Speculations: A ChiSeries Blog

Speculations is a blog hosted by the SpecFic Colloquium that will provide short articles discussing a range of topics related to speculative fiction--that is, science fiction, fantasy, horror, slipstream, magic realism and other associated genres. We encourage you to applaud, to contend, to debate and to discuss the material here! We want a dialogue about the status of the field so please write in with your thoughts, but please respect Internet etiquette.

If you're interested in submitting a blog entry, e-mail Helen Marshall with the topic you have in mind!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Write what you know… um, wait.

By Marie Bilodeau

When I first heard that advice, I took it to heart.  I wanted to write sword and sorcery fantasy novels, so it turned out to be a painful process, for both me and the household furniture  (I’m all for practical experiences). And I never even mastered the cool sword twirling technique they pull off so easily in Conan.  Nor did I ever repay my mom for that broken chandelier, now that I think about it.

And I write fantasy fiction.  Imagine the poor science-fiction writer undertaking zero-G flight training and the horror writer hiring an axe-wielding maniac to chase him around for a while.  I have it easy, really.

Yet, somewhere between the flint napping and before the bungee jump, I began to have a realization.   It dawned on me that writing what you know is wise advice, but perhaps I don’t actually need to experience it all and can, after all, safely stop looking for that trebuchet-building course (seriously though, where can I get one of those?)

The “what you know” that’s most important is the stuff that we’ve observed since our time as frolicking children – ourselves and the people that surround us.  I know enough of people and have observed enough human emotions at work, mine included, to at least build realistic characters, which are the basis for a good fantasy novel.

Lands can be created, ruled, destroyed and rebuilt, but it’s the people that populate it that will make it real.  Readers, especially readers of SF/F/H novels, are willing to suspend disbelief as long as they like the characters and believe in them, wanting to see whether they’ll succeed or fail miserably.  If that happens to be on a gas-powered world populated by wheat-generating explosive june bugs (ew), so be it.

What will make your story work in these genres is bringing your own unique worldview to the pages.  Not a romantic?  No need for that luscious sex scene.  Against A-Type personalities? Go for mellow.  Don’t believe in basic mood changers like caffeine and chocolate?  Wait, that’s just crazy-talk.  But you get the gist.  You put in what you see and know as a person, do the research to convince equestrian experts that you do in fact know the basics of tacking a horse, and let your characters show their three-dimensional selves through their heartaches, triumphs, stupidity and hopes.

Of course, if you like personal experiences, then practical research can be fun.  I love new experiences, so would someone please send me information on trebuchet-building courses?  That’d be pretty sweet.


Marie Bilodeau is a professional storyteller and author living in Canada's capital region.  Her published works include a sword and sorcery trilogy, the Heirs of a Broken Land (Princess of Light, Warrior of Darkness and Sorceress of Shadows), and her upcoming space fantasy novel, Destiny's Blood. For more information on Marie and her works, visit her website at www.mariebilodeau.com.

Princess of Light by Marie Bilodeau

The Wall of Loss separating the lands of light and darkness is failing... Despite her attempts to stop them, dark creatures invade Princess Cassara Edoline's small and almost forgotten kingdom, murdering her family and taking her younger brother captive. Torn by guilt and clutching an amulet of powerful magic, she vows to rescue her brother and save as many as possible from the invading hordes. But first, she must find out what is causing the thousand-year-old magic of the Wall to fail and stop it, if she can. As Cassara's resolve and strength are mercilessly tested and her shaky alliances begin to crumble, she must find a way to master her newfound powers which promise both salvation and destruction, or watch her beloved land be consumed by darkness and death.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Maslow’s Horror-archy of Tension

By Matt Moore

Tension in storytelling is critical—what’s at risk, on the line, worth fighting, killing or dying for. But defining and describing tension in a way that will grab the reader can be a challenge. This is where Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs comes in handy.

A Very Quick Overview

For those who never took, don’t remember or slept through freshman psych, Maslow was a psychologist who proposed that humans have four levels of needs, moving from the purely physical to the purely psychological:
  1. Basic physical needs: food, water, air
  2. Situational needs: safety, shelter
  3. Societal needs: Love, belonging and acceptance
  4. Self needs: Self esteem, self respect, sense of identity
(For those who do remember freshman psych—or read the Wikipedia entry—this isn’t exactly correct, but accurate enough for this post.)
Advertisers understand these needs and appeal to at least one in every commercial. The juicy burger in the fast food ad? Level one. The alarm company ad with the big, bad man crashing through your front door? Level two. Diamond jewelry to tell her you love her? Level three. “You owe it to yourself to…”? Yup, level four.

Using the Hierarchy in Storytelling

Using the hierarchy, you can develop risks and threats according to levels. Let’s say an up-and-coming officer takes command of a colony on an alien planet and you want to put him at risk. How about:
  • Someone is trying to kill him (Level One)
  • The shield generator is in danger of failing, which could let in hostile aliens (Level Two)
  • His subordinates are blaming him for things not going well inside the colony (Level Three)
  • The shield is failing because of a mistake he made years ago that he never owned up to (Level Four)
So, multiple threats means many levels of tension.
But you can take this further. Let’s say the main character discovers a one-person escape pod to take him to an orbiting space station. Now, the main character can escape, solving the Level One & Two problems, but not Levels Three & Four. Or, stay behind and risk the Level One & Two threats, but have a chance to address Levels Three & Four.
Let’s take this even further: the main character can appease the hostile aliens by going out and sacrificing himself. This would solve the Level Two, Three & Four threats, but trade one Level One threat for another.

