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Confluence 2019: Lost and New Voices

Last weekend at Confluence, I experienced a first. This was my first con as a panelist, vendor, reader, kaffeklatsch co-leader, and even contest coordinator. There was so, so much for me to do, and I was mad with anticipation. Then, just as I arrived at the con with my friends Jerome Stueart and Brandon McNulty, the unthinkable happened: I lost my voice. Those who know me know what a presence I am, my size and booming voice combining to create a force of nature. With my voice reduced to a squeak, I felt helpless. How could I possibly take on everything I wanted to do at Confluence without a voice? Through the support of wonderful people, that’s how!

First mention has to go to Jerome, who did yeoman’s work reading my unpublished story “Under the Dark Moon” on Sunday. I’m so sorry for all the difficult pronunciations, Jerome! Brandon McNulty, otherwise known as the Elder or the Slender, supported me in accepting less sleep so I could go to Giant Eagle for necessities like Throat Coat and cough drops. Karen Yun-Lutz and Kevin Hayes kept checking on me all weekend, with Kevin even giving me a throat massage. It didn’t get my voice back, but felt amazing! Cat Rambo gets honorable mention just for being her awesome self, and for running an amazing First 500 workshop. Shannon Eichorn’s help cannot be understated either; she provided moral support and ran an awesome kaffeklatsch with me. And Thunderchild…oh, you always make me laugh, Thunderchild! So, so many more wonderful folks at Confluence were patient with me, helped me when I needed it, and came together to create a truly memorable con experience.

Then there were the new voices at Confluence. The aforementioned Shannon Eichorn had her new novel “Rights of Use,” book 1 in the Project Black Book series. She did such robust sales the first day she had to call in her husband to ferry more books all the way from Cleveland! Also, a friend and fantastic writer made his debut at Confluence: Alfred “AJ” Smith. He won the 2019 PARSEC Short Story Contest, which I coordinated, with his story “Graveyard’s Whistle” appearing in the Confluence Program. He also had the experience of giving his first public reading. Now, AJ is humble and self-effacing about his works, and doesn’t like when I brag about his writing. He scoffed when I told him I cried the first time I read it. Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and his reading made someone else cry, in the very best of ways. So, it wasn’t just my lost voice, but some new and newer voices, that highlighted Confluence for me.

And, you know what? I think I lost my voice for a reason. Cat Rambo agreed with many others who have already given me feedback that my novel’s title needed changed. While my friends bantered over dinner about what the new title should be, someone came up with “Nomad’s Blade.” I loved it, and said (or tried to say) “Nomad’s Blade” would be perfect. Except Jerome didn’t hear “nomad,” and said “No Man’s Blade” is indeed perfect. And, right there, a title was born. A title which, if you know the book at all, fits perfectly.

The Edition Wars

I’d like to take a break from my regularly scheduled writer updates to chat a bit about another passion of mine: Dungeons & Dragons. Specifically, let’s examine the edition wars and my take on them. There are so many editions, from Advanced D&D to 5th Ed, and many more opinions than there are editions. Which one’s best, and why, has been a hot button topic for decades. A lot of people say the debate ended with 5th Ed, because it brought back the classic feel of the game with modern rules. Mine is a different stance.

I’ll probably never play 5th Ed. Not because I think it’s crappy–I don’t know enough about it to judge, although a quick browse of the Player’s Handbook made me think it’s overpowered–but because I’m not going to transition to another edition. The costs these days are astronomical, and I’m not dropping hundreds of dollars on an edition I’ll probably never play. Should circumstances change in my group, or should I get into other groups, then maybe, MAYBE I’ll give in and change. I just don’t see it.

I went through a 3.5 Ed phase, and I like a lot about it. Feats are pretty cool, and I liked a lot of other fixes, too. It’s more streamlined and easier for n00bs to learn, which can be vital. 4th Ed I will never play, because, let’s face it, 4th Ed was geared towards video gamers and minis fanatics. Which, hey, there’s nothing wrong with that, and nothing wrong with wanting to play that, but I knew it wasn’t for me when someone’s claim to it being the “best” edition was that you can create a character in five minutes. Yeah, that’s taking the R out of RPG!

