AvonCon 2016

It seems like everywhere you turn these days there’s a new comic, literary, or gaming convention. Many of these are fan-driven events, seeking to bring together a community of genre lovers from places near and far. AvonCon, however, puts a capital C in the word community.

Organized by the public library of the town of Avon, Connecticut, AvonCon holds its second yearly event on Saturday, April 16th. The brainchild of Reference and Adult Services Manager Tina Panik and Teen Librarian Marisa Hicking, the one-day convention is free and open to all ages. There is something for everyone, from the youngest child to the seasoned con-lover, with events ranging from illustration workshops to cosplay competitions.

What makes AvonCon so special? To answer that, we first have to take a good look at the library itself. The Avon Public Library hosts a wide variety of community events. These include preschool Mother Goose sessions, book clubs and a writing group. And of course, the hugely popular teen room which the town’s middle school and high school students can frequent after class for homework, board-and-video gaming, computer use, and even karaoke. The library’s community room is used by everyone, from the Girl Scouts to Little League Baseball coaches. It truly is a cornerstone for the town.

An event like AvonCon is a wonderful opportunity to cement the library’s involvement with the local community. But don’t just take it from me: I’ve invited the Con’s two main organizers to share their thoughts on conventions, comics and, of course, AvonCon itself.

Juliana: Tina and Marisa, thank you so much for joining me. Tell me, where did the idea for AvonCon come from? Why adopt the convention format?

Two years ago, 3 of our staff attended NYCC (New York Comic Con). On the train ride home we realized we could create a mini-convention at our library. Mirroring the convention format allows us to offer multiple programs simultaneously. Our event is free, which makes it unique amongst comic conventions. 

Juliana: What were the results from last year’s first ever AvonCon? What feedback did you receive from attendees? 

In addition to our regulars, AvonCon has attracted a completely new audience for the library. Our biggest request from last year to this year was to offer food for a longer period. This year we will have a local food truck, Toasted, on site all day. For those with a sweet tooth, we will have Dolce Vita Gelato on site as well.

Juliana: I know Marisa has a very enthusiastic teen group that frequents the library. Has the local community been involved in helping set up the convention?

Most of the preparation has been done by our awesome team of librarians. Our library Teen Advisory Board (TAB) helped paint and create a Tardis out of a large refrigerator box, as well as assemble the Iron Cosplay boxes. They were sad when they couldn’t create the costumes out of pillowcases on the spot!

Tina has also created F.A.N. (Family of Avon Nerds) a multigenerational group of science fiction, comic, and Pop Culture fans. They suggested creating a schedule by tracks-and we’ve done it. A couple of the teens from F.A.N. were part of the TAB Tardis group. 

Juliana: You have a treat for comic lovers this year – your special guest is cartoonist and comics theorist Scott McCloud. Why Scott? What do you hope Scott’s keynote lecture will bring to local graphic novel and cartoon fans?

Our focus this year is deconstructing the graphic novel. When Tina and I were brainstorming what to do and who to get, we knew we wanted an expert in the industry. Scott was our first choice. He literally wrote the book on understanding comics, called UNDERSTANDING COMICS; it was written in a graphic novel format. His visit is made possible by a grant from CT Humanities.

We want Scott McCloud to blend art, story, and technology together in his presentation. Scott McCloud has given this presentation throughout the country and he keeps adding new materials. It is a fast paced and visually engaging presentation. We hope to appeal to longtime fans of his work, those interested in graphic novels, and attract new fans. Scott McCloud has graciously agreed to answer any and all audience questions for as long as they keep asking.

Juliana: What was your favorite part of AvonCon 2015? 

Tina: I enjoyed watching people interact away from their phones. Strangers were starting conversations with each other about costumes, Pop Culture, and their favorite superheroes.

Marisa: I enjoyed the Draw Off on the center floor of the Children’s Department, hosted by Matt Ryan of Free Lunch Comics. The energy was fantastic! Mostly children and teens competed, though all ages looked on. It was friendly and competitive. I lost to Tim the Children’s Specialist attempting to draw Pikachu surfboarding. I also enjoyed hosting the Iron Cosplay event: teens got a mystery box full of pillowcases, Duct tape, paint samples and an inspiration superhero costume to recreate. Some were more successful than others, but everyone had fun.

Juliana: I know you already have a list of ideas for next year. Are there any you can share with us?

We are considering adding live music and the inclusion of other fandoms, like Downton Abbey. We’d also like to add a program centered around books.

Juliana: Thank you both for taking time to tell us a little about AvonCon 2016. Good luck with the event! I’m looking forward to it.

AvonCon takes place in Avon, Connecticut on April 16th, 2016. For more information and the full schedule of events, go to www.avonctlibrary.info.

You can find information on Scott McCloud and his work at his website, www.scottmccloud.com.

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Have Book, Will Read #8

There’s a steady March drizzle outside, but in here I have tea, books, and leftover Easter chocolate. Seriously, what more could a word-lover want? Here’s what I’ve been up to…

Recent Reads: Battles and books.

First up was Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs. My daughter’s been on at me for a while to read this, and after the gorgeous trailers came out for the movie adaptation directed by Tim Burton I thought it was about time I dipped into it’s rather mysterious waters.

The tale of a troubled boy who discovers his own powers along with a whole hidden world of wonder and threat, Miss Peregrine’s was everything my daughter had promised and more. It’s a slow-burning story, which eases you into its often cold and murky waters inch by inch while at the same time pulling you so deeply into its world that by the time things begin to happen you’re right in there with the main character, Jacob, ensnared and enthralled as he is.

My next read was Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Blades. I adored the first book in the series, City of Stairs, and thought there was no way he could top the charismatic Shara as a main character. But then he brought back a side character from the first book, General Turyin Mulaghesh, and I was smitten all over again.

Bennett is a master at producing original and unexpected protagonists. Mulaghesh is a stocky, aging, foul-mouthed, one-armed former war hero with a very dark past and a sense of right and wrong that goes above and beyond the call of duty. She is also deliciously stubborn, so when she is sent by the now Prime Minister Shara Thivani to investigate the strange substance uncovered in ruined and embattled Voortyashtan she resolves to get to the bottom of things no matter what it costs her.

After all the strange and divine powers of the last two reads, it was time for a little science fiction with Pierce Brown’s Red Rising. I’d heard this mentioned a few times but it had pretty much slipped under my radar until one of my town librarians suggested I’d enjoy it (hooray for librarians!).

Set on Mars, Red Rising tells a tale of oppression and the thirst for change, as lowborn miner Darrow infiltrates the elite Golds in the name of revolution. This one will definitely appeal to Hunger Games fans, and it’s not for the faint of heart as the battle scenes of the trials Darrow must go through to truly become one of the elite are pretty horrific. It’s incredibly fast-paced and I tore through the entire thing in one day, breathless and with nothing left of my poor, chewed-up nails.

Last on my list was Django Wexler’s The Forbidden Library, first in his middle grade series by the same name. It’s the story of Alice, who goes to live with her Uncle Geryon after her father dies in a shipwreck. An uncle she’s never heard about, who lives in a house full of mysteries. But the biggest mystery of all is the forbidden library. Until Alice creeps in at night and discovers magical powers she never imagined she had.

Alice shows us a world where books are a source of power – and also of grave danger. The creatures she finds inside them are no sweet fairytale things; they’re often nasty, vicious, and happy to kill. But Alice is both clever and fiercely determined to succeed. After all, if magic is real, perhaps her father is not really dead, after all?

Now Reading: Following the horse trail.

Loaded up on my Kindle and ready to go is The Art of Forgetting: Rider by Joanne Hall. All I’ve done so far is glance at the first page, so I’ll have to fill you in on this one next time round. A coming-of-age fantasy tale following a boy’s journey to become a cavalryman, it may be just what I need after all the strange directions my reading has taken me in lately.

To Read:

I have the first two books in Orson Scott Card’s Mithermages series on request at my library, so I’ll dive into those when they arrive. The Lost Gate and The Gate Thief tell the story of Danny North as he discovers his gate magic and the perils that follow.

I also have three novels on pre-order, all of them out at the same time at the end of March. I love the excitement of waiting for a new book to arrive! Myke Cole’s military fantasy Javelin Rain is the sequel to his excellent Gemini Cell. Sunset over Abendau is the sequel to Jo Zebedee’s dark space opera Abendau’s Heir. And The Adventures of Sir Edric, by Thaddeus White, is a fantasy comedy, with history’s most un-PC knight ever, the drunken, womanizing Sir Edric.

Words to read, worlds to explore. And my tea’s getting cold. Happy reading!

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Flesh and Wires by Jackie Hatton

From the moment I saw the blurb for Jackie Hatton’s Flesh and Wires I knew I wanted to read it. It just sounded so intriguingly different. Jackie’s novel is a post-alien invasion tale set in the not-so-distant future right here in the state of Connecticut where I live. I’ve driven the highways mentioned, seen the towns where the story is set. And that, I think, made the novel so appealing to me. The idea of these gentle New England locations twisted into a story of survival was a great hook.

Flesh and Wires (Aqueduct Press, 2015) takes us to the world left behind after a failed alien invasion, where the conquering Ruurdaans have died from disease leaving behind a sparse population of survivors. Most of these are technologically enhanced women, wired by the aliens to serve as slave labor for their colonization. Thirty years on, the enhanced women, along with the few remaining ‘naturals’ (both male and female), have gathered in small enclaves with dwindling fuel and energy resources. Society is at the same time sophisticated, with the scavenged remains of all the abandoned homes and mansions in the area, and frugally simplified, almost to pre-industrial levels, with scant long-distance communications abilities and trade as the only currency. Community is the key to endurance.

