Sunday, September 30, 2007

Zencore!: a Review

In this post I'll give a very lengthy review of Zencore! edited by Des Lewis, in my next post I shall make a fool of myself by trying to analyse which writer wrote which story.

A few disclaimers:

  1. Normally as a fiction editor I don't review short fiction, especially not of other magazines. Simply because it can (and subsequently will) always be interpreted wrong: if I review a magazine negatively, then I'm trashing the competition; if I review a magazine positively I'm part of the clique that always support each other. I'm making an exception for Zencore! because Des specifically asked me, and also asked me to be absolutely frank.
  2. I have been published in Nemonymous 4. Actually, I sent Des four stories during the Nemo 4 reading period (not simultaneously, but a new one after the previous one was rejected as Des responded fast), of which he finally took one. I sent him four more during the Nemo 5 period, which all bounced. I sent him nothing for Zencore!
  3. I have seen none of the stories in Zencore! in the Interzone email slushpile. If I had, that would make connecting a story to an author too easy (although I've read other stories in the IZ slush of a few of them).
  4. I came up with the byline Scriptus Innominatus (I believe Gary McMahon — correction: it was Scott Kelly. Scott Kelly, if you read this, please contact Des [ ], because he wants to give you a free Zencore! issue came up with Zencore, which also refers to I found out when I was googling for Zencore reviews a male enhancement product. Coincidence? ;-).

So, to Zencore! Scriptus Innominatus: the book itself has changed to a ‘normal’ book size, away from the landscape format of the first 5 (which, I think, added to its distinctness). Although I haven’t asked Andy (Cox), I think he wasn’t involved with the design and typesetting of this seventh issue of Nemonymous. Undoubtedly this has to do with finances: a print run of I think 500 on silk paper is quite a bit more expensive than I suspect a POD book on normal paper with a lower print run (of which more can be printed easily).

While I understand that, I still think the ‘landscape’ Nemos look much better. There’s also something slightly off with the typesetting or printing: sometimes (for example look at the first paragraph on page 9) two paragraphs are printed so close they almost clash into each other. I suppose almost nobody notices such things, but after working on Interzone with Andy Cox for over four years now such details just stand out to me.

That is not to say Zencore! is ugly (or even Fugly): it’s still a very nice book to behold, and looks fine. It’s just not the special artefact it was.

As to the most important thing, that is, the stories themselves:

Torsion: this, I think, is the obligatory Nemonymous transformation c.q. mixed identity story (think “The Rest of Larry” by Monica O’Rourke in Nemonymous 3, “Nocturne for Doghands” by Joe Murphy [and another one that shall not be named…;-)] in Nemonymous 4, “The Robot and the Octopus” in Nemonymous 5). It’s an OK story, nicely executed, and at only 3 (full) pages
say, 1100 words it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Horror with a nemo sensibility, but ultimately forgettable, as the story doesn’t reveal any deeper layers on a second reading (at least, not to me).

MMM – Delicious: the nemonymous element in this one is the blank personality, actor Tony White whose presence in TV commercials makes the sales of the advertised product go through the roof. Cue to other ‘blank/white’ themes in previous nemos like “White Dream” (Neil Bristow, Nemonymous 2) and “Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds” (Anonymous, ibid), “The Painter” (Dominy Clements, Nemonymous 4).

Unfortunately, while competently written, this story was full of clichés, such as the advertsiment agency (and the TV/film world) being both utterly superficial, and ruthless; and the way that Tony White not quite being what he is (with a ‘shocking’ revealing at the end of the story). It’s also rather too long: at 26 pages it’s the longest piece in Zencore!, and I felt it could have been cut considerably.

Undergrowth: this is an intriguing piece where an obsessed book collector searches second hand bookshops in the quest for his holy grail (in this case Francis Brett Young’s novel Undergrowth, which is indeed not on ABE Books). It puts the idea of a ‘literal’ undergrowth of books forward quite nicely, with a touch of Machen. Very enjoyable.

Fugly: a strong, slightly shocking/provocative and thought-provoking story that one expects to show up in Nemonymous, like its predecessors: “Insanity of Creamer’s Field” (Joe Murphy, Nemonymous 3), “Sexy Beast” (Tony Milman, Nemonymous 4), “Huntin’ Season
(Monica O’Rourke, Nemonymous 5). Pete and Lenore, a couple in a dead end relationship experience a break-in in their appartment in the middle of the night. The creature Lenore finds in the bathroom is not exactly a sight for sore eyes, but seems to need help, and she tries to take care of it, through the night. Her partner Pete isn't amused at all, but kicks the creature out of Lenore's embrace and shatters it to pieces which attack him before they reconfigure.
There's more, but you'll have to find out by getting a copy of the antho. Suffice it to say that this is a very effective use of a metaphor-come-to-flesh in a speculative manner. The first gem of Nemo 7.

The Nightmare Reader: some people are obsessed by insects. Here the obsession is not with spiders, ants, or locusts but with boll weevils. A slow descent into madness
slow, but not compelling strange things happen, and, totally unexpected, they are true!
This one didn't work for me. There might be smart things in it
I remember a writer at FantasyCon complaining that nobody saw the smart things he did with his prose but my take is that if the story doesn't work for the reader, she/he is not going to look for them.

