Wednesday, December 29, 2010

LOCUS Reviews—Vicksburg Dead Recommended

Lois Tilton reviews IGMS #20.

Some she liked, some she didn’t; some she liked at first, and some she liked all the way through.

Special recognition to Jens Rushing for her story, ‘The Vicksburg Dead.’

--Scott M. Roberts

Assistant Editor, IGMS

Monday, December 27, 2010

The American—Bruce Worden

Like many stories, The American grew out of a collection of ideas. It began with the concept of a singularity, but I wanted to use the concept in a new way. At some point I read that the United States spends more on its military than all other countries in the world combined. That may be an exaggeration, but it is certainly true that the U.S. accounts for a strikingly disproportionate fraction of the world’s defense spending. From this observation came the idea that the paranoid preoccupation with security, when carried to its logical conclusion, might result in a limitless appetite for information and an obsessive commitment to secrecy. In other words, it might result in a State that is both expansionist and closed – the characteristics of a black hole. The idea for The American was born.

Someone once said that good science fiction stories take place at the edge of ideas, where the ordinary meets the extraordinary. So the-american I began to wonder what would happen at the “event horizon,” the area where regular people came in contact with the looming but unknowable force personified by the Americans. How would ordinary people react? With denial? Resignation? Violence? The American is a story about how one woman reacts. She is confronted with something unimaginably more powerful than herself - something that, from her point of view, might as well be a god. In classical mythology, Zeus often took the form of animals for his liaisons on earth. From this came the idea that the eponymous American in the story might assume the form of a stag, a creature that is powerful, solitary, and mythical.

Once the pieces were in place, the first draft of the story came out fairly easily. Then the work began. Easy birth, rough childhood. While most of the major elements remain in the final version, I rewrote the story several times over a period of months, at one point cutting its length by 25% (a painful experience), before submitting to IGMS. But I think the rewrites made it a better story, and with some helpful suggestions from IGMS editor Edmund Schubert, this final version says what I wanted to say. I hope you enjoy it.

--Bruce Worden

Monday, December 20, 2010

Miracle on Massachusetts Avenue

Both sides of my family lived in Cambridge, MA on the river side of Massachusetts Avenue from 1866 to 1958 - all of them from the British Isles. When I was born, my family had moved farther out to the suburbs of Boston, but still only a few blocks “off the Ave.” That street, which meanders from Central Mass through Cambridge and across the Charles River to Boston was a big part of my life.

miracle When I was old enough, my mother let me walk the few blocks to Mass. Ave. by myself, and I haunted the local library, bought every issue of every comic that had Superman on the cover and spent most Saturdays at the movie theater with my little sister. I loved a good story.

Maybe, it was because being lucky enough to live in the same household as my Irish immigrant great grandmother, I heard a few.

Some scared me enough to pull the covers over my head and at the same time, thrill me with the delicious details of the Banshee, the Death Coach, the three knocks and the fairies of all shapes and sizes. She swore they were all true.

Years later, my mother Patricia, was diagnosed with cancer and I spent many a day driving her to Boston for treatments. She had the gift of gab, and at my prompting, she regaled me with hours of stories about our family. I had recently become interested in genealogy and was trying to fill in the family history.

One of the stories was about the day her great grandmother died. Sadly, it was on the birthday that she finally received a long wanted pair of new roller skates. She was ten years old.

A few years after my mother’s death, I thought I’d pay tribute to her and our Great Grandmothers’ stories, tying the historical in with the fantastical in, “Miracle on Massachusetts Avenue”.

--Maureen Power

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sympathy of a Gun—Gary Kloster

So the question usually goes, where did you get the idea for this story? Sympathy of a Gun started out as a story that was all about ideas. I wrote about the problems I had with most alien invasion stories, the relationship that existed in my head between AI's and animal domestication, and why space travel actually kind of sucks. Very Important Ideas went into this story.

The first draft ended up being really long and boring.

sympathy-of-a-gun That's the thing with ideas. They may be the critical skeleton of any story, but those bones are dry when they're bare. They need to be shrouded in the flesh and blood of conflict and character. Without drama, without soap opera, an idea is an essay, not a story. So the question shouldn't be, where did I get the idea for this story? The question should be, what made the ideas in this story work?

Emily. The main character.

Bitter and smart, terrified and pissed. She's confrontational, demanding, a troublemaker. One of those people who seem to exist just to argue. That's what made this story work. Before she popped into my head, all those ideas were just lying there, useless. Boring.

Until Emily barged in and gave those ideas meaning. She might be a made up person, but I hope that you can see her when you read the story. Because if you do, if you can know her and understand her for a little bit, then the story, and all of its ideas, work.

Hopefully.

 

--Gary Kloster

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

IGMS issue #20

Now available, issue #20 of Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show, featuring:

Featured Stories -

The Never, Never Wizard of Apalachicola - by Jason Sanford

Sympathy of a Gun - by Gary Kloster

The American - by Bruce Worden

The Vicksburg Dead - by Jens Rushing

Beneath the Shadow of the Dragon - by Erin Cashier


Holiday Bonuses -

The Wisemen - by Orson Scott Card

Miracle on Massachusetts Avenue - by Maureen Power


Audio Story - Beneath the Shadow of the Dragon

Plus - Darrell Schweitzer's interview with Ellen Datlow

Friday, December 03, 2010

InterGalactic Medicine Show - issue #20 - coming soon


Coming next week, issue #20 of Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show, featuring:


The Never, Never Wizard of Apalachicola - by Jason Sanford

Sympathy of a Gun - by Gary Kloster

The American - by Bruce Worden

The Vicksburg Dead - by Jens Rushing

Beneath the Shadow of the Dragon - by Erin Cashier




Holiday Bonuses -

The Wisemen - by Orson Scott Card

Miracle on Massachusetts Avenue - by Maureen Power






Audio Story - Beneath the Shadow of the Dragon

Plus - Darrell Schweitzer's interview with Ellen Datlow







***

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Issue #20—Intergalactic Medicine Show

Issue #20 should be out some time early next week—and let me tell you, I am excited.  Some of the best short fiction I’ve read in a while will appear in our ever-loving virtual pages.  From a sci-fi reimagining of the Christmas Story (by Orson Scott Card, no less), to the effects of a transhuman singularity on a small Polish farm, this issue of Intergalactic Medicine Show is chock-a-block full of speculative goodness.

See you then!

--Scott M. Roberts

Assistant Editor, IGMS

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Sideshow Arcade: No FATE But What You Make

The systems I’ve reviewed previously are all what are called d20 systems: the chief randomization mechanic relies on rolling a dice with 20 sides.  OF COURSE there are different systems; Top Secret, which I mentioned in my first foray on this line of thinking uses a system based on a ten sided die.  Damage amounts are handled by other dice: 8 sided, 4 sided, even the rare 12 sided dice, or 2-sided (we call those “coins” in my world.) 

The FATE system eschews the exotically sided dice for its system.  Nothing more is needed than four normal, six-sided dice.

But WAIT! cry the purveyors of fine plastic gaming effluvia.  What about merchandising?  What about aesthetic value?  What about the sheer pleasure of hearing seven or eight dodecahedrons spill out of your palms to tumble across a table? 

There’s some merit in that argument, but I think that a game should be more than just the dice you’re rolling.  If you’re intent on buying specialized dice, I’ll note that FATE dice are available at your local retailer, or for order online. 

THE LADDER

In other gaming systems, there’s a target number (we’ll use Difficulty Rating (DR) here) to hit in order to accomplish something.  For example, jumping across a chasm might have a DR of 20.  Generally, you’d use your Jump skill to oppose the DR; roll a 20 sided die, add your Jump skill modifier, and if you succeed, you cross; if you fail you drop. 

