A new collaborative story

How many writers can collaborate on a single short story without it collapsing into an incoherent, unpublishable mess?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know the number is higher than nine. The writer Gareth D. Jones stitched together the work of eight other writers — and none of us had read the others’ contributions — and made this lovely story, “Something On Your Mind?” It’s published today at Kaleidotrope. This is my first published collaboration, and I’m pretty tickled with the result. Let me know if you think you can spot my section.

My Can-Con 2017 schedule

My favourite convention is coming up next month! (I might be a little biased, given that Can-Con is also my hometown convention.)

I’m the accessibility co-ordinator, so please get in touch if you have questions or concerns.

Here’s my draft schedule — subject to change, but I don’t expect any major shifts at this point.

Saturday, Oct. 14

10:00-10:50 Reading (Kelly Robson 10:00-10:15; Kate Heartfield 10:15-10:30; Tonya Liburd 10:30-10:45. I think I’ll read my slightly creepy historical fantasy I Know All of His Names.)

15:00-15:50: Writing Games: It’s Big Literature Now. (Geoff Gander, Kate Heartfield, M. Elizabeth Marshall and moderator Marie Bilodeau.) Writing for RPGs or video games is a well-established part of the writing discipline and SFWA recently amended its membership requirements to recognize games writers for professional pay. What forms can game writing take and how do you get into the game writing industry?

19:00-19:50: Stories of the Northmen. (Chadwich Ginther, Kris Ramsey, Kari Sperring, Una Verdandi, with moderator Kate Heartfield) The myths and sagas of Norse society are filled with compelling characters and a unique perspective on the world, and enjoy an enduring popularity in Western society. Why do these ancient tales appeal to a modern audience, and what can contemporary writers draw from the stories of the Norse people? Our panel climbs out of their longship to discuss these issues.

21:00-22:00: Bundoran Press launch party for the anthology 49th Parallels, with readings

Sunday, Oct. 15

10:00-10:50 The Influence of the Two Campbells. (Andrew Barton, Kate Heartfield, Violette Malan, Claude Lalumière, with moderator Trevor Quachri, ) Fantasy story-telling is heavily influenced by Joseph Campbell’s ideas about the Hero’s Journey. Science fiction story-telling is heavily influenced by the ideas of John W. Campbell, probably the most influential editor of SF short fiction in the 20th century. Together, the two Campbells have given us certain ideas about what makes for a “good” protagonist, which today’s writers are challenging. Is the Campbell legacy something SFF should shake off?

On writing to fit

Most of the stories I’ve sold in 2017 have sold to anthologies, rather than magazines (including a couple of sales I can’t yet talk about).

This pleases me, for reasons that might require a bit of explanation.

Anthologies are not better markets than magazines from either a business or artistic standpoint. Just like magazines, some have lots of readers. Some have very few readers.

But an anthology (and to an extent, a themed issue of a magazine) is usually organized around an idea, and the call for submissions is often quite specific. For example, there’s currently an anthology asking for stories about “space marine midwives“, which is extremely relevant to my interests. I’d love to write a story to submit to it, if I get time between novel revisions and game writing. [Narrator: She won’t get time.]

My very first paid speculative fiction sale was written for the anthology that bought it, but early in my career, that was the exception. My usual pattern was to write a story for an anthology call, submit it, get it rejected, and then sell it elsewhere. In those days it was rare for any story of mine to sell on its first submission. Some of my favourite stories were written for anthologies that rejected them. I can barely remember now that they were originally intended for other markets; at least two, that I can think of, went on to sell to very good magazines at pro rates.

So not getting into an anthology is not the end of the world, and is not even necessarily a bad thing. Anthology calls make good writing prompts. If it sells to the anthology that inspired it, huzzah. If not, well, you’ve still got a story you can submit elsewhere (just wait a while if the subject was very narrow, because there will be lots of those stories on the market for a few months.)