Contact has been made by yet another alien race, the Orbitals, who claim to want to settle in peace on Earth. Lo, leader of the small yet sturdy Saugatuck community, must decide whether or not she is willing to trust the Orbital ambassadors, and how to lead her town through the upcoming changes.

Jackie Hatton chooses an interesting direction to take her tale. Although there are plenty of plot twists and action sequences, ultimately this is a book about the consequences of war and the relationships born from a desperate need to survive. Most – if not all – the women in the story bear deep psychological scars and PTSD is a running theme all throughout. New forms of partnerships have emerged, and in the thirty years since the invading Ruurdaans died out society has transformed into something completely new. Many of the characters, such as Lo, acquired extraordinary powers and strength from their alien enhancements, but this has brought its own brand of hardship and grief. And when faced with a new ultimatum to break out of their self-imposed isolation and evolve once again as a society, Lo realizes her people are less united than she thought.

Flesh and Wires is at the same time a gently written soft-paced affair and an explosive, volatile story of survival. It’s the looming threat of a thunderstorm on a summer’s day, the danger lurking in a seemingly quiet pool of water. This is not a loud novel, but a chilling one in many ways, and it tackles big ideas and leaves a lot of noise in its wake. It’s the sort of story that leaves a mark, and keeps you thinking long after you’ve put it down.

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Boskone 53 Round-up

Boskone 53, February 19-21 2016

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Boskone is a long-running New England Science Fiction and Fantasy convention that skews more to the literary side, even though it also has events centered on movies, board gaming, etc. Last year was my first time at Boskone, and I was so smitten I’d bought this year’s membership before the con even ended. Boskone is big enough to bring in great authors, and small enough to be a friendly sort of place. To me, newbie convention-goer that I am, it’s perfect.

Here’s a very brief overview of some of the panels I attended, just in case you were wondering about what goes on at event like this. I’m not including all panels or kaffeklatsches, or even mentioning readings; this is more of a taster. And by the way, sometimes the best things are the ones you least expect. The pirate panel was a personal favorite! So find a convention near you, and maybe take a chance on something unexpected. It’s worth it.

(Also, next year’s Guest of Honor is Brandon Sanderson, so if my rambling notes don’t entice you to take a look at Boskone, maybe that will!)

*The following information is a summary of notes I took during panels. They represent only a portion of what was shared by panelists, and are subject to my own interpretation while writing them down at the event.*

Friday:

Things I wish a pro had told me

Peader Ó Guillin, Walter Jon Williams, Christopher Golden, Charles Stross

Writing a first draft is like walking a tightrope. If you stop halfway to look back, you’ll get frozen with fear.

Writing a full-length novel is like marriage or a relationship – initially there’s that first flush of love, but then eventually you have to settle into the relationship to figure out where it is going. Also, you have to find a way to make the non-exciting bits exciting to write; if you’re not excited to write them, no one will be excited to read them.

After the 1st book, books often sell on outline and first chapters. Sometimes the sale takes so long you’ve cooled on the idea and have to recover the spark.

Kaffeeklatsche with Neil Clarke

Clarkesworld believes very firmly in open slush submission. They have only commissioned stories on rare occasions, for anniversary editions, and even then from regular contributors. The magazine does have ‘regulars’, but they submit through the slush pile like everyone else.

The magazine has gained an industry rep for publishing things that push the boundaries in style and subject matter. Magazines tend to be more cutting edge; they can afford to take a risk on a story. A novel can’t. If one story gets bad feedback, it quickly gets buried/forgotten by the next issue. A novel that tanks can seriously hurt the publisher.

Both magazines and writers need to treat writing as business. They need to be able to thrive, not survive.

Saturday:

Young Love and First Kiss Fiction

Darlene Marshall, Esther Friesner, Django Wexler, James Patrick Kelly, Michael Stearns

Why does first love endure so much in fiction?

A lot of these books are a roadmap. When you’re a preteen or teen, the grown-up world is all around you but you don’t necessarily understand it, or how to get from point A to point B.

First love/kiss is a naturally dramatic device you can include in a plot. Having that first love/kiss brings an intensity that adult fiction doesn’t allow. Part of the attraction for adults reading YA is recapturing the feeling that anything is possible. That life is a fresh page. These novels bring this freshness; romance without the emotional baggage of failed relationships and a divorce.

But there are differences between young protagonists written for adults (Ender’s Game) and for teens: intensity of feeling. And YA doesn’t need a happy ending, but it does need a dramatic ending.

Branding and Social Media

Jeanne Cavelos, Melanie Meadors, Jordan Hamessley, Laurie Mann, Wesley Chu

The main thing about social media is it can’t just be about you. Social media is there to build community. Fans want to know they have something in common with you.

What are you offering that’s distinct and unique? That’s your brand. As an author, you want to prove yourself an expert: on yourself, on your field… Focus on yourself as a piece of a bigger picture and where you fit in. Create a professional persona for yourself. What you tweet or share on social media is only a fraction of who you are, but it’s your persona. What makes you distinct will attract people.

Sell yourself, don’t sell your books. Nothing turns off readers and buyers more than ‘buy my book’. If someone likes what you have to say, they’ll gravitate toward your book.

Talking about writing is interesting, and other writers will follow you for that, but you want readers to follow you, too. Find other things to talk about to build connections.

Tailor your social media accounts. You don’t have to feel that every platform needs you in every way. Pick the one(s) that feels best for you. Don’t do what you don’t want to do. For instance, don’t blog if it’s not your thing. Do what you’re good at. Only have accounts where you’re active. And it’s also important to know where your target audience hangs out.

Part of branding is creating a consistent look and feel across all your platforms. Publishers will give you your font, your art, etc. to use across your platforms, and you can use that to make postcards, bookmarks etc.

Be careful with negativity. Have the discourse – it’s important – but be aware. And really own it, if you’re going to be mad about something or someone. Anything that happens on the internet lasts a long time. You don’t know who you’re going to be working with down the line. Be careful with your opinions. You never know what’s going to go viral. Something you think everyone will like gets ignored, and then a throwaway statement you don’t necessarily want repeated goes viral.

It’s a Pirate’s Life for Me

Edie Stern, Leigh Perry, Darlene Marshall

People have always been fascinated by pirates. Transgression. Also, people who left merchant ships for pirate ships were stepping up in life. Pirates ate better, were paid better, and got disability pay. Also, they had a democracy of sorts. They often voted on who would be captain. Crews were integrated.

Life expectancy on merchant ships was horrible. To free room for cargo, living quarters were cramped, and food and supplies (for bad weather, for instance) were cut back on. There were rarely doctors aboard. A sailor who became disabled was simply abandoned on shore. So pirate life was much better.

People more likely to be taken captive by pirates: carpenters and surgeons.

The difference between pirate and privateer was a piece of paper*. Privateers were legitimate, pirates were not. Privateers had been given permission by a government to operate, often functioning as a navy of sorts. There are two sides to the coin: pirate/patriot. It all depends on who’s doing the name-calling.

* The ‘Issuance of Letters of Marque and Reprisal’ was something a legitimate government could do at the time.

Robert Louis Stevenson invented a lot of the pirate myths and tropes that still endure. In real life, there was no walking the plank, and one-handed pirates didn’t have hooks, just wooden replacements. The tattoos, however, were real and used for identification. The gold jewelry was real too, a way of carrying your wealth with you so that if you died you had enough on you for a decent burial.

The worst insult in the Royal and early American navy was to call someone a marine. The original marines were in charge of onboard discipline so sailors hated them. They were the officers’ line of defense, so this antipathy was encouraged by the officers to keep the marines from siding with the sailors against them.

Why the parrot? A good-sized parrot on your shoulder gave you height leverage. A well-trained parrot could see above a crowd and give you advance warning of enemies.

Fight vs. Flight

Wesley Chu, Flourish Klink, Errick Nunnally, Tom Easton.

“An action scene is a conversation with fists” (Wesley Chu). At the end of the day, the scene should have a result, a character placement, an impact on the characters. In movies, fights are often fillers. Fillers don’t work in writing. So when writing a scene you want to think about what it leads to – the result, where the characters are, what they’re feeling.

Writing: you’re either looking at the scene broadly or going for the close look and details. Only get into the specifics if you know what you’re talking about. Long, detailed fight scenes are extraordinarily boring. Unless you’re using it to show damage, mental fatigue, etc. it’s just filler.

Things happen a lot faster in fight than you think, and are over a lot faster too. And then you have to think about cost of combat: when there is contact between two things there is damage.

Don’t underestimate flight. Indiana Jones, for instant, is a character who doesn’t mind turning and running. A lot of great characters aren’t fighters. Dick Francis’ characters are often on the receiving end, not the dealing out end.

However, the flight option can be tricky when writing female protagonists. Because even though it’s the logical option, even for a trained fighter, since women are often outside their weight class, it can send the wrong message in fiction. But the truth is, even for the trained fighter, aggression and size will win over skill anytime. In real life, any woman knows that the first thing is to run the heck away.

