The Best of Drabblecast 2014

The Drabblecast!  Still my favorite publication, hitting just the right level of weirdness.  Big editorial change recently at Drabblecast with Norm Sherman handing over the Editor-In-Chief position to longstanding head slushwrangler Nathaniel Lee–sounds like it might get episodes out with greater regularity which would be a great thing.  Norm will still be host and main producer, so his talent will still make the show what it is.

The List

1.  “The Carnival was Eaten, All Except the Clown” by Caroline M. Yoachim
Starring a confectionary clown who acts as the seed for a magician to make carnivals.  The epitome of a Drabblecast episode–weird, fun, strong emotional story.

2.  “To Whatever” by Shaenon Garrity
Written as a series of notes from an apartment dweller to lurking horror that always stays just out of sight and also drinks the last of the milk from the fridge.

3.  “Jackalope Wives” by Ursula Vernon
A kind of a selkie love story, but with jackalopes.

4.  “Half a Conversation, Overheard While Inside an Enormous Sentient Slug” by Oliver Buckram
Happily, this story is exactly what it says on the tin.

5.  “My Hero: The Fisherman” by Jack Handey
Yes, this is the Jack Handey you may recognize from SNL’s Deep Thoughts and Fuzzy Memories segments.  Hilarious story.

Honorable Mentions

“On a Clear Day You Can See All the Way to Conspiracy” by Desmond Warzel
This is one of those that was definitely elevated by the production–amazing narration by Dave Robison as the radio DJ and others playing callers.

“Seven Things that are Better in Blue” by Jason K. Jones

 

 

Interview: Nathaniel Lee

interviewed by Carl Slaughter

Me 2014Nathaniel Lee puts words in various orders. Periodically people give him money for this. The correlation is weak at best, but present. He lives somewhat unwillingly in North Carolina with his wife, son, and obligatory cats, where he maintains a vague sort of career that provides sufficient money to continue his writing and board game habits. Coincidentally, he is the Assistant Editor of both Escape Pod and the Drabblecast (the posts were each offered independently and without knowledge of the other). As a result, he has read enough stories about penises, serial killers, and time travel. He is also an assistant editor for the humorous anthology series Unidentified Funny Objects. Check out his blog at Mirrorshards where he does Very Short Stories. Exactly 100 words. No more. No fewer. Every day.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: HOW EXACTLY DOES ONE WRITE STORIES EXACTLY 100 WORDS?

NATHANIEL LEE: Start writing and stop when you hit a hundred.

No, okay, seriously, flash fiction is a tricky row to hoe because here’s so little space. Microfiction almost always has to sacrifice some of the key “pieces” of a story: plot, setting, character, theme. Sometimes you shade them out in proportion, sometimes you just do away with one altogether (resulting in “character study” or “world fragment” type stories). If you can use tropes and narrative conventions to make your audience fill in the blanks for you, so much the better.

One thing that it will train you to do is absolutely and brutally trim all ornamentation. If there’s a bit of description that’s just pretty words but that doesn’t advance the core concept of the story, you’re going to feel it bulking against you like a two-liter soda in a snow jacket pocket. You’ll learn very quickly what is absolutely necessary to a story. (And sometimes you’ll find that you need those extra words; I’ve had several full short stories that grew from the fact that the 100-word story they started out as was just too cramped a space to explore them or generate their full effect.

 

HOW EXACTLY DOES ONE ACCOMPLISH THIS FEAT EVERY DAY?

Don’t ask me. I’ve lapsed. 😛 I’m down to one a week at best, now that we have a toddler, and when I do have energy to write, I’m usually working on salable short fiction. So I guess the answer is: free time.

When I’m alert and rested and ready to be creative, it takes as little as ten minutes for me to polish up a new flitterfic. It’s taken up to and over an hour, though.

 

WHAT EXACTLY IS YOUR JOB DESCRIPTION AT ESCAPE POD?
WHAT EXACTLY IS YOUR JOB DESCRIPTION AT DRABBLECAST?

At this point, they’re nearly identical. I manage our teams of slushers, making sure they get the stories and give the basic thumbs-up/thumbs-down in a reasonable timeframe, and then I filter the thumbs-up pile down to the 1-5% that make it to the editor’s desk. Other duties include whatever Norm needs me to do at the time, including emergency audio recordings, working with authors on rewrites, pestering people to send me stories I’ve read elsewhere, etc.

 

WHAT EXACTLY ARE THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THESE PODCAST SITES?

