

Go team Tessa Kum and Jeff VanderMeer:

Interview: K.J. Bishop

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

K.J. Bishop is the author of the novel The Etched City and has won awards such as the Ditmar Award for Best Novel and Best New Talent.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, what is it about speculative fiction that interests you?

I seem to be reading more real-world fiction these days. But when I write, my mind seems to want to be fantastical. It's hard to say why, because it isn't a conscious choice. I suspect a taste for the sensational is part of it. It might be that fantastical elements help me to organise my thoughts, by acting as archetypal or mythical magnets around which emotional and cognitive material can accrue. There's also the surreal factor. The mind is a strange place, and I like to express that strangeness directly, which produces oddness in my writing -- like taking my brain out of my head and making a sort of potato-print with it on the paper.

In several interviews, you mentioned that you started writing in your 20's. What initially made you decide to foray into fiction, and what motivated you to keep at it?

Gwynn, who became the main character in The Etched City, had been in my mind for a long time, in various guises, and I'd occasionally written fragments about him, just for the idle pleasure of it. When I started surfing the web I found this picture, which is Sidney Sime's illustration for Lord Dunsany's story How One Came As Foretold to the City of Never, and that was it. I think the picture somehow pulled together influences from books I'd been reading around that time -- Viriconium, A Rebours, various Decadent writings -- and I saw this strange city on top of a huge cliff, with Gwynn there in an opium den with two lesbian swordswomen, and I wrote "The Art of Dying" about the three of them. The Australian speculative fiction magazine Aurealis published the story, and the next one I wrote, which encouraged me to think that perhaps I could write something longer. I was curious about Gwynn's backstory, so I started exploring it, and that became The Etched City. (I've just read the Dunsany story for the first time now, and I think it's funny that it starts off describing a kid in the English countryside who ends up in a world of wonder, because I think of Gwynn as being, underneath his layers of gunslinger and dandy and warrior from Ultima Thule, a schoolboy who dreamed of wild adventures and got them.)

As for keeping at it, I almost didn't. I didn't have any other books bursting to come out. But it was either go back to university and upgrade my qualifications, or try to do something more with writing. But I discovered that I couldn't just sit down and make more novels come, and I also discovered that the solitude of attempted full-time writing drove me crazy, so now I teach English as a foreign language and write in my spare time. I keep writing because characters still come into my head and prompt me to blacken paper on their behalf, and every now and then I actually finish something to their satisfaction and mine. If they stop turning up, I'll stop writing.

What was the most difficult hurdle you had to overcome before getting published?

Finishing a book! Seriously. On the story side of things, I sold "The Art of Dying" on the first go -- which was an unusual piece of good luck for a first-time writer. With The Etched City, I was again lucky in how soon the book found a publisher, and in the kindness of people who helped get it there. I first tried to sell it back in, I think, 2000, but not very seriously -- I only tried a couple of publishers. Geoff Maloney critiqued the book thoroughly, stopped me taking it down a path that wouldn't have worked, and recommended Prime Books, who gave me a contract and the luxury of rewriting for about a year with Trent Jamieson as editor. After Prime published it, Jeff VanderMeer and Jeff Ford were kind enough to show it to their agent, who then sold it to Bantam and Tor UK. A funny thing is, while I was writing the book, a psychic told me that she was hearing the name "Geoff /Jeff" in my future. On my own, I think I would have given up far too soon. I didn't know how to go about looking for agents, for starters. But the Internet is much bigger now, and we're all better connected. Selling your work might not have gotten any easier, but at least it should be easier to do reconnaissance about who to try to sell it to.

You're a widely-traveled person. How has your travels affected your writing?

Travelling gives me ideas for locations, and sometimes for characters and situations. A less than fabulous holiday in Morocco provided a fair bit of material for The Etched City (cloud and silver lining, there you go), and the experience of wandering in Cairo inspired "We the Enclosed", my story in Leviathan 4.

Where is home for you? (And this doesn't have to be a geographical place.)

Morningtown, many miles away ;-)

Some of your fiction, including your novel The Etched City, revolves around cities. What is it about them that fascinate you?

