Books Archive


A Brief Thought on Star Wars and Star Wars: Aftermath

At the time of this post, I’m about halfway through reading Chuck Wendig’s Star Wars: Aftermath. I feel quite confident in saying it is an excellent entry into the Star Wars universe. Despite Aftermath’s obvious strength as a space opera, a war story, and a piece of a greater whole, some segments of the internet have registered their discontent with the book.

I would like to speak to that discontent, if only to get the following words out of my system before sitting down to write a proper review of Aftermath. So gather ’round, ye monsters of cyberspace; Uncle Adam is going to lay a little truth on you.

In an odd way, I think I understand why some people are angry about this book. It has nothing to do with Mr. Wendig writing in the present tense or inserting lesbian characters into the novel. Nor is it about the lack of movie characters in Aftermath. I suspect the ugly anger comes from a sense of Star Wars being taken away. Lucas might have cocked it up, but now shit is getting real.

Remember back in the late 80s and early-to-mid 90s when Lucasfilm didn’t really care about Star Wars? You know who did care about Star Wars? LucasArts, Timothy Zahn, and a lot of us nerds. Genre defining games like X-Wing, Tie Fighter, and Dark Forces took us deeper into Star Wars than three movies ever could. We were the ones blowing up the Death Star, never mind some farm boy from the Outer Rim. Alternatively, we were the ones flying TIE Interceptors in an attempt to maintain peace in a galaxy plagued with bounty hunters, pirates, and left-wing terrorists. Names like Grand Admiral Thrawn, Mara Jade, and Kyle Katarn were as real to us as Han Solo or Leia Organa.

And then a bunch of suits came along and said that everything we loved about that mythology didn’t count for Bantha poodoo. Now we live in a world where Jar Jar Binks is more Star Wars than Mara Jade. Let that sink in for a moment. A character as asinine as Jar Jar should not be more Star Wars than anything.

Here’s the thing, angry internet people, Disney deciding what is and is not canon doesn’t take away from the fundamental truth that Star Wars was and is a piece of contemporary mythology. There are literally dozens of fan films and countless fan fics that allow people to participate in the communal story telling of Star Wars. Everything in the extended universe is still part of that mythos, regardless of what a corporate entity decides to expunge as to bring a sense of “order” to things. However, understanding that a mythology is a shared story is only half of the equation relevant to this discussion.

Myths and legends, within the Western tradition, at least, are ways of understanding society and one’s place within it. This means that Mr. Wendig’s choice to do “controversial” things like including a diverse host of characters within his novel, is not part of some grand conspiracy to remove “manly men” from Star Wars. Nor is it really controversial. If you’re the sort of person who thinks it is, then you’re likely an asshole.

Mr. Wendig is representing this world, as he sees it, within Star Wars’ mythological system. He’s also mobilizing some of the more complicated geopolitical narratives of our world in parsing the boring and binary nature of the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire. I’d speak more on that, but you will have to wait for my review.

Angry fans do have a right to feel hard done by when the things they bought into are deemed lesser by the stroke of a pen. However, directing this outrage at an author whose contribution to the mythology is more than acceptable is as unfair as it is brainless. Building new places, forging new characters, and telling new stories, all while weaving a reflection of our world into the mythology, is exactly what a good story teller should be doing. To suggest otherwise, is to miss the point of literary criticism and engage in the most banal sort of butthurt.

Thus I shall close with a recommendation to the angry, outraged masses. As the floodgates seem to be open on refilling Star Wars‘ literary canon, those fans who can’t get over themselves and enjoy the thing they purport to love should pick up a pen and start writing. Really, I mean it. There’s probably never going to be a better time to break into writing a Star Wars novel. If you think you can do better, then fucking do better. I’ll help you get started…something about some clone troopers who get frozen in carbonite by the Hutts just before Order-66. When they get defrosted in 2 BBY, they aren’t sure if they should be loyal to the Empire or the Rebel Alliance. I call it Star Wars: Sundered Loyalties. Whatever, shut up, I’m not good with titles.

I await your evisceration.


My Two Cents on the Hugos

Amid a data stream glowing with words like “Hugos” and “Sad Puppies”, enter Shaftoe, a humble purveyor of reviews and essays, with his two cents.

If I weren’t already in the thick of it as a peddler of fiction and non-fiction, I don’t know that I would want to get involved in this world. To the outsider, our genre must seem a weird and angry place. Something of a snake that eats its own tail over what should be no-brainer issues of  inclusion and basic human decency. Which is why I find it perplexing to see some people talking about the triumph of “no award” at this year’s Hugo Awards as a victory. Certainly it was a rebuke to a group of people intent on promoting their own agenda; an agenda I find at odds with my worldview. However, this “victory” doesn’t mean the end for the sad puppies. They still feel their hegemony over science fiction is threatened by progress. The Hugo nomination system isn’t being changed to prevent slates of nominations. What we have here is an impasse.