Uh, legion? Escape Pod plays it straight; we do science fiction of a fairly middle-of-the-road style, presented as stories read to you by a narrator, with brief intros and editorial comments. Drabblecast is a Weird market, liable to come at you with body horror or high-brow lit-fic or poetry or goofy cartoons, anything and everything that generates that frisson of “wait, what?” that makes a story Drabblecastian. It’s also much more of a show, if you catch my meaning, with Norm’s big personality rampaging all over every segment and putting a personal stamp on everything that happens, a bit like the old late-night movie shows with the colorful hosts. (Yes, Norm, I am explicitly comparing you to Elvira.) I feel like people listen to the Drabblecast specifically because it is Norm’s show. (Basically, Escape Pod has had four editors and at least as many hosts in its run, and they’ve all done a good job and maintained a recognizable show, but if the Drabblecast ever lost Norm, it wouldn’t be the Drabblecast anymore.)

 

HOW EXACTLY DOES ONE GET CASTED BY THESE PODS?

What, like get your stories on? Uh, well, write a really good story and then send it to us. submissions@drabblecast.org. Advanced players can sell it elsewhere first, since we do a lot of reprints, and thus get paid twice on the same piece.

The other route is to write a story so amazing that when we read it after you have (of course) published it elsewhere, we then hunt you down and demand to give you additional money for it. If you want to make sure we see it, though, best to send it in to the submissions address.

Once we’ve bought a story, we line up a narrator from our stable of volunteers and get an audio file, and then Norm does whatever he does into a microphone and he and Tom chop it up real fine and bring it to a simmer, after which it gets spewed all over the Internet.

 

WHAT EXACTLY IS YOUR JOB DESCRIPTION AT UNIDENTIFIED FUNNY STORIES?

Unidentified Funny *Objects*, please. (U.F.O. – geddit!?) [ Just testing you. ]

Anyway, for Alex I just do volunteer slushing. He has about a dozen people he uses to help filter and sort stories every year. Also sometimes he buys stories off me. (I assume he doesn’t take my slush feedback on them into account. :-D)

 

HOW EXACTLY DOES ONE GET PUBLISHED BY THIS ANTHOLOGY?

Twenty dollars, same as in town. (You send it to the submissions address: ufoeditors@gmail.com. Preferably while submissions are open, which they are not. If the money continues to roll in accordingly, I’m sure there will be a fourth installment next year. Try ’em then. :-P)

 

WHAT EXACTLY GOES ON OVER THERE AT MIRROR SHARDS?

One word, plz. Mirrorshards. [ I knew that. ] And what goes on there is I write flash fiction and post it. Also when a new story of mine comes out elsewhere, I link to it there and update my bibliography, which is a sub-page on the Blogger interface. Real authors maintain actual sites with blogs about their lives and writing habits. I periodically post bizarre surreal snippets and the occasional hyperlink. This is how you can tell I am quality.

 

WHAT EXACTLY IS/WAS YOUR INVOLVEMENT WITH THE CRITTERS WORKSHOP?

Uh, not much? When I was a wee young author, back in 2008, I joined a bunch of writing workshop groups and found out that most of them are terrible and are full of amazingly bad advice. Critters is a decent site if you need a feedback forum (and I think some fairly major names still use it), but the signal-to-noise ratio is pretty bad because your story is literally sent out to a random subset of the membership, of whom a further subset will decide to read it and critique it. I received some comically bad critiques there and at one point had someone threatening me with physical harm because I did not like his (terrible) story. It’s also very slow; you’re waiting a month or two for a critique unless you have the free time to earn the jump-the-line passes by critiquing a dozen stories a week (which I used to have but no longer do). I eventually found myself treating Critters critiques as an aggregate, where if *everyone* was saying the same thing, I’d look into it as an apparent problem with the story, but on the whole, it’s very hit-or-miss. I did meet some very nice and competent writers there as well, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that once you find a smaller group of folks whose taste you know and trust, I’d rather use that group of reliable beta-readers than trust to the whims of fate and the general Internet population. Additionally, since I now read slush for two magazines, I have a lot less energy and interest to devote to detailed critiques of random strangers’ fiction. (As King of the Slush Monkeys, I can read a terrible story and just go “No, this is crap, get out of my inbox” and I don’t have to be nice or friendly or find constructive things to say, just formal and polite “no.”)

 

EXACTLY WHAT WISDOM DO YOU HAVE TO OFFER ASPIRING WRITERS BASED ON YOUR EXACT EXPERIENCE?