Describing the Threat in Appropriate Detail

Deciding the level of threat also helps determine its description. A level one threat—starving or suffocating—shouldn’t be described with intellectual and abstract narrative. Rather, sensory description—quick, evocative, raw.
Conversely, a threat to someone’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem shouldn’t illicit physical reactions, but rather introspection and logical examinations of one’s identity.

Dealing with Threats in Order

In his hierarchy, Maslow believed one had to address lower level needs before higher level ones. If you’re starving, feeling loved doesn’t matter. If you’re lost in the wild, who cares if you respect yourself?
This theory affects your writing. With our example, the commanding officer isn’t going to worry about his subordinates’ opinions as the killer hunts him through the bowels of the station. Once he’s eluded his stalker and ensured the shield is still holding, then he might worry about the furtive glances of this staff. And it’s not until he’s assured them he can deal with the situation that he can address his own self-doubts over what he failed to deal with years ago.

By day, Matt Moore is a project manager and communication specialist in the information technology field. By night, he is a science fiction and horror writer with work in On Spec and Tesseracts Thirteen and an upcoming e-book published by Damnation Books. By later at night, he is the marketing director for ChiZine Publications, a small Canadian publisher. Raised in small-town New England, a place rich with legends and ghost stories, he lives in Ottawa, Ontario. He blogs at mattmoorewrites.wordpress.com.
Tesseracts Thirteen
Including "The Weak Son" by Matt Moore 

This, the newest and most unusual of the popular and award-winning Tesseracts anthologies, utilizes the mysterious and bewitching number 'thirteen' to explore a new realm of innovative, thought-provoking and disturbing fiction. Award-winning authors and editors Nancy Kilpatrick and David Morrell have unearthed twenty-three stories of horror and dark fantasy that reflect a mélange of Canada's most exciting known and about-to-be known writers. These eerie-genre tales range from the unsettling to the sinister.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Necrotic Tissue: The Horror Writers' Magazine

By R. Scott McCoy

Markets come and go, some without ever putting out a first issue. As a writer, I had certain things I wanted from a market. A reasonable response time and a decent chance at a slot in the magazine were at the top of my list. It would also be nice if there were some mention as to why the story didn't make the cut. Do I need to rework something or is it just a matter of preference? Did I miss it by a mile or inches? My goal of creating a horror magazine was simple in concept: create a new market with a fast turn-around time, personal feedback and an equal shot for anyone who submits. We pick the stories, not the people. It would also be nice if we increased pay when possible and didn't disappear without warning. We started off as token pay and are now 1 cent a word for all stories but the Editor's Pick, which receives 5 cents a word.

Some writers start magazines as a vehicle to publish their own work. I'm not judging, but when I started Necrotic Tissue, I decided that I wouldn't do that. The other thing I decided in 2009 was that just because I had a completely open submission process didn't mean I couldn't solicit one story from a well-known writer. It's a bonus story, above and beyond the word count I have set aside for open submissions and a nice treat for subscribers. We've had David Dunwoody, Jeff Strand, Michael Knost and Anderson Prunty, with a commitment from Brian Keene for a story some time in 2011.

I have the tag line "The Horror Writers' Magazine" in the upper right hand corners for two reasons. First, I try to take stories from across the spectrum of the "Horror Palette", since tastes vary. All magazines are influenced by the personal likes of its editors, but instead of a more hierarchical construct, at NT my associate editors have an equal voice in final selection and I read as many submission as they do. I believe this creates a more balanced magazine with broader appeal. Second, our goal is to treat writers well, from our fast response time, personal feedback, to paying on time and putting out a product they can be proud to share with friends, family and fans.

There is no secret recipe for getting in to NT. You can read past issue to get an idea, but don't try to copy what you see. We want what all editors want. Fresh ideas and tight execution are the starting point, but characters drive the story. Get the reader to care about what happens to the characters, and you are on the right track. Beyond that, we do put out a help section in every copy and most spotlight common reasons for not being accepted. Some past topics include the hook, the ending and right sizing your story. Most of these help section articles are generic to any short story genre.

Whether you're a writer with a hundred publishing credits, a beginner who has never submitted before or a fan of horror fiction, come on by and give NT a try, you won't be disappointed.


R. Scott McCoy was born in Kodiak Alaska and raised in Bemidji, Minnesota. He currently lives in the northern suburbs of the Twin Cities with his family. He's had more than twenty short stories published in a variety of magazines and anthologies.  His first novel, Feast, was released from Shroud Publishing in September 2009 and his novel The White Faced Bear is due out from Belfire Press in October 2010.

Scott is the Publisher of Necrotic Tissue, a quarterly horror magazine and is an Affiliate Member of the HWA.

Feast by R. Scott McCoy

Deputy Sheriff Nick Ambrose can look into someone's eyes and glimpse their guilt, to an extent. But when he and his brother take on a psychopathic killer, he gains something more: the ability to see, and devour, souls. Plagued by this terrifying new power, and by the spirits of both his brother and the butcher trapped inside his mind, he sets out to understand and control his new fate and to grapple with the shadowy auras he now sees all around.

R. Scott McCoy's classic tale of horror confronted, within ourselves as well as the evils we face, takes Nick Ambrose and the reader on an action-packed and spine-tingling journey, leading a once-quiet man onto a tightrope of dark and light, where every move may threaten the very lives of friends and strangers or tip his own soul into the abyss.

Can he command the darkness welling within, or will he become merely its vessel?