For me, I’m solidly in the 2nd Ed category, with the caveat that it’s heavily home brewed. The DM and I have made many sensible rules changes, judged things differently based upon party size, have brought in aspects of Skills & Powers and Combat & Tactics, and all around used 2nd Ed as a platform to create whatever the heck we wanted to create. And that’s what D&D SHOULD be: a basis for having the kind of fun YOU want to have. So sure, I have opinions on the edition wars, and strong ones at that. The bottom line with every individual, with every DM, with ever party, though, should be about having fun. If it floats your boat, it’s the perfect edition for you. Yes, even if it’s 4th Ed. Maybe 🙂

In Your Write Mind Appearance

This past weekend I presented and sold/autographed books at the 2019 In Your Write Mind Workshop, hosted at Seton Hill University. What can I say? This is always a delightful time and a wonderful workshop. Saddened to only be able to attend on Saturday, I made the most of it. First of all, there were re-connections with friends and fellow authors. I also got to introduce around a new face, my friend Alfred Smith, and talk him up to all and sundry.

Then the panel I suggested on critique groups unfolded in a pleasant manner. With four panelists and few initial attendants, we sat around a big table rather than separate into panelists and audience. When more people funneled in, we welcomed them at the table for an insightful discussion on critique groups.

Finally, the book signing event was a smashing success. I lost so much money! Yes, I count that as a victory. This was only the second time I ever set out my shingle to sell books, so to speak, and I purposefully lowered prices to entice  sales. And it worked! Plus there were so many awesome people to chat with that evening. Honestly, it overwhelmed this introverted extrovert in a very, very good way. By the end of the night I was exhausted, ready for bed, and a bit chuffed at a fulfilling day.

New Story Published

I’m pleased to announce my story, “Surcease of Darkness,” is out at Mythic today. Find it here: Surcease of Darkness

Science Fiction Tropes Interview

I am pleased to say I have an interview up at the website Science Fiction tropes, which covers topics as wide ranging as my influences as a science fiction writer and how I got started in the genre. You can find it here: Science Fiction Tropes Interview

Crimson Streets #5

My story, “Mr. Leiber’s Collection,” is now available in Crimson Streets #5, a kind of a “best of” anthology they have recently put out. Find it here: Crimson Streets #5.

Punk Fatigue and the Opposing Viewpoints of Hopepunk, Grimdark, and Noblebright

At the February Pittsburgh PARSEC science fiction meeting, we bandied about the term “hopepunk,” which made me roll my eyes for the umpteenth time. Punk was always about running counter to the norm, not conforming to it. Steampunk and cyberpunk, at the beginning, were in line with this notion. But now Steampunk has tiny Victorian hats and seems to be more about costume and less about substance in theme (which is fine for others–it’s just not my thing), and we have everything from dieselpunk to greenpunk. My friend, a former punk, hates the trend of calling everything “punk” like we call everything “gate;” he gags over the titling of the fairypunk sub-genre. Credit where credit is due, hopepunk, after first annoying me, has grown into a concept that makes sense, even with its “punk” usage.

Begun by writer Alexandra Rowland on Tumblr in July 2017, she first described this latest trend simply as “the opposite of grimdark,” a term in itself that causes a stir of controversy whenever it’s mentioned. She asked followers and readers to pass it on. In later clarifications, she wrote that “Hopepunk isn’t ever about submission or acceptance…but about demanding a better, kinder world, and truly believing that we can get there if we care about each other as hard as we possibly can, with every drop of power in our little hearts.” The soul of hopepunk is resistance, the will to struggle in the face of adversity to make the world a better place. The characters may strive and never succeed in their lifetime, but if everyone pulls the same way, the world will someday change. I may not love hopepunk fiction, but I sure can appreciate its message, and appreciate it as an important sub-genre. In a world and culture where everything seems to be dark and gritty, hopepunk certainly runs counter to all that.

