Three Cheers and a Tiger Fall 2017 — CLOSED

Stories submitted to the 2017 Fall “Three Cheers and a Tiger” short fiction contest must follow the theme: “the  de-escalation of a potentially violent situation.” Your entry must also follow guidelines below.

Entries must be received by 5 PM Eastern Time, Sunday, September 24, 2017. The challenge is to write and submit a complete story in 48 hours. There is no registration and no entry fee.

SPECIAL:

Conflict has long been an inspiration to spec fic writers. In choosing this year’s theme, we’re inspired by real world events and are eager to see how SFF writers interpret not only the theme but the world in which we find ourselves. What world will you create and what will it say about our own?

EVERY YEAR:

Stories MUST be based on the theme provided.

Stories MUST be speculative fiction (sci fi or fantasy entries are welcome; read past winners to get an idea of what subgenres judges prefer).

Stories MUST fall within word count parameters. The word count range for 3CFall 2017 is 3000–4000 words.

HOW TO ENTER:

The contest opens September 22, 2017 at 5 PM ET and the deadline for submission is 5:00 PM ET September 24, 2017.

Email entries to threecheers17[@]toasted-cheese.com with the subject line:
Three Cheers Contest Entry

Paste your story directly into your email. No attachments please.

Follow general Three Cheers and a Tiger guidelines and general contest rules:

Three Cheers and a Tiger Guidelines

General Contest Rules

 

Fiction is a Series of Choices: Interview with Seanan McGuire

Absolute BlankBy Erin Bellavia (Billiard)

Seanan McGuire (pronounced SHAWN-in) is a literary force to be reckoned with.

She is the author of the October Daye urban fantasies, the InCryptid urban fantasies, and several other works both stand-alone and in trilogies or duologies. The ninth October Daye book, A Red-Rose Chain, comes out next month. She also writes under the pseudonym “Mira Grant.” (For details on her work as Mira, check out MiraGrant.com.)

You’d think that would be enough to keep her busy, and you’d be right, if we were talking about an ordinary human. In her spare time, Seanan records CDs of her original filk music (see her Albums page for details). She is also a cartoonist, and draws an irregularly posted autobiographical web comic, “With Friends Like These…”. Somehow, she also manages to post to her blog, Tumblr, and Twitter regularly, watch a sickening amount of television, maintain her website, and go to pretty much any movie with the words “blood,” “night,” “terror” or “attack” in the title. Most people believe she doesn’t sleep. We think there might be some kind of demonic bargain going on.

Seanan was the winner of the 2010 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and her novel Feed (as Mira Grant) was named as one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2010. In 2013 she became the first person ever to appear five times on the same Hugo Ballot.

We talked to Seanan about gender, being a “social justice warrior,” navigating social media, and the soon-to-be released A Red-Rose Chain.

Background Photo: seananmcguire.com

Background Photo: seananmcguire.com

Toasted Cheese: You have a name that, to many, appears to be of ambiguous gender. On your Tumblr, you recently posted a link to this article, and responded to a reader’s question about it (here). Can you tell us a bit more about any gender bias you’ve dealt with (directly or indirectly) in terms of publishing/readership?

Seanan McGuire: For the most part, my readers are awesome, and they aren’t weighted one direction or another (so it’s not “only women read me” or “only men read me,” or anything like this). I think I receive a lot more rape threats than male authors. They seem genuinely stunned, when I talk to them about it, to discover that this is just how life is for me, and for most of the other female authors I know. I wish it would stop.

TC: You seem to endeavor to make sure your characters represent a variety of racial and gender identities. We (and many others) see this as a positive. This question comes in two parts:

  1. Is this something that comes naturally to you, or have you had to consciously work at it?
  2. Have you dealt with any pushback, either from publishers or fans, because of it?

SM: I honestly just want the characters I write about to reflect the diversity that I see in my friends and in the world around me. I also grew up white and cisgendered in America, so I do have to make an effort not to default to “white, cis, American.” That can be an effort. It’s worth it.

I’ve received a few inquiries to the effect of “why did character X have to be gay?” or “why did character Y have to be Indian?” I try not to be cranky about those. I do wonder if the people who ask me those questions go up to people on the street and ask “why did you have to be ______?” Fiction is a series of choices. Reality is a series of coincidences. If our choices are not as varied and diverse as those coincidences, we’re doing something wrong.

TC: You blog and tweet a lot about social justice issues (like racial and gender inequality, the representation of women in the media, etc.), and as we previously noted, these issues certainly enter into your work. Because of that, you and a number of other current science fiction and fantasy authors have been the target of complaints by other authors and fans claiming that these “social justice warrior” (SJW) issues are “ruining” SFF. What is your response/reaction to those complaints?

SM: I feel like a lot of those people have not read much science fiction, which has always been about “SJW issues.” Science fiction is about politics and society and pushing the envelope. Anyone who’s read Tiptree or Heinlein or Piper or King can see that. I think that there’s a tendency to paint the work of our childhood in rose tones, thinking it was always perfectly suited to us—I find it when I go back to watch old horror movies, and am just stunned by all the slut-shaming. I wonder if some of these people wouldn’t be equally stunned if they went back and read the authors they say they admire.

TC: We recently wrote an article about the negotiation of social media for writers… you weren’t able to participate at the time, but since you’re an author we always think of when we think of authors on social media, we’d like to ask for your response to a few of those questions! So… how has your relationship with the internet/social media changed since being published?

SM: I spend a lot less time reading web comics, and a lot more time trading Disney pins. Really, it hasn’t changed that much.

TC: How would you describe your relationship with your fans online?

SM: A lot of them are super-sweet, and so excited to talk to me. I do worry about hurting someone’s feelings without meaning to, since I’m a little odd sometimes, so I try to be ultra careful.

TC: What are three things you wish fans wouldn’t do when interacting with you online?

SM: Ask me questions about pub dates that I haven’t announced; ask me for spoilers; yell at me because a book is not available in their region. I am incredibly accessible and up-front. The flip side of this is that if I haven’t said something, I probably can’t, and I get really uncomfortable when pressured.

TC: Let’s talk about Toby! The Winter Long, Book 8 in the series, was kind of a game-changer. With A Red-Rose Chain coming next month, what should readers expect from Toby & Co. moving forward?

SM: A book annually, as long as DAW lets me. More seriously, I don’t do spoilers. They, too, make me super uncomfortable.

(At least four more books after A Red-Rose Chain are confirmed at this time. Be sure to check out the review in our next issue for more!)

TC: Many readers of this series enjoy the way you’ve built the faerie world Toby inhabits. We know that you studied folklore, but how much of Toby’s Faerie is your creation, as opposed to already-existing folklore?

SM: It’s sort of “chicken and the egg.” Most of Toby’s Faerie is based on folklore, but then spun, hard, in my own direction.

(You can find out more about Seanan and Toby’s version of Faerie on Seanan’s blog, where she answers reader questions about Toby’s world in the lead-up to the release of each book. You’ll see several posts at the link, but if you want to dig even deeper, check out the Toby Daye tag!)

TC: And let’s go out on a light note… we know you’re a big fan of lots of different kinds of media. Give our fans a recommendation of one of your favorite:

Books
All-time favorite: It by Stephen King.
Recent favorite: The Girl with All the Gifts by M.K. Carey.

Movies
Slither, written and directed by James Gunn.

TV shows
Most likely to re-watch: Leverage or The West Wing.

Musicians/Bands
I spent literally a decade following the Counting Crows around the West Coast. I am a fan forever.

Seanan’s Links:

Alien Worlds

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

Even with all the new special effects, the majority of aliens in the movies and on television tend to be humanoid. Sure, we all know that’s because you have human actors underneath the pointed ears or the tusked faces. But we don’t have that restriction when we are writing. Our aliens can be as alien as we want to make them.

So why do so many alien societies feel like the emotional equivalent of human actors in alien costumes?