Get used to disappointment? No, seriously. There are multiple orders of magnitude more hopeful authors than there are open and available slots in all paying markets combined. While it’s theoretically possible for a wunderkind to immediately flare into Guest of Honor status at all local conventions and instantly quit their day job to write fiction full-time, it is not going to happen to you, dear newbie author (statistically speaking). You’re going to have to keep head down and butt in chair, cranking out stories and improving your skills, and you’re going to have to send your stories out and get them back with form-letter rejections, a LOT, and it’s not much fun and doesn’t really pay much of anything. It’s a lot of hard work and a long, slow process, and for most people it never will become a career in the sense that it can pay the bills.

(Yes, yes, self-publishing revolution and etc. Me, I just don’t have the energy to promote myself quite that frenetically, and frankly the folks that have the skills to hack it as a salesperson and maximize their profits are often not the same folks who have the ability to make me tear up with the beauty of their prose. And even there the success stories are egregiously outweighed by the people who took a shot at it and failed so badly that no one even noticed they were trying. Browse the free and 99-cent books on the Kindle store sometime if you want to feel depressed. About yourself, about humanity, your choice.) (The self-published erotica is particularly good for the latter. My wife reads me excerpts sometimes. She likes them, but then, she is a demonic entity who feeds on human misery and draws strength from the pain and humiliation of others.)

As for actual writing advice, well, honestly, almost all of it is useless because almost all of it has at least one amazingly good counterexample, and more pertinently, what really works for one person (as writer or as reader) sounds dumb to another. I avoid statements about the nuts and bolts of writing because if you’re good enough, you can make anything sing. My advice is to read a lot, and not just idly, but actively teasing apart how and why a story was written the way it was. A good author is thinking about (or better still, has ingrained instincts about) everything down to the specific order in which the adjectives describing a character are placed in a sentence; the better you understand why each word ended up in the place it did, the better you’ll do when trying to sort different words into order yourself.

Read a lot, read actively, and keep butt in chair and fingers on keyboard. The more you write, the more you assess and revise and read and incorporate and revise and write some more, the better you will get. It’s boring, but it’s the only advice I’m willing to guarantee.

 

Note: Diabolical Plots reviewer Frank Dutkiewicz is also associate editor of the above mentioned Unidentified Funny Stories, I mean Unidentified Funny Objects, I mean, well, you know what I meanâ€

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

Interview: Ken Liu

interview by Carl Slaughter
introduction by David Steffen

ken_liu_small

If you’ve kept up with science fiction publications in the last few years, you’ve probably at least heard the name Ken Liu. Dozens of his stories have been published just in the last couple of years in the biggest and best SF publications out there today, including F&SF, Analog, Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction… The list goes on and on. He won the Hugo for “Mono No Aware” this year. He won the Hugo and the Nebula for “The Paper Menagerie” last year, one of my personal favorite stories I’ve read in years. I just read a fun story by him on the Drabblecast titled “The Call of the Pancake Factory”, about a representative of a certain supercorporation amusement park happening to cross paths with a cult of Cthulhu–great story. He’s on a roll, and showing no signs of stopping. He’s a great writer and you should check out his work if you ever get a chance to read it.

 

You’ve been getting an awful lot of stories published the last few years. Did you build up an archive or have you just been a really busy guy lately?

For the longest time, I wrote very slowly, and so there never really was much “inventory.” But I’ve been writing at a somewhat steady, faster pace for the last four years. The more I write, the more ideas I seem to have. So that has worked out well.

 

How do you maintain quality and quantity? Natural talent, hard work, long hours, disciplined lifestyle, or some combination?

I think over time, I’ve learned to do a better job of picking out which story ideas seem cool but won’t work, which ones are good for flash pieces, and which ones are good for longer development. That has helped to reduce the number of stories I have to trunk.

I’ve also learned to work better under deadline. Knowing how long it takes me to finish a story and polish it to the point where I’m satisfied with it builds confidence, and that makes it easier to take up new projects and plan them into my schedule.

 

What’s your day job? How do you find time for family, the office, and the keyboard?

I used to be a programmer, became a corporate attorney, and now I work as a litigation consultant for high-tech patent cases, which sort of combines my areas of expertise. It’s very interesting, stimulating work, and probably helps with giving me story ideas.

I have two young children at home, ages 3 and 1. As anyone with young children knows, they severely constrain your writing time. I’ve learned to be better about time management and use the little writing time I do have more efficiently. For example, I try to do some drafting on my commuter rail ride every day.

I can’t say I’ve got it figured out. My novel revisions are going much more slowly than I’d like, partly due to the lack of uninterrupted writing time. But plenty of writers have figured out such a balance before, I just need to keep on working on my process and improve it.

