Archive for October, 2011

Nanowrimo Eve

I’ve made my reasons for not participating in the classic Nanowrimo event rather public.  If you haven’t seen them, they’re available on Unleaded.  So I’m not going to rehash them here.

What I will do is wish luck to everyone who is finalizing their outlines, limbering their fingers, auditioning their coffees, and otherwise participating in any of a number of pre-Nanowrimo traditions.  Myself?  I used to always stay up until midnight and write my first sentence, then go to bed.  Of course, the Nanos that I participated in tended to start on weekends, so this was more fitting with my schedule as a person with a day job.  So good luck!  Don’t take my lack of participation in any way as looking down on the event.  There are plenty of bloggers who will do so during the course of the next month, and I’ll probably end up taking one or two to task, it’s another of my annual Nano traditions.

However, please keep a few things in mind.  I’m sure I don’t have to tell this to anyone reading this blog, but what you’re writing the next thirty days is a rough draft.  Nothing more (though in my own experience, occasionally less).  Don’t be that person who is sending their manuscripts out to agents or publishers on December 1st.  Yes, those people exist.  Yes, those people are why Nanowrimo has a bad reputation in some circles.  It makes it easier for me to defend the event if people aren’t doing indefensible things at the end of it.  Have fun.  Say you’re writing a novel.  Yes, that makes you sound pretentious, but everyone needs a little pretension in their lives.

If this is your first time, remember, it’s not easy.  During one of the hours of Flashathon I mentioned a running term: the wall.  Novel writing is an endurance activity, and it is possible to hit that dreaded wall.  But keep going, keep pushing through.  This is, in part, where an outline may help, but not everyone is an outliner.  In that case, take a cue from compass-less orienteering.  Find a distant waypoint.  Keep pointing towards it.  If you have to go around an obstacle, do so with the waypoint in view.  If you have to look away, find it again quick.  It’s possible you’ll decide on a better waypoint as you go, but always think more than a few sentences ahead.

So what about me?  What will I be doing this month?  I’ve given myself another project, working half an hour a night with my wife on our joint novel project Nickajack.  This will be outlining and character development early in the month, it should hopefully be actual writing by later in the month.  We discovered we got a lot done during three weeks where we were eating out every night and talking about the novel over dinner.  We want to keep that momentum going.  I’ll likely be tracking my progress towards that goal more on Twitter and Google+ than in here.

Going to close with today’s XKCD, which isn’t entirely on topic, but not entirely off topic either.  I just really loved it:

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The Kind of Writer…

Fantastic exercise at my writers’ group last night, perhaps aided by a margarita or two due to the last-minute switch from Noodles and Company to Chevy’s.  We were given a series of six questions meant to explore who we are as writers and who we want to be as writers.  I figured it would be fun to throw the questions out to a larger crowd and explore the answers a little.  These questions have been taken and modified from Aine Greaney’s Writer with a Day Job, which has unquestionably become the next book about writing I need to read.

Question: I was to be the kind of writer who…

I’ve been thinking about this lately, often right here in the blog, as I’ve seen more and more of the community of writers who exist out there.  Who revel in successes and take time to help those who are on the way up.  My answer for this was that I want to be the kind of writer who remembers starting out and remembers that writing successes are not a zero sum game.  This was an interesting question, because it was the one that got the widest variety of answers.  Largely because the phrasing is rather wide open.

Question: I want to be known for…

The questions were all looking for our end goal dreams as a writer.  How far were we reaching?  Why are we doing what we’re doing?  It’s fine if you only ever want to be a hobbyist writer, the questions weren’t meant to judge how far you wanted to get as a writer, just explore.  To this one I answered, “settings.”  I can’t imagine setting a story in the real world.  I spend far too much time there to then site down and make it the focus of my writing.  The closest I’ve come was setting a story in modern-day DC, but infesting it with the horsemen of the apocalypse and various angels and demons.  And that’s likely the closest I’ll ever come.  The three novels I’m working through outlining are set in an alternate 1870s in a state that never existed, the late 2070s in a Tysons that never will be, and Xibalba.  Good ole Xibalba.

