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Archive for August, 2015

Cairo By Gaslight

My apologies to everyone for the interminable delays but Cairo By Gaslight, the first Egyptian-themed steampunk anthology and the second book of Black Tome Books’ By Gaslight series, is finally on its way into print. I have the proof copy in my hands right now and in a few days, it’ll be live on Amazon.com. Before the end of November, it’ll be available to libraries and bookstores and I’ll get the contributor copies out to the authors as well. I really don’t know what else to say. I’m thrilled that this book will finally see the light of day. Its authors deserve that.

The book is currently only available via Createspace’s e-store but you can rest assured, I’ll keep you apprised.

You can get a copy right now at: https://www.createspace.com/5417991.

In other good news, I’ll be clearing The Other World from the backlog soon as well. So you can expect to see that volume make its debut some time in the near future.

Regrettably, I’m going to have declare Space Pirates & Bounty Hunters a wash. There simply weren’t enough quality stories to justify the book. A lot of talented writers gave it their best but I think the flash fiction restriction was just a bad idea. Which I take responsibility for. Black Tome Books is a new press and a small press and the only way we’re going to make any headway gaining notoriety for our authors is to take chances. The flash fiction thing didn’t pan out but rest assured, we will be tackling this exciting theme again some time in the future!

Cheers,

Brandon

#NewOrleansWritesSF

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Fantasy, science fiction and steampunk author Brandon Black is the editor of New Orleans By Gaslight, a first of its kind anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fantasy poetry and fiction set in Victorian-era New Orleans. Brandon is also the web content manager for the Week in Geek, New Orleans’ favourite fantasy and science fiction themed radio talk show, every Saturday at 1 pm CST on WGSO 990 AM. Click here to check out Brandon’s ever-expanding list of published works.

All content copyright © Brandon Black

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The Principle of Genre Supremacy, Part II

The second part of the Principle of Genre Supremacy is that good writing in any particular genre should seek to do that which that genre does particularly if not uniquely well. Fantasy shouldn’t try to be science fiction. We don’t require a scientific explanation for Pern’s dragons after all. A horror story set in the Old West isn’t necessarily a western, although it could be. Where it lands on that spectrum depends on the tropes used and the dominant mood generated by the piece and the author should be seeking to control where it lands on that spectrum through a deliberate selection and use of those tropes and dominant mood.

Fantasy is largely about a nostalgic view of a mythic past based on existent real world historical civilizations. We tend to see much of fantasy set in pseudo-medieval worlds with parallels to Western Europe, knights, sword-fighting, Vikings, castles and so forth. It would be perfectly possible to create a fantasy world eschewing all of these but many people may complain it doesn’t feel like fantasy. We could have a fantasy world entirely bereft of Humanity, but containing magick, fantastic beasts, medieval technology, etc. But if the two sides’ contending combatants fighting with swords are eight-foot tall talking cockroaches, the audience may not find it to their liking.

You can make the argument that that should be irrelevant to a definition of genre, that if the dominant tropes and emotions hold true, then it should be classed in that genre. My take on these matters, however, is practical. This discussion of literary theory is being pursued to develop a rubric for the creation of professionally publishable works of fiction and what the readership wants always has a place to play in such matters. Much of fantasy avoids Tolkienesque dwarves, orcs, elves and halflings at all, even as other works embrace them. The elements that are conventional are used as a counterbalance to the ones that aren’t so the reader doesn’t feel helplessly dropped into a universe where they don’t know any of the rules at all. For example, we don’t excuse incoherent characterization of human beings in fantasy merely because the rules of the universe permit dragons or magick. Characters have to have understandable, reasonable motivations or we aren’t satisfied.

What I’m struggling to say is that that nostalgic view, that mythic past, is important to fantasy. And since we can change up some tropes, we can have, as we have seen in recent years, a move to explore cultures other than Western Europe in our fantasy literature. More and more we are seeing worlds built on a mythic past set in Asia, Africa, Australia and Central and South America and that’s all to the good. And it doesn’t mean you can’t introduce something new or different. We can have eight-foot tall insectile warriors as part of the fictive background, as Burroughs did on Mars, but it just means we also need to introduce more conventional characters as well or to take our time easing the reader into the new society to avoid them feeling overwhelmed. Although describing Burroughs’ other Martians as more conventional may be deceptive, his voluptuous Martian princesses are egg-laying after all.

