Friday, April 16, 2010

How Should The Sorcerers Guild Work?

As you know, or as I hope you know, The Sorcerers Guild exists to determine the yearly winner of The Harper's Pen Award. The award is meant to promote the Sword & Sorcery genre in short fiction. For the first year, I selected the finalists and chose the winner, to help get things started and because I wasn't sure how I wanted to get things started, but my plan is to get more people involved, especially readers and fans, not just writers and editors. 

So what I have is a brief outline of the organization and how I expect it to work. This is a rough draft, so if you have other ideas, especially better ideas, please feel free to discuss.

Each December, the nomination period opens. Only members of The Sorcerers Guild may nominate a story, but anyone can join. By joining this facebook group, you are already a member. Members will receive a certain number of nominations - I'm thinking 3 or 5. Those stories that meet a minimum threshold of nominations (to be determined) go onto a Long List.

Now for the fun part. Each year, I will provide a certain amount of seed money. For 2009, I hoped to get contributions to help increase the pot, but I only received one contribution of $10 for the entire year. Clearly we cannot rely on contributions, so I came up with the idea of a second level of membership, called The Wizard's Conclave. Membership in The Wizard's Conclave costs $5 (open for debate), in return for which you get to chose a certain number of stories from the long list (say, 3) to make the short list. Also, there may be goodies in association with joining during one of the membership drives. I plan to hit up publishers for promo copies of their magazines/anthologies to give to those who join The Wizard's Conclave. If you know anyone, or have something to donate, please feel free to contact me.

So now we have the Wizard's Conclave, and the $5 membership fee goes directly into the Award. The Wizard's Conclave chooses the short list of stories from which the finalists and winner will be selected by...

The Council of Elders. The Council consists of a certain number (to be determined) of randomly-chosen members of The Wizards Conclave. Council members are screened to prevent anyone with a short list story (either author or publisher) from serving on the Council. (This has the added benefit of tilting the Council toward the fans.) The Council members choose their top ten stories for the year, with the top story being the winner of The Harper's Pen. Or perhaps a winner and a several honorable mentions, rather than a top ten.

What do you think? Will it work? Would you pay $5 to join, especially if you got a free book or magazine out of it? Please feel free to post your ideas.

(This is cross-posted at The Sorcerers Guild discussion board on Facebook. Please feel free to pop over and join the discussion, or to leave comments here.)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Small Gathering of Friends

The Sorcerers Guild is now on Facebook. It's time to open the doors, so pop on over and sign up.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

News of the World

The new issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies is out, with stories by Nancy Fulda and Tom Crosshill.

In other news, it appears your host has won the first Barry Hannah Memorial Competition.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Swords & Dark Magic anthology

Here's an anthology sure to generate several finalists for The 2010 Harper's Pen Award. Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery published by Harper Eos, edited by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders. It's due out June 22, and here's the table of contents:

"Introduction: Check Your Dark Lord at the Door" - Lou Anders & Jonathan Strahan
"Goats of Glory" - Steven Erikson
"Tides Elba: A Tale of the Black Company" - Glen Cook
"Bloodsport" - Gene Wolfe
"The Singing Spear" - James Enge
"A Wizard of Wiscezan" - C.J. Cherryh
"A Rich Full Week" - K. J. Parker
"A Suitable Present for a Sorcerous Puppet" - Garth Nix
"Red Pearls: An Elric Story" - Michael Moorcock
"The Deification of Dal Bamore" - Tim Lebbon
"Dark Times at the Midnight Market" - Robert Silverberg
"The Undefiled" - Greg Keyes
"Hew the Tint Master" - Michael Shea
"In the Stacks" - Scott Lynch
"Two Lions, A Witch, and the War-Robe" - Tanith Lee
"The Sea Troll's Daughter" - Caitlin R Kiernan
"Thieves of Daring" - Bill Willingham
"The Fool Jobs" - Joe Abercrombie

(ht Saladin Ahmed)

Finalist Notes - Tomb of the Amazon Queen by Michael Ehart

Tomb of the Amazon Queen is the longest of the eight finalists and the largest is scope. It reads like part of a much larger work. Nishi and her adopted daughter/fellow adventurer Miri have a number of problems. One, they are constantly hunted by the soldiers of the temple of Ishtar, because Nishi attacked it some time in the past. Two, Nishi is bound by a curse of some sort to a fearsome beast - The Manthycore - and this curse keeps her alive, making her a legendary being. But Nishi is seeking a way to end the curse. In the midst of a sandstorm, they take refuge with a group of Amazon-ish women warriors, whose path inevitably brings them all together at the tomb of their queen.

