Road Trip Wrap-Up

The last days of our trip were hectic, and I didn’t get a chance to write about them.

In Kelowna for one night, we didn’t have time to do anything fancy about dining out. We walked to Cactus Club Cafe. I don’t usually write up chain restaurants, because we’re more into finding the unusual or at least the individual. However, I will say that after visiting the franchise wasteland that is Federal Way, Washington, the restaurant scene in Kelowna was a breath of fresh air, even in the mass-market vicinity of the airport. The Cactus Club was comfortable and the food was quite good. The ceviche was nice; refreshing and delicate. I made one last attempt to have salmon on this trip, but they had just run out. I had the Ahi Tuna Club instead, and enjoyed it even though I ordered it without bacon. Caroline ordered the fish tacos. They were large, and she could only eat one. For wine we ordered something called Feenie Goes Haywire. It’s an odd blend of white grapes conceived by the company chef, but quite enjoyable.

Tuesday we slept in a bit, and the hotel’s breakfast buffet was packed. We drove to Cora’s, because you can get fresh fruit there, and we were craving.

Went for a walk, packed up and drove to the airport for our afternoon departure to Winnipeg. Car return was a snap. Check-in was fine. Once again, my suitcase weighed exactly fifty pounds. Robert J. Sawyer, this is your fault: I must not buy hardcovers for you to autograph when I have to fly. If I hadn’t ditched some toiletries, I’d have been paying an overweight baggage premium because of Quantum Night.

Security was lined up, and I managed to get myself singled out for an X-ray. They spotted something at my right hip, which was a loonie I had overlooked when emptying my pockets, and something in my left armpit area. I believe that was my stents. They don’t show on a metal scan, because titanium is not a ferrous metal. An X-ray, however, could detect them. Total Recall, anyone?

Airport food. Num. Boarding began early, but went on and on. I suspect some of the last to arrive were delayed by the long lines at security.

Jonathan was waiting for us in Winnipeg, so that was easy. He and Caroline went for pizza after dropping me off at my critique group for the monthly meeting. Yay, no late-night drive or work the next morning!

Drove to Kenora Wednesday, arriving home shortly after noon.

I’m going to sneak in one more book recommendation here. I mentioned Arabella of Mars the other day, and I actually read the whole thing while we were in Portland, which is home to the author, David D. Levine. He, however, was off at WorldCon, signing autographs and receiving much love for his book. I thoroughly enjoyed this Young Adult Spec Fic tale that mashes up Age of Sail, Clockwork, and Martians. You might want to check it out.

I’ll be back to work next week, and then next month we’ll be taking a long weekend to visit Ottawa for Can*Con 2016. I’ll be moderating a panel about exciting new books in different sub-genres, and I should be on the schedule for a reading, too. With the release of Avians less than a year away, I’ll be on the hunt for book reviewers that lean towards YA and SF.


What is Science Fiction, anyway?

A lot of people tell me they aren’t really interested in SF. They’re wrong. The problem is that SF means different things to different people. James Bond movies draw huge audiences, but I’d be willing to bet that if you hung around the concession stand and polled the people waiting in line to buy popcorn, nine out of ten would look puzzled if you suggested they were fans of SF.

Ahem. Dr. No: evil plot with atomic powered laser. You Only Live Twice: evil plot to abduct spacecraft. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: evil plot to deploy biological warfare through brainwashing. Diamonds Are Forever: evil plot to use orbiting laser weapons platform. The Man With the Golden Gun: evil plot to suppress solar energy. The Spy Who Loved Me: evil plot to provoke nuclear war and build future utopia. Moonraker: evil plot to wipe out humanity with nerve gas from space station. A View to a Kill: evil plot to destroy Silicon Valley and monopolize microchips. GoldenEye: evil plot to negate Electro-Magnetic Pulse defenses and subvert satellite weapons.

There is a huge disconnect, I think, between what is SF and what is marketed as SF. No-one has trouble identifying Jurassic Park as SF. DNA has science like rice has white. But Michael Crichton markets his books as best-sellers, avoiding the SF label and the geek shelves in bookstores. Margaret Atwood would rather be known as an author of literature than SF, although The Handmaid’s Tale is every bit as dystopian as The Hunger Games.

