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, July 25, 2010

E-books: I resisted. Oh, how I resisted

By Ryan McFadden

 I resisted.  Oh yes, I resisted.  I didn't want to pay for a device just so I could do something that I already do.  It just didn't make sense.  Then, gradually, I started discovering how lazy I truly am.  You mean, I have to go out of the house, and go to a store, where they may, or may not, have that one copy of Knitting with Dog Hair book?

 It started simply enough: I had the Kindle app on my computer because I didn't want to wait for Amazon to ship me said Knitting with Dog Hair, so I ordered it instantly and had it delivered to my computer.  For a decent price without paying for that pesky shipping fee.  Interesting. But I couldn’t take my laptop to bed with me, could I? (Okay, full disclosure – I tried.) Then I got an iPhone.  Wow, I can have all my books with me all the time!  I can read in the bank line.  I can read when waiting at a red light (joking . . . I do this at all coloured lights, not just red).  I can read while you’re trying to talk to me.  “Yup, uh huh, yeah, interesting, yeah, genocide, yup, frogs . . . wonderful.”

But, that iPhone was frying my eyeballs.  When I was traveling recently, the glare on the screen (I mention traveling because it’s more difficult to control the environment), combined with the refresh rate (the amount of times, in a second, that the screen refreshes) made for a killer headache.

Then the e-book manufacturers started having a little price war and brought the price of their readers to a decent level.  What timing!  So I bought a Kindle from Amazon.  The Kindle has several cool features: it's e-ink (no refresh rate . . . so you're actually seeing a static image), search capabilities (can't remember where that character first appeared: use this), built-in dictionary (just move the cursor and it'll give you a definition at the bottom of the screen), it's wireless (so you can download and sync books anywhere), the battery lasts a week (not quite accurate), and adjustable font size.

If I had my way, I'd never buy a physical book again.  I know, I know, you like the smell of a book.  You know what?  That's mold.  Or chemicals, or bleach.  It’s not good for you.  I joke, actually, because I’m not a good one to argue about the tactile experience of books -- because I trash them, give them away, or junk them.  I have a good friend who has stacks of books with perfect spines -- as if they've never been read at all.  He delicately peers between the covers, turning the pages like this is a medieval manuscript.  My books are tattered, dog-eared, sauce-stained, and bloated from where they were dropped in water.  In other words -- I've never worshiped at the temple of the physical book.  It's just the delivery vehicle (and yes, with an expensive e-reader, I now have to treat it with respect).

Then there's the cost of books.  Simply put -- I don't care about the cost of physical books anymore.  I like that e-books are all $10.  I don't care whether it's available as a paperback or a hardcover and that it may or may not be more expensive.  I am purchasing a different product and I’m simply not concerned about it.  Like comparing a DVD, to a BluRay, to going to the theatre.  Each price doesn’t affect how I view the other forms.  $10?  I don't even think about $10.  It's an easy price.  It's a good price. It's disposable. And I don’t even have to leave my house to buy it. Will $6, or $5, or $9.50 cause me to buy more?  No.  I think the price has been set.  $10.  Done.

Now, there are down sides.  I can’t lend books (I believe the Nook, you can). Sure, no one makes money for lent books, but I don't know how many writers I've hooked my family and friends with because they read the first one that I lent them.  As an aside, Rob Sawyer made a good comment this past weekend: for $10, you don’t need to lend it.  Give it to them.

Is the e-book going to create business?  I don’t believe so.  But publishers will lose business if they don’t support it.  How am I so sure?  Because I’ve already skipped buying books because they don’t have them in e-format – and I’m not going to mention any names.

Small publishers should be front and centre in jumping on the bandwagon.  Generally speaking, it’s more difficult to get books from small presses – that whole pesky distribution thing.  Make it readily available so I don’t have to pay shipping for your books.  Don’t make me work to get a book from you (remember, I’m lazy).

The book is an interesting format.  While I’m hardly an expert at the history of the book (and I’m sure our friendly moderator Helen Marshall, who is an expert in this field, will slap me down ruthlessly if I’m wrong) but the book has not changed in centuries.  Compare that to music (people still claim that vinyl is better) and moving pictures (I’m still dead set against 3D).  Now, for the first time in centuries, along comes a change in the book format.  It’s worked for so long; why change now?  Because it’s better, that’s why.

This is a big issue.  I haven’t even touched on the role of publishers in all of this.  And marketing.  And even bookstores.  I’ll let someone else tackle that issue on a different day.

E-books are not going away.  Are they going to replace physical books?  Too early to say.  But don’t panic, fair book lover!  I’m sure there’ll always be a place for your leather-bound novel on the shelf.  And while you’re getting ready to settle for a night of pleasant reading with your physical book, don’t forget to spin up that phonograph so you can listen to all the hits of the 1920s.  Ah, the good ole days.