Both the story hook and the adventure hook are brilliant and engaging. The story begins in the middle and moves forward from there. Having taken out a party of temple soldiers, Nishi summons the Manthycore to feed and to frighten the one soldier she has allowed to survive, so that he can return and warn the temple to stop sending soldiers to hunt her.

The setting, ancient Iraq and Syria, is wonderfully depicted, with plenty of historical detail. As with most desert stories, the environment plays a direct role in the plot, when a sandstorm drives Nishi and Miri to take shelter with, and thus meet and befriend, a band of Amazons.

Nishi and Miri are great heroic characters - Nishi the old warrior who has lived for hundreds of years and become a legend, and young Miri, who is a talented archer. Less well-defined are the Amazons - seven archetypical sisters whose names tended to blend together as I was reading.

There is mayhem aplenty, with several good battle scenes in just the right doses. The action breaks up long periods of narrative in which we learn about the characters, their relationships, and their goals. And although there is only one monster - the Manthycore - and he physically appears only once in the story, his prescence is throughout, driving the plot.

If there is a weakness in the three M's (monster, mayhem and magic), it is the magic of the story. There is the curse bond between Nishi and the Manthycore, which keeps Nishi alive and allows her to heal more quickly, and the magical quest of the rubies that Nishi has undertaken to break the curse, but all of the magical moments seem to occur offstage. It's a subtle magic, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but I'd have liked to see a bit more of it.

The catharsis is pretty good, with a sense of loss and regret, but the ending felt hurried and was the weakest part of the story, as neither the conflict nor the curse is resolved. In this it is a realistic ending, but it doesn't deliver as strongly as a tighter ending might. As lengthy as this story is, I felt it should have been longer, as the final potential conflict between Nishi and the Amazon ends somewhat anticlimatically. If Tomb of the Amazon Queen is part of a longer work, I can understand why, but it was this very feeling of an incomplete, unrealized ending that prevented me from selecting this otherwise worthy tale.

Update: Michael tells us that his story is part of a larger tale, The Tears of Ishtar, which just came out last Friday from Cyberwizard Productions' Ancient Tome Press.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Interview with John C. Hocking and John O'Neill

John C. Hocking is the author of the Harper's Pen Award winning story, "The Face in the Sea," which appeared in Black Gate #13, published by John O'Neill. Recently I had an opportunity to ask these two gentlemen a few questions about the winning story, writing, and publishing.

Sorcerer's Guild: According to a note accompanying your story, "The Face in the Sea" is the first of three stories about Brand the Viking. Are the Brand stories closely connected by events? Are they part of a larger narrative, like a novel (finished or unfinished)?
John C. Hocking: The Brand stories I’ve written so far are tied closely together, as Brand and his shipmates reclaim their chieftain’s stolen daughter and try to bring her back home. I was originally working on a novel about the characters, but the elements I wanted to use ended up better expressed in short stories.

SG: How did "The Face in the Sea" and Black Gate meet?
John O'Neill: I think it all began with a book published in 2004 called LORDS OF SWORDS, edited by Dan Blackston. Word went around that it was a pretty good collection of heroic fantasy -- with some standout work by such folks as E.E. Knight, Howard Andrew Jones, Joe McCullough, and others -- when it got a hilariously off-base review at Tangent Online. It annoyed a few members of the staff, including Todd McAulty, who commandeered a chunk of the review section in BLACK GATE 8 to do a lengthy rebuttal, and celebrate the work of some of these emerging talents.

One of the stories Todd called out in LORDS OF SWORDS was called "Vali's Wound," by Mr. John C. Hocking. I took the time to read it, and was suitably impressed. It was the tale of a young and inexperienced Viking named Brand, who dared to defy a Valkyrie when she came to claim a fallen comrade.

I met John just a few weeks later at Windycon in 2005, and learned he had a series of these stories. When I asked John if he would ever send me one, he told me one was already sitting in my slush pile at home. I suppose I'd had know that, it I hadn't been busy having a good time at a convention.

SG: Was it love at first sight?
John O'Neill: Yes, actually. Although the story's actually a little more complicated. Literally, in this case.

The first story John submitted to me was called "The Bonestealer's Mirror" -- a really terrific piece in which Brand and his shipmates discover the rather chilling secret of a particularly loathsome demon haunting a lonely isle. I bought it immediately, and Storn Cook delivered a fabulous pair of illustrations to accompany it (the first work he'd ever done done us, incidentally.) I was all set to unleash it on the world.

John then delivered a NEW Brand story: "The Face in the Sea." I jumped at the chance to buy it, and scheduled it for Black Gate 13. And then John informed me this one occurred chronologically *first* in the series, followed by "Vali's Wound," and then "Bonestealer."

So John's appearance in Black Gate had to wait. I postponed "Bonestealer," commissioned art for "Face" -- which Storn delivered again -- and published "The Face in the Sea" in Black Gate 13.

