Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Act of Will - by A.J. Hartley

If you've read this blog before, you know I'm fascinated by different writers' processes and the story behind the creation of their stories. Usually I ask the authors of the stories in IGMS to talk about this, but today I've got something slightly different. A.J. Hartley is the author of several novels, including Act of Will, which was released yesterday in paperback, and I got him to talk a bit about the creation of this novel.

Edmund: The book has a first person narrator, which is an unusual choice for fantasy. Why did you choose this?

A.J.: I sometimes say that I think of myself as a novelist who happens to write fantasy sometimes, and has written in other genres too. What draws me to stories is often about the characters and the way they respond to their predicament, and nothing does this more than a first person narration. I remember reading The Catcher in the Rye and being thrilled by how much the voice became the story. It wasn't just about seeing what happened from the protagonist's perspective: it was about being the protagonist. I love that, love even the challenge of telling a tonally varied story from that same, consistent perspective.

Edmund: Tell us something about where the impulse for this story came?

A.J.: A long time ago (more than 20 years) I outlined the core story for a role playing game I was playing with my brother. I was living in Japan at the time and hadn't seen him for over a year, so I wanted to build something rich and complex for us to do when we met up again. I planned out a lot of the basic plot but tweaked its specifics based loosely on places I visited during my long trip back to the UK. After we played the game I wrote up some scenes as short stories, but they lacked interest value to anyone but us. It wasn't until I hit on the idea of the first person voice, and complicated the hero's origins by making him an actor that the story came into focus as a viable novel.

Edmund: Your previous novels are all mystery/thrillers. How does experience with those genres inform WILL?

A.J.: Well, I hope that readers will find that in spite of the sometimes flippant playfulness of the voice, there's a sense of real danger which grows out of my experience with those other genres. I learned a lot about large scale pacing as a thriller writer, as well as about writing combat in ways that stay rooted in reality. I'm writing fantasy, but I'm trying to stay close to the real world in terms of what it feels like to be running from someone who wants to kill you. My protagonist is no heroic weapons master, so that sense of panic so common in thrillers was really useful to me here.

Edmund: What kind of research went into devising the world of the story?

A.J.: Gloriously, (though I hesitate to admit it) almost none. My thrillers are very research heavy, and I'm a publishing academic, so I was delighted to give the library a miss for once and draw largely on stuff I either already knew or could just make up. I'm a Shakespearean scholar so I had a good sense of the theatre in which Will works (suitably modified for my world and story) but even that really only shaped the character's attitude and skills. Within a few pages he's out of that environment and living on his wits with a group of principled adventurers.

Edmund: This book was almost 20 years in the making. What did you learn from this drawn out development that might be helpful for unpublished writers?

A.J.: Some general things and some specific. The specifics: pay attention to the market but don't copy it. When I wrote the first draft of the book I had (for reasons I can no longer remember) stripped it of magic entirely. Agents and publishers told me that they thought magic was integral to fantasy as they conceived it then, and if this wasn't fantasy they didn't know what it was. That's always bad, because they can't sell something they can't first identify. I then worked some of the magic back in, but did so in a tentative way that made it feel like an after thought. I had to figure out the logic of the power I was playing with and make it work consistently, adjusting plot and character accordingly. All of this would have happened much faster if I'd been more attentive to what was being published at the time. Throughout this period I was working on other things, different books and screenplays, from which I learned a lot about overall structure and repeating ideas about hero journeys (archetypes, I guess, though I'm wary of the word). Periodically I would go back and apply what I was learning to a new draft of the book, and from time to time I would show it to other people. (I even started work on a sequel, though I wouldn't advise that till you have a home for the first!) The point, I suppose, is that I never thought of the book as done. It was always in progress, though that progress really did take 20 years, and didn't reach its current form until I had started having success in the mystery/thriller area. That leads to my most general (and obvious point): if you think something about your novel has merit, figure out what that merit is, then be prepared to change everything else, and keep tinkering till you get it right, even if it takes decades. Indeed, I'd say the time that passed was essential to my figuring out what the book had to become. Funny how helpful failure and rejection can be in hindsight, isn't it?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Ten Winks to Forever—Bud Sparhawk

I wrote this story to convey a sense of the immense distances between the stars and the time it would take, given our relativistic universe, to travel among them.  This immensity was brought  ten_winks_FNL10[small] home to me when I wondered what starlight now reaching us had started out when various geologic layers were formed.  I threw in a few ideas about human development and differentiation due to science and environment to indicate the passage of time and then tried to personalize the ideas by focusing on a few individuals affected by winking. 