From the point of view of my low and humble station, I don’t think an impasse is a good status quo. Yet both sides seem to be forming ranks for another year of “us versus them” pissing contests. I worry this meta-narrative will grow until it overshadows the works people are supposedly arguing about. I worry these sideshows to our craft will prevent new and diverse voices from wanting to join the fray. Perhaps these are unfounded worries. I wait in anticipation of an indication that things are broadly changing for the better.

Another part of this problem, again looking up at things from the bottom of the heap, is that it is too easy for both sides to dismiss anyone who dissents from their world view as an asshole worthy of scorn and contempt. I know this because I have done this. In retrospect, I wonder if my smug self-confidence at being on the right side of history might be contributing to the perception of “our side” as a seemingly insufferable and arrogant gestalt.

Likewise, no intelligent person could look at the entirety of this fiasco and accuse either side of a lack of conviction. Perhaps then it is time to cultivate something else as a virtue. Kelly Robson suggested discourse and mediation, and I’ve yet to see a better idea – even if there are some logistic challenges in bringing together the spokespeople of leaderless movements. In truth, I’m not sure that the other side has a middle ground willing to accept such an olive branch. Then again, presuming the other side is made up entirely of thoughtless radicals is a sure-fire way of precluding any sort of dialogue.

All this to say many of these problems will fade if we take a page from Bill and Ted and learn to be a little more excellent to each other. There is grace in compromise, and divinity in forgiveness. To those who feel excellence to the other side somehow weakens their position, I offer a plea for decency and discussion at the very least.

Now, notwithstanding my own nomination for a Hugo, my reviewing a Hugo nominated/winning book, or having a conversation with someone who has won/been nominated for a Hugo, this is the last you’ll hear from me on the subject.


How To Get Into The Witcher Novels: The Enhanced Edition

Following in the footsteps of IO9’s recent “How to get into the Witcher Novels” backgrounder, (which totally wasn’t an excuse for a Gawker Media website to write another piece of Witcher-related content on the back of The Wild Hunt’s launch) I thought it important to share my highly detailed and supremely sophisticated guide for reading Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher novels.

After all, books are fucking complicated things. What with the page numbers, words, and typesetting.

Don’t even get me started on the semi-colons. Is it a period? Is it a comma? I don’t know about you, but I don’t think we should have to live in a world where closely related independent clauses can be joined together. If we allow this to pass, it’s only a matter of time before people are marrying interobangs before Satan’s black mass.

Now without further ado, here is my essential guide for reading The Witcher novels.

Step 1: Become literate

Spoiler alert, if you grew up in the developed world, you’ve almost certainly got this covered. In fact, if you’re reading these words, then you can rest assured that you have met the most fundamental step in reading the Witcher novels.

An alternate for people who either can’t or won’t read (if you can read but choose not to, then you can go right to hell) is the ever popular audio book. Don’t want to pay for an audio book? No problem, you can semi-legally listen to the full reading of The Last Wish on youtube.

Step 2: Get a Witcher book

Now this one is a bit tricky. There are a lot of options for actually getting a book. One might go so far as to say it’s a bit overwhelming. Listen to me carefully when I say, I am here for you. We will get through this together.

Traditionalists will want to put on pants/shorts/muumuus before driving/walking/cycling/bussing to the bookstore. Upon entering the bookstore, one can proceed to use legal tender for the acquisition of a physical book. For my potentially confused youth audience, a book is the internet on paper. You may have seen books in your grandparents’ house.

Alternatives to books include e-readers or iPads. Books also come on non-Apple tablets, but I am under the impression only myself and seven other people in the world own those.

Step 3: Read a Witcher book

Reading is the act of using your sense organs to translate symbols into ideas. In other words, it’s the thing you do a book to get the fun bits out of a book. In some ways reading is a lot like having sex. There are many positions and techniques for you to try. Some will be more comfortable than others, so don’t be afraid to experiment. After a while, you might want to try reading with many people, this too is a good and natural thing. If you’re new to reading, you’ll probably want to talk about reading with other people. Likewise, this is fine thing to do. Be sure to pay attention to people’s visual cues. Not all people are comfortable talking in public about their reading.

If you follow all three of these steps, you can be sure to have a great time while reading any Witcher novel or short story collection.