Robert Lynn Asprin has a multiverse of creatures to pull from in his Myth Adventures series, but at core, all the different species act like regular humans and are pretty much indistinguishable culturally from humans. Elves in many books are simply humans with pointy ears and some magic talent. Even plants seem to develop human characteristics once they are sentient. At least Tolkien’s Ents moved slowly. But beyond viewing other life forms as “hasty” they still tended to think like humans while they were in front of the reading audience.

Part of that, of course, is because we are humans, and no matter what we do, we are writing from a human perspective. We want to be able to relate to our characters, so there does need to be some element of humanness to them. But is there a way to make aliens, alien worlds and societies, or even just “other” worlds and societies, feel less like the ones we know and more… well… alien?

When you sit down to build a world, you usually start out with a neat idea. Run with it. But take a good look at the ideas you use, and dig deeply into the consequences of your choices. This is what will make your aliens truly alien. Each time you make a choice about your alien and your alien world, ask yourself: what does it mean? Dig deep into the implications, so that you can build up a consistent picture based on your choices.

Background image: Garrette/Flickr (CC-by)

Background image: Garrette/Flickr (CC-by)

The Consequences of Physique

Sometimes the starting idea is about the type of creature you are creating. Maybe you would start with something like, “What if my aliens were giant lizards?” So you make them giant lizards. Now, you can, of course, have your giant lizards wander around talking and acting like humans. But wouldn’t it be more interesting if they acted like lizards instead of humans in lizard suits? Are they cold-blooded like Earth lizards? Then pay close attention to how they react to temperatures. Have them slow down when it gets cold. Or sleep when it gets hot.

If your reptiles have the ability to climb walls and stick to ceilings the way geckos do, then they should think like wall climbers, not ground walkers. Walls and floors and ceilings would be accessible. What does that sort of freedom do to the mind? Maybe they lay eggs in nests and leave the eggs to hatch, so that their children are born needing to fend for themselves. What would that lack of parental involvement mean for a lizard society? There wouldn’t be a close bond between children and parents. In fact, children may not even know their parents in such a case. So there would need to be some mechanism by which children become functioning members of a lizard society that is different from the “raise your kids to be members of society” model.

Ask Yourself:

  • If I’m basing my alien on a real creature, what things affect that creature?
  • How does that sort of creature behave when it’s alone? When it’s in a group of its own kind? When it’s with other kinds of creatures?
  • What are the implications of the physical characteristics I’ve picked?
  • What types of environments will my alien do well in? In what ways will it do well?
  • What types of environments will limit my alien? In what way will it be limited?
  • What are the implications of how my alien race reproduces?
  • What does this method of reproduction imply about my alien society?
  • What does it imply for my alien characters?

The Consequences of Environment

Sometimes you start with the type of world you are building. Consider the uniqueness of that world. Use that to explore what it means for your societies, and how it would affect the mindset of your alien characters. What if your aliens lived in gravity-free space? There would be no concept of down. Or friction. They would think in terms of propelling, action, and reaction. This sort of thinking should be implicit in your character’s words and thoughts. The word “walk” for instance, would be relatively meaningless to a gravity-free society. If your aliens live and breathe underwater, they will not have any native concept of fire. Their idea of day and night will be governed by the light patterns through the water—they may not, if they live deep enough under water, have any concept of a sun, or sky. So they wouldn’t be talking or thinking about these things as a matter of course.

Also think about the natural hazards your aliens would normally worry about, and the implications of these hazards. If predators are common, your aliens might prefer to travel in groups, or with some kind of weapon. If the terrain is difficult to navigate, your alien society might preferentially honor the members who are more agile. Think about ways your aliens might have evolved to cope with these hazards, and build that into the alien behavior.

Ask yourself:

  • What normal things around you would you think about or talk about that your aliens just wouldn’t know anything about?
  • What things around your aliens would they think about or know about that humans wouldn’t?
  • What things in the environment are important to your alien society?
  • What are the implications of the physical terrain for individuals? What are the implications of the physical terrain for society?
  • What sorts of plants and animals are on your world? How do individuals deal with these plants and animals? What deeper implications might there be for the alien society?
  • Is food and water plentiful? If not, how do your aliens deal with that?

Think about the words your aliens might use to describe their environment. What might be missing from their language? Would they need words we don’t use?

The Consequences of Cultural Norms

Sometimes you start off with a neat cultural idea. When you go this route, take the time to really explore the cultural nucleus. Try not to impose your own culture on it, however. Let’s say you think, “Hey, how about a planet ruled by women instead of men?” Think about what this would really be like. Don’t just flip each “he” to a “she” and each “she” to a “he” and make it about male-like women oppressing female-like men. (Yes, I’m thinking of something specific here. For a prime example of what not to do, I point to you the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Angel One.”) Instead, take a look at examples of matrilineal cultures, or animal cultures where the female dominates (like bonobos) and use those instead. Or come up with a society that you think the women around you might build.

Or let’s say you have a society where your alien could only have one child, ever. What would that restriction mean in terms of how members of that society treat their children? You could end up with a society where children are never allowed to do anything, and are kept in a total bubble until adulthood. Or one where no one has children early, but wait until they are able to ensure its safety and comfort. Every child might be the most important thing in an adult’s life, every child’s death a devastation to the gene pool.

By exploring any cultural norms you want to impose to the absolute limit, you can build a very rich alien society that goes deeper than a human in alien clothing society would.

Ask Yourself:

  • What effect does this cultural norm have on an individual? What does it imply about day-to-day living?
  • What effect does this cultural norm have on society as a whole?
  • Are there hidden ways in which I am imposing my own cultural norms, even if they don’t really apply to this society?
  • Am I basing this culture on a similar culture that already exists?
  • What is the same about that culture and mine?
  • What is different? How would those differences change what is going on?
  • Is my culture self-consistent?
  • Do I have conflicting norms? If my norms conflict, do they do so intentionally? What kinds of choices would be facing members of my alien society because of these conflicts?
  • What sorts of assumptions am I making about my society?
  • Which of these assumptions am I making deliberately? Which am I making unconsciously?

Thing about connections. Think about consequences. Keep digging beneath the surface of your ideas. The more deeply you can explore the implications of your choices, the more unique and alien your characters and their world will be.


13-11

 

Tell the Stories You Have to Tell: Interview with Tanya Huff

Absolute Blank

By Erin Bellavia (Billiard)

Canadian fantasy author Tanya Huff was born in Nova Scotia, but spent much of her childhood in Kingston, Ontario. She eventually moved to Toronto, and later, to “the middle of nowhere,” Ontario. Her first novel, Child of the Grove was published in 1988.

Blood TiesHuff’s “Blood Books” (a series of novels pairing human detective Vicki Nelson with vampire and novelist Henry Fitzroy) were adapted as the series Blood Ties for CBC Television. The series also aired in the US on Lifetime.

The third book in her current series (commonly referred to as the “Gale Girls” series) was recently completed. The second book, The Wild Ways, was released in November 2011.

Earlier this month, Huff’s 2012 novel The Silvered won the 2013 Aurora Award. (The Aurora Awards honor science fiction and fantasy works by Canadian authors.)

We here at Toasted Cheese were happy to have Tanya Huff share her experience and insight with us. (And be warned… a couple of her responses had the interviewer all choked up!)

Tell the Stories You Have to Tell

Toasted Cheese: When did you first know that writing was what you wanted to do?

Tanya Huff: The late George Carlin used to answer the question “Did you always know you wanted to be a comedian?” with “Not in the womb, but right after that.” I have a letter that my grandmother, who was taking care of me, wrote to my father while he was out to sea, when I was three. In it, she tells him a story I told her of a spider who lived at the bottom of the garden. (He made a web and ate a fly and then he fell asleep and his web got broken. —come on, I was three!) I also illustrated it. Badly.

The year I turned ten, one of my cousins had spinal surgery and had to spend the entire summer in bed. I spent a good portion of my summer telling her stories—and acting them out with our Barbie dolls.

The thing is, I have always been a storyteller but I had no idea you could make a career of it. My family is not exactly… bookish.

TC: How long have you been writing professionally? Did you do anything else before you started writing?