--Bud Sparhawk

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Ed Schubert on Dedd & Gohn

I’ve loved comic strips for a long time, going back to the early days of Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, and The Far Side. These days it’s Pearls Before Swine, Zits, Over The Hedge, Dilbert, and Frazz (which is brilliant, but often hard to find). Absurd and insightful, my favorite comics are always that perfect blend of what is true and what is truly ridiculous.

I’d wanted to write one for a long time, but the tragic reality is that I possess slightly less than zero artistic talent. Okay, okay… significantly less than zero artistic talent. Lacking any way around that stumbling block, I set the dream aside and moved on to pursue others. One thing I’ve never lacked for is pipe dreams to chase after.

Then several years ago, I read an early draft of a YA novel written by Tom Barker. The thing that impressed me most about Tom’s novel was the artwork. Tom had illustrated his own novel, and done an amazing job of it. Not that the story wasn’t good (it was), but the art was fantastic.

But, as with so many other things in life, that moment came and went. I loved Tom’s art, but didn’t think any further about it.

Flash forward to the beginning of 2010 -- maybe January, maybe February; I don’t recall. What I do recall was sitting on a heating pad, trying to assuage an ailing back, all the while reading a book about ghost hunting. With all due respect to ghost hunters everywhere, this book struck me as particularly funny. I think I reacted that way because the author was trying sooo hard to be serious about the subject. Every page I turned just felt like more fodder for comedy.

I’m not sure why, but suddenly a lot of previously unrelated pieces began clicking into place. This wasn’t just fodder for comedy, this was ideal material for a comic strip. And Tom Barker would be the perfect person to do the artwork. And because the strip would be about paranormal investigators, InterGalactic Medicine Show would be the perfect place to showcase it. And because IGMS was about to relaunch with a new look and new features, this was the perfect time for it. Bang, bang, bang -- it was all there.

See? Never a shortage of pipe dreams.

And to make things challenging, this one depended on my getting other people on board the pipedream express with me. But what fun is a pipe dream if it’s not challenging? All I had to do was talk Tom Barker and Orson Scott Card into it.

Piece of cake. This was an idea whose time had arrived. And even if it wasn’t, I was going to make it arrive.

Tom was on board pretty quickly. The minute I pitched him the idea, he was excited (always a good sign). It turned out that just as I had always been interested in writing a strip, but knew I needed help with the illustrations, Tom said he had always been interested in drawing one, but wasn’t sure he could sustain the comedy on the writing side. It was like peanut butter meeting jelly for the first time: two parts that were meant to be together.

Orson was another matter. Not that he was negative on the idea; I just knew I needed solid samples to show him before I even brought the idea up. He wasn’t going to let me put something new in his magazine just because I was editing it; I was going to have to prove to him that I could do this, and do it well.

So I stated writing, and Tom started doodling. We’d meet for lunch; I would show him sample scripts, and he would show me character designs. I suggested tweaks for his art, he suggested tweaks for my dialogue (I was too wordy at first, and Tom struggled to make the characters look like the same person when he changed views from head-on to profile). We got better. We created rough drafts. Tom further tightened my dialogue, and I told him to “draw better” (really, I wasn’t much help there; I’m not kidding when I say I have no artistic ability).

For a time, I made a concerted study of what made comics funny. True, I had wanted to do this for a long time, but wanting to do something and knowing how to do it are not the same. So I studied strips I thought were funny, trying to find patterns. I read creator’s websites, trying to glean tips and tricks. I wrote bad scripts and tried to turn them into something serviceable. It was an enjoyable time. I like the process of learning new things, and this fit that bill nicely. And of course you never resent working hard when you’re working on something of your own choosing.

Within a few weeks we had samples of Dedd & Gohn that I thought were ready to show people. We started with friends and family, and worked our way up from there. Feedback was positive. I was happy to receive Orson’s blessing on the project, but I knew I had something good when my fourteen year old daughter asked for copies of the samples to show her friends at school. She’s a tough critic, and is at a tough age to impress; if it was good enough for a troop of fourteen year olds, it was good enough.

So that’s how it all began. Today, three comics strips per week in InterGalactic Medicine Show; tomorrow, the world.

--Ed Schubert

Monday, June 21, 2010

Sister Jasmine Brings the Pain—Von Carr

This story is entirely a product of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, and all the demented inspiration, hard work, and cheerful collaborative insanity the workshop entails.

Illustration - Sister Jasmine [final - small] "Sister Jasmine" began as a Week One writing exercise: John Kessel asked us to write a scene that incorporated as many random words as possible. "Sister," "habit" and "crucifix" were on Kessel's list, as were "Einstein" and "Wal-Mart," so clearly a scene involving a nun, a Wal-Mart expedition, and a zombie-hunting robotic dog were in order. I've always loved post-apocalyptic SF, and so my scene rapidly expanded into a tribute to all the triffid-infested, boy-and-dog, monks-saving-humanity stories I've read.