Fate’s system is similar, but instead of a target number it uses a ladder of adjectives: Abysmal to Legendary.  Envision it like this:

  • Legendary (+6)
  • Epic (+5)
  • Superb (+4)
  • Great (+3)
  • G00d (+2)
  • Fair (+1)
  • Average (0)
  • Mediocre (-1)
  • Poor (-2)
  • Miserable (-3)
  • Abysmal (-4)

The adjective describes the difficulty of the challenge.  Using the previous example, jumping over that chasm is going to take an Epic effort; your skill at Jumping is Fair.  Roll the dice!  For every 5 or 6, climb one step up the ladder.  For every 1 or 2, move down the ladder.  3s and 4s don’t provide a bonus or a penalty.  You’ve only got four dice, so in order to jump the chasm successfully, you’ll need to roll all 5s and 6s.  Not an easy feat…

CHARACTER CREATION

Another way that the Fate system differs from d20 systems is in the way that characters are created.  Instead of choosing race, class, rolling attributes, etc., you tell the character’s back story in phases.  With each phase, you choose skills that the character acquires during that period of his life.

Here’s the thing: with Fate, there are no set system-defined skills.  You make them up as you tell the character’s story.  As your campaign progresses, it’s up to you to decide how a skill fits a particular challenge, and how to justify its use to your Game Master.

Using the Jump example above: Ed’s character, Milan, doesn’t have the Jump skill, but he does have a skill called Acrobatic.  It’s not a huge stretch to see that the two skills may be related; the GM allows Milan to jump the chasm using his Acrobatic skill.

Characters may have between 5-8 phases of creation; it’s up to the GM to decide.  In addition to choosing skills, players choose aspects for their characters.  An Aspect is an element to describe the character.  Things like Ugly as Sin, Dapper, Greedy, or Salt-of-the-Earth.  Long-standing enemies can be taken as Aspects; so can places.  The number of aspects per phase is up to the GM. 

The point of Aspects is to use them to either get a reroll, or to change one die to a 5 or 6.  So: poor Milan didn’t quite roll well enough to make that jump; he’s one step away from the Epic effort needed to clear the chasm.  Ed decides to invoke Milan’s aspect, Circus Freak, and explains that Milan’s legs are powerful from being conditioned during his time as Kangaroo Boy in Barney and Bumley’s Big Top.  The GM decides to allow it; Ed changes one 3 to a 6, and sighs in satisfaction as Milan makes it safely to the other side of the chasm.

Note that Aspects can also be used against characters.  While Circus Freak may serve Milan well when he has to jump over chasms, it’s a detriment when he’s trying to convince Horatio Stalwart that he’s a serious and viable contender for entry into the League of Super Secret Financiers.  The GM can invoke Circus Freak to force Milan to do something ridiculous and inappropriate—like smash a banana cream-pie into his own face in order to “impress” Stalwart.

Of course, when the GM does that, the character gets a Fate Point…

FATE POINTS

Fate points can be used simply to give a bonus to any roll a player makes, hiking them up a single step on the ladder.  More powerfully, they can be used to gain an amount of narrative control over the story.  Locked in a jail, and need a hairpin to try to pick the lock?  Spend a fate point, and you’ll find a hairpin beneath the pallet of straw in the corner.  Exploring a run-down mansion?  Spend a fate point, and you find a secret door that leads to the basement, bypassing the locked door…

The way fate points can be used—especially in conjunction with Aspects—is varied.  Their use largely depends on the way your GM wants to adjudicate the game.  But it’s a powerful and thrilling concept.

WRAPPING IT UP

I currently play a version of Fate called Spirit of the Century.  As a writer, I *love* its focus on story, and the ability of the players to drive the narrative.  The Fate system is flexible, but a bit nebulous at times; it’s obvious that it’s not quite as polished as other systems.  (For good reason: the Fate system is free.)  It’s power comes from pushing most of the rule-making onto the GM and Players; you need the right type of group for that configuration to work.

For what it’s worth, in my group there are two people who’ve never played an RPG before, ever; three people who have played RPGs but never a Fate-based system.  Only the GM has played Fate before.  We manage to have a good ol’ time.

-- Scott M. Roberts

Monday, November 29, 2010

Sideshow Arcade: Modern Man

When one looks at the plethora of gaming systems out there, one notices LOTS of castles.  And dragons.  And hermaphroditic denizens of forests, lakes, and swamps.  Fantasy worlds are  more than a staple—they’re practically the TEMPLATE.

Wizards of the Coast’s d20 Modern offers relief from the hordes of elves, gnomes, halflings, and so forth.  It brings the player’s party up to the age of gunpowder and beyond. 

Where both Iron Heroes and D&D 4e (and all previous iterations of D&D, to an extent) are best served by players choosing a niche for their character to fill, the d20 Modern system encourages players to allow their characters to fill multiple roles.  In a sense, it is the system that allows for Renaissance Men; it practically requires characters to branch out from their initial concept.  Where multi-classing is an option in other systems, sticking with a single class in d20 Modern can seriously crimp your character’s growth and ability to survive in the Brave New World.

d20 serves both combat and non-combat situations equally well.  Its capability to handle non-combat situations is SO marked and so impressive, it quickly usurped standard D&D (and 3.5e variants)  as my preferred system.  Flexibility is the name of the game, and d20 Modern plays it really, really well.  It has to: d20 Modern is meant to cover an enormous range of technological innovation, from gunpowder to gunships to starships.  And more!   Want to introduce contemporary fantasy or horror to your gaming group?  d20 is your system.  Elves with laptops!  Cyberpunk, Steampunk, Jungle-punk!  All can fit into the gears of the d20 Modern machine.

d20 Modern emphasizes skills in order to maintain this flexibility.  Skills are generally defined enough to allow for translation to different ages—Craft (Mechanical) can be used to build a catapult as well as a new FTL drive for a starship, depending on the setting.  Navigation can be used to read computer output to navigate star-ways as well as to read the stars to navigate a sailing vessel.  There are a LOT of skills characters have to draw on, too: the sheer number of skills available might overwhelm those players who are more habituated to skill-lite systems.

d20 Modern has a bevy of feats available to characters in general; but also offers several feat trees within classes.  For example, the Charismatic class has three paths: Leadership, Charm, and Fast-talk.   Each path has three feats which are acquired as the character advances; each path is designed to use the class’ prerequisite (Charisma) in a different way.  The leader may use his feats to help coordinate team-members in battle; the charmer may use his feats to boost his ability to be convincing outside of combat; the fast-talker may be able to better con his targets.   While this feature may seem designed to drive characters into a niche, the skill system and the need for multi-classing serves to offset that.

Sometimes the d20 Modern system gets a bit too big for its britches, though.  The rules can get a bit hairy and complex.  Case in point is the wealth system.  Gone is the relatively simple days of gold pieces; instead, wealth (as written in the rules) is a function of a die roll, occupation, level, and an equation whose formula I don’t remember right now.  :)  Spent wealth is accumulated over a given period of time, but (barring a successful bank robbery or inheritance, or windfall of some sort) you’re not likely to exceed your initial wealth rating.  It was confusing enough for my Game Master to declare it utterly broken, and to use home-brew wealth rules.

In my experience, d20 Modern heroes are a bit more fragile than their fantastically empowered peers.  There is no divinely-empowered Walking Medical Kit; healing takes time and rest.  Of course, there ARE rules that permit instantaneous healing, ala ‘Cure Light Wounds’ spell, but I didn’t play THOSE games. 

The extent of customization available in d20 Modern is such that it’s probably not the best system for brand new role players.  From what I understand from my GM, ditto for new Game Masters.  But if you’ve cut your teeth on swords and dragon’s talons; if you’ve got an eye on that far distant land of the future; if you’re prepared to step out of the dark ages into the land of Enlightement, Reason, and Gunpowder, give d20Modern a shot. 

With that, let me close with this: unlike 4e and Iron Heroes, you can find much of the source material for d20 Modern for free and online HERE.

Next time: no d20, no d10, no d8 even.  Embrace your FATE.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Side-Show Arcade: Iron Heroes

I admit it: I hate the Wizard class.  I’m not sure what it is about those beady-eyed, pompous, over-dressed, social misfits that gets my dander up.

So Iron Heroes is my kind of system.  Created by Mike Mearls, it uses the framework of D&D 3.5e to propose an RPG world where there is little to no magic available for the players.  And what magic there is is more likely to corrupt or destroy you than give you a to-hit bonus.  This is a world where dedication, brute strength, cunning, and intelligence rule; where the Gods are distant or capricious; where magic is the province of madmen and fools.

Largely, my kind of place.

