Interview: Frank Dutkiewicz

interviewed by Carl Slaughter

IMG_20120830_182040_092We asked Frank a long time ago if he would be so kind answer a few questions for us. He said he would as soon as he found a little time. Months went by with excuses like I have to wash my hair, and I need to clean my fingernails, or I got to pick up the dog poop in my yard today, on why he couldn’t give us a few minutes. So we popped in for a visit where we threw a burlap bag over his head, hogtied him, threw him in the back of a trunk, and took him to an undisclosed location to a dark room with hot lights glaring in his face.

 

Thank you for joining us today.

Pleasure to be here. Could you cut the plastic zip-ties around my wrists, please? I can’t feel my fingers.

 

When I first started reading your stories several years ago, your material was barely marketable. You’ve had 2 stories in Daily Science Fiction and you climbed to the top of the Writers of the Future contest. What happened in the interim?

Life. A new job, growing kids, and other responsibilities (car and house maintenance) that take precedence. Writing is but a hobby for me , an activity to help sharpen my dulling mind and keep me preoccupied in a job that keeps me away from home for long stretches of time.

On the writing front: not much. I’ve taken on new responsibilities that are tied to my ‘hobby’ but grant me less time to create new works of fiction. In other words , I am submitting less than I have in the past but I’m not quite out of the game.

 

You were slush editor for Unidentified Funny Objects anthology and the On the Premises humor contest. One of your Daily Science Fiction stories was humor and “Intergalactic Nuisance” was borderline riotous. Why humor?

Because I like it. There is no shortage of great works of speculative fiction but not a lot of it is humorous. It’s difficult to pull off and opinions on what is, and isn’t, funny, vary. I need not go any further than my slush reading duties at UFO to prove that. Alex Shvartsman (UFO editor) has a half-dozen slush readers for his annual project. Alex has told me that he has yet to receive a submission that received a unanimous yes from all his helpers.

 

Rom Zom Com. I’m guessing that stands for romance, zombie, and comedy. Is that like Shawn of the Dead and Warm Bodies?

Couldn’t tell you, I never saw either movie before. I just saw their guidelines. They were looking for humorous zombie tales and I just happened to have one in my files I wrote for an in-house contest for one of my writer groups. I submitted it and they bought it.

 

Why is it significant that other review zines don’t cover Daily Science Fiction? Or to put it reversely, why is it significant that Diabolical Plots covers Daily Science Fiction and is the only review zine that does?

I don’t know why other review zines ignore DSF. I was reviewing for Tangent Online when the publication first came to life. I recommended that we at least try to review it but the editor wanted nothing to do with it. As I recall, he said they had too much material to review and that their business model likely doomed them to obscurity and predicted it would close soon. I disagreed and felt the publication deserved a measure of recognition for their herculean effort. So after to being rebuffed by the Tangent Online editor, repeatedly, I asked David Steffen at Diabolical Plots if he’d be willing to host my reviews.

The reason why it is significant that Daily Science Fiction is covered (I am grateful to David for posting the reviews all these years) is that the DSF editors and their authors deserve the satisfaction to know that their work has been read. It’s a good publication, outstanding in fact. The price for subscription is affordable (free). Their distribution is innovative (daily email), and the talent is first class. They attract the best speculative writers and publish more first time authors then any professionally rated publication. The editors of DSF deserve more than just a review or two, they deserve an award for all they’ve done for speculative fiction these past few years.

 

You’ve been reviewing Daily Science Fiction for 4 years. They publish 20 stories a month, so that’s a lot of grunt work, even if 4 out of 5 stories per week are flash. Why stay on this beat for so long?

Commitment, stubbornness, loyalty , take your pick. I did it for so long because I enjoyed reviewing and reading DSF.

 

Lois Tilton cranks out that kind of volume and more, but she reviews full time. How do you accomplish that feat and hold down a full time non-literary job at the same time?

It is taxing, I confess. Without the help of my colleagues James Hanzelka and Dustin Adams, I would have thrown in the towel long ago. My first review received a positive response from many who read it and from the editors of DSF. Encouraged by the feedback, I vowed to keep at it and decided I would continue to do so as long as my reviews were within six months of current published works. Alas, that mark was crossed this summer (I had a lot going on). My reviews of the publication have ceased (I have one last month I need to finish). I enjoyed doing them very much but they had started to become a chore to maintain, so with much regrets, my next review of DSF will likely be my last.

 

You’ve been reviewing the Writers of the Future anthology for 6 years. Again, why the longstanding interest in that market?

My first one was written as an analysis of the winning stories. I started reviewing the publication about the same time I started to submit to them. At the time of my first WotF review, Diabolical Plots first came online. I asked David Steffen if he would be willing to post them. He was all over it.

The reviews of the contest are written from the perspective of a long time reader (I’ve been a fan of the anthology since it first debut decades ago), a submitter to the contest, and with the experience I’ve gained as a reviewer over the years. Studying the anthology to write the reviews has helped me to improve my standing in the contest , 2 finalist finishes, a semi-finalist honor, and over dozen Honorable Mentions.

 

What did you take away from your role with Unidentified Funny Objects?

Two things: Humor is subjective and I’m not as funny as I once believed. It is also the first true slushreading job I’ve ever done. I have sympathy for those who do it on a regular basis and no longer get offended when I receive a rejection now. I also have had this theory confirmed:
a) Not everyone will agree on what is funny and…
b) Everyone can agree on what isn’t funny

We got a lot of submissions where you could feel the writer giggling as they jotted the funny idea in their heads on their computer screens. There was a lot of eye rolling, head shaking, and groaning done as I read the slush. It became clear to me that humor isn’t for everyone.

However, we also had a few I thought were brilliant but not enough of my colleagues shared my opinion. Truthfully, some of the funniest submissions we received (IMO) didn’t make it in. Not everyone’s funny bone responds the same way, I guess.

 

Same question for the On the Premises contest.

I adore On The Premises. The editors are the slushreaders. They whittle down the submissions to a handful and send them to the judges to read. The prize money, although not pro-paying, is enough to make it alluring. They’ve made it a blind read contest , the authors names are not known to the editors or judges during the contest. I’ve come to regard it as a great place to practice if you like to submit to contest publications like Writers of the Future or Glimmer Train. What helps to make them unique is the editors will (for a fee) critique your story if you fail to make their top ten. I’ve learned a lot about my submissions from their critiques.

I had become such a regular to OTP (as a contestant and guest judge) that they made me a permanent fixture there as a fulltime judge, an honor I haven’t taken lightly.

 

Same question for Tangent.

It was an experience. My time there was short but I learned a lot from it, both positive and negative.

 

Why all this slushing and reviewing? Do you have your eye on a full time editing gig?

*snort* not unless I hit the Powerball jackpot, but what a dream. Can you imagine running your own professional paying publication? Got to have the money and time to burn to be able to do that.

 

Did you gain anything from participation in the Critters workshop? Why did you drop out?

Critters is an excellent place for beginners to start. You learn to critique and absorb real criticism from total strangers , both a prerequisite if you expect to stand a shot as a contributor in the speculative fiction industry. It’s also a great place to find friends who share in the passion of writing science fiction and fantasy. I recommend it to everyone to give it a try.

The reason why I don’t participate anymore is because I moved on and made room for other stuff.

 

Same question for Hatrack.

Hatrack is a good place for writers to congregate. It’s more personal than Critters and the feedback is almost immediate. Most of the stuff I’ve published came about thanks to a Hatrack writer’s challenge.

 

Same question for Codex.

Codex is that secret club your friends will tell you about that you can’t get in (you have to had made a professional sale or completed an accredited writers workshop to be eligible to be a member). They have some tough in house contests over there. Joining them is like being the big shot in middle school who learns he’s a nobody the first day of high school. It can be a little intimidating.

 

Care to share some invaluable, free wisdom with aspiring writers?

Sure. You’ll see this advice sooner or later…

…if you want to make it as a writer, you got to treat writing as if it is your job. Set goals every day , minimum word counts to target or a certain number of pages to complete, even when don’t feel like writing.

The best advice I can give you is to IGNORE that advice. Treat writing as if it’s your job? Jobs suck. The only reason why anyone goes to a job is because someone pays them to show up to do work. So unless you’re earning a living as a writer, you should never treat writing as it is your livelihood (or job).

Hobbies though, hmmm. We love our hobbies. We’ll spend money on a hobby. We’ll take classes, arrange for lessons, and read books so we can get better at them. Hell, most of us have schemed to get out of work so we can spend more time on a hobby. Hobbies are enjoyable things to do.

Writing requires passion. Sure, you can be passionate about your work but you’ll crave diving into a hobby. People love doing a hobby and you have to love writing to be any good at it. Hobbies are easy things to step away from and pick back up later (sometimes you just need a break). You can’t do that with a job. You’ll get fired. The fact is if you set it in your mind that you have to get a minimum amount done every day you’ll come to resent writing. Any job that is that demanding and is one you do for no pay, is an easy job to quit, and you really don’t want to quit anything that you pored that much passion into, do you?

So treat your writing as some do golfing, or bowling, or painting, or crafting. Do it because you want to. Do it because you want to get better at it. Do it because you hope to be good enough to have it become your job one day (it has happened before). To get that good requires patience, a long term commitment, and a ton of passion.

 

Thank you for your time.

Can I go home now?

 

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: Brad Torgersen


interviewed by Carl Slaughter

Brad TorgersenHugo nominee, Nebula nominee, Campbell nominee, Writers of the Future winner, and Analog regular Brad Torgersen talks with Diabolical Plots about his journey as a writer, the blue chip veterans who mentored him, and his hopes for the Society Advancement of Speculative Storytelling.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: Did you write the proverbial one million words before you got published in Analog? Before you won Writers of the Future?

BRAD TORGERSEN: Just about. When I won the Writers of the Future Contest I sat down and added up everything I’d written to date, and all totaled it came out to be roughly 850,000 unpublished words. So in my case I feel the “first million words” really were an accurate gauge. I know this also goes by the 10,000 hour rule. And I think it’s true. Fledgling and/or aspiring writers need to understand that it can take a lot of work and time to reach what more or less passes for entry-level professional quality. That’s not a bad thing, really. Almost anyone desiring to do a thing professionally,especially an artistic thing,needs to put in his or her practice.

 

Lights in DeepCS: Do you have a first reader?

BT: No. I have in the past used an exclusive reader group. But for the last two years virtually everything I’ve written and sold has gone through one and only one first reader: my editor(s) at Analog magazine, Baen books, etc. I know some writers swear by their first readers. Me? I fly solo these days, and do so knowing that I have only myself to trust when I am sculpting the stories. It’s a little unsettling, until I get that next acceptance letter in my e-mail. Then I breathe a sigh of relief and remember something I like to tell new writers: the point of a writing group or a first reader is to not become dependent on the writing group or the first reader. Your objective should be to eventually get proficient enough to send directly to editors without fretting about whether or not the story has what it takes to impress an editor.

 

CS: Do you use workshops?

BT: I have used several different workshops over the last five years. The first one I ever did was called the “Kris and Dean Show” and it was a weekend event hosted by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith out in Lincoln City, Oregon. “The Kris and Dean Show” was a kind of two-day crash course in how publishing works, and it really knocked my socks off at a time when I was struggling a great deal, and wondering if I would ever become good enough to sell even one story, much less the many stories and book I’ve since sold. I liked the “Kris and Dean Show” so much, I went back (after I won Writers of the Future) to do Kris and Dean’s short story workshops, and a novel pitch/packaging workshop. I sold all of the stories I did for the short story workshops (two of which got covers, and one of which was nominated for both a Hugo and a Nebula) and the novel pitch/package workshop was hugely valuable. Needless to say, I am not just a fan of the workshops in Lincoln City, I am a friend of Kris and Dean now too. Lovely, wonderful people.

Speaking of which, I’ve also done Dave Wolverton’s “Million Dollar Outlines” workshop. Which, combined with the Kris and Dean novel workshop, helped prepare me to sell to the book-buying world. Having cut my teeth and proven my worth at short fiction length, I really wanted to zero in on some stuff for my books. I knew the skillsets for writing at book length were different from writing short stories, and I really needed help putting my brain through the outlining process. Because I am a “seat of the pants” man for short fiction. But, having lost several older books to this method in the past, I didn’t want to lose any more books. So I appealed to Dave for help, and his week-long workshop was amazingly informative. Dave’s really got his pulse on the underlying emotional and “legendary” aspects of storytelling. Perhaps more than anyone I’ve ever seen, as writers like Brandon Sanderson (a student of Dave’s) might attest.

Mike ResnickAnd of course, there is the Writers of the Future workshop itself; which is free to all winners of the Contest, and puts a new writer through his or her professional paces. The best benefit I can think of from Writers of the Future was the networking: being able to meet and talk to all these very-successful and award-winning authors. In an intimate setting. Often for hours and hours. I not only left the workshop with numerous contacts in the industry, I eventually became good friends with many of the judges, such as Kevin J. Anderson, Eric Flint, and especially Mike Resnick; the last having become like a father to me in the business.

One thing about workshops: there are workshops for craft, and there are workshops for business. Be sure what you want to do (and where you need the emphasis most) before you sign up. Kevin J. Anderson (along with Dave Wolverton, Brandon Sanderson, Rebecca Moesta, Eric Flint, and several others) runs a stupendously useful and very fun professional business workshop called Superstars Writing Seminars. I took the three-day course at Kevin’s encouragement, following my stint in L.A. for Writers of the Future, and I found Superstars to be chock full of valuable writing business advice, anecdotes, cautionary tales, and encouraging news. A top-notch workshop if I do say so myself; excellent for those writers who, having published a bit, are wanting to bump up to the next level and really start making money.

 

CS: How many times do you revise the same story?

BT: I used to endlessly revise my stories to death. It was what I thought you had to do to become a pro. Dean Wesley Smith disabused me of that notion in 2008-2009 and it paid off: I won Writers of the Future, and have not looked back since. Now I give myself roughly three passes through a thing: the initial creative pass, a second pass to check for consistency problems and emotional impact, and a final pass for fine-tooth-comb stuff like spelling and grammar and occasional sentence or word changes. After that . . . I am done. I know the story or book is as good as I can possible make it (in that particular time and place) and I need to get the story out to the editors, and begin working on something new. If I let a story linger too long, and go for even more passes, I always have a bad time of it. Always. So I try to make sure I don’t get cold feet. I grow more as a writer working on new work than I ever do endlessly “fixing” old work. I think many writers are the same way, but we’ve all been taught this myth that exhaustive revision is the only way to be good. I think it’s not so.

 

CS: Do you write an outline, character profiles, etc?

For short fiction? Almost never. For books? I lost six books writing by the seat of my pants, and swore I’d never do it again. I went and sat at the feet of professionals with dozens and dozens of novels to their credit, and forced myself to learn how to outline. I used to think working with an outline was stifling and would kill the creative juice of the story. But I was wrong. An outline (for book length) is the only way I personally know how to do something that long, and not get lost in the sub-plots, let the small characters grow and take over the big characters, etc. Outlines can be anywhere from a few pages, up to as much as 50 pages. Depends on how much world building and character development I want to do before I actually begin writing the prose. And there is always a *lot* of that behind-the-scenes stuff that doesn’t wind up in the book verbatim. Because while I may need to know a character’s eight-paragraph bio in order for her to make sense to me in the overall plot, the reader may only need to know a few details dispersed here and there; as the action moves along.

 

Analog 2CS: Are most of your stories primarily premise-oriented, character-oriented, plot-oriented, or theme-oriented?

BT: All of the above. I have written stories based purely on a suggestive title, a nugget of a plot, a single interesting character premise, or a theme that’s rolling around in my head and which I want to explore. Usually I wait for two or three of these things to collide in my unconscious before I decide I have enough material to put together an interesting and engaging story. One of my best-known stories, a novelette called “Outbound,” actually began as a kludging-together of two previous stories which had, on their own, failed to gel. One of them had a good theme and a decent plot, but no compelling character or situation. The other had a compelling character and situation, but no theme or plot. Throwing these elements from these separate stories together, and making a brand new story from the bones of the old, made all the difference.

 

CS: Do you make major changes at an editor’s request or hold your ground?

BT: I am easy-going. Toni Weisskopf, Stan Schmidt, Edmund Schubert, Bryan Thomas Schmidt, Trevor Quachri, they all have valuable feedback, and there is almost never a time when I can’t improve a story with some experienced feedback from the editor. That’s what they’re there for, after all. And no editor, especially book-buyer like Toni, ever gets a book from a new author which cannot use at least some commentary and feedback. I look at it like a perpetual learning process, and as long as the editor seems to see the same (more or less) story that I am seeing (and this is almost always the case) then I am perfectly happy making whatever changes work best. Or which might be required to take a decent story, and make it into a good story. Or take a good story, and make it into a great story.

 

BradConCS: How many stories has Analog bought and how many have they rejected?

BT: Before Stan Schmidt bought “Outbound” in January 2010, he had rejected two or three dozen previous stories. Since then Stan (and his successor, Trevor Quachri) have bounced a tiny handful. All of which found their way to homes with other markets. One of the nice things about cracking the professional glass and gaining entry-level proficiency as a story teller, when a story gets rejected these days, it’s almost always a matter of taste for a given editor; someone else (with a different taste) will almost always like the story and pick it up. I often go to Analog with my stories first because Analog’s needs so closely match my particular style and content; of story subject, theme, protagonists, etc. But not always. Analog has taken things other editors could not use, and vice versa. Again, a perk of being pro level.

 

CS: Now that Analog has a new editor, will the magazine, or you, have a fundamental shift in MO?

BT: Nope. I’ve sold two big stories to Trevor Quachri (“The Chaplain’s Legacy” was a massive novella, and “Life Flight” was a substantial novelette) which I believe would have easily sold to Stan Schmidt when he was editing. In fact when Stan Schmidt did the intro for my short story collection LIGHTS IN THE DEEP he noted that his wife had already read “The Chaplain’s Legacy” in the magazine, and gave it very high marks. And he tends to trust her taste, so I think Analog and I will continue to have a mutually beneficial relationship. It’s a lot of fun being able to publish in such a well-known and venerable magazine. I am pleased that Analog’s readers have continued to respond so well to my work. I hope that’s always the case, and I endeavor with each story I send to Analog to match the bar I set for myself with the last Analog publication.

 


CS: How long is the “Unpublished But Hopeful Stories by Brad Torgersen” list?

BT: Difficult to gauge, as I generally have several dozen ideas rolling around in my head at any one moment. I have on occasion gone back to the “trunk” an unearthed an old story which got rejected at all the markets previously, then reworked the story from the ground up, and sold it contemporarily. In those cases it’s a total rebuild, almost always using the character or the idea as the skeleton around which the new, re-drafted (Dean Wesley Smith’s phrase) story takes shape.

 

DP: Do you anticipate ever breaking into novels? Anthologies? Editing? Full time sci fi work?

BT: Full-time writing would be great, but give the vagaries of the marketplace and the needs of my family, it remains to be seen if full-time ever becomes truly feasible. I have spoken to several of the elder statesmen in the Utah spec fic writing community, and among them is a fellow named L.E. Modesitt, Jr. who says full-time writing (pre-retirement) isn’t even a necessary goal, as long as I keep putting the hours in at night and can produce fresh work on a regular basis. So, for now, I live with late nights. Yes, I’ve sold my first novel, a “fix up book” (in the vernacular of Mike Resnick) called THE CHAPLAIN’S WAR to Baen Books. It’s based on my two Analog stories “The Chaplain’s Assistant” and “The Chaplain’s Legacy,” both of which appeared in print previously. I’ve had several stories reprinted, and have also put fresh work into anthologies on request from the editors. I am not sure I can afford the time to edit right now. Though if a choice editorial opportunity came along (and I felt it was my chance to really make a statement and/or affect the field) I might try to take it. But only provided that I could work it in with my other jobs: full-time healthcare nerd, part-time Army Reserve soldier, and night-time sci-fi writer.