"The Bonestealer's Mirror" has finally appeared in Black Gate 14, with Storn's art -- over four year after I purchased it. It's been a long wait, but I hope it's been worth it. John returns in our very next issue with the start of a brand new series. I think you'll like it.

SG: What do you like best about "The Face in the Sea"?
John O'Neill: "The Face in the Sea" is a textbook example at what John Hocking is best at -- and indeed, what all great heroic fantasy writers are good at. And that is creating, in swift and sure strokes, a group of valiant characters that we quickly come to care about, and a forlorn setting where the cast must stand alone.

And then, he unleashes the monsters.

SG: You've written three stories about Brand the Viking, so I take it you like writing in this setting. What is it about Vikings that attracts your creative energies?
John C. Hocking: I’m certainly not alone in finding the Vikings and their world deeply fascinating. Their barbaric yet oddly civilized culture, their astonishing drive to explore, their ideal of stoic bravery in the face of death, all capture and encourage the imagination. Brand lives in a slightly off-center, alternate version of the Viking world, where history has played out a little differently and magic works, but I like to think I get a little flavor of the sagas in there all the same.

SG: When I first read "The Face in the Sea," I had recently finished reading Poul Anderson's War of the Gods. Have you read this novel? Was your work influenced by Anderson's?
John C. Hocking: I love Anderson’s work, especially Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, but the Brand stories are more influenced by the Icelandic sagas and Weird Tales magazine of the 1920’s and 30’s than anything else.

SG: I detected influences of Robert E. Howard in this tale, especially Brand's Conanesque solution to their monstrous problem. Would you say Howard was a big influence on this story?
John C. Hocking: Of course I would! Howard’s imagination, passion, and seemingly effortless handling of the elements of plot continue to amaze me.

SG: Speaking of Howard, you published a Conan novel with Tor in 1995. How did that come about?
John C. Hocking: Long story. In short, I wanted to write for Weird Tales in 1932, but since that was impossible I tried to write a tale with its roots in that period. The Conan pastiche novels I was reading back then seemed to me to have an overly distant relationship with REH and Weird Tales, so I tried to bring that back together. It was a strange way to spend my time, as I had no way of knowing if the book I was working on would ever be read by anybody but me. Some have pointed out that Conan and the Emerald Lotus is a less than entirely successful experiment, but 15 years later it’s still in print and I can still find reasons to be proud of it.

SG: You wrote that novel without a commission from Tor Books, yet they accepted it for publication? That's a pretty incredible authorial feat.
John C. Hocking: It's true, I wrote Conan & the Emerald Lotus all by myself, with no sanction from TOR, Conan Properties, or anyone else. Ridiculous thing to do. Like an amateur animator spending years in the basement making a cartoon about Mickey Mouse. I had no right to put down a word of it but I was inspired by trying to pay tribute to Conan, REH, Lovecraft, Smith, Bloch, and the whole Weird Tales circle, and kept working away until it was done.

And THEN I wondered what I should do with it.

Figured I might as well see if it could even be considered for publication, but didn't even know how to do that. Sent out a volley of letters to anybody I thought might know and got a response from L. Sprague de Camp. He told me they got unsolicited Conan manuscripts all the time and that they were uniformly poor and summarily rejected, but that he would look at my book if that's what I wanted. I sent it to him and he liked it enough to back it for publication.

SG: What's on your launch pad right now? What's in your future?
John C. Hocking: The third Brand tale, by far the longest and most ambitious, is in Black Gate #14, which just came out. Five years back, when Howard Andrew Jones was editing the Flashing Swords e-zine, I wrote a trio of stories for him about a different set of characters. I’ve written two more tales of the Archivist and his friend Lucella, and Black Gate has accepted them. I’ve been stalled on both a novel about the Archivist and the final Brand story, Home to Midgard, but I hope to get both into action before too much longer.

SG: One of your more recent projects was co-editing a book called Detroit Noir. With a title like that, it's not hard to guess, but go ahead and tell us about the book, what's inside the covers, who published it, and where we can find it.
John C. Hocking: I love noir and hardboiled fiction almost as much as I love Sword and Sorcery. My friend Eric Olsen and I noticed that Akashic Books acclaimed Noir series featured anthologies of stories set in specific cities, yet there was no volume for Detroit. We convinced the publisher we were for real and, over the course of a couple years, solicited a fearsomely tall stack of brand new manuscripts from Detroit authors. Then we had to select and arrange our favorites into a book. The tales range from gentle mood pieces to savage hardboiled thrillers, and I was somewhat overwhelmed by the quality of the material we received. There’s work from established masters like Joyce Carol Oates and Loren D. Estleman, as well as memorable tales from authors who have gone on to make a name for themselves, like Megan Abbott and Michael Zadoorian. Desiree Cooper’s haunting Night Coming was selected for inclusion in Best African American Fiction 2010, and Estleman’s Kill the Cat was up for the Shamus Award for best private eye short story of the year. Detroit Noir is still available at many bookstores and all the major on-line booksellers.