I don't know that cities per se fascinate me, but I could hardly help being inspired by places like Rome and Cairo and Fez when I was a tourist in them. And Melbourne, where I grew up, is another inspiring city. Not so old, of course, but it has wonderfully extravagant Victorian bits and good little poky alleys. But lately my imagination has been more interested in small towns and rural settings. And seaside resorts. I'd love to write something in a seaside town.

Since you're also an artist, is there a creative overlap between writing and drawing for you?

A bit. When I'm interested in a character, I often want to draw them. And I think I think like a person who draws a lot. I've always drawn pictures; it's a lifelong hobby and a means of self-soothing. Unlike words, pictures lack the dimension of time; its all there at once. Of course, you can take time to look at it; but the viewer brings the element of time, it isn't in the work. And when I write, I'm happiest writing with the "time" channel turned off. I'm drawn to slowness, pages where nothing happens, and then I'll make a jump to the next scenic point (where I might force something to happen, even if I'd rather just write about the sky or people's clothing). I don't always write like that, but it's what I enjoy doing.

What kind of satisfaction do you get from fiction that you can't get from art? How about vice versa?

With fiction, you can create virtual people. You can conjure the semblance of personality. I find that very satisfying, once the thing's actually working. And I enjoy discovering a work as I write it (if I discover it; I make a lot of forays that go nowhere). But I find the process of art much more immediately satisfying. The body and the mind are involved together, which is pleasant, and can be meditative. And I don't judge my art the way I judge my writing. I tend to enjoy looking at pictures I've made whether they're any good or not, whereas I'm very critical of my own writing. I think my drawing mind is still well connected to the memory of childhood pleasure, whereas my writing mind grew out of the world of school and work and takes its attitudes from there.

What does it feel like to have your novel translated in many languages?

Awesome. It feels like a great privilege, and I've been fortunate to have some very dedicated translators. From things a couple of overseas readers have said, I suspect some of the translations are better than the original.

I hear you're working on a short story collection. Can you tell us more about it?

It's all spec fic, of assorted sorts, mainly fantasy, with a fair dollop of surreal, and there are a few poems that I'd also like to include. At the moment I'm revising the work and knocking it into shape. Most of the tidying of older material isn't giving me too much trouble, except for "The Art of Dying", which has about 7 versions, and I'm not completely pleased with any of them. I'll probably be fiddling with that one till the day I die! Since nearly all the material I want to include as been published before I also want to write a couple of new stories specifically for the collection.

How did you decide which stories will be included in your upcoming short story collection?

I haven't decided yet. It'll depend on how the new stories turn out, and I expect the publisher will have some input too.

Since you had to edit The Etched City and some of your short stories more than once, what's the process like, editing work that's previously been published? Are there any trepidations?

There's no trepidation. I actually quite like giving old work a new coat of paint. The re-editing of The Etched City didn't come all that long after the first edit -- I think it was only a year or eighteen months -- so it was still quite fresh in my mind, and I welcomed the opportunity to polish it up. But a lot more time has gone past since I wrote some of these stories, and my tastes have changed. I've gotten less gothic, so I have to balance the urge to turn down the dial of portentousness with realistic acceptance of how far a story can be bent before it turns into something else.

Which is more comfortable for you: novel-length fiction or short stories?

I'd have to say short stories, since I've only managed novel-length fiction once so far. But I'm working on another novel with another writer, Preston Grassmann, and the partnership has made the going easier -- not to mention that when there's two of you, you can't say, 'Hey, let's go back home.'

Have you ever considered doing a comic or a graphic novel?

I've written 60-something pages of a very daft doujinshi (autodoujinshi?) called Ecchi no City.
As anyone looking at the art and layout will note, I'm not remotely up to doing a proper piece of visual storytelling! But if I ever level up enough, sure, I'd definitely consider doing something with pictures.

How has the Internet affected your life creativity-wise?

Well, research is a lot easier now. So is procrastination. I like to think I've come out about even. I also like to think I'm a tall, rich, gorgeous rock star with a pet leopard.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Look after your physical, mental and financial health, because the writing life can be bad for all three. Or just accept that you're going to be mad, poor and sick -- whichever works for you!

Advice for aspiring artists?