The Secret Life of the Panda: melancholic hypochondria and the futility of life. Pandas need to be nudged into procreation, and so does modern man. Because even when one thinks impregnation is achieved, it might be a false alarm. It can only happen when the species is mentally ready for it. Oh well.
I'm not really one for stories full of angst: I already read the existentialists back in high school, and don't need a rehash. Still, such stories are a nemonymous mainstay (from Nike O'Driscoll's "Double Zero for Emptiness" in Nemonymous 1 through to Gary McMahon's "New Science" in Nemonymous 5, with plenty in between), so one has to suffer through them, or wallow in them. Take your pick.

Upset Stomach: hypochondria becomes flesh and the futility of life. A guy works in a dreadful office and during a toilet break his hate for his job literally comes alive through his bowels. Of course, it's not done so he has to discard of it.
At least, that's what I made of it, and I didn't feel in the least compelled to try harder. See above.

The Awful Truth About the Circus: superficially this reminded me somewhat of Paul Meloy’s “Running Away to Join the Town” (Nemonymous 5), although this one focussed more on American small-town emptiness. Carly wants to escape the dull, smothering life in her home town, but no matter how hard she laments living there she just isn’t capable of leaving. Until she sees a flyer of ‘Professor Musto’s Amazing Three/Ring Circus’, and decides to check it out.

Initially, the circus itself seems a disappointment: a small van packed with small, freakish paraphernalia, and professor Musto a small, middle-aged man trying to live a dream, without much success. But gradually Carly sees that there can be magic in small things, and that great dreams may need small miracles to power them. Although suffused with a Bradburian flavour, I thought it missed the master’s concisseness. I suspect that at half its length it would be more than twice as powerful. Now it’s just OK.

Red Velvet Dust: after twenty years Chelsea still hasn't come to grips with the death of her mother, and as she stages another play she uses her mother's ghost as one of the actors. This is the start of Chelsea reviving her childhood with her mum, a gradual healing towards a final acceptance. There's plenty of symbolism throughout the story (purple asters, red velvet dust), and while the story tries hard, I felt it didn't fully succeed, although this is mostly a matter of taste.

The Coughing Coffin: this is a joke within a joke, and certainly Nemonymous is not without humour, think, for example "Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds" in Nemonymous 2, "Digging for Adults (D. Harlan Wilson, Nemonymous 3), "Determining the Extent" (Adrian Fry, Nemonymous 4) and "The Robot and the Octopus" (Tony Ballantyne, Nemonymous 5). Humour is a highly subjective matter, and I found the 'curious business' told by a Major Guthrie in a gentleman's club more one of the shaggy dog kind.

Terminus: the setting here is certainly intriguing: a city that constantly changes, so one gets from A to B more by chance and feel than by using something so mundane (and in this case quite useless) as a map. Then the nameless protagonist gets a letter from somebody who may know more about it, someone who might even have a map that works.
Typically, the cause of all this strangeness is from almost the same source as that of the 'curious business' of the previous story: namely some black magic from the dark continent. As far as I understand, at the end of the story the curse is still there, and understanding is available for someone willing to pay the price, which is a pact with a demon. It reads like a story right out of the old Weird Tales, with its mix of myth, philosophy and the supernatural. While not really to my taste, I was still fascinated.

Mary's Gift, the Stars, and Frank's Pisser: Mary, Frank, Ruth and Alf are homeless street people, literally living in the gutter. The harshness of their life and ailments is described like the way they live: in your face. But between the filth, madness and despair Mary has a gift, one she is both reluctant to use, and when she uses it, people mostly do not believe her.
As such, it is more a curse, and one she passes on to her
let's put this euphemistically less-than-considerate partner. There were quotes in Nemonymous 1 (no less than eleven), and Nemonymous 2 (six), none in Nemonymous 3, two in Nemonymous 4 (one at the beginning, and one incorporated in the story by some pretentious writer...;-), and two in Nemonymous 5. Zencore! has no quotes, but I suspect that "We are all of us lying in the gutter, but some of us are staring at the stars" from Oscar Wilde would have been perfect for this story. And well deserved.

Blue Raspberries: this is a subtle one. What I suspect most reviewers didn’t get was that this is an alternate history: the story is set in a different world (Stockholm is called both a ‘non-existent’ and a ‘mythical’ city) where the nazis won (subtle hints like his wife switching TV channels to one about yodelling, the protagonist calling his internet the ‘infobahn’). It tells about supposedly untrue stories from Fascisti paperbacks (note the ironic reversal: if the nazis won, the others are fascists), one of such called ‘Blue Raspberries’. Echoes of ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ from PKD’s “The Man in the High Castle”: another imagined book that tells about a supposed imaginary world where the nazis didn’t win.

In an almost Chris Priestian ‘trap-within-a-trap-within-a-trap’ the narrator tells that the story of ‘Blue Raspeberries’ is about nudists being infiltrated by a red-haired, German-named man who infiltrates them, becomes their leader, and then turns them into uniform-toting authoritarians who, in the book’s final scene, parade in the garden at night. Slight echoes of Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden, strong echoes of the Kristallnacht. The conceit within a conceit here is that the (unreliable?) narrator thinks it’s a fantasy, while the story itself especially near the end hints that this is a metaphor for what actually happened.