I really enjoyed writing about Sister Jasmine, and by the end of the workshop, I'd decided that she deserved a story of her own. "Sister Jasmine Brings the Pain" is a version of that Week 6 story, albeit a version improved by the feedback of my classmates. It's thanks to them that you have the story you do.

Speaking of my classmates, I understand that the very talented William T. Vandemark has a story coming out in IGMS soon. I had a chance to read a version of "Forcing Coin" at Clarion West, and I thought it was wonderful: a dark tale, but with a real sense of heart to it. I can't wait to read it again in IGMS.


Von Carr

Writing Workshop, Part 4—Fortune cookies

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

We wrapped up the group exercise, and moved into the individual exercise.  I explained that this exercise worked the same as the group exercise (except solo), and the story would be generated by a story seed.  I’ve seen other workshop teachers use the contents of their purse (KD Wentworth/Tim Powers at the Writers of the Future workshop use this method); some use story seeds generated by earlier sessions in the workshop (Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp has an almost traumatizing exercise in which participants leave the classroom with the specific purpose of going and talking to strangers to pick up story seeds for use later)

I don’t own a purse, and even if I did, I doubt I could find enough items to distribute to the number of kids that were in my workshop.  And while I’m sure the kids would enjoy being released from school at my request, I think school administrators would have a conniption.  I came up with the idea of using fortune cookies as seeds; I was able to get a good deal on them from a local Chinese take-out place (~250 for $10.00). 

Here’s how it worked: I passed out the cookies along with a 3x5 index card and explained that they were going to use the cookie to come up with a story.  They’d plot the story out on the index card.  There was a time limit on the exercise; I gave them 15 minutes.

I explained that the time limit was meant to get them working quickly, and to instill a sense of urgency in their creative process.  It’s been my experience that urgency tends to force the mind to be more productive.  The index card, I explained, was to help them restrict their outline to the important high-level details.  (I did not realize, however, that 6th graders can write incredibly teeny script.  I believe some of those kids could cram the Encyclopedia Britanica  into a couple 3x5s…)

The cookies were a tremendous hit.  I’m not really sure if the enthusiasm had more to do with the story creation process, or if it was just the opportunity to eat in class that got them fired up, but everyone seemed happy, and they all worked pretty diligently at plotting their stories.  A couple kids needed some help figuring out how to move from the seed to a story idea, but on the whole, they got it.  

That took us to the last five minutes of class where I talked about work ethic and the Muse.  I’m not a fan of the Muse, or inspiration; I think too often, young writers wait until the lightning bolt moment to put pen to paper.  For me, writing is a discipline.  Like distance running—you don’t wait to feel like it in order to start training to run a marathon.  You go out there in the heat or rain, or whatever, and you get those muscles working.  Eventually, you train enough, and you can run 30 miles all at once.  Same with writing—don’t wait for inspiration to strike.  Inspiration is a crutch that weakens writers who become dependent on it, because they feel they can’t write without it.

And that was pretty much it for the workshop.  I repeated this workshop three times during the day that I was at the middle school; and it was pretty successful.  And for those of you keeping score: I did not, in fact, embarrass my daughter in front of all her friends. 

I call that a win.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Writing Workshop, part 3—One Thousand Ideas in (less than) an Hour

(continued from part 2)

Now came the fun part of the workshop—putting together a complete story outline from scratch.  This was another thing I picked up first from Orson Scott Card (who is an absolute maestro at writing workshops); it was later reinforced by Tim Powers and KD Wentworth at the Writers of the Future workshop.  That many talented pros putting forth a single idea?  You bet I’m going to pay attention…

This is how One Thousand Ideas works: you start by asking questions.  For every question, you write down the answers you come up with until you come across an answer that rings true or interesting.  (Interesting is probably more useful than true) 

On average, I was able to get a good story from the kids in 40 minutes.  As they shouted out ideas, I wrote them down, and we talked about why such and such an idea was good, and why others weren’t as good. 

Okay.  For me, it’s easiest to start with character.  Are we writing about a boy or girl?

(Cue shouts from the audience—boys for Boy, girls for Girl.  Someone shouted out, ‘Both!’ )

Who said both?  How does that work?

  • Siamese Twins
  • They’re fused together somehow.

Fused together?  So they weren’t born like this?

  • No.  There was an science experiment.
  • They were kidnapped and someone sewed them together.
  • The boy made a wish.

I like the idea of the wish, so let’s follow that.  The boy made a wish—talk to me about that.