I have nothing but praise for the system, although I admit to just being introduced to it fairly recently.  Iron Heroes differs from standard D&D in the way that it treats skills, and the way that it implements feats. 

IRON HEROES SKILLS

In standard D&D, you’ve got a metric that describes your basic attack.  Say you’re a third level fighter; your experience level + Strength rating  may give you a bonus when you take a swing with your broadsword at that goblin warrior. 

The same goes for Iron Heroes, but the Iron Hero warrior may also be able to use skills to help make his attacks better able to hit.  The Iron Hero warrior may roar and rant just before striking, using his skill at Intimidation to gain a bonus on his swing; he may do a couple cartwheels to distract the goblin before striking, leveraging his capability with Tumbling to give him a leg up in his attack. 

The way the system implements skill is VERY satisfactory to me; most of the characters I like to play are skill-centric rather than combat-oriented.  (Which is why I lurv the d20 Modern system…)  Practically any skill can be used to augment combat ability; even traditionally non-combat skills like Diplomacy and Survival can be massaged into doing service for your blade or axe.

The other neat thing that the Iron Heroes system does with skills is to group them into families and allow for complementary skill point distribution.  Each Iron Heroes class has access to certain skill families; if you have access to a skill family, then you need only spend 1 skill point to feed all the skills within that family.  So, for example, the skill family Agility contains the skills Tumble, Escape Artist, and Balance.  My Weapon Master need only spend a single skill point to upgrade all three skills because she has access to that skill family.  For skill families to which she doesn’t have access—for example Robbery (made up of Disable Device, Forgery, Open Lock, and Sleight of Hand), she has to spend a skill point on each skill if she wants to augment them.

IRON HEROES FEATS

The thing that makes Iron Heroes stand out against other gaming systems is probably its use of Token Pools.  Token Pools are a device to reward players for using feats; or for playing their character to type.  For example, the Berserker has access to the Fury token pool; he can gain tokens by watching an ally fall in battle; getting hit; or spending a turn thinking about how angry he is.  :)  Those tokens can then be spent on special abilities available to his class.  The more tokens he spends, the better able he is to bring the enemy pain. 

Token pools are available for non-class feats as well.  For example, the old standby Dodge.  Normally, the Dodge feat allows you to nominate a single enemy and gain a bonus against all attacks from that source.  In Iron Heroes, the Dodge feat gives you access to the Dodge Pool; the more that enemy attacks you and misses you, the more Dodge Tokens you get.  You can spend those tokens on making him miss even more.

And that leads perfectly into the idea of the feat masteries.  The first time you take Dodge, you get a +1 bonus to your defense per token spent against a single enemy’s attacks.  As you level up and learn more, you’re able to learn to use Dodge even more effectively.  For example, at Dodge Master 3, you’re able to spend 4 tokens and redirect an attack meant for you to hit someone else.  At level 7, when your designated opponent attacks and misses you, you can spend 4 tokens and take an immediate 5 foot step.

CRITICISM

I don’t really have any.  Whether the system is good from a game master’s perspective, I don’t know; I’ve only been a player. 

From my standpoint, the system inspires creativity and boldness in combat.  That’s precisely what I’m looking for, so Iron Heroes plays almost perfectly. 

Next up: d20 Modern!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Side-Show Arcade: D&D 4EEEEK! My Childhood!

Ah, Grandaddy D&D.  You hardly look a day older than ancient.  You are famous for being (rightly or not) the quintessential RPG; the nerdiest nerd in the herd; the gawkiest geek of the gaggle.  How many iterations has it been since Gary Gygax and TSR? 

Many, many, many…

D&D is a different animal these days than it was when I was a kid.  Some of those changes are good—there are a LOT fewer charts to consult, for example, and the system itself has slimmed down (plethora of books notwithstanding).  I think that the mechanics have been greatly simplified, and that’s a great thing.  Really, there are few things more frustrating than to have to step out of a battle to look at columns and rows of numbers. 

4e enumerates character combat abilities more extensively than previous versions.  So, for example: in D&D 3.5e, you have your fighter.  He has an axe.  You roll one dice to find out whether you hit or not; and if you hit, you roll a dice to find out how much damage you did.  The same thing goes for 4e, but in addition to smacking your enemy with an axe, your attack may have additional properties: you may be able to push the enemy a square, or you may be able to get a second attack on a different enemy nearby.  All good, right?

Well, right, depending on the type of game you want to run.  The abilities bestowed on characters via their class are one of the things that can work against 4e by making the game less-playable in mindspace.  A battle grid (a physical representation of the field of combat) is almost essential to the game in order for players to take advantage of their abilities. 

By enumerating characters’ abilities, the system tends to play a little inflexible.  This is actually one of the selling points of D&D’s Human race—while other races can pick two standard combat abilities, the human race can pick three, maximizing their combat options.

If a DM isn’t careful, the game can wind up feeling a heck of a lot like an expansive board game.

That said, 4e plays a LOT better than I initially thought it would.  Allowing characters to fill niches makes for very clear combat direction: your fighter is the guy who takes damage and protects the team; your wizard is the guy who controls the battle field; the thief sneaks in to deal heavy damage to a single foe; and the cleric leads it all by boosting abilities and keeping everyone alive.  The exchange of flexibility for greater mechanical clarity and simplicity isn’t BAD; and from what I understand, the DM support manuals make encounter creation a breeze in comparison to earlier editions.

Next time: IRON HEROES!  All of the danger, and none of the magic!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Side-show Arcade: RPG System Review

PART ONE: BACKSTORY

Keep your X-Box and your PS3.  Hold your PSP, your Wii, your vintage GameBoy, your Nintendo DS.

I’ve no need of them. 

I’ve been involved with Role Playing Games since I was in grade school.  My brother and I nicked a copy of one of the old Dungeons and Dragons solo-adventure modules (something about a thief and a gem) from an older kid on the bus, and we were hooked.  This was back in the old red-box days…the original Red Box days.  Yes—we memorized charts of experience; the ridiculous AC system; everything.  We convinced my grandmother to spend the dough on getting us all four tiers of the system: Basic, Expert, Companion, and the Master level.

THAC0 

We moved off of D&D to TSR’s d10 line of modern RPGs—the Top Secret/SI line, which was brilliant.  Hit points no longer in a pool, but distributed equally across parts of your body?  So you could kill a guy by doing 10 points of damage to him, as long as it was a head shot. 

topsecretsi Of course we loved it.  We were Texans, after all.  What could possibly be more Texan than carting around a huge shotgun, hunting down a deadly government conspiracy?

Nothing, that’s what.

We dabbled with Advanced D&D; we got the Player’s Guide and the DM’s Guide, and the Fiend Folio, but that was really it.  After we left Texas, I played D&D exactly once. 

Fast forward to 2002.  An online acquaintance asked if I’d be interested in playing a Dungeons and Dragons campaign through email; I jumped at the opportunity.  Since then…well.  I’ve had the opportunity to play in a number of campaigns, with a number of different gaming systems. 

My gaming point of view, these days, is largely narrativist.  I like games where the system supports the story telling; where combat is a chance to further express your character’s goals, desires, and personality.  I don’t mind numbers, don’t get me wrong, but I’m never going to be the one spending hours pouring over the source material, looking for the combination of feats/stunts/etc that will make my character the most powerful character EVAR.  I am LIKELY, however, to spend hours on his backstory, and I may be inclined to justify feat selection through writing a complete novella about my character’s personal growth between levels.  :)

A couple caveats: all of my recent gaming experience has been playing through email or through forum postings.  Additionally, most of the groups I’ve participated in have had story-telling as the significant element in the game.  It’s worth noting; the kind of pace that online gaming engenders isn’t for everyone.  A battle that might only last fifteen minutes gathered around a table may last a month or more when played out over email.  For my extremely crowded schedule, a glacial pace is about all I can handle… 

To a certain extent, then, most of my gaming experience resembles collaborative story-telling more than it resembles a dice-fest.  I enjoy this sort of exercise, and so my biases are slanted toward gaming systems (and Game Masters) that reward story-telling.

And therein lies a pretty big problem with the reviews hereafter: so much of the game experience depends on the type of GM you’ve shackled yourself to.  The GM’s predilections are such an omnipresent part of the experience, it almost seems unfair to the system to review it.