Hence, unlike ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ in “The Man in the High Castle” which tells of a world different (although not necessarily ours) from that of the alternate world of the novel ‘Blue Raspberries’ (the imaginary paperback) in “Blue Raspberries” (the Zencore short story) tells of a world that is basically the same (as the similar titles already suggest).

Furthermore, I strongly suspect that Stockholm wasn’t chosen as the ‘non-existent’, ‘mythical’ city from which the viral stories from ‘Blue Raspberries’ were published for nothing: like the Stockholm syndrome where the hostage is brainwashed into following the hostage-taker’s logic, ‘Blue Raspberries’ tells of how “unwilling participants are locked in a water tank until their will is broken”. “Blue Raspberries” suggests that this has taken place on a country-wide scale since the nazis have won, as the (reliable?) narrator doesn’t seem to see that he has been brainwashed. More subtle hints of his brainwashing appear near the end: he gets a hard-on just thinking about a hard-boiled egg, while the original nudists of ‘Blue Raspberries’ were forced to eat raw eggs; the advert in ‘True Nude’ magazine is from a red-headed man: the red-haired infiltrator in ‘Blue Raspberries’, who likes singing – the nudists were forced to sing humiliating songs in falsetto voices – and linguistics – nudists who refused to speak the ‘forgotten’ language were beaten.

So the circle is round, and the protagonist, who almost begins to realise he was one of the free nudists himself, replies to the advert. It’s unclear whether this will get him back to his fellow nudists (who are now possibly the underground), or straight into a trap set up by the nazi spies.

There is more very clever stuff in there that I didn’t get, like the spiel with his father’s pipes (did Philip K. Dick smoke pipes?), the lop-sided infinity sign of the nudist cult, and more. Multi-layered, extremely clever (some would call it too clever by half), it also reminds me very strongly of Lavie Tidhar’s “304, Adolph Hitler Strasse” (from the first Clarkesworld Magazine issue). While the Tidhar is more direct and heartfelt, both are highly recommended.

Berian Winslow & the Stream of Consciousness Storyteller: the story of a storytelling program
disguised as a Santa Claus that interacts with its audience, and so learns to both improve its storytelling, and adapt the story to its audience's needs. It becomes so good at it too good and totally entrances groups of children with its stories, and worried parents form a mob against it. They're literally chasing a ghost one that disappears without even a whiff when no-one looks but the ghost in this machine has come alive, that is, self-conscious.
An interesting take on how a self-improving storytelling program might become self-aware, although I suspect cause and effect might be jumbled up here. Nevertheless, quite interesting.

The Plunge: a bizarro piece of horror reminiscent of “Digging for Adults” (D. Harlan Wilson, Nemonymous 3), or “Creek Man” (Jamie Rosen, Nemonymous 4). In a non-descript factory Frank snaps children’s necks before he pushes them into a pit, where they burn. His routine is disturbed by a kid who talks, and tries to escape before he kills her. Near the end, the children in line take their fate (or at least the very last part of it) in their own hands and jump into the execution pit without having their necks ('humanely') snapped.

As such, the story evokes bio-industry slaughterhouses, concentration camps, and a sly hint of anti-abortion (especially through the parting note of Frank's partner Esperanza). It reminded me most of the routine on a slaughterhouse’s kill floor, where employees think about mundane things while they bring cows (or pigs, or chicken) to their deaths.

England and Nowhere: this is a truly superb story, with some very fine writing. Superficially it seems a slice-of-life piece about a middle-aged alcoholic watching the people
especially the young couple in the appartment below around him on a beach resort somewhere along the English coast. But every appearance in this fantastic story is deceiving, and things are not quite what they seem. There is a very subtle, yet palpable sense of menace growing throughout, and there is a reason for every thing (both little and big) that happens.

Now, unlike my analysis of "Blue Raspberries", I'm not going to tell you: you'll have to find out by yourselves, and buy Zencore! "England and Nowhere" is easily worth the price of the book alone: read it, reread it to see what you all missed the first time around (and wonder at the intricacy and masterful attention to detail), and then reread it again. I've only read it twice, and still haven't picked up all the subtle hints and layers of meaning, although a greater picture is starting to form. Classy, evocative, powerful: I think this is in the same class as “The Assistant to Dr. Jacob” (Eric Schaller, Nemonymous 2).

Word Doctor:
this might be the obligatory Nemonymous metafictional story (think "The Place Where Lost Things Go" by Jorge Candeias in Nemonymous 3 or “The Scariest Story I Know”
which mixes and/or reverses dream and reality by Scott Edelman in Nemonymous 5). Arkimp is the word doctor of the title, and he fixes broken words. It's a reminiscence of how we change words, and how words change us, and as such it's a nice coda to Nemonymous 7. Of course, "England and Nowhere" is an extremely tough act to follow, and while "Word Doctor" is not in the same class, it feels right as the ending to Zencore!

Finally, how would I rate Zencore! in the Nemonymous pantheon? Honestly, I don't really have a favourite, just a weakness for Nemonymous 4 because I was published in it, and a fondness for Nemonymous 5. To me, they're quite consistent in their quality and sensibility. Because my personal preferences only partly overlap with Nemo's sensibility, there are always stories I dislike, but those are more than made up for the ones that I do like.