 

CS: Give us the background on Society for the Advancement of Speculative Storytelling?

BT: Lou Antonelli came to me shortly after I broke into print, and he proposed the idea that the spec fic community needed a new organization that could not only focus on bona fide advocating for established authors, but which might also help foster the growth and development of aspirants as well. Now, I knew then as well as anyone the heartache of the aspirant, and I like a lot of what Lou had it mind, so I signed on. Unfortunately, because my three jobs still have to take precedent, I wasn’t able to do much more for SASS at the start, than serve as a hood ornament Vice President while Lou got the word out and tried to attract new members. I think SASS is definitely something that will gain speed and momentum over time, whether I am able to lend it much credibility or not. Right now I am a dues-paying member and I like (again) what Lou is trying to do with the organization. Spec fic really could use a group capable of bona fide professional advocacy, combined with grass-roots growing and fostering of new talent. Too often sometimes (at least in my perception) the existing bod(ies) get tangled up in personality disputes or political bickering that’s got nothing to do with anything important to me as a professional. Can SASS be the answer? I would certainly like to think so. I hope Lou continues to gain traction and that SASS moves forward.

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

Review: Writers of the Future XXIX

written by Frank Dutkiewicz

Welcome to my yearly review of the Writers of the Future anthology. This marks my sixth review of the contest. An explanation on my approach to reviewing this anthology I provided in my review of WotF 28. WotF 29 marks a change in tenure of Coordinating judge. Dave Wolverton (a.k.a Dave Farland) , gold award winner of contest #3 and bestselling author of the Runelords series, takes over for the departed Kathy Wentworth. With the exception of a portion of the first quarter, all the entries from last year went across Dave’s desk. Many writers had studied and pondered on what it took to impress the late Ms Wentworth. The abrupt change in first reader sent shockwaves through the forums populated by writers hoping to crack into the anthology. The big question was ‘would the standards change’ for winning the contest. If the winners are indication, my answer would be a soft yes, but by all means, judge for yourselfâ€

 

“War Hero” by Brian Trent second place, fourth quarter
Harris Pope is the hero of the resistance. The only one to successfully infiltrate the enemy, he destroyed the Partisan’s Phobos base and won the war to free Mars. Feigning loyalty to the isolationist’s cruelest commander , Corporal Peznowski , he is eager to put his past behind him. A simple saving of his conscious and he will begin his post war life , it is the last thing he remembers when he awakes forty years in the future in a new body.

“War Hero” is set in a future where death can be a new beginning. Memories of who you were are downloaded and can be uploaded later in a fresh body. What had seemed like a war that was almost over for Harris, turned to hell for Mars when a Partisan last resort protocol nuked the red planet’s surface. The resistance has learned Peznowski has returned and lives in the body of mid-level official. Harris’s conscious has been loaded into his nineteen-year old son, Peter , the victim of an accident. Harris’s mission is to kill his ‘father’ and learn what he can of Peznowski plans, but the sadistic Partisan commander has doubled his chances of success, downloading his mind into a second person he can trust. As horrifying as it is for Harris to learn his most bitter enemy is now his father, he discovers that the same man’s mind is also in the head of his mother as well.

“War Hero” is a futuristic sci-fi war story , not unlike the fast action tales woven by the likes of Dickerson, Drake, and Pournelle. I got the impression that the two sides had no qualms about total annihilation for all over defeat, a complication amplified when downloading a conscious can resurrect friends and enemies. The twist of one man becoming two and mating with himself was , I’m not sure how to identify that type of creepiness , and unique. It made the second half intriguing and a delight to read. Not as gripping was the interview opening with a bookish type of technician , I found the Shane character needlessly wooden and was glad he wasn’t in the second half of the story. Although I found the premise, protagonist, and antagonist worth the price of admission, the solution to the protagonist’s dilemma was nothing more than a cheat; an out-of-the-blue convenient rescue early short cliff hanger films would spring on their audience. No hint it was coming, nor an indication that the hero set it up from before.

“War Hero” makes for a good opening for a speculative anthology–quick and smart. It also strikes a tone that is different from past editions: darker, more intrigue, but with no promises that the ending will be a happy one.

Grade B+

 

“Planetary Scouts” by Stephen Sottong third place, first quarter

The scouts need a few brave (and naÃ’ ve) men and women, and Aidan Pastor is one of the best. At nineteen missions, he has survived five partners and is six missions away from retirement. Lester, fresh out of the academy, is his newest partner. He has a ten percent chance of surviving his first mission, but Aidan doesn’t plan on losing another partner and isn’t above teaching Lester some hard lessons so he can learn about survival quickly. The galaxy is a mean place. Humanity needs fresh worlds and it’s up to the scouts to find them, regardless the cost.

Stephen Sottong is an author who grew up reading the old Cold War science fiction masters of the 50’s and 60’s. “Planetary Scouts” honors those old action classics. The story is set up like many old cop movies where the wise veteran is saddled with an eager rookie. Aidan instills in Lester that idealistic notions – like sparing all intelligent life – is the best way to get killed. The galaxy is filled with life , hostile, aggressive, and territorial. It is the scout’s job to find out which worlds out there harbor intelligent life. Those that aren’t are sterilized for human occupancy.

“Planetary Scouts”‘ main protagonist is a hard man whose amusing but harsh tactics of training reminds me of a couple John Wayne and Clint Eastwood characters they brought to life. The worlds the pair land on are full of crafty and murderous lifeforms. The author deserves high praise for coming up with a round variety of hostile, yet original, natives. The story is one of the longest of the anthology but it read short to me. It is an idea that could , and should , be lengthen to a novel, with room for many sequels afterward. The humans of this future are narrowly pragmatic; the scorch and raze solution for colonization would horrify the progressive of our today. Life, as it seems, does not mix well with extraterrestrial newcomers. If you want to colonize a new world, you best exterminate the natives.

“Planetary Scouts” is so much like the stories I would find in the book stores of decades ago: adventurous humans taking on a mean galaxy not unlike the old explorers that braved the west of two centuries before. I found the tale gripping, exciting, and a complete delight to read. The character’s lives are filled with struggle, but most of that turmoil is of an outward variety. The inner turmoil past anthologies practically demanded, is only superficially present here. The ending to this piece is less than a happy one. That may disappoint some, but not me. Personal growth of fictional people matter less than riding shotgun in a wild ride like this story gave me.

Grade A

 

“Twelve Seconds” by Tina Gower first place, first quarter, Gold Award winner

Howard works for the police department. It is his job to process memory siphons; the image of the last moments a person sees before their death. Sera Turner’s siphon is off. It is only nine seconds and is missing something Howard has never failed to see in one before: the halo marking the end of life.

“Twelve Seconds”‘ protagonist is an autistic man. He wears special goggles to filter out the overload of sensory input, and help him to decipher the proper social protocols he often misses. The absence of a halo bothers him. Most view the halo image as proof that an afterlife exists: the light marking the opening to heaven. Howard’s investigation uncovers other siphons who failed to show a halo as well. Howard’s colleagues become impatient with him as he digs for answers. Ava tells him to look for a common thread. His simple mind has a hard time figuring out what is common, but he eventually stumbles on what others have missed , and his friend may be in danger when he does.

Ms Gower braved a risky tactic when she chose to write a first person perspective through the eyes of a mentally disabled protagonist. Howard is a functional handicap, made partly possible with the same technology created by the two doctors that made siphons possible. Howard is a man who has a hard time interacting with others. His co-workers all have socially disabling issues as well, but Howard appears to be the one having the hardest time fitting in among his colleagues. His desire to be more than what he is motivates him. He has dreams of becoming a real officer, often imagining that his closest colleague, Eddie , a policeman who lost his wife , as his partner and fellow detective. He is told to forget about the halo but the more he digs the more reports he uncovers of similar siphons.

“Twelve Seconds” is a different type of mystery. Howard takes on the role of a detective but unlike all the other mysteries I read before, he is successfully written as one not as bright. His inability to absorb the overload of sensory input in this futuristic society helps him to maintain a laser like focus on what is wrong with the vision of the last moments of Sera Turner’s life. The trail leads him to a cover up, and to a source brighter detectives may have overlooked. It easy to see why the judges chose this story as their Gold Award winner: it is different, brave, and with a protagonist you can’t help but to pull for. As much as I loved the idea of the memory siphons, and admire Ms Gower’s ability to write a convincing mentally handicapped protagonist, I wasn’t satisfied with the way the story rolled out.

The first half of the tale I thought was dynamite: good mystery, intriguing technology, and a likeable protagonist. The problem I had with it was the conclusion. The mystery on why the halos were absent from the victims was never explained to my liking. I also didn’t understand the antagonist’s motivation for their crime. Why was a cover up even necessary? Nevertheless, I found the tale very worthy for inclusion into the anthology. Nice work.

Grade B

 

“The Grande Complication” by Christopher Reynaga first place, fourth quarter

Nine-year old Neil’s world comes to a stop when he is about to board the train taking him to the orphanage. His handler isn’t nice and he wants to go home, but all his problems come to a halt when time stops around him. The only things that still move are himself and an old man who claims to be the caretaker of the World Clock. Time is breaking down, and it is up to the old man to fix it. He needs an apprentice, and Neil is the only person for the job.

“The Grande Complication” is a story that reminds me of the Twilight Zone episode title “A Kind of Stopwatch”. The world has frozen into place. Only Neil and the mysterious old man can move in it. The old man takes Neil into the realm of the World Clock through a seam in reality. The clock is home to things that have fallen out of time. Some, like Jack the Pigeon, were living beings but now exist in a metal-like shell. The clock is broken, and has been falling apart for some time. Chronaphage’s , small metallic locusts , have been chewing away at the clock. The clock caretaker is old and does not have long for this world. He must teach Neil how to repair the clock but Neil has never been good at putting things back together , only at taking them apart.

“The Grande Complication” has an opening with a sudden start. We are immediately thrown into his world and quickly become familiar with the problem he faces. The introduction to Neil trying to escape the clutches of the woman trying to send him away made for an excellent hook. Like the previous tale, I fell for this story right away. I became intrigued with the dilemma young Neil faced. But also like the previous tale, the conclusion left me unsatisfied. So not to spoil the outcome, I won’t reveal the ending scene that baffled me.

I rather liked how this story unraveled and adored the writing. However, I became confused with the shifting events and with a solution that seemed more like an accident that worked out for the protagonist.

Grade B

 

“Cop For A Day” by Chrome Oxide published finalist

Mark Rollins, convicted felon, has been selected for law enforcement detail for the day. He is given all the equipment they can spare for him to perform his duty , bullet proof vest, an AI disabled car, weapons , and is told if he collects a half-a-million dollars he can keep the job. A resourceful man like him just might have a chance to succeed, but then again, when it comes to the government, the rules keep changing to stack the deck against him.

The setting and premise for “Cop For A Day” is a libertarian’s worse nightmare. The government is nothing but semi-organized thuggery. Taxes are collected by theft. Any attempt to conduct an honest business is seen as capitalistic shenanigans that must be dealt with by with heavy-handed authoritative methods. The crime Mark was convicted of was conducting a black market repair service. His business was fair, and he was good at it, which made him a competitive danger and an avoider of taxes for not turning in all his profits for government confiscation. Mark is given a car that is barely functional. He is able to repair the vehicle’s AI brain thus making his job easier. The trick to being a good cop is taking advantage of crimes in progress so he can seize any evidence for the greater good. With the help of his car, he is able to interrupt a very big crime in progress.

The premise of “Cop” is one that teeters on edge of seriousness. The background characters have been dumbed down to a common denominator so low it defies belief. The community Mark lives in makes the most depressing and crime-ridden city of today seem like a paradise getaway in comparison. The government departments have colorful acronyms , which lends to a light-hearted tone, at the expense of the serious nature of the piece. The car (nicknamed EDGE by Mark) has a cold personality that makes moral judgments, reminding me of a mothballed KIT (of Knightrider fame) brought out of retirement.

Despite an abundance of cartoonish characters, “Cop For A Day” has a decent foundation for a science fiction tale seeking to achieve a futuristic moral premise. Mark is written effectively as a hero existing within the cracks of an oppressive society; a believable anti-hero hero. I can imagine a few of my progressive leaning friends disliking the message of this piece , government, left unchecked, is a government destined for corruption. I can see why this right-leaning tale of dystopia would fail to crack the top three, but I am one that is glad it made the pages of the anthology. I found it amusing and can imagine further adventures involving Mark and his EDGE.

Grade B+

 

“Gonna Reach Out and Grab Ya” by Eric Cline second place, second quarter

Dr Molly Boyle is left alone in the corner office when the sheriff delivers a naked John Doe for her to examine. Her colleagues have been called into Fort Benteen to deal with a quarantine event emergency. The dead man was found outside the military base. He is young, has three unique tattoos, and a clenched fist. His tattoos are remarkable. A woman depicted on his chest is done so well it almost looks like a photo. Molly wonders if they may hold a clue to his identity, but the mystery only deepens when she breaks protocol and touches the tattoo with her bare finger. The woman in ink moves under her touch.

“Gonna Reach Out” has a premise fitting an old Twilight Zone episode. Molly is a woman filled with anxiety. Her desire to become a doctor has left her in debt, overworked, and depressed. She is drawn as a lonely woman riding on the edge of a mental breakdown. John Doe is a handsome cadaver full of mystery. The dead man has tattoos that replay like short film clips when they are touched. His hand proves to have a life of its own, grasping at anything close enough to grab. It becomes clear to Molly that the man is part of something secret and big from the base. She is certain that the military will suppress anything Molly discovers, and the hasty , but lame , cover story only confirms her suspicion.

One way to describe “Gonna Reach Out” is as a Roswell cover up from another time. I found the mysterious John Doe as intriguing as Molly did. The setting for this story was ripe for a horror premise but the author chose a direction a little less scary. The presentation, protagonist, and overall premise I found very appealing and kept me glued to this story throughout , well done. Not as intriguing was Molly’s backstory. I found them to be mildly distractive. I also thought the protagonist solved the mystery a little too easily. Her conclusions were, in my opinion, a lucky guess.

“Gonna Reach Out and Grab Ya” is a story I wished would have been longer, invested less in the protagonist’s mental state, and been a bit creepier. Nevertheless, the tale is a good one. The premise reads peripherally familiar, but is unique enough to qualify as an original work of speculative fiction. In short: I liked it, but wished it had more.

Grade B-

 

“Vestigial Girl” by Alex Wilson third place, third quarter

Charlene is a genius. She is four years old, has the physical development of a pre-toddler, is the biological product of same-sex fathers, and is plagued by a monster. The monster is clever. It is wrapped around her voice box, inhibiting her ability to communicate with her fathers. CAT scans have failed to detect it, but Charlene has seen it with the help of a mirror she has constructed from bits and pieces around her home. Charlene knows the monster is against her, but she has a plan to free herself from its clutches. She has but one chance. It is now or never.

“Vestigial Girl” is a prison escape tale. Little Charlene’s prison is the underdeveloped body she is locked in and her jailer is the monster constricting her voice box. There are other children like her. Charlene briefly met such a girl capable of communicating the only way she could , through whistles. Her parents believe she is mentally and physically handicapped: her Daddy Oliver believing the science that merged his and Gary’s cells as being responsible for her condition. Charlene is more sophisticated than any child , and most adults , have ever been. Her plan is to conduct surgery on herself. The gambit is all or nothing. She knows that if she fails, the monster will have won, or will kill her for trying.

Alex Wilson is a name I was surprised to see in this anthology. I’ve seen his work in other places before, enough to make me believe that he was already a veteran professional writer. “Vestigial Girl” is an indication that he is indeed a seasoned speculative author. The backdrop of this story is of a same sex couple arguing in the next room. Charlene has heard it before and has become bright enough to know what the meaning in the tone and inflections in their voices really mean. The monster in her throat has her locked in a baby’s body. What its origins are is never explored in this tale but it may be responsible for Charlene’s underdeveloped condition. Other than possessing a mind Einstein would have been envious of, the one thing that Charlene has going for her is a glacial level of patience to cope with her fumbling digits. The tale is gripping as we follow along with her battle to defeat her monster, knowing her well-meaning parents can bring it all to an end if they check on her at an inappropriate moment.

Although I enjoyed the struggle of the patient and brilliant protagonist, the back drop of arguing couples took me a bit out of tale. Not only did I find it mildly distractive(parents who argue so loudly about a child, are irresponsible in their own right), but the nature and tone of a same-sex male couple, came off as clichÃ’ . Do all gay men fight like diva self-centered women? I would like to think not. It sounded as if they were attempting to one up each other in self-pity. That aside, the tale made for a wonderful slice in a greater drama. I would have liked to know more of the monster and why it chose children like Charlene to torment. Was it a conspiratorial attack? I would like to have known. Perhaps that may be told in another tale.

Grade B

 

“Holy Days” by Kodiak Julian third place, second quarter

The days of remembrance fill our lives. Four magical days mark what we once were, what we have lost, and what we would sooner forget. Evie is expecting her first child. It is her second pregnancy. For her bright and full-of-life but sick sister, Rosie, these days is a chance to step away from her chemotherapy. Her husband, James, tries to use the days to reconnect with his wife. The days are opportunities to get closer with family and loved ones but they instead expose the wounds we had allowed to callus over with time. Scabs that are exposed are scabs we can’t help but pick.

The “Holy Days” in Ms Julian’s story are miracle days. There is a day where our aliments leave us, a day where we return to a happier state, a day where the secrets we hold are revealed to those who share their common sin, and a day in which are departed loved ones come back. The protagonist in this tale is about to give birth to her daughter. The days are bitter sweet ones for her, as they are for others she is close to. Instead of appreciating re-experiencing the things and people she has lost, a forebearing regret fills her as it becomes apparent the people that are close to her will be leaving her soon.

I confess, the days in “Holy Days” would be ones most of us would embrace. Wouldn’t it be great if the arthritis and sickness that plagued us took a day off? And wouldn’t it be nice if you could spend one day with the parent you lost again? How about a day as the innocent and precise child your mother remembered you to be? Instead of looking forward to them, the protagonist in this tale treats the days like family get-togethers; days that force the ill feelings you’d rather not remember to the surface. The events that should have been looked upon as a gift from above, instead they make the reader feel dirty from the emotive residual that came with the package.

Although I liked the premise of “Holy Days” I found the subplots that dotted the story distractive. One sidetrack to the piece told of a relative of Evie’s husbands, a child that died at a young age. The sidebar was long and barely related to Evie’s dilemma. I was surprised it survived the authors final cut. The subplots and depressing tone of the tale, I admit, affected my final analysis of this piece. A few years back I would have likely given “Holy Days” a higher grade, but the quality of the writing and the appeal of the stories has raised the stakes of what I consider a good tale for WotF these days. Although I had no qualms with Ms Julian’s skill as a writer, or of her ability to tell an intriguing tale, the story was one of my least favorites.

Grade C+

 

“The Ghost Wife of Arlington” by Marilyn Guttridge second place, third quarter

Vivian is Arlington’s Shade. She serves as the town’s ambassador to their immortal; a much feared supernatural being she has named the Shaker. She is a divorced outsider who stumbled onto the immortal’s doorstep in the middle of the night. The town folk are frightened of her but are grateful she took a role one of the locals would have had to fill. Shaker is unlike other immortals Vivian has known. He acts more a like an aloof Lord to the people of Arlington than a mischievous deity that toys with mortals. Serving as Shaker’s Shade gave Vivian a purpose in life when she needed it the most. Assuming the role of Death’s companion is not a job most mortals would want. She never expected to fall in love with a man with no heart, nor had she ever thought she would crave having a child with him.