But I’m finding that my stories are getting accepted at themed anthologies more often than they used to. I think this is a sign that I’m getting better at gauging what editors are looking for. In a few recent cases, I wrote a story specifically for an anthology (either the editor solicited a story from me, or I just liked the theme), sent it to that anthology as its first submission, and got an acceptance. In another case, I took a story I had not yet sold and revised it heavily to fit the anthology (it needed revision in general, too). In another couple of cases, I just sent stories I had not yet sold — but even that required me to understand the anthology call and select a story that would work.

(None of this is guaranteed, of course. Next year I could strike out of anthologies altogether. It’s not linear or neat.)

Being able to write to an editor’s specifications is an important skill for a working writer to have (especially a full-time freelancer like me). I know this runs against the mythology that writers should listen only to their muses and never consider publication, but we know that’s crap, right? Art is no less Art for being developed within certain constraints. A commissioned portrait or chapel ceiling is still Art. So is a commissioned story.

You might think that stories written to fit would be tamer, take fewer risks. That hasn’t been my experience. My most recent sale to an anthology might be both the strangest and most political story I’ve written.

Working with four other writers and an editor in a shared world for Monstrous Little Voices probably helped me develop this side of my skill set. So has working with Choice of Games. The game I’m writing for them is my own creation, but within the constraints of the format and the company’s guidelines and practices, and under the guidance of an editor as I go.

Not all writers want to be able to write to order, but I do, so I’m glad to see that develop in my work. (For the moment, though, I’m not writing short fiction on spec until I get the game and novel done, so I’ll have to ignore those tempting anthology calls…).

Cover reveal: Armed in Her Fashion

Every conversation I had with a family member to tell them ChiZine Publications had offered to publish two of my novels included the sentence: “And the books will have great covers!”

Because ChiZine does covers like no one else. I mean, look. I am such a fan of Erik Mohr’s work. And now, my novel has its very own Erik Mohr cover! And it’s exactly right.

One of my favourite things about it is the expression on this lady’s face. The main character of Armed in Her Fashion, Margriet de Vos, is a middle-aged wetnurse in Flanders in 1328. The phrase “strong female protagonist” has become a cliché in the book world. Margriet … isn’t quite what people usually mean by that phrase. She’s not plucky; she’s grumpy. Although this is a fantasy novel, Margriet doesn’t have any magical powers. She’s a little flabby and wakes up with aches and pains (in fact, for most of the novel, she’s sick, but she’s fighting anyway). She’s strong in the way that, well, I’m strong: she’s stubborn, and can endure just about anything, and doesn’t take any crap. Margriet also has a character trait that I don’t have: She never, ever lets go of a grudge or a debt. If she lived in 2017, she’d be the kind of person who demands to see the manager over the small print on a 50-cent coupon.

I see all of that in those few simple lines of the face of the women on this cover. There are a few women in the novel that could fit the “her” of the title (Margriet’s daughter Beatrix; Margriet’s employer Jacquemine; Gertrude, a woman raising her children in the family forge-mill despite the ravages of war around them; or the novel’s antagonist, the Chatelaine of Hell). In some bigger sense, the title’s “her” is a universal one. But to my mind, the title applies to Margriet most of all, and she’s the one I see in this cover.

Armed in Her Fashion is coming in the spring of 2018.


A free story and an interview

August is flying by, and I’m busy working away on my game, on Draft 3 of a novel, and on spending some time with my kid.

But in the meantime, a few bits and pieces of news:

I’ve made my story “Traveller, Take Me” free to download on Instafreebie. It’s a ghost story set in Canada in 1914. It’s appeared in print in On Spec, and in audio in Podcastle. This story is part of a huge multi-genre giveaway of short fiction which I recommend you check out.

My story “Cattail Heart” will be in the Flame Tree Time Travel anthology, and they’ve asked the authors to answer some questions about their influences and inspiration. Part 1, in which I talk about why I wrote this story, is here. Part 2, in which I talk about some of my favourite time-travel stories, is here.