Zencore! is not different from that (a couple of stories that just didn't work for me, more than compensated by the superb ones), and in that respect is a worthy addition to the nemonymic oeuvre.

The only difference is that Des opened Nemo 7 up to longer stories: until Nemo 5 the maximum length was 5000 words, now 8000 words. Assuming approx. 350 words per page, then a 5K+ story would take up some 15 pages or more. Thus the longer stories in Zencore! are "MMM delicious" (25 pages), "The Awful Truth About the Circus" (19 pages), "Red Velvet Dust" (17 pages), "Berian Winslow & the Stream of Consciousness Storyteller" (18 pages), and "England and Nowhere" (18 pages). While I did think the first three were too long for what they were trying to say, I enjoyed the fourth, but most importantly: if allowing stories of up to 8K brings in a diamond like "England and Nowhere", then it was well worth it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Attraction of Evil

Today I went to the Hieronymus Bosch Art Centre in my hometown of Den Bosch, which has opened on April 27 this year (somehow forgot to go there earlier). It's great!

Of course -- and unfortunately -- it only contains reproductions of our town's most famous artist (the real paintings are in different musea scatterred across the world), but I still think they did a great job: a local church -- not the St. Jan itself, although that would have been *extremely* cool -- completely refurbished to display Bosch's art.

What the hell does this have to do with Symphony X -- the artery of their newest album: Paradise Lost -- is displayed on the top of this post -- some of you might wonder.

Well, I recently bought that album (I know it's been out a few months: I'm just not so up-to-date in the metal scene as I used to be), and something struck me: the 'evil' parts of the story (album, concept, whatever) were brought with much more verve -- with a single exception -- than the 'good' parts. In a roughly similar way, it struck me that Jeroen Bosch was at his best -- with one single exception -- when he was painting scenes involving 'evil', rather than 'good'.

(Disclaimer: I'm an atheist, or an agnostic atheist, if you want: I can neither prove nor disprove that god exists. To me, though, it seems that evidence is mounting -- incrementally and fast -- that this Universe does not need a creator, so, with Occam's Razor in mind, I choose to believe there is no god. Hence, I see 'good' and 'evil' as highly relative, culturally applied concepts. I'm more frustrated that we don't apply our -- supposedly -- increased intelligence, but old habits -- see Bosch's "The Seven Deadly Sins" -- die hard, or as Egan has it in Diaspora: 'God is dead, but the platitudes linger'. Make that also 'attitudes' if you like.
In short: I'm both amused and exasparated by humanity's incessant need to simplify: divide everything in 'black' & 'white'; 'good' & 'evil'; and 'us' & 'them'. Don't be so lazy and grow up: embrace complexity, and enjoy learning!)

To get back to Symphony X: Paradise Lost (loosely based on John Milton's epic poem) is a very, very good album, even great, but somehow just stays short of being brilliant. It's somewhat frustrating, because at times it soares to great heights, signalling that this could have been a classic.

InsideOut -- their German record company -- certainly hasn't spared any costs: great production, top notch artwork (courtesy of Warren Flanagan), superb packaging (I bought the special edition with the extra DVD). Point is, at their best Symphony X sounds like a high-octane mix of Dream Theater, Yngwie Malmsteen and Manowar. Take the seventh song on the album: "The Walls of Babylon". The first three instrumental minutes are almost pure Dream Theater (think 'A Change of Seasons' and 'Awake') with a touch of Rainbow (remember "Gates of Babylon") layered with church choirs (bombastic? This is just warming up!). Then, as Russel Allen starts to sing -- and he's in superb form -- then it shifts gears into Malmsteen speed with Manowar bombast: monster riffs fighting dominance with massive vocal choirs, building up speed and power until they converge (I almost said convulse) into what is probably the most massive and bombastic chorus of the year:

War Hammer of the Gods
bring down the Walls of Babylon

Just fantastic: if you decide to go the bombastic route, then don't do it halfway. And Symphony X are at their best exactly when they turn up the grandiosity to eleven. Typically, their most bombastic songs are when 'evil' takes the main stage: the afore-mentioned "The Walls of Babylon", opener "Set the World on Fire" (after the semi-classic "Oculus Ex Inferni" intro), the speed monster "Seven", and most specifically the heavy atmospheric, deliciously slithering "Serpent's Kiss" (with the great quiet classic choir and church bell interlude, starting as the guitar solo approaches lightspeed, which makes the song even more heavy), and the überhammer "Domination" (superb bass intro, Michael Romeo riffs with ultrafast licks that will make Malmsteen himself drool, Russel Allen succesfully impersonating Lucifer, and a solo section that is nothing but purest fireworks).

The moment they change viewpoint to the 'good' side of the equation, like on "Eve of Seduction" and "The Sacrifice", they loose steam, impact, and conviction. It's still quite good, but just not spectacular. They try very hard with the closing song: "Revelation (Divus Pennae Ex Tragoedia)", but don't quite reach the heights of the first five songs.

I mentioned one exception, and it's the title song: "Paradise Lost", where the loss of paradise is mourned with devastating verve and elegance. Allen is phenomenal on it.