If I were to choose the author who would be most likely to succeed as a bestselling author in this anthology, my vote would have gone to Marilyn Guttridge. This very young winner has an intuitive talent of capturing the attention of a reader. The opening scene to “The Ghost Wife” unravels like the first chapter of a fantasy romance novel. Vivian is shown as a woman with a very unusual job, a servant to a powerful being that is treated like an equal by her master. Shaker is a distant ruler. Mortals confound him but being the only immortal around leaves him lonely. His home is filled with ghostly things called ‘Shadows’ , shy and elusive around Vivian. Shaker is a being that mimics the shell of a human. He can change his form at will but can’t maintain a consistent skin temperature. His touch is usually ice cold but he can burn like a hot stove if he chooses. He works hard with his relationship with Vivian, a difficult task when you have no idea what it is like to be alive.

“The Ghost Wife” is Beauty and the Beast retold. Shaker’s beast is of a being that is alien to the concept of what it is to be human. Try as he might, he can never really be like a man, but his efforts in trying for Vivian’s benefit make him more of a man for a woman who lived with an unkind husband for years. The first half of this tale is warm. You can feel Vivian’s sympathy for a man who is feared by the town he watches over. He is the bringer of death, escorting the souls of the departed to his street until they are ready to move on. When Vivian asks for a child, Shaker becomes angry. Children he sires cannot be alive, eventually becoming the Shadows that hide in his home. The warm opening scene of the first half of the “The Ghost Wife” gives way to a tale that reads like an epilogue. I found the proceeding story to be rushed , as if the author crammed the remaining chapters of her novel to fit into a short story. As a result, the tale lost some of its luster and warmth that captured me at the opening. The last ten percent of the tale where a new, and important, character is introduced, devolves the story into a footnote status , an explanation of what happened to Vivian in the end. It was so distant I came to not care of the character who burst onto the scene.

“The Ghost Wife of Arlington” is a tale written with two dynamic players. I cared about them and I could see many readers falling in love with them. Of all the stories in this anthology, this tale fits in to what I imagine the late Kathy Wentworth searched for: character led tales of speculation. I can’t remember a tale in all the years of the contest where the story would have been better served as novel, if only to see the characters evolve to their full potential. Perhaps Ms Guttridge will one day rework it and create one for Vivian and Shaker.

Grade B+

 

“Everything You Have Seen” by Alisa Alering first place, second quarter

Min-Hee is a young Korean girl caught in the middle of a war. She hides from the shells bursting overhead, hunts down the chickens that have fled the coop, and avoids her cruel brother. Her family is in shambles. Her father has gone to war and left her mother to care for a baby, Min-Hee, and Chung-hee , Min-hee’s older brother. Min-hee discovers a strange boy hiding in the chicken coop and names him Turtle. Turtle wears strange clothes, speaks a foreign language, and can summon food at will. The strange boy is unlike any person Min-hee had met and represents something she had little of before; hope.

“Everything You Have Seen” is a tale told from the frontline of the Korean War. Min-Hee and her family are villagers who have the misfortune of living where the armies have stood to fight. Chung-hee has joined a gang of boys. Their mother has lost control of the family. Turtle is a refuge but Min-hee cannot fathom from whence he came, or if he truly exists. He is lost, but what he is lost from is a mystery. Helping Turtle be found will help Min-hee find herself.

My description of Ms Alering’s story is imprecise. The tale had two themes; the destructive nature of war on a family’s structure and the fantasy element of a lost and magical boy. Turtle, scared and lonely, offers Min-hee a glimpse of a better life. His vision of peace and serenity are a sharp contrast to Chung-hee’s descent into savagery and barbarism. It becomes clear to Min-hee that accepting current events as they are will not serve Min-hee, her mother, and infant brother.

I found Ms Alering’s winning entry tough to follow. For example, I assume her story was set in the Korean War of the fifties from my own knowledge of history, but truth be told I could be wrong. Turtle was more of mystery to me. What he really was I could only make an educated guess. His exit from the story left me unsatisfied and was set way before the end of the tale. Far more intriguing to me was Chung-hee and his choice to attach himself to a marauding band of thugs – deciding his own family were nothing but exploitable items to barter and control. A fascinating subplot. I found her tale interesting but I failed to find solid ground with her premise.

Grade B-

 

“Scavengers” by Shannon Peavey third place, fourth quarter

Mara is a girl with poor sight. Her sister, Keera, serves as the guard for Goldwater , a job that was meant for her. The Lady and her metallic finches warn Mara when a Harvester – dangerous men from outside Goldwater – approaches. It is up to Keera, Mara, and Keera’s husband, Rey, to shoot the Harvesters before they can harm the village. Keera and Rey’s sharp shooting has never let the town down, but when the latest intruders fail to hold scythes suspicion brings to creep into Mara’s mind.

“Scavengers” is set in an isolated town. Goldwater is watched over by the Lady , a woman who is half vulture. Mara was chosen in her youth to be the guard for the town but an illness that struck her sight barred her from the job. The Lady has cared for Mara and has been working to improve her vision. She cares deeply for the town, and for Mara. The trio has the task of assassinating any scythe-carrying men who dare enter their area. Their latest kill are two men who proved to not be holding scythes. Keera decides she must find out the truth and leaves Goldwater. Mara and Rey are left to defend the town, and when another Harvester arrives, Mara suspects the worst when the dangerous man is found riding the same horse Keera rode out on.

“Scavengers” is a tale very much like recent winners from Ms Wentworth’s watch; character-building struggle set in an unusual speculative element. Mara is a woman racked with guilt. Guarding the town became Keera’s by default when Mara’s deteriorating eyesight prohibited her from assuming responsibility. The uneasiness Mara feels toward the Lady is apparent from the start. Although she is grateful to the vulture woman for treating her sight, she can’t help but wonder why the self-appointed guardian would care so much for the town, setting up a mystery that was very thin from the start. The tone of the piece was quite solemn, in my opinion. Regret, guilt, and suspicion bleeds from the story, leaving this reader feeling a little icky. The story was well-written, with an intriguing premise, and stocked with interesting characters, but if you’re looking for an uplifting tale you better come back to this later.

Grade B

 

“Dreameater” by Andrea Stewart first place, third quarter

Alexis and her mother, Linda, are drifters. They travel the southwest in a car without air conditioning. Linda earns a living stopping at motels to meet strange men. The men aren’t usually kind, but they lose their mind when Linda lets down her hair. Eventually, Linda will take their mind for good.

“Dreameater” is a horror story in the narrowest of terms. Alexis lives a life no teenager should experience, a daughter of a prostitute without a home. Complicating Alexis’s predicament is her mother’s temper. Linda would never hurt Alexis but she can be deadly to others. Dumping bodies of Linda’s clients is a common practice the pair has endured. Alexis has lived with this horror but when the police stake out the hotel room where met her latest client, the scene Alexis witnesses is worse than she could have ever imagined. Life for Alexis takes a turn she never expected. Child services have found her father, and he hints at a grim future for Alexis.

If there is one story that would mark the difference between a Wentworth edited anthology and this one, this would be the piece. “Dreameater” is the darkest tale I can ever remember reading for the contest. Alexis’s father is a ‘dreamcatcher’, a man who can shape the dreams of people. Linda is a ‘dreameater’, a person who consumes them. She is a monster who will eventually consume all a person has to offer until she feasts on their brains to satisfy her insatiable hunger. It doesn’t take long for Alexis to realize that no jail will hold her mother, and she knows Linda will come for her when she escapes.

I am a fan of dark tales. “Dreameater” has a premise fit for a Stephen King novel. Alexis is dealt a bad hand in life, leaving a wealth of sympathy for the reader to grasp onto. The opening pages left me wondering about Linda, not sure if she was a desperate woman doing what she can to provide for her child or an irresponsible parent of the worse kind. I found the set up for this horror to be enticing , a good ambush to spring on an unsuspecting reader. While I adored the premise to this piece, the narration is one that didn’t grab me. Ms Stewart stayed true to telling the story from a teenage girl who has neglected an education while traveling from town-to-town living in a car. Her first person account was done with a girl subtle in a solitary life absent a sound social setting , making for a simpler dialog and narrative. This approach made the tale less appealing to me, I confess. Nevertheless, the story was original and worthy its first place finish.

Grade B-

 

“Master Belladino’s Mask” by Marina J. Lostetter second place, first quarter

Melaine seeks a miracle. Her mother has been wasting away from disease. Only one man can cure her but he is dead. Fortunately, a mask of his likeness still exists. Melaine has gathered all the bottled time in her possession and hopes to don the mask and create the cure as Master Belladino. But renting the mask will cost more than she has, and there is a danger. To wear a mask is to assume their personality, and sometimes the will trapped inside the mask can be greater than the wearers.

“Master Belladino’s Mask” is layered tale. A number of subplot twists leant to this gripping premise. The story revolves around two and half characters (more on the half character in a moment). Melaine is a girl from the country that has been caring for her ailing mother. She has come to the city with her mother to find the master healers mask. The mask shop clerk is unsympathetic to Melaine’s blight, unwilling to rent her mask she needs with the currency she possess. Fortunately, the Inn keeper, a man named Leiwood, takes pity on her and covers the fee while offering a place for them to stay. He has had a bad experience with a previous mask, putting on his departed father’s in an effort to understand the cruel man. He is leery of Belladino’s mask but knows it will be Melaine’s only chance to save her mother.

Ms Lostetter’s story would have been solid if she just stuck to this narrow premise, but an effort to fill out a complete world with magical rules widen the scope of “Master Belladino’s Mask”. A novel concept of selling time , taken from newborns , was particularly intriguing; a sort of deposit for future needs. Leiwood’s backstory with his father also supported the girth of the storyline. His experience made him an advocate against mask wearing and time selling. It is only Melaine’s desperate predicament that allows him to overlook his opposition to the practice.

It isn’t until halfway through the tale when Melaine first affixes the mask to her face, an appropriate point of the story based on the subtle building of tension. The gradual realization of the power of the magic and of the strong personality (the half character) it stores becomes apparent to Melaine and reader alike, setting up a carefully crafted climax. Well done.

A note of admiration for the editor of the anthology. Although “Master Belladino’s Mask” was one of the shortest stories in this year’s contest, it was fullest tale in the bunch , a fitting finale to a complete collection of short stories. It is unfortunate that Ms Lostetter’s story competed in the same quarter as Ms Gower’s. I believe if she were up for the big award, it would have been her story that would have walked away with the champion’s honor.

Grade A-

 

 

As Predictedâ€

In my previous review of the yearly anthology, I commented on how the choices for the finalist nominees would differ with the passing of the previous coordinating judge, Kathy Wentworth. After reviewing the past anthologies where Kathy served as first reader and editor, and as a reader of Dave Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants writing tips, I noted how I thought the winning stories may have a different flavor to them. While I can’t make a definitive conclusion on a new direction the anthology may be taking in its choices in winners, I can note on how this collection of stories have differed with the recent past.

Darker

Violence, cliffhanging scenes, avenging heroes all had a place in past anthologies but finding one that had less than a happy ending was a rare find. A good third of the tales in this year’s collection would have left readers who demand a happy ending disappointed. For readers like me, tales where the outcome could go either way is how I prefer them.

Funnier

Aside from one tale, all of the stories here had very serious premises, but there were a couple that employed a light hearted tone to establish a characters personality. Humor was rare to see while Ms Wentworth ran thing, warning to writers that it would be a hard sell. Mr Wolverton has asked the submitters to please send your funny tales, and Chrome Oxide proved that it does indeed have a home in the anthology for now.

Less robots

With the exception of a talking car, this year’s anthology was absent of artificial intelligences. I once commented in a review that a WotF anthology could have been titled “I, Robot” by the abundance of android-like creatures dominating each tale. I believe Ms Wentworth had a soft spot for Tin Man characters. Mr Wolverton has no such attachments.

I commented in the past that Ms Wentworth had a preference for stories with a fairy tale-ish quality to them. The genre didn’t matter but most followed a familiar blueprint. Whenever I spotted a pattern to the ones that made the final cut, I would do my best to share my findings here. It wasn’t always easy to spot, and I may have not always been right, but I believe my instincts proved to be largely correct. Finding a pattern that best suits Dave Wolverton may not be as easy but I do believe I have found one common quality that is present with many of the stories in this year’s finalists; unforgettable finales.

The soft landing for endings I would see in past anthologies are largely missing here. The finales of these tales are sharper, more definitive, and written as stories that leave little room for a follow up sequel. More importantly, the tales in here have more of an exclamation point finality to them. That could be just my perspective of what I read, but I will be looking for that same flavor of a sharp end in the stories in next year’s anthology.

As for similarities with this collection compared to the ones of the recent past , if I were to pick out the pieces that would have been mostly likely to catch Ms Wentworth’s eye, I would have chosen the four first place winners. They all had that character building, compelling struggle, storyline that dominated past winners before. Although the finalist choices may have changed, what attracts the attention of finalist the judges, have not.

 

FrankCurtainFrank has been reviewing the Writer’s of the Future anthology for years. You’d think he would use that knowledge for good and win the damn thing outright, but alas, he hasn’t yet. He’s been close (oh so close) but he’s still the guy who outside looking in.

Someday…someday.

Review: Writers of the Future XXVIII

written by Frank Dutkiewicz

Before I cut my reviewing teeth at Tangent Online, before Daily Science Fiction came to life, I shared my thoughts on the Writers of the Future anthology here at Diabolical Plots. WotF is a contest like none other in literature. The dream child of the late – and controversial – science fiction author, L Ron Hubbard, WotF is a contest reserved for the amateur writers of speculative fiction. Its judges are staffed with the icons in the industry. Winners of the contest have often gone on to greater success. Skeptical? A simple roll call of Hugo and Nebula nominees of the past decade plus is all the evidence you need. Many authors who now make writing their career , including the last two coordinating judges , made their first steps as a successful author winning this contest.

Because the Writers of the Future contest is so unique, I have made my reviews unique. It is the only publication where I assign letter grades for each story. I do so for three reasonsâ€

a) Because I’m a loyal reader.

I bought the first anthology when it debuted so very long ago (I was young then, I swear). With the exception of a few in the 90’s, I have read them all. Some of the stories have moved me, some have left me scratching my head and left me wondering on how they managed to be place in the contest, but most fall in that murky middle. A simple , I liked it , doesn’t accurately reflect on how I felt about the stories, but the letter grades do.

b) Because I’m a contestant.

I first started to submit to the contest when I began to review the anthology four years ago. I’ve done well enough to average about three Honorable Mentions a year. With the exception of one Silver Honorable Mention, I have yet to do better. But if the estimates that only the top 5 to 10% reach the level of HM, then I can reason that I’m not doing all that bad. The stories that have won have bested my best. The letter grades reflect my analysis of my competition.

c) Because they’ve passed the test.

Most writers who have submitted a story to a professional publication have a lofty dream of making it in the industry. Dreams that their names will someday stand with the prestigious authors of today motivate many, but there is a wall they must first scale, a note of accomplishment that a writer can hold up to show that they have indeed made it. The WotF contest has proven to be that mark of excellence that they have.

Scores of writers have known the contest opens a door that they have been turned away from. For most who have won, entry into the anthology is their first professional sale. It is a rare contest. If you’ve made it in the industry, you can’t enter it. It’s for the writers who have been searching for their big break. For a lot of past winners, make the table of contents is the beginning of greater things to come , and you need not look any further than list of Hugo and Nebula nominees for the past decade to see just how true that is. It’s the reason why , according to Kristine Kathryn Rusch in her excellent essay in this year’s anthology , the contest receives thousands of entries each quarter. Amateur writers have learned winning the contest can mean everything for their career.

So, this contest is our Bar exam, the dissertation to earn our doctorate, our finishing line of our marathon, the peak of our mountain. It is the final exam to our professional writers degree. With that in mind every exam I ever took came with a grade. So how did our graduates from amateur-hood do? Take a look for yourself†.

 

“Of Woven Wood” by Marie Croke first place, first quarter

Lan’s creator, Haigh, is dead. Murdered by unknown assailants. Worse, Lan’s wicker head now has a hole in it, and he has a headache to boot , an odd feeling for a creature constructed out of branches. Now his head cannot hold items, a dilemma that stresses him much. Haigh’s neighbor, Jaddi, comes to get Lan and takes him into her home. Haigh’s talents as the local apothecary will be missed. Lan’s role as Haigh’s assistant and storage curator leaves a hole in his purpose as gaping as the one in his head. The emptiness inside him forces Lan to reflect who he is, a question that is compounded when Haigh’s murderers return to find what they were looking for, the item that led to Haigh’s death.

“Of Woven Wood” opens as a mystery. Lan awakes confused. He doesn’t understand the pain he is in or how he received the hole in his head. Vague recollections of his master stuffing him with important items, while their home is being invaded, flash in his mind. He is more concerned about Haigh’s reaction to the missing items in his head cavity, and of the broken things on the floor, than he is about Haigh’s unresponsive state. Lan is a walking wicker basket. His insides are a concealed storage container. As Haigh’s assistant, he picks up the pieces of his life and assumes his former masters role as the apothecary of the town.

“Of Woven Wood” transforms as a story almost from the beginning. Lan’s character is convincingly shown as a magical servant. He is robotic in design with the indifference in attitude fitting the fantasy equivalent of a heartless machine. I found it surprising when the author accomplished this so successfully yet spent the rest of the story showing he was anything but. The emotionless creature at the start evolves into a Pinocchio like character. I found the writing sound – the smooth prose and intriguing opening had me very curious from the start. However, the plot lacked a firm footing for me to remain grounded. The story, and its protagonist, drifted as if they weren’t sure what they were or where they should go next. The first half of the piece was a lengthy set up of Lan searching to find himself. The last half hinged on a twist that came out of nowhere. The result was a tale that I found enjoyable to follow but with an ending that was flat and a conclusion that felt like a cheat.

Grade B-

 

“The Rings of Mars” by William Ledbetter first place, second quarter

Malcom is chasing his best friend, Jack. He has recommended that his long time bud be returned to Earth. Now Jack has taken the robot rover, Nellie, and like a hurt child, has run away and left Malcom alone on the red planet’s dry surface. Malcom has no reason to be concerned, until an unexpected solar flare warning puts him in danger. Loyal to his friend, but still feeling betrayed, Jack returns to rescue Malcolm. Malcolm uses the opportunity to explain why he made his decision, but Jack has his reasons for not being a team player for the company. He has found something, something too valuable to leave in the clutches of a heartless corporation to exploit.

“The Rings of Mars” is a good old-fashioned science fiction tale. The story starts off as a buddy tale. Malcolm has valid reasons on why he has recommended Jack’s recall. An accomplished geologist, Jack has spent all his time exploring the red sands yet has failed to find any mineral deposits for the company to use. But Jack has indeed found just what the company needs, water, and tons of it. Giant pillars frozen in the sand, but the pillars appear to have a pattern to them, as if they were a puzzle left long ago for a budding species on a neighboring blue planet to solve. Malcolm isn’t so sure but can see the benefit the find would be for the company. Jack is disappointed with Malcolm and abandons him again, leaving him for the company to find as he runs off. But while Malcolm waits, he discovers there is far more to this puzzle than even Jack has discovered. He is left with a choice; be a hero to the company or help Jack unravel the greatest discovery in human history.

“Rings of Mars” reminds me of the short 70’s sci-fi adventures I fell in love with as a youth. The slow pace of the first few pages ends up paying off halfway through. Mr Ledbetter’s experience as the editor for the National Space Society’sannual Jim Baen’s writing contest is put to good use in this tale. A fine mixture of solid science and astronomy knowledge supports a well-crafted premise. I was taken in with the dilemma the two men faced and was quite satisfied with the story’s eventual solution. Well done. The one thing that did disappoint me was the art attached to the story. I thought the tale deserved a depiction as imaginative as the storyline.

Grade A-

 

“The Paradise Aperture” by David Carani first place, fourth quarter, Gold Award winner

Jon has lost his wife. He is a photographer who stumbled upon one of the greatest discoveries in history, the ability to develop doorways that lead into pocket universes. Two years before, he lost his wife inside one of those universes and now he is obsessed to find her. His ability to capture doorways has made him wealthy. Each universe is a paradise. One can step into one and not feel pain, hunger, thirst†the ultimate alternate reality for those who want to disconnect from the real one , and the perfect environment for those who want a place to conduct less than ethical business practices.