A final argument I would make regards the difference between fiction and film. So many of my fellow emerging writers are terrified adherents to the theory of “show not tell.” But fiction isn’t film. Film tells things poorly, even crudely. Voice-overs, opening scrolling text and lengthy conversations in which people relate facts they should all already know are ugly ways of conveying information. But authors of fiction shouldn’t be so terrified of telling a story that they can’t give the reader key and vital information in a sentence or two, or even a short paragraph. It is called “storytelling” not “storyshowing” after all. There are things we want to know about the author’s universe, things that might not be easily worked into a conversation between two people who have lived in that universe for their entire lives and take those things for granted. A paragraph on the operations of a key technology, such as how FTL functions in your universe or how your magick works, is no sin. Cruder, more ham-fisted techniques can be used, such as the youthful ignorant character who needs everything explained to him but your reader may find it stretching credulity when your character, even if he’s young, has been alive in a world where priests heal wounds and broken bones by touch or the city’s politics are dominated by its ruling class of wizards, and yet he knows nothing of magick as an excuse for the reader to be told these facts as they are told to him for the first time. The emotional response of “how dumb is this guy” or “has he lived entirely under a rock not to know that much” may be what you elicit from your reader.

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Fantasy, science fiction and steampunk author Brandon Black is the editor of New Orleans By Gaslight, a first of its kind anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fantasy poetry and fiction set in Victorian-era New Orleans. Brandon is also the web content manager for the Week in Geek, New Orleans’ favourite fantasy and science fiction themed radio talk show, every Saturday at 1 pm CST on WGSO 990 AM. Click here to check out Brandon’s ever-expanding list of published works.
All content copyright © Brandon Black


The Principle of Genre Supremacy, Part I

There are some people with the belief that a story is a story is a story and that what makes a good story in one genre applies equally well to all types of fiction. Those people are wrong.

Genres are defined, largely, by the contents of their tropes. Fantasy stories have magick and fantastic creatures, and typically fantastic settings when we aren’t talking about urban fantasy or paranormal fiction which seek to depict the fantastic lurking in the shadowy corners of the “real world.” Science fiction stories centre on advanced technology and science, giving us tales of adventure on far-flung planets, or aboard distant starships or space stations. The degree to which a genre story is good depends on how well the author has made use of that genre’s tropes to create an interesting, compelling tale.

Now some will find that a shallow definition of genre. But the western genre best demonstrates this concept, the fragility of its foundation on tropes. A western is a story set in the Western United States, in the 19th century, typically revolving around characters, objects and tropes you would expect to find there, cowboys, Native Americans, firearms, prostitutes, trains, horses, outlaws, plots focused on revenge, a tendency to resolve conflicts through showdowns, etc. You can easily remove any one of these elements and still have a western but remove too many of these tropes and your story is no longer a western.

You can have a Sherlock Holmes story set in Victorian times, involving firearms with a plot based on revenge and it be in no way a western. But should a murderous outlaw flee Oklahoma for China and a relentless ex-lawman bent on avenging his fallen family pursue him there, we still have a western.

I had an acquaintance once whom I used to tease by saying that horror wasn’t a genre; it’s a mood. It’s an emotion. If the primary cumulative emotional effect of the film is to generate fear, or more accurately trepidation, in the viewer, then it’s a horror film. You can have a horror film without any supernatural elements whatsoever. There doesn’t need to be a demon or a doorway to hell for you to be telling a horror tale. Alien is clearly a science fiction film. There are astronauts, suspended animation, alien life forms, starships, advanced technology of all kinds, an overarching corporation dominating Humanity, etc., etc., etc. But we think of Alien primarily as a horror film.

That overlap of tropes is important, especially in the Alien series. While I would define Alien as a quintessential horror film as well as being a film of science fiction, I would define it’s sequel, Aliens, as being more an SF film than a horror film. There’s still the isolation of the characters, the danger presented by the alien lifeforms, and the struggle for survival, but the primarily military cast and their ability to defend themselves to some degree with force gives the film more of a “bug hunt” film than a “lone monster is picking us off one by one film.”

And so we see that genre is defined equally by tropes and by emotion. Each genre has a dominant feel to it, a dominant emotion or emotions conveyed by the bulk of its works. Horror is about fear. Fantasy is about wonder and a nostalgia for an imagined past. Science fiction is about exploring the possibilities of the future as expressed through science and technology. Wonder is a key emotion to much of sf as well but we can have a high-tech dystopia where wonder is absent and still have a work of science fiction. Westerns aren’t just about the Old West; they’re about expressing those emotions we tie to our cumulative cultural understanding of this now mythic setting. A love story with a purely interpersonal conflict between two lovers set in the Old West isn’t necessarily a Western. Such a love story, moved to a starship, isn’t science fiction.