The strictest definition, espoused by people like Canadian SF icon Robert J. Sawyer, is that Science Fiction is fiction about science. It’s a simple and elegant definition, but it can be surprisingly exclusive. Rob argues that Star Wars is not about science. He considers it Fantasy, because the Force is essentially mystical. Yes, there is a veneer of scientific technobabble to justify it, but it’s lip service. By the same rigorous standard, he rules out most of Anne McCaffery’s work. Pern may have been a lost and regressed colony planet, but that wasn’t essential to the story. Which is not to say he didn’t like Anne, they were friends. By the way, Rob does his homework, and if you want to read something that showcases his take on SF, I was blown away by his melding of science and characters in Wake, Watch and Wonder, aka his WWW series.

I have an online critiquing partner who is vigilant in looking for supposed SF stories that could be retold without the science. This is useful, but if you take it to extremes, even Asimov’s I Robot could be redone as a fantasy about Golems, with three binding spells of Golemics providing the plot foundations.

What of Star Trek? TOS got off to a strong start, the first episode was about silicate life-forms. Later episodes about the shoot-out at the OK Corral, Nazi Germany and the Roman Empire pretty much fell off the wagon, in my view. For me, the entire franchise got obsessed with pitting Team Logic, founded by Spock, and joined by Data and Seven, against Team Passion, led by McCoy and handed off to Worf and Tom Paris. The Captains served as referees. Much of the science strayed far into make-believe territory, with random results attributed to “rifts in the Space-Time Continuum” and so on. None of this stopped me from watching and enjoying it, by the way, and I may be the only man alive who was more entertained by Seven’s dry wit than her skintight costume. Whether Star Trek’s science was good or bad, the series and the franchise had an enormous influence.

Does Science Fiction have to be about science? I’m not convinced. Many pioneering SF authors were more interested in futurism and exploring social trends. Overpopulation came up a lot: Kornbluth’s “The Marching Morons”, Ellison’s “Make Room, Make Room” (led to the movie Soylent Green), Nolan & Johnson’s Logan’s Run, Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar. Science was portrayed, and it played a part, but I hardly think these writings were about science. My high school considered offering Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as an SF addition to the curriculum. I wasn’t fooled for a minute. It wasn’t about science, it was about literature. Did Kurt Vonnegut write about science? If he did, I was too busy laughing to notice. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ditto. Should we deny that these are SF? Some perhaps, but not all.

Nowadays, the term Speculative Fiction is becoming more widespread. It solves the problem of differentiating Fantasy from Science Fiction by lumping them together. Conveniently, it shares the initials of SF, and saves us from writing SF&F or SFF. It also allows authors who dabble in both to keep all their books on one shelf in the bookstore.

A more useful and specific term is Space Opera. It’s a handy label for stories that involve spaceflight (usually faster than light, without explanation) and plots that feature planet-hopping and, dare I say it, rayguns. Unfortunately, Space Opera can have negative connotations. It usually implies a form of SF light, and I suspect that John Scalzi, author of the Old Man’s War series, would frown if it were applied to his work.

The label Hard SF is also tricky. Used precisely, it separates Ringworld from Gravity by applying a math test. Yet many casual afficionados might lump both those works into the Hard SF subgenre because science is central to both. All orbits are not equal, and you cannot actually cause a chain collision of satellites as if they were all on the same freeway.

Whoa, I’m coming up on a thousand words, and I’m going to wrap this up. I posed a question, and I don’t have a definitive answer. I won’t say of Science Fiction that “I cannot define it but I know it when I see it.” I may not be able to define it, but I’m also not always sure when I see it. People who don’t like Star Wars may say they dislike Science Fiction, and still enjoy one of those James Bond movies listed above. What they really mean is they don’t like Space Opera. Many books and movies that are marketed as Science Fiction seem more like Horror to me. Alien, for instance. Earlier, I mentioned Jurassic Park, which I think also fits the monster movie subgenre-it just has a trendier setup than Godzilla. I urge you to think about what Science Fiction means to you, and to be specific about what you like or don’t like. I suspect that in one form or another, there is Science Fiction for almost everyone.

