Get on board and Holdfast! Online spec-fic magazine crowdfunds first anthology.

Holdfast is a free quarterly online speculative fiction magazine that’s been going for a little under a year now. It features original fiction, artwork, essays, author interviews and more. Founded by Laurel Sills and Lucy Smee, it’s a beautifully curated, high quality venture with a clever premise.

Each issue is themed; the theme is comprehensively reflected in the work of a featured author, carefully chosen short fictions, non-fiction essays, an open ‘Letter to …’ a writer whose work has been particularly influential, a bookshelf of recommended titles, a playlist of songs, and a selection of related offerings in other media. I love the breadth of that approach, and the intelligence and sensitivity with which it’s executed, and I’ve been hoping that it wins Laurel and Lucy the recognition and success that they deserve. Issue no1 was Speculating on Speculative Women, featuring Emma Newman; no2 was Animals, Beasts & Creatures with Sarah Pinborough; no3, out now, is Objects, Artefacts & Talismans and features Frances Hardinge.

Now Holdfast is moving to the next level, crowdfunding a new anthology of previously unpublished fiction along with essays and original artwork. The print edition is going to be a beautiful object, and they’re already 30% of the way to their target as I write this. They’ve rounded up an impressive array of milestone incentives and rewards for supporters, but there’s a way to go yet and I really want to see this project happen; so I’ve promised to donate an original unpublished poem once they hit the £2000 target.

Also! Verses from said poem will be inscribed by me into four copies of my novels, which will be bundled with a print copy of the anthology and Holdfast badge and bookmark. There are other great prizes as well. Check them out, contribute, tell your friends and share on social media. Here’s that link again.

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/holdfast-magazine-anthology

AUDIOVISIONARY will be published in PARADOX this summer!

Back in February I talked about having been invited to submit a short story for a themed anthology which will be released later this year. That anthology has now been announced: it’s PARADOX, to be published by NewCon Press and launched at Loncon in August, and I’m delighted that my story Audiovisionary will be part of it. Click the link to check out the great cover and the full table of contents; there are no less than fifteen original pieces of fiction, and a starry list of authors including Pat Cadigan, Adam Roberts, Paul Cornell, Dr Rachel Armstrong, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Tricia Sullivan.

As for what it’s about: The theme of PARADOX is Fermi’s Paradox, a scientific conundrum which essentially boils down to the following: Given the age and scale of the universe, and the relative youth within it of our own solar system, we know there must exist many more planets similar to our own – that is to say, capable of supporting life – and that they will mostly be a lot older than we are. So the probability is high that intelligent life will have evolved elsewhere, and will have had more time to solve problems like interstellar travel and communications. That being the case, why haven’t we heard from them? 

(Or, rather more succinctly: Where is everybody?)

The only requirement set by editor Ian Whates was to write a piece of short fiction that would reflect on, respond to, or in some way be inspired by this. Space science is not my normal stomping ground, nor is short fiction my natural format; but the Fermi problem resonated with an idea I’d already been playing around with, plus I was struggling to get a handle on my next novel and I thought it might be helpful to get my head into something completely different for a while and then come back to it. So I decided to give it a go, and Audiovisionary came out. It’s a real departure for me; I’m looking forward to hearing what readers think, and to the rest of PARADOX.

Short Story Laboratory, or what I learned from going small

A few months ago, something very flattering and totally unexpected happened. Someone I’d met at a con, and who had subsequently read Gemsigns, asked if I would be interested in contributing a short story to an anthology to be published later this year. The theme of the collection is one of the classic scientific conundrums, and the list of people who’d already agreed to take part was impressive. The prospect of getting to add my own take on the topic, and in such starry company, was very exciting. I wanted to say yes immediately. But I hesitated.