Question: My ultimate goal as a writer is…

This was a hard one.  The answer wasn’t hard, I just put down “success.”  But then I got pegged with the follow-up question about how I defined success.  First, as a defense of the answer, I’m not really ashamed to say that I want to be successful as an author.  My own definition was really outlined in the previous questions.  Success for me includes being able to live, if not fully, but at least partially on my writing.  It means being able to go into a bookstore and seeing my name.  It means being invited to conventions, maybe even being a guest of honor one crazy future day.  It all seems really daunting right now, but that was the point of the questions.

Because the questions weren’t about getting answers.  The questions are about setting directions.  Figuring out waypoints.  So you want to be a successful writer, what’s the first step along that road?  For a lot of us starting out, the answer is the blindingly obvious: writing.  Yet that was a hard realization for myself as a writer, one that I came to only about a year ago.  And one that I know others are just coming to.  Step two, the one I’m working on now, is putting myself out there.  Getting stories out to anthologies.  Right now it’s getting my brain back into novel mode, while not letting my short stories grow moss.  It’s churning, it’s grinding, and yes, it’s work.

So I’ve thrown those three questions out there.  I’d be interested to see what answers other people have.

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Bad Postive Critiques and Good Negative Ones

Occasionally I’ll create notes to myself on the blog.  Topics for future posts on days where I come up with multiple ideas, help for days when I come up with none.  So today I was looking through those, and found this note that I left myself about a week ago:

Create a post based around this and this.

This was all surrounding a little back and forth between some bloggers as to whether writers should ever leave bad reviews for each other.  On one hand was an argument about burning bridges and bringing up the friendly association of all authors.  On the other hand was the notion that a writer, and blogger, puts their reputation on the line with a review, that a glowing review of an undeserving book can do far more to damage an author than providing an honest assessment in the long run.  It’s a difficult line to walk, as Leah Petersen pointed out in her response to the initial argument.  There’s a tendency to agree with the point of not leaving bad reviews, however

…I don’t want other authors and readers thinking I can’t tell good writing from bad. I may have enjoyed your book in spite of the cringe-worthy flood of adverbs and telling, because the plot, or character development, or whatever was just that good. Another person may not have the tolerance to handle that and may throw the book away in disgust and then resent me for leading them to believe that it had no major faults.

I suppose one answer to this is the old “if you can’t say anything nice…” but I think that’s getting overly simplistic.  Perhaps I’m speaking from the wrong point in my writing career, a point where I’m getting critiques not reviews, and a point where I’m not actually reading for review myself.  Let me briefly define the distinction I’m making here, in case people don’t agree with it.  I’m defining a critique as a sought out opinion of a work in progress, and a review as either a sought or volunteered opinion of a published work.

That said, what I keep being drawn back to is the notion, again from Leah,

Do I ignore the weaknesses, pretend I didn’t see them, and write only about the good stuff?  …I usually don’t trust reviews like that anyway, especially if they’re an unknown author self-publishing and all they have are glowing reviews. I’m pretty much going to assume that all the reviews are written by friends and family and I can’t trust them to give the whole truth.

And this gets into a cardinal truth that I’ve discovered from getting critiques.  There are critiques that have a generally positive or negative opinion about the piece in general.  And there are critiques that are qualitatively good or bad.  These are two separate things.  There are bad positive critiques in the world, and there are good negative ones.  The most simplistic form of the former is the “OMG THIS IS GREAT DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING.”  This is what I mean by working out a qualitative grading for the critique itself.  A bad critique, whether generally pro or con (“this sucks, never write again”), gives no room for growth, no examples, nothing that can be pulled out of it.

Good critiques, whether generally positive or negative about the piece in general, tend to be far more nuanced.  In my experience the best of critiques tend to fall somewhere between two and four stars on a five star scale.  Even the most positive of opinions about a piece can find room for improvements, even the most negative can find points of strength.  It’s the rare piece I’ve encountered that is so perfect that there’s nothing I would change about it, or is so bad that there’s nothing salvageable about it.

Now, as I mentioned, I’m talking about critiques.  Because critiques are my realm of experience here.  That said, I will fully agree that it is unseemly for an author to give a bad critique or a bad review.  However, I will certainly take a good negative critique (and, in the future, a good negative review) any day of the week over a bad positive one.  I’ve grown a thick skin from years of critiques, so as long as you’re well-reasoned and willing to give avenues of improvement, tuck in.