I was a web designer for a while and I've done the odd book cover, but I wouldn't call myself an artist and I'm not really in a position to give advice. Better ask Leonardo da Vinci.

Anything else you want to plug?

Last Drink Bird Head, a fabulous anthology of flash fiction for literacy charities, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. I'm a dim light in the galaxy of contributors. I'd also like to mention Halo Evolutions, an anthology of tales from the Halo Universe, which features a collaboration between VanderMeer and Australian writer Tessa Kum, whose short fiction I've been enjoying for years. And slated to be published early next year is Baggage, an Australian speculative fiction anthology from Eneit Press, to which Tessa and I are both contributors. Quoting the editor, Gillian Polack, "It's all about the stuff we carry with us, inside us, especially that which we brought with us to Australia." I think it's a fascinating project, something well out of the ordinary. I also have a couple of stories coming out next year, one in Subterranean Magazine ("The Heart of a Mouse") and one in Fantasy Magazine ("Saving the Gleeful Horse").

Monday, November 23, 2009

November 23, 2009 Links and Plugs

Feel burnt out over the weekend (was working at the office).

Anyway, for your enjoyment, here's the Top 10 Scariest Filipino Monsters.

Harlequin Horizons-related Articles
And from Vera Nazarian:

Mansfield Park and Mummies by Jane Austen and Vera Nazarian

Book/Magazine Review: The Opposite of Life by Narrelle M. Harris

Every Monday, I'll be doing bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

Disclosure: The publisher sent a review copy for the purposes of this review.

At first glance, the protagonist of The Opposite of Life seems indulgent. She is a bibliophile and a geek, most likely someone readers of these books can relate with as she is a reflection of themselves--at least this was the case with myself. I couldn't help but wonder whether the author was projecting herself as her main character is front-loaded with telling details. Not that this is a bad thing, mind you. For once, it's a nice change of pace to have a main character in a paranormal romance who's the opposite of the Anita Blake fare: they're not pretty nor are they kick-ass, but rather common people who are utterly defenseless against the supernatural. But continuing through the book, I began to realize that my generalizations aren't accurate.

Remember how I mentioned this is a paranormal romance? Well, despite the packaging, it's not. A more accurate term would be urban fantasy (yes, I know how confusing the paranormal romance vs. urban fantasy argument can be but suffice to say, there is no romance in the book to be found). Or, as I prefer to interpret it, this is an anti-paranormal romance novel. Narrelle M. Harris follows all the tropes of the genre, everything from a possible love interest, the involvement of the sensual supernatural, and a mystery to be solved. But the author subverts all these expectations. The heroine's partner in the book for example is Gary and he is anything but sexy; socially awkward, unfashionable and more on the over-weight side. And that's just the tip of the iceberg in which the book strips away many of the romantic aspects of vampires.

While it's possible for a book to simply exist on the metafictional level, that isn't the case here as there is a solid story supporting this subversion. Harris provides motivation and direction for the protagonist to be deeply involved in this adventure. One of the author's strengths is her gift of digging deep into a character's history, such as how they developed this and that nickname, which fleshes them out. And while the pace isn't fast, it's not dragging either and moves at a steady pace--fitting considering this isn't aiming to be an adrenaline-pumping read. This is more of a Ms. Marple in the modern world solving an extraordinary case, with pop culture references thrown in for good measure.

Harris however is not without flaws. The setting is set in Melbourne but unfortunately, it fails to be anything but a generic city. The character is also prone to lots of introspective moments and at times, it crosses the line of feeding the reader too much information instead of allowing them to draw their own conclusions. In fact, this is my problem with the ending as Harris flatly restates the recurring theme of the book, as if the title (or the rest of the book) wasn't a giveaway.

Still, while not being the tightest novel, it works for its purpose. Harris delivers unexpected surprises for readers and the characters feel genuinely vulnerable. There's also the entire metaphor The Opposite of Life represents while still working within the constraints of the genre.

Book/Magazine Review: Lovecraft Unbound edited by Ellen Datlow

Every Monday, I'll be doing bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

Disclosure: The publisher sent a review copy for the purposes of this review.

