A better place

Strange image calls for strange story. This is D. Wallace Peach’s February speculative fiction prompt.

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How long she had stood in the falling cold, the baby couldn’t say, but her back wore a white blanket now, and her toes were covered in it. It was longer again before she realised she didn’t feel cold anymore, that her thoughts were unfreezing and she could remember. There had been so much sorrow, crying and death. Tears filled the baby’s eyes, but the image of the woman with fiery hair smiled at her, and the tears dried.

She remembered the fiery woman who had swept down from the hill where all the others were lying dead or dying, and how the woman screamed in anger and threw bolts of flame from her hands until the sadness became a forest of flames. The flames swirled and twisted and carried the baby in strong fiery arms and left her in this strange, quiet place where cold white fell from the sky.

She shook her head and found that her forehead was butted up against a tree, and in the tree was a tiny human house and on the roof of the tiny house was a family of mice, white as the falling cold. She pushed. The house lurched, and from inside came the shrill miniscule shrieks of humans. She pushed again and the tree cracked. The mice twittered and leapt to the ground. Instead of running away they watched, intrigued. The baby’s unfrozen thoughts grew clear as spring water, and suddenly she knew. The mouse family knew too. The fiery woman smiled inside the baby’s head from within the flames of her hair and the baby smiled back.

The baby nudged a third time and the tree trunk broke. The tiny house slipped and fell to the ground, splitting open like a coconut. The tiny people rushed out then back, in and out, in and out of the wreckage unable to resign themselves to leaving behind this or that piece of useless junk. Then one pointed. Their movements froze just for a second, before they screamed in unison and ran. The baby stretched out her trunk and trumpeted a baby war cry. The mice squeaked, the baby stomped on the matchwood human house, and the cold stopped falling. The fiery woman spoke inside the baby’s head.

No more. Never again.

No more, agreed the mice.

Never again, agreed the baby, and started off into the great forest where the white cold had never fallen, to look for others like herself.

The Author Hot Seat with David Higgins: We didn’t have genre when I was young

David Higgins is my guest today, a short story writer who has found that the problem of fitting into the category straight-jacket is amplified when your short stories aren’t all in the same style. Here’s how Dave copes with the conundrum and gives us his take on the genre monster.

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Genre didn’t exist when I was young.

While I became aware of genre later (and that other people might be more guided by it) I never let it constrain my reading choices. So it came as a surprise to me when I planned my first release, quite how obsessed the publishing and distribution industry was with genre. And that, for every issue novels faced due to genre, there were twice as many for short story collections.

When I say genre didn’t exist when I was young, I mean of course that I had no reason to care about it when I was a child. The Children’s section of the library in my home town was divided into picture books and other books: the Hungry Caterpillar was separate from Anne of Green Gables; but Enid Blyton was on the same shelves as Andre Norton. I have a vague recollection of a Young Adult classification, but as a sticker on the spine not a defined set of shelves.

My first encounter with genre was when I moved into the Adult shelves: some of the authors who wrote books on both sides of the quasi-arbitrary Adult/Child line were shelved in a special area; others weren’t; and some were shelved in more than one place.

In the decades between moving into the Adult shelves and preparing to publish, my sense of genre as a limitation had almost entirely died. Therefore, it came as a surprise that the most common advice I received when I mentioned publishing to other authors was,“get the genre classification right: books listed in the wrong genre or without a strong genre don’t sell at all.”

As my first publication was Fauxpocalypse, an anthology of short works set after a predicted global disaster didn’t happen, this proved to be quite a puzzler: some of the contributors had written thrillers; some had written horror; some had focused on the external effects of the oncoming threat; some had focused only tangentially referred to social upheaval.

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With some retailers giving me only one space for category, I felt real pressure to pick the best fit. But going through the classic genre and sub-genre options, I almost immediately realised it didn’t quite fit most of the options: it wasn’t all horror, or all sci-fi, or all mystery, or all anything.

The options that did fit the entire collection didn’t really seem utterly helpful. It was a fiction anthology, but what did that actually tell the reader about it? Was there any purpose in using up my one chance at finding readers who did confine themselves to a few shelves by defining it as a ‘short-story collection’?

In the end, the best fit was Post-Apocalyptic fiction: in the hope that readers would find similar interest in a world that didn’t end.

The overall experience of publishing Fauxpocalypse having not put me off writing all together, I went through my list of work to decide on a new project. I had a number of short stories that had been published in obscure places where I had the anthology rights. Having read many collections of authors’ republished works over the decades, I decided to release An Unquiet Calm, a collection of my own work.
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I assumed it would be easier to publish a collection entirely of my own short stories. Ironically, listing it was much harder, for more than one reason.