Child of the GroveTH: I sold two pieces of poetry when I was ten—but I don’t think you could call that writing professionally. In 1985 I sold a story to George Scithers at Amazing and then in early 1986 I sold Child of the Grove to Sheila Gilbert at DAW. I went on to sell another four stories to George and another twenty-eight books to Sheila.

Before that I spent a year studying forestry at Lakehead University, took a class C posting with the Naval Reserve (which I’d been in for two years at that point), spent six months in LA where if I’d had any idea of the way things worked, I’d be a television writer today, six months working for a security company, four months working maintenance for the YWCA in Toronto, three months in a coffee factory, then off to Ryerson Polytechnic for a degree in Radio and Television Arts paid for by working at Mr. Gameway’s Ark and selling sunglasses from a pushcart at Yonge and Bloor but graduated the year the CBC had massive layoff so went to work managing Gypsy Bazaar—the first of the flea markets as stores—and, finally, left them to work at Bakka Books for eight years where I was when I wrote the first four of my novels.

TC: We all know that the work of writing often involves just doing the work, regardless of whether or not the muse is in the building. That said, what inspires you?

TH: Hmmm, good question. People, definitely. Everyone has a story and a lot of those stories are distinctly stranger than fiction. And other people’s writing. When I finish a book that really touches me—emotionally, or intellectually—it gets me all fired up to go and write.

TC: Do you have any specific habits or rituals that help you get “in the zone”?

TH: Hot beverages are important. *g* It used to always be tea—plain black tea with milk—but in the last few years I’ve started drinking more coffee and green tea so just generally, the making of a hot drink. Boiling the water. Pouring into the pot. Waiting. Pouring it into the cup. Carrying it into my office. It’s one of the reasons I don’t work on a laptop—I’ve drowned any number of keyboards over the years.

TC: I know that music is important to you. Do you listen to music when you write? How does music inform your characters and their stories?

The Wild WaysTH: The only time I’ve ever listened to music while writing was during The Wild Ways when I had Cape Breton fiddle music on fairly constantly. Usually, I relate to music the way I relate to short stories, each piece is complete in and of itself and isn’t meant to be a creative layer in a larger whole. I listen when I’m running, and in the truck, and doing housework, and it often inspires creativity the way any other piece of another person’s writing may, but when I’m actually working and being creative myself, I prefer silence. Now, if things aren’t going particularly well, then I’ll throw on some music and play spider solitaire for a while until something breaks loose but, generally, if I’m at my desk, it’s quiet.

TC: Where is your favorite place to write?

TH: I have an office with a desk and my desktop and a whole lot of research books and, if I’m home, that’s where I am between one and six in the afternoon. I’ve never understood how people can write in coffee shops—I’d be too busy people watching. That said, I really like to write on trains. I don’t know what it is, but I can sometimes produce an entire day’s word count during the two-and-a-half hours it takes to get into Toronto.

TC: I know that this is like asking someone to choose their favorite child, but do you have a favorite of the books (or series) you’ve written?

TH: It is kind of a favorite child question… Unlike a number of writers, I still like everything I’ve ever written. There’s a few structural things I’d like to fix in some of the early stuff—although I think the Quarters books are some of my best writing, particularly The Quartered Sea—but for me, it’s all about the storytelling and I enjoy the stories I tell. I even still like the Ravensloft book I wrote for hire. Now, I can say that Valor’s Choice was the most fun I ever had writing a book. Fitting space marines and evolved dinosaurs into Rorke’s Drift was joy from start to finish.

TC: How about of the ones you haven’t written? (That is, that have been written by someone else… not imaginary ones. *g*)

TH: I adore everything Terry Pratchett has ever written. When there’s a hole in my life for whatever reason, I turn to Pratchett. He sees people, with all their complexities and stupidities and courage and cowardice and potential in a way that no other writer I know does.

I love Charles de Lint’s work and I think he knows secret things the rest of us only suspect exist.

TC: Earlier this year, Stephen King wrote about first lines for The Atlantic. Do you have a favorite opening line from any of your books or stories? How much thought do you put into those first words your reader will see? Are there any opening lines by other authors that you admire?

TH: Sitting here, without getting up and checking, I have no memory of what any of my first lines are. And I just sent my latest book of three days ago. This is not to say I don’t work at getting the first lines right, but once they’re written they’re part of the story and while I remember the story, I don’t remember the words that make it up.

So, let’s take a look at a few…

The Future Falls: 3rd Gale girl book, just turned in… She lay stretched out under a beach umbrella, long silver braid coiled on top of her head, the fingers of one hand wrapped around a Pina Colada—made with real island rum and fresh coconut milk—the fingers of the other drumming against the broad teak arm of the lounge chair. Hmmm, really needs the next line to make it work. She’d been watching a beach volleyball game and she hadn’t appreciated having her view of half naked, athletic young men bounding about on the sand interrupted by the Sight of a falling rock.

We’ve set up the Gale’s appreciation of handsome young men, given enough information that readers of the first two books can identify the character but—hopefully—intrigued new readers, and set up the entire A plot. Not too bad.

The SilveredThe Silvered: 2012’s hardcover release… Senses nearly overpowered by the scent of sweat and gunpowder and cheap pipe tobacco, Tomas followed his nose through the 1st Aydori Volunteers, searching for his greatcoat. Okay, that introduces a main character, lets you know he’s probably not human, sets the tech level as post-gunpowder, and suggests there’s going to be a military element. Decent set up.

Blood Price: 1991, the first of the Vicki Nelson/Henry Fitzroy books… Ian shoved his hands deep in his pockets and scowled down the length of the empty subway platform. Well, that pretty much establishes something’s definitely going to happen and that we probably shouldn’t get too attached to Ian given the lack of information about him.

Now, my absolute favorite line in any book ever is from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis: There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. Although honesty forces me to admit that I remember it as: Once there was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb…

TC: What was your favorite book as a child or teen (or both, if you like…)?

TH: As a child, I lived in the Narnia books. I’ve been trying to get through that wardrobe since I was seven. As a teen it was Andre Norton and Anne McCaffrey and Zenna Henderson and Robert Heinlein topping the list, but I read everything I could get my hands on so it was harder to have a favorite. Although, I did stand in line for two hours to have Anne McCaffrey sign Dragon Singer so…

TC: Earlier this year on your blog, you discussed an issue with some staffers at a bookstore chain warning readers away from your books due to LGBT content. Was it resolved to your satisfaction? Had you experienced any similar problems previously?

TH: Once I mentioned it in the blog, I was contacted by people from the chain who took it completely seriously and assured me this was an individual not a company policy and it was dealt with. I was impressed by their response and, as I said at the time, well aware that in other stores in the same chain my books have likely been recommended because of their LGBT content.

I’ve never, to my knowledge, had a previous problem with that sort of thing. My editor has never wanted me to change a character’s orientation. The Smoke books, which have a gay protagonist, did have an interesting drop in numbers from book one to book two, but that could have been because of the realization they weren’t continuations of the Blood books not because the gay was front and center instead of safely in the background. I do have to say though, people who love the Smoke books, really love the Smoke books.

TC: Can you tell us anything about any new projects that you’re working on?

The Enchantment EmporiumTH: As I mentioned earlier, I’ve just handed in The Future Falls, the third Gale Girls book (after The Enchantment Emporium and The Wild Ways). It tried to kill me—never write a book based on a clever idea you and your editor kicked around during a phone call. Or maybe you can. I need a little more mulling it over time. I’m now about to start on a new Torin Kerr book. I can’t call it a new Valor book because if you’ve read Truth of Valor you know there’s been some changes but I’m really looking forward to getting back into that ‘verse.

TC: Finally, any words of wisdom for our readers?

TH: Tell the stories you have to tell. Write a book, write a story, write a poem, write a song, bake cupcakes, bake cookies, bake pie, build a house, dance, sew, paint, draw, rebuild a car, garden, knit, quilt, carve, program a computer, raise a child, make a home, sit around a campfire and start with, “Once upon a time…”

It’s not how the story is told, it’s the telling.