 

Some author’s sell to the same two or three markets or half a dozen markets. You’ve been selling to every market under the sun. What’s the explanation? Diverse material? Looks better on your resume? Just like to shop around?

I enjoy working with different editors. Every editor has taught me something new. And I do write a wide variety of stories, so some stories might be a better fit with F&SF while others might work better at Analog. Not every editor likes everything I write.

I also like being exposed to new readers through new markets, so being published in multiple markets has worked out well for me.

 

You’ve been winning and being nominated for a lot of awards. Mike Resnick said about awards, “When you walk out of the convention, nobody on the street knows who you are.” This in contrast to, for example, the Oscar. How has winning famous awards affected you personally? How has it affected your career? More sales? More fan mail? Invitations to speak at conventions? Requests for interviews?

I can’t say it has affected my personal life significantly — I did get a lot of congratulations from my friends and co-workers, which made me very happy. I think the stories that were nominated got more readers, and of course I’m happy about that.

Career wise, since I don’t have a novel, I can’t point to any concrete sales boost from the awards. I do think some of the translation deals I’ve gotten were due to the awards — if nothing else, they help with name recognition, especially overseas.

Unless people ask about the awards though, I just don’t think about them much. I’m very grateful to have been nominated and to have won some of them, but what keeps me writing isn’t the desire for awards, but to write stories that I want to read myself.

 

You’ve been concentrating on short stories. What does the novel horizon look like?

I’m working on a novel, an epic fantasy of sorts, set in a secondary world created by my wife and me together. The setting is an archipelago, and there are magical creatures, gods, and lots of fanciful machines based on ancient Chinese mechanical engineering. The plot is loosely adapted from the historical legends about the founding of the Han Dynasty, and some of the cultural aspects are derived from classical East Asian elements.

The first draft is done, but there’s a lot of rewriting left still.

 

What about the screen market? Any queries to or from Hollywood to buy or write scripts?

I do like scripts, and want to get better at writing them. But there’s not much of a market for them unless you’re in Hollywood, so, for now, I’m focusing just on narrative fiction.

 

What’s the market like for science fiction in China? Aren’t they more into traditional fantasy? You know, beings with magical powers. Personification of animals, like the famous Chinese novel, “Journey to the West.” (Or is it more accurately translated, “The Journey West”?) Is there a market in China for traditional science fiction? Biotechnology, space travel, etc.

I’m not an expert on the Chinese science fiction market, but from what I’ve seen, science fiction does very well there. Of course, China is a very big country, so even if only a small percentage of readers are interested in science fiction, the absolute numbers are going to be big. Liu Cixin’s Three-Body trilogy, for example, sold some 400,000 copies, and that’s a hard science fiction first contact story. (I’ve been engaged to translate the first book of the trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, into English, and Tor Books will be publishing the book in the US in 2014.)

A lot of my writer friends in China — in science fiction, fantasy, and slip-stream — seem to have many more readers (even if they don’t all have novels out yet). And even my own stories, translated into Chinese, seem to have generated more feedback than they received in English. So I’d say the market is very healthy, overall.

 

Besides China, how are overseas sales going?

I have a Japanese collection coming out from Hayakawa Publishing in 2015, and I’ve sold a few reprints to markets in France, Spain, Italy, and other countries. Sometimes I get a chance to work directly with the translators, and that’s always such a pleasure.

 

You have all your stories critiqued on the Critters Online Workshop. How has that affected your writing and your sales?

I haven’t used Critters for most of my fiction for a while now. Over time, I’ve developed a circle of beta readers (several of whom I met through critters) whose opinions I trust, and it’s just more efficient to get their take than to go through critters, especially when I’m under tight deadlines.

I think Critters taught me, above all, how to figure out which critiques are helpful and which ones are not. When you’re relatively inexperienced as a writer, there’s a lot of benefit to getting a wide range of opinions because they help you figure out who your target audience is. Learning to ignore opinions from people who aren’t in your target audience is a difficult lesson because our natural tendency as writers is to try to please everyone. But that’s impossible, and it’s better that you learn this lesson earlier rather than later.

 

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Listen when other writers share their process and try their techniques out, but don’t be surprised when most of them don’t work for you — but also be prepared for the possibility that a few will. You won’t know which is which until you try them though.

 

Carl_eagle

Carl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

 

His training is in journalism, and he has an essay on culture printed in the Korea Times and Beijing Review. He has two science fiction novels in the works and is deep into research for an environmental short story project.

 

Carl currently teaches in China where electricity is an inconsistent commodity.