  • Boy wished to always be with the girl.
  • He made a wish to a Genie.
    • A vengeful genie!
    • And the genie twisted his wish.

Okay.  Why did the genie twist his wish?

  • The genie wants to get back at the boy’s father?
  • The genie is naturally tricky.
  • The genie is trying to get free of the lamp.

I like the idea of the father having something to do with the genie.  Tell me a little more about the boy and the girl’s relationship.  Do they get along?

  • Yes.  It’s a romance!
  • No! 
  • He likes her, but she doesn’t like him.

Really?  Why not?

  • There doesn’t have to be a reason…

Yes, there does.  The more reasons she has to not like the boy, the more problematic having to be stuck with him will be. 

  • He’s just not the kind of boy she likes.  He’s messy.
  • He flirts with her too much.
  • She finds out he made the wish.

I think we can use all of those reasons.  So how do they get unstuck?

  • The genie has the solution inside the lamp.
  • And once they’re inside, someone else has to wish them out.
  • What if they never get out?  What if they’re stuck there together forever?

Good questions—and we could certainly write to that, but our story would end there.  I’m having a little too much fun to end this here.  Who will get them out?

  • Dad.
  • Mom.
  • Friends?

I like the idea of the dad because the genie is his enemy. 

  • But the dad has to switch places with the kids in order to get them out.

Is that something that he wants to do?

  • Yes.
  • No.  He doesn’t like the boy, either!
  • No, but he wants the magic power inside the lamp.

Good—I like the idea of there being a conflict between the dad and the boy, and the dad caring more about getting the power inside the lamp than helping his son.  What’s the genie doing all this time?

  • Nothing.
  • Working at Cheeseburger in Paradise?

Does he like working there?  Why?

  • No.
  • Yes—he likes the food.  He likes having a body.

I didn’t realize he didn’t have a body before.  That’s cool.  What are the kids doing in the lamp?

  • Learning to get along.
  • It’s a romance!
  • Learning they’re not right for each other!
  • Trying to find a way to separate.

Do they get separated in the lamp?

  • Yes.  That way, when the dad switches place with them, he has to bring the genii. 
  • And both the bad guys switch places with both the kids!

Right!  Good.  That works.

I had thought going into this that I’d have to pull ideas out of the kids; I thought that it was going to be something of a chore.  But they completely surprised me—there was hardly a lull of ideas. 

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Writing Workshop, part 2—The Idea Mill

(continued from Part 1)

The Idea Mill

There are three strategies that I use to get ideas.   

Question Everything

Apples and Oranges

List and Twist

Question Everything is probably the strategy I use most often.  It is linked heavily to the skill of observation and research.  In my presentation, I showed a picture of James Christenson’s delightful painting, Lawrence Pretended…  (For those of you who do not want to follow the link, it’s a painting of a very oddly dressed man whose shirt appears to be attached to the nose of a large, black bear.  The man is looking sideways at the bear—not fearful or anything; the bear is not threatening him or preparing to do anything dangerous.  It’s just standing there.  You should click the link, though; James Christensen is a wonderful artist.)

I asked the class what kind of questions came to their minds when they saw the art.  They responded variously:

Are you really a dude?

Why is there a bear eating your clothes?

Why is your face so thin, but your body so fat?

Aren’t you worried about the bear?

Why are you ignoring the bear?

What’s the deal with the bird?

Wait,” said I.  “What bird?”

The kids then pointed out the bird on the top of the fence, which I had completely missed.  Observant, see?  :)

The point of asking questions within your story is to find an answer that makes you thrill, or that sends off a little bell in your head: that thrill, or that bell tells you that the answer you’ve come up with is the right one.  Or at least, the most interesting one right now.  Rarely is the first answer you come up with the one that sings.  Tim Powers, I believe, said that when you do this exercise, the good answers start coming after three tries.  So, some answers from the class:

Are you really a dude?

  • Yes.  I really am
  • No, I’m a girl with thin hands.
  • No, I’m a girl who has to dress like a man because otherwise the bear would eat me.

To which, I asked, “Why is the bear a misogynist?”  And then I got LOTS of questions and a very stern look from the teacher.  But they got the point.  And I’ve been immune to stern looks since I was ten.

Question Everything works as an idea generation technique because so many things in life aren’t explained, or the accepted explanation doesn’t satisfy.  It just takes some observation to notice the bear that’s tugging on your shirt, begging to be questioned.

Apples and Oranges is something I first I learned from Orson Scott Card.  The idea is that you take two unrelated things and push them into a story together.  I showed the following picture…


…and asked what story the kids thought it came from.  After a little while, they were able to identify the story as Beauty and the Beast.