Catch up with Tanya Huff online:
Tanya Huff’s LiveJournal
Tanya Huff’s Twitter


Final Poll Results

Creating a Monster: Interview with Shock Totem Editor/Creator K. Allen Wood

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Shock Totem is an American print literary journal specializing in horror and dark fantasy (horror-infused fantasy). Issue 1 was released in mid-2009, Issue 2 in mid-2010, and Issue 3 in January 2011. Editor K. Allen Wood (@kallenwood) is a friend to many of us here at Toasted Cheese and he was kind enough to take some time to discuss writing, editing, music, and giant Nazi chickens.

Toasted Cheese: Most important things first: what’s the latest addition to your music collection? What are you listening to these days?

K. Allen Wood: I like your style, Stephanie. Let’s see. I’m not sure I know what my latest addition is. I do have a small pile of recent additions on my desk, though; it includes albums by Foo Fighters, Cavalera Conspiracy, Therapy?, Jet Red, Cynthesis, Anathema, Ari Hest, Bad Religion, Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals, KMFDM and, get this, a 1992 demo by Wicked Maraya… on cassette!

As for what I’m listening to these days, it’s always an eclectic mix. I typically set iTunes to shuffle and press play. Currently iTunes shows that I have 85,758 songs on my external hard drive, so it’s always an interesting mix. For instance, the last ten bands played, according to Last.fm, were Queensrÿche, Shootyz Groove, Twilight Ophera, Ultimatum, Stuck Mojo, Incubus, 3 Doors Down, Live, Sprung Monkey, and Project 86.

It never gets old.

TC: What made you decide to create Shock Totem as a print rather than electronic journal? Do you ever feel pressured to create an electronic version?

KAW: Well, in the beginning we were going to be an electronic journal. I knew the traditional print cost for magazines was far beyond my budget. I’d seen too many publications close for that very reason, so I knew I couldn’t manage it financially. I didn’t even want to try. So creating an online journal was more practical, if less appealing.

But then Apex Digest shut down as a print magazine. I was bummed. They were my favorite magazine (I need issue 3, if anyone has an extra). I wanted Shock Totem to at least have the potential to sit on someone’s bookshelf like Apex sat on mine.

So I decided to look into print-on-demand publishing, which would all but eliminate the upfront cost of traditional printing. I tried a few different companies before choosing the one I felt was best and just went for it. I knew the stigma behind POD publishing would be a hurdle, but I also knew that it wasn’t the technology that was the problem, it was the horrible writers using it and the foolish critics that couldn’t comprehend the difference between the two. Done right, done well—which I think we’ve achieved with Shock Totem—it’s arguable that POD publishing is better than traditional publishing, at least for small-press outfits.

And no, I never feel pressured to turn Shock Totem into an electronic journal. It would save me some money, but I think we’d lose a lot of readers.

TC: Would you mind retelling how the title “Shock Totem” came to be, including the discovery that there already existed a book named Shock Totem (by Thom Metzger)?

KAW: It’s all John Boden’s fault. We’d been tossing around a long list of potential names for a while. Most were terrible, some laughable, and others kind of cool. But nothing really stood out. We had a short list of favorites—Nightfall Overture, Scrawl, Shades & Shadows, Blood Tells—but nothing really seemed fitting. It was basically a Best of the Worst list.

One day, John mentioned Shock Totem. Nick and I immediately liked it. It just sounded cool, you know. When asked where the name came from, John said something like, “I don’t know. The words just popped into my head earlier today.” So we added it to the list of potentials and kept thinking of more possible names. But we kept coming back to Shock Totem. At this point we’d already decided to be print magazine, so given that and taking into account the definition of shock and totem, it was the perfect name. And so it was decided.

Sometime later, Nick broke the bad news. He’d Googled the name and found out that it was also the name of an old book by Thom Metzger. That’s when John remembered he’d actually read the book back in college. Doh!

Of course, at that point, we were set on using it. We didn’t want to think of something else, so we decided to go ahead and keep it. We found that Thom Metzger taught at a college in New York, so to be gracious and professional, John contacted him and asked him if he’d be okay with us using the name. We didn’t have to ask, you know, as titles can’t be copyrighted, but we felt it was the right thing to do.

Thom gave us his blessing, and thus, we exist.

TC: Your cover art is amazing and diverse from issue to issue. Is it solicited or submitted?

KAW: So far the artwork for each issue has been solicited. From the beginning I had a very clear vision of what I wanted in terms of artwork. I don’t know that Nick and John were on board with that vision at first, but I think they dig it now. I just really like the digital medium, things that are fantastical but look realistic. Artists like Travis Smith have been a big inspiration to me and I wanted to see that kind of work as the face of our issues.

When we branch out into non-magazine releases, which will be later this year or next year, then we’ll go for a different kind of style.

That said, we are open to artwork submissions.

TC: How does the editorial process work for Shock Totem? In other words, once an author sends you a submission, what happens to it?

KAW: First, a team of five pigmy lady-boys transcribe each submission into handwritten script. Each story is then placed on a gold satin pillow, packaged inside a miniature Kiss Kasket, and flown out to each team member via a murder of crows. Most never arrive, for whatever reason, but those that do make the magazine. It’s unorthodox, but it works for us.

Some people probably think that way of doing business is unfair and unprofessional, so here’s the hooey-fooey but more acceptable answer: These days we have a submissions management system through which authors upload their stories. It’s a great system and much easier for us to interact with the authors. For me in particular. (You’d be amazed—and probably baffled—if I told you how submissions were handled for the first two issues.) While I may be the Head Cheese, we’re a team of five and we all have an equal voice. So majority rules. Three votes either way seals the deal.

TC: Are you able to meet face to face with your editors or do you handle much of Shock Totem’s business via Skype, email, chat, etc.?

KAW: We do most of our work through email and on super-secret forums. This past summer, though, Kurt Newton and I drove down to Pennsylvania and met up with John and Nick. I’d met Kurt at Rock and Shock the year before, but other than that it was the first time any of us had met. We stayed at John’s mother’s house, way up some mountain in Orbisonia. It was a ridiculously ridiculous week. (Ask Nick about the tragic and hilarious eruption of Mt. Pissuvius.)

This coming July, John, Nick and I will be at Necon, and I imagine it’ll be a good time. Next year, we hope to meet up with Mercedes at KillerCon in Vegas.

But I think it’s best that we handle Shock Totem business online and in emails. We joke around so much it’s a wonder we get anything done as it is; we’d never get anything done if we put this thing together in person.

TC: I’m positive that every submission is given a fair shake but what would make you stop reading a submission (a subject, a phrase, a technique, anything)? Is there anything you’ve seen enough of in the inbox?

KAW: Since I’m the one that does the main editing, I’m more inclined to quickly reject stories that have a lot of grammar issues, problems with flow or spelling or formatting. The other guys tend to look past those things. They read for story, but I don’t have that luxury; I have to think about what happens after.

We accepted a story for our first issue that had a lot of issues. There was a great story there, but it needed work, it wasn’t fully realized. Being new to editing and a little too inexperienced, I naïvely thought, with the author’s cooperation, that we could make the story shine. Unfortunately, it was a nightmare. The author fought me every inch of the way. In the end, after about six months, the story was getting worse not better, so I reluctantly passed on it. The author wasn’t pleased, to say the least.

So that’s why I quickly vote NO on stories that would require too much editorial involvement. There may be a good story in some of those, but I now realize it’s not my job to fix it that much. Typically, though, we all read the majority of submissions through to the end.

As for things we’ve seen enough of, there are a few things that elicit a collective sigh. The eat– or kill–the–baby endings are really lame. You can see those coming a mile off. I could do without the whole Nazi angle. We’ve gotten stories with Nazi zombies, Nazi werewolves, Nazi were-raccoons, giant Nazi chickens, and many more. Sadly. But we’re still open-minded enough to know there are exceptions to everything, so we have few restrictions on what we’ll read.