What I Read in 2014

I’ll be taking an online writing course next month, from Odyssey. On the pre-course questionnaire, which made me feel guilty about how much more writing I should be doing, I had to say how many books I read in a year. I didn’t know, so I guessed ten or fifteen books and about three hundred short stories. After I sent that form off, I started thinking about my answer. What did I read last year?

My focus was on Young Adult books, but I read as young as Middle Grade, up through the range of YA and into New Adult, and when I read adult books, I preferred those with young protagonists. As always, I leaned towards Science Fiction, with a smattering of Fantasy.

I did a fair bit of reading this year. Some stuff because it was recommended to me, some because I met the author and wanted to see what they had done. I chose some of my first books for 2014 at Cons, or because of them.

At the C4 Lit Fest, I met Julie Kagawa and bought autographed copies of the first two books of her Blood of Eden series for my wife, because Vampires. I had no real intention of reading them myself, but Julie’s take on vampires in dystopia is crazy and original, and her protagonist is a street kid who has to become what she hates the most. The final novel of the trilogy came out just as I was finishing the second, so I bought it (in hardcover!) for myself.

I also picked up a few other books from local authors at the C4 LIt Fest dealer room. I think that’s where I bought a couple of Ronald J. Hore‘s books: Housetrap and Dial M for Mudder. These are tongue in cheek detective noir stories set in a universe (or at least a solar system) populated by fantastic creatures and characters. Points for calling a spaceship The Rat Queen. Ronald’s more recent work is more serious fantasy, I think, but I haven’t read The Dark Lady yet. This is also where I got Sierra Dean‘s Something Secret This Way Comes, the first of her Secret McQueen series. It’s also vampires, but I enjoyed it for it’s sassy style and occasional puns, like, “Your Secret’s safe with me”. There was a strong teaser for the second book, but I just wasn’t looking to read a whole series of New Adult vampire-slayer stories.

I read Robert J. Sawyer‘s “WWW” series: Wake, Watch, and Wonder. I’ve read a handful of his other books, (and taken a workshop by him), and these have my favourite characters so far, so it was Wake that I got autographed at KeyCon. I told him that Caitlin really was “made of awesome”. Part of the appeal of this series for me was that it is as close as Rob comes to writing Young Adult, although it’s more of an adult book with a youthful protagonist.

Naturally, I headed into the dealer room at KeyCon to say hi to Samantha Beiko, who is my freelance editor. I had already read her The Lake and the Library as an e-book to size up her skills before hiring her. Her skills are fine; I don’t think she knew yet, but she was short-listed for an Aurora award for it. I should have bought a print copy and had her autograph it. It’s kind of a ghost story, but it’s the deft handling of her protagonist’s muddled teenage feelings and behavior that makes the book.

Sam was sharing a table with Clare C. Marshall, so I picked her Stars in Her Eyes, which is a cool story about a bright young student who gets into an exclusive university run by people with an agenda of their own. Alien people.

Round the corner from them I bought LT Getty‘s Tower of Obsidian. It’s got dragons, but in a very original way. Not were-dragons, exactly, but cursed shape-shifters. Some wonderful strong female characters, too.

This may have also been where I bought Brandon Sanderson‘s The Rithmatist. I was actively seeking some Middle-Grade books to see if my own work belongs on that shelf. The Rithmatist is a hoot, and I love how the protagonist is an utter underdog in a school full of magical prodigies.

Around this time, I also picked up Soman Chainani‘s The School for Good and Evil. This book takes the most subversive look at fairy tales I have ever seen; gender stereotyping comes under heavy fire. Applause, please.

Because I knew some of the authors, I took a look at this years Prix Aurora Award Nominees. In addition to the previously mentioned The Lake and the Library, I read Robert J. Sawyer’s Red Planet Blues, a noir detective story set on Mars. He had fun writing it, you can tell. Enjoyed Amanda Sun‘s Ink, too. Paranormal Romance is usually wasted on me, but the view of Japan through the eyes of an exchange student is brimming with verisimilitude. It feels like you are there, and even like you are her. Out of Time is by D. G. Laderoute, who is from Thunder Bay, which makes him practically a neighbour. I liked his cleverly crafted story about a disaffected modern boy who slips into a past populated only by Native North Americans – and spirits.