Nontheless—consulting my tables, I don’t see a ‘Save against Unfairness’ listed for this blog…

Coming up: D&D 4E!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How To Title Your Story – Or Not

As an editor, a bad title had never (consciously) caused me not to buy a story, nor have I ever heard any editor say they failed to buy a book or story specifically because of the title. However, it does set certain expectations for me regarding what I’m likely to encounter once I start reading, and obviously it’s in your best interests to have an editor start reading with the best possible impressions.

If a title doesn’t work and I want to buy the story, I won’t unilaterally decide to change it; I’ll point out what I consider the specific flaws in the current title and suggest some alternatives. At that point the author and I will discuss it, come to an agreement, and we’re set. However, I do know that many book publishers will (and frequently do) tell their authors what the title of their novel is going to be when it’s published, and it’s not just first-time authors that this happens to; I once had a conversation with Orson Scott Card about one of the books in his “Ender’s Game” series, and even he had one of his titles changed. It was early in his career, but well after his huge success with the original Ender book. The point is, it can happen to anyone, and you should be neither surprised nor insulted if it happens to you.

The reason why book titles are so important to publishers is that they know that titles are one of the top three factors in a customer’s decision to pick a book up off the shelf and look at it – or not to. (The other two factors are the cover art and the reader’s familiarity with the author’s name.) The title may not make a reader decide to actually buy the book, but they can’t possibly buy it if they don’t pick it up, can they?

With short stories you have a little more room for fun, creativity, and, quite simply, words. But with a novel, titles needs to be catchy, punchy, and short enough to fit on the spine of the book (and still be readable). Are there exceptions? Always. But consider these excellent titles: A Game of Thrones, The Sorcerers Plague, Enders Game, Skinwalker, Fahrenheit 451, Mad Kestrel, Act of Will. All are generally one to three words long, and all contain either uncommon words or uncommon combinations of words.

That brings me to one of the biggest problems I see in titles: incredibly overused words and/or painfully common words used in isolation. The word ‘game’ is a common one, yet there are two hugely successful books with that word in the title (just in the list I just gave you; I’ll bet there are others). The difference is that in both cases the word is closely paired with another word that it normally has nothing to with.

From my own pile of submissions at IGMS (not that they are common titles, merely ineffective), look at these rejects: “The Long Fall,” “Human Child,” “The Chorus,” “Rationalized,” “It’s Not You, It’s Me.”

Yawn.

What do these titles tell you? Nothing. What questions do they raise? None. This is the essence of a bad title. Common and overused words (and expressions) used in isolation.

On the other end of the spectrum, you can also easily over-do it. “ORANGE AGBADA JACQUARD,” “Photon-Card from Delteron-9,” and “Gray as a Moth, Scarlet as Sumac” are all real titles that were submitted to IGMS in the last year or so. And in my opinion (with aplogies to the authors), they are all trying way too hard.

Yet another thing to avoid with titles are ones that are only clever, or only make sense, after you’ve read the story. If you need the context of the story to understand the title, you have a bad title. If the title takes on additional meaning after the story is read, that’s great. But it has to work before-hand, too.

I mentioned earlier that I occasionally work with authors to change the title of a story I want to publish. Let me give you a few examples, so you can see my logic:

“An Early Ford Mustang” by Eric James Stone was originally titled “Brad Decides To Be Early.” The story is about a guy named Brad who inherits a Ford Mustang from his uncle. This car has the ability to influence the flow of time, but that ability comes with a price. The original title only makes sense after you’ve read the story (strike one), but even then, it is incredibly bland (strike two). Not that the new title is stellar, but it’s a big step up from “Brad.”

“Judgment of Swords and Souls” by Saladin Ahmed was originally titled “Red Silk In The Lodge of God.” “Red Silk” isn’t necessarily a bad title, but the climax of the story centers around a ceremonial battle called – you guessed it – the Judgment of Swords and Souls. As a title, it’s tighter, has more drama to it, and brings the added benefit of taking on additional meaning with the reading of the story. Bonus.

“The End-of-the-World Pool” by Scott Roberts is actually just a trimmed-down version of the original title, but I think the difference is an important one. I thought the original title, “Horseplay at The End-of-the-World Pool” set the reader up with expectations of something with a lighthearted tone. And though the story does in fact open with two boys fooling around at the edge of a swimming pool, it quickly takes on a much darker tone that it maintains the rest of the way. The story feels to me like something Bradbury would have written in his early days and is a favorite of mine, but it required a title that didn’t mislead the reader.

“Aten’s Fall” by Aliette de Bodard is another example of a story that had the right basic idea, but this one needed to be turned around one-hundred eighty degrees. The story is about an interstellar ship called the Horus, which is run by an artificial intelligence named Aten. The problem as I saw it was two-fold. First, the story is about the ship after it crash-lands, is separated from the AI running it, and learns to survive on its own, so it’s not even about the entity named in the original title. And second, although both names come from Egyptian mythology, there are a lot more people who have heard of Horus than Aten. My concern was that ‘Aten’ was going to leave a lot of prospective readers scratching their heads in bewilderment. The new title, quickly agreed on by the author, was “Horus Rising.”

So there you have it: a crash course on what makes one title effective, and another not, along with some specific example of titles that were changed and why. Now it’s your turn. Can you think of titles of published books or short stories that you thought were particularly effective or ineffective? More importantly, can you tell me why?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Tangent Online Reviews IGMS #19

Full Article

Money shot:

I’m impressed with this publication.  I’ve reviewed several others, both print and online.  Many have left me feeling they’re mining a poor vein, one long since played out.  Perhaps their editors should buy subscriptions to Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, to see how it’s done.

:)

--Scott M. Roberts

Assistant Ed to Ed

Monday, October 25, 2010

Right Before Your Very Eyes- Matthew Rotundo

Writing fiction is a kind of magic act. We employ our own kinds of linguistic sleight of hand to accomplish wonders on the page. right-before-your-very-eyes small Sometimes, though, vanishing an elephant seems like chump change compared to crafting a story. Case in point: "Right Before Your Very Eyes."

It started with my online writing group. We have an annual Halloween story contest, competing for fun and motivation. Each participant gives another a story seed. It can be an image, an idea, a character--just about anything, really. From this, you're supposed to write a story with some kind of Halloween element.

My story seed involved a magician who could perform real magic, and an assistant who was none too pleased about being actually sawn in half, etc.

Now, I confess that magic acts hold a certain fascination for me. Even so, inspiration for this story was a long time coming. The Illusionist and The Prestige had been in theaters recently, and I wasn't sure I could bring anything fresh to such well-trodden ground.

For whatever reason, I found myself interested in the magician's assistant. You know, of course, that they're usually young, beautiful, scantily clad women. Many people don't seem to realize, though, that there is a reason for this. Misdirection and distraction are, after all, the magician's stock in trade, and the lovely assistant draws the attention of at least half the audience.

It's a thankless job, when you think about it. Demeaning, even. An idea for a role reversal occurred to me: what if the assistant was the one pulling the strings? What if she was actually in charge of the act?

That was enough to get the ball rolling. I banged out the first 500 words . . . and ran into a brick wall.

I realized I didn't like those 500 words. I wasn't even sure I liked the story. It bored me, quite frankly. It felt less like a fun challenge and more like homework. I began to wonder if it was even worth pursuing.

Understand, this is very unlike me. I've had doubts about stories I've written, of course--but once I start something, I usually finish it. So for me to get 500 words in and then think of abandoning it--something had to be seriously off-kilter.

It occurred to me that I had the wrong opening for the story. That wouldn't exactly be unprecedented. So I scrapped those 500 words and started over.

The going wasn't much easier the second time around. Although the opening was better, the middle section of the story was a bit murky to me--if by "murky," you mean "total mystery." Then I got an idea I simultaneously loved and balked at. It was outrageous. It was horrifying. It came out of nowhere. But it seemed to fit, so I went with it. I wound up with one of the most disturbing scenes I've ever written. It literally nauseated me. I can't remember ever having such a reaction to my own work before. I took that as a good sign.