TC: You don’t do “themes” yet the stories always fit well together. Your reviews are eclectic—books, films, music, games—yet cohesive with the creative content. Is that due to consistency in the editors’ tastes or do you consciously choose pieces that jive thematically?

KAW: Well, I think our diverse tastes help with that, believe it or not. John likes surreal, bizzaro kind of stuff; Mercedes is into dark and whimsical tales. I like stuff that is more fantastical. We each have our favorite styles, we all dig a broad range of styles beyond that, but at our collective core, we like the same thing: dark fiction. And everything is tethered to that core.

I also think most if it comes down to us having the integrity to stay true to the standards we set before our first issue came out. And that really comes down to one thing: Publish stories that we enjoy. If you publish fiction for any other reason, you simply don’t care enough. We don’t publish our friends because they’re our friends. We don’t publish stories because the author is popular. We print what we enjoy.

TC: Shock Totem has earned a reputation for being a “tough” journal in which to be published. Do you enjoy that reputation and do you think it has an impact on the submissions you receive?

KAW: At first it was like a badge of honor. When you see other publications accepting eighty percent or more of their submissions, it feels good to not be like that. But it’s a childish way to look at things. Having a low acceptance rate doesn’t mean you’re a good publication, you know.

And I do think being a tough market makes it harder for us. I can’t tell you how many authors have complained to me about how many times we’ve rejected them. Some people do it to bust my balls, but others are clearly angry about it. A few have even told me they’re never going to submit to us again because we’ve rejected them too many times, as if the act of sending us five different kind of stories should guarantee an acceptance. It’s baffling and sad, especially when you know they’re good writers.

So yeah, I think having a low acceptance rate makes it harder on a certain level. Of course, if it were easy I guess there’d be a lot more magazines out there.

TC: Is the content of Shock Totem similar to what you write or is it simply what you like to read?

KAW: A little of both, I think. Probably for all of us.

TC: Shock Totem 3 is almost the size of Shock Totem 1 & Shock Totem 2 together. When did you notice an increase in submissions, considering the timeline of when you launched until today, and did the quality of the submissions follow suit?

KAW: We got an obscene amount of submissions at first. Like forty a day for the first few months. And most of them were atrocious. The moment we upped our pay rate to 5 cents a word, the quality increased tenfold. Eventually the amount of submissions dipped a bit, for whatever reason. Maybe because we’re considered a tough market, I don’t know. Now we average about ten to twenty submissions a day.

Our third issue is bigger because we got a large number of quality submissions during that reading period. If only it were always that plentiful! We probably should have saved a couple stories for Issue 4, though, because Issue 3 was damn expensive. Haha.

TC: Do Shock Totem‘s sales support your paying writers or does that come out of your own pocket? Has this changed over the course of the journal’s existence?

KAW: Profits from sales help, but the bulk of the cost comes from my pocket. Nick and John help when they can, and I’m grateful for it, but they have families, you know, so that comes first. But to give you a little more insight, we have recouped from sales half of what it cost to do Issue 1. But Issue 1 sold a hell of a lot of copies—over a thousand—in its first year of release. Unfortunately, Issue 2 and 3 have sold less. But I think—or hope—that says less about the product and more about why so many people bought our first issue.

In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Stephen King talked a bit about short-fiction outlets. In part, he said, “…a lot of the people who read those magazines are only reading them to see what they publish so that they can publish their own stories.” I think that’s why Issue 1 sold so well: A lot of writers were checking out the new pro-paying market, not necessarily the new fiction magazine.

That’s okay of course. We may be selling less now, but we’re still selling well. And hopefully our upcoming digital editions will increase our sales, thus reader base. We also have a few more things planned for this year that should help as well. My wallet could use the break. Haha.

TC: Has Shock Totem introduced you to new subgenres or writing styles? Are there subgenres you’d like to see more of as submissions?

KAW: I’ve always been a reader with broad tastes, so I don’t know that I’ve been introduced to new subgenres, but doing this magazine has definitely given me new insight into writing styles, or what works and what doesn’t work. I’ve learned much more than I would have otherwise, I think. Or at least much quicker.

And personally, I’d like to see more steampunk come our way. Of a darker sort, you know.

TC: Very often I say to someone, “You have to read this story” and hand them the journal (Brian Rappatta’s “The Dead March” in Shock Totem 1 springs to mind). Do you notice yourself especially eager to get an issue to print because you have to share your discoveries with your readers?

KAW: Of course. Traci L. Morganfield’s “The Music Box,” Leslianne Wilder’s “Sweepers,” John Skipp’s “Worm Central Tonite!” and Aaron Polson’s “Wanting It” come to mind. “Beneath the Weeping Willow,” by Lee Thompson, is one from our upcoming issue that I can’t wait to see what people think of it. It’s a heartbreaking tale, and the ending is so bittersweet.

But depending on the person, I may suggest any story. I really like them all.

TC: Shock Totem had a flash fiction contest in 2010 (the winning story “Ruth Across the Sea” by Steven Pirie was published in Shock Totem 3). Will you run the contest again this year? Do you plan to add more contests?

KAW: Yes. It’s ongoing. Our third bi-monthly contest started May 1. There will be two more after that. (The contests take place on our forum, for those interested.) The final judging will be done after our September contest is complete, and the overall winner will then appear in Issue 5.

And we plan to have other contests, just one-off deals, you know, where people can win books or CDs, things like that. Our new website—which is updated constantly and far more interactive than our previous site—is where we’ll hold those kinds of contests.

TC: In what ways has Shock Totem evolved away from your original expectation for the journal (for better or worse)?

KAW: We’re almost the complete opposite of what we first set out to be. We opened our doors as an e-zine paying 1 cent a word, and now we’re a print magazine that pays 5 cents a word. And despite the additional cost to us, we’re definitely better for it.

But as I mentioned at the beginning of Issue 1, our overall vision remains the same: Shock Totem is a magazine full of stories that we, as readers, enjoy the hell out of.

We’re also pissing fewer people off. Or I am, anyway. Haha.

Final Poll Results

Delicious Morsels:
Interview with Bizarro Fiction Author Jeremy C. Shipp

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Jeremy C. Shipp’s writing includes short fiction, novels, a screenplay and more. Visiting his website is like taking a trip through a liquid funhouse with the ghost of Hunter S. Thompson. Naturally we snatched him up for an October interview, coinciding with the release of several delicious morsels of new work.

Toasted Cheese: October is a busy month for you, with Cursed and Harlan County Horrors both being released. What other work do you have coming out?

Jeremy C. Shipp: I love October, because of Samhain/Halloween, and so this is an extra special month for me. I also have stories upcoming in Cemetery Dance, Apex Magazine, and other publications. I’m not sure exactly when these stories will be published, however.

TC: For your Harlan County Horrors anthology story “Kingdom Come,” you were given a setting—Harlan County, Kentucky—for a horror story. Where did you go from there? Tell us about your process for writing the story and what it’s about (without spoiling the surprises). Was the process typical of how you work?

JCS: My process for writing “Kingdom Come” was not typical for me, because I don’t often research a specific place before writing a story. With “Kingdom Come,” I read everything I could about Harlan County, and found a place I connected with, Kingdom Come State Park.

With “Kingdom Come,” I wanted to write a dystopian tale that reflects, in a fun-house mirror, the systemic evils that Harlan County has faced in the past. The story is about a man who goes on vacation with his family, and begins to lose everything. His family, his mind. And only by losing everything does he find the truth about himself, and about Kingdom Come.

TC: In other interviews, you’ve said that the theme of equality—and the danger of hierarchy—runs through your work. Is this a conscious choice or something you discovered in looking back at your work?

JCS: I never attempt to convey certain messages in my writing, but my worldview is reflected and explored in my writing. I believe whole-heartedly that hierarchical thinking is one of the greatest evils in the world, and so many of my characters must face this evil. I do what I can to make the world a better place, even in the smallest of ways, and so my characters do the same.

TC: Even though you write fiction that encompasses multiple genres, do you consider yourself primarily a writer of “bizarro” fiction? How fluid do you find genre and how do you play with it and the reader’s preconceptions?