 

The Best of The Drabblecast 2012

written by David Steffen

The Drabblecast is still as awesome as ever, and continues to be my favorite source of short fiction, bar none. I particularly look forward to Lovecraft month every August when they solicit brand new Lovecraft-style stories from established authors.

This year marked a milestone for me, the first time I’ve sold a story to the Drabblecast. You can read “Constant Companion” here as part of one of their trifecta specials.

On to the list!

 

1. Betty Flesh and the Meat Man by Damon Shaw
This story is super weird in the best of ways. It throws you for a few loops, and my favorite thing about it is that it never goes where I expect it to. A story about a butcher’s daughter meeting the last available suitor, but you have to read it to really get a sense of it. This is one of my Hugo nominations this year.

2. Jagannath by Karen Tidbeck
People act as the internal components of some bizarre hybrid creature.

3. The People of Sand and Slag by Paolo Bacigalupi
A future where the earth can support very little normal life, and the people who’ve been modified to live there who almost don’t seem like people at all.

4. The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward Part 1 and Part 2 by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette
The third installment of the same world that Mongoose and Boojum were set in, both great stories. This one is a Drabblecast original, as part of their Lovecraft month. Another story set in this Lovecraftian-esque space opera universe.

5. How I Crippled a World for Just 0.01 Cents by Michael W. Lucht
A scientist manages to travel into a parallel universe where scientific principles are covered by patent law, and the consequences of that law, he is put on trial for violating these laws when trying to create a device to send him home.

 

Honorable Mentions

My True Lovecraft Gave to Me by Eric Lis
Apparently I am not the only one who thinks the song “A Partridge in a Pair Tree” must be the product of a fevered mind.

The Elder Thing and the Puddle People by S. Boyd Taylor
One of the Lovecraft month stories, about a little girl who seems like an elder god to little creatures living in the pond.

Transfer of Ownership by Christie Yant

“Constant Companion” published at the Drabblecast

written by David Steffen

This marks a big milestone for me, publication in my favorite magazine, the Drabblecast! My story, “Constant Companion” was published there as part of their Drabblecast’s 23rd Trifecta special, with 2 other stories, one of those stories by my friend Sandra M. Odell.

It’s a story about a wooden boy and the carpenter who made him, but the story doesn’t go where you’d expect.

The story came from an effort to write a 2nd-person story that I didn’t hate. Really, I guess it’s 1st-person, but that person is primarily telling a 2nd person what they have done, but done in a way that makes sense in the story instead of being a gimmick like 2nd-person generally strikes me.

IF you get a chance to listen, feel free to comment!

The Best of Drabblecast 2011

written by David Steffen

And, here’s the list for one of my favorite publications–the Drabblecast. It’s great for my weekly fix of weird. They’ve been of consistently high quality, and I look forward especially to Lovecraft Month in which they solicit original cosmic horror from recent popular authors.

I’ve gotten more involved in the Drabblecast in this last year as well. A few months ago Norm asked me if I’d be interested in reading slush for the Drabblecast (due to the time spent commenting on their story forum, I suppose). Also, their art director Bo Kaier organized the Drabble Art Reclamation Project (DARP) in which fans could volunteer to produce art for past episodes before Drabblecast had art. If you want to hear more, check out the link to this page, where I showed each artwork that I finished, step by step. And check out Drabblecast’s new website.

Okay, on to the list. This covers all the episodes published in 2011. This covers episodes 194-229. Many of those were Trifects and Doubleheaders, so the total number of stories is about 47.

Without further ado, the list:

1. The Wish of the Demon Achtromagk by Eugie Foster
This was one of Drabblecast’s commissioned stories for what is now the traditional Lovecraft month. The demon Achtromagk crosses over into our world from its own dimension and takes the fearsome form of… a little girl’s teddy bear.

2. Death Comes But Twice by Mary Robinette Kowal
A classic style of writing reiminiscent of H.G. Wells. A classically told yarn, masterfully narrated by Larry Santoro, in which a scientist discovers an elixir of immortality, but there’s a catch.

3. In the Octopus’s Garden by James S. Dorr
This one bothers me a bit in that I had already written a story with a very similar premise (though it went in a very different direction). You are what you eat, or in this case, what eats you is you.

4. The Last Question by Isaac Asimov
Classic science fiction story that has aged surprisingly well. Which is especially surprising, since it contains humor, and it’s very hard to write humor that works across decades. In the tradition of golden age SF, it is built much more around the science fictional idea than around characters, but that’s okay–the idea is enough to carry it.