20 years to overnight success

The announcement went out on Publishers Marketplace yesterday: I’m going to have a novel published! Actually, I’m going to have two novels published! By the wonderful, award-winning, kickass Canadian house, ChiZine Publications. I know the people at ChiZine and many of their authors and I feel really good about publishing there.

So this is my “long road to novel publication” post! In my darkest hours, despairing of ever selling my fiction, I used to read other people’s posts about their long journeys and it did help.

And I had a lot of those hours.

I’ve always written fiction; I wrote a fragment of a “novel” on my Dad’s Osborne computer sometime in the 80s. (It was secondary world fantasy and had a character named Camellia. That is all I remember about it.)

By the time I was 19 or 20, I had written a very bad coming of age novel, printed it out on my dot matrix printer and sent it to a few publishers. (I don’t think I even knew about agents. I didn’t know much.) One editor, who was also a prof at my university (although I wasn’t an English major) was kind enough to call me and tell me he wasn’t taking it.

Then I went to grad school and became a journalist, and I stepped away from fiction a bit for a few years. By around 2006, I had written a historical novel (not fantastical at all) set in medieval Ireland. The internet was not, then, what is now, so I bought an entire bookshelf’s worth of research books for it, despite the fact that my partner and I were starting out in life and had no money (exhibit A for why he is a saint). I even made my partner go on a research expedition while we were visiting Ireland. I still love a lot about that book. Maybe one day, I’ll rewrite it.

That was my first real agent search, and it didn’t get me very far. I decided that maybe I couldn’t rely on inspiration and talent and perhaps I should actually learn something about writing.

In 2007, I took the Creative Writing by Correspondence course at Humber College. That course sets a student up in a one-on-one email relationship with a mentor. I was lucky enough to work with the novelist Paul Quarrington. I still have all his emails and they are still teaching me. (Quarrington died far too young in 2010.) I wrote a kind of portal fantasy based on old Irish sagas and the missing years of an actual medieval writer. There’s a lot of good in that book, and I was lucky enough to have an agent call me and talk to me twice about it, but it ultimately went into the trunk with the others. Quarrington (or Coach Q, to those of us he mentored) told me it “deserved to be published”, a few words that gave me the strength to carry on. I might rewrite it one day or salvage bits from it.

Where are we … Novel 4 was another historical fantasy, this one set in 19th century Ottawa. It was lots of fun doing research about the place where I live, for a change. I finished around the time my son was born in 2010. I polished it up and started to send it out and actually got some interest from an agent on this one, but I realized before going too far with that that while I was definitely getting better, the book was very flawed. And meanwhile, I had this idea for another novel…

Novel 5 was The Humours of Grub Street, written with a toddler at home and while I was deputy opinion editor at a daily newspaper. I started working on it in 2013. It all came out of my fascination at the idea that there used to be a neighbourhood known for hack writers, in 18th century London. Why did they all live close to each other? Well, the obvious answer was that the monsters wouldn’t let them leave…

I workshopped the novel in the First Pages workshop, taught by Caren Gussoff and Cat Rambo. I also took a short fiction class taught by Kat Howard, and got serious about writing and selling short fiction. I joined Codex and SFWA and the East Block Irregulars. Meanwhile, Humours went through several rewrites, before and after I signed with my agent, Jennie Goloboy at Red Sofa Literary, in late 2014.

The idea for Armed in Her Fashion actually came out of a throwaway line in Humours (I’ll tell that story some other time), but it’s mainly inspired by this Brueghel painting:

Thus, my first published novels are the fifth and sixth novels I wrote. This isn’t unusual (as demonstrated by a survey by Tobias Buckell several years ago).

So, yeah, I’m thrilled. It’s a very big deal for me. Through all those years of writing without seeming to get very far, I’ve had the unstinting support of my parents, my partner and the rest of my family.

A short essay on story mechanics

Over on the SFWA blog, I wrote a little post about learning to tinker with story mechanics through interactive fiction. Starts with Robert Pirsig with a detour through George Saunders.