“The Paradise Aperture” is a well thought out and original concept. People and corporations are willing to pay him millions for each doorway. Jon needs the money to help him finance his search for his lost wife but is having difficulty turning a blind eye to what they are being used for. His teenage daughter tags along with him on his trips to photograph new doorways, even when she hates doing so. His mother-in-law begs him to stop, to accept that his wife is gone for his daughter’s sake. The government has threatened to put his work to a stop, concerned with the ethics of creating new worlds. He is running out time to find his wife and is beginning to lose hope that he will. He has one last idea, an idea that might bring unimaginable catastrophe.

“The Paradise Aperture” is Mr Carani’s first published work, a fact that I am having a hard time believing. The characters are drawn well. Jon is conflicted, short in patience and annoyed with the people who crave his work. His teenage daughter, Irene, is successfully written as a spoiled teenager of a single, but wealthy, parent , bored, disrespectful, and judgmental. The tale is written on a foundation of a fresh and fascinating premise. Who wouldn’t love to step into a doorway leading to paradise? Particularly impressive was the author’s ability to craft subtle hints that have huge implications later in the tale. Although the storyline itself didn’t knock my socks off, the exceedingly impressive crafting of the story did. I foresee a brilliant writing career in Dave Carani’s future.

Grade A

 

“Fast Draw” by Roy Hardin published finalist

Jake is about to be shot by his G-1, basic grade human, quick-drawing girlfriend. He has less than two seconds before the bullet reaches him. Plenty of time for a G-30 to down a few drinks, make his moves on the lovely girl seated next to him at the bar, and step out of the way. Now if he only knew the grade of the alluring woman seated next to himâ€

“Fast Draw” is set in a future where new and improved models of androids are created each year, making ‘new’ brands obsolete after a few years. Jake had been very important when he was relevant, but that was long ago. He is an anomaly, living way past his expected twenty years of life. At seventy, Jake is an antique compared to the G-100’s of today. He is slow, mentally and physically, to the advanced models, but is blazing quick to his bio-original girlfriend, Gloria. His new interest, another android whose grade he doesn’t know, is a wild card. She encourages his advances but there is something that doesn’t feel quite right about her. The quickly evolving events , set to slow motion , unravel as a speeding bullet crawls toward him.

“Fast Draw” is a story with entertaining characters set in a basket full of coincidental circumstances. Jake, Bunny, and Gloria are moving at wildly different speeds in a ridiculous offset of time dilation, setting up the first of many premise stretching scenarios. In the span of less than two seconds, we observe two people flirting, receive a history lesson on Advanced Platform androids, get an in depth report of Jakes life up to that point, and watch a blow-by-blow quick draw in slow motion. The cherry to this over-the-top premise is Gloria’s happens to wear a six-shooter on her hip. Despite the avalanche of convenient subplots, I found this story enjoyable to read.

Grade B

 

“The Siren” by M. O. Muriel second place, third quarter

Janie is awake, one of the lucky few in the collective human conscience known as the Honeycomb. The rest of humanity is asleep while invaders from another dimension known as the Grunge have taken over their bodies. Janie is a manipulative, bi-polar teenager. She has a habit of rejecting the status quo and rejecting authority. Her antagonistic trait may serve her well as a member of the resistance in the sub-conscious world of the Honeycomb, or her arrogance may bring about her downfall.

The Siren is set in a ‘Matrix’-like world. Janie has memories of a news report involving an ancient artifact under the ice of Antarctica and little else after. The few who have escaped from the clutches of the Grunge have the ability – or illness – to perceive reality differently than the masses. After wandering alone among the labyrinth of sleeping consciousness, Jamie stumbles upon the COP Phoenix, a base of operations occupied with Tibetan monks and mentally ill. She learns the Grunge hunt the few who have the ability to resist them, like the Tibetan master, Lobsang. Death is also possible in this subconscious state as one of a multi-personality alterego’s learned when they fell into the abyss. Survival and gathering others like themselves have been the goal of COP Phoenix but neither will win humanity’s freedom back. Janie preferred a more proactive approach in the real world, and won’t hesitate to do the same in this one.

“The Siren” is an imaginative world, one that stretched my range of comprehension. The story is a difficult one to soak in, but somehow my saturated brain managed to absorb it all. There was much to be confused about – flashbacks, mind-bending manipulation, mirrored personality images , it took me awhile to put Ms Muriel’s premise into its proper perspective. The large story does have a clear direction and outcome, but like the surreal world of the Honeycomb, it is one that the reader could find themselves hopelessly lost in and give up. The tale does have a satisfactory solution to Janie’s problem but does open up the tale to an even larger story. The conflict Ms Muriel introduced us to was only an opening salvo.

Grade B

 

“Contact Authority” by William Mitchel first place, third quarter

Jared Spegel’s job is to protect the human race from annihilation. So when his cover is blown in the Kaluza station weeks before humanity is set to make first contact with the Caronoi – an alien race on the verge of space travel , he must take a risky step by revealing the nature of his visit to the station commander. Someone has been leaking information to the Caronoi on the station, a clear violation of Alliance protocol. Earth is the newest member of the galaxy-spanning Alliance. Species deemed worthy are invited into the Alliance. Those who aren’t, are eliminated as threats. Humanity barely averted annihilation sixty years before, and Jared isn’t the only who thinks that extermination may still be in mankind’s near future.

“Contact Authority” is a tale of species under the eye of a real Big Brother. The species of Man is on a very short leash. The Alliance is a mysterious organization that takes no chances with emerging intelligences. Rory Temple’s grandfather was the man who first initiated contact with the Alliance. Now Rory is on hand for first contact with the Caronoi. He has decoded their sing-song way of communicating. Suspicion first falls on him as the leak. Not much is known of the Alliances criteria on what makes a violation in their protocols but leaking information to an emerging race is clearly a no-no to them. Angering the Alliance is the last thing Earth wants to do. Man’s fate rests on Jared’s shoulders on finding the source of the leak. But as he digs, the weight of two races fate bears down on him. Can he find the perpetrator in time?

“Contact Authority” is story with a premise I would describe as flimsy. An overbearing, overseeing, collective race of advanced aliens is easy to imagine, but their criteria of what they determine is dangerous I found hard to believe. Nevertheless, with that premise in mind, the actions Jared and his comrades took was beyond irresponsible. I can’t imagine that anything less than a full court-martial would be waiting for him when he got back to Earth. I will say though, the ending line was fabulous.

Grade B ,

 

“The Command for Love” by Nick T. Chan second place, second quarter

Ligish is in love with his master’s daughter, Anna. A war golem like himself has no use for such a command but he can’t determine which symbol is love in his skull. The homunculus in his head is becoming senile, just like Anna’s father, Master Gray, is now. The emotion makes life more difficult for the titanium machine when General Maul arrives to take Anna’s hand in marriage, and all Master’s Gray’s belongings , including Ligish , as his endowment. Ligish is the true prize for the power hungry General, but Ligish can’t bear to think of Anna becoming the concubine for this man. He will do anything for Anna, even circle the world to God’s mouth if he needs to.

“The Command for Love” is a steampunk story set in an extraordinary fantasy world. Golems, the homunculi controlling them, and women, are all under the servitude of men. The world is in the shape of a man with the sun and moon resting in each hand. The arms are raised and lowered to mark the passage of each day. Ligish is the last type of golem that was built long ago. He is far more advanced than any war machine in General Maul’s arsenal. Once Maul’s marriage to Anna is complete, Maul plans on installing his own homunculus into Ligish, but Ligish has no intentions of committing violence. He must find a way to nullify the contract the senile Master Gray has signed but that may require nothing short of divine intervention to overturn it.

“The Command for Love” has an awful lot of content in a few pages. Homuncoli, ghost rifles, a golem shaped world, and so much more, are thrown at the reader. Despite the fact I had to play catch up determining what the hell a ‘homunculus’ was, I was immediately taken in with this story. General Maul cares only about furthering his own goals. He made it very plain to Ligish that he and Anna would be his property to use and abuse once his marriage to Anna is complete. The first half was set as a wonderful battle of wits between a unique protagonist and an excellent villain. But alas, that formula proved to be not in this plot’s mix. The story took a turn halfway through when the premise went from extraordinary to head-spinning. I will not divulge any more so not to spoil it for readers but let me just say it became different to follow.

This is a story I wished would have stuck to the narrow premise of the first half. Where the second half had some intriguing characters and mesmerizing settings, the expansion of the story just seemed too much for me. It read like ‘Lord of the Rings’ might have if it were cut down to 10,000 words, an overload of twists and subplots crammed in too tight of a space. Nevertheless, “The Command of Love” does have a satisfactory conclusion, but the ‘happy ending’ it provided came off as a Pyrrhic victory for the main characters. I will say there is a good story in there, but finding it is like trying to trace a solitary wire through the spaghetti mess you’ll find behind your stereo system.

Grade B

 

“My Name Is Angela” by Harry Lang third place, first quarter

Angela’s place in a pecking order is set. She is a grade school teacher who isn’t expected to teach. She is in a relationship that isn’t expected to grow. She is looked down upon, a societal minion, a cog in the machine, a thing to keep others occupied. She wants more, but more isn’t meant for androids like herself.

“My Name Is Angela” is speculative tale of growth. It is a story that would easily fit in a Blade Runner universe. Angela is a human-mimicking machine who strives to be more human. The grandfathers that built her did not design her to be any more than a functioning element in civilization. But she wants more and only the Soul Man can get her more. Angela lives with an android companion, Bruno. Their mundane lives take a turn when Angela smashes Bruno with a hot iron when her ‘no’ for sex wasn’t a satisfactory answer for Bruno. Angela is like any person who tires of a going through the motions. She wants more and is about to get it.

“My Name Is Angela” is a human tale. Angela is like many people who have settled into a life and is now unsatisfied with it. Unlike the rest of us, all she has to do is find the Soul Man to tweak her perspective. And change it does. Her unauthorized reprograming is viewed like an epiphany for Angela. Guilt for what she had done to Bruno wracks her. Suddenly, the lesson plan she has given her children is lacking in content. She wants to make a difference in her student’s education, be a better girlfriend to Bruno, and strive to make a positive mark on society. But society already has a place set for her, and upsetting the apple cart is not welcomed.

Harry Lang’s tale of a woman who expects more in life is one a colleague of mine could describe as a ‘never beginning story’. For a reader who didn’t go through the effort of submerging themselves in Angela’s character, the tale would read like an ordinary person’s ordinary life. Many of the characters in the story don’t like Angela’s enthusiasm. Bruno seems quite satisfied with the mundane quality of his life. “My Name Is Angela” unravels just like any tale of woman who was too eager to jump into adulthood discovers , there just has to be more to life for her. Compounding Angela’s problems is the prejudice androids experience. They are designed to take jobs humans look down on, so are naturally looked down upon by their human masters.

“My Name is Angela” is an ordinary character tale about an ordinary character who strives to be more than just ordinary. If you were ever looking for the type of story K D Wentworth loved to read, I would guess this one would have served as an excellent example. She loved character driven stories and this one runs on the sheer strength of the protagonist alone.

Grade B

 

“Lost Pine” by Jacob A. Boyd third place, third quarter

Gage and Adah have worked out a fine life for themselves at the Lost Pine. The former camp is now their refuge from a world devoid of adults. It has livestock, supplies, and doesn’t exist on a map. Gage’s carefully constructed concealment is comprised when a thin boy named Monk crashes through Gage’s barrier. Gage doesn’t trust him but Adah doesn’t want Gage to harm the stranger. Monk was once a camper at the Lone Pine and is surprised to find it occupied. He is willing to do his part to help, and says he will go if not welcomed, but Gage thinks that there is something to his story that doesn’t ring true.

“Lone Pine” is set in a world where aliens have sent spores to cocoon the adults and injured of the world. An armada approaches and is set to arrive any day. With the adults gone, civilization has degraded into a ‘Lord of the Flies’ society. Those cocooned are not quite dead. Why the aliens have chosen to preserve most of the people on Earth in such a way is never satisfactorily explained. The story takes a slight turn when the aliens land and begin to take the cocoons away. Gage doesn’t know if the alien’s motives are noble or sinister but is sure those imprisoned will not survive without their help.

“Lone Pine” centers around Gage. He is protective of Adah. She came to him when her parents were first cocooned years before. Now the once-small child is blossoming into womanhood and he can’t help to think of her as his possession. Monk represents competition and a connection to a harsh world that he has protected Adah from. He is jealous of Monk and of the interest Adah begins to show in him.

I confess, I did not like the way the author choose to tell this tale. Monk’s voice is virtually absent. What he says is relayed through Gage’s interpretation , a backhanded second person perspective but useful for the author to show the jealousy Gage has in himself. The arrival of the aliens is an attempt to add an extra dimension to the tale. Instead, it makes the characters more transparent than they already were. I believe the aliens were not needed. The story already had all the elements it needed. A pair of kids trying to live while the world outside has crumbled, makes for a good story all on its own.

Grade C+

 

“Shutdown” by Cory L. Lee third place, second quarter

Private Adanna Amaechi is a long way from a ballerina’s dance floor. The talents she picked up as a dancer makes her a good candidate for a scout. The aliens who have conquered Helenski Five had swept away the defenders with ease. Small insect-like robots that slice through anything that moves guard an alien base. The army needs someone who can steady their heart, control their breathing, and survive a cardiac arrest, to infiltrate the base. All Adanna will need is the will to come back after she has died.

Shutdown is a tension-filled sci-fi. Humanity knows very little about the aliens who have invaded and altered the worlds mankind already claimed for their own. The army needs intelligence but the robotic sentries guarding the alien base are movement sensitive. An earlier attempt to infiltrate the stronghold ended disastrously. Their solution is to kill their own scouts and revive them when the sentries are satisfied the infiltrators are not a threat. Adanna is a perfect candidate to carry out this mission. She is a former ballerina, her career cut short in an industrial accident. The life-like prosthetic to replace her fingers are beyond her means but the military promises they will pay for the operation if she completes the mission. Ballet is her life and she would do anything to regain the luster of the stage, even if she has to die for it.

The setting for “Shutdown” is on a conquered planet. Adanna is edging her way into the labyrinth of occupied territory. Her suit is instructed to kill her before a timed alien scan can detect her. While she is dead, flashbacks , as if her life is passing before her eyes , becomes the focus of the tale. I confess, the tactic the author employed was a little jarring at first but the story became very compelling once I caught up to speed on what was going on. Adanna is drawn as a character who has little left to lose and much to gain by accepting the mission. Earth needs intel. The aliens have effectively neutralized man’s technology and converted the atmosphere to a poisonous one. Just getting a look at their foe would be an intelligence coup.

I have mixed feelings about this tale. I loved the action and raised-hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck tension that ran throughout the story but the premise was filled with holes for me. If the aliens were that formidable, how did the army manage to get anyone within a light year of the planet? If they could get a ship close enough to land, couldn’t they get satellite images from above? Those were just a couple of the issues I had with it but I still managed to enjoy the story.

Grade B

 

“While Ireland Holds These Graves” by Tom Doyle third place, fourth quarter

Dev Martin returns to the scene of the crime. He is one of the programmers who created the AI reconstructs of Irish literary lore. The goal for the UNI was to enhance Ireland’s tourist industry but it instead ignited a nationalist revival. Now Ireland is about to be the lone nation to divorce itself from the one-world government. Dev wants to help set things straight but he needs to reach his former partner , and chief antagonist for the independence drive , Anna in hopes of convincing her to leave the European island.

“While Ireland” is a story for you if you have a special attachment for classical Irish authors. In fact, I can see why this story was picked by a panel of professional authors, the allure of rubbing elbows with some of the greatest poets and authors of the 20th century would be like playing in the outfield in Field of Dreams for a baseball enthusiast. One of the first characters Dev runs into is iconic James Joyce. Dev and Anna did such wonderful job reconstructing the personalities of the long dead, that Joyce is every bit like the real thing. Dev recruits Joyce to accompany him. The duo follow a trail of other famous literary giants in hopes of finding the programmer-turned-revolutionary before the borders of Ireland close for good.

The opening to “While Ireland” is first class. I was pulled into the narrative, but like other early 20th century classics (especially ones written by Irish giants), I found the story convoluted and heavy with a message I cared little about. Of course, I never had much interest in Irish literature (an attempt to get through the first ten pages of Finnegan’s Wake is a nightmare I sooner forget) so a day drinking in pub with any of these characters is not what I would consider time well spent. A bigger problem for me was the premise and sequence of events. It seemed the only people Dev walked into were reconstructed Irish author personalities, allowing him a virtual straight path to find Anna in three days on Ireland when he had no idea where to look from the start. Either all the rest of the real people in Ireland thought it wise to avoid the computer regenerations or Dev was one lucky seeker.

Although I found the writing top notch, the story itself wasn’t much more than a man’s stroll through the green hills of Ireland. Dev met his goals, attaining them remarkably easily (especially when no one , except Joyce , wanted him there). I felt the same way much of the world felt about the Irish nationalist movement and their icons , let them have it.

Grade C+

 

“The Poly Islands” by Gerald Warfield second place, first quarter

Liyang is on the run. A Hong Kong tong (organized crime syndicate) is after her and the valuable computer chips she has stolen. Desperate to escape, she navigates her boat into the island of plastic garbage floating in the Pacific. The tactic is foolhardy because she has no hope of escaping the tong if she runs aground. Fortunately, salvation comes in the form of a mysterious man in a plastic suit. Adam is one of the residents of the Poly Islands, a refuge from the world. With no boat, Liyang has no choice but to trust him. She soon discovers she, and her stolen chips, have become part of a power struggle, one that will decide the fate of the Poly islands for years to come.

“The Poly Islands” is a rare WotF stories for me. The further I read, the more I liked it. The islands are ruled by an Indian Guru figure known as Crab. Liyang first believes she has stumbled upon a new age community but the people who live here do not act like a cult. The residents are divided into two camps, the Chinese and everyone else. Liyang rubs the Chinese wrong when she elects to side against her own kind in favor of Adam and Crab. The island existence is the result of an ecological activist solution gone wrong. The short lived nation of California attempted to collect, then sink, the trash with buoys designed to attract the floating garbage. Instead the experiment changed the nature of the trash, creating a bonded material that travels on the currents of the Pacific as one large mass. The Chinese faction is led by Madam Woo. She wants to sell the chips and use the money to conquer the solid ground of a Pacific island, but Crab has other designs for them. Liyang wants no part of the power struggle, only wishing to escape the inhospitable islands and start her own life anew.

The story of “The Poly Islands” evolves, changing from a knuckle-grabbing action to an elaborate puzzle. Crab does not seem like a Buddhist monk to Liyang. She suspects his altruistic motive’s is nothing but an act, but he does know more about the Poly Islands than anyone else. The mystery of who he is and the nature of the islands, and how they relate to her computer chips, is the true allure of this tale. Although I did like this story, I felt the addition of the final scene did it a disservice. The story had a fitting finale without it. Instead, the author chose to write in a ‘where are they now’ type of epilogue that made the story more of a message piece than a straight up work of science fiction. Without it, I would have likely made The Poly Islands my personal pick of the anthology.

Grade A-

 

“Insect Sculptor” by Scott T. Barnes second place, fourth quarter

Adam Clements is a talented insect sculptor but has much to learn. He has traveled thousands of miles in hopes of apprenticing for the Great Gajah-mada. He must impress the Hive’s director, the gorgeous Isabella, first. Adam is good, but to be great he will need to overcome his fear wall; the fear of falling too deeply into the hive mind.