Apples and Oranges: you take two completely unrelated concepts, squish them together and then Question Everything. 

We workshopped this one a little bit; I had two volunteers shout out two random objects.  We came up with a hamburger, and a duck.  What evolved out of those ideas was a pretty neat story involving a young man who was transformed into a duck, and who, in order to transform back into a man again, had to eat a hamburger made from the meat of his best friend…

The last strategy that I use to get ideas is List and Twist.  John Brown identified this one; before he had a name for it, it was something I did unconsciously.  In List and Twist, you take an item with some sort of emotional or philosophical value—I used the Easter Bunny—and you twist it to mean something else (or something more) altogether.  The Easter Bunny is:

      • Cheerful
      • Generous
      • Hated by dentists
      • Plump

What if you twisted the Easter Bunny to be

  • Gloomy; alternatively, not cheerful, but possessed of a frenetic and unyielding glee…
  • Self-serving  and creepy (“Want some candy little girl?”)
  • The incarnation of the the Anglo-Saxon Eostre—hunted by men of science and theology
  • Not just plump, but a monster of obesity.

    I pointed out that this is a technique used by a lot of writers of horror stories.  You take something familiar and banal (and I had to explain the word banal…) and twist it in some way to make it otherworldly, suspicious, or dreadful.  Haunted houses, ghosts of loved ones, sports cars, beloved pets—all victims of List and Twist.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Writing Workshop, part 1—Elements of Story

A couple weeks a go, my 6th grade daughter informed me that she’d volunteered me to teach a writing workshop at her middle school.  I was terrified.  It’s one thing to teach writing—anybody who has read enough books on writing and has an abundance of confidence can stand in front of a bunch of people and pontificate.  By those standards, I’m overqualified.   But a writing workshop for children, one of whom is my daughter…that’s responsibility piled on top of expectation, slathered with ‘Do not embarrass me, Father…’

After talking with my daughter’s teacher, one of the big problems the kids apparently faced was in coming up with ideas for their stories.  So I resolved to give them some tools to recognize ideas; and some strategies for putting those ideas to paper in a way that is compelling and entertaining.

The writing workshops I’ve enjoyed most have focused on the practical more than the theoretical; more doing work than talking shop.  That’s how I approached running this one.   I admit—most of my ideas were blatantly stolen from writers like Eric James Stone, John Brown, and Orson Scott Card;  I give them credit here because I certainly wasn’t going to tell the kids that I was a big fraud.  :)

It’s Elemental…


Okay, so I did have to talk some theory, just so the class and I had the same understanding about terminology, and so that I could set up a framework for the workshop portion.  The first thing we did was identify what a story was.  I was surprised at how literal the answers were: I believe, “Words printed in a book,” was the most common answer.  After some discussion, we identified the four elements of a story (as opposed to an article, or essay):





Here are the definitions I used:

A character is the hero of the story—the one who faces the problem.   A character, I explained, can be any thing that can think.  While I’m sure some post-modernists might disagree with me, there were thankfully none in the class.  A good character is interesting, and active in trying to solve their problem.

Setting is where the story takes place.  There wasn’t a lot of need to explain this one.

I did spend a lot of time on problem.  For me, character and problem are the heart of the story, and they are where so many of the stories I see in the slush pile fail.  Everyone understands what a problem is, even 10 and 11 year olds.  John Brown makes the point that a compelling problem will have the character try and fail, try and fail, try and fail…  Too many stories have the character succeed too soon, or have a problem that can be resolved without any cost.  We don’t love heroes because they win; we love them because they strive against the odds.  I pointed out that there are few movies about undefeated sports teams because a sure thing isn’t nearly as compelling as a Cinderella story.  In terms of creating a compelling story, failure and cost are more important than ultimate success.

Plot is how the character deals with the problems he faces; it is also structure and detail.  Darth Vader (problem) is choking the Rebel Alliance—how does Luke Skywalker (character) stop him? 

Via plot.

This was another element I didn’t go into that much; largely because I spent so much time ranting on about problem, there wasn’t lots of time left for this last element.   And it’s one of those terms that is fundamentally ambiguous and slippery.  Much like the Rebel Alliance: the more you squeeze it into a definition, the faster it slips through your fingers…

Monday, June 14, 2010

Frankie and Johnny and Nellie Bly—Richard Wolkomir


An old American folksong started running through my mind—“Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts/Lordy how they could love….” “But,” said the song, “he was a long-legged guitar picker/ With a wicked wandering eye.” And his eye wandered to Nellie Bly. That irritated Frankie so much she shot Johnny, “Rooty-toot-toot, right through that barroom door/He was her man, but he was doing her wrong.”