JCS: I never set out to write a bizarro or horror or dark fantasy story, but these are how many of my tales are categorized. And I’m glad. Genre, to me, has more to do with community than literary conventions. The bizarro and horror communities have embraced me and my writing, and I have embraced them back. Within these communities I’ve found writers and readers and editors who connect with my writing. This is a blessing.

As far as my actual writing process goes, I write what’s in my heart and mind and spleen. I try to open my mind, and travel beyond the boundaries of my own preconceptions of what a story is or isn’t. This is not only a meaningful experience for me. It’s fun.

TC: Tell us about the theme of “transformation” and how you use it.

JCS: The transformations in my stories are usually emotional, spiritual, ideological transformations. For example, Bernard in “Vacation” experiences a major paradigm shift. And his shift reflects my own ideological transformation.

My characters aren’t heroes. They’re ordinary people, with insecurities and prejudices and weaknesses. Sometimes they must help save the world, by defeating the darkness in themselves. They must learn to love and accept themselves. They must discover their inner power. And so, they must transform.

TC: Darkness and humor aren’t what some would consider a natural combination. Tell us something about your opinion on the combination or separate elements.

JCS: First of all, on the subject of darkness, I want to say that while I believe in evil systems and ideas, I don’t believe in evil people. In my mind, everything in existence is inherently worthy of respect. Anyway, I believe that humor can be used to battle evil. Also, the darkness of our world is often ridiculous and absurd. And so, for me, darkness and humor go hand in hand.

Of course, I’m very conscious about my use of humor in stories. My goal is never to make light of serious situations. But humor and absurdity often exists, even in the darkest of times.

TC: You write a lot of strong, central female characters. Tell us about some of your favorite female characters and how they evolved as you worked on their stories.

JCS: My goal is always to create characters who will be viewed as whole human beings. I don’t want to create stereotypes or archetypes. And so, my female characters are strong, fragile people. Because everyone in the world is strong and fragile.

My favorite character so far, probably, is Cicely from Cursed. She’s a passionate, creative, weird human being. When I first started writing Cursed, I didn’t understand her completely. She was a stranger to me. As the story continued, my understanding of her deepened, and she became more and more complex. This is the reason why I love writing novels so much. I get to stick with the same characters for so long.

Another character I’m very fond of is Bridget, from the novel I’m working on now. Bridget is a depressed, unhappy person, with a lot of love bottled up inside her. There are forces in the world that want to claim her, and hopefully, she’ll find the strength to follow her own path. She believes she’s an uncaring and unworthy person. She hates her body. But I hope she’ll learn to love herself. I’ll do what I can to guide her in that direction, but in the end, she’ll have to make all the hard decisions herself.

TC: Do you find that fans gravitate toward a certain aspect of your work? How vocal are your fans?

JCS: Judging by the feedback I’ve received over the years, my readers seem to be people (and yard gnomes) who enjoy stories that are both entertaining and thought-provoking. I try to write stories that are socially, emotionally, and spiritually conscious, and my readers appreciate this. I’m very lucky to be a cult writer who has a very vocal and very supportive fan base. It’s because of my fans that my readership grows every day.

TC: Have you found that online/electronic publishing opens your work up to a greater audience or is it difficult to find readers open to taking that ride?

JCS: Most of my readers seem to enjoy both online and print media. Many of my online stories are free to read, which is nice, because this allows readers to try out my work without spending any money. Then, if they connect with my writing in a positive way, they might end up buying my print books or subscribing to Bizarro Bytes.

TC: Tell us about Bizarro Bytes.

JCS: Bizarro Bytes is my story subscription service. For $12, subscribers get twelve new, previously unpublished bizarro tales written by me. They get a new story every month, delivered to their email, in the e-book format of their choice. Higher level subscribers also get added bonuses, like their name in one of my stories. You can read more about Bizarro Bytes here.

TC: Who are your influences (not only writers but directors, musicians, artists, etc.)?

JCS: Myriad artists inspire me. Hayao Miyazaki, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, Takashi Miike, Terry Gilliam, Jim Henson, Chan-wook Park, Pink Floyd, The Flaming Lips, David Firth, George Lucas, Joss Whedon, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Arundhati Roy, and many, many others.

TC: What inspires you? What challenges you?

JCS: I’m inspired by all the wonderful artistic creations that I love. I’m inspired by my friends and my family and the people I overhear in the grocery store. I’m inspired by the horrors of our world. Civilization as a system challenges me. At times, I have to work hard to stay hopeful and positive. So every day, I write out ten blessings. Ten things, big or small, that touch my heart. This helps.

TC: What writing advice do you wish you’d heeded sooner? What writing advice do you wish you’d never listened to?

JCS: I’m lucky, because most of the advice I’ve been given over the years has been helpful in some way. And when someone gives me bad advice, I can usually recognize that fact.

TC: What are you consuming lately?

JCS: I’ve been consuming daal, green smoothies, bizarro books, American Born Chinese, The Dark Crystal, Return to Oz, Ponyo, Spirited Away, Let the Right One In, Kare Kano, Naruto, and The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra.

TC: What are you working on?

JCS: I’m currently working on a new novel called Bridge, a story collection called Fungus of the Heart, a short film that might end up being called Fairy, and a comic series. I can’t say much about any of these at this point.

TC: Please tell us about your short film Egg and the process of creating it.

JCS: Jayson Densman, director extraordinaire, is a fan of my books and stories, and he approached me about doing a project together. So I wrote the script for Egg, specifically for him. Egg is the story of a man’s shattered psyche. He’s searching for the truth about his past, but this is difficult, because his memories are always changing. You can watch the trailer on YouTube.

TC: Finally, what do we need to know about the gnomes?

JCS: Yard gnomes are compassionate, magical creatures that live in hunter-gatherer-based eco-villages. They believe that every word they speak and every muscle they move should be an act of love. Also, they’re doing everything they can to prepare for the collapse of civilization, but they try not to worry too much about it.


Jeremy C. Shipp is a weird author of bizarro, horror, dark fantasy, and magic realism. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in over 50 publications, the likes of Cemetery Dance, ChiZine, Harlan County Horrors, Apex Magazine, Pseudopod, and The Bizarro Starter Kit (blue). While preparing for the forthcoming collapse of civilization, Jeremy enjoys living in Southern California in a moderately haunted Victorian farmhouse with his wife, Lisa, and their legion of yard gnomes. He’s currently working on many stories and novels and is losing his hair, though not because of the ghosts. His books include Vacation, Sheep and Wolves, and Cursed. And thankfully, only one mime was killed during the making of his first short film, Egg.

Final Poll Results

Grabbing a Bite
with MaryJanice Davidson

Absolute Blank

By Erin L. Nappe (Billiard)

What do you get when you cross Buffy’s attitude, Angel’s “vampire with a soul” schtick, and Carrie Bradshaw’s designer shoe fetish?

Well, you might get something like Betsy Taylor, the heroine of MaryJanice Davidson‘s popular “Undead” series.

For those not familiar with the series, here’s a quick overview: 30-year-old Betsy is hit by a car and wakes up in the morgue. She discovers that she is a vampire, but a strange one… sunlight doesn’t hurt her, she can touch crosses and other religious articles without pain, and she isn’t consumed by the urge to feed. As it turns out, these are the very things that make her the prophesied Queen of the Vampires. She teams up with “tall, dark and sinister” Eric Sinclair, a sort of vampire king, and you can guess what happens next.

Davidson is incredibly prolific, having published 26 books in four years, with 7 coming out in 2006 so far. (“I type fast,” she says.)

Undead and Unpopular, the fifth book in the series, was released this month, and we here at TC had the chance to pick Davidson’s brain.

Toasted Cheese: How long have you been writing professionally?

MaryJanice Davidson: I quit my SDJ (Stupid Day Job) three years ago and have been writing full time since. It was frightening to contemplate, since I’ve had “real” jobs since I was 16, and Minnesota was in the midst of a terrible recession at the time, and my SDJ was a good one (Ops Manager). Everyone encouraged me to keep my job and keep writing at night, except my husband, who told me to go for it. And once I did it I never looked back. And once my editors knew I was writing full-time, they went out of their way to try to find me lots of work. They knew I had a family to feed.