The premise of Insect Sculptor is intriguing and inventive. The sculptor’s form a psychic link with a colony of insects, creating works of art with the mass bugs. Adam can do much with his termites, commanding them to facilitate an elephant as his entrance test for Isabella. He quickly learns his abilities are elementary when he gets a sample of what Gajah-mada’s troop can do when he witnesses a show first hand. The Great Gajah-mada is able to mimic people so well they are passable as living humans, to the point where his own director proves to be a mass of bugs that has become sentient.

Adam is first turned away but earns a second chance. Gajah-mada no longer makes public appearances, leaving the show to his star, Wasserman, to hold it together, but Wasserman lacks the control needed to keep Gajah-mada’s complicated designs intact. Gajah-mada needs someone greater for he is not long for this world. Adam has the talent but has never learned to break down his own fear wall, but he is determined , for the show, for himself, for the Great Gajah-mada, and for the love of his life , Isabella.

It isn’t hard to see why this one won the contest. Unique, full of lively characters, and with a protagonist that develops with the storyline. The only thing that I can complain about it is it gave me the heebie-jeebies *shiver*. Nevertheless, a strong contender that was written well.

Grade B+

 

A Changing of the Guard

The Writers of the Future contest and the speculative fiction community suffered a great loss with the passing of Kathy Wentworth last year. A winner of the contest (when the number following Writers of the Future was in the single digits), she went on to become its coordinating judge and editor. It had become her primary job, occasionally crowbarring a novel for us to read, when she had time to step away from her judging duties to write them. All the stories submitted over the past few contests had to pass through her first. The stories you read in this anthology, as well as the ones of the past few years, were part of an exclusive pile she thought were the best of a very big bunch. It was her job to pick eight stories each quarter for an impressive finalist panel to read. Granted, the stories of the anthology make up only 40% of the entries she chose as the finalists, but of the thousands submitted they represented a good cross section of what she felt were professional material worthy of publication.

Many writers sought the secret elixir to winning the contest. Kathy would offer a few tidbits of what a writer needed to do win , the speculative element needed to be on the first page, the story had to be character driven, and writers should steer clear of well-worn tropes (vampires, dragons, and the like). She would warn writers that humor had little chance but for the most part, it was submit your best. After reading the anthology over all these years I think I can finally see the type of story Kathy gravitated towards , the submissions that worked hardest at telling a story.

I imagined in her youth, a young Kathy who refused to go to bed without a bedtime story. I can see that love carrying her into adulthood. If you could tap into that childhood craving, she likely read your entry from beginning to end. If you gave her a protagonist she could fall in love with and a world worth exploring, you probably had her hooked. And if you didn’t deviate too far from your plot, you were likely in the running. Following the rules of writing that our often dictated to the amateur writer didn’t matter as much to Kathy as unraveling a premise she wanted to view. If you failed to appeal to her fairy-tale loving child hidden within, you probably never stood a chance , no matter how good your first readers said your story was.

Taking over the coordinating judging duties is previous Gold Award winner (WotF 3) Dave Wolverton (a.k.a Dave Farland). He has been a consistent finalist judge and a previous coordinating judge for the contest. His credentials are extensive , it can be argued that he is the most successful author to come out of the contest. Although you can still expect the winning entries to be the best stories submitted, don’t be surprised if upcoming anthologies have a different flavor to them.

On one of my writer forums that I often frequent, a sort of study group was committed to identifying what impressed K D Wentworth. Her words and advice were dissected. Semi-finalists would share their critiques. Honorable Mentioned, and others not as lucky, would puzzle on why their entries didn’t do better. They need not dig so deep for Mr Wolverton. The new coordinating judge teaches a workshop for writers. He offers free advice on his Daily Kick In The Pants blog, and has dedicated a few articles on tips for the contest, and here is my own Cliff Notes version of what he has to say on the subject.

The trope restriction will not be as confining, so for the humorist and dragon writers , submit away. But if you tend to slip into the clichÃ’ , expect an early out from Mr Wolverton. Marie Croke’s, “Of Woven Wood” (a story that opens up with a waking up clichÃ’ ) may have been a tough call to make the finalists list. If you like to write long prose, you may be in luck. If there are equally well-written stories, and Dave’s short list needs trimming, the longer piece will likely get the nod. But the biggest difference between Kathy and Dave is Dave expects that his finalist writers already know how to write, professionally.

Now I’m not saying the winners that came through Kathy first weren’t of a professional quality, nor am I saying those winners wouldn’t have been picked as a finalist for Dave, but I will say motivations between the two are different. I can sum up the differences between them in two sentences.

Kathy Wentworth expected writers to be able to tell a story.

Dave Wolverton expects writers to be able to write.

So, I am expecting less of a fairy tale quality in the anthologies to come and a sharper prose for the winning stories. I am also betting that the new winners will have a little more action in them but with a little less heart in its characters. Of course, I could be completely wrong. Writers of the Future Vol 29 is on the way and I can’t wait to see what it holds.

 

K.D. Wentworth
K.D. Wentworth

Kathy D Wentworth (1951-2012) was a fixture in the Science Fiction and Fantasy community. Four time Nebula nominee, WotF coordinating judge, and all around alright gal, She Who Must Be Impressed (my pet name for her , I already trademarked it so don’t even think of it) will be sorely missed. Her story, Daddy’s Girl, debuted in Writers of the Future Vol 5, and marked the beginning of an impressive career as a writer. She was the willing participant for one of Diabolical Plots first interviews (which can be found here) , something we are very grateful for.

I owe her a degree of thanks, for the Honorable Mention certificates I have tucked safely away, and for her appreciation for my quirky sense of humor. Although my bribery attempts were never successful, she made me feel as if she looked forward to receiving them every quarter.

Interview: Carl Frederick

interview by Carl Slaughter

CF1Nebula nominee, frequent Analog byliner, Writers of the Future first place award winner, 2 time Phobos Fiction Contest winner, 6 time Analog Readers Choice Award winner, Odyssey graduate, and longtime Critters member Carl Frederick is camera shy. As you can see from the photo, even his pet cat is shy. He likes cats and dogs and they are prominent characters in many of his stories. Frederick is known for his hard science stories. He’s had 40 plus short stories published in Analog. Lately, without letting up on the hard science stories, he has delved deep into character driven stories and even literary science fiction. Or rather, stories with strong character development well blended into the hard science element – and vice versa.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: Is “Trojan Carousel” your first novel?

CARL FREDERICK: It’s the third or forth. I’m not sure. And as for my first two novels, I’d sort of like to forget that I’d written them. They say a writer needs to write a half million or so words of crud before the good stuff can get out. I think I’m well past that number now.

 

TOSHIBA Exif JPEGCS: The main characters are boys in a science school. Does this mean YA is the target audience?

CF: Partially, yes.

But the Harry Potter books were a sea change. Up until then, books with kid protagonists were indeed read by adults, but with a sense of embarrassment. Now, post Potter, adults can read such books even in public places. So ‘Trojan Carousel’ is also aimed at adults who might like reading about kids.

Most of my short story output has gone to Analog Magazine which is not generally perceived as a YA magazine. But I believe it is. Most of the stories therein have the sense of wonder, the avoidance of bored cynicism and sophistication, the optimism, that IMO characterizes the world view of kids.

Thinking about it now, I guess I consider ‘Trojan Carousel’ a book for bright kids or for physicists (who in many ways are like bright kids).

 

CS: Why a novel about preteen boys?

CF: Richard Feynman speculated that if kids were introduced to quantum mechanics concepts at an early age, they might (unlike physicists in general) be completely comfortable with those concepts. Exploring that idea is one of the thrusts of the novel.

 

CS: The adults are minor characters. Why not have them more involved in the plot? Why not have them more involved in the lives of the boys?

CF: I wanted the book to have something of the flavor of ‘Lord of the Flies’: Kids’ lives unconstrained by adult supervision/control. I also wanted the book to reflect the ‘school story’ genre. Arguably the finest example of same might be ‘Stalky and Co.’ by Kipling–one of my favorite books when I was a kid. The three boys in ‘Trojan Carousel’ who are dorm-mates parallel the three study-mates in ‘Stalky’.

 

CF2CS: Identify the themes of the story and explain, without major spoilers, how those themes are addressed.

CF: Outwardly, the book is about kids (aged twelve or thereabouts) in two schools on one campus: one (The Amdexter School) a traditional posh faux British boarding school and the other (The Feynman Elementary School for Advanced Physics) is for super-bright science and math kids. The two school populations coexist on friendly terms at the start. But then due to a clash of cultures, things gradually turn bad, leading to a war between the boys of the schools.

The subtext is modern science and how we interpret it, and also on the nature of scientific inquiry.

I acknowledge that this is a poor answer to your question. But I think an author is the very last person to consult about the themes in his writing.

 

CS: One of the main characters dies. Why is this necessary?

CF: Oh, gosh. I tried very hard not to kill him. But I couldn’t make the book work with him remaining alive. And his death allows the protagonist to deny the death somewhat in the way of ‘SchrÃ’ dinger’s Cat’, i.e. he’s not dead (or alive) until observed as such. That interpretation, by the way, is not what SchrÃ’ dinger intended. He proposed the cat paradox to show that in some instances quantum mechanics gave unrealistic answers. He considered that a problem with the science.

 

CS: Science exercises are sprinkled throughout the book. How do these science exercises serve the story?

CF: They’re not exercises, exactly. And they’re at the back of the book. In a number of chapters, when the reader gets to the end, s/he can continue the science discussion in the chapter by going to the back of the book where the chapter continues. Or one can skip the back of the book and simply continue with the story. The ideas of quantum mechanics are interwoven throughout the novel, and I wanted the reader (if desired) to be able to appreciate those ideas–to appreciate the wonderful and beautiful weirdness of quantum physics.

 

CS: You’re known for your hard science stories. Why not a hard science novel?

CF: I think it IS hard SF, maybe very hard SF. I consider much of what is called hard science fiction to be actually science engineering. I don’t see many science concepts in SF and I wanted ‘Trojan Carousel’ to be about science. I think the novel after ‘Trojan Carousel’, ‘Wizards of Science’ is much more in the traditional mold of a hard SF novel.

 

CS: Lately, you’ve been writing more character oriented stories. What’s the explanation for this and will the trend continue? Have you had any success marketing these types of stories? Any success marketing “Trojan Carousel?

CF: In addition to doing physics, I’m also an engineer in the fast moving electronics industry. And compared to high-tech industry, book publishing is very slow. I’d say even compared to the movement of glaciers, book publishing is slow. I don’t have the patience for it. So I’d decided to self-publish e-book versions for Kindles and Nooks. The problem there is getting noticed. I found I didn’t have the stomach for self-promotion that self-publishing seems to require. My e-book sales therefore, are not exactly stellar. Occasionally nice things happen though. Last year, after one story of mine in a series came out in Analog, someone in Germany found the other stories in the series in the Kindle version. S/he bought them and a few hours later, bought one of my novels. By the next morning, s/he’d bought everything I’d written. And a few days later came another sale (presumably to another person) from Germany. But there it stopped. No chain reaction, unfortunately. But it was neat finding I had a fan.

In general though, I think most of my sales come from people stumbling on my titles. My best selling title is a short story collection, ‘SF++ Science Fiction Stories for Linux Geeks’. I rather imagine the buyers had been looking for technical books about Linux.

I’m considered a successful sf short story writer. But ‘successful short story writer’ is rather an oxymoron. Very few can make a living doing it. I guess I write because I want to be read, not to make money from it–although some money would be nice.

To answer your question about marketing ‘Trojan Carousel’: very little success, mainly, I think, because I don’t do any marketing.

 

CS: Most of your stories are in Analog. The longtime editor of Analog recently retired. Will that affect your relationship with the magazine? Will you branch out into other markets?

CF: I know and like (and have long worked with) the new editor. So I hope my relationship won’t change. But the previous editor, Stan Schmidt, is a physicist, as am I. And I believe we physicists think differently and have different reading tastes than ‘civilians’. So the new editor’s reading preferences might be less similar than previously to my writing preferences. I hope I’m wrong.

As to new markets, I admit that yes, I am looking for them.

 

CS: Any more novels in the works?

CF: Several. I’m working on one now, ‘Duplex Alpha’. It posits that world and science problems have become too complex to be addressed by the human brain. But evolution has come to the rescue by bringing forth a new type of identical twins who (by their ‘twin language’) can to a large degree think as one (an extreme example of ‘two heads are better than one’). They are feared and oppressed by the establishment.

I also have the sequel to ‘Eridion’ (a space opera) in the works.

 

CS: Do you run all your manuscripts through the Critters Workshop? How does the feedback affect your revisions and how do the revisions affect the marketability of your stories?

CF: I rely heavily on Critters and run all my short stories through the workshop. I rewrite heavily based on the critiques and believe that, in all cases, the rewrites have resulted in greatly improved stories. I do weigh the critiques based on the critiquers. Some of the critiquers hate everything and seem to just like to tear down writers and writing. Some seem to have just started learning English. Some write absolutely incomprehensible critiques. But most are terrific. And many find ideas in my stories that I didn’t even know about. I don’t know what I’d do without Critters. I write individualized thank yous to every critiquer of my stories.

And speaking of thanks, thank you, Carl, for giving me the chance to discuss ‘The Trojan Carousel’. Because of the (optional) back of the book chapter continuations, I regard the novel as something of an experiment. I’m very fond of the book and still, when I think of the aforementioned death, my eyes tend to mist over.

While yes, it would be great if people bought the e-book (or any of my books) for Kindle from Amazon, I’m more concerned with readership than with income. Accordingly, if readers of this interview want copies, I’d be happy to provide them by e-mail. Readers can go to my website, click on e-books and further click the book title and then click on the ‘e-mail for free copy’ button.

 

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.

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.

 

Fare Thee Well, KD Wentworth

written by David Steffen

I heard the sad news today that the long-time contest coordinator of the Writers of the Future contest, K. D. Wentworth, has died from pneumonia. I didn’t know her on a personal level, apart from the occasional forum exchange, but by everything I have seen she was a very friendly person, and very patient with the questions all of the eager entrants of the Writers of the Future contest. She was one of the first editors I submitted a short story to, and I’ve sent her one story per quarter ever since. She was also one of our very first interviews here on Diabolical Plots back in August 2009.

K. D. was a writer as well as the coordinating judge and she leaves behind several books and dozens of short stories and novellsa to remember her by. The contest won’t be the same without her. She will be well remembered.

Review: Writers of the Future XXVII

written by Frank Dutkiewicz

This marks the fourth year in which I am reviewing the Writers of the Future contest. As a long time reader (I bought Volume I when it came out), and frequent submitter of the past few years, I have come to appreciate the work K D Wentworth and her predecessors have done putting this mammoth endeavor together every year. In the past, I’ve read issues and thought I can do better than that. It wasn’t until I started writing did I realize it wasn’t as easy as it looked. When I started reviewing, I had begun to marvel the work the authors put into each story.

WotF #27 marks the beginning of a new era for the anthology, electronic submission. The contest has done their part to save a good-size tree, to the detriment of the post office. However, although the contest isn’t sharing how much, free mailing likely means an increase in submissions.

This issue has 13 stories for us to enjoy. 12 winners and one writer who’s still qualified to win a future Gold Award (lucky slob). So how are they? Let’s find outâ€

 

“The Unreachable Voices of Ghosts” by Jeffery Lyman 2nd place, 4th quarter.

Max Getty is a sail-ship fisher. His sails ride on the solar wind while he fishes for the mini-black holes needed to power the engines of starships, in an area of space way beyond the orbits of the outer planets. Max was once famous, but has turned his back on humanity. The crowded inner system and suffocating public had been enough for him. He seeks the solitude of isolation, vowing never to speak to another human again.

But divorcing yourself from humanity is never a clean break. Max still monitors the radio traffic between fishermen. Kingfisher’s constant rambling over the waves is comforting. He listens to announcements from other fishers as they ‘check out’ for the last time, while tracking others in his neighborhood – his closest neighbor, a million miles away. Then disaster strikes, forcing him to break his vow of silence and ask for help.

Help arrives in a vid sent from a fisher named Maureen. Like other fishers, she has had enough of humanity, escaping from its confinement and running from past mistakes. The distance between them is so far the time lag is 16 minutes for their messages to reach each other. They are millions of miles apart but Max hasn’t felt this close to another in decades.

“The Unreachable Voices of Ghosts” is “Robinson Crusoe” with a ham radio. The story is set in a background of a crowded solar system. Hundreds have escaped to its edges in the search of the mother load. The trips are one-way for most. Many succumb to the isolation, choosing suicide in the end. The story takes the shape of a depressing romance early on. Max’s belief that he wants nothing to do with people evaporates almost immediately as soon as Maureen comes calling. However, like many romances that spring up in today’s internet world, the long distant suitors hide secrets about themselves.

A lot of good science fiction are tales that explore the people we are today in settings of tomorrow. Mr. Lyman created a very plausible premise, a way out for the agoraphobic of a crowded future. Max is a man in mourning, acting out in an extreme fashion. I had problems with a few points in the piece. I believe a sudden influence of G’s would be devastating to anyone living in a zero-G environment, as one example.

This tale explores how much of a social animal we really are, even when we want nothing to do with humanity anymore. The story and setting captured my interest right away, but I began to sour on it expecting a depressing conclusion. I can safely say the ending ended up satisfying me after all.

“The Unreachable Voices of Ghosts” is just the type of story I look forward to when I buy my copy of WOTF every year.

Grade A,

“Maddy Dune’s First and Only Spelling Bee” by Patrick O’Sullivan 1st place, 4th quarter

Maddy Dune has arrived at the St Anselm Orphanage with her array of morphed animal family members. The Bee is for the up and coming spellmakers. Maddy’s entrance is unusual. Half-beasts like her are curiosities. She befriends a cabinet, who is her closest competitor, and searches the audience for her adoptive parents who rescued her long ago.

“Maddy Dune” is an intriguing fantasy. By the title, I was expecting something different. Very clever. Maddy proves to be a formidable speller, frightening half the audience into fleeing with her first illusion. Her immediate family is an arrayof pets , brother, a raven and sister as a cat , it made me wonder what Maddy really was (a question that was never answered). She assumes that she has angered her adoptive mother, Nadine, believing it to be the reason why her stepmother broke her promise to attend the bee. Tan the Cabinet soothes her, assuring her that her parents are likely proud of her and will keep their promise in the end.

This is a tale that was easy to fall into. There were many characters to keep track of but most served as background for this complicated tale. The real story focuses on Maddy and Tan. Tan is mesmerized by Maddy, forming his spells with her in mind.

Deeper into the story, the tales complicated plot takes a twist, confusing to the point where following along gets dizzy. Piecing together what is happening becomes a chore, turning this wonderful tale into a reader’s project. Particularly delightful is Maddy herself. Mr. O’Sullivan brought to life a character who is likeable and convincingly talented. The parts of the tale with her conjuring spells was writing at its best.

Considering the previous story was submitted in the same quarter as this one, I can imagine the judges had a difficult time choosing which one was better. My vote would have been different but nevertheless, this story was well deserving of its first place finish.

Grade B+

 

“The Truth, from a Lie of Convenience” by Brennan Harvey first place, first quarter

Marianne Summers is a freelance on-camera reporter. Older, discredited, she jumps at a job covering the five-year memorial of the Luna City terrorist attack on Habitat 14. The job is simple: film Thomas Rubner, husband to Susan , one of the council members who died with 6000 others that day , while he lays a wreath at the memorial. Thomas ruins the script when he uses the event to espouse his belief that the attack was orchestrated by the government.

Marianne equates the Habitat 14 conspiracy as she does 9/11, the Kennedy assassination, and countless others in history, a bunch of bunk. But when the security forces report a lie of Thomas committing suicide at the memorial, Marianne’s reporter instincts kick in. She is out to discover the truth, but has two problems of getting to it. No one on the moon wants the truth and no one on Earth cares.