Was the song’s Nellie Bly the actual Nellie Bly, the journalistic superstar of the late 1800s? Why not? Then I thought about how that era’s Florida was part of the cattle-ranching Wild West. Phosphate mining was big, too, and the companies owned whole towns, along with the roughneck miners who lived in them. You had to buy everything at the company store, and you got ever deeper into debt, inducing bad moods. Knife fights, gun fights—dangerous places.

So what would bring Frankie and Johnny, and also the famous Nellie Bly, to one of these Florida phosphate towns? And how would this story be told?

I heard a voice. Where she came from, I have no idea. Slowly, though, the speaker came into focus: a precocious 11-year-old, stuck in this nastiness. Her mother, as could happen to luckless women in that age of narrow possibilities, a prostitute. Her own future: not hopeful. Susanna, however, had grit. She turned to books and self-education, hoping that would be her Pullman ticket out of Duster, Florida.

This story ends where it ends. However, being privy to inside information, I can say that Susanna surely did board that Pullman one day, and go off to achieve éclat.

--Richard Wolkomir

Thursday, June 10, 2010

ConCarolinas: Convention Report

I’ve been going to ConCarolinas for four or five years now, and it gets concarolinas_2010better and better each year. This year was no exception; if anything, because it was also this year’s DeepSouthCon, the crowds were particularly inflated, as was the guest list. On the one hand, that was a boon, because it filled the hotel up with many of my favorite people. On the other hand, it made for some challenging moments during the panels. Seven and sometimes eight panelists was the norm this year, and that’s too many people.

The only exception was the workshop I helped with on Sunday. There were only three panelists at the workshop, but it turned out that even though it was conducted at 9a.m. (not, as you might imagine, a time of day when a lot of people at a con are awake, much less wanting to work), there were close to twenty people who showed up. Given the nature of the workshop, if there had been more than three panelists we would never have finished in the two hours we had.

But of course I’ve gone and started at the end. Some where near the beginning, I drove down Friday afternoon, grateful the whole way for the invention of cruise control. I live five minutes off of Route 85 near Greensboro, and the convention was held in a hotel five minutes off that same highway in Charlotte. So despite my recent knee surgery, the drive down was a relatively simple one.

At the con, I was assigned a hallway table in the same area as a slew of good friends, David B. Coe, Faith Hunter, A.J. Hartley, Misty Massey, Mark Rainey, Jeremy Lewis, Gail Martin, and James Maxey, to name a few. However, while most of them were selling their books, I filled my table with printouts of stories from IGMS to give away to fans in celebration of our site’s relaunch. In fact, four of the authors near my table (David, Mark, Jeremy, and James) have been published in IGMS, so I gave them copies of their own stories to give away as well. Including my story, “Mean-Spirited” from issue 16, we had five IGMS authors/stories, and it was a pleasure to see all the fans getting their copies autographed.

After my last panel on Friday, I had the pleasure of interviewing Claudia Christian (best-known for her role as Commander Ivanov in Babylon 5) in front of a good-sized audience. The con has their media guests appear twice, once with a moderator/interviewer, and once without. Fortunately I got Claudia before her solo appearance, so I didn’t have to worry about being redundant.

Saturday I had several panels as well, including one that got rather heated. For some reason (most likely nothing more than my willingness to take the role when no one else wants to) I ended up moderating every panel I was on except one. I enjoy moderating, but this one panel flirted with becoming an episode of the Jerry Springer show. I’m not going to name names because I’m not interested in embarrassing anyone, but voices were raised to a point where I had to use a microphone to be heard over the din. Given that I come from New York and once spent a period of ten years umpiring baseball, I know how to make myself heard, so if I need a microphone, there’s lot going on.

On a more pleasant note, I was able to spend a lot of after-hours time with the folks who run the group blog, I’ve met all of them at previous cons and always enjoy their company, and David Coe (the one who introduced me to the rest of the group) is as good a friend as I have in this business. But something happened Saturday night while I was with them, something much greater than the sum of the parts. David, Faith (and her husband Rod), Misty (and her husband Todd), A.J., and Start Jaffe (who had just come down for the day) invited me to join their group, and we collectively hatched up some plans that I’m very excited about. I’ll be writing about the first of those projects this coming Saturday at and I hope you’ll join me there to see what all the hubbub is about.

That’s about all the news from Charlotte, NC. Once we’ve run the rest of our author’s essays from the current issue, I’ll be back to talk about a few more details related to the relaunch of IGMS. We’ve received a lot of helpful feedback from our readers and spent the past week tweaking the site further. Thanks so much for that feedback, both positive and negative. We can’t always implement everything you’d like to see (we can’t even implement all the things I’d like to see myself), but we hear you, and we do everything we possibly can.