I finished the story and submitted it to the contest. Lo and behold, it finished in third place, garnering much more praise than any of my previous entries. I'm convinced it was the shocker in act two that put the story over the top. Without it, I doubt the story would have been anywhere near as successful. (If you've read "Right Before Your Very Eyes," you know the scene I mean.)

But I wasn't done with it yet.

I sent it to Edmund. He wrote back, saying that he loved the piece . . . right up to the last few pages, which left him a little puzzled.

Naturally. I'd already struggled with the opening and the second act. Seemed only fitting that the ending needed some extra work, too. So I rewrote it again and shipped it back to Edmund. The result appears in issue 19 of Intergalactic Medicine Show.

Like magic, right?

Yeah. Not so much. "Right Before Your Very Eyes" kicked and screamed all the way through the process. Some stories are like that.

And now, for my next trick, watch me vanish this elephant . . .

--Matthew Rotundo

Monday, October 18, 2010

Deathsmith, by Pete Aldin

I’d like to claim that the idea for Deathsmith came to me after hours of reflecting on Jim Collins’ Hedgehog Concept. For those who don’t know (and who’ll trust my paraphrasing ability) the deathsmith small main point of said Concept is: the hedgehog has one thing he (or she) is really good at and sticks to – curling up into a ball and poking out his (or her) quills in defense. The wiley fox on the other hand goes from skill to skill, from strategy to strategy, but will never overcome the hedgehog’s one real trick. I’d like to say Deathsmith is about a guy who’s a one-trick-pony (or hedgehog) … and milks that one trick for all it’s worth.

I’d like to claim I always intended it to be a parable about the human longing for roots, for community, for loving and being loved with an open heart.

I’d like to claim it’s a story I intentionally crafted about a fellow who should’ve heeded the old adage: ‘Beware strangers bearing gifts’ … especially when those strangers are spirit beings, or young girls.

None of those things is true.

In actual fact, the story started with the title.

The word ‘Deathsmith’ popped into my head while I was daydreaming one day. I sat down the next day and wrote most of Draft 1 in a single sitting, then finished it the next. No outline. No idea of where it was headed until it was done. The dialog and plot materialized entirely out of the interplay between the characters and their emerging backstories.

Three drafts later, little had changed but for some polishing (notably the culling of an over-abundance of adverbs, such as ‘notably). I submitted to IGMS and to my delight got that positive response all writers long for … along with a healthy reality check from editor Edmund Schubert!

Edmund expertly pointed out the major flaw produced by my lack of outline writing, and pushed me to dig deeper. And I’m grateful. Extremely grateful. Deathsmith is a far better story for his input, as is my writing generally. (Damn, another adverb!).

Thanks for reading, and to all the crew at IGMS for the fabulous spec fiction venue they’ve created!

--Pete Aldin

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Schadenfreude, Michelle Scott

Franz Kafka’s short story A Hunger Artist has always fascinated schadenfreud small me. Back in college, when I read it for the first time, it was Kafka’s surreal depiction of a man in a cage who publicly starves himself to death that haunted me. Recently, however, when I assigned the same story to my own college students, I was struck by something that made the story evocative in an entirely new way. Re-reading this story as a middle-aged woman instead of a young coed, it occurred to me that the unnamed hunger artist, who was once heralded as a master of his art form, had outlived his phenomenon and was left with only two options: move on to something else or commit suicide.

In Schadenfreude, the main character, Chad, is a pain comic. Like Kakfa’s hero, his body is his tool and he uses it with great effect. But when the story opens, it is clear that Chad’s body is breaking down and his best days are probably behind him. He, of course, is desperate to make sure that doesn’t happen. After all, it’s a pain comic’s mantra that, “you’re only as good as your last show.”

But while Kafka’s hunger artist had to endure the ignominious ending of his career alone, I simply couldn’t be that cruel. Because of this, Connie Lingus made her entrance. Like other, real-world, redheaded comediennes such as Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, Constance Gestler is a woman of passion and strength, and she comes out of retirement in order to rescue Chad and give him something to hang on to. Whether or not the aging comedians can compete with the raw appetites of a far younger audience remains to be seen, of course. But while two pain comedians may not be funnier than one, they are certainly not lonelier.

--Michelle Scott

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Express to Paris by Dragon First Class—Tom Crosshill

For a while before I wrote "Express to Paris by Dragon First Class", dragon small I'd wanted to try depicting an entire lifetime in a piece of flash fiction. This desire wasn't specific enough to generate a story, though. The particular structure I had in mind required a singular character with a singular desire that could carry over a lifetime, informing every stage of the character's life.


Such a character -- Jima -- finally came to me one evening while my flight taxied to the runway at LaGuardia. I'd been reading about pilots and their peculiar seniority rules, and I looked out the porthole and saw the pale shapes of jetliners slumbering in the gloom. I wondered immediately what it would be like if 737s had unions.


The step to dragons followed naturally. Better yet -- dragons working side by side with 737s, and forced aside by them eventually. I hoped this setup would not only have poignancy in and of itself, but would also resonate with readers who have spent any length of time working in our increasingly mechanized world.
In the end, though, I wrote this story because I fell in love with Jima and her dream. I'm still rooting for her.

--Tom Crosshil

www.tomcrosshill.com

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show - new issue live


The new issue is live and ready for your consumption, featuring all the goodies listed in our last blog entry.

"But wait!" cried the editor in his best traveling Medicine Show call-voice, "There's more."

All of the things I listed below are fairly typical of what you'd find in an issue of IGMS. To round out the celebration, we also have an extra audio story, Mary Robinette Kowal's reading of Tom Crosshill's flash story "Express To Paris by Dragon First Class." That audio is free to all, whether you have a subscription (yet) or not. And if you need a bigger sample of IGMS, we've also made the entirety of issue 11, our first issue under the current format, free until the end of the year. Issue 11 has an OSC story and audio-production, as well as Peter S. Beagle's "Vanishing" as the cover story and several other stories, one of which was an Honorable Mention in Gardner Dozois's latest Year's Best anthology, and another of which won the WSFA's 2009 award for Best Short Story of the Year. Lots of great stuff, free for everyone's reading pleasure.

So step right up and see the show. Invite a friend or two and we'll make a party of it.

Edmund R. Schubert
Editor, Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Coming Next Week: IGMS 5th Anniversary Issue

___
Our line-up of stories includes new a Orson Scott Card story, “The Expendables,” which in some ways is a sneak peek at his forthcoming novel, Pathfinder, due out in November, and in some ways is a unique stand-alone piece that you won’t find anywhere but IGMS. And the audio verson of the story is performed by OSC himself. Cool stuff.

We also have the magical fantasy “Right Before Your Very Eyes” by regular contributor Matt Rotundo, a disturbing SF story about the lengths future stand-up comics will go to for laughs in “Schadenfreude” by Michelle Scott, a curmudgeon with the ability to cast killing spells in Pete Aldin’s “Deathsmith,” and the tale of a defective clone – at least everyone else thinks so – in “The Ghost of a Girl Who Never Lived” by Keffy Kehrli.

Darrell Schweitzer interviews writer Andy Duncan, and in case you didn’t get enough OSC the first time, we also present Part 3 and the conclusion of our serialization of OSC’s novella, “Eye For an Eye.” Plus another in David Lubar’s series of “Tales for the Young and Unafraid.” To round out the celebration, we also have an extra audio story, Mary Robinette Kowal’s reading of Tom Crosshill’s flash story, “Express To Paris by Dragon First Class.” That audio will be free to all, whether you have a subscription (yet) or not.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Side-show Musings: Mother, Daughter; Girlfriend, Boyfriend

Last night I caught the pilot of the new ABC super-hero drama, No Ordinary Family.  For the most part it was a mediocre show with some fun highlights and a few poignant moment.

One scene took me right out of the show, however, and I’ve been thinking about it all night. 

The set up: Daughter has just found out that her boyfriend is sleeping with her best friend.  Daughter says tearful farewell to Boyfriend, and storms out of his house.  Mother talks to daughter to find out what’s troubling her.

DAUGHTER: Boyfriend is sleeping with Best Friend!

MOTHER: That b***h!

DAUGHTER: I know, right?

Well, sure.  Best Friend is a not-nice word.  There’s a level of trust, implicit in the relationship between best friends, that you just don’t DO that.  So yeah…  But what ISN’T said is what goads me to write this post.