Ryan McFadden is an Aurora-award winning fantasy/SF author in London, Ontario.  His novella "Deus Ex Machina" was one of the four Aurora-winning stories of Women of the Apocalypse. The Apocalyptic Four are planning our next project, The Puzzle Box is under consideration by Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy.  Other writing credits include stories in Alienskin, Chicago Overcoat, Afterburn SF, Sinister Tales, as well as a finalist in the $1500 JFJK contest.

Women of the Apocalypse by Eileen Bell, Roxanne Felix, Billie Milholland, and Ryan McFadden

Four women. Four shooters. Four destinies to save the world…

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are coming. And four Archangels find the perfect champions to save the world: fighters, warriors, soldiers, and brave men, all ready to fight for humanity against end times. All they have to do is drink a shooter — a caustic mix of alcohol and divinity that will imbue them with the conviction to battle the Four.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Ethics and the After-Shudder in Horror Writing

By Helen Marshall

For the past four days, medievalists from around the world have been gathering in Siena, Italy to drink chianti and discuss literature, history, and the works of Geoffrey Chaucer. As a Ph. D student at the University of Toronto, I've had the great pleasure of joining them I'd like to recount one event in particular that really struck me.

Siena has been going through a nasty heat wave, and to cope a number of us graduate students spent Friday night drinking prosecco in our pool twenty kilometers from the city centre surrounded by the Tuscan countryside (hard work, I know!). Come Saturday, we discovered to our horror that all the air conditioning had been shut off. Sweltering in my first panel -- a distressingly packed classroom where we were all breathing too-warm recycled air, nursing hangovers, and trying to focus on what the smart people at the front of the room were trying to say -- I found myself in one of those dozy, dream-like states. Bruce Holsinger stood up to speak, and he began by recounting the recent work on parchment genetics, where scientists were analyzing the genetic make-up of parchment for dating purposes and to track herd changes. (Before the rise of the printing press in England, all books including ones of literature were written by hand on parchment or vellum, that is, the skin of sheep or cows.) He then told us that his colleagues had discovered something remarkable indeed -- all the books of Geoffrey Chaucer had been written on human skin.

As I said, I was drowsy and it took me some time to process this. Human skin? I was shocked, horrified. The stuff that I had spent the last two months research in archives, touching, smelling, handling, studying -- it was the skin of people! It was only once the wave of tired laughter rippled across the audience of academics that I realized this was a ploy, a brilliant rhetorical move. I had bought it hook, line and sinker.

His point was that, ultimately, there exists a whole history of animal genocide beneath the production of literature at its earliest stages in English history. The point that registered most deeply for me was that he had to use a story to get his point across.  Dry scholarship wasn't enough to produce an ethical inquiry, even if it was only a personal one, to the fact that a single book could require up to five hundred dead sheep to produce.  In many ways, it is monstrous.  And he begged us to consider -- was it worth it? Was (one of) the formative moments in English literary history worth the slaughter of so many animals?

Holsinger's paper sent a shudder down my spine, a genuine one, and it was something that never would have happened without the fiction he presented.  But what was that shudder? How did it happen? Aranye Fradenburg gave a brilliant plenary lecture which introduced the concept of mirror neurons: mirror neurons fire, she argued, when we see a familiar action and automatically emulate it. Chimpanzees watching other chimpanzees cracking nuts fire off neurons that mimic the actions in their own brains. Fradenburg suggested that not only was this the basis of human empathy, it was also the basis of literature, for descriptive passages were just as effective at causing mirror neurons to fire.

It is an old adage that horror is an emotion not a genre; it is the shudder, the cold sweat, the puckering of skin and the raising of hair. What Holsinger did was to tell a horror story, and for me, a terribly effective one. That horror came because I could suddenly perceive the blank subject of my research -- the parchment of manuscripts -- as my own skin. The genocide of sheep and cows was vividly revealed, even if it was only for a moment before the laugh dispelled the image, as something real and personal.

My point is that there can be a kind of ethics to horror writing, because horror -- more than any other genre -- is about the human, the psychological, the affective.  The point of horror writing should not just be to produce the shudder -- that's the first step, certainly -- but to use it, to make it do something. This is why, despite being a self -professed hater of horror, I still love the books put out by ChiZine Publications. Great horror -- the work of Ramsay Campbell, Tim Lebbon and Robert Shearman; David Nickle, Claude Lalumière and Brett Alexander Savory -- takes that next step and shows that the genre is about more than just a shudder; it is the after-shudder, the moment of truth that occurs when the boundaries of civilization and flesh break down, when you look at the figure in fiction and say, "That is me -- one day that will be me. I am mortal. I will die. Now what?"