--Edmund Schubert, Editor

Monday, June 07, 2010

Sparrowjunk—Margit Elland Schmitt

sparrowjunk_large The story behind "Sparrowjunk" is pretty muddled, but I'll see if I can't twist it into some kind of sense. 

What took the most research was the seasonal weather and the physics of the fire escape itself.  I live in a single-story house in Southern California.  We don't have a fire escape.  We don't have much weather either, come to think of it.  Luckily, I do have some friends who were very generous with their urban, winter, fire-escape anecdotes!  Once I enlisted their help, I was able to get a believable feel for the place where the characters spend most of their time in this story.

There are one or two other elements in the plot that don't depend entirely on fire escapes.  You see, I have two boys of my own, just about the age of the little boy in "Sparrowjunk."  They love superheroes and they love books, and when they both had pneumonia this year, I realized (not for the first time) just how insanely helpless parents really are when it comes to the welfare of their children.  They were feverish and exhausted and miserable, my boys, and there were only two things that seemed to be in my power to make them feel better.  One was to pin pillowcases around their shoulders as super-hero capes, and the other was to read them fairy tales.  It happened that we had received as a gift a severely bowdlerized collection of Grimm's fairy tales, and as I dealt with grumpy kids and endless re-runs of movies about space heroes, I started wondering why those altered tales didn't work for me.  It isn't that I have anything against re-telling these old stories, I do it myself all the time.  But I think whoever put together that particular collection lacked some basic understanding about what that kind of story has at the heart of it that we, as human beings, need enough of to keep the stories alive, to make them "classic."  Faith, trust, love, magic, these wonderful threads are sewn together over very dark background themes of betrayal, loneliness, heartache, and loss.  They shine all the brighter for it.  This is equally true whether you're talking about fairytales or superheroes. With the darkness and danger washed away, what's left is a vaguely pretty tale about people we don't really care much about any more. 

That thought led me along on a "what if" journey about fairies and fairy tales, and what might have happened to a race of immortal beings who depended upon magic for survival, but are forced to live in an age of reason, a time and place when belief in magic is something considered suitable only for children, something they are encouraged to grow out of.  These fairies were being systematically poisoned by the sugary tinkle-magic-substitute that lacked depth and danger and substance.  (And this got me thinking about birds.  Hummingbirds, originally, and how well-meaning people fill their bird feeders with artificially sweetened nectar, out of fear of rampant hummingbird obesity.  In the end, I went with sparrows, which are much more common and a little bit spooky.)  Originally, I wanted to write a story about a homeless man whose dementia allowed him to see into the fairy world.  I like that idea.  I still want to write that story.  But what came here was something simpler, the idea that belief has a physical presence, a measurable value, and a story about how a parent's fight for the sake of his child might crash up against a fairy princess' fight for survival.

And that story turned out to be "Sparrowjunk."

Thanks for listening,

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Letter From the Editor—Issue #17—June 2010

Putting this magazine on hiatus was not an easy decision to make. Even though the weekly review columns continued to be posted regularly, this would be the first time we missed an issue of stories in almost three years. That was a record I was proud of - and loathe to give up - but to be blunt, life had overwhelmed me and I needed a break. Everyone knows the old cliché about "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade," but I've had enough lemons coming at me over the course of the past year to fill the Pacific Ocean with that popular summer-time beverage.

Once we got back to work (and by "we" I really mean "me," because while I was licking my wounds, managing editor Kathleen Bellamy, web-guru Scott Allen, all of our assistant editors (Sara Ellis, Eric James Stone, Scott Roberts, and Chris Bellamy), and all of our columnists worked ceaselessly and tirelessly to keep things moving along) Okay, so . . . once I got back to work, the first thing we did was step back and assess the way we had been doing things here at IGMS. And as we did so, a better way of doing things would present itself, or become absolutely necessary, or become suddenly obvious when it hadn't been before. And when we changed that one thing (whatever that thing may have been - process, procedure, policy, whatever), another would present itself, and then another, and another, until it was clear that we had inadvertently created the perfect opportunity to make the magazine over and re-launch it, fresh-faced and reinvigorated. We would have been fools not to make the most of it.

So here it is: Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, v2.0.

The biggest and most obvious changes are two-fold (as befitting a v2.0):

1) Our web designer worked long and hard to give IGMS a cleaner, sharper look. Navigation around the site will be simpler. With each new issue, the background will change to showcase some aspect of the issue's cover art. Explore it; I think you'll find it an intuitive and pleasantly easy experience.