What about Boyfriend?  Why isn’t she railing at him?  Is he incapable of taking responsibility for his actions?  Are men seen as somehow non-culpable when it comes to the destruction of relationships?

Because if they are, someone TOTALLY forgot to tell the women in my life that I have ZERO control over the way I interact with others.  The excuse, “Eh.  I’m a guy.  Whaddaya want?”  is never heard spoken in my home. 

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like the opposite situation, either—where the guy is the scapegoat for everything wrong in the relationship (cf, Everybody Loves Raymond).  But the mother and daughter’s reaction to the boyfriend’s relationship to the best friend just seemed…unrealistic.  In a show where a woman can run 700 miles an hour, where a middle-aged police sketch artist can jump 1/2 a mile and catch bullets…that was the scene that got me thinking, “Unbelievable.”

Maybe I don’t understand women.  I’m pretty sure I understand men, though, and I guarantee: Boyfriend needs to be held accountable for his actions, just like Best Friend.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Orson Scott Card story - free on IGMS - limited time

In celebration of "Elephant Appreciation Day" (celebrated on September 22), Orson Scott Card is making his story "The Elephants of Posnan" FREE on IGMS from September 17 through September 22.


http://www.intergalacticmedicineshow.com/

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match…

Find me a find, catch me a catch. It’s too bad this isn’t a podcast. I have a wonderful voice. Really, I do…

Today’s topic is matchmaking. We shall not concern ourselves in this small space with hormone-driven adolescent or even post-adolescent attempts at acquiring a suitable…suitor. We shall not mention Mr. Darby; nor Mr. Rochester. Nor shall we touch—not even for the briefest moment—the issue of Mr. Cullen.

No, indeed. We shall not. Shan’t, even.

Intergalactic Medicine Show is a speculative fiction magazine. We look for stories that contain some type of fantastic element: from aliens, to fairies; from starships, to Viking boats; toViking aliens driving starships rowed by Elven slaves. (“Row, you miserable little pixie vermin! It’s twelve hundred thousand light-leagues to Betelgeuse, and I’ll have your fore-wings if we aren’t there by mead-time!”)

In terms of genre labeling, we have printed science fiction, steampunk, fantasy, contemporary fantasy, urban fantasy, mundane science fiction, horror, psychological horror, far future science fiction, epic fantasy, sword and sorcery, cyberpunk, and magical realism. The Medicine Show has many booths, and varied and sundry are the goods therein.

Even so. We have submission guidelines for a reason. Some stories do not interest us; some stories offend even our cosmopolitan literary palates. Standards! Morals! Hygiene! Without these things, our world dissolves into so much sloppy mush. Literarily speaking.

I am not talking, necessarily, about offensive stories, or counter-culture narratives, or allegorical exposes of the underbelly of contemporary society. All those things are welcome in our magazine provided they contain some speculative content.

The truth is that no matter how well written your literary fiction short story is, it’s unlikely to be accepted by Intergalactic Medicine Show. And if we can’t find the speculative fiction element in your short story—say, within the first couple pages—we’re not likely to keep looking for it.

This isn’t, by the way, unique to IGMS. MOST science fiction and fantasy magazine editors and slush editors need to see the speculative content up front, just to keep reading. We have an implied contract with our audience—you wouldn’t expect to turn on the Sci-Fi channel and find yourself watching wrestling, would you? Or the History channel and find yourself watching a show about the impact of aliens on ancient culture?

Er…

In any case, matchmaking! How can you tell if your story is a match for IGMS?

1) Follow the submission guidelines.

2) Read the magazine. There is no better way to gauge a market. The submission guidelines are general guides to what we like; the printed stories are implemented examples.

3) Consider the advice given in the Freak Filter posts on this blog. The Freak Filter; The Freak Filter Redux.

Again, it’s a good idea to clearly introduce your speculative content within the first couple pages of your submission. That way, you meet the audience expectation for oddity right up front.

--Scott M. Roberts

Asst. Gentleman Caller

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Sideshow Links- September 1, 2010

Creating Language:  Interview with the gentleman creating the Dothraki language for HBO's take on George R. R. Martin's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' series. 

Save the Words:Neat little site with thousands of strange words.  Get to know a word; adopt it!

Pennsylvania Graves:Irish ghosts, cholera, violent murder, Pennsylvania, forensic science, geophysics...disturbing and intriguing all at once.

Star Trek Meets Farmville

Monday, August 30, 2010

Mystery of Miranda—David A. Simons

Like most science fiction fans, I'm fascinated by exploration. Unmapped islands, hidden caves, lost continents, and of course, uncharted class M planets. I decided to write a story about a man obsessed with exploration, living in a near future where there was little available to explore.

I worked out the setting and the plot quickly. The story would mystery of miranda take place on Miranda, a mysterious, fractured moon in the outer solar system. My narrator--the explorer--would rappel down a deep canyon, with several contrarian companions. A mystery would build about the canyon's nature, which would be solved at the bottom. I figured I was ready to write, and that the story would go smoothly.

I wasn't, and it didn't. This story was a major struggle for me. I nearly abandoned it several times, including after submission.

In the first draft, there was no Shelley. The narrator's foil was a scientist named de Marco, who argued with Lance about the purpose of exploration. The story was pedantic, and Lance's decision at the end seemed petty, rather than resonant or cathartic. I trashed it and started over.

In v2, I replaced de Marco with Shelley, the ex girlfriend, hoping to give Lance more internal conflict. The second draft was better, but I still did not have a feel for the narrator's voice, and hisimage actions still felt forced. I sent the draft to some of my Clarion West classmates and a few others for critiques. All of them told me the story had some good elements (mainly the setting), but they weren't buying the character's decisions, and suggested various revisions. Radical revisions.

At this point, I was tired of the story and anxious to move on to something new. So I convinced myself that the good outweighed the flaws, patched it up a bit, added more symbolic imagery (always a bad sign), and sent it off.

In March, I got an email from Edmund saying that one of his assistant editors had recommended the story, and that he was interested in publishing it, but felt that the main character's motivation needed more development. (Well, if you've ever received comments from Edmund, they were a bit more colorful than that. For example, in his redline, he wrote: "Why Why Why is Lance so blessedly obsessed with being first???")

I re-read the story with fresh eyes. I not only agreed with Edmund, I was embarrassed that I'd let the story out the door. I could see clearly now that I'd committed a cardinal Scribner's sin--I'd let idea and outline dictate the action, rather than conflict and character.

image Edmund waited patiently for several months while I reworked the story. I made Lance's relationship with Shelley the focus, rather than the subplot. I added all of the back-story from Mars, tightened the pacing, and gave the minor characters (Wil and Catherine) a bit more to do and say. I also completely rewrote the dialogue and the ending.

Does the story work now? I hope it does for some. As a writer, I learned a valuable lesson: don't force a story. No doubt, I'll re-learn that lesson over and over again.

--David A. Simons

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Sideshow Arcade: Arkham Horror

Summer has ended.  Not the season, of course, but the frantic days of vacation and adventure.  Stow the tents; cover the grill.  Take out a second mortgage to purchase school supplies for the rising generation of Einsteins, Shakespeares, and Churchills.  A return to school means a return to a schedule.  For me and my friends, a schedule means that we can reliably forsake homes and loved ones one night a month, abscond to a darkened basement and satisfy our craving for…board games.

Arkham Horror is on of my current favorites.  Not for the faint of heart, it finds its inspiration in the Cthulhu mythos of HP Lovecraft and his literary descendants.  It is a cooperative game of investigation, and otherworldly terror—you and your teammates play a group of intrepid investigators, bent on uncovering the dark creature behind ongoing weirdly happenings in the town of Arkham, Mass. 