H.P. Lovecraft's fiction easily falls under the category that Lourd de Veyra labels as "Books That’s Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too" to the point that when I got to actually read his writings, it was a disappointment from all the hype (if more than half a century's word-of-mouth could be called hype). It's not that Lovecraft isn't praise-worthy, but to the modern reader, there are gaping flaws in his fiction, from the monotonous tone to the misogyny. And then there are all the tributes that followed and while there is some innovation in that particular sub-genre (in the same way that Tolkienesque fiction has become a sub-genre of fantasy), the signal to noise ratio is high.

Enter Lovecraft Unbound. Now what's remarkable with Ellen Datlow's two tribute anthologies this year--the other being Poe--is the editorial mandate not to be simply pastiches of the author. It's not about omitting references to the Mythos or Mi-Go's, but about venturing into new territories, while still being faithful to the themes of Lovecraft. In that vein, I think the anthology is a success, especially to readers like me who is either unfamiliar with Lovecraft or jaded with his clones.

Not that all of these stories are devoid of Lovecraft references. One of the stronger pieces in the anthology, "Leng" by Marc Laidlaw, does make a reference from the title alone. However, Laidlaw infuses his narrative with original yet familiar elements--instead of an isolated town in rural America, we have one set in China; cultists and fish-men are placed with monks and mushroom spores. And just when you think the story is predictable, the author creates a scene which utterly disarms you because it debunks the stereotype, such as the protagonist actually meeting one of the missing people he's searching for instead of finding a raving lunatic.

Another example is "Mongoose" by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear, a story set in their famous "Boojum" cosmology. At first, the story seems out of place (despite the Lovecraft references at the beginning), as it feels more at home in a space opera anthology. However, by the time you reach the last scene, Monette and Bear succeed in convincing the reader that this piece fits in the book. The pair riff on Lewis Caroll and throws in some science fiction elements as well, making this not only a unique Lovcraftian tale, but is in many ways tighter and more enjoyable than "Boojum".

As for the general direction of the anthology, there's a lot of enjoyable stories here, good enough to leave an impression on the reader by the time you've putting down the book. "The Crevasse" by Dan Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud, "Sight Unseen" by Joel Lane, "Come Lurk with Me and Be My Love" by William Browning Spencer, and "Catch Hell" by Laird Barron are examples of these.

There's a few stories which are just decent and nothing spectacular. "The Tenderness of Jackals" by Amanda Downum for example was ample and there's some surprising twists, but I wouldn't call it a powerful piece. "Vernon, Driving" by Simon Kurt Unsworth, on the other hand, is what I feel is the weakest story in the book. While I can appreciate the emotional drama, the horrific element seems too abrupt, and honestly could have been further expanded.

Having said that, Lovecraft Unbound has a few favorites. "Sincerely, Petrified" by Anna Tambour feels like a horror story clothed in mundane science fiction. The build-up is obvious, but the way Tambour tackles it feels fresh with the discourse on the psychology of horror. Combine it with detailed and holistic characters, and you have a well-written story that feels Lovecraftian without making any references.

Two out of the four reprints particularly stand out to me. I can easily imagine "In the Black Mill" by Michael Chabon serving as inspiration for the concept of the anthology--a story that's Lovecraftian without being a pastiche, a pattern that Laidlaw and various contributors follow. Chabon hits all the right beats, whether it's characterization, atmosphere, a sense of dread, and the eventual revelation. Formulaic on a certain level, but it's well-written formula.

And then there's "Commencement" by Joyce Carol Oates which is the complete opposite of Chabon. Whereas Lovecraft's influence is evident in Chabon's story, everything goes completely south when you read Oates. There's no trace of Lovecraft here as the author charts his own unique and unexpected path. But at the end of the day, you end up saying that this is a powerful, chilling piece, and that is perhaps Lovecraft's legacy--to deliver a genuinely horrific tale.

At the end of each story is an afterword by the author. Thankfully, for the most part, it doesn't sound like an argument for the inclusion of their story in this book, but more of what part of Lovecraft's fiction appeals to them. It's short and succinct and apt.

Overall, Lovecraft Unbound is an entertaining anthology, and doesn't succumb to the fate of some Lovecraft tributes.