Where Fauxpocalypse was defined by a common world that would – potentially imperfectly – fit a genre, An Unquiet Calm was defined by all being written by me. There were themes that were common to my writing, and personality types I favoured slightly for characters, but the tropes and settings were varied.

The high church of Literature aside, there are no categories for an author’s specific perspectives on life redrawn as fiction.

And many people who divide fiction into Literature and not, use the division to mean ‘proper fiction’ and ‘speculative fiction’. Thus, as I do write in worlds of science-fiction, fantasy, or horror, Literature didn’t seem ideal either.

Even splitting my collection into science-fiction and not, or any other genre and not, I couldn’t build a collection long enough to be more than a pamphlet.

I was rescued from this metaphysical headache by the discovery of an unspoken rule about genre: “if it sort of fits it might be fine”; my collection would not fail utterly if it was in a genre that didn’t fit one of the stories.

With two collections fitted into the boxes of genre, I thought I had a handle on the issues. So I expanded my reach from the established distributors to more innovative start-ups: lenders of eBooks, and crowd-pricing sites.

With the issue of a physical book having to be in a single place at any one time not present, and the massive power of search engines to leverage, I expected these online models to offer both readers and publishers a new flexibility, and some did.

However, I also found a new set of mandatory boxes: What is the romance level of the book? What is the profanity level of the book? What race is the protagonist? What religion is the protagonist? Where is the book set?

Some apply as easily to a collection as a novel: the profanity, gore, and sex filters are much more likely to be activated by people who wish to avoid them, so can be set to the worst case of all the stories.

But the religion or setting of the book? One of my stories deals with a man wrestling with God’s goodness in an imperfect world, so might be of interest to people who include Christianity in their search; but the remainder of the collection isn’t Christian, so isn’t necessarily what people who exclude Christian protagonists are seeking to avoid. And the locations and time periods are even more diverse: modern day Yorkshire, 1950’s West Country, fantasy Northern Europe, &c.

When I first mentioned I was writing short stories, several people commented it would never produce a career because people don’t read collections of short stories. Having published two collections, I am lead to wonder whether it is not a dislike of short stories but an inability to find them that is stopping the collections being read.

As long as libraries and book shops have a physical presence (and I hope it this will be a long time), there will be a need for a label to physically sort books, but by taking the genre model into the realm of detailed searches and extending the constraints rather than the options, distributors make it harder for authors and for readers.

So I hope the vast potential of online distribution will allow a return to that innocence of childhood: when we can find adult stories about a princess who is both a ninja and an elephant as easily as stories about a space captain who is different but not too different from the space captains of other books.
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Thank you, Dave for adding another point to the growing list of problems writers have with the publishing industry’s mania for classification and sub-classification. Short story collections start off with the handicap that everybody *knows* nobody reads them. Tell people that often enough and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’d be interested to hear how you get on with promoting your work. Thanks again for an entertaining and instructive article.

Dave Higgins has worked in law and IT for both public and private sector organisations. When not pursuing these hobbies, he writes poetry and (mostly) speculative fiction.

He was born in Wiltshire, England. Raised by a librarian, he started reading shortly after birth and has not stopped since. He currently lives in Bristol with his wife, Nicola, his cats, Jasper and Una, and many shelves of books.

More details on Fauxpocalypse, An Unquiet Calm, other publications, and free samples of his work can be found here.

He can also be found on various social media:
Twitter: @David_J_Higgins
Google+: +DaveHiggins
Pinterest: davidjhiggins

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Author Hot Seat with Misha Burnett

Today my guest in the Hot Seat is Misha Burnett, an author I didn’t know before I decided to try and tempt the more off-beat authors to reveal themselves. I’m pleased that I did as it has given me the opportunity to discover some really original writers. Misha is one of those writers who seems to have defied every convention in the book—an ideal candidate for the ‘unclassifiables’ I was so keen to get into the hot seat.
Handing over now to Misha, to tell it as it is.

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G. K. Chesterton once remarked that when inscribing a circle, one can begin anywhere. To begin trying to explain the world that I have created in my novels, I want to start with a drunken conversation at a party some years ago in which I was discussing William Burroughs with a friend of mine and someone entered into the discussion under the impression that we were talking about Edgar Rice Burroughs.
The confusion didn’t last long, but the chance juxtaposition of two very different writers, both of whom I happen to enjoy for very different reasons, started a chain of thought in my mind. What if (and “what if” is writer talk for “hold my beer, I want to try something”) I took what I liked from both writers and put it together?
The world has changed and grown some since then, but the seed crystal with which I started was an attempt to combine the cosmology of William Burrough’s Nova Express novels with the very prosaic and quotidian style of an Edger Rice Burrough’s narrator.
My novels are set in a world that seems very much like ours, but is under attack by bodiless parasites from outer space, creatures that exist only as information and feed on order. They have destroyed their own worlds and have attached themselves to the Earth, entering the minds of human beings to sow madness and chaos, increasing entropy and sucking the sanity out of everything they touch.
They also make deals with human beings. They sell technology that allows humans to change themselves into other things—ambimorphs, blue metal boys, necroidim, minraudim, hives, pale surgeons. I deliberately set out to create a new mythology of semi-human creatures, avoiding the standard vampires, werewolves, zombies, elves, and so on.