SG: Do you consider yourself primarily a short story writer or a novelist?
John C. Hocking: Neither. I write what I can. I’d like to produce more novel length work, but the process is as arduous as the end product is uncertain of publication. Right now, shorter work suits me.

SG: Have you always been a writer, or did you come to it gradually? Or suddenly?
John C. Hocking: I’ve always been a writer, always told stories. There is little that makes me happier than learning someone who I’ve never met read and enjoyed something I wrote.

SG: Putting together a magazine is no easy task. Putting together a magazine as enormous as Black Gate must be Herculean. What inspires you to sit down every day and work on it?
John O'Neill: First, let's dispel this myth that it's "Herculean." What I do to create Black Gate is simple: I read fantasy stories, and select the ones I like the most. Nothing to it. Anyone who's read an anthology or magazine and said, "I liked these stories the best" has done what I've done.
Physically creating the magazine is only slightly more work. But with modern desktop publishing programs such as Quark or Microsoft Publisher, even that is a cinch. Quite a bit easier than putting together a web page, for example.
No, the only hard thing about producing a magazine is finding a printer, and a way to distribute and sell it. And you really only have to do that once.
But I'm dodging your question.
Yeah, it takes time -- a lot of time, in which I could be playing with my kids, or watching BATTLESTAR GALACTICA with Alice. What keeps me going? There's a real joy in finding new authors -- folks like James Enge, Joe McCullough, and Peadar O Guilan -- and giving them a stage. Few people remember the editor who first discovered a promising writer.
But editors do. And that's enough.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Harper's Pen Finalist in The Million Writers Award

Dale Carothers' Bright Wings in the Ebony Hall (Electric Spec) has been chosen as a Notable Story in the storySouth Million Writers Award.

Congratulations to Dale for his truly excellent story. The recognition is well-deserved.

Finalist Notes - Where Virtue Lives by Saladin Ahmed

The set-up for this story is rather traditional, but Saladin handles it quite nicely. Basically, you have a jaded, older warrior in the form a ghul hunter, who takes on an eager, idealistic young apprentice, in the form of a bad-ass swordsman. They set out to rescue the wife of some villager, who was taken by a ghul.

The setting has a strong Middle Eastern flavor, described with excellent detail, firmly setting the reader down in a believable world almost from the first line. Saladin's storytelling voice is authoritative and compelling.
The jaded ghul hunter is wonderfully jaded, in that he's not some grouchy Nick Nolte character who can barely drag himself out of bed to solve another case. His "clients" still believe him to be a pious doctor of monsterology.

As does the young ascetic swordsman who comes to join him and learn to slay ghuls, at the behest of his temple. He is a pious killer in the finest paladinic tradition, seeing the world around him through a veil that only admits black and white. When they meet their first ghuls, he strikes without fear in a scene of whirling mayhem dotted with sorcerous flourishes. More magic ensues when a girl appears and attacks them with knot-blowing magic, a sort of sympathetic magic on steroids. This was, I thought, the best part of the tale. The resolution was satisfying, though I felt it came a bit too quickly, and the magic of the evil sorcerer at the center of the plot seemed weaker than the knot-blowing magic of his magically compelled accomplice.

There were, however, a few weaknesses which kept the story out of the top spot. Though the story hook is good, the adventure hook is weaker - the good doctor is asked to rescue a woman. He has no compelling reason to do so other than duty, which he secretly resents. The lack of a strong adventure hook subsequently robs the story of some of its emotional impact. This is mitigated by the relationship that builds between master and apprentice, as both learn and grow from the experience.

Also, the only monsters in the story are the ghuls, which appear briefly in the middle of the story and are quickly dispatched. As the doctor is a ghul hunter and ghul hunting is the adventure hook, I hoped the ghuls would prove to be more central to the resolution of the plot.

No Foolin'

A few of those fools foolish enough to pursue the largely thankless task of publishing fantasy short fiction (though hopefully not so thankless as once it was) seem to have chosen April Fools Day as a fine day to publish the newest issue of their fine online magazines.

New stories to be devoured at Aurora Wolf, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly (eh-hm, you might notice a slightly familiar name there), and Beneath Ceaseless Skies (March 25).

No foolin', do check out Living Totem by Vaughn Heppner at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. What a powerful tale! A new genre - Flint Axe & Sorcery.

Also of note, the website for Enscorceled, the University of California Berkeley student-run magazine of fantasy and sci-fi, is finally back up and running. Alas, no new content, but hopefully they will have a spring issue out soon.