TC: What’s the first thing you ever wrote? Published?

MJD: The first book I ever wrote was The Adventures of the Teen Furies and, coincidentally, it was the first book I published (the e-publisher HardShell Word Factory bought it, and it’s still in print, both as an e-book and as a paperback).

TC: How long did it take you to get published?

MJD: Years and years. I’ve been writing since I was 13, submitting since my early twenties, and I’m now 36. I have a stack of rejection letters from just about every romance publisher out there: Harlequin, Silhouette, Warner, Avon, Little Brown, Dorchester.

TC: What writer (or writers) do you admire? Is there anyone in particular that inspired or influenced you?

MJD: Stephen King (I love his rags to riches story), John Sandford, Laurell K. Hamilton (another rags to riches story, plus she was a single mom for quite a while), Carl Hiaasen (funniest writer ever), Ann Rule (amazing depth of research for her true crime stories), Charlaine Harris (just an outstanding writer in general, and such a nice lady in person, a total sweetheart!). I’m pretty eclectic; I read across genres. Frankly, I admire any writer who managed to get published; it’s a tough business.

TC: What about the “paranormal romance” genre interested you?

MJD: I love vampires, werewolves, fairies, witches… the idea of having “super powers” is just fascinating to me. What must it be like to be immortal, to be super strong, to see in the dark like a cat, to do magic? Fascinating.

TC: Was there any real life inspiration for Betsy?

MJD: I guess, maybe me. I’m six feet tall, like Betsy, and a jerk, like Betsy, and self-absorbed. I didn’t want a “Mary Sue” heroine, the type who can do no wrong. What I like about Betsy is that not everybody loves her; in fact, she irritates the hell out of a lot of people. Also like me!

TC: What are you currently working on?

MJD: I just finished SLEEPING WITH THE FISHES, my new paranormal series about a grumpy mermaid who doesn’t like to swim and is allergic to shellfish. And I’m working on another Alaskan Royal book, THE ROYAL SURPRISE. (What if Alaska was never bought by the US, was its own country and had its own royal family?)

TC: Can you tell us what’s next for Betsy and Sinclair?

MJD: Well, the wedding (if all goes well). Betsy really wants an “official” ceremony as opposed to the Book of the Dead simply stating she and Sinclair are mated for a thousand years. Whereas Sinclair thinks the idea of a ceremony is just ridiculous; they’re already husband and wife according to vampire lore. And Betsy badly wants a baby, which is a little tricky, since her ovaries stopped working the day she died. And she still has a lot of vampires to win over; many of them think Sinclair is the real power behind the throne, and she’s just a fluke. When, frankly, it’s the other way around.

TC: Do you have any advice for our readers?

MJD: Never ever ever give up. If I had quit submitting any time during those 15 years, I would never have made the New York Times list. I’d never be writing full time and, frankly, I wouldn’t have gobs of money. It’s a tough business, but persistence is definitely rewarded.


Billiard Recommends: Undead and Unwed

More MaryJanice Davidson:

Final Poll Results

Talking the Talk: Creating Language

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

If you’re writing a fantasy book, you have probably already begun creating a unique language for your world. Your characters are probably not named “Tom” or “Linda.” Your landmarks and towns are nearly impossible to pronounce, and your favorite animal so far is called the “fargachn.”

It’s almost unconscious in fantasy writers, our need to create new, unusual and strange words. It’s one of the reasons we’re drawn to this genre. We want to go outside the boundaries of the known into the unknown. We love to color outside the lines and it shows from the very beginning of our novels.

For about a year now, I’ve been creating a language for an online role-playing group of Amazons. (You can read more about this in my Fan Fiction article, “Working With A Net”, April 2002 here at Toasted Cheese.) It’s been both a chore and a labor of love. I’ve learned a lot in my struggle and decided to share a few of those hard lessons with you.

Look at what you have before you start.

The major character names and the names you’ve given places are a good place to start looking at how your people speak. Did you add vowels to the end of all their place names? If so, consider doing that with the more common words, as well. What’s the ratio of hyphenated words to regular words? What’s the average length of a word? How much meaning does the word incorporate? These are all good indicators of how your regular words should shape up.

From Children of Dune by Frank Herbert:

He thought: Sietch Tabr is mine. I rule here. I am a Naib of the Fremen. Without me there would have been no Muad’Dib.

You can tell from the context what these words mean. All are place names or titles and each one helps you get into the story and remind you that you aren’t in Kansas anymore.

Keep it simple.

The temptation to create a hundred-word dictionary for your language is great. Unless you’re going to publish it as an independent novel, or as a companion to your novels, try to restrain yourself. Keep a list and keep track, but don’t bog yourself down by feeling as if you need all the words ever. Create what you need, and leave the rest.

Make it important.

As with all things in a novel or story, create important words instead of common ones. Titles, endearments, places and words of power will take your story farther than objects, colors, or normal activities. Give your words meaning and weight and make sure they’re furthering your story, not just cluttering it up.

From The Magic Of Krynn: The Legacy by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman:

Quithain…” Plain repeated to himself. “Means… congratulations. Congratulations, Magus…”

He gasped, staring at Dalamar in disbelief.

“What does it mean?” demanded Caramon, glaring at the dark elf. “I don’t understand–”

“He is one of us now, Caramon,” said Dalamar quietly, taking hold of Palin’s arm and escorting him past his father. “His trials are over. He has completed the Test.”

Here, Palin realizes the importance of what Dalamar has told him in elvish. He also lets the readers in on the secret as he figures it out. Both words are important and are the only elvish used in the story, increasing its impact.

Don’t make it hard to say.

You should be able to speak your own language. If you write, “glrbsxnakl,” be sure your readers will be able to say it in their head. Words that are too long or full of vowels and consonants shoved together are going to be hard to get a mental handle on. Keep things easy to understand.

Use it sparingly.

Just because you created a word, doesn’t mean you should use it. As with all language, a certain amount of repetition is good and will help the reader learn your language in context. However, most readers want things plainly spelled out and easy to read. Pepper your language through your text instead of using it and only it.

From The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien:

“Elen sìla lúmenn omentilmo, a star shines on the hour of our meeting,” he added in the high elven-speech.

“Be careful, friends!” cried Gildor laughing. Speak no secrets! Here is a scholar in the Ancient Tongue.”

Here Bilbo speaks enough elvish to Gildor and his friends, proving he is worthy of their friendship and interest. For the rest of the conversation, including a song, no elvish is spoken, just referred to. We know it’s different and we know it’s there, we just aren’t hammered with it.

Use it yourself.

A great way to see if your invented word or phrase works is to use it. Say it out loud, for starters. Find where the inflection is or could be.

Consider using language markers, e.g. umlauts, to show where the emphasis should go. There is a vast difference between “Noel” and “Noël” when spoken aloud. To someone named “Noel”, it can make all the difference in the world around Christmas time. These little accents can bring your language color and flavor and texture.

Try using the same word in a different context. For example, if you create a word for “cup,” try using it both as an object and as an action. Will it work?

Remember it isn’t English.

This is actually a hard one to avoid. Your language should not mirror English, if possible. All language has structure and rules. Take some time to look at foreign languages and learn their unique style. German and Chinese have vastly different grammar rules from English or American. Studying these can help you lay a foundation for something truly your own.

Perhaps your language has a complex simplicity, where many words are summed up by one word. Perhaps there are no prepositions in your language. Perhaps there are no pronouns. Perhaps your language is a combination of dialects from throughout the region and it has a little bit of everything mixed together. Be creative and be unique.

From the Amazon (Tae’Nah) language:

“It is coming, Valkyra,” Deoris said. “I have seen it.”

Ahu,” the Queen whispered with reverence. The beginning and end of all things. She looked up at the Ti’Sa. “What can we do?”