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Now, that’s the half that’s easy to explain. The other half is my narrator, James, and his alter ego, Catskinner. This gets a little personal. I have a mental condition that is known as Dissociative Identity Disorder—what they used to call Multiple Personality Disorder. In creating James & Catskinner I wanted to capture the subjective experience of dissociation. I fictionalized it and made it into something with a fantastic explanation because I wanted to concentrate on the feelings rather than the facts behind them. (I, myself, do not believe that I have an alien demon living in my head, nor do I kill people. Just so you know.)
Clearly, I have some difficulty giving an elevator pitch on my novels. I have a main character who isn’t entirely himself, in a world where nothing is quite what it seems. I deliberately blur the line between science fiction and fantasy, keeping the true nature of the Outsiders ambiguous. My narrator is not a hero, he is, at best, the least of a host of evils. My romantic lead is a half-plant hermaphrodite. My protagonist’s sidekick makes his living conning government agencies into thinking that he works for them.
And don’t even get me started on James’ family.
My experience with traditional publishing has been somewhat underwhelming. I queried twenty-something agents when I finished the first novel, Catskinner’s Book. I carefully sorted through listings for those agents who were currently looking for new authors, who accepted science fiction and fantasy and horror (since my book could be considered any of those), and who specifically said that they were looking for works that broke new ground.
I never got a single reply. Not even a “no, thanks, this isn’t for me.” Nothing. To be honest, I don’t know if any of them even received my query. I know that people say that I should have kept working on trying to get representation, that I should have sent out two hundred or two thousand letters, but when the first twenty—the ones that I had hand-picked as being most likely to accept something really different—failed to reply at all, I gave up.
I decided to self-publish.

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Am I a financial success? Not so much. I have reached people, though, and I have a small but very enthusiastic fan base. My work isn’t for everyone, but those who like it seem to really like it, and it’s not something that they can get anywhere else. The reviews for both Catskinner’s Book and Cannibal Hearts have been very positive, and I have a lot of interest in the third book, The Worms Of Heaven. (I’m working on it, okay? It’ll be done when it’s done. Soon, though, I promise.)
I have tried a lot of different kinds of promotion, ranging from expensive stuff that doesn’t work to cheap stuff that doesn’t work. I’m a terrible salesman. Most of my new readers learn about my books from other readers, one friend telling another, “You’ve got to check out this book… it’s so weird!”
I also pick up new readers from my blog, where I talk about the art and business of writing and post samples of my work.
Now that I have some reviews on the two books that I have out there and a third nearly finished, I have started looking for a publisher again. There are a number of reasons for this, but the main one is that there is a lot more to putting a book together and selling it than just writing the damned thing, and I am very willing to share the profits in exchange for help with editing, formatting, promotion, and the rest.
It is still an uphill battle, but now I can point to my fans and say, “See—people will actually pay real money for this stuff! And say nice things about me, too!”
So we’ll see what happens.
To whom would I recommend my work? People who like books that mess with their heads. I consider myself a New Wave writer, in the tradition of Phillip Dick, George Alec Effinger, Ursula K Le Guin, Samuel Delany, and, more recently, Tim Powers, Clive Barker, and China Mielville. I don’t think that speculative fiction—by which I mean science fiction, fantasy, and horror—should be safe or comfortable. I raise a lot of hard questions in my work, and I don’t even try to answer most of them.
I like questions that don’t have easy answers. I think that they’re the only questions worth asking.
For more of my work you can check out my blog at: http://mishaburnett.wordpress.com/
My Amazon author’s page is here: http://www.amazon.com/Misha-Burnett/e/B008MQ8W4K/

Thank you for telling us about yourself and your writing, Misha. I think many of us would agree with you about the discomfort factor being somehow necessary in spec-fic, even if it is possibly easier to win over a certain readership by slipping in a romantic element that distracts attention from the potential nastiness of futuristic/fantasy worlds.
Your reasons for self-publishing will also seem pretty familiar to many of us. Interesting that you are going to persevere with your search for a publisher. I hope you’ll come back and let us know how you get on.