It’s a bit like an role-playing game in that players choose characters with different abilities.  One character may be a sharp 84px-MichaelMcGlenMarker shooting mob boss; another a mentally resilient nun.  Victory over the forces of darkness doesn’t increase your stats, but you can use the victories to purchase limited upgrades for your character.  While it is constrained by typical boardgame considerations  (play is fairly linear, and there’s not a lot of incentive to deviate or innovate), it succeeds in setting a frantic pace for survival.  Within the first few rounds, even novice players get the feeling that this ain’t no Chutes-n-Ladders.  Maybe if the Ladders led to a dark forest lair, inhabited by Shubb-Niggurath, Goat of a Thousand Young.   Or if the chutes dropped you into Hibbs roadhouse, where the thugs may be as more than unwelcoming…they may be downright BACK predatory.  Monsters are generated quickly, and the locales in Arkham are decidedly non-urbane.  The overall goal of the game is to keep the Ancient Horror that slumbers beneath, above, or within Arkham asleep; failing that, it is to defeat the Abomination when it awakens. 

Gameplay is complex at first.  I’m afraid to say that it took me a couple gaming sessions to really understand the game.  The payoff, in my opinion is worth it.  Each game turn is divided into phases, which each player takes his turn with.  There are 5 phases which can be tiresome until the process is understood by all the players.  Once learned, the flow becomes much more natural.  There are a billion little pieces to keep track of; one wonders if the manufacturers owns stock in Cardboards-R-Us.

Another ding against the game: its manual qualifies as a tome.  The art is nice, and it’s written clearly and well, but there’s no escaping the fact that its a manuscript.  It can be daunting for new players.  I highly suggest that when you start out, get the PDF of the rules and keep a laptop nearby so that you can search for rules more quickly.

My final criticism of the game is this: the build-up to the Ancient One’s awakening is tough.  I mean, this is a game with the ability to make you worry about its outcome.  It’s emotionally perilous, even, and so successful.  You’ve been playing this character for an hour or two; you’re invested in his or her success, but the game is a beast.  Monsters and bad guys patrol the streets, and you’ve only barely scraped by with your health and sanity in check.  Then comes the Big Bad; you’ve failed in your attempt to keep it asleep, to safeguard reality from the onslaught of Cthulhu or Hastur, or Nyarlanthotep… the only thing to do is to mount a desperate attempt to beat back its influence.  Paltry hope!  Deadly foe!

Except…not.  To date, the Big Bad has been pathetically easy for my group to beat.  The rest of the game is a gauntlet; the Ancient One is a cakewalk by comparison.

Those things said, it’s still a successful implementation.  I’ll also note that there are a number of house rules and help available on the internet to mitigate all these problems.

So what are you waiting for?  Arkham and her horrors await…

--Scott M. Roberts

Fnagh! Eo waghet!  Cthulhu p’nang ano!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sideshow Links: August 25, 2010

Minneapolis Will Pay Zombies: Oh, crap. The lawyers are working for the undead. The possibilities are gut-wrenching.

Coca-cola camouflage: This outfit may work against drunk men intent on harassing you. I question its utility against anyone else. Especially zombies.

Mural: The Game: An interesting experiment in physics and art. Mona Lisa go splodey! Perhaps the one sure-fire way to distract zombies in their march toward city hall: they love to slowly take off her skull and put it back, and take it off again…

The Truth About Bacon: Well…the truth as I’d like it to be. I wonder if brains taste like bacon to a zombie?

--Scott M. Roberts

Asst. Shambler

Monday, August 23, 2010

How About It, Roomie?

Every time I'm reminded of this story I feel like it's a requirement to have a poster slapped on my chest disclaiming that I'm not a roomie psychopath. But you do have to delve a bit into insanity to be a successful writer. When I began writing "How about it, Roomie?" I had a few roommates in the past and from what I'd experienced as well as others I had previously joked with, roommates can be disastrous. But it couldn't be all that bad. Roommates come and go. It could be worse. Then I thought, "It could be MUCH worse." You never look at a roommate and think they're completely bananas after the first meeting. Then they begin walking around in their underwear. In "How about it, Roomie?" I thought that the subtle interview maybe wasn't so subtle this time around. How would it be if your interview went horribly wrong. I mean horribly!


In the first draft I had it so that the interviewee was already in power and that the interviewer no longer had a choice in the matter, being tied up - so the question "How about it?" was rhetorical. My inspiration came from looking at movies like Psycho and chuckling under my breath. From enjoying Zombie movies because zombies are not scary, but silly. I think that's how this story was written. Let's be afraid of the dark truths of reality - but laugh a little while doing it. But, when you look at it - roommates are crazy, but never this bad. Read it however you like, gain whatever message you see in this short tale of strange. I hope you enjoy it. After all, who doesn't enjoy a bit of twisted dark humor every now and again?

--Chase Guymon

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Anatomy of Melancholyanisaurus…

(There’s no such thing as a Melancholyanisaurus)

However, this article on dinosaur anatomy and all the cool details paleontologists are learning was soo freaking cool I had to share it. 

Claws, Jaws, and Spikes: The Science of the Dinosaur Arsenal

Not just words…but pictures! 

Dinosaurs, the science of defending oneself, an examination of precise meat-eating techniques…It’s like Man Day at wired.com!

--Scott M. Roberts

Asst. Stegosaurus

Monday, August 16, 2010

Adam Colston—The Quanta of Art

The Quanta of Art was first imagined during the security-check at Bristol Airport, prior to boarding a flight to Turkey last year. I don’t think it was the act of shoe-removal or the uncomfortably intimate pat-down by a large, humorless guy that triggered the quanta of art idea, but the x-ray devices and the scanners themselves.
I am not asserting, by the way, that particles leaked from these devices, then crashed into the soggy grey mush inside my skull and fired the appropriate neurons -- et voila -- The Quanta of Art was born.


No -- it was simpler than that.


As I bent down to re-tie my shoelaces, a character occurred to me: a guy who’d had radical surgery to implant all manner of weird and wonderful technology on and himself--scanners, etc. He looked horrific, but he’d be someone we’d pity, not fear.


So, he was a beast…so what about a beauty? Why did he do this to himself ? As a matter of fact, who is telling the story and why? Questions, questions and more questions hit me as I stood and grabbed my freshly irradiated stuff from the x-ray machines conveyor belt…


As I sat in the departure lounge, and later on the plane, I typed up a simplified version of the story and sent it to my buddy, Frank. By the end of my week in Turkey, the story had been enhanced, layered, motivations defined and the ending completed.

I subbed the story to the Writers of the Future contest, but it was removed from consideration when I won the previous quarter. I was later told by the judge, K.D. Wentworth, that she’d loved the story and had selected it as a finalist before getting the message to pull it.

Next, it went to straight to InterGalactic Medicine Show and my thanks to Eric and Edmund for enjoying enough to pick it from the slush.

Best,

Adam

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

IGMS #18 Preview

Intergalactic Medicine Show #18 is LIVE, featuring the following stories:

trinity-county-CA_small Peter S. Beagle returns to IGMS with a rip-roaring tale of two dragon control officers in Trinity County, CA.

Be prepared to get surreal in Willam T. Vandemark’s  forcing coin_smallForcing Coin. What’s life without a little mystery, the protagonist asks.

 

Stultifying, comes the answer from another story on the opposite end of the genre spectrum. Every square inch of old Earth is mystery of miranda_small known, measured, mapped—but there’s a great big solar system out there, if Lance can just get there. Places to go, mysteries to see—and none more startling than David Simon’s The Mystery of Miranda.

 

quanta of art_small Change your venue, change your mind (literally) with British author Adam Colston’s The Quanta of Art. Ah, modern art! You might be skeptical at first—the story’s hapless gallery owner, Mr. Whistler is. But, like I said…you’ll change your mind once you behold Violix’s latest work. Careful not to stare too long…

roomie_small Think you’ve got roommate troubles? Could be worse. Could be much, much worse, according to Chase Guymon’s How about it, Roomie?

 

And finally, someone named Orson Scott Card considers eye for eye 2_small bioelectrical energy, family ties, love, Biblical-style vengeance, religion, race, and bad makeup in part two of Eye for Eye.

 

All this plus interviews, audio recordings, fantastic artwork, and more in Intergalactic Medicine Show #18!