I think it was this year that I read David Weber‘s A Beautiful Friendship and Fire Season, on my brother’s recommendation. Mr. Weber is best known for his Honor Harrington series, and this is his Young Adult series set in the same universe. Loved his eleven-year-old protagonist Stephanie Harrington, but not her use of handguns.

Sometime during the summer, my brother also recommended John Scalzi‘s Old Man’s War, and the sequels: The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale. Usually, Military SF just makes me shake my head. John Scalzi’s makes me shake my head and chuckle. Best thing about this series is the voice of John Perry. Mr. Scalzi sees some of the same potential for nanite medicine that I do, which startled me. Given the publication dates, he thought of it first.

Sherry Peter‘s Mabel the Lovelorn Dwarf came out in August. An axe-throwing bearded protagonist that just happens to be female. Fantasy feminism, yay! I met Sherry through her huge behind the scenes role in KeyCon 30.

Once I decided to attend Can-Con in Ottawa in the fall, I wanted to read something by Jo Walton, the author Guest of Honour. I chose her Among Others, partly because of all the awards and acclaim, but also because it has her youngest protagonist. Once I read it, attending Jo’s workshop at the con became a priority.

I read Veronica Roth‘s Divergent and Insurgent. For me, the strength of these novels is in how Beatrice rebuilds herself into the daring Tris. I lost interest halfway through Allegiant because the focus seemed to be shifting away from that.

Speaking of sequels, my last book of the year was Soman Chainani’s The School for Good and Evil #2: A World Without Princes. Wow. If the first one was about gender stereotyping, the second is about gender issues. This book will probably ruffle some feathers, but I hope it gets very widely read.

Scanning back through this post, I see that rather than the ten or fifteen novels I thought I might have read, I read twenty eight, give or take a couple. One or two might have been read in 2013, and I might have missed something.

On top of these novels, I read hundreds and hundreds of short stories, always with a special interest in opening lines. I read old anthologies from my local used  bookstore, plus Daily Science Fiction, Apex, Antipodean SF and much more.

While it’s good for a writer to read, I think I need to do more writing and perhaps less reading. With that in mind, I will be focusing on my Odyssey course in January and there will be no new posts on this blog until February. If you want something to read, check out some of the authors and titles listed above!

Italics, use of.

My editor wants me to provide a style guide for my manuscript. One particular I am struggling with is the use of italics. I would like to employ them sparingly, but it is important to remember that they can enhance clarity. In my naivete, I thought she would simply correct instances where I had misused them. Alas, it is not that simple.

The Rules, it turns out, are unwritten.  Not all of them. Everyone agrees on the use of italics for book titles: War and Peace. Ship names: H.M.S. Sussex. Things like foreign words, although disagreements creep in as to whether this should be done every time, or only in the first instance. There is broad agreement on their use for emphasis: ‘Do you want to die?’ Then it all goes downhill.

Should italics be used for sound effects? Strunk and White make no mention of it, and I couldn’t find anything in two of my other favourite reference books, Woe is I and Usage and Abusage. I’ve seen it done, though.

Internal monologue seems to be a particularly divisive case. Some editors rail against it, some clearly permit it.

I set out to answer the question by skimming the first one hundred pages of three novels from my bookshelf.

The Golden Compass was written by Philip Pullman, who is British, but it is an American edition. Laurel-Leaf is an imprint of Random House.  Mr. Pullman’s use of italics is sparing, almost Spartan. In a hundred pages, I found only twenty seven instances of italics used for emphasis, all of them single words. Also a handful of foreign words, and a couple of words discussed as words. I searched for italics in internal dialogue, but Mr. Pullman cleverly used Lyra’s daemon Pan as a device; Lyra voices almost all of her thoughts out loud to him. I found few unambiguous examples of internal monologue and no italics used that way.

Conclusion: it is possible to write a novel with minimal use of italics.