The Hugo Flap: This too shall…

On the list of things I give a toss about, the nominations for the Hugo Awards rates slightly above the Oscars, but slightly below finishing the edits on the first season of the X-Com inspired web-series I wrote a few years back. I don’t have a book. My one short-story sale from last year got pushed back to 2015-16. And I’m not going to put in more than a perfunctory effort to campaign this blog for best fan stuff. However, let it not be said that Adam can’t offer up an opinion when everybody else is doing so.

Also, if you want better opinions than mine, choose from this big list my friend Simon curated. Also, read Simon’s extensive essay on the matter. Kudos, Simon.

Frankly, I don’t think I have a lot to add to this discussion. In terms of the basic arguments, I do find it annoying that the Hugo nomination system can be gamed such that an entire slate of writers and editors make it on to the ballot. I like to believe in meritocracy as a concept – even though I know the world doesn’t work that way – and voting blocs tend to undermine said merit-based consideration.

Of course, if we want to have a meaningful conversation about what is good, in lieu of what is popular (not to suggest the two are somehow mutually exclusive i.e. something can be both good and popular) we shouldn’t waste too much air time on an award that is left open to public consideration.

Rather than going down said road, filled with landmines aplenty, and thus participating in genre literature presenting itself to the world as the snake what eats its own tail, I think we should focus on our true enemies: mainstream lit snobs.

Who among us hasn’t had to suffer the self-righteous sneering of a “lit fic” writer – or worse some chuffed-up 4th year lit undergrad – claiming that genre can’t deal with big ideas. Never mind Andrezj Sapkowski explores the politics of colonization and ethnic cleansing in The Witcher. Pay no attention to the likes of Aliette de Bodard artistically mobilizing the short story to explore notions of diaspora and gender. We genre writers are all peddlers of Gorean smut and Buck Rogers pew-pew fluff, right?

If the Sad Puppies aka “GamerGate Reads” have done anything, it’s to prove that SF/F/H is, and always has been, a political discourse. Only now we’re so political as to have the right-wing of genre make us meta. To crib a line from Community, this year’s Hugo ballot takes the politics of genre and shoves its head up its own ass.

Genre lit has transformed into a political homunculus, crab-walking about on its hands and legs absolutely unrepentant about what it is. To the outsider, it’s no longer clear where the narrative and meta-narrative begin and end. Should this not stand as the ultimate proof that genre is just as a capable of grappling with contemporary zeitgeist as any other form of written expression?

While I fully admit to partaking in a bit of knee jerk opprobrium in the wake of the Hugo announcements, on further thought I have come to two conclusions about this mobilization of right-wing shenanigans in the name of…gozer…the Father, the Son, and the holy spirit of Robert Heinlein…whatever.

Number one: this too shall pass. Suppose one of the right wing cranks actually wins a Hugo this year; are they not going to do so with a giant asterisk next to their name? The thing about stretching the rules to win is that most people don’t remember the victory so much as the means to the end. Case in point: A-Rod. I couldn’t tell you what baseball – it is baseball, right? – thing he did, but I know he cheated to do it.

Number two: If, as writers, we are capable of demonstrating our political culture through awards, then it goes without saying our works of art are aspects of the same political expression. Thus, the next time some lit-fic or can-lit jagoff says genre is fluff absent substance, we need only point to the Hugos as an elegant demonstration of just how political we are as artists.

Either way, the right side of the equation wins, even if it doesn’t seem so right now.


Literary Geralt of Rivia: More Man Than Mutant

At the time of this post, I’ve nearly finished reading Baptism of Fire, the third novel in Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher saga. With two collections of short stories and nearly three novels under my belt, I’ve noticed something interesting about the way Sapkowski develops Geralt of Rivia, the eponymous witcher. With each passing book, Geralt seems to be more human and less a mutated monster slayer.

The introduction to Geralt of Rivia in The Last Wish presents a man of many talents. His sword fighting skills are as lethal as they are graceful. Like all witchers, Geralt is a walking bestiary, well read in all manner of monster slaying and the treatment of monstrous afflictions. Let’s call the aforementioned abilities Geralt’s core skills. The witcher’s secondary skills are based in potions and a form of primitive gestural magic called signs. In The Last Wish and The Sword of Destiny, Geralt uses his potions and signs in addition to his wits and steel. The Aard – concussive force – and Igni – fire –  sign, for example, are essential to Geralt’s first major story, curing a princess afflicted with the Striga’s curse.