Let me take the time to simply say “backdrops don’t count.” If genre elements are visible in a piece but they have no relevance to the story or the plot, they don’t count. If the story is about Bob’s inability to trust again impeding his new relationship with Joan, then it’s a love story; it’s romance, and it doesn’t matter if it takes place on a space station. That’s not good science fiction. Now there are some allowances to be made for individual chapters and episodes but if in a short story, the whole story could be moved to a new setting and nothing serious would have changed in the plot or characters, that’s bad writing. Backdrops don’t count.

So this is the first part of my argument, the first part of the Principle of Genre Supremacy — that good writing in any particular genre depends upon using several of its dominant tropes to achieve one or more of that genre’s dominant emotions in a story where the plot depends upon those tropes. The film Brazil is a terrifying look at the future, a retro-style bureaucratic dystopia, and yet, it is a science fiction film, not a horror film. Technology and our focus on the future is what its fear is built upon and so we class it as sf.

The television series Angel, despite having a main character who is a vampire and a host of other horror tropes, such as demons and magick, is more of an urban fantasy than a horror series. Demons, for example, in the series, are much more like aliens than implacable forces of evil. Joss Whedon uses the trope of demons as a cypher for those individuals who don’t fit into society. They look strange to our eyes. They have strange manners and customs, but ultimately, Angel portrays rank-and-file demons just as people trying to get along like the rest of us, with no greater propensity for evil than any human. They may have strange powers but they aren’t defined by them. As people, they have goals and lives and many of them simply wish to be left alone. This isn’t a horror series, it’s an urban fantasy that uses a lot of modified horror tropes.

I have a friend who postulates a theory that technologies need not be detailed in stories of science fiction. His theory is that we don’t go on about the details of cellphones or laptops or cars; we simply use them. We don’t say, “And now, I’ll get to the docks using my mechanised horseless carriage which uses tiny detonations of atomised incendiary fluid to drive pistons whose motion is transferred via gears to the wheels.” Although, such a statement might actually be fitting for a steampunk story. No. In the modern setting, the user and the reader are both acquainted with the technology in question and so there is no need for such detail.

I disagree with this theory because science fiction is all about new technologies and developments of science and these are technologies we as readers and viewers aren’t intimate with. We need the author to go on about his fictional technologies in detail because we need to know the rules of his universe for the story to make sense. We also need that detail because that’s a large part of what the audience is here for — to read about mile-long starships being flung by fusion power through hyperspace from world to world. While the character may be jaded and uninterested in the details of his craft’s propulsion, we should feel quite cheated as readers if all we ever get of the starship’s technology from the author is “and Bob went to Proxima Centauri.”

It’s necessary to develop these world-building technological details in science fiction, at least a little, in order to prepare the way for their use as plot elements. Space Battleship Yamato has a scene I remember about their space warping technology. Space Battleship Yamato, known in the States as Star Blazers, had two different FTL systems, one, the wave motion engine, an FTL drive that allowed the ship to “fly” through space at superluminal speeds, and space warping, where large distances were traversed instantaneously. In one scene, the ship and crew get into trouble and Wildstar (known as Kodai in Space Battleship Yamato) asks, “Why don’t we space warp?” I remember this scene particularly because I had asked the question out loud word for word a few seconds before Wildstar did. Sandor, the ship’s science officer, responds “Think you’re a cowboy, Wildstar?” He then proceeds to explain that space warping requires the synchronization of the ship with certain ambient waves traversing space (be they gravitic or tachyon in nature, I don’t recall) and that this is a delicate matter requiring precise calculation and it can’t be done in a hurried rush. Thus we get useful world-building which reinforces the general mood that we are dealing with realistic-sounding technologies in a realistic future. (“Realistic” as a word has limited utility when talking about Space Battleship Yamato. It is a series about a space-going WWII battleship after all.) We also get the plot utility of an explanation of why this plot element that can be used to help explain how our heroes are going to cover 180,000 light years of distance in just one Earth year can’t be used to get them out of every fight. And that’s incredibly important.