“The Truth” has the flavor of a futuristic mystery. The tale follows along while Marianne attempts to investigate what happened after Thomas Rubner inexplicably fell off the script. Thomas claims that his wife didn’t die in the explosion five years before. That she and other council members were rescued. Marianne finds it hard to believe that the government would willingly destroy a priceless habitat, and kill the innocent people inside, but the terrorists demands were met , independence from Earth , as a result of the disaster. Her attempts to follow up on the events of the memorial are blocked by the security forces, raising her suspicion. Then while following Tommy’s body, as it is about to be loaded on shuttle back to Earth, she runs into a person who should be dead.

Much of the story is about Marianne trying to become relevant as a reporter again. A smear by a former employer has made her almost unemployable. She knows the story she is following is huge but can’t get any support from her temporary employers Earthside. Evaporating funds and a hostile law enforcement have left her with few options. She has few friends to turn to in Luna City, and the security force knows it.

“The Truth” is a strong tale. Mr. Harvey created a character so easily identifiable in today’s world and set her in a believable future. It isn’t too difficult what spawned the idea for this story. Conspiracies have become ingrained in our society. This story dives into what I consider a human frailty, a desire for many to believe that there is always more than meets the eye in every event. Unlike the circumstantial leaps of faith modern day conspiracies draw their life from, the Luna City conspiracy has solid evidence any law enforcement agency could poke holes into, even from afar. I found it difficult to believe the disaster would have resulted in independence instead of a more solid Earth authority presence. In short, the inability to uncover what Marianne did years later is a frailty in this plot.

Aside from that small nit, I thought this story was solid. The writing, pacing, idea, and conclusion fit well in the type of story that I like. I was always expecting a twist to pop up (must be a conspiracy) but Mr Harvey kept the storyline straight. A good tale told by a solid writer.

Grade A ,

 

“In Apprehension, How Like A God” by R.P.L. Johnson first place, third quarter, Gold Award winner.

Detective Conroy investigates an unusual death at the reclusive Academy. Magister Musoke exploded while working alone in an isolated workshop. The Arch-Mage of the academy concludes by the complicated steps necessary for the accident that Musoke committed suicide. Conroy finds an illegal drug in Musoke’s room, something unthinkable for a monk of the academy. With his only lead, Detective Conroy searches for the drug dealer who supplied Musoke, and in the process, unravels an even greater mystery.

The setting for this futuristic tale is in a bustling Entebbe with a space elevator dominating its skyline. Within this future Ugandan city is the Academy, keeper of the aethernet , the all encompassing data storage and delivery system intertwined in society. Nodes , small rolling balls that are Limited Intelligent units , accompany the programming monks. Magister Musoke was working on improving the nodes, making them capable of perceiving and compiling data on their own, or allowing them to become self-aware. Detective Conroy is greeted by one such node named Stromboli, an assistant to Musoke.

The investigation moves quickly and turns sharply when Conroy’s person of interest turns up dead. The method of death is just as gruesome as Musoke’s, and is also ruled a suicide. Whatever is happening is either a curious set of circumstances, or a conspiracy far greater for a lowly detective to solve.

“In Apprehension” is a story cut from the cloth of “Blade Runner.” The future in this tale has a dark flavor to it. The aethernet has become a part of us, connected to our senses and embedded into are brains. It has the capability of altering what we see and smell. Drugs of this future further this sensory disconnection. The world sounds like a tough place to soak in, which may explain why some want to tune out.

The details of this surreal place are done well by Mr. Johnson. I thought his attention to providing a picture of his future to the reader, was similar to what Alastair Reynolds does with his dystopia futures. I found the main character very likeable. Couple him with the author’s ability to bring a unique and rich future to life and you can see why the judges chose his story as this year’s winner. I however, wasn’t as taken in with it.

Mr. Johnson’s long departures from the story to provide behind the scene details for the reader left my head swimming. A couple of times, I had to stop reading and backtrack just so I could regain some clarity to what was happening. As a mystery, the tale doesn’t work as well. I thought Detective Conroy jumped to conclusions based on assumptions alone. In fact, I would say the things he got right were at best lucky guesses.

Nevertheless, once you manage to get grounded in this difficult to soak in setting, there is a very good story in “In Apprehension.” Not my favorite tale, but I can see how it would be for fans of dystopia-like futures.

Grade B

 

“An Acolyte Of Black Spires” by Ryan Harvey 3rd place, 1st quarter

Quarl researches for his Artikon masters. He is an acolyte, one of a few whose goal it is to search through the history books, looking for answers to the Sorrow that inflicts the Eldru race. Like many who suffer from the Sorrow, he is an introvert, preferring the company of his rodent pet over Eldru and humans. He dons a mask while in the presence of others , the Sorrow making it necessary so his face doesn’t overwhelm others inflicted with the condition. Quarl’s superiors are satisfied with his research and have decided to give him an assistant. He is uneasy with the idea with working with another, but finding worthy volunteers to assist the Acolytes of the Black Spires is rare.

Hallett is unlike any Eldru acolyte he has known before. He is encouraged by her eagerness. His jehol pet has taken an instant liking to her. Quarl pushes down a nagging suspicion he feels for his acolyte protÃ’ gÃ’ . She shows an interest in him and asks for the unthinkable , to see his face.

“An Acolyte of Black Spires” is a strong character driven story in a murky speculative setting. Quarl is convincingly reclusive. The tower he lives in is more of a high security prison than a facility of higher learning. He seems content in his existence, so much so his superior says he doesn’t feel his Sorrow, a statement that has a negative connotation meaning to it. Hallett’s entrance to the story brings out feelings he has suppressed.

While I found the story between Quarl and Hallett intriguing, the background tale of the world they lived in, left much to be desired. Questions of what the Sorrow was, how the Black Spires and Quarl’s job as a historian could end it, or what the Eldru were, were left unanswered. I couldn’t get a grasp of what the problem was to care if it was solved. The story itself went on a bit too long. I found the ending scene anti-climactic and wondered if it was really needed at all. Complicating my enjoyment of the piece, the twist two-thirds of the way through was a complete blindside.

“An Acolyte” was a demonstration of how strong writing can carry an incomplete plot. Fortunately, the bright characters carried me through a hazy story enough to look favorably upon it.

Grade B ,

“The Dualist” by Van Aaron Hughes 3rd place, 2nd quarter

Thomas McFall is Earth’s envoy to Phrentyr. The world is recovering from its latest, and deadliest, religious war. The nuclear travesty it has experienced has devastated the planet, all but eliminating the Tokhin , believers of the Two Gods. Only Earth’s threat of a withdrawal of aid keeps their rivals, the Solarans, at bay. Thomas aims to save the Tokhins and their culture, but the few left appear to be not interested. Billions of dead Phern and a crop killing moss, a byproduct of the nuclear winter, has failed to cool the hatred between the two cultures. Death of their race is preferable to reconciliation for the Tokhin, and Hirokh , Chief Enforcer for the Solaran , agrees.

Thomas accepted the impossible task of envoy, hoping this recovering world would help him find solace. His wife was brutally murdered back at Earth , a very rare crime these days – but he is mistaken to believe the Pherns would share his grief. Despite the devastation wrought by a difference in dogma, the Phern are not through with their violence to one another. Thomas even admits to himself that the Tokhin are not victims of a genocidal war, just the losers of one. But he learns that not all are eager to give up all hope. If one Phern is willing to move beyond the ancient hatreds, than perhaps there is hope yet for their world.

“The Dualist” is a tale that parallels humanity’s own violent past (and present). The two races of Phern’s hatred runs so deep it smothers all attempts at reconciliation. The few remaining Tokhin have been penned inside a ghetto called Doubletown. Thomas hopes encouraging the Tokhin to rebuild their temple will spark their will to go on. But the Sha’ad Tokn, a sacred stone, is missing and assumed destroyed. If Thomas can revive their hope, and their temple, he can save a dying race.

Of all the writers in this anthology, Mr Hughes skill for the penned word stands out the brightest. For the first two-thirds of this tale I was completely taken in with it. He framed an excellent premise, wrote engaging characters, and brought his setting to life for me. I believed I was reading a WotF masterpiece, then it all fell apart.

The back-story of Thomas’ own personal tragedy was a distraction, as if it was needed for Thomas’ motivation to succeed. Wouldn’t saving a race and culture from extermination be enough? I also found it unlikely that Earth’s choice for envoy would be a person harboring psychological scars. Even his alien counterparts were aware that he was unstable. I can’t imagine that Thomas’ superiors would be blind to his shaky stability.

I will not expose the ending so not to spoil it for those who haven’t read it, but I must say the twist in the final scene did not work for me. I found it to be a cheat in the premise.

The quality of Mr Hughes writing alone makes him deserving for a spot in this anthology. The fact he is so good, and wrote a story I liked most of the way through, earns him a favorable grade from me.

Grade B

“Bonehouse” by Keffy R. M. Kehrli 3rd place, 3rd quarter

Chris is an Evictionist. He infiltrates bonehouses to retrieve the people plugged into a netdream. He does it for a fee, and the fees are paid for by loved ones, broken-hearted souls eager to save the people they knew from wasting away to skin in bones. The addicts are hooked into an electronic life in cyberspace. Chris is after a hopeless addict named Laura. The fee is small, and he knows she will be back into a bonehouse once she recovers in rehab, but she is just a small fish on his way to a bigger catch.

“Bonehouse” is set in a bleak future in the Pacific Northwest. Rising oceans and an exploded Mt Rainier has devastated Washington State. Many have chosen to escape into cyberspace, their bodies sustained intravenously with vitamins while their minds exist in an electronic reality. They congregate in bonehouses, aptly named for the users who degenerate into atrophy. Chris is a futuristic bounty hunter. He was once locked into a netdream. He is on the hunt for the most wanted man in the Evictionist community, Cameron Trexel.

The road to Cameron takes Chris to a former lover’s home. Hints of his dark past are all over David’s home. Chris knows he is close to his biggest catch but will he be able to overcome addictive tendencies that have never left him?

I really enjoyed the setting Mr Kehrli framed for me. It did help that I happened to be traveling in the very areas in which he wrote. Envisioning addicts withdrawing from the real world for a virtual one is a problem I believe would exist today’ if it were possible. Particularly jarring for the addicts is when they are yanked from cyberspace. They have become living corpses, unable to walk, move, or care for themselves from months and years of laying in a coma like state while their minds live an addictive life. A very real future possibility indeed.

A story I found strong with a premise I could easily envision, unraveled for me halfway through. I had trouble understanding why Cameron was such a bad guy. A vague notion that he was a cyber terrorist was touched upon but he came off more as a modern day drug runner to me, and the drugs addicts are addicted to is available to anyone with a little bit a power and ability to access the web. The opening had Chris as a really tough guy, something like a Steve McQueen no-nonsense bounty hunter. The further I read, the less I knew about him. At one point, I wasn’t even sure Chris was a ‘him’ at all. By the end, Chris proved to be not so tough and the bad guy was hardly frightening.

Because of the premise and engaging beginning, “Bonehouse” is a story that could have received my highest of praise. But the high-octane first half sputtered before the end. This is a world I would like to see more of.

Grade B

:This Peaceful State of War” by Patty Jansen 1st place, 2nd quarter.

Miranda Tonkin is Solaris’s envoy to Bianca. The world is in the midst of a genocidal war. The Pari are a gentle yet resourceful race, capable of building architectural works of wonder with the simplest tools. The Hern’s only purpose in life is to hunt, destroy, and kill Pari. Wide tracks of ashes are the only thing left of Pari villages. The Universal Church’s missionaries have separated the two sides and are attempting to negotiate a permanent segregated settlement. They are the only thing preventing total annihilation and are requesting Solaris intervention to stop a massacre.

Miranda lives in the sterile confines of a low G space station. Planets are torture to her. She needs crutches to walk in the full G environment. Her body is atrophic and bloated. The Planet is a green world with a high oxygen content, so high projectile weapons are as dangerous to their user as they are to the users target. The world lacks carbon. Life has developed on a foundation of titanium. Bianca is very different than Earth but the Universal Church insists the Pari and Hern are human. They are out to prove the existence of god, and god made humans in His own image. Only humans can be sentient in their eyes and they are convinced Bianca’s inhabitants are brothers and sisters to Earth’s children.

“This Peaceful State” is compiled as a mystery. The missionaries have ceased to be objective. The Pari are like trusting children. They are capable of so much yet are docile to the point where they won’t protect themselves from the Hern. The Hern are unreachable. Miranda quickly becomes sympathetic to the church’s position but things have degraded to the point where an occupying force will be the only way to stop a complete genocide. She digs up past expeditions and discovers the Pari were more communicative in the past. The Hern were fewer in numbers as well. Miranda’s escort, Brother Copernicus, fears the churches interference has created this problem. Miranda can feel the answers to this un-Earth-like world, are close. Perhaps a simple Earth-like reason may be her answer.

Good sci-fi, in my book, are creations of possibilities I have never dreamed of before. Ms Jansen hit this mark in spades for me. Non-carbon based lifeforms are almost always ammonia in nature. Using titanium I thought was brilliant. Inserting missionaries conflicted with their beliefs also worked well in my opinion. The author deserves the highest praise for her well thought out setting. Bravo.

What keeps me from giving this piece my highest grade was the use of the protagonist. She had little to do with the resolution of the problem. She relied on past expeditions to piece it all together, and by time she did, it was too late anyway. The ‘problem’ resolved itself in its end. Her presence changed little.

Despite my complaint about the protagonist, I thought “This Peaceful State” was well deserving of its first place finish. After reading this tale, I now know why I see Ms Jansen’s name in a lot of publications these days.

Grade B+

 

Sailing the Sky Sea by Geir Lanesskog 2nd place, 3rd quarter

ÂVic Basilone’s life aboard a sky mine, riding on the swift clouds of Uranus, takes a turn when a missile strikes the platform and sends him freefalling into the dense atmosphere. Falling off a platform usually isn’t a problem, the danger of Uranus’s interior heat is a four-hour drop, but hopes of a rescue were blown sky-high with the platform. His luck changes when a portion of the station falls near him, and someone inside is manipulating the morph metal to slow the stations descent.

“Sailing the Sky Sea” opens with a bang. The station in which Vic works, is a victim of an opening salvo in a war between Mars and the Asteroid belt. He considers himself lucky that he was working outside when the missile hits, and even luckier when a portion of the platform falls close enough for him to climb aboard. But his luck may be short lived. The platform is still falling and power to it is running out. Rescue is a dim hope but the only hope left.

Vic enters the saved portion of the platform and finds two women doing all they can to survive. Kyla is a nurse and an assistant to a rich Venusian. Moor is a Martian and former soldier. Moor has been doing her best to hold the platform together while Kyla tries to keep her gravely injured boss, and his two business partners, alive. The trio work feverishly to save themselves. Moor and Vic must work together to keep the platform in one piece, stop its fall, and steer it to get a Venusian sky mines attention for any hopes of survival.

The premise to this tale is a wild ride, for the characters and the readers. Mr Lanesskog wrote an exciting sci-fi tale. I do not know if the physics of his story were possible but he had me believing that they were. In a short amount of space, the author wrote an extraordinary – yet buyable , future, with compelling characters and a problem that was unique and difficult to solve. This story was science fiction at its best. Poul and Niven would be proud.

My only nit was a brief ending that read corny to me. Could be just me, or it could be that I searched too hard to find fault with a superiorly written work of speculative fiction, but it was enough for me to not consider it perfect.

Grade A

 

“Unfamiliar Territory” by Ben Mann 2nd place, 2nd quarter

Mira is a security officer aboard an Empire company space station. Her boss, Harlan, wants her to intercept a company vessel that is failing to respond. Mira can’t go without an engineer, her boyfriend and longtime engineer died in their last trip. Harlan has one for her, a wide eyed intern from Earth. Rose is sweet, caring, and a bit squeamish , qualities not suited for a spacer. Mira wants nothing do with Rose but an engineer is necessary for her to do her job, and her job is all Mira has.

“Unfamiliar Territory” is a mystery set in future where space is run on the same set of rules that governed the 18th century seas. The non-responding Lumen has decompressed and her crew is dead. It has all the signs of piracy except most of Lumen’s cargo is intact. Shortly after intercepting the Lumen, Harlan radios her to intercept another vessel. This time one crewmember is found alive, in his suit, outside the vessel. The stress of a harshness of space is beginning to wear on Rose while Mira’s own skin becomes thicker. The surviving spacer is near death. A competing company vessel is close enough to ask for assistance, but asking for it is frowned upon and rarely welcomed. Suspicion runs deep in space, and there is no such thing as a friendly ship.

I found the tale, like many of the others in this anthology, rich in setting. I also thought the premise of a rough and you’re on your own attitude of space intriguing, but unlikely. Operating in space is an expensive endeavor, and I can’t imagine it would ever get cheap enough to allow cargo to get stolen, or people to get murdered, without a concerted effort to stop it. It appeared to me Mira’s job was more of an enforcer suited for today’s mob, rather than a rescue and recovery specialist. Rose is a girl in a tough spot. Mira makes it plain to her she isn’t wanted, as she is thrown into a dangerous and harrowing mission.

Mira is a hard woman. She is so unsympathetic she becomes angry when Rose’s compassion resurrects an old soft spot in her for a brief moment. She has survived on a notion that space is unforgiving and hard, and life is cheap. No one is your friend, which makes Rose’s inquisitive and naÃ’ ve disposition that much harder for her to take.

As I said before, “Unfamiliar Territory” is a mystery, but a mystery that wasn’t solved in my opinion. The climactic scene was confusing. I had no idea what was going on, or why it was happening, during it. It pains me to say this, because Ben is a friend of mine (thanks for the book prize, buddy), but if he passed this one by me, I would have insisted he change that climactic scene if he expected this story to stand a chance. Good thing for him he didn’t. But nevertheless, unresolved mysteries and confusing premises are not stories that I remember warmly. The story was, however, a dynamite tale for the first two-thirds of it. That reason alone earns it a favorable grade.

Grade B-

 

Medic!” by Adam Perin 3rd place, 4th quarter

Sergeant Tom Silk is the best damn medic in the army. He waits underground until he is called, surfacing through the rocky ground to retrieve the gravely injured. The sergeant is a hardass. He is rude, doesn’t want to hear a ‘thanks’ from the soldiers he saves, and is anything but respectful of the officers above him. He just wants to go home. Save five more lives and home is where he will be headed.

Silk wants to get home to his fiancÃ’ e waiting for him on Germonium. She is a colonist. The military is wary of all colonists and stand in his way to marry her. Denied, he does the unthinkable to the man who tells him no. Threatened with imprisonment, Silk’s skill as a lifesaver grants him a second chance with a choice that most would consider a prison sentence, save 1000 lives and he can go home.

“Medic!” is the story of a man filled with resentments. He is angry at a military that denied him a marriage with his love. Angry at the conscripts who have loved ones and flaunt it. Angry that his girl hasn’t written to him in years. Tom has lost his compassion. He views wounded soldiers as currency for his ticket out of the war and officers as nothing but easy marks on the poker table to him.

There is something to like about Tom Silk. He is a jerk of the first degree. I found his sarcasm funny and his look on the military amusing. However, a protagonist who starts off a loveable jerk ends up turning into dangerous man with issues. Tom proves to be a man who has lost much of his humanity. Any compassion I had for him went out the airlock halfway through.

“Medic!” is a story that would have fit well in many of the short science fiction stories I fell in love written in the 70’s. I found it a paradox that I would like such an unlikable main character.

Grade A-

Â

“Vector Victoria” by D. A. D’AmicoÂÂ 2nd place, 1st quarter

Victoria dances and mingles on the receiving pellet platform to Las Vegas. She greets arriving passengers with friendly kisses and wet willies. Forward, but it’s how she prefers to save the world. What better way to spread the viruses to counteract the government’s clandestine inoculation directive?

Victoria is a vector. A longtime activist for many protest movements, she has hitched up with Shamus. Shamus has been self-infected with a gene-tailored virus and has recruited the noble Victoria to help him. Together, they infect the populace, canceling out the FIT agency’s inoculation efforts. Shamus has been telling her the government wants to control the populace with their bug. Spreading the virus is the only thing that will stop them. She believes him, and always has, until a man enters the platform spreading his own set of germs that cancel out the virus.