But that is the only one where the 'good' viewpoint shines: everywhere else it's easily outclassed by the 'evil' songs.

And while it might be today's rock'n'roll cliché that most bands are at their best when they're running at (or depicting) the wrong side of the tracks, the only bands in Hieronymous Bosch's time where church choirs and the lone troubadour (OK: maybe that's not fully historically accurate, but grant me my witty comparison, OK?). Still, when looking at the reproductions of his works, I found that Bosch was at his most inventive and creative best when he depicted scenes from hell, or scenes involving 'evil'.

Paintings of 'good' like Terrestrial Paradise , Ascent of the Blessed and even The Epiphany (doesn't the 'fourth king', who certainly isn't 'good', make it more interesting?) are -- in my humble opinion, and I'm sure art critics will laugh at it -- greatly outclassed when Bosch depicts the dark side of mankind in (for example) The Temptation of St. Anthony, The Hermit Saints Triptych (especially the bottom of the left panel), or The Haywan Triptych .

The exception is, of course, The Garden of Earthly Delights : here the left 'paradise' panel is of the same class as the right 'hell' panel (although even there the 'paradise' panel is small invasions of symbolic acts of sin).

Two examples that humankind's fascination with what it considers 'evil' is very, very old. An allure that seems to fire inspiration. It makes me wonder: is it through this fascination with 'evil' that we tend to evaluate downbeat stories as more plausible than upbeat ones?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Acceptances and Rejections

Coming in.

I'm (obviously) not telling which stories have been rejected. I do hope they will find a good home, as I think that every story I lift off the slushpile that I forward to my colleagues does merit publication. So good luck to those!

Over this weekend, we have decided to accept:

  • "Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast" by Eugie Foster (quite a mouthful, but the title is very appropriate);
  • "Ezekiel's Retreat" by Doug Texter.
Three rejections went out, as well (and two rejections from stories that I somehow overlooked: very sorry about that! So there were 501 rather than 499 stories in that May slushpile, if I counted correctly). Meaning there are still thirteen stories under consideration.

(And in the May gmail inbox -- which I now only check occassionally -- six invites to join Quechup from various submitters whose mailbox has been raided and used for a spam attack. I already know about this, so those people should not worry.)

We also accepted "I Love the Smell of the Lotus in the Morning" by Paul Evanby. His real name is Paul Evenblij, and he's a compatriot. As far as I know -- and I did glance Greg Egan's Interzone index -- Paul is the very first Dutchman to be published in Interzone. Congratulations to Paul, and while I knew, the moment I said yes when Andy Cox asked me to join Interzone more than four years ago, that I immediately lost my chances of being published in its acclaimed pages (we consider it not really ethical if a magazine publishes a story by one of its own editors), I still am a bit jealous.

(Well, what's the point of co-editing a magazine in which you wouldn't want to published yourself?)

More acceptances/rejections to come soonish, as the holiday period is almost over (OK: there is FantasyCon next weekend).

Friday, September 7, 2007

It Is Live!

At Escape Pod: "Transcendence Express" read by Jack Mangan -- the deadpan himself!

First, I must admit that I didn't listen to podcast at all until a few weeks ago. But because Steve Eley had bought my story, I checked out a few Escape Pod episodes. And when Jack emailed me that he was going to read it, I checked out a few deadpan episodes. I quite enjoyed them, and -- despite the fact that I go to my work on a bike, and have no MP3 player -- they are becoming a weekly habit. I play them during dinner, when I can give them my attention, as I find them too distracting when I am working on something.

Second, listening to Jack reading my story was quite weird. (And not because of the quality of Jack's reading: he did a great job.) Hearing somebody else read your words is a bit uncanny, like a warped mirror reflecting your own images in a slightly distorted way.
I actually read the story to my sister and her friends a few months back in Melbourne on the impromptu birthday party she arranged for me (OK: it was on May 24). There, it went over well, and the fact that some friends did voice a few critical remarks told me they weren't just being friendly to me on my birthday. Reading it aloud yourself is different: then you're in control (or think you are), while listening to someone else reading your stuff is a bit distancing: it is your piece, but its presentation is not in your hand. Also, I caught myself at having the tendency to accept the very good and excellent parts of Jack's reading as normal, and pay too much attention at the parts that I thought could have been done a bit better.

Vanity, vanity: all is vanity...

Third, the story was never intended as a podcast. This might sound like stating the obvious -- and some of you might wonder why I submitted it to Escape Pod in the first place, but that's easy: always let the editor decide -- but I envisioned it as words on a page that stimulate a reader's fantasy. Of course, a reading can also incite a listener's imagination, but it's different.
I think the shifts between the present tense story in Zambia (from David's viewpoint) and the flashbacks in Holland (from Liona's viewpoint) come across better on the page. Also the invented song lyrics stand out more on the page, I believe.

Of course, I might be wrong and it will be very interesting to read the listener's comments on the Escape Pod forum.

In any case, I'm quite chuffed to have a story appear in Escape Pod.

A Long Weekend, part 3: Bachelor Party in Belgium

On Sunday September 2 I wanted to go to the second Threshold gig in 'de Boerderij' (i.e. 'the Farm') in Zoetermeer. That venue has a much better sound than Plato in Helmond, and a better atmosphere.