Once the medium of Geralt’s adventures shifts from short story to novel form, his talents begin to change. Geralt retains his reflexes, healing, and swordsmanship, but his witcher potions and signs are almost non-existent. I can’t think of a single instance in The Time of Contempt when Geralt forms a sign. This magical restraint is not for want of opportunity, either. Likewise, there are countless occasions in The Baptism of Fire when Geralt could have used an Aard to knock a man from his horse or a Heliotrop to protect himself from being trod upon during a stampede. Dare we say, the lack of signs are conspicuous.

It’s left me to wonder why Mr. Sapkowski would make such a change to his character. My working theory is the author was intent on doing all he could to make the character more human, and thus more vulnerable to the horrors of the world around him.

The Witcher novels are set in a time of political intrigue, war, and genocide. Being a magic user, even a rudimentary one, raises the character above some of these mortal issues. If Geralt could cast an Aard at a charging swordsman, it shows he is capable of rising above war instead of being caught up within it. Witnessing Geralt cower under an upturned wagon while an army ransacks a refugee camp around him presents the protagonist as an equal victim of war.

Though Geralt still mentions being a mutant to those closest to him, he’s far from being a candidate for the X-Men. He’s good with a sword, and he knows his monsters, but he also winces under the pain of a bum knee during fights. With each passing book, he’s less a superhero and more a man burdened by the weaknesses of age and a hard lived life. Geralt’s decline into humanity leaves him only as good as the people around him. Thus, in making Geralt less special and equally susceptible to war and other man-made horrors, Sapkowski pays it forward to the rest of the characters, transforming them from mere set dressing to equal partners. And ultimately, a more human Witcher means it is easier for a reader to suspend their disbelief when it comes to understanding the brutal fantasy world Sapkowski created.


Award Season – Part 1 – Prix-Aurora Awards Best Fan Publication

A quick note on programming. Today’s post was supposed to be a review of the first book in Marie Bilodeau’s serialized novel, Nigh. A trip to the hospital (not serious, all is well) and a burst water main (again, not serious, all is well) got in the way of me doing any writing yesterday and has left me running on no sleep for about 36 hours. In this state, I wouldn’t trust myself to review Dr. Seuss, let alone a writer whose chops put me in mind of George R.R. Martin or Andrzej Sapkowski. Hey, what do you know? I bounced back.

Rather than pressing my luck, I’m going to devote today’s post to some preliminary chatter on award season. It’s a sure sign of the new year when one starts to notice writers talking about which of their works are eligible for award nomination. Last year, I was mildly disappointed when the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association’s Prix-Aurora Awards cancelled its category for “Best Fan Publication” due to lack of nominations. I’d be a lying prat if I said some part of this disappointment wasn’t wholly selfish. It’s not like I campaigned, mind you, but there’s always some very small, very vain, part of me that holds out hope. The greater loss to not seeing a Best Fan Publication award is some very fine writers missed a chance to be recognized for their efforts. Want an example?

Check out Speculating Canada: Canadian Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy. Why? Because Derek Newman-Stille is a hell of a writer. His reviews are outstanding, and his essays are the sort of thing that offer a blueprint for improving this little community of ours. Read his work, be a better person. End of line.

There should be more than enough quality fan writers to prevent us from seeing a second shutout year. I would also implore CSFFA members not to presume that the designation of “fan” constitutes a lower-tier of creative endeavour. The distinction between “professional” and “fan” is rooted in if a person is paid for their work. In terms of quality, I believe the high level of professionalism that goes into most fan work speaks for itself.

And if for some reason you, gentle reader, wanted to toss the Page of Reviews in the ring for Best Fan Publication – if only to ensure there’s an actual competition this year – I wouldn’t kick up a stink.

For your consideration, here are three of my favourite pieces from 2014.

Marginalization and Stephen King’s Rage – April 23, 2014

The Unanswered Question of Land Claims in Homeworld - July 4, 2014

Babylon 5: The Last Best Hope for Empathy – August 11, 2014

There. That’s as shameless and award-grubby as I get. Can I go to bed now?


The Life Academic and Stephen King’s The Dead Zone

I recently discovered the joy of reading while exercising. In the past, attempts to read paper books while spending hours on an elliptical glider have resulted in abject failure. Some of these failures were more embarrassing than others; the details of those incidents remain classified.

When I bought a Kindle, some years ago, I assumed that reading it while exercising would only yield more embarrassing, and now expensive, results. It turns out I was wrong. E-reading at the gym is fantastic. It gives me an extra 4-5 hours a week of reading time, which had previously been dedicated to staring into the middle distance, as I tried not to look at the clock. That said, let’s talk about The Dead Zone.