Knife fights: The thing about knife fights/disarms is that you’re going to get cut. In real life, when you look at emergency rooms, you’re going to see that people with knife injuries die a lot. “A knife fight is not a casual thing under any circumstance” (Flourish Klink). People underestimate knives in fantasy.

Likewise, sword fights are short, unless you’re well-armored. But is realism the best thing for entertainment? Probably not. No one is going to complain about embellishment. However, fear of death should be a key motivator. Think about tunnel vision in combat. There’s a huge difference between a controlled environment like a lesson, and something that’s actually happening.

You also have to consider your setting. How does the cold affect your weapons? Or being punched? How does having wet clothes affect your movement?

If there’s no tension, it’s not action, it’s just movement. A definition of an action scene is that there must be tension.

Sunday:

Dealing with Rejection

James Patrick Kelly, Barry Goldblatt, Bob Kuhn, Kenneth Schneyer, Darlene Marshall.

The rejection is not you, personally. If the same kind of rejection is coming over and over again, it might be time to have a good hard look at your submission. But don’t hate yourself, or the rejection.

Make a submission list. If you get a rejection, send it right back out to the next on the list. Don’t let a story sit and gather self-doubt.

“Do your due diligence before you start sending things out” (Darlene Marshall). Research what people want before submitting. Sometimes what you’ve got is really good. It’s fine the way it is. But it may not fit the current market. So you have to understand yourself AND you have to understand the market.

“When you swim in the sea of rejection, just let it roll off your back” (Jim Kelly)

Why Anthologies?

Bob Devney, Tom Easton, Esther Friesner, Leigh Perry, Erin Underwood. 

Anthology comes from the Greek for a collection of flowers, a garland. For a long time it meant a poetry collection.

Anthologies all pay in different ways. Sometimes it’s a flat fee. Sometimes it’s an advance and royalties.

Anthologies keep short fiction alive. Short stories do a job of invigorating fiction as a whole.

Story placement: the importance of a strong leading story, a strong finale, and a strong middle. If the last story can be a wrap-up one that embodies what the anthology was about, even better. Also, don’t follow a banjo act with another banjo act. Space out similar style or genre stories. There has to be a flow between stories, or else readers who read in order will complain it feels choppy.

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Love, Longswords, and Lightsabers

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With Valentine’s Day approaching, and a serious need to distract myself from all the chocolate treats on sale, I started thinking about romance in science fiction and fantasy. I’m not talking paranormal romance, oh no, that would be too easy. I’m thinking about all the love stories that hide under action-packed tales, weaving their way delicately through the adrenaline surges and the blaster fire, the sword-work and the combat spells.

Take a good look at your favorite novels and chances are there’s a love story in there, somewhere.

Why is love a recurring theme in fiction, even if it’s quietly hidden away under an adventurer’s cloak? For one, it helps ground your characters. Along with pain, fear, and other easily recognizable and relatable feelings, love helps us understand a character and gives that character extra dimension and realism. Even if they’re a magic space knight. An underlying ribbon of romance also provides a secondary plotline that can run alongside the main plot, adding both tension and depth.

Is romance necessary in a novel? Of course not. But sprinkling those action scenes with a little of that loving feeling can be a whole lot of fun. I’ve chosen five fast-paced books with great love stories in them for anyone looking for a Valentine’s Day read. The chocolate treats are optional.

 

Gemini Cell, Myke Cole

A fast-paced military fantasy novel with a killer love story to fuel it on, Myke Cole’s tale about a dead Navy SEAL who turns into an undead zombie warrior may not be an obvious pick for a romantic Valentine’s Day read. And yet the central core of the story is the death-defying love that Jim Schweitzer has for his wife and child. Full review here.

 

The Demon King, Cinda Williams Chima

YA is full of wonderful love stories, and The Demon King and the subsequent books in the Seven Realms quartet are a perfect example. Cinda Williams Chima serves up everything you could possibly want in an epic fantasy series: high magic, low magic, warcraft, sieges, court intrigue, international politics… And of course, a fabulous romance too.

 

Time Salvager, Wesley Chu

This one is a time travelling science fiction tale set in a bleak future. Sounds romantic, right? Not really? Wait until you meet James Griffin-Mars, a depressed chronman bent on self-destruction, who falls for a woman from the past and forfeits everything to be with her. Although Wesley Chu’s novel is packed with intrigue and exciting action sequences, at its heart it’s a love story.

 

Fade to Black, Francis Knight

How about adding a little fantasy noir to the mix? Francis Knight’s Rojan Dizon is a jaded, disillusioned P.I. with pain mage powers. But as he’s unwillingly dragged into a battle for civil freedom that he has no real wish to join, he finds love. Messy, unrequited, ill-fated love, but love, nevertheless. And this love is what keeps him going throughout this and the next two books in the trilogy, pushing him to make ever-harder choices and sacrifices.

 

The City Stained Red, Sam Sykes

Okay, you might say, now you’ve gone too far. Where, you might ask, in this veritable bloodbath of a novel, is the romance? But Sam Sykes does like a bit of loving, and he certainly doesn’t shy away from the sex scenes. Lenk and Kataria’s on-off flirtation is the one constant thing in this novel; whatever mayhem happens to be going on, we know that somewhere around the corner we’ll get another dose of the awkward love and even more awkward lovemaking that is part of the wonderful train wreck of their relationship.

 

Bonus title: The Princess Bride, William Goldman

Yes, I know you’ve probably watched the movie at least a couple of times, and can most likely quote from it with your eyes closed… But HAVE YOU READ THE NOVEL? Because, if not, get thee to a bookstore or library and please, please, please read this immediately. This is the ultimate swashbuckling, sword-toting, cliffhanging, magic-wielding love story: a quest for romance and the best kiss in all time. And it’s incredibly funny, too.

 

All that’s left to say is, enjoy!

*please consume chocolate products in moderation. or not. hey, it’s your call.*

Spotlight on SFF Gatherings with Alex Davis, Joanne Hall, and Steven Poore

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Reading is a solitary pastime, yet social gatherings lie at the heart of many reading and writing communities. From small get-togethers, such as book clubs and writer’s groups, to large conventions with thousands of attendees, there is something for everyone. These gatherings serve as meeting places for like-minded enthusiasts to discuss everything from the newest book releases to the trials and tribulations of the publishing world.

Susan Boulton, author of the Gaslight fantasy Oracle, went to her first SFF convention back in 2006. “I went (to Eastercon UK) because a fellow writer had persuaded me to go, saying it would give me a feel for the genre and the publishing business as a whole. I went, enjoyed it in some ways, but in others I found it very overwhelming and intimidating. I decided not to go to another. I then received an email from someone I had met there, saying they had enjoyed meeting me and looked forward to seeing me again at another convention. So I thought I would book to go just for the day to the British FantasyCon.

“I was surprised at how many people, who I had met at Eastercon, remembered me, and introduced me to others. I came to realise that, yes, the business side of conventions is interesting, helping you understand publishing and make contacts, but far more important is the friendships that you make. You share the pleasure of seeing the various guests of Honour, panels and events, but you also enjoy the days and nights spent talking not only about the genre, but everything and anything.”

Sometimes genre gatherings can serve as work inspiration. Librarian Tina Panik, who organizes a yearly local convention besides fandom meet-ups, regularly attends the New York Comic Con fishing for ideas she can use in her job. Tina, the reference and adult services manager for her library, believes that, “The best way to bring the stories, characters, and images from the comic and graphic novel world to life is to attend a con. Between the people, the cosplay, and the guest speakers, your imagination will ignite with ideas. The crowds are friendly, the experts are willing to share, and the merchandise is fantastic.”

There are certainly plenty of reasons to attend genre get-togethers. But what happens on the other side, the backstage, so to speak? What’s it like organizing an event, bringing together readers and authors, fans and trade professionals? I’ve invited three guests to tell us a little about what goes into running SFF meet-ups and conventions.

Writer and editor Alex Davis is the author of The Last War (Tickety Boo Press, 2015), the first novel in his science fiction Noukari Trilogy, besides several short stories. Alex also runs a local press, Boo Books, and organizes a twice-yearly convention in Derby. Edge-Lit – and it’s brand new winter offshoot Sledge-Lit – includes ‘panels, readings, workshops, book launches and plenty more besides’ in a one day event that aims to be friendly and welcoming. Alex is also chairing the 2016 edition of the UK national FantasyCon, organized by the British Fantasy Society.

Joanne Hall, Acquisitions Editor for Kristell Ink, is the author of numerous short stories and novels, including The Art of Forgetting duology (Kristell Ink, 2013-2014) and Spark and Carousel (Kristell Ink, 2015). Joanne has chaired Bristol’s only science fiction and fantasy convention – BristolCon – for the past six years, and also runs the Bristol Fantasy and SF Society Facebook page. The one-day BristolCon has panels, workshops, kaffeklatsches, an art show and a dealer’s section, and aims to be a ‘fun, friendly and informative addition to the UK’s convention calendar’.

Steven Poore is the author of The Heir to the North (Kristell Ink, 2015), the first in his Malessar’s Curse duology (the sequel, The High King’s Vengeance, is due in late 2016), besides the ongoing science fiction series The Empire Dance and several short stories. Steven organizes the Sheffield Fantasy and Science Fiction Social Club (SFSF Social), a semi-regular gathering in an informal setting that brings genre enthusiasts together for author readings and Q&A’s, giveaways, and plenty of good conversation.