However, I had other commitments. Patric, one of my best friends, was getting married (again, I'll get to that in the next post), and his friends had organised an impromptu bachelor party on this Sunday. There simply was no way I couldn't go.

So, from about 2.30 in the afternoon onwards, we had a few beers at Café de Unie in Den Bosch. Then the nine of us went to Luik (or Liège as the Flamands will have it) to watch the Belgium football classic Standaard Luik -- Club Brugge.

Patric is a huge fan of our local football team FC Den Bosch, and for a reason that's not really clear to me FC Den Bosch have friendship ties with Standaard Luik. So tickets were arranged -- no small feat as this was a sold out game -- and with a van we went south.

Luik is not a pretty city: my impression, driving through it, was of that of an old industrial mining town whose mainly old buildings looked more like they belonged behind the old Iron Curtain than in modern Europe (on the other hand, the new TGV station was being built, as well). Anyway, I think the picture of the red football stadium (standard de liege) against the smoking chimney background nicely captures my impression.

It was very busy around the stadium and -- this being Belgium -- there were plenty of snackbars where one could get some fast food (more difficult for Patric, who's a vegetarian, and his choices were rather limited). The atmosphere was relatively relaxed (in Holland I suspect the atmosphere would be much more tense with such a game), and we entered the stadium without a problem (after having a few beers in a local bar. And in the van. And in the stadium, as well).

Standard Luik eventually won 2 to 1, in a game that wasn't really exciting, apart from the few minutes in which the goals fell. I'm not a big football fan myself, but according to my friends the atmosphere was a bit too tame ('the stadium should be boiling over during such a match!').

We had more beer, more fun, and eventually went back home to arrive around 2 in the morning which was double fun as most of them had to work the next day (I had taken the week off, luckily).

A Long Weekend, part 2: Threshold in Helmond

On Saturday September 1, the four of us -- my brother and his wife, a good friend and I -- went to see Threshold in Plato, a venue in the Dutch town of Helmond. My brother and I weren't exactly in top form -- the day after the night before -- especially since we aren't in our twenties anymore.

So we were rather a lot less present than normally at a Threshold gig: these guys are old friends (we're one of the few fans from the very beginning), and Petra -- my sister-in-law -- found that amusing, rubbing in it when we tried to be wild without really succeeding (she knows us but all too well).

Anyway, a surprisongly good show. Singer Andrew McDermot, or Mac for short, had left the band shortly before they went on tour, so the band asked one of their old singers to fill in for him at short notice.

Threshold and singers are, to put it mildly, an ongoing challenge. Bass player Jon Jeary -- one of the founding members -- also was their original singer. Jon wrote almost all the lyrics in the beginning, and while he's a great lyricist, he wasn't a great singer. Legend has it that on a gig he fainted while trying to hit a high note on one of the Wounded Land (their debut album) songs: not sure which one exactly, but I believe it was "Surface to Air".

So the band sought a good singer, and found one in Damian Wilson, who eventually sang all the songs on Wounded Land. However, for some reason (which escapes me) Damianwas replaced by Glynn Morgan on the band's second album: Psychedelicatessen. While Damian's voice was especially powerful in the higher regions, Glynn was a more allround singer: covering almost the whole spectrum. Or, as (keyboard player) Richard West later told me: he could hit both the high notes, and still have that grit and bite in his voice in the lower regions. They had tried to make Damian sing more grunting parts, but that only caused him to lose his voice for several days.

So while Glynn Morgan might not reach Damian's highs (although he sometimes came close, as I witnessed on some shows), his voice more than made up for that in the lower regions. However, he wasn't really happy with some of Threshold's complex lyrics (this would be a continuing problem), and -- as (guitar player) Karl Groom told me --he just couldn't (or wouldn't) sing the lyrics of "Part of the Chaos". That song was planned for the second album, but through Glynn's refusal/inability to sing it only appeared on the third album.

As it was, Glynn was a great singer, but not the right personality to stay with Threshold. Bad tongues might say that sometimes he was too stoned to perform 100%, and I'll diplomatically say the truth is somewhere in between. My personal impression: a very good singer with an almost incredible range, but a timid performer (not quite a front man type), and not really interested in the lyrics he was singing (also a recurring problem).

So, after the 'Livedelica' tour, Damian returned to the band to sing the Extinct Instinct album. Because Damian had less problems with the band's lyrics -- still mostly written by Jon Jeary at that time -- "Part of the Chaos" was included on that album (brilliant lyrics, BTW). Then he went on tour with the band, and reportedly freaked out during a gig in Spain. Point is, while Damian was -- and is -- a great singer, he was very timid on stage (Glynn was, too), rather insecure and needed to have his monitors amoed up quite high. This apparently didn't happen on that gig in Spain, and he, rather unexpectedly, became very angry and threw his monitor speakers into the audience. Which basically ended his second stay at Threshold.

So the band needed a new singer again: Jon Jeary was sarcastically referring to it as LSD: 'Lead Singer's Disease'. Andrew McDermott was the next singer. Roughly speaking his voice was somewhere between that of Damian and Glynn: a broad range around the middle, with no extremes in both the high and low ends. He debuted on Clone, whose music was still mostly written with Damian's vocals in mind. But Mac did a great job, and stayed with the band through the next four studio albums: Clone, Hypothetical, Subsurface, and Dead Reckoning.