The Dead Zone is a novel I was supposed to read in the 9th grade for a book report. Ever the scholar, I made like Jeff Winger and rented the Christopher Walken movie. At the time of this post, I’m about a quarter of the way through the book – it’s 1975 and Johnny just woke up from his coma. Though I was only a few pages into the book before Mr. King’s words give me serious pause for consideration. There is one moment within the novel’s opening chapter that says something profound about who we are as readers and North Americans. My enduring sense of guilt also demands I point out this happens roughly when thirteen-year-old Adam dismissed The Dead Zone as a “stupid romance novel,” and asked his parents to drive him to Blockbuster. I can’t believe they bought my line about doing a comparison between the book and movie.

The lead-up to Johnny and Sarah’s date offers more than an introduction to these characters. With my sympathies to Mr. King’s ego, this scene demonstrates The Dead Zone’s value as a historical artefact. Johnny, in 1970, reflects on the nature of college students amid the Vietnam War. He says there have likely never been so few “grunts” in the university than at that point in American history. Sarah, speaking on behalf of the reader, asks “What’s a grunt?” Johnny answers that a grunt is a person who attends a post-secondary institution solely for the degree. They want nothing more than access to the cozy, $10,000 a year job market.

For the wonkish, $10,000 US in 1970 would be worth $61,194 in 2014 dollars.

Grunts don’t care about engagement on campus or the affairs of the world at large. Neither do grunts have a social or political conscience. Unlike Johnny, who held out some hope for graduate studies, the grunt tops out with a Bachelor’s degree. In short, they’re not at the university to think, they’re there to put in the minimum amount of work necessary to secure access to a certain socio-economic class.

This is where I draw upon my own experience working in academia when I say the exact opposite seems to be true now. My seven years as a teaching assistant afforded me first-hand experience with hundreds of undergraduate students. Perhaps one out of twenty of those students thought about their degree as something other than a ticket to getting a good job (joke’s on them for thinking that a history degree is going to make life easy after graduation). Don’t even get me started about the lack of political engagement, as measured by straw polls asking students, “Who voted?” amid provincial and federal elections. Okay, I’m straying dangerously close to “kids these days/get off my lawn” territory.

In reflecting on this stark contrast I feel like I have to own some part of the blame for perpetuating the current state of affairs. I’d often be asked, “How do I get an “A” on my paper?” My stock answer was, “follow the directions in a competent manner and you’ll get a solid “B”. To get an “A” you need to be better than competent.”

My university experience, as both student and teacher, was about following the rules, colouring in the lines, and falling into step with the program. The few revolutionary types that I knew as an undergrad collected shitty grades because they wanted to rage against the machine in their written work. Most of them ended up washing out. When confronted with the same as a TA, the renegades who thought that they could change the world by not doing the assignment as posted, I perpetuated the system and offered marginal grades. When I dared to give truly shitty papers the grades they deserved, faculty rapped my knuckles and told me to be more generous in my grading.

“Do you have to fail them, Adam? Couldn’t you give them a 55? You know that if you do give them a 30 they will be in my office complaining about how they are entitled to a passing grade.”

Knowing that my very precarious job depended in part upon the largess of the faculty, I got with the program and inflated the shitty grades.

We’re all grunts now, Mr. King. A hundred different things have turned us into grunts. One generation told another that a university degree would lead to a good job. Now we have degree holders slinging coffee for want of white collar work. PhD’s are a dime a dozen, and their fights for tenure-track positions in the face of growing sessional contracts borders on spectacle. In the forty years since Johnny Smith went to school, we’ve broken the post-secondary system, and I’ll be damned if I’ve seen any good ideas on putting it back together again.

So let’s add this vision of the university experience, even if it is an idealized one, to the growing list of reasons why people should be reading Stephen King’s back catalogue. Even if I had read The Dead Zone like I was supposed to, 20 years ago, there’s no way I would have been able to take away anything like what I’m getting now.


For Us, The Writers: A Comedy of Confidence

Last week, an article on New Statesman pissed me off. In responding to this article, I want to be clear that I’m not writing from the position of a neutral critic. Today, I don’t care about being fair and balanced. I have an agenda, and I will make that known as I marvel at the petulance, perhaps even the hubris, found in an article called, “Attention, #NaNoWriMo Fans: No One Cares How Your F***ing Novel is Going.

As one might expect given the title of the piece, the tone of Hayley Campbell’s article is decidedly ad hominem in nature. While the second paragraph gave me hope that she might be interested in addressing some of the charlatans apt to take advantage of neophyte writers, the balance tells us all we need to know about the author’s opinion on people who dare to speak their mind on writing during November.

Here are some of my favourite lines.

“People will blog about the loneliness of being a writer, having been one now for three whole days.”