Friday, November 20, 2009

November 20, 2009 Links and Plugs

Apparently, I have an impromptu book launch in a few weeks for creative nonfiction I wrote back in 2003 (eeep, I've forgotten what I've actually written!). Here's the surprise email:
In Their Own Voice, the published collection of works written in your creative writing class with Dr. Emy Liwag and myself, will be launched on Wednesday, 9 December, 3:30 pm, at the Concourse of the New Rizal Library of the Ateneo at Loyola Heights. Emy and I hope that you can come.

See you there!

Drop by if you can. We need to sell books. =)

P.S. All hail Chooklit.

It's shipping!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

November 19, 2009 Links and Plugs

I'm generally pleased that local author Dean Francis Alfar gets mentioned in io9 (and my own website, the Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler, gets a couple of hits; but do check it out because I like the stories there).

In the meantime, I gush over one of my favorite international authors, Zoran Živković, over at SF Signal. Sorry folks, that's all the interviews we have for The Apex Book of World SF.

And over at BSC Review, my column is up: Hardcover Madness.

And from Nick Kauffman:

And from one of my favorite editors (and publishers):

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

November 18, 2009 Links and Plugs

My second-to-the-last interview over at SF Signal is with Nir Yaniv.

*sigh* Not enough time to read all the books...

ActuSF Interviews
Because Angela Slatter is using *cough* extortion:

The Opposite of Life by Narelle M Harris

Guest Post: HED: Must-Study Sci-Fi: The Battle at Carkoon (Return of the Jedi) by JC Hutchins

JC Hutchins, author of 7th Son: Descent, will be guest blogging for today. He sent clones of Boba Fett to take over.

Hi there. I'm J.C. Hutchins, a sci-fi novelist and unapologetic Star Wars geek. I'm obnoxiously old school in my love for the franchise: I barely tolerate the Special Editions, I believe that bounty hunter Boba Fett is deader than disco (gobbled by the mighty Sarlacc, and not a "survivor" as the post-trilogy books claim), that Han most definitely shot first, that CGI Jabbas are buzz-killing bad juju, and that midichlorians are a mighty peculiar way to measure the power of the Force.

And for the love of Palpatine, lightsabers come in only three colors: blue, green and red. Purple? Bah!

I love the original trilogy. As a storyteller, I study the original trilogy. I think George Lucas and the original series' writers did a masterful job of first building a solid stand-alone narrative in A New Hope, and then figured out a clever way to extend the series into a trilogy, with compelling character arcs for several of its characters. Star Wars is certainly science fiction, but in many ways it doesn't feel like SF ... mostly because nearly every aspect of the tale has a familiar present-day analog. Religion, swords, fascism, fighter planes, lovable rogues, surly sidekicks -- it goes on and on. If only all sci-fi could be so accessible to the masses!

As a novelist, I watch for how other tale-tellers excel. In the case of Lucas and Star Wars, it's in three key areas: effectively using an ensemble cast, telling subplot-powered parallel tales with that cast, and pacing. This may be best represented in the showdown on the desert planet of Tatooine in Return of the Jedi, as Luke Skywalker and friends fight above the Sarlacc pit, a hole that likes to eat people.

If you're a writer, there's lots to learn from in that scene. I know my use of ensemble cast, pacing and action in my human cloning thriller 7th Son: Descent is highly influenced by lessons learned from this bit in the flick. I dare not do a shot-by-shot breakdown (though I've studied it that closely), but I'll share some relevant beats within the sequence so you might glean some wordsmithy value from it, or appreciate it a bit more as a viewer.

We'll start with a conversation between Han and Luke, who are held prisoner aboard a spiffy air-speedboat, traveling to their doom. Han, fresh from his carbonite block, says that his temporary blindness seems to be ebbing. Luke says he has a plan. Foreshadowing.

Meanwhile on his pleasure barge, sluggy gangster Jabba the Hutt is flirting with Princess Leia, who's chained to his throne (much to the chagrin of feminists everywhere, including myself). We've seen him give that chain a good yank or two before this sequence, so we're clearly aware that it's there. Boba Fett is presumably nearby, looking cool.