This brings me to probably my favorite sub-genre: grimdark. What exactly is grimdark? The answer is as nebulous as it is controversial. Grimdark began from the tabletop game Warhammer 40,000, which said “In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war.” Grim + darkness = grimdark. A term was born. But when the literary world got hold of the term, it grew into its own sub-genre. One blog, dedicated to noblebright, yet another sub-genre, sees grimdark as “The notion that the actions of one person can do little to improve this world in decline, that the forces of evil and inertia and temptation will ensure that all of us are doomed. The best we can hope for is a little struggle with morally ambiguous heroes to oppose danger and maybe rescue for a brief time a few others.” I, in vehement disagreement, find this definition both lacking and purposefully self-serving. For me, grimdark is about the “world” not being black and white, good and evil; people and characters live lives with their own motivations. Bad things happen, and it’s how we react to them that defines our stories. Villains rarely see themselves as villains. At least the good ones don’t.

Writer and editor Jared Shurin put it well when he wrote that “grimdark fantasy has three key components: a grim and dark tone, a sense of realism (for example, monarchs are useless and heroes are flawed), and the agency of the protagonists: whereas in high fantasy everything is predestined and the tension revolves around how the heroes defeat the Dark Lord, grimdark is ‘fantasy protestantism:’ characters have to choose between good and evil, and are ‘just as lost as we are.'” Yes, these kinds of stories are right up my alley.

But enough of my tastes. Grimdark doesn’t appear to have one definition a reader or writer can nail down. Enjoy it or not, it’s thematically in opposition to hopepunk. Well, what about noblebright, then? Surely it sits squarely in opposition to grimdark and in alignment with hopepunk. That’s what I thought when I set out to sort through these speculative fiction sub-genres. Well, the answer is both a resounding yes and a resounding no.

Noblebright, as author C. J. Brightley puts it, “exists to bring beautiful, fantastic, hopeful writing to the public, to provide a literary opposition to the forces of grimdark, and to remember the taste of strawberries.” Right there, noblebright is set as a foil to grimdark. So how can it fail to align with hopepunk, which seems to espouse the same exact ideals? It’s complicated. According to Rowland, hopepunk knows everything is impermanent and nothing is promised, whereas in noblebright, we can eventually win the fight and have a happy ending. The struggle continues vs. struggling and overcoming. Also in noblebright, Rowland contends that social systems are good because the leaders we choose are inherently good. With hopepunk’s strong themes of resistance, noblebright just isn’t comparable.

So where did my musings lead me? I learned about two new sub-genres, for one, and may someday write in them. Then there’s the realization that noblebright and hopepunk, two optimistic sub-genres diametrically opposed to grimdark, don’t quite mix with each other. And, you know what? All this research and reading has got my brain spinning in different directions, so maybe it’s high time I pick up a few lighter works and read how the other side of the speculative fiction community sees things.

I still wish the mind-numbingly unoriginal trend of naming everything “punk” would die a quick and painful death, though. My punk fatigue is real.


Note: I’ve relied heavily on some online sources and articles for this blog post, and it would be wrong not to mention and list them. No, I’m not publishing anything or claiming original content beyond my own thoughts and spins, but I’d still feel a plagiarist if I didn’t point to my sources and admit they did the heavy lifting for me long since.


50% Off “Converter”

Folks, you can get 50% the anthology with my newest story, Converter, over on Smashwords! Just use the code XL39J at checkout. This code is valid until March 1st. Go buy it here: The Society of Misfit Stories

2018 World Fantasy Convention Report

Before I even get started on my awesome experience at World Fantasy Convention 44 in Baltimore, Maryland this weekend, I will add a caveat: I’m not getting into names. There are too many wonderful people with whom I shared delightful conversations to possibly remember them all. To mention some would be a disservice to the rest.