Another shift took place in that Jon Jeary, up to that time the band's main lyricist, left the band, and keyboard player Richard West took over the role of lyrics writer (and with verve). Mac was a great studio singer, and a very good front man: in contrast with his two predecessors he wasn't shy of crowds, but actively interacted with them. The downside, though, was that Mac also never really connected with the band's (as always almost poetic) lyrics: he forgot half of them on tours, making up for that with pure bravado and crowd participation. And I will honestly admit that my brother and I had some great times when he reacted, often with wit, to our provocative shouts during gigs.

Mac had a great run, but in the end it didn't last. My best guess is that while he was (is) a great singer -- especially in the studio -- he really wasn't 'connected' to Rich West's lyrics, and Threshold's intention in general. I think -- and I don't mean that negatively -- that Mac really wanted to be in a party band, while Threshold's aims are much more serious.

So now Damian is back. Supposedly temporarily, but if I've picked up the signs at the Plato gig correctly, it might be more permanently. To be frank: Damian was a revelation. His singing was still as good as ten years ago, but -- more importantly -- he was on all the time: not a shy singer, but a very active frontman, communicating with the audience, carrying the show. And he sang the 'Mac' songs with verve, which is quite a difficult thing, as these songs were written with Mac's voice in mind. But Damian carried it off, and my brother and I agreed that the only song where he didn't really reach Mac's performance was "Light and Space". But he easily exceeded our expectations in all other regards.

We were very positively surprised, and told Rich (West) so after the show. Unfortunately we didn't have much time to talk, as my brother and his wife had to return home in time because grandmother was babysitting their sons at their home, and wanted to go home relatively in time (not at the crack of dawn). So my brother and I intend to have a longer talk with the band on Friday September 14 at the Biebob in Belgium.

I wanted to go to the band's next show in Zoetermeer, but something got in between, on which more in my next post.

A Long Weekend, part 1: Friday August 31

While one part of the SF community was at Nippon Con in Yokohama, and another part at Dragon*Con in Atlanta, I stayed in The Netherlands. Not that it made my long weekend any less intense.

So here's the report of someone who didn't go (well: I was at both WorldCon and Dragon*Con last year, so I know what I'm missing).

Friday August 31 I went to Anvil who played in the new Dynamo club in Eindhoven, with my brother and various friends.

Both Anvil and the Dynamo club have quite a history in heavy metal circles. From its inception in the very early 80s, Dynamo quickly became the beating heart of the Dutch heavy metal scene. Actually 'Dynamo cafe' was only a part of Eindhoven's 'youth centre' building, which was a five story building. The bar was in the cellar, and the venue (which had a fire safety capacity of 75, but more often than not was filled with 300+ people) was on the ground floor.

Legendaric gigs have taken place there, and indeed Anvil was one of the bands to play there in the early 80s. At that time, Anvil was on the verge of a breakthrough: the band had released three very good albums in quick sucession -- Hard and Heavy, Metal on Metal and Forged in Fire -- and propelled by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (who on their turn were propelled by the Punk movement) they were on the forefront of what later came to be speed metal.

Especially Forged in Fire is still a bit of a forgotten classic, but back in '83 it seemed that Anvil was leading the speed metal pack. Problem was, they didn't follow through, as they didn't release a follow-up to Forged in Fire until 1987. Strength of Steel was too little, too late, as by that time bands like Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, Slayer, and many others had overtaken them.

In retrospect, I also think they didn't quite have the quality and will to develop of the afore-mentioned bands. Anvil has released 13 albums by now -- the latest one being This Is Thirteen -- but none of the ten albums after Forged in Fire quite captured the energy and grit of the first three. Anvil never improved after that.

My brother remained a staunch fan throughout the years, and if they play in Holland we always try to take a look. So now they were playing in the *new* Dynamo (the old building was demolished, and now Eindhoven has a new 'youth centre', again with a hardrock cafe -- which is in the cellar -- and a venue. Typically, Anvil didn't play in the new venue, which can hold up to 600 people, but in the cellar, for about a hundred mostly old fans. Of which my brother and I were two.

The band has become a trio, and the second guitar player was sorely missed. Also, they tried to promote quite a few new songs from the latest album, while the majority of the audience came for the old classics like "March of the Crabs", "666", "Metal on Metal", "Winged Assassins", "Motormount", and "Mothra", which they all eventually played.

All in all, it was a very nice evening: after the gig there was an 80s metal party where we drunk and partied like we did 24 year ago. Of course, my brother complained that the DJ didn't have enough of the old classics, and the next morning I found out that I really wasn't in my early twenties anymore.

But that day, another gig was planned...

First Acceptance of the May email reading period... a story called "The Ships Like Clouds, Risen from Their Rain" by Jason Sanford.

(The other 17 stories that are held over are still under discussion: both the holiday period and an error during the printing of the premiere Black Static issue slowed things down. Please be patient: we are considering these stories *very* seriously.)

In our correspondence about the story, I mentioned that I thought it would have fitted nicely in Interzone #208: the special sensawunda issue (fiction edited and selected by me). Jason then said he wrote the story inspired by that very issue.