Oh god, what have I just gotten myself into?

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A Writer Reviews: Cowboys & Aliens

I finally got a chance to see Cowboys & Aliens thanks to dollar night at the local cinema and drafthouse.  I can say three definitive things about the movies.  It did contain cowboys.  It did contain aliens.  And I was glad I only paid a dollar to see it.  I’m not sure where it all went wrong.  It had writers I trust, a direct I trust, actors I trust, but the whole thing just failed to come together in any way shape or form.  I suspect it needed a little more western and a little less science fiction.  In the end it was an alien invasion movie that just happened to take place during the Wild West without really getting enough into the setting.  It was Independence Day with a general store instead of the White House and horses instead of fighter jets.

But this is Writer Reviews, so it’s time to look at this from a writing perspective.  So lets look at the use of tropes and cliches within fiction.

There were three notable alien species tropes going on within Cowboys & Aliens that tend to distract me from stories.  Two were being followed, to the movie’s detriment, and one was being ignored, to its benefit.

Trope one: How’d they build that?  Science fiction abounds with belligerent alien races.  Pure killing machine death creatures that show up on their spaceships with no intention but utter destruction.  Which is fine, every story needs a villain, and evil alien species is one of the go to antagonists of SF.  However, there are species that I can buy as being space faring warriors, and there are species that don’t feel like they should have advanced nearly so far technologically.  The latter is who showed up to kick butt in Cowboys & Aliens.  Granted, in a movie it’s hard to explore the aliens, especially with the entire movie told from the human perspective.  However, other movies have managed.  Independence Day did this in the short scene with Brent Spiner being used as a meat puppet by a capture invader.  Other movies choose to ignore it for pure action purposes.  I have a harder time buying the Predators1 as having advanced to the point of space faring without completely destroying themselves.  To be frank, I’ve always had a hard time with the Klingons in that respect.  Humanity seems to be about as internally hostile as a species can get without embarking on complete self destruction.  We hope.

So these aliens?  They clearly possess technology, but I got no sense through the movie that they were the ones actually behind the technology.

Trope two: Everyone loves humans.  This trope involves some spoilers, so if you still intend to watch the movie, perhaps skip down to Trope Three.  Throughout the movie Olivia Wilde’s character is making doe eyes at Daniel Craig.  Which is fine when we think she’s human, he is the ruggedly handsome protagonist in a western, all the ladies are supposed to fall in love with him.  However it’s revealed near the midpoint of the movie that she is, in fact, an alien.  And that the body she is using is one she constructed so as to walk amongst humanity.  Who makes doe eyes and Daniel Craig and even gives him a passionate good-bye kiss before going off to die nobly and thus ensure that none of the human characters gets a shot at that kind of sacrifice.

What?  I said this trope had spoilers.

Anyway.  We don’t know what Olivia Wilde’s species typically looks like.  But we can suspect they look sufficiently non-human if she had to take the form she did to walk amongst us.  Yet her desires still apparently conform to not just a human, but a Western (etymological, not genre) ideal of attractiveness.  This is a pervasive trope in Science Fiction, and even crops up in the hallmarks of the genre.  Star Trek has it.  Star Wars has it.  I don’t buy it.

Trope three: Invincible aliens.  Shoot them, stab them, blow them up, and they just keep coming, man.  It’s a bug hunt!  This is where I’ll give the movie some credit.  Throw a spear at the aliens, especially since they don’t tend to wear much by the way of clothing, and it’ll strike some major organs.  Shoot them with arrows and they’ll bleed.  Get them close up with a gun and they’ll die.  Any time it’s humans vs something else, there’s a tendency to make that something else invincible save for one fatal weakness.  This is used to replace tension in a lot of movies.  The heroes shoot it and shoot it and it won’t die.  They have to figure out the weak spot.

I’ll give you a hint.  In most of those cases the “weak spot” is the writing.