Monday, August 09, 2010

Now Live at the InterGalactic Medicine Show - IGMS Issue 18


Issue 18 - August 2010
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Trinity County, CA - by Peter S. Beagle (100-mile-an-hour fun dragon story)
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The Mystery of Miranda - by David Simons (planetary exploration)
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The Quanta of Art - by Adam Colston (art is life (or vice versa))
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Forcing Coin - by William T. Vandemark (too strange, you'll just have to read it for yourself)
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How About It Roomie - by Chase Guyman (one of Orson's writing students at SVU, where the boss occasionally teaches)
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Part Two of Orson Scott Card's novella, An Eye For An Eye
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Forcing Coin is also our audio story for the month

Darrell Schweitzer interviews Richard Lupoff
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...and a guest editorial by Mark Van Name, whose novel was just released and the profits from the hardcover go to support a very worthwhile charity

Thursday, August 05, 2010

By The Numbers—A Brief Look at IGMS Submissions

I thought this might be interesting to some people. 

Some disclaimers:

1) I am one of four assistant editors in IGMS.  (Sara and Eric’s numbers are likely to be MUCH higher)

2) I don’t keep track of their numbers.

3) Edmund Schubert is a slave-driving werewolf vampire android.  The arithmetic he employs is unrecognizable to anyone in this dimension.  I urge you, on peril of your sanity, to not consider it.

A sample of 386 submissions reveals the following:

64 submissions passed to the slavering, hairy, fanged robot.

161 submissions recommended for form rejection

187 submissions recommended for personal rejection

NOW.  Of those 64 accepted:

21 were Science Fiction

1 was horror

23 were Fantasy

19 untracked

“Untracked” because I wasn’t keeping details when I started slushing.  I paid dearly for my lack of diligence; those months in Edmund Schubert’s Asylum/Salt Mine for the Clinically Non-Precognizant have taught me a valuable lesson. 

Let’s assume that the genre percentages remain the same for those 19.  My math gives me +9 stories for science fiction, +10 stories for Fantasy, and +1 story for Horror. 

“AHA!” you cry.  “Witness the failure of the American educational system!  YOU HAVE ADDED A STORY, YOU FIEND!”

I’m rounding up for simplicity’s sake.  The real numbers are something like 8.7 for SF, 9.6 for F, and .95 for H.  I guarantee you—if I get .5 of a story, I am not going to pass it along to Edmund.  Nossir.  Like I said, I’ve learned my lesson.

So, it’s about a half-n-half split between science fiction and fantasy, with Horror looking really underrepresented.  Which disturbed me at first, because I write things that a lot of people might call horror.  But looking back at my list of submissions…I don’t think that I’ve read lots of Horror in the slush pile.  There have been zombies; there have been ghosts.  But horror is more than monsters; it’s a sense of dread or foreboding that prevails through the story.  Dread or threat is the principal emotion in horror writing, in my opinion; which is why Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot can be classified as Horror,  but his collaboration with Peter Straub, Talisman, cannot.  (And we shan’t mention Black House.)  A lot of the stories I read that others might call Horror (because of the m-m-m-monsters) I call contemporary fantasy. 

I’m sure I’ve offended someone with my crass generalizations.  And my math.  I’ve probably offended Steven King and Peter Straub.  I invite you all to slander me on the IGMS forums.  Go ahead.  I can take it.  I’ve been to a Salt Mine/Asylum run by Edmund Schubert.  There’s no horror like that horror, lemmetellewe.

--Scott M. Roberts

Assistant Editor, IGMS

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Dedd and Gohn is No More

It is with great regret that I write this, but unfortunately Dedd & Gohn is being discontinued, effective immediately. I have had a great time writing it and hope you had as much fun reading it. Sadly, the artist, Tom Barker, has found himself with multiple personal and professional conflicts and can not draw Dedd & Gohn on a regular basis. I will miss working with him and I will especially miss all the wonderful strips he never got to draw.

Thanks to all the readers who came along for the ride. It was fun, but way too brief.

Edmund R. Schubert
Editor, Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

IGMS in Gardener Dozois’ Year’s Best in SF

From IGMS reader, Jaime Rubin, some kind words from SF Editor-Extraordinaire, Gardener Dozois in his 2010 Year’s Best Science Fiction collection:

The flamboyantly titled Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show, edited by Edmund R. Schubert under the direction of Card himself, had good work by Peter S. Beagle, Mary Robinette Kowal, Ian Creasey, Tim Pratt, Aliette de Bodard, Eugie Foster, Tony Pi, and others, including a number of stories, both reprint and original by Card. Although they publish both SF and fantasy (rarely slipstream) they tend to lean toward fantasy, which tends to be of generally higher quality than their SF.

Six IGMS stories were selected as honorable mentions:

  • “Vanishing” (Peter Beagle, #11)
  • "The Report of a Dubious Creature" (Ian Creasey, #15)
  • "The Urn of Ravalos" (Rebecca Day, #11)
  • "Body Language" (Mary Robinette Kowal, #15)
  • "Aim for the Stars" (Tom Pendergrass, #15)
  • "Tekkai Exhales His Avatar" (Tony Pi, #11)
  • --Scott M. Roberts

    Asst. Editor, IGMS

    Wednesday, July 14, 2010

    The Freak Filter Redux

    A while back, some of the assistant editors for IGMS elaborated on what it takes to make it through the slush pile.  You can find those ruminations here. 

    Our standards haven’t changed, but after 8 months of slushing, I thought I would take a moment to reiterate my point of view when it comes to reading short stories.

    Mo’ Shorter is Mo’ Better

    One author called novelettes the perfect form for speculative fiction—long enough for truly creative world-building and characterization, but short enough to demand some textual snappiness.  As a writer, I completely agree—I love the novelette form. 

    As an assistant editor, though, my feelings toward the longer form are drastically reversed.  I admit it—long stories got no reason

    Well…not quite.  But who can pass up a Randy Newman reference?

    IGMS of course accepts longer works.  But let me tell you—I despair at seeing word counts above 7000.  It’s been my experience that for all the strength of the form, most writers who think they need a novelette  to contain their story are just blabbermouths.  Most of the novelettes I see can be and should be reduced; rarely do I encounter a novelette that is lean.  

    And lean is what you need to make a novelette successful.  Justify the word count—trim your submission until it is svelte.  Selling to pro markets is hard enough; a novelette has to be exceptional to make it through. 

    Go For the Funny Bone

    I’ve said it before: if you want to stand out in the slush pile, be funny.  When John Joseph Adams was reading slush for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, he made a similar comment.

    Sturm und drang is easy, and so I see a lot of it.  I cherish the funny stories I get.  I love the quirk, the sarcasm, the quick wit. 

    Heaven help me, I also love the puns. 

    Bring It When You Begin It

    Let me quote Sara Ellis, the long-time slush reader for IGMS:

    I love captivating first paragraphs, and dislike impotent last lines. For most short stories, you have two pages to capture my attention. Do not waste these on exposition. Do not throw away first paragraphs with exposition.

    Are you paying attention?  You have two (2) pages to prove your story’s worth. Make them count.

    Accentuate the Positive; Eliminate the Negative

    Sort of.

    Your protagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be likeable.  He doesn’t have to be a saint; she doesn’t have to walk around petting kittens and saving puppies.  I appreciate anti-heroes; I have a fondness for the rapscallion, the brigand, the hard-bitten and cynical protagonist. 

    But don’t make them defeatist.  I’m afraid I have no patience for nihilistic characters.  The story can make the point that life is absurd, capricious, or meaningless; but the character had better be an active participant in her own story, or it’s going to be an exceptionally hard sell.  He’d better be striving for meaning, or for conquest, or for something.   

    Grande Finale

    I’ve read some great stories recently.  Some really great concepts, excellently executed.  Powerful characters, moving conflict, fantastic story-telling…that in the last pages of the story seemed to morph into textual goop.  Or worse, textual sap.

    Maybe you know how frustrating that is.  Maybe you saw A.I.  Or caught the finale of Lost, or Battlestar Galactica.  Terrible endings, all—because they didn’t live up to the promise of excellence that the bulk of the story made. 

    A lot of these stories have the feeling of just ending too quickly—like the author was in a contest or something, and wrote an ending that felt slapdash and hurried.  Or that they tacked a standard, cliche ending on in order to just get it out the door.

    Excise that impulse, authors.  Take your time with the ending; make sure it is worthy of the rest of your story.  As much as I love a good beginning, I love a good ending more because it means the author hasn’t wasted my time.

    --Scott M. Roberts

    Assistant Editor