Juliana: What were some of the first SFF events you attended, that sparked off your interest for this sort of gathering?

Alex: Most of my initial engagement in writing events was with book festivals and writing groups, so that was all kinds of different genres. But I was always hugely interested and a big fan of genre fiction, so that was always an area I wanted to explore – and I think it’s fair to say genre fiction doesn’t always get a fair crack of the whip where it comes to literature festivals. So when all my volunteering work led me to a paid role as Literature Development Officer, I was really keen to get something going with a real literary feel but looking at genre fiction, which is where Alt.Fiction came from back in 2005. My first convention-going experience was EasterCon in Glasgow, which helped to crystallise a lot of what I really wanted from my event – a focus on writing, pure and simple, without any of the added elements that come at a multimedia convention.

Steven: Before Alex Bardy started up the York Pubmeets, there wasn’t anything happening up here apart from EdgeLit and the usual annual conventions. Angry Robot had brought five of their authors to Sheffield once, for an afternoon, but that really was it. Alex told me about his idea and convinced me to come up to York, with a couple of friends, to attend the first Pubmeet, where David Tallerman and Janine Ashbless were reading. Actually, I didn’t need all that much convincing.

Joanne: The first big SFF event I remember attending was FantasyCon in Nottingham. I’m not sure what year it was but Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker were there. I don’t think I got as much out of it as I could – I hadn’t been to a convention before and I didn’t really know anyone and I was very shy. After that I went to a few commercial events, and for a few years I attended MicroCon, which is the long running convention organised by Exeter University’s SF society, which helped me get over some of my shyness and made me want to attend bigger conventions again!

Juliana: How did you move from simply attending to helping organize SFF gatherings? 

Alex: My role at Derby City Council gave me the freedom to run a host of different events, and I was a bit nervous to pitch Alt.Fiction as an event to my boss at the time. But luckily enough they went for it and I even managed to get some Arts Council funding, which was a huge help. Immediately I had a feel there was a hugely welcoming community there, and people were amazingly willing to help and support me in getting something new off the ground. Having run the one event I found myself getting a lot more active, becoming much more aware of the many conventions going on and attending things like FantasyCon and NewCon.

Joanne: It was a combination of beer and being broke…

I was in the pub with my friend Colin, and we were chatting about what a shame it was a city like Bristol, which has a thriving SFF scene, didn’t have its own convention, and what a financial burden it was to have to travel to London or Nottingham or Brighton for the big three-day cons. We decided what we wanted was a local, affordable convention, and as the conversation became more… lubricated… it sounded like a better and better idea to organise one ourselves. So we did. The first BristolCon ran for an afternoon and had around sixty attendees, but everyone had such a great time that we immediately decided that we were going to do another one.

Steven: I blame Alex. It’s all his fault. 🙂 After the first Pubmeet I talked to him at Fantasycon and said “If only there was something like this in Sheffield.” He vanished, then came back and said, “Adrian Tchaikovsky will do a reading for you.” And suddenly I was an event organiser.

Juliana: Could you tell us a little about the events you’re currently involved in?

Joanne: I’m currently the chair of BristolCon – we have a committee of about 10-12 people who organise it and my job is to keep them on track and to occasionally keep the peace between them! BristolCon is a one-day convention that takes place in Bristol every October; this years’ event takes place on October 29th and our Guests of Honour are Ken Macleod and Sarah Pinborough, while our Artist GOH is Fangorn. You can find all kinds of information about it at www.bristolcon.org. It’s great fun, it’s a really friendly event, and very relaxed.

Steven: Mainly it’s the Sheffield Fantasy & Science Fiction Social, which we abbreviate to SFSF (“We” being myself and fellow fans Kathryn, Darren and Sara). We’ve hosted authors from as far afield as Chesterfield and San Francisco! We’ve found that the structure of readings & Q&A sessions, followed by giveaways, is one that really does work and doesn’t need much fiddling with. SRFC [Super Relaxed Fantasy Club] have really set the bar for us in that respect. We have started to change it up a little as we’ve become more confident – last time we hosted an Ask The Agent session with Amanda Rutter, and our next Social will feature Adele Wearing talking about the award-winning Fox Spirit Books.

Alex: I’ve got two main events on the go at the moment – in July I’m running the fifth Edge-Lit event, which takes place at QUAD in Derby on the 16th July. We had a really big year last year with about 250 people attending, so we’re looking forward to expanding on that while keeping the friendly and welcoming vibe which has made the event so popular over the years.

This year I’m also chairing the British Fantasy Convention, FantasyCon, which will be taking place in Scarborough from the 23rd-25th September – the hotel is right by the beach, so we’ve dubbed it FantasyCon By The Sea! We’re expecting around 500 people for that, potentially more, so it’s definitely a big undertaking but hugely exciting. We’ve already announced a couple of great Guests of Honour, and have plenty more goodies up our sleeves yet!

You can check out those gigs at www.derbyquad.co.uk and Fantasyconbythesea.com respectively. 

Juliana: What are the biggest challenges in putting together an event of this sort?

Joanne: I think the first big challenge is finding a suitable venue – one that’s accessible and affordable, with good transport links and the right sort of layout to run panels and workshops and provide social space. Then you need a good team of people – no one can run a convention without help, but organising a team of unpaid volunteers brings its own challenges. Everyone who is involved in BristolCon is there because they want to support the con, but they don’t always agree on the best way to go about it!

Alex: For me any event is made up of a certain number of processes – there’s a lot of logistics and a lot of ins and outs, and things can live and die on what look like small details. The one thing that’s always difficult is programming, connecting with the right authors and speakers and getting the right kind of balance in terms of panels, workshops and other activities. You need to have things that are insightful but also enjoyable. Guests of Honour are also a unique challenge, as high-profile and bestselling authors tend to get booked up early. 

Steven: Getting the word out to people. This is the frustrating part, and the nerve-wracking part, for me. There must be so many people in South Yorkshire who read SFF, but they don’t know the Socials are there. That means you get folks on the city council who think there isn’t a demand, so they don’t want to know when you’ve got something to offer them and so on… I always worry that nobody’s going to turn up. For someone who has an on-off relationship with crowds, that’s a weird feeling.

Juliana: And what do you find are the biggest rewards? What is it that keeps you going? 

Steven: Meeting new people who are just as enthusiastic as I am about the genre – that’s the big one. And when you hear feedback about the events, that makes it all worthwhile.

Alex: Basically it’s being there on the day, seeing it happen and seeing people enjoying themselves and hopefully being inspired by the event! The whole thing has no life other than on paper for the better part of a year, and to see all of that come together over the matter of a few days is just phenomenal. It’s exciting also to see an event grow and expand – seeing the comments on social media post-event gives you a nice warm glow!

Joanne: The cake (anyone who has been to BristolCon knows about the cake…)

Seriously, the biggest reward is seeing everyone have a good time, seeing people really fired up with enthusiasm for this thing you’ve organised. For me one of the most brilliant things has been watching people who came to BristolCon as novice or unpublished writers go on to write books, sign deals, have great success and come back as panellists. I like to think that the things they gained from attending BristolCon helped them on that path. A big part of our remit is to encourage emerging local talent, with both BristolCon and our Fringe events, and when we achieve that it’s a great feeling.

Juliana: The baby steps question! For anyone interested in starting up some sort of SFF meet-up or event in their area, what tips can you share?

Joanne: I wouldn’t suggest they throw themselves straight into con-running – BristolCon grew from an existing SFF group in the city. But if anyone out there wants to start an SFF group, pub meets or reading nights, I’d say go for it. It doesn’t take as much organisation as you might think. You just need a room or space in a friendly local pub or community centre (and I’d like to give a shout out to The Shakespeare Tavern on Prince Street which is the SFF pub-hub where we have all our pub nights, Fringe Readings and BristolCon committee meetings), and some like-minded people. If you’re doing readings you will also need some kind of portable PA system if your pub doesn’t have one.

We do all our shout-outs and interaction via social media, either on Facebook (The Bristol Fantasy and SF Society) or Twitter (@hierath77).

Steven: Don’t be afraid to ask. Authors want an audience. Even if they have to decline first time around, if you’re polite and professional (hopefully I’m getting there!) they’ll remember you’re there. And be realistic about what you can achieve – don’t try to run a whole con on your first date! And remember that everybody wants an event to succeed and be fun.

Alex: For me there are two things you need to do before starting – find a venue and have a budget that works. If you don’t have those two, then you don’t have any event. Look around for the right place, somewhere you want to work with, somewhere that gets what you’re about. Then make sure you have a few quid to get things rolling – you can often sell tickets, depending what kind of event it is – but you’ll probably need some cash for authors, venue costs, marketing… also don’t be shy to have a word with some other event organisers, most are very happy to help and offer advice! 

Juliana: If you were given an unlimited event-going budget, what would be on your wish list of cons and gatherings? 

Alex: Being as I live in the UK, I’d love to get over to the US and go to some of the big conventions over there! Something like a World Fantasy Convention or World Horror Convention would be fantastic. 

Joanne: I’d like to go to some of the big American conventions – I’ve heard very good things about WisCon and Convergence, so they would both be on my wish list. And I’d like to go to WorldCon in Helsinki in 2017 – that looks like it’s going to be amazing!

Steven: I keep looking at Nine Worlds and thinking if only my budget would stretch… and WorldCon in Helsinki. And the BristolCon Fringe. All of them, to be honest!