Well, that alone made the issue worthwile, IMHO.

Anyway, more updates on acceptances as we make them.

The Writing Game

This week I have been rather selfish: I tried to ignore most other things and concentrated on writing.

Ever since I joined Interzone my writing productivity dropped from about two stories a month to about two stories a year. So keep that in mind when someone asks you to join a magazine as an editor.

Don't get me wrong: I adore Interzone and greatly enjoy co-editing its fiction. I actually give it priority over my own writing, hence my drop in short story production.

Anyway, this week I rrealised that I've become a much slower writer. This is mainly because I find it near-impossible to shut down the editorial part of me. A couple of years ago I just wrote the story first, relatively fast, and worried about rewriting and polishing later. And while this produced more prose, I'm not sure if it was decent, or even good prose.

Also, I was less self-critical, or didn't have enough experience to be critical enough, most likely both. (Apart from the point that a writer is too close to his/her own story to really look at it objectively. It's extremely hard, almost impossible to avoid: you know what you mean, even if it's expressed poorly, because you know what you intended to say when you wrote it, and even on repeated rereadings this intented -- not apparent -- meaning almost always comes to the fore, masking the poor expression. If I could look with more objectivity to my own writing, the way I do with stories of others, then I'd write much better stories myself.) So I basically wrote first, and thought later (a rough generalisation, mostly true though).

Now I find myself thinking throughout the writing: adding extra details, plot twists, character motivations, and other layers while removing stuff that doesn't work (wrong ideas, poor phrasing, extraneous words, and more) at the same time. A bit like writing, editing and rewriting at the same time, if that makes sense. It slashes my word count down. On the other hand, I think -- Quod Erat Demonstrandum when I send it out -- that the actual prose that stays on the page is better.

At least, I certainly hope so: if I don't improve over time then writing becomes, if not pointless, quite frustrating: I want to be better in the next story, not stay at the same level, or become worse. Of course, the next story may be at the same level, the following one maybe even worse, and only the one after that better: progress often isn't a straight upward curve. As long as the general trend is up I'm fine.

To illustrate with two rough examples: the original version of "Transcendence Express" (written back in 2002) had about 7800 words. The version that got published in HUB #2 (the last print version, unfortunately) has about 4200 words. Between those two versions, it got bounced twelve times, and rewritten several times -- I estimate 5 or 6 times -- in the process, often after editorial comments.

Conversely, "Qubit Conflicts" (written in 2005) originally had about 2800 words, while the published version has about 2100. It received six rejections before Clarkesworld Magazine bought it, and two rewrites (the last one on Nick's instructions).

Of course, I leave it up to the reader to decide which of the two is the better story (I can't give an objective opinion), but it shows the general direction my writing is taking: I'm trying to get it right the first time around. OK, still not quite succeeding, obviously -- as six bounces and two rewrites of which one by editorial decree show -- but heading that way.

(Rejections will always be inevitable, but I try not to be rejected on quality anymore.)

(And I only sold one story at the first try, which was also the very first story I sold. It's been downhill ever since...;-)

Thing is, early in my writing career I tended to be highly enthusiastic about the first draft of a story, not quite critical enough, and subsequently rewrite or polish minimally (if at all). Then send it off to the top markets, getting the inevitable form rejections.

Only after slowly improving, receiving critiques from my fellow online Orbiters, getting a few personal rejects, and getting more serious about rewriting (murder your darlings, indeed) did it slowly dawn on me that I was doing some basic things wrong, to wit:

  1. Don't send your (slightly polished) first draft to the most suitable top market: it will get bounced, and then you've effectively killed that story's chance at that market; so:
  2. Repress the urge to immediately send it out, but put it on hold for at least a month, or more; then:
  3. Look at it with a fresh perspective, and savagely rewrite it; after which you:
  4. Send it to your critique group (if you don't have one, join one: there are plenty), and take *every* comment seriously. Some might be wrong, but these are always less than you think at first. And the ones that hurt the most are most probably the ones that are on the money: overcome the writer's ego and address them;
  5. Then let it rest for another month or so, and re-evaluate it again, and rewrite.
  6. Polish, polish, fine-polish, fine-polish, and make it gleam (you'd be surprised to find how many editors are won over by good prose);
  7. And only then carefully target your market from the top down.
"But this takes so much time!" I hear some of you say. Indeed, this way it can be six months or a year (or longer) from the first draft to the point of actual submission. Let's say a year(*). Still, be patient.

Because getting it bounced repeatedly takes even longer. Compare my two examples:

  • "Transcendence Express" (now available as a podcast on Escape Pod: it wasn't when I wrote this yesterday, so chalk one up for synchronicity) bounced twelve times: time between finished first draft (August 2002) and acceptance (January 2007) was four years and five months;
  • "Qubit Conflicts" bounced six times: time between finished first draft (March 2005) and acceptance (September 2006) was one year and six months;
So those six to twelve 'extra' months for rewriting etc. will most probably be a good investment timewise as it might considerably reduce the time between first submission and acceptance. More importantly, it might make the story land at a much better market.

YMMV, and other disclaimers, but this is my personal experience.

(*) Obvious exceptions are stories written for a specific anthology or theme issue. But even then use as much time as possible before the submission window closes: your story will only improve.