Cut to droids C-3P0 and R2-D2. Threepio, ever the selfish diva, frets that he and Artoo might be destroyed after Luke and friends are executed. Artoo replies with a series of confident bleeps: he's certain things will work out. That's more economical foreshadowing -- and the viewer doesn't pay it much mind, as the tease hails from a chirping trash can.

Finally, the air skiffs carrying Luke, Han, Chewbacca and an incognito Lando pull into position above the Sarlacc. Luke warns Jabba to free them, or else. (He's done this several times before this scene, in fact.) The villain gives a predictable chuckle, and tells his toadies to kill the prisoners. All hope is lost.

At this point, we've got three parallel stories happening here: the droids, Leia and Jabba, and Luke and friends. We don't know it yet, but the foundations of what's to come have already been built. From a craft perspective, it's all over but the shoutin'.

Tubas blare. Luke gives R2 a salute from the air skiff's plank. He performs a Force-fueled backflip, and -- boom goes the dynamite! -- R2 launches a lightsaber, which Luke catches. Plot point payoff! Luke slices and dices, and frees his comrades.

Of course, fatty Jabba won't stand for this. He belches orders to take out the air skiff. Cannons fire, and Lando finds himself swinging above the Sarlacc, screaming for help. Ever-cool Boba Fett soars to the skiff. Luke is off to take care of another threat -- a second air skiff filled with Jabba flunkies.

The scene has now diverged into four parallel stories: the droids, Leia and Jabba, Luke on the second skiff, and Han, Chewy and Lando.

Han takes out Boba Fett by accident. (I know Fett fans wail at this -- an undignified death! -- but I've always been cool with it.) We cut to Jabba, who's wigging out, blubbering like a baby. In the confusion, Leia uses the slave chain to strangle the gangster. Pow! Another plot point payoff! A death rattle for the ages!

Back to the outside battle: Things just got worse for our heroes, thanks to cannon-fire hailing from the floating barge. Lando's slipping closer to the hungry Sarlacc's maw. Han is dangling upside-down from his skiff's edge. Chewie, the ever-faithful sidekick, is saving Han's bacon by clutching to his feet. Luke leaps from the second skiff to the barge, to take out that troublesome cannon.

Luke eliminates the cannon threat. Lando is nearly gobbled by the Sarlacc, but Han -- with some much-needed humor -- rescues him. Pow! His eyesight was getting better! The tide is turning, because the music tells us so.

Now we start to see the storylines coalesce: Artoo has met up with Leia, and frees her from her chain. Threepio, whose eye was being eaten by a muppet, is also rescued by Artoo. The trio make their way to the sundeck of the barge, where Luke is still duking it out.

Within seconds, we've gone from four parallel stories to two. Pretty cool.

In one of the few weaknesses of the sequence, Luke tells Leia to aim the barge's supercannon at the deck itself. (I consider this a weakness since this laser-howitzer, while visible during the action, wasn't sufficiently foreshadowed.)

But wait! The droids fall off the barge, into the sand below. Up to three parallel stories again!

The cannon fires, Luke and Leia swing to the air skiff via a magically-appearing rope (another weakness, but if we can buy into a talking slug, I guess we'll buy this), where they meet up with Lando, Han and Chewie. Back to two parallel stories. They pick up the droids as they flee the flaming barge, which brings the team back together into one unified narrative.

And then -- in what I consider the coolest explosion in the entire Star Wars series -- the big barge goes kablooey. The second act of the movie begins.

See what Lucas & Co. did in that scene? They gave several protagonists something to do -- or something to react to -- split them up, efficiently foreshadowed the plot twists, effectively cut to each unfolding narrative to remind the audience "what" was happening "where," and then brought the characters back together through well-established character behavior (and some fortuitous circumstances). And it ends with a big fireball, as all great stories should.

Oscar-winning writing, it ain't ... but it's a damned good representation of how writers can deftly juggle multiple storylines, build conflict, and keep characters faithful to their established behaviors. If you're a storyteller yourself, check the Battle of Carkoon sequence when you're struggling with narrative. There's some spiffy lessons to be learned in those six-and-a-half minutes....