Here, one word carries a lot of weight in the conversation. It encompasses an idea, instead of a single item.

Too many cooks can spoil the stew.

Your language might improve if you share your created words with others. Having a buddy to bounce ideas off of is a great way to be sure your language is easy to understand and readable. I suggest only one or two people, however. Everyone has an idea of what works and what doesn’t and you can go around and around over the simplest of words. Remember in the end that the final decision is yours. If they hated “fargachn” and you loved it, go with your instinct and override them.

There is no Amazon word for “help.” I have submitted no less than twenty possibilities, from the normal to the insane, trying to please a panel of four judges. There always seems to be a reason to reject it. It’s too long, it’s too short, it looks too much like this word over there, whatever. In order for a word to be created, I will have to ignore the panel and simply make a call and choose something.

Resources are out there.

There are many Web sources available for language creation. Toasted Cheese has listed several on our Resources page, Mustard and Cress. Look under the “Dictionary” heading. Check out online dictionaries for old or dead languages and for foreign languages. Some of my best words come straight from Latin and some are Turkish with a twist. It’s a great source of inspiration and information.

From Amazon: high = archila

This is an overview of how I got the Amazon word for “leader” or “first rank”, which all ended up as the word for “high.”

Since our Amazon tribe is historically placed in Turkey during the years of Julius Caesar’s reign, I started with Latin. The Latin-American Dictionary was suggested at Mustard and Cress. I typed in “leader” and was given several possibilities. I scanned the list and decided none of them sounded right to me, but “rector: guider, leader, director, ruler, master” was the closest in meaning. I followed some of those words and came upon “archos: ruler” which I thought was great, but a little too obviously Latin.

Looking through the words I’d already created, I noticed a tendency to end the words with vowel combinations such as “la” “za” “ra” or “li” “zi” “ri.” Drawing on that, I came up with “ila” as an ending for “arch” instead of the Latin “os.” Archila became the word for “high” and was added to the Amazon Dictionary.

As you can see, creating a unique language can be a difficult and time-consuming process. The rewards are wonderful however, giving your world a depth it might be missing. Don’t be afraid to explore this interesting avenue of creation.

Final Poll Results

Creating A Fantasy World

Absolute Blank

By Patsy Sheehan

When writing fantasy or science fiction, the writer has the opportunity to create an alternate world. It could be on earth, but in a mythological time, or hidden in another dimension. It could be on another planet. Or it could be a place of the imagination, like a fairyland.

Whenever the writer leaves familiar settings, she must create a three-dimensional geography for her characters to occupy. She must provide them with a civilization and culture. She must invent plausible characters, and other creatures to inhabit that world. No matter how fantastic a world the writer creates, the reader must feel comfortable jumping into it.

Although many writers like to let their fantasy worlds evolve, this can lead to rewrites if the narrative takes an unexpected turn. A well-planned fantasy world gives the writer a framework to work within and allows her to concentrate on writing.

To illustrate this, if the writer is doing an alternate-earth world, she should ask herself what the natural surface will be like. Will it be desert, forest or prairie? Are there oceans, lakes, and rivers and where will she place them? Will there be mountains or tableland? Now is a good time for her to start roughing out a map. This may seem like too much work at first. Many of these details might never end up in the story. However, these background details will help her write the story.

GEOGRAPHY

Geography influences the weather and the seasons. For instance, forests are rainy and deserts are dry. Cold regions are close to the poles and tropical regions are close to the equator. This seems obvious. However, some writers make terrible mistakes in this regard, like placing an arctic region on the equator of a planet.

“Yes, but this is fantasy,” the writer says.

True, but remember you want to make the reader feel comfortable in this world. A discerning reader will question apparent impossibilities, so the writer must have a plausible explanation. The arctic region could be on the equator of a planet tipped on its side with a horizontal rather than vertical axis. The reader must accept this situation as a fact. He won’t be comfortable if his logic is challenged.

When adding geographical features, the writer needs to keep the reader in that acceptance mode. Children can embrace a stream flowing with chocolate. The adult reader prefers that the white knight cross a stream consisting of water on his way to rescue the fair damsel from the dragon.

In science fiction about a distant planet, the stream could consist of some other chemical but it would have to be a liquid form of a chemical, like liquid hydrogen, to be consistent with the concept of a river. Help the reader accept this world by keeping it scientific, even if it is pseudo-science.

When the writer is satisfied with the natural features of her world, she is ready to create the artificial structures of a civilization.

CIVILIZATION

The characters live and work in the farms, villages and cities the inhabitants have built. The writer needs to decide what level of civilization this society has achieved. Are they using fire or electricity? Have they harnessed some another form of energy?

When writing futuristic fantasy or science fiction, the writer can invent all kinds of technological and scientific advances as long as they seem plausible in her setting. Some level of scientific knowledge helps to explain those things that don’t seem real. If the writer doesn’t have enough scientific knowledge and is reluctant to do the research, it would be best to avoid this genre. A writer in this genre would need to have a plausible, scientific-sounding explanation for questions like: “How do the characters walk around a spaceship?”

The architecture of the buildings and layout of the farms, villages, or cities need visual explanations. What building materials are used? What are the roads like and what kind of transportation do the inhabitants use? Do they have parks or gardens? In addition, at what artistic level are they? Remember that civilizations that didn’t have electricity, running water and advanced medicine have produced some of the greatest works of art, architecture and engineering.

CULTURE

Next, the writer needs to create the culture of the inhabitants. Who is in charge? Do they have a king or are they democratic? Are their leaders elected, appointed or born into the job? Do they have a class-tiered society of rich, middle-class and poor? Are they egalitarian? Are they matriarchal or patriarchal? What is their religion and what are their spiritual beliefs? What is their economy based on? Are they peaceful or warlike? How do they heal themselves? Do they have writing or do they pass their stories and traditions down orally? What is their music like? What do they eat? What do they wear and what ornamentation do they use?

The deeper and more varied the details of the culture are, the richer and more nuanced the writing will be. Once the writer is satisfied with the culture, she is ready to create the physical appearance of the inhabitants of her world.

INHABITANTS

What do the characters look like? Are they human, humanoid, or intelligent beings of other species? The writer needs to take care when peppering her world with other species that they remain credible. For instance, if she writes a story that takes place in Africa, she needs to keep the species African. If she throws American buffalo into the Congo, she needs to explain how they got there.

Likewise, she shouldn’t put real Earth species on a fantasy planet unless they were transported there from Earth. She may have similar species, yet they must be a species unique to that planet. Creatures from Greek mythology, like griffins, would be inappropriate in Mayan mythology, unless the author explained their presence.

The writer needs to keep her characters within the context of her fantasy world. When J. R. R. Tolkien created Middle Earth in The Hobbit and his later works, his characters were rooted in northern European mythology. The same can be said about the wealth of literature surrounding the Arthurian legends. When Ray Bradbury wrote The Martian Chronicles, he created Martians who could inhabit what was known of the planet at that time. Frank Herbert’s Dune characters and society are an alternate earth-like society with very human denizens and institutions.

HISTORICAL FANTASY

Sometimes, the writer may want to place her fantasy squarely in the middle of a real time and place on earth. When writing fantasy in a historical context, the writer needs to be prepared to do plenty of research. If the writer doesn’t like history and doing research, then she shouldn’t write in this cross genre. Without the historical background references, the writing becomes flat and boring or even nonsensical.

If she has a delicious vampire story, and she wants to place it in a historical era, she needs to get her facts straight. She must decide when and where her story will take place and find out everything she can about that period, which means researching the history and geography, literature, art and folk customs. After she has gleaned as much information as possible, then she is free to invent details to fill in the gaps in information.

Like all guidelines, don’t be afraid to break these. Unlike historical fiction, fantasy fiction is flexible. Some writers have placed castles in valleys, which in real life would make them vulnerable to attack. Yet, the reader accepted the situation because the writer explained why the story needed that castle to be in a valley.

To summarize, in order to make a fantasy world work, it has to seem possible and credible, while remaining fantastic.

Final Poll Results