“Vector Victoria” is the story of an ideological girl who wishes to do good. Victoria has been operating on the belief that the people in power are out for themselves, and are against the common man and helpless planet. Shamus is a man who she always believed in. He talks to her like a person rather than a bimbo. Although she doesn’t understand what the virus does, she believes what she is doing is saving lives. Until Artie appears.

Artie works for the government. Through their enhanced vision, Victoria and Shamus can see the germs he spreads. Artie knows all about Shamus. He has a different story on what kind of man he is. For the first time, Victoria doubts her hero. She must decide for herself if she has been playing the role of world saver, or has been used as an unwitting pawn for something sinister.

“Vector” takes the angle of a naÃ’ ve girl. Victoria is a good soldier, who discovers she may have been fighting on the wrong side all along. The story starts off with a great perspective of an activist happy that she is living in the knowledge she is fighting against a tyrant, while protecting the average man. She is a modern day Robin Hood. The story follows this angle for the first third of the tale. The entrance of Artie adds a new twist. Victoria finds herself in the middle of a conflict and she isn’t sure who is the bad guy any longer. The story is great up to this point and then it took a turn no work of fiction should take; it became a debate.

Victoria becomes confused on what to do, and as a reader, I became just as confused as she did. It was no longer clear what was happening, and finding out what the virus was doing no one knew, but not knowing wasn’t going to stop Victoria from deciding what to do. The solid premise got soft at this point. Victoria goes from principled, to naÃ’ ve, to informed, to confused, and back again.

A clear and exciting story became murky in a futuristic political debate. The strong first half forced me to stick through it to the end. The second half wasn’t bad, but didn’t live up the compelling first half.

Grade B-

 

“The Sundial” by John ArkwrightÂÂ published finalist

A wounded Yankee has stumbled upon Hept’s farm and has taken refuge in her stable. He is pursued by one of Colonel Mosby’s men. Bess, her slave servant, begs her master to hole up into the house with her, but Hept creeps out to help the man. Masked in a spell, she can hear the man’s words and concludes he is the Creator of Paths. She attempts to intervene, and is shot in the head.

A bullet wound through your forehead would be a final bad day for almost anyone, but for Hept, it is just another tragic event in her millennium old life. She had intervened to save Moses’ life in ancient Egypt and was awarded with immortality by the One God. Hept has tired of her everlasting existence. A way out for her can be achieved if she kills the deserter Yankee, Ammon. It is an offer she would have jumped on before but Ammon is a good and noble man. She has fallen for him like she hasn’t done for another since the age of the Pharaohs.

John Arkwright is the odd man in, with his finalist story. The editors of WotF published “The Sundial” to fill out its pages. Good for John because he still has a shot of repeating Carl Fredrick’s feat of appearing in two anthologies. “The Sundial” is the tale of woman whose desire for death is superseded by her love for Ammon. Hept has a “Highlander” type of physiology that grants her instant healing, even from the most grave of injuries.

Hept has a stone sundial on her grounds. It cast a shadow even when there is no sun. The dial has revealed an hour of her death, a sign that Ammon is her way out. But Ammon’s arrival spurs a new will to live for her. She must flee with the man before Mosby’s men find him. Hept has learned there is more than one way to cheat death, and she aims to use every trick she knows to deny Osiris Ammon’s soul.

I would categorize “The Sundial” as a fantasy romance. The story zeros in on Hept’s infatuation with Ammon. Bess serves as her sidekick companion with an ownership tag to her. She has little concept of freedom, vowing to remain a servant even when she believed Hept was dead. The romantic quality of the piece supplanted the fantasy aspect. It may be the reason why the story seemed to develop slowly to me. The tale dragged, too much contemplation on what the characters should be doing, instead of taking the action needed, dominated the center of the piece. It didn’t help when Hept repeated her backstory to both supporting characters. I found it unnecessary, and wished the author would have attempted to avoid the redundancy.

“The Sundial” is the lone entry that didn’t work for me. I might have preferred it, if it had a quicker pace.

Grade C

 

 

The Unknown Prerequisite

Last year I noted the overabundance of stories based on a single theme; robots. Two thirds of the stories in WOTF Vol 26, used artificial intelligences as a centerpiece for their plots. How many this year? Zero. Not a one. Curious, considering I couldn’t recall an anthology where at least one robot like story won a spot in the book. A bummer if you wrote a robot piece, believing you spotted a trend. Apparently, that trend was short lived. This year had a trend of its own, one that was far subtler.

This year’s anthology was filled with strong writing. If you read my reviews of the last three anthologies, you might have noticed I collectively graded these stories the highest of the four. This year’s authors had excellent tales with vivid settings, a great group of writers. However, if I were to give the entire book one grade it would have been a B minus.

It was about the fifth story when I began to notice a redundancy in the plots. A forum on the net confirmed what was nagging me. Amateurs, still attempting to crack into the anthology, were insisting protagonists must have an inner turmoil, if the writer was expecting their entry to become a finalist. If you were to use this collection of short stories as a guide, you would have drawn the same conclusion.

I found, with the exception of one story, each winning entry followed a variation of the same basic blueprint. Protagonist is confronted with a problem, protagonist reveals a deep psychological obstacle making it difficult for them to solve the problem, problem was resolved and everyone lives happily ever after. It was this, damaging past event in the main character’s life, that made the entire collection – filled with wonderful tales spread across a variety of themes in speculative fiction , have a droning sameness about it. If last years anthology could have been called “I, Robot” – because of the prevailing theme – this years would have earned the title, “We shall overcome”.

By the time I was halfway through the collection, I found myself looking for ‘the thing’ that would tag the protagonist as one messed up dude – or chick. The subplot in every story was so prevalent you could have identified each piece by the inner turmoil the main character had with a mix-and-match game. See for yourself.
-Widower who witnessed his wife’s murder.
-Child who overachieves to impress stepparents who ignore her.
-Old reporter falsely accused with misconduct.
-Ex-husband whose wife walked out on him.
-Man who has repressed his feelings his entire life.
-Widower who witnessed his wife’s murder.
-Former addict who isn’t fully recovered.
-A whole bunch of stuff.
-None.
-Woman who saw her partner die.
-Soldier kept from his fiancÃ’ e (real anger issues).
-Easily influenced girl searching for her purpose in life.
-Immortal living with millennia of guilt.

It made me wonder, when did it become a requirement that a protagonist must battle with an inner demon, while they are dealing with the external threat that is central to the plot? I don’t recall past classics burdening its characters with this extra-dimensional depth. Did Harry Seldom need to overcome a rough childhood while constructing a mathematical formula to avoid an upcoming galactic dark age? Did Louis Wu have to deal with abandonment issues before he joined an expedition to a ringed-world? And what was Frodo’s inner conflict? An over-the-top desire to impress the girl who shunned him at the festival? Or was it the Napoleonic complex a short person would have, living in a world where even the Dwarves look down on you? These main characters faced overwhelming external obstacles. An inner conflict was never needed to further their story. To insert one, would have cheapened their tale.

I am not saying an inner conflict has no place in speculative fiction, but I can make a case that an over use of them will lend to a copying effect for the reader. This WotF anthology read as if every author followed the same piece of advice. I’m not to saying this tactic in story telling didn’t work for all of these tales, but I thought a couple of them didn’t need to add the extra depth to their characters psychology. For a pair of examples on how it worked for one, and how it burdened another, let me use the two tales that had characters with the same tragic past; wives who were murdered.

In “The Unreachable Voices of Ghosts”, Mr Lyman’s used his main character’s past tragic event to explain why he chose to exit humanity. His reasons were different than the other characters who sailed to the far ends of the solar system in a likely one-way voyage. The protagonist’s inner demons helped to further the tale and added an inflexion to the plots later stages. The inner conflict fit well with his external problem. But in Mr Hughes “The Dualist”, the main character’s past tragic event was an obstacle. It clashed with the external problem the protagonist faced. I submit, if Mr Hughes removed the protagonist’s past tragedy, it would have changed nothing in the plot, except maybe improve it. Then again, Mr Hughes might have been in the outside looking in if he did, just like the majority of us do now.

I could go on. I will instead assume this trend, like the last, was a collection of coincidences. The inclusion of “Sailing the Sky Sea”, the only story in the anthology where the characters were not challenged by inner demons, supports that this was indeed the case. Individually, all these tales stand on their own. If I were to read them in a copy of Analog, Asimov, F&SF – or one of the many outstanding publications out there – I would have never been bothered by the overabundance of inner conflict sidebars, but strung together, the repeating subplots stuck out like a neon sign in a dark night. If I would have read the anthology for pleasure alone, I would have likely set it down a few stories in, expecting to get to it later (but perhaps not), never recognizing why it fell out of favor for me, despite the strong writing within it.

 

I would like to acknowledge Diabolical Plots contributor Joey Jordan for her illustration victory in this years WotF anthology. Her rendition of “Sailing the Sky Sea” was sharp. She’s a good friend, and she contributed the mad scientist art that graces the pages of Diabolical Plots. Congratulations to her!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This marks the fourth year in which I am reviewing the Writers of the Future contest. As a long time reader (I bought Volume I when it came out), and frequent submitter of the past few years, I have come to appreciate the work K D Wentworth and her predecessors have done putting this mammoth endeavor together every year. In the past, I’ve read issues and thought I can do better than that. It wasn’t until I started writing did I realize it wasn’t as easy as it looked. When I started reviewing, I had begun to marvel the work the authors put into each story.

Interview–Brent Knowles

Brent Knowles is a writer, programmer, and game designer. His work has been published in several magazines, including On Spec, Neo-Opsis, and Tales of the Talisman. His story “Digital Rights” won first place in the fiercely competitive Writers of the Future contest in 2009, published in Writers of the Future volume XXVI.

David Steffen: It’s now been almost a year since your Writers of the Future winning story was released. Has that win had any effect on your writing, whether it be the writing itself or your methods?

Brent Knowles: Overall I think that I am a more productive and confident writer after the
win. Winning introduced me to many other authors (not limited just to the
winners in my year but including past winners and judges). I think being in
contact with them online and observing their workflows, triumphs and
setbacks has been illuminating… I have learned a lot about the business of
writing.

David: Where did the idea for “Digital Rights”, your WotF wining story, come from?

Brent: Years ago I wrote a story which featured a man who collected digital
copies of people to experiment on. I never thought the story strong enough
to stand on its own but it became the backbone for ‘Digital Rights’. I find
I do this quite often — merging two or three stories that never quite
worked into a single story. ‘A Ragman’s Vow’, which was published a few
years ago by On Spec, is another example where that worked out for me.

David: You worked with BioWare developing games for ten years. What was your favorite part of the job?

Brent: My coworkers. At BioWare, I was thrown in with a motley collection of
writers, programmers, and artists. It was an incredibly diverse range of
creative people, all moving towards the same goal but in their own ways. I
learned a lot and had an amazing experience with them.

It was exciting being able to work with others, crafting stories and
gameplay that was experienced by millions of users. That thrill when a game
finally goes gold (approved for distribution) is akin to the feeling I get
when a story I write is accepted for publication.

Additionally I enjoyed interacting with our players online, trying to get a
feel for what they liked and what could be improved for the next game.

David: Have you found your writing and code development to be complementary skills?

Brent: There are a few ways in which I have found writing and code development to
be complementary in my life. At the simplest level I find that if I am
burned out on writing I can usually turn to coding as a break, letting my
mind worry about something else until I’m ready to go back to writing.

Coding itself can also be a very satisfying creative endeavour. For me
writing and coding are two facets of the same, core desire I have to ‘create
things’. I like exploring ‘other worlds’… whether those worlds exist in a
computer game I am creating (or playing) or through my writing (or my
reading).

Being able to write code is also useful… I’ve built my own AI ‘Assistant’
software which I use to help me brainstorm and organize my writing. I’m not
a ‘strong’ programmer but I’m a fast programmer and I can prototype things
quickly — think of it as a first draft code. This prototyping lets me play
around with concepts (artificial intelligence, data analysis, image
manipulation, et cetera) and maybe experience some of what my characters
(who are often scientists or programmers or engineers) will be experiencing.

Being technical has also introduced me to real life scenarios that help
influence my fiction. As a consultant with Empire Avenue (the social stock
market) I have been given a preview of how social networks might evolve and
I can use that information to imagine more plausible future societies. I
used this experience in my first science fiction novel and in several short
stories.

David: If you could give just one piece of advice to aspiring authors, what would it be?

Brent: Learn to handle rejection. Unless you are some kind of a genetic
abnormality with an absurd talent for writing (in which case I hate you) you
will have more disappointments than successes. Don’t let the disappointments
sour you. Savor the successes.

David: What is your first memory?

Brent: I have really crappy memory. Most of my childhood memories, I think,
are strongly influenced by photographs of past events… so I don’t know if
I am actually remembering the event or the photograph’s interpretation of my
past.

One thing that did happen to me as a kid and has no photograph to distort
the memory was when I stumbled upon a pack of wolves as a child. Well, I
didn’t actually stumble upon them… they found me.

I used to hang out with my grandfather in isolated logging camps during the
off-season (usually when it was too muddy for the trucks to haul out wood).
Basically we were security so nobody would steal equipment from the camps.
Well my grandfather was security; I was just a kid.

Anyways we were in the middle of nowhere with only a cruddy gravel road
connecting us to civilization. I’d often just walk around and explore the
woods, that kind of thing. One day while I was standing alongside the road a
pack of wolves came walking towards me. They were a large pack with several
pups. I was mesmerized. The pups were fighting over a discarded tin can and
the adults just looked kind of bored. They were completely unconcerned about
my presence and acted as if they owned the place, which I suppose, in some
ways, they did.

I’m not sure what would have happened next, I was being pretty stupid and
still lingering by the road but my grandfather came out and fired a warning
shot and the wolves scattered.

David: If you could choose any fictional character for a roommate, who would it be?

Brent: R2D2. Best roommate ever. He can accomplish any task you need done.
Sure, he back-talks a lot, but given that I can’t understand him I wouldn’t
know what he was saying about me.

David: Do you have any works in progress you’d like to talk about?

Brent: Two of my earlier stories – ‘The Prophet’ and ‘The End of the Road’ –
are enjoying a bit of a second life as digital reprints. The positive
feedback and reader reaction I am getting on them is encouraging me to delve
a bit more into the world of the ‘Wanderer’ protagonist featured in them.
I’ll finish a novel featuring more of his story early next year.

David: Any upcoming publications?

Brent: A few stories. ‘Touch the Dead’, the prelude to an urban fantasy
novel I recently finished writing will appear in On Spec Magazine, possibly
this year. I also have ‘Summer Lover’ in Shroud later this year and my dark
fantasy ‘Bone Dreaming’ was recently accepted by Darwin’s Evolutions.

David: What was the last book you read?

Brent: I have a neverending backlog of magazines and books to read. I am in
the middle of several novels right now (I’m a multitasking kind of
reader)… the last I finished was Druids by Barbara Galler-Smith and Josh
Langston, which I quite enjoyed.

David: Your favorite book?

Brent: Tricky to narrow it down to one. Different books at different times
have resonated with me. ‘The Stand’ threw me into a world and situation that
really stuck with me well past the reading, as had, at a younger age,
‘Watership Down’. Though I have not read it in years ‘The Stone and the
Flute’ by Hans Bemmann still sits in a cherished place on my ‘grab these
books if the house burns down’ pile.

David: Who is your favorite author?

Brent: I’ve never been fixated on any particular authors but some have had a
measurable influence on me — I read a lot of Stephen King and Charles de
Lint during my early years as a writer. Now I’m trying to branch out more,
filling in the holes in my ‘reading education’. I’ve read and enjoyed work
by Robert J. Sawyer, David Brin, and Steven Savile recently.

David:Â What was the last movie you saw?

Brent:Â Return of the Jedi. I decided my kids were old enough to experience
the Star Wars trilogy. A side benefit of that was that it gave me an excuse
to pull out all my old Star Wars toys that I’ve hung onto (did I mention I’m
a hoarder?)

David:Â What is your favorite movie?

Brent:Â Hmm. Again, I’m not much with the favourites but I can watch Empire
Strikes Back over and over and always enjoy it…

David: Brent, thanks for taking the time for the interview! I wish you continued success with your writing.

Review: Writers of the Future XXIV by Frank Dutkiewicz

–Written by Frank Dutkiewicz–

wotf24Yes, I know I am a year behind but I bought this book before 25 became available AND this edition can be found in the stores today. So for readers that like to browse and choose the reading material from books on a shelf, this review is for you.

ONE of the best pieces of advice that I read is if you are going to write short stories, you need to read short stories. What better way to follow that advice than by checking up on the competition. My first love is the anthology. I love reading a collection of short stories with a theme. The theme to WotF is very loose but the writers all have one thing in common, amateurs hoping to become pros. Here are the 13 writers that beat out Dave, Anthony, myself, and probably most of the people that take the time to read this blog for one the biggest prizes in amateur literature today.

A Man in the Moon by Dr Philip Edward Kaldon

This is the baker’s dozen of the anthology. It didn’t place in the competition but the judges liked it enough to fill out the book.

Gene Fisher-Hall is a terminally ill astronaut who wants to hold onto his job and wishes to spend the rest of days on the moon. He uses loopholes in the regulations, the press, and his folksy down-home charm to get his way.

I found this to be not much more than a story of a workaholic that doesn’t want to hang it up, set in space. I did enjoy a scene where Gene needs to overcome his arthritic-like disease to avoid a disaster. A Man in the Moon is easy to fall into but it went on way too long. Halfway through I started to wonder if it had an ending.

Grade:Â B minus

Bitter Dreams by Ian McHugh

First place third quarter

Constable Robert Bowley defends a town in the outback of an Australia where magic is real and evil is part of the land. A nightmare has been released in the mines and turns a family in the bush into zombies. With the aid of a mysterious magician, Bowley and the rest of the town braces for an expected assault.

It is easy to see why McHugh’s piece won first. He has a rare talent of writing intricate details that flow with the prose instead of dumping information as a lot of amateurs are prone to do. He does spend a lot of time describing minute specifics, and often that can get readers to tune out (I almost did at one point), but the story moved and the action was exciting enough to keep me anchored.

What I found particularly neat was our shadows are skittish things and will flee us when frightened. The magic man’s shadows were trained hunters, searching like scouts for evil. My only complaint is the assault on the town seemed too much like an old B western, Cowboys vs Indians, climax. Bitter Dreams is a wonderful story. Based on this lone piece, I believe Ian McHugh is likely to have a very bright future as a writer.

Grade:Â A minus

Taking a Mile by J Kathleen Cheney

Third place fourth quarter

Viviana Fuentes is dead, much to her facsimile copy’s dismay. Now the avatar awaits her demise, copies like her lasted ten days, twenty at most. Then another avatar shows up to offer her an alternative she never believed was possible.

Taking a Mile seized me right from the start. The first few pages are one of the strongest openings that I ever read. Then the story went in a direction that I wasn’t satisfied with. What began as a tale of a person with a short life living out her last hours became an Asimov-ish story of an artificial wanting to be human. One problem I had was I wasn’t sure what Ms Fuentes exactly was. Clone? Hologram? Computer generated humanoid?

Despite my disappointment, Taking a Mile is still a strong entry, worthy of its third place finish.

Grade:Â B

Crown of Thorns by Sonia Helbig

Second place fourth quarter

Marie is a kindergarten teacher living a devastated Perth in a future where a hot earth has flooded the coasts of the world and a planet wide drought leaves entire continents barren. To survive, the residents of Perth must subject their children to a test. A test to find the next Messiah. Only once in thirty years has a child passed this test. Then to Marie’s worst fear, another of her students scores high.