The Hunger Games was written by Suzanne Collins, an American, and published by Scholastic. It is the only one of the three novels I looked at to be written in the first person. Ms. Collins uses no italics at all for the first twenty pages, and in the one hundred pages I checked, I did not find a single example of italics used for emphasis. She does, however, use them for internal monologue. Usually, these are short sentences with the tag, ‘I thought’ or, ‘I remembered’ attached. Yes, there is an element of emphasis to those phrases. I also found a couple of foreign words, a handful of words as words, and a single sound effect.

Conclusion: the use of italics for emphasis and for internal monologue are optional.

Wake was written by Robert J. Sawyer, a Canadian who writes in American English, (I asked him) and published by Penguin. Italics abound. Mr. Sawyer uses them for emphasis on almost every page and he uses them wholesale when Caitlin is typing; she is a heavy user of social networking. This is a good example of effective use of italics to enhance clarity, because the reader always knows what Caitlin types, as opposed to what she thinks. There are numerous other uses of italics, such as the names of scientific journals. Pages entirely free of italics were rare.

Conclusion: italics can enhance clarity, even when used more freely.

It is a good thing I looked at three novels, not one. Each of the books I checked used italics in vastly different ways. Obviously, there is a large amount of leeway; no wonder my editor wanted me to set my own ground rules.

There is one more way of using italics that I have only hinted at so far. Although Mr. Pullman does not permit Lyra to speak with her daemon telepathically, many fantasy novels do feature some form of mental communication. In my own work, two of my characters become linked by a technology that allows them to speak silently to one another, and it even happens involuntarily now and then. In order to make it clear when Raven’s thoughts are heard by Mel, italics are the way to go. However, the ‘comm’ is also used for routine calls, in much the same way that I use my cell phone. I do not think italics are called for in those instances. I will have to develop rules, because I need to be consistent so that the reader will understand.

I welcome comments, not only from writers, (a handful follow this blog) but anyone who reads. Do you like to see italics used sparingly, or whenever they might enhance clarity?

Prose and Cons

I had a very good weekend at KeyCon in Winnipeg. I can’t say my ship came in, but I would say I found my way to the wharf. I should begin at the beginning.

It would have been easiest to drive from Kenora to Winnipeg on Saturday morning, but I took a vacation day on Friday so that I could do the full weekend. The main reason was that on Friday evening, Chadwick Ginther and S.M. Beiko were doing readings together, and they both got nominated for Aurora Awards this year. Besides, Samantha recently became my freelance editor (just before I found out she was nominated – bonus!) and this would be my first chance to say hi in person since we began working together.

Also on Friday night was a presentation on aero engines by Lindsay Kitson, and I feel a special kinship with her because like me, she is writer and a pilot. Interestingly, if I understand her right, she views her Dieselpunk as being more fantasy than SciFi. Even at a Speculative Fiction event, I sometimes feel like I am the only Science Fiction writer in the room. Unless Rob Sawyer is there. Then I feel like he’s the only Science Fiction writer in the room.

Saturday was a whirlwind.

Chatted to G.M.B. Chomichuk, who was working on a large painting right by the grand staircase.

Said hi to Silvia Moreno-Garcia, who did a ten-minute blue-pencil session with me at last year’s KeyCon that led to some good changes to my book. Told her so.

Went to the art show, looked for potential cover artists. Met one guy, got website info on another.

Bought books from Leia Getty and Clare C. Marshall.

Went to ‘Locally Grown’, an impressively large panel of Winnipeg Speculative Fiction authors and illustrators.


Jonathan Hatton, Adam Knight, Lenora Rose Patrick, Laurie Smith.


Samantha Beiko, Gregory Chomichuk, Chadwick Ginther, Lindsay Kitson, Karen Dudley, Leia Getty.


Said hi to Karen Dudley because she did a fun reading at Word on the Water in Kenora last fall. Mentioned how happy I was to have Samantha editing for me. Karen asked, ‘Are you the author Sam was raving about on facebook?’ I didn’t know how to answer that; I don’t have a facebook account, and I wasn’t sure what Sam might have said.