“People will go into Settings and then Profile and delete “aspiring writer” from their bio and put instead: WORDSMITH. WORD DOCTOR. WORD ALCHEMIST. DREAMWEAVER. “

“All of Tumblr will be #writing the most politically correct book ever using all of their favourite hashtags (there will be no white people in these books, and if a white person is writing it they will be checking their privilege against everything that happens throughout, in footnotes).”

“Pretty much everyone you know and love thinks they have a book in them, and pretty much everyone you know and love has roughly 3,000 words of it written in a dead file in the back corner of a hard drive three computers ago that they won’t tell you about. You are not special. No one cares how your novel is going.”

To begin, and for context, I see myself as a profoundly average writer. I have three novels, one of which I began during 2012’s NaNoWriMo. All three of those novels live in the dark recesses of my hard drive. To date, my sales are summarized in two short stories, two reviews, and one essay. When people talk about me as a writer, critic, or editor, I tend to think they are doing it out of an awkward sense of politeness. What little I care to generalize about actual writers, critics, and editors is that they are usually very generous toward people who work hard, even if they are just hacks whose only talent is found in trying hard.

I do not have the gift to be a Starfighter. I will not pull a sword from the stone. I am average, and that’s okay, because I enjoy the successes I have found. However, as an average writer, I have to look at Hayley Campbell’s “nuclear/NaNoWriMo” bunker and wonder why it is necessary. If Campbell is writing for New Statesman, then I think it’s probably fair to say that she’s made it farther than most people will as a writer. I congratulate her on her success; I’m sure it’s well earned. Nevertheless, I fail to fathom how an established writer will look at people who only have “3,000 words of [novel] written” and see them as such a profoundly existential threat as to merit an entire article on “Britain’s leading, best written and most authoritative weekly political, cultural and current affairs magazine.

Is this not pissing on the masses from on high?

If the reality of things is that maybe 1% of the 300,000 people who annually participate in NaNoWriMo will turn their book into something that sells, what harm do the other 99% present in taking a month to feel like they might have a chance? If the process for “real” writers is, as Campbell indicates, sitting around in one’s own filth, jamming out pages while the world unfolds around you, then why shouldn’t a bunch of neophytes talk about how churning out 1,700 words a day is a lonely experience? Are their day-one experiences any less valid than what the rest of us learned long ago? I think not.

Writing, when we come right down to it, is often a shitty and unrewarding thing to do. The chances of a given writer being the next Stephen King are practically null. Meanwhile, talented people can get their work rejected over and over again while the likes of E.L. James makes millions on the back of barely coherent mommy porn. In light of that, do we really need to make the unspoken realities even worse by shaming the poseurs, wanna-bes, and never-will-bes during a month when all they want to do is feel a sense of belonging? Are we so cynical? Are we so insecure in our own accomplishments that they can be threatened by someone claiming the sacred mantle of “writer,” even if the corpus of their work is limited to pedestrian Babylon 5 fan fic? I could declare myself the Holy Roman Emperor, but without the armies and territory to support the claim it is meaningless. Thus do I see established writers bemoaning NaNoWriMo as a sad and pitiable exercise in feeling inadequate during a perceived cock measuring competition.

Over the coming weeks, I would implore a modicum of self-reflection from those who might find themselves apt to sound-off on NaNoWriMo’s as the third worst thing since Stalin. Yes, every month is writing month for a great many of us. Yes, we tirelessly write and produce without the fanfare that people seem to get for their annual November efforts. And yes, as writers, regardless of standing, we should be confident enough in our talents to not feel the need to piss on others for daring to aspire to what we have achieved.


From the Lower Decks: On Absurd Nomenclature in the Slush Pile

Today we’re going to have a little chat about what I do as a First Reader/Submissions Editor/Slush Monkey for Daily Science Fiction. The topic of our conversation: stories that invoke a ridiculous name or title in the first sentence. To wit, I will almost never send a story to the second round when I see a bonkers name/rank in the first sentence of a story.

Obligatory Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post represent those of the author and are in no way endorsed by the editors or management of Daily Science Fiction.

Now, let’s get back to the business at hand. When I talk about stories that begin with an over-the-top rank/title and name, I mean something like this,

“Bongwonger First Class Hercules Jehovah MacGuyver is flying a fusion powered death rocket toward the third moon of Praxalon Seven. “


“Lord Protector Sir Malcolm Duncan Hamlet Agamemnon III contemplated the nature of the universe during his morning cup of tea.”

These are stupid names.