Juliana: If you could invite any three authors, living or dead, to attend your next SFF event, who would you pick? 

Alex: Blimey, there’s a question! For living authors I’d absolutely love to have Michael Moorcock, who was such a formative part of my teenage years and a huge influence on me. Unfortunately my other two favourite authors of all time are no longer with us – Ray Bradbury and JG Ballard. That would have been some line-up!

Steven: Tad Williams. Mary Shelley. Iain M Banks. There would be many more, but heck, one event at a time! 🙂

Joanne: I’d like to pick three authors we would have liked to have had at any BristolCon if the circumstances had been different. So, Diana Wynne Jones, Iain M Banks and the late great Colin Harvey, because it was all his drunken idea in the first place….

Juliana: Thank you very much to Alex, Joanne, and Steven for sharing a little of what goes into organizing genre events. Here’s to many more years of successful gatherings! And cake.

Steven Poore blogs at http://stevenpoore.wordpress.com, and you can also find him on Facebook: facebook.com/thestevenpoore. On Twitter, he tweets both as @stevenjpoore and as @SFSFSocial, the Sheffield Fantasy and Science Fiction Social’s account.

For more information on her work, as well as blog posts and reviews, check out Joanne Hall’s website at https://hierath.wordpress.com. You can find Joanne on Twitter @hierath77, and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Hierath77/?ref=br_rs.

Alex Davis shares interviews, writing advice, and information on his work at  http://alexblogsabout.com, as well as on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/alex.davis.161446. Alex tweets as @AlexDavis1981.

 

Find further information on the events mentioned at:

http://sfsfsocial.wordpress.com (First social of the year: February 20th, 2016)

http://www.derbyquad.co.uk/special-event/edge-lit-5 (July 16th, 2016)

http://fantasyconbythesea.com/ (September 23rd-25th, 2016)

www.bristolcon.org (October 29th, 2016)

 

 

Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out December’s Spotlight on Mythology in Fantasy with Snorri Kristjansson and Kerry Buchanan. Next up in February: Spotlight on Making Time to Write.

 

Spotlight on Imagining the Future with Ralph Kern and Stephen Palmer

‘What comes next’ is a big deal if you happen to live on Earth. Trying to predict the future is the basis for pretty much everything on this planet, from governmental policy-making to next year’s spring fashion line. We live in the present, but a good chunk of our energy is invested in tomorrow’s outcome.

So why should fiction be any different? From current trendy post apocalyptic YA, like the Hunger Games or Maze Runner series, to classic dystopian novels such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, readers and writers alike have long shared a fascination for the future.

Granted, it’s probably much easier to imagine the Earth in 2235 than to create a ten-year governmental plan with actual consequences, but it’s still a major challenge for any writer to create a believable future that makes sense, culturally, politically, and socially. I’ve invited two talented authors to join me here and tell us how they pulled it off.

Author of nine novels and countless short stories, Stephen Palmer is an old hand at painting the future. In Muezzinland (Wildside, 2003), for instance, we travel through twenty-second century Africa, and Memory Seed (Orbit, 1997) explores a dying human civilization on Earth. In the recently released thriller Beautiful Intelligence (Infinity Plus Press, 2015), Stephen gives us a frantic, fast-paced futurescape. This is a place where western civilization has all but collapsed, leaving great expanses of Europe and the USA an economic wasteland. In Stephen’s world, where everyone is virtually connected via the nexus, and eyes are everywhere, two scientists and their teams race to be the first to create true artificial intelligence while staying a step ahead of the Japanese corporation hunting them down.

Police officer Ralph Kern released his first novel Endeavor in February 2014. Originally self-published, Endeavor was picked up by Tickety Boo Press and the second volume in his Sleeping Gods series comes out in November. The novel, which is in process of being adapted for the big screen, tells the story of the Starship Endeavor on a daring mission to solve the Fermi Paradox. Due to their manner of star travel, each time the ship and crew return home the planet has moved on and evolved. This means that, in practice, Ralph has had to create multiple future Earths: the 2118 Earth the explorers first depart from, and the different future Earths they encounter each time they return.

Juliana: Thanks for joining me on the blog, Ralph and Stephen. Have you always enjoyed reading and writing science fiction? What is it about stories dealing with humanity’s tomorrow that you find appealing?

Ralph: And thank you for hosting us, Juliana. For as long as I can remember, my genre of choice has been science fiction, especially the harder end. I love the hypothesizing of what will happen in our future. What will society look like? How would we deal with a discovery which changes everything? What will our children and children’s children be like? The possibilities are endless, and so often make for fascinating stories.

Stephen: I discovered SF and Fantasy when I was a teenager, and, having a vivid imagination, it was instantly attractive. These days however I don’t read a vast amount of SF, very little in fact – for me the compelling SFnal factor is wanting to know how everything pans out… a hundred years from now, a thousand, a million, or (if I can manage it) 800 million. I’m one of those people who wants to find out everything to satisfy a thirst for knowledge; it really bugs me that everything after my allotted three score years and ten is going to be beyond my grasp. So I write imagined versions instead. The books that inspire me these days are things like

The Life & Death Of Planet Earth by Don Brownlee and Peter Ward, a book that describes how the planet will change as geological time progresses. Much of what I read these days is about the past and future history of something or other…

Juliana: Continuing from the previous question, is imagining the future something that comes easily to you?

Stephen: Well, I suppose I’d have to answer yes to that. Of course, “easy” doesn’t necessarily mean accurate, or even interesting, as some of my fans would tell you. As somebody though who loves nature and is particularly keen to support Green agendas, imagining the relationship between humanity, and individual people, and the natural environment is very high on my list. A lot of my work has this at its heart, most obviously in novels like Memory Seed and Glass, and Urbis Morpheos. I’m truly interested in how it will all turn out for humanity on planet Earth, and that fascination I think comes out in some of my work.

Ralph: Imagining the future I’d like to see is very easy. Imagining a future which I think is realistic is more difficult. Without the benefit of a crystal ball, there are many things you have to take a best guess on but you know what? That’s the fun part.

Juliana: I imagine one of the difficulties of writing about the future is creating technology that is recognizable enough to be believable, yet won’t become outdated after a few years of publication. How do you tackle this?

Stephen: It depends. In Urbis Morpheos I was writing about people on the Earth a million years hence, so there was no point talking about modems and hypertext transfer protocols. Mind you, that was a deliberately “mysterious” work clothed in hints and metaphors. In Muezzinland I did make a stab at deciding what aspect of computer technology might be around in 2130. Beautiful Intelligence was similar: I tried to extrapolate certain things I see now, such as the shocking influence virtual technology has on young people, and the lack of privacy people have these days (if they allow the internet to strip them of their privacy, that is – I don’t). No author however should expect to get it right, or even want to get it right – it’s more about the characters and the narrative. But I do think imagined veracity is important, and at the very least you have to be consistent. Part of the fun of writing Beautiful Intelligence was contrasting the different approaches of the two teams, then messing up their plans for them in a way consistent with the economic and social milieu.

Ralph: Oh I’m very sure that in 10 or 20 years, my work will seem incredibly dated, after all, think how much culture has changed with the advent of the internet and then smart phones to bring it into the palm of your hand! Who knows what paradigm shift is just over the horizon of a similar scale? I can take a good guess – augmented reality would be what I would put my money on and which forms a part of the Sleeping Gods universe. Still, there are many developments which could happen and I say with conviction there will be new inventions we haven’t even thought of which might revolutionize the world as much or even more so – who would have predicted social media even up to a couple of years before it stormed into modern culture? But as writers who want to create a plausible world, extrapolation of existing technology combined with a healthy dose of imagination helps. I apply the Iphone test. We all can probably envisage what the Iphone 7. 8 or 9 will roughly look like. But, assuming Apple is still around in a hundred years, what about the Iphone 100?

Juliana: What are the biggest challenges when it comes to creating tomorrow’s society, with its own distinct culture and linguistic terms?

Ralph: One has to balance readability against plausibility. Let’s take the augmented reality I mentioned. What would a society look and act like where everyone sees the world through that lens? Or has implants wired into them so they can talk to anyone they want just by thinking at them? Would their communication be in terms we can understand? I’d suggest it would be something on par with how we would describe telepathy. But does that necessarily make for an interesting narrative that a present day reader can truly buy into? It would be difficult for us to sympathize with a character who doesn’t speak but thinks at people. An aside, part of Endeavour involves a scene set in the 16th century. Jennifer, my editor, and I did a lot of research into how people spoke back then. It would be comprehensible… just, but not exactly easily readable by any stretch of the imagination so we had to tone it down a touch. Extrapolate that 400 years into the future and it is likely our descendants would think the same of our speech and writing. I don’t know whether the term has an official name, but I often think fiction set in the future, distant past or a fantasy world has the benefit of the story being told by a narrative interpreter who helps us poor present day readers understand and that’s okay – Especially in the realms of hard SF, readers are quite understanding of that fact.

Stephen: I have to admit, I don’t really think of it in terms of challenges. I just imagine it however I like. Even when I was a naïve and dim writer editing the third version of my debut novel I realized there was no point in worrying about such things. As long as the characters were “right” in their setting, and as long as the plot felt good, I was happy. Still am. A few readers of Beautiful Intelligence have remarked that they don’t believe America and Europe will suffer massive economic depressions around Peak Oil, but I think that will happen, so I included it in the setting. Anyway, it doesn’t matter how accurate people see that as – if they should be reading Beautiful Intelligence in 2092 – what matters is whether or not they enjoy the story. I’m afraid I have a bit of a “Kate Bush tendency” when it comes to my work – I hope my fans follow me wherever I lead. I’m not the kind of author who is known for one genre of work, which means alas I will lose fans over the years. Hopefully I’ll gain a few though. That’s the problem with having a muse – you have to follow it regardless of direction.