The point I’m raising is that we can remove one or more of the key tropes of science fiction from any particular sf story but if we remove too many of them or we fail to include one of its dominant emotions, wonder/hope for the future, fear/trepidation of what may occur in the future, we no longer have good sf, but something other. Remove too much technical detail and we get science fantasy rather than science fiction. And that’s not always a bad thing. It’s only a bad thing if you’re trying to write science fiction. If you’re trying to write fantasy, then you should write fantasy. Scientific or even “realistic” definitions of magick usually fall flat on their face. We need to know the rules that magick generally follows but Lucas’ attempt to explain the Force with midichlorians was contrived, unnecessary and silly. Again, there is no list of mandatory tropes and explanations we need for any particular genre, just enough presence of its dominant tropes being utilized to generate one or more of its dominant moods. And Star Wars is far more about action and adventure than it is about serious science or technological detail.

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Fantasy, science fiction and steampunk author Brandon Black is the editor of New Orleans By Gaslight, a first of its kind anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fantasy poetry and fiction set in Victorian-era New Orleans. Brandon is also the web content manager for the Week in Geek, New Orleans’ favourite fantasy and science fiction themed radio talk show, every Saturday at 1 pm CST on WGSO 990 AM. Click here to check out Brandon’s ever-expanding list of published works.
All content copyright © Brandon Black


The Cordon of Mediocrity

(Note: This isn’t an open letter to the writing circle I left. I did not and do not expect that the gentleman that has so graciously been willing to take over as moderator of the group act as he thought I would in his stead. And if he and those persons who have elected to remain with that group find the recent change in the group’s operations to their liking, then more power to them. While much of what I have been posting to this blog is in response to my leaving the circle, this is about my gathering and organizing my thoughts and making myself, my aesthetics and my literary theories understood to those interested who might wish to work with me in the future. And by all means, if you disagree with me, please leave a comment, so long as your comment includes an argument and not just an ‘I disagree’ statement.)

The New Orleans Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Circle recently moved from an open conversation critique format to a round-robin, each person gives their criticism in turn, format. I’ve seen other groups where this style of conversation has been employed. I think it should be avoided in a writing workshop. It throttles the conversation. It prevents the worst and the best discussions from occurring. The each person speaking in turn style allows each person to speak so that no one is ignored or shouted down, no one keeps quiet for fear of some louder person shouting down their comments. But it also eliminates a terribly vital conversation, that best conversation that can occur in a writers’ circle.

There’s a rare moment, where one person makes an observation regarding the story in question and a light bulb goes on over another critic’s head and they see new possibilities. There can be this amazing occurrence where the light bulb goes on over several heads all at once and a vital and vibrant conversation occurs about the possibilities inherent in the story being reviewed. The members of the circle dive deeply into the tale, dissecting it to its component pieces, analysing on the fly how its parts function and hypothesizing how those pieces might be modified, replaced or re-purposed to function better. Put simply, it is a joy to behold. It is also the writers’ circle functioning at its best and finest.

Comments from my fellow writers in the circle caused me to completely throw aside every single word I’d written of my flash fiction story “Xaija” and start all over, retelling the tale as “Cold” and the second version of this story was much better received by my fellows, one of my comrades remarking on how she was amazed to see that I hadn’t even tried to salvage any of the existing text. Several times we’ve had energizing discussions where we’ve taken a fantastic core idea from one of the authors in the circle and turned it this way and that, suggesting this or that alteration or this or that expansion. And I believe that most people find that sort of thing incredibly useful. To be told that your work resonated with your fellow writers, to be told that they loved the core idea so much that they think you should run with it and turn what you meant to be a single short story into a series of stories or even a novel, is an amazing and rewarding feeling.

However, some people aren’t interested in that.

I feel honour bound to say, at this point, I do honestly think if you have a problem with this sort of conversation, you shouldn’t be in a writing circle. We’ve had some people even go so far as to say, “This is what I’m looking for in terms of criticism. Please confine yourself to discussing these points.” That’s not workshop criticism. We aren’t here to discuss just the particular problem you yourself think you’re having with the piece. We can especially look at that but it’s just plain asking too much that we should confine ourselves to it.

If you’re so certain about what you’ve got on the page, that hearing people discuss alternatives and other ways you might have taken the story is completely uninteresting to you, you really shouldn’t be in a writers’ circle. You’re always free to ignore any criticism made. But as I’ve said before, you do the group a great disservice when you try to shut down that conversation. You’re doing a disservice to yourself especially. If you’ve decided that, no matter what, you’re not going to start your story earlier or provide needed background for your main characters that the members of the circle are telling it’s vital for them to have to feel sympathetic towards your character and/or continue wanting to read your story, you aren’t doing yourself any favours by silencing them. Sticking your fingers in your ears to block out complaints won’t make you a better writer and again, I have to ask, what is the point of your being in the circle if you don’t want to hear criticism?