What is there to say other than “Wow?” This was my first World Fantasy Con, but it certainly will not be my last. I admit that I went in with an agenda and enjoyed myself immensely even though I didn’t fulfill said agenda. I finished the final draft of a killer novel literally the morning of the day I left for WFC, and had the hopes–though not the expectation–of finding an agent or even a home for that manuscript.

Unsurprisingly, that didn’t happen. I’m a savvy professional, so running amok yelling “Read my novel!” to unsuspecting agents and publishers wasn’t on the menu. Instead I talked to them (and many others) like they were just regular people who enjoy fantasy works. Crazy, huh? Other writers loved my stinger of “It’s the Scarlet Pimpernel meets Left Hand of Darkness,” so I hope agents and publishers will love it too. I learned about what others are working on. I had conversations, lovely conversation, that began for no other reason than we were both stuck in the same spot and couldn’t get across the room, so, “Hello, I’m…” happened. Friendships were forged instantly, and I planted the seeds of a circle of young writers that will grow ever larger and stronger at every con we attend together.

As if the people weren’t enough, there was killer art, food, panels, books…the list goes on and on. For the first time ever, I put out my shingle as a writer, so-to-speak. They printed place names for every attendee, and we were all encouraged to set up during the mass autographing. I signed nothing, nor did I draw anyone in for a convo about my writing at the mass autographing, but that made absolutely no difference. I was just there to soak up the experience.

I gave out tons of business cards, got many in exchange, made connections that will last for a lifetime…and, oh yeah, got a little nibble of interest I can use as query letter chum to hopefully reel in an agent in record time. Who knows? By World Fantasy Convention 45, I may have an agent, or my book may be…bought. What, you thought I’d type that my book would be out by then? No, no, silly reader, a book takes a year or two to get published once it is purchased 🙂

Writing Around a Career

I want to blog about the difficulties of finding time to write while working a full-time job. Most everyone has to work for a living, and few of us can claim a living as a fiction writer. Sounds like a dream, right? Imagine what George R.R. Martin feels like when he sits down to the keyboard these days. I was lucky for a few years in that, through a disability settlement, I had a steady income and wasn’t allowed to work. So I made writing my full-time job. I probably only made a penny a day, if that, but I wasn’t laboring under any sort of pressure.

Well, that all changed recently when my settlement ended and I had to put my social work degree to use and find gainful employment. I have found a place at a wonderful organization full of wonderful people. One problem? I’ve written maybe a few hundred words in the past few weeks, subbed some stories, and did a bit of editing. That’s it, and that’s not enough.

There are extenuating circumstances. I have a variable schedule–some days I have normal hours, and other days it shifts to afternoon/evenings. This leaves me chunks of free time in the mornings some days, and in the evenings others; two days a week I have late nights and early mornings, which makes it super difficult to carve out writing time. I strain my eyes a lot at work. I’m also diabetic and have been running a high blood sugar level (my own fault), so exhaustion factors in.

Still, I have no excuse for not writing more. I’m not married, don’t have kids or roommates, nor do I have sick relatives to care for. I have social commitments, but those are fun things. My problem is that, when I had all the time in the world, I was able to procrastinate before I got started, stop for breaks whenever I wanted, and set my own schedule. No longer. I do have time to write, now; I just have to identify it and push myself to work outside the boundaries of work. It may feel like a chore, but I can’t not write. That just wouldn’t do for me.

I personally know people who have written and published not just a novel or story here or there, but whole series’, all while married with children and full-time careers. Those people also lead rich lives on top of all their commitments. The key for them is structure, managing their schedule, a strong work ethic, and perseverance. I have to brush off these long-forgotten concepts and make them my allies. Now, some of these people are members of a 5am writing club. I’m not that dedicated! Even so, I can burn the midnight oil sometimes, if that’s what it takes.

This is less a blog post with writing advice and more a personal statement of intent. I needed to crystallize my thoughts about my work/writing balance, and in sharing them, I hope I’ve been able to say a few helpful things for my fellow writers.