5. The Heroics of Interior Design by Elise R. Hopkins
Have you noticed that all of the “empowered” beings in superhero comic books, those powers are always useful in some way? This is incredibly improbable, considering most of them got their abilities by freak mutations, caused by radiation or other causes. Where are the people with the less useful abilities? Well, here is one such, a “super” who can turn blue things yellow, and what they choose to do with their power. I found this one fun for the things it pointed out, and found it very relatable.

Honorable Mentions:

At the End of the Hall by Nick Mamatas

Broken by Steven Saus
This one was particularly exciting for me in a unique way. Since I’ve been taken on as a slushreader, I’ve voted up a few stories for Norm to take a look at. This is the first one that ended up being published, so I was very excited to see it appear.

ÂKillipedes by Jens Rushing

 

Recommendation: Teddy Bears and Tea Parties

written by David Steffen

Just a brief post today to make an ebook recommendation. It’s one of my favorite stories, “Teddy Bears and Tea Parties” by S. Boyd Taylor, which I first heard on the Drabblecast. Don’t be fooled by the title; it is not for children. I am very serious about this. It’s a very dark story from a child’s point of view. Taylor’s an excellent writer, and I hope he continues to have success; I’ll be on the lookout for more of his stories.

Buy a copy on Kindle or Barnes & Noble, and check out his website.

Adventures in Amateur Art (Drabblecast Edition)

written by David Steffen

Introduction

I’ve always felt drawn to creative endeavors of various kinds. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a cartoonist. When I was in high school I wanted to program video games. I tend to wander from one creative medium to another, drawn from one to the next by the prospect of something new and interesting. Writing has been the odd duck in this string of attempts in that I actually have stuck with it for years, and I feel like I’ve gotten to a point where I’m pretty good. I’m not planning to quit any time soon. Yet I’m still always looking to explore other mediums just to keep myself from getting too comfortable, because that way lies boredom. If you believe in Muses, at least in a metaphorical sense, I like to say “My Muse, she be fickle.” I’ve tried to force her to work for me, and that always fails. She just leaves if I try that, and will stay away until I stop trying to give her orders. I am much happier, and much more productive if I just go with the flow, and let her drive the car.

Anyway, the point is that I am now, as ever, having fun trying out new creative fields. At the moment I’m dabbling in story illustrations. I’ve thought about doing something like this for a while. In particular, I think it’d be fun to illustrate my own stories, or the stories of friends.  But I have never felt particularly driven to do so. But then along came the perfect opportunity, as offered by the Drabblecast!

Drabblecast is working their way up to a major site upgrade. As part of this grand project, Bo Kaier, their art director, has kicked off the Drabblecast Art Reclamation Project (follow the link for all the juicy details). Since about episode 130 of their podcast, they’ve had illustrations for every single episode, provided by volunteer artists. When they move to the new site, in an effort to make everything more uniform and to provide shiny new content to attract listeners, Bo has asked for volunteers to fill in the episode artwork for all those older episodes. Anyone who feels they might like to take a crack at it, there are still more than 50 episodes unclaimed–follow the link. The deadline stated there is August 1st, but that’s a very soft deadline. They’re currently shooting for mid-September launch, and anything they don’t have artwork for at that time… will just have to go without art for now. So, I’m sure they’d love to have whoever volunteer.

I decided to volunteer for 3 episode artworks for now, and I’ve completed and submitted by the time of writing this post. These will go up on the Drabblecast site when it’s ready to launch, but I’ve asked for permission to show the artwork I’ve done here. And, for those who might be interested in such things, I will describe how I did each of these pieces of visual art from start to finish.

The Art

“Malish” by Mike Resnick

“Malish” is a story about a deal with the devil. It’s a bit out of the ordinary for that type of story in that the main character is not the one who makes the deal. The main character is Malish, a racehorse, and his owner has made a deal with the devil, described in the story only as “the gnarly little man”. The devil comes to claim the owner, and while he’s there decides to nab the horse as well. But Malish won’t be taken so easily.

1. What to depict?
The first thing I had to decide is what I wanted the illustration to depict. I chose this specific story because I figured that I could do the image of the horse justice with the “pet cartooning” method that I was playing with last year. So, of course, I knew the horse would be in the image. But I wanted to get at least some hint of the speculative element into the image as well. In this case, the only speculative element is the presence of the devil, described as “the gnarly little man”. One of the biggest moments in the story is when the gnarly little man first tries to take Malish in the stable, so I decided to illustrate that.