I think this is why it’s important for the writer being critiqued to keep quiet. I never enforced that as an absolute during my tenure and I regret it now. You aren’t there to defend your work. If ten people all have the same criticism of your story, take note of it and move on, even if you decide not to change one word because of it. But you should hear them out, otherwise you’re literally just wasting everyone’s time.

Turning over story elements and story ideas, looking at them from this angle or that, discussing to what use they could have been put to instead of just how they were, that is a vital part of writers becoming better at their craft. To cut short that glorious possibility, by having each person required to just rattle off the critique they came up with on their own and not address the greater tide of ideas that can flow when people interact with each other and build off of each other, seems like a terrible disservice to everyone involved. I firmly believe that it is in that interaction, in that build off of each other, that the foundation for greatness is laid.

I can see the utility of this style of conversation. The circle only meets for two hours once every two weeks. The basic reason I left the circle was that it seemed that in a room of fifteen people no one shared my passion or my aesthetics and that the points I felt compelled to argue to my last breath were of little or no interest to anyone else in the room. That’s when it’s time to go. It’s just that simple. I was not going to selfishly consume the group’s time by sparring with the same adversaries over the same fundamental disagreements over and over again.

I think another crucial mistake I made was in assuming everyone was there for the same reason. I assumed everyone was in the circle to work towards being published professionally and I was rudely awakened when one of the most fastidious and hard working members of the circle told me that wasn’t her goal. She simply wished to write. It was not a goal of hers to be published professionally.

This is a key point.

Not everyone in the group sees professional publication as their goal. Some have entered the circle as hobbyists, people who like to write and enjoy the company of those who do. I should have stated clearly that the group was being formed for the purposes of moving people’s work towards professional publication and for no other goal. I should have made that clear each and every time a new person came into the circle. But I didn’t, I assumed. And from the perspective of someone who is treating writing as a hobby, I totally see their perspective. They’re free to say, “I want to tell the story I want to tell in the way I want to tell it,” and that’s that. And so it doesn’t sound ridiculous to them when they say it or when they get upset that the conversation has strayed into other ways the story might have gone or other ways the core concept might have been used.

The round robin style might be of use of them. Each person can just say whether they liked the story or not and why and move on. There’s a great deal of utility in that. We’ve had nights where we’ve had five stories to cover and someone went on about some point that they themselves admitted was nitpicking and minor. That fault should be laid at my door as well. I should have quickly stated, “If you feel your point is minor, then just put your comment on the page. We’ve only got two hours and five stories to get through.” Again, when some people treat the circle as more of a social event than a means to a professional end, they want to talk just because they enjoy talking. This style of criticism may be useful in organizing a group to insure everyone gets a chance to speak up, but I think it comes at the expense of killing off the more useful things a writing circle has to say.

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Fantasy, science fiction and steampunk author Brandon Black is the editor of New Orleans By Gaslight, a first of its kind anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fantasy poetry and fiction set in Victorian-era New Orleans. Brandon is also the web content manager for the Week in Geek, New Orleans’ favourite fantasy and science fiction themed radio talk show, every Saturday at 1 pm CST on WGSO 990 AM. Click here to check out Brandon’s ever-expanding list of published works.
All content copyright © Brandon Black


The Wisdom Orb

An eight-foot diameter sphere of pearly white, carved across its entire surface with runes unknowable, it floats, one of the ancient Wisdom Orbs. Before it, the acolyte, she mediates, basking in its eldritch emanations.

In her mind’s eye, the sky roils, the moons careen asunder as dreams of the Great Catastrophe, the deaths of the Gods Before, reverberate through her soul.

Eyelids flutter open; stolen light, the last remnant of fallen deities, flows from her eyes.

Her mind erupts with clarity.

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Fantasy, science fiction and steampunk author Brandon Black is the editor of New Orleans By Gaslight, a first of its kind anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fantasy poetry and fiction set in Victorian-era New Orleans. Brandon is also the web content manager for the Week in Geek, New Orleans’ favourite fantasy and science fiction themed radio talk show, every Saturday at 1 pm CST on WGSO 990 AM. Click here to check out Brandon’s ever-expanding list of published works.