While they are fabrications of my own diseased imagination, they nevertheless follow the pattern of actual stories from the DSF slush pile. At this point, I imagine there’s a non-zero portion of people reading this and auditing their memories for examples of excellent stories that open with the “name and rank was doing a thing” trope. Be that as it may, exceptions are often confused for the rule in writing, and my rule, with very few exceptions, is to push the big red reject button when I see something with an insane name in the introduction.

The issue isn’t that insane names in and of themselves are problematic. Wack-a-doodle names can give a sense of otherness to a character e.g. Zaphod Beeblebrox or r. Daneel Olivaw. Insane names can also shed important details about the setting of a given story. I can think of no more accessible example of this than “The Great Humungus” in The Road Warrior. Terry Hayes’ and George Miller’s screenplay doubles down on the kooky nature of the antagonist’s name by having his herald introduce him to the gas-rich band of survivors as the “Ayatollah of Rock and Rolla.” None of this makes us, as an audience, take the Humungus any less seriously, and if it does then you’re watching the movie wrong.

The Road Warrior’s first act gives us more than enough insight into post-apocalyptic Australia to understand that the Humungus’ name is an indication of just how far into entropy the world has fallen. A man who might otherwise be called John Smith can now put on a hockey mask and some fetish wear, call himself The Great Humunugs, and still command the lives and deaths of his followers. The insane name serves to underscore the central conceit of the story: everything has gone to hell.

Now imagine that you have never seen The Road Warrior. Fade in on smoke clouding over the lone strip of road tattooing the outback. The narrator’s first words are, “The Great Humungus ruled the wasteland with an iron fist.” All other considerations being equal, is there a world where that doesn’t sound like something written by teenager intent on making a dick joke?

At that point The Road Warrior might as well be Spaceballs because the name strikes the wrong tone with the audience. It serves to confuse rather than enlighten. And if I, speaking only for myself in this case, think that someone is trying to tell me a joke, then I want to know who the comedian is before I listen to the punchline. I want to know that the person is funny before they try to make me laugh because comedy is much more in the eye of the beholder than drama.

This is why someone like Neal Stephenson can get away with a line like this as the very first words of Snow Crash,

The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed sub-category.”

No word of a lie, if this turned up in the slush pile, I would boo it and seriously contemplate rejecting it out of hand. However, Stephenson can get away with it in Snow Crash because he likely comes with foreknowledge on the part of the reader. When a person submits to a magazine, they don’t get that benefit unless they happen to be known to the individual submissions editor. Even then, I like to think that I’m fair-minded enough to apply the same standards to all writers, regardless of pedigree or notoriety.

To sum up, zany names certainly have their place in writing. However, if you are trying to sell a piece of fiction and you don’t already have a rapport with the editor (i.e. the editor liked your pitch letter and asked you to send along a manuscript) then the use of an outrageous name as the first words of a story is probably going to do more harm than good. It presumes that the person reading your story will be fascinated by the novelty, when in fact it’s probably going to evoke a tired sigh and confuse the tone of the story’s first few hundred words. Make no mistake, a lot of my decision to reject or promote a story happens in those first hundred words.

And that’s my view from the lower decks.


Guest Post: J.M. Frey on The Dark Lord and The Seamstress

Many effervescent thanks to Adam for letting me infringe on the Page of Reviews during his holiday!  And here’s my big news: I’m doing a Kickstarter!

What Is It?

The Dark Lord and The Seamstress is a sweet love story told in verse about the importance of looking beyond someone’s (poorly dressed) exterior and into their heart, featuring  a little trickery, a little romance, an a little bit of sartorial fun! The finished product will be a picture book with a full colour cover, filled with beautiful black and white illustrations.

The Dark Lord, King of Hell, is tired of being the butt of all the devils’ jokes for his outdated wardrobe. When he invites the world’s most famous Seamstress to Hell to make him some new threads, he doesn’t expect to be struck by love at first sight. Now he has to figure out how to convince her to marry him and stay and Hell forever… and the Seamstress has to try to figure out how to convince him that it’s a terrible idea!

Here’s a sneak preview of both the story and the art.

Why the Kickstarter?

Illustrator Jennifer Vendrig ( and I have been trying to get this book off the ground for twelve years. In 2002, when I wrote the poem that comprises the book, Jennifer and I noodled with the idea of doing some sort of illustrated version of it. A webcomic was too involved for both of us at the time and self-publishing as we know it now hadn’t been invented yet, so we put it on hold.

A few years later I had the opportunity to offer up the poem to a poetry chap book. The publisher discussed having all the poems illustrated, and I remembered the sketches Jennifer had already conceived. Jennifer mocked up some thumbnails, but then unfortunately the publishing house collapsed and the project was cancelled.