Spotted my nephew and his family at lunch, so I actually got to eat with them. Wonderful to have a little grounded time with them, it was a interlude of tranquillity in a day of commotion.

Got Rob Sawyer’s autograph in Wake, told him how much I liked his character Caitlin, who is probably the youngest of his protagonists.

Learned more about teaching from G.M.B. Chomichuk. Specifically, I noticed that not only did he answer a question with bang-on material from his own work that led to a fascinating discussion of a whole new topic, he made sure to conclude that topic by explaining how it answered the question, keeping us all in the relevancy loop.

Went to a panel on Indie/Small Press/Big Press because Silvia, met Lenora Rose Patrick, who wrote a novella, and Adam Knight, a former pro wrestler turned author. ‘It’s all story-telling,’ he said. Decided on the spot to go to more of his panels.

Some would say that the social evenings are the heart of conventions. When pressed, I make excuses, but the truth is, I have ascetic tendencies. That’s a fancy way of saying I’m a wet blanket when it comes to partying. Or a polite way of saying I’d rather talk to you when you’re sober. Whichever you like, I finished my day at KeyCon at the unfashionably early hour of 1800.

I went for dinner with my wife and an old friend. Donna has a facebook account and a smartphone, so while we were waiting for food, she looked up Samantha Mary Beiko so we could see if her ‘ravings’ were about me. Wow. They were. I don’t think anyone has ever said anything so nice about me behind my back before!

After dinner, in the peace of Donna’s living room, I checked something on my own smartphone. Months ago, I entered a writing contest held by NOWW (Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop) because the genre category this year was Speculative Fiction and the judge was Robert J. Sawyer. I figured it would be a chance to get him to read one of my short stories, if I could get it short-listed. The judge, you see, only gets to read the best six entries as selected by a screening panel, but I figured it was worth a shot. I had heard nothing from NOWW except a reminder that the annual meeting (at which the winners would be announced) was the day before KeyCon. I could not swing Thursday off as well as Friday, so I could not make the trip to Thunder Bay. I was checking the website on my smartphone to see who won, and if I got an honourable mention, which might imply I was short-listed.

I won. First place in Speculative Fiction for my story ‘Fermi High’. The first thing that crossed my mind was not that I would get some money, or even that my story would be published in the NOWW newsletter. It was that I had shaken hands with Rob Sawyer just hours ago, and neither of us knew that he liked my story. That is to say, he didn’t know who wrote it, and I didn’t know that he’d read it, much less chosen it for top prize. Apparently, the contest judging is so rigorously anonymous that the only way Rob could have seen who the prizes went to was to look it up on the NOWW website like I did.

With good things happening on both the novel and short story fronts, I went to sleep with a grin on my face.

By Sunday morning, Rob had retweeted my tweet about winning the contest, and a little later he added his personal congratulations. I ambushed him on the way into his reading to thank him personally, and we had a short conversation while people were taking their seats. He said I should send ‘Fermi High’ to Analog or Asimov’s Science Fiction and mention the contest and his name in the cover letter. Then he introduced me to the whole room before starting his reading, which was a cool look at a work in progress.

Went to the market again, bought a nostalgic Andre Norton paperback, one of the ones she wrote under her (rare) Andrew North pseudonym. And an old copy of Fantastic Story magazine, which I picked up because of the cover, but hey, Ray Bradbury and Henry Kuttner.

More readings: Karen Dudley, because she’s always a blast and she’s just releasing her newest. Adam Knight to see what he’s about. He read fearlessly from one of his prologues, and explained why he uses them even though they are unfashionable. Different voice and different perspective were good arguments.

Last, a panel on Marketing & Publicity by Rob and Samantha. Short version: don’t push. Slightly longer version: don’t push your book on people who probably will not like it – you will waste their money and lose their respect, which will build nothing. Rob answered my question about what a big publisher can do that an indie cannot; not in vague terms like ‘placement’ and ‘connections’, but solid examples like transit and newspaper advertising, and book tour support.

On the way out, before leaving, I had a few more words with Lindsay Kitson, who I hope is on the brink of success, and Holly Geely, who is funny and must not quit.