Juliana: What are some of the common pitfalls that you tend to see in portrayals of humanity’s future?

Stephen: Mostly just being exceedingly dull. My early unpublished work was about the milieu, not the people in the milieu; too many writers take that mistake into their published novels. (I imagine self-published work is full of it.) The good stuff is vivid and different and iconoclastic, like Gwyneth Jones, or Jack Vance. The bad stuff… well, I won’t name names, but endless expositions on future Chinese societies or Martian futures with diagrams does not a good book make in my opinion.

Ralph: What one sees a lot of in fiction is selective adoption of current technology when extrapolating progress into the future. To use a simple example, one of the tropes of science fiction is fighters and warships slugging it out in space. But hold on, what about unmanned aerial vehicles which are fairly mature even now? Or how can some technology be a step down from what we currently use? I’m okay with it as long as there is a reason, even an implied one. But too often authors simply forget or ignore contemporary developments in order to create a plot device to serve their story. That moves things into the realms of science fantasy for me or at best an alternative reality story where whatever that thing was they are ignoring has not been invented.

Juliana: Could you share some tips for science fiction writers attempting to create their own world-to-be?

Ralph: Completeness. A well-realized future world gives the impression of actually being able to function and has the weight of a future history behind it. Think that little bit wider when creating your world. Okay, every aspect may not make it onto the page, nor should it as it doesn’t necessarily have a place in the story, but if you do take that view, I firmly believe it transfers into the writing. One of my favorite bits of writing is the working out of context. Take Endeavour. Some time prior to the main story being set, there was a nano-tech revolution which is on par with the industrial revolution of the 18th century. Do I need to delve deeply into that for the story I wanted to tell? No – but the wider thinking of the profound changes that brought, or brings more accurately, to society helps give context for other elements of the tale. That also may help with the pitfall I mentioned. If you need to have space fighters rather than drones? Well maybe there is some kind of technology which stops drones from being used.

Stephen: Cultivate your imagination. If you’re copying other genres, authors or series because you idolize them, give up now – you’re not destined to be an author. Be a total one-off even if that means you never get anywhere. If you are persistent – by which I mean over years, possibly decades – and if you increase your luck by never giving up and following every lead, you might get somewhere. Or you might not. But the change from writer to author happens because imagining is an inseparable part of your psychological make-up, so questions of writing success don’t enter into the equation.

Juliana: Who are some of the authors you admire for their ability to weave convincing visions of our future?

Stephen: In addition to those mentioned above: William Gibson, Brian Aldiss, Bruce Sterling. Alastair Reynolds’ space opera novels were particularly good; reading the Revelation Space trio was a great experience.

Ralph: While many writers invent future societies, there is one who stands out as truly creating convincing worlds – Peter F Hamilton. I’m very sure an editor who is purely plot focused could easily cut down his weighty tomes to half the length or less, but that’s not what his writing is about. Two of his major works, The Nights Dawn Trilogy and the Commonwealth Saga explore every nuance of those universes, from the lowest end of the social spectrum to the highest offices, from slums to palaces. What he comes out with is a universe that can function which he then sets stories within. The Commonwealth Saga is especially interesting as he balances the inevitable stagnation which immortality would bring with the sense that humanity exists in a universe which is evolving – forcing change on people who don’t necessarily want it. Like or loath the hedonistic worlds he creates, they are among the most complete visions of near to far future societies.

Juliana: Thank you, Stephen and Ralph, for a fascinating glimpse into what writing about humanity’s future involves. I’m looking forward to all those new words and new worlds I know you have planned for us!

New work by Stephen Palmer includes the novella Monochrome, in Space Trek (Tickety Boo Press, November 2015), and a new novella coming later in the autumn: No Grave For A Fox (Infinity Plus Press) is set eighteen years after the events of Beautiful Intelligence, in the same world. Also, keep an eye out for the release of an alternate-history trilogy set in Edwardian times, opening with The Girl With Two Souls. For news and updates, as well as information on all Stephen’s work, visit www.stephenpalmersf.wordpress.com or check out his Facebook page and Twitter updates @libermorpheos.

The second volume in Ralph Kern’s Sleeping Gods series, Erebus, will be released in November 2015 (Tickety Boo Press). He also has a short story, Steel Eye, in the upcoming anthology Space: Houston, we have a problem (Tickety Boo Press). You can find Ralph’s updates and news on his Facebook page.

ralph steve

Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out August’s Spotlight on Small Press Publishing with Gary Compton. Next up in October: Spotlight on Cover Art.

Spotlight on Small Press Publishing with Gary Compton

Tickety Boo Press is on fire! Well, not literally, since that would be tragic and not something to celebrate here on the blog. Launched on 30th January 2014, the UK-based publishing house is quickly becoming a busy, busy hive of all things speculative. Do you like science fiction? Try Ralph Kern’s Endeavor. Maybe a little space opera? Have a peek at Jo Zebedee’s Abendau’s Heir. Prefer fantasy? No problem. Teresa Edgerton can tickle your taste buds with Goblin Moon and its sequel, Hobgoblin Night. How about a dash of romance, or even gaslight? Give Indigo Heartfire by Jo Marryat or Oracle by Susan Boulton a try. And if you’re looking for darkly delightful, then the Biblia Longcrofta by Simon Marshall-Jones may be your cup of tea. TBP isn’t afraid to tackle any sub-genre.

The brave and motivated guy behind Tickety Boo Press is Northumberland native and proud basset owner Gary Compton, who juggles the roles of acquiring editor and graphic designer far more skill and aplomb than I could ever dream of. And Gary, himself a speculative fiction writer, is getting ready to add author to that list of achievements. Tickety Boo is very much a family business, with Gary’s daughter Emma taking charge of author royalties and the selection of US and UK-based editors, among other tasks.

I’ve followed Tickety Boo’s journey from the very start, and have always thoroughly admired Gary’s openness in discussing his ideas and plans, his sensitivity toward his authors, and his willingness to consider suggestions and constructive criticism. So when I decided to tackle small press publishing in my Spotlight series, my thoughts naturally turned his way. With 12 published novels and anthologies in 18 months, Tickety Boo is fast becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Juliana: You’re probably tired of answering this by now, but why start your own press? What were your personal motivations?

Gary: I have always run my own businesses since 1983 and feel I am virtually unemployable in the real world. I could not just be satisfied being a kitchen fitter. I had to have my own kitchen company. Once I had that, I wasn’t satisfied just buying the cabinets, I had to make them – hence a fully operational, innovative cabinetworks where we machined the rawest of materials into beautiful bespoke cabinets. I am very much hands on, so that’s the reason I do as much as I do.

Juliana: In this world of big corporate publishing, where do you feel that small presses like Tickety Boo fit in? What is the role of the independent publisher among all the big fish?

Gary: Good question. I think publishing is changing and I think Tickety Boo has some ideas that if successful will shake it up a little. But to answer your question – quality of the words/books and sales are the only things that matter. There is no point in creating activity just to massage mine and the author’s ego. So every book is taken on with the goal of selling a lot and making the press and the author some hard-earned cash

Juliana: TBP has chosen so far to stake out a spot in a particular market niche, that of speculative fiction. Do you feel it’s important for the smaller independent publisher to specialize, or do you have plans to eventually branch out into other genres?

Gary: We will be branching out. We have an imprint planned for crime and thrillers. You heard it here first. It will be called Homicidium. That’s Latin for murder. So watch for an announcement on that. Also Romance is being discussed between the team.

Juliana: Are there rivalries among smaller independent publishers?

Gary: I haven’t come across any rivalries. Ian Whates helped me immeasurably in the early days, and Simon Marshall-Jones at Spectral and Graeme Reynolds at Horrific Tales have also helped a lot.

Juliana: And following on from the last question, how important are partnerships and networking?

Gary: Massively important! You are building a brand and you need friends and acquaintances to buy the books and hopefully share your news as well.

Juliana: Starting out from scratch must have meant a pretty steep learning curve. What do you feel have been your biggest hurdles so far?

Gary: Yes for sure. I could write a book on my mistakes. I think getting the systems in place so authors have access to their sales data and to make sure royalties are paid on time. My daughter takes care of that but I watch over it on behalf of the authors who can message me at any time with queries or requests for updates. You have to remember, I am doing a lot – covers – formatting, editing – marketing etc. It’s a lot of work so if I have forgotten to do something I prefer it if the authors give me a nudge rather than festering on my incompetence. So lots of mistakes, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Juliana: What are the best things about running a publishing company? The stuff that makes it all worthwhile?

Gary: My most favorite job is doing the covers. I love that. It satisfies my natural desire to be creative. I also like finding new talent.

Juliana: Would you like to tell us about some of Tickety Boo’s upcoming projects?