2. Picture of a horse
Next, I needed to actually get started on the image. In particular, I needed to get the outline of the horse. My method for doing this is perhaps not the most sophisticated, but I think it worked well enough. First I needed a picture of a horse. I mentioned this to Bo and, he is such a nice guy, he contacted another Drabblecast fan and got me a few home pictures of one of her horses. Of the three, one stood out to me as a particularly interesting image, so I picked that. I like it, because the horse is looking right at the camera. You can see the horse’s face very clearly and it is the most prominent part of the image, but you can also see the horse’s body in the background. It has some interesting perspective proportions, with the horses hindquarters appearing smaller than its head.

3. Cartoon outline of the horse
Now I needed the bold line drawing of the horse, to give it a cartoon feel, with digital colors to be added in later. I can draw relatively well in freehand, but I decided that, in order to do the horse image justice, I would do some good old fashioned tracing. I printed out the image, overlaid it with tracing paper, and traced the boldest lines with a nice thick 1.2mm felt pen. The lines on the outer edges were easiest to see, as they showed through the tracing paper most clearly. Some of the others I had to just eyeball. Note, I added some lines that aren’t strictly lines in the photo, to suggest the shape of the horse’s body.

4. Binary image of outline of the horse
One trouble is that, when I scan this nice clean outline, the scanned image that ends up on my computer is not perfectly clean. The scanner picks up some of the paper’s texture, etc… So, to get a really clean image, I opened it up in Microsoft Paint, and saved it as a Monochrome Bitmap. This format only stores white and black, nothing in between, what computer vision folk call “binary thresholding”. Saving it as that leaves some extraneous speckles, but by zooming upsize in Microsoft Paint, I could clean those up with the eraser tool.

5. Sketching the hand
And then on to the hand. I drew it in a sketchbook freehand using my own left hand as a model. I’m very happy with how the hand turned out, as it’s one of my better attempts at realistic freehand drawing of human anatomy. For now, drawing the hand as close to my hand as I can.

6. Gnarlifying, cartoon outline, binary image
From the sketch I had to get back to a similar type type of cartoon image as the horse. Tracing paper, thick felt tip. And, remember, the hand is supposed to be the hand of the gnarly little man, so at this stage I embellished from the original image to make it gnarly. I tried to add swelling to all of the knuckles, and while I was at it, extend the fingernails and add prominent veins. And then I repeated the same steps I’d used for the horse to get a clean binary image.


7. Combining cartoon horse with cartoon hand
Now to combine the images, resizing, overlaying. Using Microsoft Paint for this again.

8. Simple coloring of image
Simplest coloring step, just using Microsoft Paint’s basic paint bucket. Tried to match colors to photograph. Tried making the hand green to begin with. The story did not specify the color and I wanted it to appear somewhat “other”.

9. Color shading of image
That last coloring scheme was rather too simple, so tried to add a comic style 2 step shading to the main body of the horse as well as to the hand. To make the shaded areas look like a differently lighted patch of the same color, went into Microsoft Paint’s custom colors, started with the original color, and simply dialed the Saturation level down. Since the new shading levels suggest the shape of the horse’s body, I removed the black contour lines I’d added to suggest that shape.

10. Extra Shading, Red Hand
I changed the color of the hand from green to shades of red because one person, upon seeing the image, immediately said “Is that a zombie and a donkey?” Okay, so green does tend to suggest zombies, so may as well change it. Confusing the horse for a donkey though… Not much to be done about that but educate him on the difference between donkeys and horses. 🙂

11. Final copy
Had to make some more changes before the final draft. In the original one, the hand is rather hidden behind the Drabblecast logo. There wasn’t anything to do but to shrink the image down and draw extensions. These extensions go outside the boundaries shown in the photo so I had to estimate what the rest would look like. I also added in a new background color with a gradient so it isn’t so uniform, and added in the title. I got some help from Bo on the title formatting, adding in the darker boundary to the letters, which i haven’t figured out how to do. That’s good because the font didn’t pop out of the background clearly enough without that.

“Marbles” by Ayn Sauer

“Marbles” is a dark story from a child’s point of view. This is one obsessive little girl, fixated upon her button collection. She plays by herself and sorts the buttons by size, color, number of holes. A neighborhood boy invites her over to play, and shows her his stuffed bunny with button eyes. Big mistake, as she immediately extracts one of the button eyes for her collection. And that’s not the end.

1. What to depict?
Decided to do this one in a child’s art style. I figured it could be a simple crayon drawing, perhaps a self-portrait drawn by the girl at a psychiatrist visit after the fact. And, what better moment to show, but the very moment when she has extracted the button eye. So I decided I’d draw the girl with the button, and the boy with the bunny within a child’s simple house shape. A bit later in the story, the boy’s cat plays an important role, so the cat’s in the image as well.