Using invincibility as a point of dramatic tension is a cheat, because it’s not actually tension.  It’s just toying.  The tension still needs to be internal to the humans, something within their dynamic.  A goal they’re looking to achieve other than not getting killed by the invincible boogie man set to chase them down.  Invincibility can be used, but I’ve seen it used badly (every single monster movie on Syfy) more often than I’ve seen it used well.  Cowboys & Aliens went for a spot I’d call “tough but fair” with the aliens.  It takes a little more to kill them, but they can be killed by such things as massive blood loss or damage to internal organs.  Ya know, the same things that can kill every single species on earth.  The tension wasn’t force through the creatures being unkillable, it came through the enemy-of-my-enemy army that humanity put together, through the attempts to save captured loved ones.  It was one of the few things the movie actually did decently well, largely carried on the shoulders of Harrison Ford’s character who possessed every bit of complexity in the entire movie.

I’m spitting out “tropes” here like it’s a bad word.  Like tropes are a bad thing.  As a universal, they’re not.  Oh sure, some are almost never used well, but there are exceptions to every rule.  As writers, we have to be aware of the tropes we’ve introduced into our stories, and determine whether they’re being used effectively or whether the trope is being used in place of something like tension or characterization.  There’s times, there’s places, there’s uses, and there’s abuses.  So practice safe troping out there.

1. I’ve been taken to task for the Predators.  I do like the theory that the ones we see are the rednecks of the species.  As my wife puts it, “everyone else is really embarrassed that Cletus shot another human and expects them to serve it at Thanksgiving.”  That’s different, that’s individuals, and I certainly couldn’t build the car I drive around in.  But there are certain examples of entire species who clearly don’t feel like they should have gotten to the space faring stage in development.

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Flashathon Thank Yous

This should be the last flashathon post for a while, I promise.  But I do owe some public thank yous to the people who made the event what it was.

First, to those who provided guest inspiration, thanks hardly seems sufficient.  I’ll be sending out personal thank yous to each of the writers and editors who gave a few moments of their time during Capclave and elsewhere to provide some inspiration for our hourly endeavors, but they deserve some public thanks as well.  The wide variety of prompts was a huge part of the success of the event.  That so many people gave even a few moments of their time to help someone they didn’t know run a first-time event blew me away.  It’s what I was talking about before the event when I mentioned the community of writers that exists out there.  So, hour by hour, those who helped out and have my thanks:

Two hours I’ve left missing were for members of the CVS writing community who helped make the event what it was.  Hour seven belonged to Jennifer Brinn.  I’ve mentioned before she was behind securing eight of those nine guest inspiration prompts, so if the prompts made the events and she made the prompts happen, by transitive principle she made the event what it was.  Hour twelve belonged to Day Al-Mohamed, one of the editors of the upcoming Trust and Treachery anthology.  She was the one that pushed me to take what was really a throw-away tweet and turn it into an actual event, let me talk up the event constantly over on her own blog, and spread word of the event to several other sites around the internet.

Lastly, one person who I haven’t mentioned in previous posts, and that’s unforgivable.  All the graphics for flashathon, including the banner at the top, the little square ads I’ve been running in posts, and the UFO, gun, and pterodactyl pictures that showed up in the posts were courtesy of my fantastic wife, Blythe Marshall.  She is a professional graphic designer who is willing to pick up the occasional bits of freelance work, so if you liked what you saw in the graphics, you can ping me and I’ll put you in touch with her to discuss what she can do for you and her rates.

So this is my public thank you to everyone who helped out and made Flashathon what it was.  Now I’ll stop talking about it and get this blog back to normal for a few months before ramping up for next year’s event, likely on October 20, 2012.

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Flashathon Post-Mortem. With Questions!

First, I would like to thank everyone who participated in Flashathon this year.  Tonight I’m going to go through and see who reached what levels of participation.  Since relatively few people joined in, I’m probably going to scale back the three-tier system to just two since one of the tiers would be unused.

I feel like the event was a mixed bag.  I was hoping that we would have at least one participant from outside of Cat Vacuuming Society, and indeed we did have one.  So a big thanks to Dana Gunn for joining us in the insanity.  Would more people have thrilled me?  Absolutely.  But the first year of Nanowrimo had only 21 participants, and the eighth week of 5 Minute Fiction (earliest I can find) had 9 participants.  While I don’t think that this event will grow to the hundreds of thousands that the former now gets each year, I’m hoping it can quickly get to the 20-25 core regulars of the latter.  However, I’m not getting down on the event.  I heard from every participant that they felt several of their stories were usable as starting points for longer pieces, and that thrills me!  I myself had at least four stories that I think can be cleaned up, re-imagined, lengthened, or in some way improved upon.  So from that perspective I can only consider the day a smashing success.