Sonia hit a triple on her first swing with me. Gripping characters, compelling premise, and a future I needed to know more about. A story with more than one perspective is rare in the WotF anthology, it pleases me to see when one gets in. This tale started strong and shifted into high gear half way in. The ending (I am surprised to admit) I didn’t see coming, extra points for that, and I found it touching.

I have read a lot of short stories (hundreds) in my lifetime. Some have had a plot that I still think of days, weeks, later. A very few (less than ten) I will never forget. Crown of Thorns is one that will stick with me for a very long time.

Grade: A plus

Hangar Queen by Patrick Lundrigan

First place first quarter and grand prize winner

GN 722 is the bomb, or rather the AI brain that serves as the guidance system for them onboard a starship. She is awakened from cold storage not knowing where her human friend, Marty, has gone. Sgt Joey Hart has taken his place and they start to form a relationship. GN 722, or Gina (what Marty used to call her) can’t help wondering what happened to her old friend and overcomes her programming to find out.

This was Pat Lundrigan’s 21st submission to WotF and like all the rest, involved robots and spaceships. The story is a heart-warming mystery. Gina is convincing as an evolved sentient computer. My only nit is the climactic scene comes off like a Star Trek solution.

It is not surprising that Hangar Queen won, it is worthy of the prize. It is comforting to know that despite 20 times of failing, it didn’t stop Mr Lundrigan from submitting number 21. Congratulations, you bring hope to us all.

Grade:Â A minus

Snakes and Ladders by Paula R Stiles

Third place second quarter

Owen Anderson is a medic and the only one to survive a bomb blast in his alien/human infiltration team. In order to stave off death, he injects nano-organisms into his bloodstream. They aren’t supposed to be more than a machine equivalence of a bacterium, but the micro bio-machines evolve in their micro lives and seek to find their god. If they get to Owens brain before they burn out, they just may get their wish.

The premise is great but the MC’s hallucinations were hard for me to grasp. A very good opening line but it took me until page three to find my bearings. The ending fell a bit flat for me.

In past issues of the WotF anthologies, it would take me this long to find a story I liked. It is a testament to this year’s issue that it took me this long to find one I wasn’t thrilled about. The writing is solid but the story didn’t grab me.

Grade:Â C

Epiphany by Laura Bradley Ride

Second place first quarter

Barker works in a traveling freak show. On Christmas Eve, the freaks rebel and kill their owner. Now a few want Barker’s help to find a magic knife, one that will free him from an ankle bracelet that keeps him from performing magic on his own.

The opening starts out great and is rich with intriguing characters. Then the tale grows, much like how a fisherman’s hands will drift further apart when recounting the one that got away. An awful lot happens in this story, and all in one night (it seemed like a months worth of adventure). Epiphany is one full adventure, too full for my tastes. The plot kept drifting which made the story something different by the end.

Grade:Â C plus

Cruciger by Erin Cashier

First place fourth quarter

Duxa is a planet maker, mankind’s creation to rebuild its species that has fallen to a religious zealots plague. When her final human companion falls to the disease, she has only the recorded pleas on a dying race to keep her company. Duxa is set to build a world by destroying another. Yet the one she has chosen has a budding race of its own.

Cruciger is a story of a machine that plays god. Yet a god that is prone to making mistakes. There is a very human quality to her. I could feel the loneliness she felt in this piece. However, the story had a very familiar quality to it. Cruciger is a story that was written right but never really endeared me to it. Still worthy of a first place finish.

Grade:Â B plus

Circuit by J D Everyhope

First place second quarter

Compendium of Literature with Critical Commentary and Analysis is a book. A speaking one made for teaching in a time before the Red Plague. Lela’s father believes such a book has no place in their world. Young Lela decides to take it for herself and leaves the book on to observe. The book lives through three lives and influences two great thinkers.

Circuit is the third story to be written from the perspective of a machine. I found it to be intelligent and deep in a deceptive way. In the opening, Lela’s father wants to put the book away because it is filled with opinions and opinions can have an adverse effect on society. The book ends up proving his point in the end.

Ms. Everyhope managed to insert a cleverly disguised moral in this short tale, one that felt reminisced of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Bravo.

Grade:Â A

A War Bird in the Belly of the Mouse by David Parish-Whitaker

Nigel is a World War One British flying ace that has been ‘time plucked’. He now leads tourists over the hills of California to fight Germans in a replica of France in 1917. The Sopwith Camels and German Flockers are perfect recreations, with the exception of the harnesses that protect the flyers from harm. Nigel must contend with his German plucked counterpart, a Japanese man searching for his definition of honor, and an American marine who believes that Nigel is an antiquated relic.

I did not believe that I would like War Bird through the first few pages but the story grew, then captured me. A nice tale about pride, honor and duty. The surprisingly rich characters in this short piece all had different agendas, based on different ideas of honor from cultures separated by time. I did not like the title until I realized what the mouse was (duh). I found the ending very fitting.

Mr. Whitaker did a splendid job, especially since he had to win me over.

Grade:Â A minus

Simulacrum’s Children by Sarah L. Edwards

Dr. Chanhausen is a 19th century inventor that makes others like himself, androids. He hires a street boy named Joseph to help him. He is working on his third creation, a female android, when he gets assaulted and his lab ransacked. The Doctor is at loss to know who is behind these attacks but fears it may be the one that created him.

Simulacrum’s Children is a Frankenstein styled tale, except the monster is the one making the monsters. The scene changes are separated by dates. I was never sure if I was reading log entries or not. The story hinged on an emotional element centered on the Doctor’s third creation, in my opinion, it failed. I never quite bought into her ascendancy. Although he was prominent in the piece, I don’t believe Joseph was needed to tell this story.

Grade:Â C

The Bird Reader’s Granddaughter by Kim A. Gillett

Third quarter third place

Catia is an orphan. Her father has died at sea and her mother has thrown herself into the ocean to be with him. She climbs the hill to join her grandmother where she learns the craft of fortune telling. Running through the birds does not always tell the whole story and telling ones future has its own ways of setting the course of events.

The Bird Reader’s Granddaughter is a story of prejudice and superstition. Catia’s grandmother is shunned by the town because of her gift yet blamed for all disasters. Visitors traveled for miles to learn their fortune but I never saw an instance in which they benefited from its knowledge. I did like the ending but the crux of the story, Catia’s future, could have been avoided by a simple and obvious solution. Her grandmother, in my opinion, did the equivalent of leaving a book of matches in easy reach of a child that has issues with fire.

Grade:Â B minus

The Girl Who Whispered by Al Bogdan

Third quarter second place

Etelka is a whisper-girl. She and fellow whisper-girl are property of their High-One mistress. Etelka waits eagerly to be free of servitude, hoping that her father repays his debt. Whisper-girls are without the bones that others have. They roll along the floor like blobs. Their breath has the gift to rejuvenate others and accelerate growth.

It took me awhile to completely comprehend Mr. Bogdan’s world. I still have a difficult time trying to visualize Etelka and Ibi and the manner in which they are able to move. The climatic scene worked well but the confusing politics and setting sapped to much of the energy from this story.

Grade:Â C

I have read about a dozen of the twenty-five additions of The Writer’s of the Future Contest. In past anthologies I would find about three stories outstanding (A quality) but an equal number difficult to finish (D quality), with the rest in that B, C range. This addition I found the most satisfying one of the bunch.

The artwork on the cover of the anthology is a magnet for any reader. Of the art accompanying the stories within, I liked William Ruhlig’s depiction of A Man In The Moon the best.

Writer’s of the Future volume XXIV is a solid read. Entertaining from start to finish. If you haven’t had a chance to pick up a copy yet, I recommend that you do.

Snapper2_Mugshot

Frank was shocked to learn there is such a thing as a word police. Convicted with Battery on the English Language and Assault on Good Taste he graciously plea bargained a deal. He occasionally does reviews for Anthony and Dave as part of his community service.

Frank has managed to get a flash fiction piece published in the latest addition of Space Squid (issue #8). The prosecution used it as evidence against him.

Like a Moth to Flame: Jordan Lapp

headshot1-244x300Jordan Lapp is a writer who has won the first prize of the prestigious Writers of the Future (WotF) contest. Only writers very early in their career are eligible: after a few publications you are disqualified. Don’t let the fact that the entrants are mostly unpublished lull you into thinking that winning is easy. Competition is fierce, and winning is a major event which can often act as a launching point for a writer’s career. Past winners have included Nina Kiriki Hoffman, David Wolverton, K.D. Wentworth, Eric Flint, Patrick Rothfuss, J. Kathleen Cheney, and countless others whose careers have all grown in leaps and bounds after winning. Keep your eye out for Jordan.

Besides winning the Writers of the Future contest, Jordan is also the editor of Every Day Fiction, which publishes a new flash fiction story, 1000 words or fewer, every day.

He has also recently attended the Clarion West writer’s workshop, which is an accomplishment in itself.ÂÂ Jordan has blogged about both Clarion West and the Writers of the Future workshop and awards ceremony on his site Without Really Trying.

David Steffen: In your own words, could you tell us a bit about “After the Final Sunset, Again”, your winning story?

Jordan Lapp: Certainly. The central character of “After the Final Sunset, Again” is a creature called the Phoenix, who is a kind of demi-god that exists to further humanity’s goals from the grandest scale right down to the personal level. Every morning a new Phoenix is birthed from the ashes of its predecessor, assembling a personality by copying and internalizing memories from surrounding humans, and is then sent into the world to accomplish specific goals. On this particular day, one of the humans who is “donating” memories dies at the moment of the Phoenix’s conception, thus giving her a sense of her own mortality, something no other Phoenix has ever had to confront. Thus, she eschews her “duties” in favour of finding a way to survive past sunset, thus setting the story in motion.

David: I always like to hear story origins. What triggered the idea for this particular story?

Jordan: Mortality is a recurring theme in my work. I’m fascinated by the tale of the ant and the grasshopper. In the fable, the ant works hard all summer storing away supplies for the winter, while the grasshopper spends the days dancing and playing on his fiddle. When winter arrives, the ant is safe in his home with plenty of food, while the grasshopper is left to starve in the cold. I always ask myself, what if the ant had died at the end of the summer? Would he have envied the grasshopper? In this particular tale, I asked “how exactly can we achieve true immortality”? To answer myself, I created a character with the shortest possible lifespan and had her wrestle with the question.

David: With this huge milestone reached, now what? What are your goals, hopes, dreams?

Jordan: I spoke a lot about this with the judges at Writers of the Future, all of whom are award-winning writers. Universally, their advice was to write a novel. Not a one suggested I keep writing shorts. I’ve now got enough credit to attract some attention, so I should capitalize on it by writing a novel, they said. When people like Rob Sawyer and Dave Wolverton tell you to write a novel, you pretty much have to do it.

David: The last winner, Patrick Lundrigan, submitted 21 times before winning. How many times did you submit before you won? How were your results–had you made semi-finalists and finalist before?

Jordan: My 1st place winner was my 7th entry to the contest. Previously, I had one non-placer, three Honorable Mentions, and two Semi-Finalists. Interestingly enough, KD Wentworth identified the same weakness in both of my Semi-Finalist critiques (unsympathetic protagonist). I worked on this aspect of my craft, and won not long after. I believe my non-placing entry was because I failed to follow one of the unspoken (and unwritten, unless you know where to look) rules of the contest: You must have speculative content on your first page or two.

David: When you dropped this story in the mailbox, could you tell that it was different than your previous entries, or did it feel the same?

Jordan: I actually made myself cry at the end of this story. And I still do every time I read it. This is what we call a Good Sign. I knew it was better than anything I’d written before by a fairly significant margin, but of course, I didn’t have any idea it would place. In fact, when I re-read it after Joni called me to tell me it was a finalist, all I could see were the flaws. Goes to show you that writers are their own worst critics.

David: Has winning opened new doors? Do you get more positive responses on short story submission? Have publishers or agents approached you?

Jordan: Yes and no. “After the Final Sunset, Again” was really a bit of a fluke in terms of story quality. Until recently, I wasn’t sure how to duplicate it. It took a stint at Clarion West to show me where I needed to shore up my craft. I’m only now turning out pieces that I feel equal it in quality.

Attending the workshop has opened more doors for me than the actual story. First, I’m discussing doing a graphic novel with Luke Eidenschink, the illustrator of Matt Rotundo’s story “Gone Black”. When his illustration was revealed, I commented that it was very true to the style you see in graphic novels. He confessed that he wanted to produce one, and he’d written a few stories, but he wasn’t enthusiastic about them. I mused that it would be nice if he could team up with a writer. He asked if I knew any, and the rest is history.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Steve Savile at the workshop, a previous winner. Steve has written 23 novels in the six years since he won, and offered to take a look at our novels once we’d written them. If he likes them, he’s offered to introduce us to a few editors. Many of the other judges made the same offer.

David: At what point in your life did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Jordan: I suppose I always knew I wanted to be a writer. When did I know I wanted to give it a serious go? About four years ago I met Andy LeBlanc, a friend of a friend, and a brilliant writer. At the time, I thought I was good. Andy showed me what good was supposed to be. I’ve spent the last four years trying to equal him. At this point, I still think I have a ways to go.

David: Do you think being the editor of Every Day Fiction gave you insight into how to improve your own writing?

Jordan: Yes and No. Yes, you learn what not to do from stories that you reject in the first paragraph. However, there comes a point where reading slush actually hurts you. For instance, there have been a few ideas that I would have liked to develop that I’ve shelved because I’ve seen similar work in the slush. If I hadn’t edited EDF, I wouldn’t even have known those stories existed and thus been free to develop those ideas on my own. Also, I’m a strong advocate of learning from writers who are better than you. If you don’t know any, read “Best-Of” Anthologies. As a slush editor, the vast majority of the submitted work is unpublishable, and therefore of little good to my development as a writer.

On the other hand, if you’ve never done it, I recommend reading slush. It shows you how you stack up as a writer, gives you an eye on the competition. It also shows you how common vampire stories really are, and that you should NEVER EVER WRITE ONE. My recommendation is to read slush for a year or two, learn all you can, then leave it behind.

David: Now that you’ve been through both the WotF workshop and the Clarion workshop, how has your writing changed? What’s the most significant difference? Attitude? Skill?

Jordan: I was the first writer ever to win Writers of the Future and THEN attend Clarion West. Usually it works the other way around. At the time, I knew that the Phoenix was a fluke and that there was a definite weakness in my writing, but I didn’t know what it was. Turns out my characterization was weak. “After the Final Sunset, Again” had won because the Phoenix was such a strong character. Since Clarion West, I’ve been turning out stories with very strong characters, and I think my writing has improved dramatically as a result.

David: How did you react when you found out you were a finalist? When you found out you’d won?

Jordan: I was on my honeymoon with my wife when I got Joni Labaqui’s message. I made a beeline for my hotel room and screamed my brains out. Apparently, those rooms aren’t soundproof.

I found out that I won while I was at work an interminable month later. I’d practically gone nuts figuring out my odds of placing (37.5%), and evaluating and re-evaluating my story. When Joni finally phoned, I screamed my brains out. Apparently, my office isn’t soundproof either.

David: You also attended Clarion West in the past month or two, an application-based writer’s workshop. Any advice for getting in?

Jordan: This is a fairly tough question. My application story was my Writers of the Future winning story, so that certainly didn’t hurt my application (though they didn’t know it had won when I submitted it). They also ask for an application essay, but admission is judged solely on the basis of that story.

What they’re looking for are writers that are at a place where they know the basics, but need a small push to send them over the edge. To that end, write a challenging story. Have a unique voice. Have something to say. Fantasy is the perpetually undiscovered country. Blaze a trail into the wilderness and stake a claim.

David: Are there any stories coming up in Every Day Fiction that you’re particularly looking forward to?

Jordan: To be honest, Camille Gooderham Campbell has taken over most of the day-to-day responsibilities at EDF. Between Clarion West and Writers of the Future I’ve been run off my feet with writerly responsibilities. My role has become more promotional. To that end, I’m working on a few ideas that I hope will really boost the magazine’s profile.

David: Is there anything you’d like to see more in the slush pile of Every Day Fiction?

Jordan: Original work. Lord, don’t send us another vampire story. You know, we never get enough genre work, or rather, what we do get is generally of poor quality. I suppose this is because, with the amount of space that must be devoted to setting, writing sympathetic characters becomes an exercise in word management. Because of this, a well-written horror, fantasy, or science fiction piece jumps off the page at us.

David: If you could only give one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?

Jordan: Find writers who are better than you are and learn from them. In person is better, but if you don’t know any and live someplace remote, study Best-Of anthologies. Finish everything you write, send your work out, and never give up.

David: What’s your favorite thing to do that’s not related to writing?

Jordan: Spending time with my wife. I was lucky enough to meet a loving, supportive woman who encourages me to pursue my passions. When I’m not writing, we’re generally bike riding, watching movies, renovating our house, and generally laughing our way through life.

David: If you could meet any fictional character in person, who would it be?

Jordan: I can’t think of a single one. The problem is that if a writer is doing a good job, what they’ve created on the page can never be equaled by a face to face meeting. On the page you have direct access to a character’s innermost thoughts and emotions. After that kind of experience, a direct meeting would feel so limiting.

David: What was the last book you read?

Jordan: I’m halfway through dozens of books, mostly by Clarion West instructors or Writers of the Future judges. Of course, the last book I’ve read–as of this interview–is Writers of the Future XXV itself. To be honest, I’ve read several previous volumes and always found a couple of stories that I flat out wouldn’t have picked to be in the anthology, but that’s not so this time. Of course, I’m probably biased, but this year is the strongest one I’ve read. My prediction is that at least one story will find its way into a Best-Of anthology.

David: Your favorite book?

Jordan: I’ve been reading a lot of shorts these days. Of those, “The Monkey” by Stephen King is the only story I’ve ever read that scared the daylights out of me. It was in the anthology “Dark Descent” edited by David G Hartwell which should be required reading for any writer of short fiction. In terms of novel length works, Lloyd Alexander’s “Taran Wanderer” will always hold a special place in my heart. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Card’s Ender’s Game, and The Scar by China Mieville are all excellent for different reasons.

David: Who is your favorite author?

Jordan: I don’t really have “favourite authors” so much as favourite stories. I suppose the last writer to absolutely blow my mind was Stephen King with his Gunslinger novels. One of the greatest things about the first book in King’s opus was the opening line, “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger pursued.” That, perhaps, is the most powerful first line I’ve ever read. The whole novel is contained in that line.

David: What was the last movie you saw?

Jordan: Ugh. It was “Public Enemies” starring Johnny Depp. The movie was terrible in terms of both the writing and the cinematography. As far as good movies, it was “Once Upon a Time In the West”. Andy LeBlanc and I are making a study of classic films to see what made them work, and perhaps incorporate those qualities into our own writing. I have a feeling you’ll be seeing Western influences in my upcoming work.

David: What is your favorite movie?

Jordan: I have several favourite movies. The Last Unicorn is amazing because I enjoyed it for the artwork and fantasy elements as a child, and now love it as an adult because of its incredible depth. The book, by Peter S. Beagle is an absolute masterpiece. I also liked TRON (I took up a career as a video game programmer because of this movie), The Prestige, The Sixth Sense, and Watership Downs (though the book is far, far better. Maybe the best ever written in the English language). Generally I love movies that are challenging in terms of theme, or that have excellent kung-fu. I suppose in that Venn Diagram, the Matrix lies squarely in the middle.

David: Do you have any works in progress that you’d like to tell us about?

Jordan: I’m currently adapting my winning Writers of the Future story into a novel (in the outlining stages). I’ve also placed work in the Time in a Bottle Anthology, and recently written the foreword of Michael Ehart’s excellent novel “Tears of Ishtar”. Michael is a good friend and excellent writer of Sword and Sorcery a la Howard or Moorcock, and I was flattered to receive the invitation to write the foreword.

David: Thank you for taking the time for the interview, Jordan. I can’t wait to read the new volume of Writers of the Future.

Also, thank you to Frank Dutkiewicz and Anthony Sullivan for your contributions to this interview.