Helen Marshall spends the majority of her time pursuing a Ph. D. in Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto where she gets to travel across England to examine fourteenth-century manuscripts. Of course, her fascination with the making and writing of books extends well into the present. Her poetry has been published in ChiZine, NFG and the Ontarion Arts Supplement. "Mist and Shadows," published originally in Star*Line, appeared in The 2006 Rhysling Anthology: The Best Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Poetry of 2005." "The Gypsy" and "Crossroads and Gateways" both received honourable mentions in the 2009 Rannu Fund Contest, while four other poems were short-listed. She also works as an editor and slush reader for ChiZine Publications.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Joys of the Ten-novel Saga in the Age of Twitch Speed

By Lynda Williams

A ten novel saga? Come on! It’s nigh impossible to get people’s attention for ten minutes, let alone ten novels. Yet this fall I’ll launch Avim’s Oath, the sixth book in the Okal Rel Saga. Am I mad?

Maybe just a little. But at this point, I’m so committed to the project that starting something else would simply make no sense. This is the work I became a writer to write.

You know the old chestnut “write what you know”? It used to depress me because I didn’t want to write about being me. I wanted to tackle Big Issues and Big Love. Terror. Sex Roles. War and sustainability. I had literally grown up exploring my questions through the lives and cultures of my fictional universe. When most kids stopped playing, I began to write. I evolved my ideas under the influence of life experience and three university degrees. Now and then I tried to set it all aside to dutifully “write what I knew” but it never engaged me as deeply as Amel, Horth and all the rest of my favorite characters.

And then one day it hit me: Sevolites, reality-skimming, sword law and Reetion arbiters were what I knew. My fiction was a language in which I could express my questions and transport the reader to a world I have inhabited most of my life. Now, at fifty-two, as I look ahead to a new stage of life, there is no greater joy for me than hearing people talk to each other about the characters and situations of the Okal Rel Universe as if they’d been there. And to know they enjoyed the trip. And while there are thousands, not millions of such people in the world, I think sharing the Okal Rel Universe with them means more to me than sharing anything else with hypothetical millions ever could.

Because I am writing what I know, and since it’s been a lifelong project I need ten books to shoe-horn it all in. It’s about “life, the universe and everything” (with a nod to Douglas Adams) – even if that’s hard to summarize in a byte-sized spiel. You can say it’s about culture clash and sustainability in the face of over-powered technologies; you can reduce the life of a main character to a phrase like “long-suffering saint with a baggage from a childhood in the sex trade” or “unbeatable champion with social disabilities”, but I’ve never been happy with such attempts and continue to struggle with them.

My challenge, as a writer, is to learn how to invite people in. And maybe as I age and mellow I’ll get better at it. But I’ve stopped flinching at the smart advice to give up what I love because it isn’t fashionable. I guess that’s either original and inspired or stupid. But it’s my rel, as people say in the Okal Rel Universe. My mission, my burden, my purpose in doing what I do. It’s what I know and what I have to share that’s unique.


Lynda Williams has been creating the Okal Rel Universe through three degrees and at least as many careers. Now the books of the ten novel saga are rolling out from Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy one a year (Part 6: Avim's Oath forthcoming in 2010). Works by both Lynda and other writers captivated by the story-potential of the ORU, are published by Edge's sister-press called Absolute X-Press. Lynda taught and worked in educational innovation at the University of Northern B.C. for fifteen years, and is currently an administrator with the College of New Caledonia.

Avim's Oath (Okal Rel Saga)
by Lynda Williams 

The Queen is dead, and two princes, Amel and Erien, are pushed centre-stage and made to vie for power that neither brother wanted. Driven by vengeful princesses, most notably the beautiful and dangerous Alivda, the brothers must prove themselves, choosing between the lives they wanted and the roles that people demanded of them.

You can find her author page here.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Getting Your Name Out There

By Laura Marshall

So you’ve written the best book ever, had it accepted by a publisher, and it’s going to the printer.  One problem: no one knows your name . . . yet.  Having a great book does not guarantee your book will sell.  The publisher can only do so much to promote your book, and usually it’s not enough.  As the author, you need to take things into your own hands and do some self-promotion.  Here are some tips and tricks to getting your name out there:

Building Your Online Presence:
Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and social networking are excellent ways to keep in touch with your fans and to let them know what you're up to. Create a fan page for your book, tweet about any awards you might be up for, inform people of your readings and launches so they can show up and support you. Maintaining an online presence is an increasingly important way to promote yourself.
1)    Start tweeting – If you aren’t on Twitter yet go sign yourself up now.  Sure it may seem like a silly thing to tell your friends about every minute of your day, but it’s a great way for fan to follow updates about you and your book.
2)    Open a Facebook account – Nowadays everyone has an account on Facebook so create a fan page for yourself.  This is a way for people to get to know you as a person, not just an author.
3)    Create a website – This is perhaps one of the most important tools for beginning writers.  When someone hears your name or reads something about you they like, the first thing they do is Google you.  And if you don’t have a site they won’t be able to find out more and become a fan.  Make this your top priority for your online presence.
4)    Write a blog – You may be surprised, but people want to know your thoughts.  It doesn’t have to be just about your writing, but include stories from your life, your day job, whatever.  And keep updating frequently so people will keep coming back.  Tip: Make sure to link your blog to your webpage and visa-versa so you get more traffic to your sites.
5)    Get on book networking sites – Make sure you are on book networking sites like Goodreads, Shelfari, Connect via Books, LibraryThing, and aNobii.  These are a great way for people to find your books, even if they aren’t looking for them.

Dealing with the Press:

We all want the kind of media coverage that Robert J. Sawyer has—articles, interviews, radio shows, awards. The trick is to figure out how to get it. Your publisher likely has limited resources so while they do what they can, you are far more likely to succeed if you can do some of the work yourself. After all, your publisher can only do so much to get the word out there. The more you can do for yourself, the more likely you are to succeed.
1)     Press releases – It’s a good idea to get into the habit of writing press releases yourself.  By definition a press release is simply a statement prepared for distribution to the media. The purpose of a press release is to give journalists information that will catch their attention and be useful to them when preparing a story. Journalists receive hundreds of press releases each week so the trick is to make yours interesting, relevant, and writable.  You can include them on your webpage, send them out with review copies, to newspapers and magazine, and most importantly, remember to follow up!
Here are some quick tips for writing a good press release:
•    Use an active headline to grab the reporter's attention
•    Put the most important information at the beginning
•    Avoid hype and unsubstantiated claims 
•    Keep your release to one page
•    Include a contact
•    Keep lingo to the minimum
•    Be specific and detailed
•    Proofread, Proofread, Proofread!

2)     Author Press Kit - Author press kits vary in context, complexity and appearance, but ultimately they are designed to convey basic information about a writer and his or her recent projects. They can help impress editors as well as provide useful information for media events, interviews, and for review requests. The cost of putting together a press kit depends on the quality of any hardcopy materials and whether you choose to build one yourself or hire an agency do it for you. Here are some tips for how to create one yourself:
Press Kit Ingredients: 
•       high-resolution author photo
•       high-resolution book cover images
•       a short biography
•       a publication C. V.
•       press clippings
•       press releases
 Of course, there are a number of additional documents you can draw up and include as necessary. An introductory letter can be a vital way to distinguish you from others in your field, to position your brand of writing as unique or cross-genre, or to highlight specific points of interest that may be newsworthy. Other possibilities include a quotes page which draws attention to positive reviews; sample writings from a blog or collection; description of current projects, etc. Every author has unique selling points so the key is to make a press kit that capitalizes upon yours.

Getting Yourself Out There:
So now you’ve got a great online fan base, you’ve sent out press releases, and compiled a press kit.  The next thing you need to do is get yourself out there so people know your name, and your face!  You can do this in a number of ways.  Here are some of the top ways:
1)    Organize a book launch/signing/reading – Your publisher may already organize some of these things for you, but once again they only do so much.  Take the initiative and organize these events yourself at book stores, private events, or in your hometown.  As The Writer's Handbook Blog says, “This a key activity for book marketing that authors can do better, more personably, and often more creatively than publishers. “ After all, this is a place to make sales, meet fans, spark interest and promote not just your book but YOU. Be personable. Be likeable. Be energetic. Give people a reason to want to read your book and follow your career.
2)    Attend Conventions - Genre publishing has an advantage over other kinds of publishing—you've got a lot of built-in opportunities for meeting fans and mingling. At a basic level, conventions offer you the opportunity to promote your book through readings, signings, launch parties and room parties. There are other possibilities too. Being on panels is a great way for fans to get to know you, and often times you can do a short promo for your book at the beginning. Being on a panel tends to be free and in many cases will allow you to get into the convention at a discounted rate. So don't just hide out in your room from the slobbering hordes. Go meet them. Go to parties. Go to the bar and hang out. Talk to people when they approach you.   Just don’t forget to tell people you are going to be there!
All of these are great ways to promote yourself and your book.  All it takes is some initiative, creativity, and persistence to get your name out there.  If you don’t have time to do all of these, talk to your publisher to find out what they are already doing and then fill in the gaps yourself.  Remember, just doing these things will not make your book a success, but they can certainly help!


Laura Marshall recently graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a Masters in Material Culture and the History of the Book. Though not a writer herself, she has spent much of her life supporting and herding literary types through her work for organizations such as the Ad Astra Literary Convention, Word on the Street and the Edinburgh International Film Festival. She is currently the marketing assistant for ChiZine Publications and an intern at Harlequin Romance.