The challenge going forward will be growing momentum and popularity for what I envision as only being an annual event.  Because as fun as Saturday was, I can’t even wrap my brain around making it monthly.  I’m a fan of the weekend, being close to Nanowrimo without butting immediately up next to it, so next year’s event will probably be October 20, 2012.  That’s still a Saturday.  I’m not sure how much Saturday hurt or helped attendance, but it’s hard to imagine doing it on a weekday, so Saturday it will remain.  I am considering playing with the hours a little.  I chose noon to midnight, eastern time because that would allow participation across the United States, being 9am-9pm Western Time.  While we didn’t get that kind of participation this year, I still want to keep the hours accessible to everyone.  That said, the participants I did have felt the bigger burn-out wasn’t writing 12 stories, it was writing anything so late in the day.

Thus, I’m considering a move to an 18 hour event next year.  NOT with the intent of people participating in all 18.  The participation tiers would still be 2, 6, and 12 hours.  Instead it would be to let people choose the hours more comfortable for them.  And even potentially skip an hour for lunch or dinner without sacrificing full participation.  With this being an inaugural event, I was shocked by the number of guest inspiration posts I was able to put up, we ended up with exactly the right number, so this would also allow for expansion of guest posts.  This is still an idea I’m toying with, but I would be interested to hear what people think.  I’d probably have the posts run from 9am to 3am Eastern Time, figuring that 9am is the earliest anyone would start on the east coast, and midnight the latest anyone would want to go on the west coast.

So.  I’m very serious about this.  I want to know what the participants felt was good about it, what they felt was bad about it (be honest), what they would change about it.  I’d also like to hear from people who had considered participation but were unable to as to what I could have done differently to assist with that participation.  Any feedback I can get will go towards making next year’s event bigger and better.

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Flashathon Hour 12 Prompt: From Day Al-Mohamed

We’re here at the end, so if you’ll indulge me a few moments, I’d like to explain just how the hell this came about.  Flashathon was an idea with many parents.  It was inspired by the weekly flash fiction contests run at several sites online.  It was also inspired by those who do blogathons, especially the 24 hour, 48 post Blogathon done annually on Blag Hag.  And there was just a little bit of the 8 in 8 project undertaken by Neil Gaiman and his collaborators.

One day I made an idle tweet wondering if anyone would think about doing a flash fiction marathon.  It probably would have ended there except that Day Al-Mohamed, who runs my blog-away-from-blog Unleaded.  She took the idea and started running with it.  Got me to run with it.  And here we are, a few months later, crossing the finish line that felt so impossibly far off when we first had the idea.

So since I started it off, I’ve decided to let her close it.  So this hour of the Flashathon will be inspired by her and her upcoming anthology Trust & Treachery.  Trust & Treachery is all about power struggles, politics, and posturing.   In fact, all group interactions, whether they are governmental, corporate, professional, academic, religious, or social are influenced by power dynamics. The origin of the state is found in the art of interpersonal conflict – love, hate, passion, greed, fear…  As such, we wanted to find a prompt that really got to the heart of the meaning behind the words “Trust” and “Treachery” and find something that encompassed all the emotion and conflict behind them –


So join us as we cross the finish line, hopefully together.  Tomorrow we’ll sleep in, deal with flashathon hangover, then work out who earned which levels of participation badges.  Be patient with us.  We’ll be very very tired.

And before you forget, Trust & Treachery is still looking for genre fiction submissions between 1000- 5000 words in length and will pay $20 per story for those accepted.  The deadline is December 15th, 2011.  You can check out our website at http://treachery.mlcrawford.com for more details. Who knows, perhaps your Flashathon fiction may be just the piece for us!

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Flashathon Hour 11 Prompt: From Jean Marie Ward

From Wikipedia:

In endurance sports such as cycling and running, hitting the wall or the bonk describes a condition caused by the depletion of glycogen stores in the liver and muscles, which manifests itself by sudden fatigue and loss of energy. Milder instances can be remedied by brief rest and the ingestion of food or drinks containing carbohydrates. The condition can usually be avoided by ensuring that glycogen levels are high when the exercise begins, maintaining glycogen levels during exercise by eating or drinking carbohydrate-rich substances, or by reducing exercise intensity.

