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Honorable Mention – Friends of Merril Short Story Contest

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The other day it was announced at the Friends of Merril Short Story Contest that I received an honorable mention for my story, The One in Green.  Very exciting!

I’d like to offer a big congratulations to the winner, the other honorable mention and all the finalists, it’s a great contest and I’m sure everyone’s stories were absolutely wonderful!

For anyone who is not familiar with the Merril Collection, I wanted to take a moment to celebrate its virtues.

The Merril Collection is a Science Fiction and Fantasy collection located at the Lillian H. Smith Library in downtown Toronto (an awesome library if you haven’t been there).

Here’s a description from the library website about the collection:

‘The Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy is a non-circulating research collection of over 72,000 items of science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction, as well as magic realism, experimental writing and some materials in ‘fringe’ areas such as parapsychology, UFOs, Atlantean legends etc.’

Parapsychology?  UFOs? Atlantean legands?  Etc?!

Awesome stuff!  What could be more exciting?  The answer is nothing.

So if you want to be involved in the Friends of Merril organization you can check out their website and discover how to become a friend of this amazing collection, or you can submit to the contest next year when it rolls around again.

Once again congratulations to everyone and thanks for running a great contest Friends of Merril!

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The Plague of Backstory

I shudder when I hear the term ‘world building’.

It makes me think of people sitting there for weeks, months, years, plotting every minute detail of their story universe and the thought of it just makes me itchy.

I know it’s integral to a lot of speculative fiction writing, but whenever people talk about it I wanna grab an umbrella to prepare for a deluge of backstory.

I’m not saying backstory is bad by any means, but I am most certainly the kind of person who gets bored of it really easily.  The Silmarillion, for example, has been sitting on my shelf for ages, half read because I just can’t bring myself to trudge through it.  Tolkien’s writing is stunning sometimes, but the backstory reads like a text book and I left school long ago.

So you want to write a story that’s full of backstory and myth and history?  I get it, some people like that kind of thing.  Maybe I’m not your ideal reader and that’s cool, but if you want your book to appeal to a wider swath of speculative fiction fans (or people like me who get bored of detailed histories) I can offer my thoughts on backstory and how to keep it from spreading like the plague that rocked your fantasy world thirteen centuries ago and caused lasting devastation.

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Sprinkle don’t pour

The info dump is my worst enemy.  Thick, meaty paragraphs of history about the world with no break for action or dialogue.  I’m here for the story, not the history lesson.  Please keep it minimal, sprinkle, don’t pour.

In the beginning

In the beginning you want to keep it especially light because I want to head right into the story and learn about the backstory once I’m invested.  If I don’t have a reason to care and you dump backstory on me, it’s likely I’ll just cut my losses and leave your book on the shelf next to The Silmarillion.

No info dumps in dialogue

Usually people don’t sit around and tell each other tales of history (unless it’s a bard and then it’d better be funny).  They don’t spew out whole massive stories in one breath and even if they do, people don’t really want to listen.  Keep your dialogue minimal and realistic and save the backstory for small sprinkles in the text.

Choose carefully

Is it really relevant that nine hundred years ago there was a battle between two warring tribes somewhere on a far continent?  Do we really need to know every detail about the invention of the laser guns that are so prolific in your world?  You’ve worked hard on all the details, but that doesn’t mean that they are all relevant, or even interesting.  I want to know what I need to know for the story’s sake or for character building, not much more.

It’s about character & present story

Ultimately your story is about your characters and what happens to them.  Sometimes that may include a little context or history, but overall it should be present and future, not past or ancient history.

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It’s your world, you’ve poured all your blood, sweat and tears into it.  It’s awesome you’re having a good time, but at some point it’s time to administer the drugs and stop the plague of backstory before it takes over the entire universe.  Backstory and history are great things to add in sprinkles, but more than that and you’ve lost me.

Agree and have more tips on keeping it simple?

Hate me for saying you should cut down on your favorite part of writing?

Let me know!

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Why Speculative Fiction?

I used to write a lot of non-fiction.  I would write about my world travels, my love affairs, moments in time that felt significant.  But it always fell short for me.  It felt laborious and although I tried to infuse my non-fiction with the magic I feel lives in the world, I could never quite make it…magical enough.

So I turned to fantasy.  The more I write the more I fall in love with the genre.  I am mostly interested in urban fantasy, magic realism, myth, fairytale and more subtle types of magic.  No high fantasy with elves and orcs.  No sci-fi with spaceships and lasers.  It’s not that I have a problem with high fantasy or sci-fi, it’s just not quite right for me.

What I love about the more subtle tones of fantasy is that it allows for vivid and vibrant metaphor.  I get to play with magical creatures and concepts and use them to represent things that are typically more mundane.  It gives me an opportunity to build the world I always used to imagine (and still do), where there are mysteries just beyond our reach and you can catch glimmers of magic in the corner of your eye.

A speculative approach also allows us to examine hard questions, challenges, bias’ and conflict within a unique and sometimes safer context.  When it is just beyond reality, it is easier to hold tough issues up to the light and take a good hard look.  Through the metaphor of magic we can find ways to express things that might otherwise be too crude or dull.

I want my stories to mean something and for the most part I’m succeeding at having them do just that.   You certainly don’t need to write non-fiction or mundane fiction (I don’t know what else to call regular fiction) in order to delve deep into the psyche of the world.

I’ve read a couple of articles suggesting that the world of speculative fiction is taken less seriously as an art form or a form of literature.  I’m not sure if that is entirely true, but to those who think that magic can’t have meaning I say, why not?  Sure there’s loads of speculative fiction out there that may not strive to do much more than tell a cool story that involves vampires or witches or spaceships.  But the same could be said of any genre.  What matters most is that there are loads of stories out there in the speculative fiction world that strive for meaning and purpose.

I love speculative fiction because it allows me to imagine a world just below the surface of our own, where magic is metaphor and everything means something.

Why do you love speculative fiction?

Or if you don’t, why not?