Gary: Well, in October we have Erebus, which is the second of the Sleeping Gods novels. Endeavour, the first, has been our most successful title in terms of revenue. Ralph is great to work with. He’s tough but honest. We also have the second book from Ian Sales: his first book, A Prospect of War, has done very well too so I am looking forward to that. Also a previously unannounced Space Opera: coming out in October/December is Uncommon Purpose by P.J. Strebor. There are ten books in this series and so far the editorial team have waxed lyrical about it. There was a virtual fight between the editors to get the job. Thankfully, it has just been edited by J. Scott-Marryat so it’s in great condition, and Teresa starts on it 1st September, so hopefully she will add value.

Juliana: Who are some of your own personal favorite authors? Not Tickety Boo authors; I’m not that cruel to make you choose among your ‘children’!!

Dan Brown is my favorite and Martina Cole not far behind.

Juliana: Thank you, Gary, for giving us a tiny peek behind the curtain. I look forward to all the new releases, and to continuing to see Tickety Boo Press grow and expand.

You can find more information on Tickety Boo Press books on their website, Ticketyboopress.co.uk, as well as submission guidelines for both novels and anthologies. Follow Tickety Boo Press on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/GSCompton) and Twitter (@GarySCompton) for launch and submission updates and sales promotions.

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Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out July’s Spotlight on Writing Local Flavor with Jo Zebedee and Anna Dickinson. Next up in September: Spotlight on Imagining the Future.

Spotlight on Writing Local Flavor with Jo Zebedee and Anna Dickinson

Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that you’re sitting there with your laptop, or notebook and pencil, brainstorming ideas for your next novel or short story. Perhaps you’ve already got a rough idea of the characters, or the plot. But now you have to decide where your story takes place.

Maybe creating fantasy worlds or off-planet skyscapes is not for you. And you really like the idea of basing your story in your own small corner of the real world. How great would it be to include the pub down the road, or that funny-shaped hill in the neighboring state park? But how far can you go with your local descriptions and dialogue before you cross a line between authenticity and pure cheese? (Unless you’re purposefully writing cheese, which is awesome and I say: go for it!)

I’ve invited two talented writers to help me figure this out. From Ireland we have Jo Zebedee, author of the dark space opera Abendau’s Heir, first in the Inheritance Trilogy (Tickety Boo Press). Jo has a soon-to-be-released science fiction novel set in her local stomping ground, Belfast. Inish Carraig is a grim, futuristic thriller lightened by that dash of Northern Irish humor. “In post-alien invasion Belfast, humanity has been defeated. Pity no one told the locals.”

Anna Dickinson lives in Scotland, which trickles its way into most of her work. She is represented by Gina Panettieri of Talcott Notch Literary, and writes fast-paced and hauntingly beautiful fantasy YA about witches, and cursed princes, and things that don’t go bump in the night because they’re too busy creeping silently across your bedroom floor, licking their pointy teeth.

Juliana: What are the advantages to working around real-life settings, whether they’re actual places like Belfast, or fictitious places based on existing locations? 

Jo: I think there are a couple of advantages – the topography is already in place and it’s easy for people to visualise the scene. Also, if you’re comfortable with the environment and lay out, that translates to a certain amount of confidence in the writing.

From a sensory angle, you know how the place feels. You know the sounds, the smells, the rituals. That makes it easier to translate and add some richness to the scene.

Lastly, the world is already built. There’s no need to plan out all sorts of political systems and make up whole cultures. That makes storytelling somewhat more straightforward.

Anna: For me, the main advantage is that you have a whole place laid out for you, with as much reality as you choose to include — that funny-shaped hill, and ice cream stall at the bottom and the factory chimneys in the background. Real life is usually mixed up and not wholly one thing or the other (or it is where I come from), and I like that contradiction.

A secondary advantage is that you borrow the rules of the place you’re writing about. If I write a story about a fifteen year old based in Glasgow, I already have lots of constraints set up for her life: she needs to go to school, she needs to have a guardian or parent (or, if not, to hide from the authorities), she needs money for food/ clothes. All the familiar things we already know about, or, if these rules don’t work any more, it’s potentially more shocking against the backdrop of somewhere real and familiar.

Another advantage, of course, is that the lazy among us can visualise things very easily without needing to make them up, and, best of all, can draw on existing legends, history and rumours, and mix them with our own. It’s a bit like telling a lie — good lies contain some of the truth (though I love stories that are based in completely fantastic places, I don’t have the concentration span necessary to develop a whole world and its geography. If I tried to build a world, I’m afraid I’d end up with rivers flowing uphill and cacti growing in the marshes).

Juliana: How about the limitations?

Jo: The topography already being in place. In my made up world, Abendau, if I need a mountain, I can stick it in. Sadly, if you’re remaining true to a real place, you can’t add features willy-nilly. And there’ll always be someone who catches you out if you do.

Also, point of view discipline. I write very close to my characters and they don’t walk past familiar features and stop to describe them to themselves. So finding a way to fit features you need the reader to recognise into the story, whilst not awkwardly shoving it in, can be challenging.

Also, in choosing somewhere like Belfast, with so much challenging history and differing views, there’s a sense of knowing you can’t please anyone.

One intention, when I wrote Inish Carraig, was to write a book about Belfast not about the Troubles or religion. To have it as just another great setting for a rip-roaring story. However, if someone chooses to read hidden meanings into the story – and it’s rare for a book based in Belfast not to be seen as making some kind of analogy – it will change the meaning of the book significantly. I have no control over that, and I am aware it may be reflected in some reviews.

Added to that, my pov character is a young lad scavenging after an alien invasion. The people he’s had to turn to for help hold strong political opinions, some of which he will have heard and, in a vacuum, absorbed. That needs to be reflected, even if they’re not my views. It will be difficult if people attribute those character opinions as my own.

Anna: I’m not especially worried by strict accuracy (mostly! See below for ranting) — if you want an extra street or hill or underground train station, go for it. Personally, I think the main limitation of using real places is the risk of overdoing it and coming over like a tour guide.

Of course, it’s very tempting: if you’ve researched somewhere thoroughly you want to put in lots of information, but sometimes it distracts from the story.

If your characters are pelting down a street, trying desperately to escape from a tentacle-flailing monster straight from the bowels of Hell, I don’t care what the street is called. I care that it’s long and straight and there’s no way to turn off it, for example. But I think this is a personal thing. I’m hopeless at remembering street names and locations — I can get lost anywhere (it’s my superpower) — so my intolerance for detail is probably a reflection of what interests me.

Books that are love songs to particular places rarely appeal to me. I remember skipping the first third of The Return of the Native because it was all a description of Egdon Heath. I got a bit sick of heathery romantic moorland in the work of the Brontes as well.

Juliana: How far is too far? How do you avoid falling into clichés and still give your work that authentic local feel?

Jo: It is a balancing act. There are certain things about Belfast people associate with it that are cliches – bonfires, and marches, flags, riots and petrol bombs. But those things do still happen. Cliches come from somewhere, even if we preferred they didn’t. So, it’s showing those things and trying to enact how they really feel, as opposed to some sort of distant pastiche.

I think the other thing that is a fine line is how far you go with dialect: ‘Ach, ye oul eejit, yer head’s a balloon’ doesn’t translate well, and gets wearisome. But if you keep key words like eejit and wee (I really do use it all the time) and make the rest comprehensible, it’s generally okay.

Anna: This is a really personal one and I think judging it probably comes down to the individual reader. As soon as a character says “Och” (or “Hoots!”), I put the book down, but I don’t think that’s a typical response.

However, since we can’t write for each person individually, maybe an authentic local feel is about avoiding the obvious things, and instead using flavour, not detail. You have to see your location through your story and your own eyes. It’s something Iain Banks (writing without the M) did brilliantly — he took familiar places or landmarks like the Forth Road Bridge, and turned them into something strange and new.

Picking too many of the big touristy bits, or the things everyone else thinks of, can make your story feel like a postcard. I think that’s when you risk cliché.

Juliana: Leading on from the previous question, what are, in your opinion, the most common mistakes writers make when dealing with real-life settings?

Jo: Either going into so much detail it reads like a travelogue, or so little you wonder why the writer even decided to use a specific setting at all. A sense of place is what I aim for, not a slavish description of everything and anything.

Anna: This is where I contradict myself. Shameless, I know. I think if you’re going to use a real location, it’s important to get it right (or, at least know when you’re taking liberties with reality). Recently, I’ve had an obsession with Regency Romance but I don’t know enough about the Regency to worry if someone gets their research wrong, so it doesn’t worry me. However, a few of the stories I read were based in Scotland. The errors in some of those make me wince. A random selection:

  • Clotted cream cannot be poured. It’s solid (one might even say, “clotted”).
  • Peat is cut to be burned, but you don’t send someone out to “cut some peat for the fire”. It’s stacked and dried before you can burn it.
  • Nowhere in the history of Scotland, ever ever, has a man been called “Tammy”. Yes, there are Robbies and Jamies and Charlies, but Tam is just Tam.

These are little things, and in most cases I managed to read the book anyway, but once I’d encountered an error like that, I knew I couldn’t trust the author to know what she was writing about. It made me feel like the Scottish Highlands were being used as a pretty backdrop by someone who saw them as, well, a pretty backdrop.

Juliana: Are there any writers who you consider do ‘local flavor’ particularly well? Who would you recommend as prime reading material?

Jo: Colin Bateman is excellent. Anyone who uses the immortal line of ‘up your hole with a big jam roll’ knows the Northern Irish. Also, there are a raft of detective writers coming through specialising in Belfast Noir – Adrian McKinty and Steve Cavanagh are two good examples.