2. The drawing
I learned a lesson from the Malish illustration, to leave room at the bottom for the Drabblecast logo, so I made a grassy lawn down there. Simple house outline. Girl with triumphant smile and pose, holding up the button. Boy wailing and crying with one-eye bunny in tow. Cat off to the side. Instead of making an electronic font, I decided to draw the title and episode number into the crayon drawing itself. And, since the episode number has a zero in it, I made the zero into a button.

3. Final copy
I handed the image off to Bo, and he did some treatments to it, which I thought turned out well.

“The Fine Point” by Gary Cuba

“The Fine Point” has a very classic SF feel to it. In the story, someone has made a profound discovery about the world we live in–the world is made up of a limited set of repeating hexagon-shaped tiles. He proves this by marking a couple of nearby forested locations. Taking a photo from these two locations creates the exact same photograph. Evidence, he says, that rather than making every bit of Creation completely unique, God has used a repeating set of tiles.

I volunteered for this one because Gary’s a good friend of mine. I get a kick out of his stories and I thought it’d be fun to illustrate one of them to share with all the Drabblecast listeners.

1. What to depict?
This one was a bit trickier than the others to try to decide what to do. I wanted to get the speculative element into the illustration, but the speculative element in this case is extremely subtle. It manifests in the story by showing the two photographs side by side, but that by itself wouldn’t make a very compelling illustration to me. Instead, I decided that rather than illustrating an explicit scene/even in the story I would try to illustrate the concept of the story in a more abstract way. I decided that one way that I could manage to do this would be to try to do an image that might interest the great M.C. Escher, blurring the boundaries between reality and unreality. Since the pictures in the story were a forest, I thought I’d start with a forest.

2. Find a forest picture
I’d fully intended to take a forest picture with my own camera. But, that didn’t end up working out. Whenever I would head out to a nearby park, something would stop me from getting the picture. Sometimes it was weather. Once I got all the way there only to realize my camera batteries were too dead to take even a single picture. So, instead, I searched online and found at Burning Well, a website that has public domain images.

3. Sketch the forest
Hey, look, another use for tracing paper! :) I printed out the photo, then laid tracing paper over it. From that I was able to get the boldest outlines, the starkly contrasting tree trunks, the edge of the treeline in the background. There were a lot of details I had to doodle out by eyeballing it, all the leafy details especially.

4. Lay out hexagon pattern
Just found a single hexagon and repeated the pattern until I’d filled the area. In GIMP, I made the spaces between the grid transparent. I wanted some hint of the hexagon tiles in the story, so that the illustration could more effectively bring the story to mind.

5. Combine, with layers
Okay, now to combine three layers together with selective transparency effects. Again, using GIMP.
First, the sketch on the bottom layer, no transparency.
Next, the photograph on top of that, with a radial transparency to make it look like the photograph has bled away in a circular pattern.Â
Next, the hexagon pattern. This one with a square transparency pattern, so that the hexagon just bleeds in at the very edge.

6. Final copy
I couldn’t quite figure out how to get the title just right, so I handed it off to Bo and asked him for help. He worked his magic, and made the title work very well with the image. Note that the new title even has a color gradient from gray to green, that matches the image. Perfect.

The Best of The Drabblecast 2010-

written by David Steffen

And here’s the last of my Best of 2010 lists. This’ll be another short one, covering a bit more than half a year (the rest of 2010 after the last Best of Drabblecast) covering episodes 169-193. Big news for Drabblecast this year: they won a Parsec award!

Also check out my other Best Of posts.

1. Mongoose Part I and Part II by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear

This story is just plain awesome. Space opera setting with Lovecraftian beasties and Louis Carroll tie-ins. And it all works. Just, wow.

2. The Wheel by John Wyndham

By the author of the well known “Day of the Triffids”. An interesting story in a far future low-tech world, and a story which sparked many interesting lines of thought.

3. Rangifer Volans by Tim Pratt

Wildly successful cryptozoologists begin their newest project, to hunt flying reindeer.

4. Floaters by David D. Levine

Have you ever noticed that, in certain lights, if you move your eyes very quickly you can see a little line trailing behind your eye movement? Finally, the truth about those weird little enigmas.

5. The Reenactment by Ben H. Winters

This surly, unpleasant teacher loves nothing more than the re-enactment of the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. This year, it doesn’t go so smoothly.