Now that self-publishing has advanced to the realm of making picture books easier to produce, Jennifer and I decided to jump in and try to do the project ourselves. We had already done all the hard work of designing the characters and figuring out the illustrations. It was really just a matter of committing to the project and finding a book designer. Luckily, one of my friends is in the midst of a publishing course and she’s really into book designing!

So, the Kickstarter will cover printing costs, marketing, and the fees I’m paying to Jennifer and the book designer. It will also mean that instead of going even further into debt to make this project, we’ll be starting at a baseline zero, which gives me more freedom to do fun and wonderful things with the book, like library and school giveaways.

What’s it like, running a Kickstarter?

Hard as balls. I really, really did not anticipate how much and how constantly you have to flog the project. I spent a week of evenings designing and tweaking the video, the project page, the story of it all; more hours, I think, than went into editing the book itself, actually! And then I thought that all I would have to do was upload my slick page and sit back and watch the numbers climb.

Putting the budget, the video, the actual book project and the Kickstarter page up was a breeze, though, compared to trying to flog the project and build buzz.

My #1 piece of advice to people who want to run a Kickstarter is to get a mentor to guide you through all stages of the project. My #2 piece of advice is to try to get all your blog posts, interviews, media mentions, etc. in order before you even make the Kickstarter live.  That way all the hard work is done ahead of time.

I feel like I am constantly playing catch-up with myself, running all over social media trying to stay on top of the project and to get it out places. Every time my phone dings I say, “New backer email? Aaaw. No, just a new alert.”

This is stressful. Because if I don’t get 100% of my ask, I get 0% of the money. Maybe I should have gone with a different crowdfunding site, where you get to keep everything that’s pledged, but I felt Kickstarter was a better choice because it’s now a household brand name and a lot of people are already members of the site.

Man, if and when the project jumps into stretch goals, I’ll be so relieved. I don’t feel like I’ve slept since the campaign began.

… I’m pretty sure I haven’t, actually.

(And of course, I’m in the middle of novel edits for three other books right now, too. Whoo boy!)

A kid’s book, J.M.? That doesn’t sound like you.

I’ve always admired Neil Gaiman for the kind of career he has. He lets the story dictate the medium, and I’ve always tried to do that. I’ve written feature films, and television, comics, poems, short stories, novels, etc, just whatever the story best fits. This poem came from the confluence of working in a children’s library and reading a lot of Byron in my off time. It was begging for beautiful ink illustrations, Gorey- or Burton-style.

And the tale, because it’s set in Hell, isn’t entirely a kid’s story. It’s presented as a picture book, but the narrative is a bit more mature than is normally seen in picture books. It’s more like a picture book for adults.

Also, the theme of the book does fall right in line with those of my other works, I think. I’m generally interested in revisionist storytelling, which are tales that take classic and familiar tropes and turn them on their head or revisit the same story from a different perspective. I also like to tell stories about the liminal space between “good” and “evil”, and stories that play within the gray spaces of fairy tale and reality. I like stories that make people think about all the different ways people can love one another, and accidentally hurt one another, and how there’s more to attraction, fondness, sexuality, lust, and companionship than the mainstream heterosexual binary.

And I think this book tells a great message about how, even if things appear to be one thing, taking the time to listen, and learn about another person and their motivations and cultures will always reveal their own humanity and help you understand them.

And listening and understanding, and respecting other people’s differences as well as the person themselves is something we definitely could use a heck of a lot more of in this world.

So why should I donate?

Firstly, to help me offset the costs of paying my Illustrator and designer at market rates, and upfront like is proper on a project like this. Secondly, because you want a copy of the book. eBook copies are at the $25 pledge level and above, and at $50 you get an eBook copy and a paperback copy and an eBook of my short story anthology Hero Is A Four Letter Word Thirdly, because you want to see me make a total fool of myself on YouTube.

And thirdly, if y’all want a very sneaky, very first-look of my brand new novel, then I’ll be posting it chapter by chapter as more stretch goals are achieved. I’ve tagged the book #EpicFeministFantasyNovel on Twitter, so you can follow the news about it there. But I’ll only start leaking the book when we achieve $5,000.  So if you want to read it before it’s even officially announced by the publisher, back the project and bug your friends and family to donate.

Interested? You can check out the Kickstarter project page here:

Want to know more?

Other posts I’ve done on tDLatS:

6 Tips For Kickstarter Success

Why I Wanted To Do This Project

What Are The Kickstarter Perks?

Things I Am Learning As My Own Publisher:

Fan Q&A

Fan Q&A part 2

Fan Q&A part 3

About J.M. Frey: She is an Author, Actor, and Professional Geek. Author of the award-winning Triptych.