2) We now have something available that our readers have been asking for for a long time: an annual subscription. From now on, instead of having to purchase each issue individually, you can buy a year's worth of IGMS at one time and then not have to worry about it again; each issue will be there for you, ready and waiting as soon as it's published. And there's particularly good news (and a good reason to subscribe); the way our new subscription will work, you will not only have access to each new issue as it is published, you will immediately have access to every issue already published. That means that if you missed any of our previous issues, your $15 dollars will gain you access not just to the next six bimonthly issues, but to all sixteen issues already published. And that unrestricted access will last as long as you keep your subscription current. That means for those of you who've only read an issue or two, you'll be getting every story we've ever published for less than a buck an issue. So if you've seen IGMS mentioned in numerous Year's Best anthologies, on Locus's recommended reading list, or on any number of awards ballots, and wondered what the magazine was all about, there's never been a better time to try us out.

Other smaller changes await as well, ranging from the addition of things that will be readily apparent (such as our on-going weekly comic strip Dedd and Gohn, following the adventures of Mike Dedd and Julia Gohn, a pair of Gen Y paranormal investigators who explore everything from the horrors of ghosts who won't go away, to the horrors of personal relationships when they want to get married but one of them still lives at home with his parents), to things less readily apparent (such as the way we've asked our artist and illustrators to do their work in a format more suited to presentation on a computer screen).

We've also lined up some exciting things for upcoming issues beyond our re-launch issue. We've got a brand new story coming soon from regular and beloved IGMS contributor, Peter S. Beagle. And to celebrate our fifth anniversary issue, the October 2010 issue (#19) has something extra special in store: a brand new tale from the man who founded and publishes this magazine; the first new Orson Scott Card story we've published in over a year and a half. It's not just a story though, it's a sneak peak at his forthcoming novel, Pathfinder. The first fifteen chapters of Pathfinder each have a mini-prologue, that, when strung together, form a complete story. So IGMS's sneak peak isn't just a sneak peak, it's the only place you find "The Expendables" complete and whole, as a stand-alone story.

I could go on and on about the changes, but at this point I think the best thing I can do is shut up and let you get to the good stuff: Issue #17's science fiction and fantasy. "Ten Winks To Forever" by Bud Sparhawk; "An Early Ford Mustang" by Eric James Stone; "Sparrowjunk" by Margit Schmitt; "Sister Jasmine Brings The Pain" by Vonn Carr; "Frankie and Johnny and Nelly Bly" by Richard Wolkomir; another in our series of author interviews by Darrell Schweitzer; plus an audio production of "An Early Ford Mustang" that you can download and listen to anytime, anywhere.

I can't say it often enough, but I'll limit myself to saying it one more time: I hope you can tell how excited I am by the relaunch of IGMS. I hope you'll join us; and I hope you'll stay with us for a long, long time. It's going to be a lot of fun.

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

P.S. As usual, we've collected essays from the authors in this issue and will post them on our blog ( Feel free to drop by and catch The Story Behind The Stories, where the authors talk about the creation of their tales.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

InterGalactic Medicine Show #17: Stories

IGMS returns in June with a new look, and brand new stories!

Bud Sparhawk explores the depths of space and the meaning of humanity and relationships in the context of time-dilation in Ten Winks to Forever.

In Sparrowjunk, Margit E. Schmitt reveals the power of stories. A single father courts the favor of a not-quite-human woman in order to keep his cancer-stricken son alive. He barters fairy tales for his son’s health—but the creature he’s trading with has an insatiable appetite, and trading with her might cost more than he could possibly imagine.

Duster, Florida, is a town of cheats, swindlers, petty despots, and intrepid eleven year-old Susanna Entwhistle. In Richard Wolkomir’s Frankie and Johnny and Nelly Bly, Miss Entwhistle shares her story of how the biggest cheat, swindler, and despot in town got his comeuppance at the hands of a spellslinger-for-hire. Packed into her account are romance, betrayal, ambition, death, and magic—just what a growing girl needs.

One apocalypse would have devastated the world; Sister Jasmine, in Von Carr’s Sister Jasmine Brings the Pain, has to deal with all possible apocalypses. Vampires, zombies, ninjas, robots, sentient plants, dinosaurs, telepathic mutant geeks—all seem to be gunning for Sister Jasmine and her faithful zombie-hunting robot dog.

An Early Ford Mustang arrives just in time to remind us why author Eric James Stone is a Medicine Show favorite. Brad’s inheritance—the titular mustang—is a nice ride, but underneath that hood, there’s a curse pumping through the engine.

Last but not least, we’ll be reprinting Orson Scott Card’s tale of the power of family, and the lengths one young man will go to escape it. Part 1 (of 3) of Eye for An Eye hits these electronic pages in issue #17.