Unlike many – possibly most – speculative fiction authors, I’ve never been much of a short story writer. I don’t have a file full of 10-30 page manuscripts, much less a history of publishing same. I did have to write a lot of micro-fiction in order to establish the Scriptopus website in 2010, but those were intentionally constructed as snippets – a paragraph or two that read as a small chunk of a larger work, to encourage the next participant to write the next chunk. The first fully-fledged story that I really wanted to tell emerged as a feature-length screenplay; followed a couple of years later by another screenplay; followed a few years after that by Gemsigns – all 104,000 words of it. Eighteen months later, Binary topped out at 114,000 words. Not exactly GRRM-scale doorstoppers, but – I don’t really have much form when it comes to short fiction.

Which of course (me being me) meant that I really wanted to give it a try. I wanted to see if I could take what I’d learned writing two thematically complex novels, with large casts of characters and multiple interweaving plotlines, and distill the essence of what makes them work into a few thousand words of self-contained story. But I didn’t think it was fair to simply accept the invitation without warning the commissioning editor that it was going to be a bit of a first for me, and I half-expected the enthusiasm on the other end to dim considerably as a result.

Instead I was told – go for it.

So I did, and I learned a few things along the way. One is that what interests me doesn’t seem to change because the frame I’m working in is smaller; so once again, I’ve written a story with some fairly significant ethical questions at its heart. I’m pro-science and pro-technology, but more than anything else I am pro-humanity; and negotiating the intersection between what is possible and what is moral is a theme I keep on returning to in spite of myself.

Another is that, lacking the scale for complicated plot development and lengthy character arcs, short fiction requires some hard choices about what to put in and what to leave out. It seems to me that genre writers mostly tend to focus on plot, often constructing the classic three acts that allow the short story to feel complete but forgoing much exploration of the internal lives of characters (and sometimes forgoing characters altogether). That’s a perfectly legitimate option, of course, but for me a story is made interesting (or not) by the people in it; so I decided to go in virtually the opposite direction, and to focus entirely on what the characters think and feel about the situation they find themselves in.

That meant finding a way of constructing plot almost as a side effect of exploring character; and it also meant accepting that the story remains, at the end, unresolved. It’s up to the reader to draw conclusions about what will or should happen, based on what s/he now knows about the characters. That felt like quite a risky thing to do, and it leads me to a third thing I discovered: short fiction is a great platform for trying things you haven’t tried before. In addition to the open-ended ending, I employed several narrative tricks and techniques that I’ve not (yet) used in my novels. There was a character whose gender I couldn’t decide on; it wasn’t important to the story, so a third of the way in I decided to see if I could write the whole thing without being backed into the pronoun corner (turns out I could). I told it in first-person present-tense, bouncing between four different points of view. I used highly emotive language to construct what is usually posited as an essentially intellectual dilemma.

I don’t think I would have attempted, or could have sustained, that kind of concentrated stylistic experimentation over 100,000+ words. At less than 7000 it was just about do-able, although the jury is still out on the result. I sent the manuscript in a couple of days ago, but the editor is backed up with projects (aren’t we all) and so probably won’t get around to reading it for another few weeks. Which means I probably won’t find out whether it’s been accepted into the anthology for a couple of months yet.

I hope it is, of course – along with my second novel, I’d love this to be the year I also have a professionally published short story. And I hope there’ll be more, but I don’t think I’m going to morph into a prolific short story writer. One of the other things that’s become apparent is that my ideas tend towards the larger scale; a beta reader remarked that the first draft read to him like the opening chapters of a novel, and would I be writing the rest of it?

So now I’m thinking … short stories as a way of developing techniques, themes, characters, which are then more fully explored in a longer piece? Or conversely, focusing more intensely on an aspect of character, theme, technique than is possible in a longer piece? I’d be really curious to know if anyone constructs a dialogue between their long and short fiction in this way, and how well it works for them.

  • I love stories.
    My new novel, Sacred, is all about them. Publication info will be posted as soon as I have it.

    In the meantime check out Gemsigns, Binary and Regeneration, available wherever good books are sold.

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