We’re not running, we’re not biking, but we are writing.  And don’t pretend it’s not hard at times.  Anyone who has hit the wall at this point I can’t blame.  Perhaps I’m there myself.  But we’ve just got to push through, because we’ve come this far and we’ve only got two hours to go.

This hour the prompt comes courtesy of Jean Marie Ward writer of anything and everything.  This prompt didn’t come with the picture, but I felt like we would be well served by seeing this rather beautiful flower at this, our moment of need.  So let’s go:

Japanese spider lilies

A thing of beauty is a joy forever.  Will your story qualify?  And was that absolutely way too much pressure to put on you this late at night?

Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between. Her first novel, With Nine You Get Vanyr (written with the late Teri Smith), finaled in two categories of the 2008 Indie Book Awards. Her short stories appear in numerous anthologies, including The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity, coming from DAW Tekno Books in March 2012. She is also known for her art books, such as the popular Fantasy Art Templates. She edited the web magazine Crescent Blues for eight years and now writes for other online venues, including Buzzy Multimedia. Her web site is JeanMarieWard.com.

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Flashathon Hour 10 Prompt: From Nancy Jane Moore

Hard to know what to even say at this point.  I suspect this will be when I hit the moment of just sheer bloody minded determination.  The finish line is in sight, bu there’s still three more hours of writing between us and it.  All I can say is: be strong.  Keep calm.  Carry on.  And DON’T BLINK!

Wait, that’s something else entirely.

This hour we’ve got unannounced surprise inspiration from Nancy Jane Moore, who has recently published an e-book collection of short stories and flash fiction.  So, ya know, no pressure or anything.  Here’s the prompt:

Risk all for a little sun.

That’s a hell of a six words right there, and I must say while setting these up the night before this has me the closest to cheating and working on my story ahead of time.  But I’ll be good and join everyone else when this goes live.  I promise.  So join us in the comments.

Flashes of Illumination by Nancy Jane MooreNancy Jane Moore’s most recent book is Flashes of Illumination, an e-book collection of short-short stories released in August by Book View Café. Her other books include the collection Conscientious Inconsistencies, published by PS Publishing, and the novella Changeling from Aqueduct Press.  Her short fiction has appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines, including  most recently “Gambit” in the military SF anthology No Man’s Land, and stories in Book View Café’s two steampunk anthologies: The Shadow Conspiracy and The Shadow Conspiracy II.  Nancy Jane holds a fourth degree black belt in Aikido. After living for many years in Washington, D.C., she returned to her native Texas in 2008, and now lives in Austin.

Book View Cafe author page: http://www.bookviewcafe.com/index.php/Nancy-Jane-Moore/
Book View Cafe ebook page: http://www.bookviewcafe.com/index.php/Nancy-Jane-Moore/NJM-eBooks/

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Flashathon Hour 9 Prompt: From Scott H Andrews

We’re 2/3 of the way through Flashathon.  It’s 8pm here on the east coast, dinner time in the middle of the country, and 5pm out west.  I can’t blame anyone if their spirit or wills are waning.  Here in Casa Del Thurston, we’ve got cookies.  A little sugar is going to go a long way at this point.

This hour’s inspiration comes courtesy of Scott H Andrews, editor of Beneath Ceaseless Skies.  Since we’re getting late in the evening, let’s go with something nice an easy.  Just a single word, but certainly a fun one.

Tankard

There you have it.  Actually, while I’m at it, this is probably the right time to break out a tankard of DL’s New Peculiar, hanging out in the fridge and ready for some tasting.

Scott H Andrews’s literary short fiction has won a $1000 prize from the Briar Cliff Review, and his genre short fiction has appeared in venues including Weird Tales, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, and Space and Time and is forthcoming in On Spec. He is a college chemistry lecturer and Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of the pro-rate fantasy e-zine Beneath Ceaseless Skies, which Rich Horton calls “a really important source of fantasy.” Scott lives in Virginia with his wife, two cats, nine guitars, a dozen overflowing bookcases, and hundreds of beer bottles from all over the world.

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