Anna: I mentioned Iain Banks above; he did Scotland brilliantly.

In general, I prefer reading about places I don’t know very well. I love William Faulkner’s writing about the American South — especially Absalom Absalom! — and of course Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which has also got that hot and dusty thing going on.

I liked Sarah Rees Brennan’s portrayal of London in the Demon’s Lexicon trilogy — it made the stories feel situated in reality, but with a light touch so the emphasis was on the characters and the story, not the place. The same is true of Holly Black’s Valiant, which is set in New York but doesn’t feel like a guide book.

For me, the ultimate example is Susan Cooper. Her Dark is Rising series — written after she’d left the UK for the US — was a love song to the south of England and to Wales, but not in a way that got between the reader and the story.

Juliana: Moving off topic, could you share some of your own favorite authors?

Jo: Lois McMaster Bujold – I love Miles Vorkosigan. Neil Gaiman. Carlos Ruiz Zafon, I like a lot. Also, some of the classics – Heinlein, Clarke. Marian Keyes. I read widely, across many genres, and I think that’s a good thing, mostly.

Anna: One of my favourite authors is Diana Wynne Jones and one of my favourite books by her is Fire and Hemlock, which is a brilliant re-telling of one of the Scottish Border Ballads, Tam Lin, about a girl who falls in love with a man who has been captured by the Queen of Elfland (although my absolute favourite of hers is Hexwood, which is wholly original and fabulous).

I’m sure I’m forgetting hundreds of authors I ought to mention but, apart from those I talked about above, I’ve always loved Patricia Mckillip and Robin Mckinley. Recently, I’ve really enjoyed work by Melina Marchetta (her Lumatere Chronicles series, specifically. Froi has to be one of the best characters ever written), Cinda Williams Chima (the sexiest, most intense character interactions I’ve read for years), and Sara Raasch (her world, and the reversal of conventions of heat and cold, is wonderful).

Juliana: Thank you Jo and Anna for being such great guests and sharing such excellent pointers. Anna, I promise not to go pouring any clotted cream over my keyboard!

Jo’s newest novel, Belfast-based Inish Carraig, will be out August 21st; keep an eye on her Facebook page and website (jozebedee.com) for updates on the launch, or follow her tweets at @joz1812. If you’d like a sneak peek, there’s a sample up on her blog, jozebwrites.blogspot.co.uk. Those of you in Northern Ireland can catch Jo at TitanCon in September, where she’ll be making a guest appearance.

Anna has published short stories in On the Premises and the anthology Fat Girl in a Strange Land (Crossed Genres Publications). In her own words, she reads voraciously and randomly generates opinions based on whatever she read last. She confesses her hapless parenting decisions, ranks romantic heroes from most to least evil, and records recipes for toasted puffin at annawrites.net.

Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out June’s Spotlight on Speculative Romance with Emma Jane and Jo Marryat. Next up in August: Spotlight on Small Press Publishing.

Spotlight on Short Story Writing with Nathan Hystad

Canadian speculative fiction writer Nathan Hystad isn’t afraid to dip his toe in any waters, however deep they may be. His preferred genres are horror, paranormal and science fiction, but he’s been known to write fantasy on occasion, along with a whole line-up of strange and mysterious sub-genres.

Nathan has published stories in four anthologies so far, with another four submissions already accepted into anthologies this year alone. His work has also appeared in a growing list of online magazines. And I haven’t even mentioned his flash fiction yet!

Although Nathan is currently working on a novel, he has focused mainly on writing short stories, which is a whole art form in itself. To squeeze worldbuilding, character background and an entire story arc into anything between 300 and 10,000 words takes a lot of skill, as those struggling to edit their 250,000-word epic fantasies will agree. So I was pleased as anything when Nathan agreed to answer a few questions on short story writing.

Juliana: I’ve tried my hand at a few short stories and they’re surprisingly hard to write. What is it about short stories that appeals to you?

Nathan: When I started writing, I jumped into a novel. I quickly realized I had no idea how to write well, so I started to write shorter pieces to work on the basics. Then I found I had a lot of ideas creeping out of my head and the only way to get them all out was to write. I really like shorts because you can start a world, and have a cool story in a few days, and move on to the next thing. I also like the ability to write so many types of stories and genres. There is something nice about being able to do a complete story in a short time, as opposed to writing a book. I find my writing time is sporadic, so shorts have worked well for me.

Juliana: What do you find is the hardest part in the process?

Nathan: I think the wow factor is the hardest part. It’s also hard to pack a full story into so few words, with no ‘telling’ so you have to show and hint at things properly. Short stories aren’t for everyone, and a lot of readers never buy or think of anthologies. I think they are a great way to see a variety of ideas on any particular subject. So you have to have something special in them, whether it’s a theme, character, or zinger of an ending.

Juliana: Would you mind sharing a few tips for short story writing?

Nathan: Sure. In my stories, I like to start with an intro that sets the mood. Mine are usually a little strange or dark, so I sometimes have a scene introducing the ‘monster’ with some tension. To sell a story, you need to have a good start. Some publishers get so many submissions that regardless of the payoff, the start has to grab them instantly. It’s the old ‘Hit the ground’ running idea we hear about as writers. It is very important. The next scene tends to slow down and builds until the climax. There is nothing better than reading something and knowing something will happen, but not knowing how or when. I also love to do a doozy of a last scene. One thing I am working at doing is focusing on one character for the most part. The stories where I’ve had too many POV’s (Point of views) tend to not be received as well. So keep it simple, and don’t jump around too much. The more stories I write, and the more beta feedback and publisher feedback I get, the better I’m getting at knowing what is being looked for. I adapt quickly and I think it’s because of this that I’ve been able to place a decent amount of stories in a short time.

Juliana: Do you write a story to fit a certain theme, say for an anthology? Or do you write the stories as they come to you and then try to find them a home?

Nathan: I have done both. I started by writing for a few calls and then just kept writing an assortment of stories. There are a lot of places to place a Ghost story, or horror in general. It’s the more specific that are harder to place if they aren’t accepted to the specific submission call. So it varies, and I like that. I guess the more specific ones would be much harder to place if they are rejected, and rejection is a big part of the game. So at this time I haven’t written a lot of stories for the very specific ie. Lovecraftian Robot Romance set in Canada.

Juliana: Leading on from the last question, what are your top sources of inspiration?

Nathan: I loved the serial TV shows growing up. Are You Afraid of the Dark, Goosebumps, when I was a kid…then Outer Limits, and Twilight Zone. Also X-Files, Star Trek, Star Wars…all of those influence the way my brain thinks of ideas. I also read a lot. There is never a time when I don’t have a book on the go, so my imagination is always being spurred on by something new and exciting.

Juliana: You’ve been having a lot of success with publishing your stories. What are your publishing tips? Is it simply a case of perseverance or is there more to it?

Nathan: I think that some of it was luck. Kraxon Magazine gave me my first ‘Yes’ with Central Park in the Dark, and I will forever be thankful for that. He has given a lot of great people’s stories a home on his site. Then Tickety Boo Press took ‘A Haunting Past’. I think getting over the initial hump of getting published was all I needed. With that I got some confidence, and I also have had amazing people at my side. With people like you, Juliana, helping me with Beta reading, and improving my stories, I have been able to have polished pieces that might stand out for that reason. So it is imperative that you send as polished of a piece as possible. Don’t write a first draft, and fire if off into the world. Get it beta read, and take the advice of your colleagues. An outside perspective is very important in making sure your pieces are always improving.

I remember talking with Em (E.J.Tett) about it, and she said that it can be like a snowball. Once you get a yes, the momentum keeps going. That being said, you have to work your butt off to get those yeses. You have to keep writing, subbing, writing, and subbing. Not every story needs to be put out there to the world, but as an author, we know which ones we really want to find a home. Then you can get to know some of the publishers, and maybe next time you can get in with them because they enjoyed your work, and you were nice to work with etc. I have also made a habit of trying to spread myself out there. I think getting stories into multiple publisher’s anthologies is a good way to make contacts and network.

If I can give one piece of advice, it’s this. Never give up. Even though I’ve started to see a lot more acceptances, my spreadsheet of submissions has much more Red (rejection) than Yellow (acceptance). So when you start out and get the rejections, and they were kind enough to give you any criticism, use that to better your story, or your next story. Don’t get upset, and dejected, just keep working at it and keep writing and subbing. It will all eventually come together.

Juliana: Would you mind sharing some of your favorite authors with us?

Nathan: I have always been a huge fan of reading fantasy. I don’t write it often (though I do have a fantasy short being published this year) but I love to read it. Brandon Sanderson, Joe Abercrombie, Robin Hobb, and Stephen King probably top my list. I read a lot of authors and they all bring something different to the table for me, whether it’s me learning from them or just getting lost in their stories.

Juliana: Thank you very much, Nathan, for taking part in the blog’s first Spotlight, and sharing such great advice. And… is it weird that now I really want to read some Lovecraftian Robot Romance set in Canada?

Nathan Hystad can be found blogging on his website, http://nathanhystad.com, and his work is in the anthologies Malevolence: Tales from Beyond the Veil, Whispers from the Past: Fright and Fear, Tales Told in the Dark 4, and Beyond Science Fiction May 2015. Some of his magazine work includes Kraxon and Saturday Night Magazine (for the last, type Nathan Hystad in the search box on the stories page to find his three shorts).