It’s been a hard week for writing. Don’t get me wrong: lots of writing is happening. But there are so many different projects going on, I struggled to steal a few hours to write a short story. And then, when I finally sat down at my computer, the words wouldn’t come. I wrestled it like Jacob with the angel, eked out 1500 words, decided they were terrible, started again and got 1400…
And I’m back to square one.But I also think I have sorted out what’s wrong with the story. You see, I had to remind myself of two major lessons this past week…
This is a lesson I’ve been learning from my dive into CanLit. Alice Munro does this incredibly well. A woman goes to meet a man in Stratford, and it’s devastating. A young girl kissed a pilot decades ago, and your heart breaks. They’re plots that loop back upon themselves, layering in backstory and inferences. And these small, mundane tragedies, once magnified, become absolutely epic.
Similarly, I finished Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel yesterday. In simplest terms, an old woman flees into the woods and remembers her life.
You guys, I cried so much.
Narrowed focus. Details that catch and tear like fish-hooks. These are stories that dive deeper and closer, spiralling like a Mandelbrot set.
That’s what I want to explore. For now, anyway.
You can only write your stories.
Of course, when the thread of the story snapped, I threw myself into a tailspin. Obviously, the problem was me. My story doesn’t have the gut-wrenching emotion of Keri Hulme. Or the intellectual depth of Theodora Goss. Or the hypnotic quality of Cat Valente. Or the weirdness of Kelly Link, or the sheer storytelling oomph of Kij Johnson, or the beautiful cruelty/cruel beauty of Aimee Bender.
Of course it doesn’t. I’m not those writers.
I’m KT Bryski. Whatever I write has to come from me. In the end, it has to be my voice, my heart, my story.
And I thought: what did I write, before the stress and tension took hold? What did I write before I was afraid? What did I write when no one was watching?
I went back to one of my few pre-Stonecoast short stories: “After the Winds,” in When the Hero Comes Home Vol. II. Guess what I found?
A northern village.
The yearning for home.
Motifs of breaking free, healing, and finding one’s place.
It was all there. Those are the things that constitute the heart of me. While I’d do some things differently now, it was good to see that, really—I know who I am. I know what matters to me. It’s all there inside: I just need to trust it.
And so I’d add…
Keep Going.Go smaller.
Tell your stories.
We got this.
What I’m Listening to this Week
“Vale Decem” from Doctor Who, because the following line from “The End of Time” popped into my head:
This song is ending, but the story never ends.
This is a transitional time. Some songs are ending, which is painful and exhausting. But the story—the story never ends. Also, add an extra 10 points to this piece for an ethereal countertenor.
Like approximately three million people worldwide, I participated in the Women’s March this past Saturday. The Toronto march began on the steps of the Ontario Legislature: signs in hands, pink pussyhats on heads, and chants ringing out into the January air.“Tell me what diversity looks like?”
“THIS IS WHAT DIVERSITY LOOKS LIKE!”
“Tell me what equality looks like?”
“THIS IS WHAT EQUALITY LOOKS LIKE!”
Thinking about it, though, there’s one more I would have added:
“THIS IS WHAT OUR BRAVERY LOOKS LIKE!”
Speaking up and out is a very brave thing to do. Saying, “No,” is brave. Choosing to love is brave. It made me think, once again, of my favourite book: Not Wanted on the Voyage, by Timothy Findley.
Not Wanted on the Voyage is a magic realist retelling of Noah’s Ark that gives a sharp critique to patriarchy and voices to the voiceless. In one scene, Mrs. Noyes (Noah’s wife) comforts bears during a storm on the ark, despite her terror of/anger towards them. Later, she muses:
“Cruelty was fear in disguise and nothing more…[and wasn’t] fear itself nothing more a failure of the imagination? That was why Mrs. Noyes had been afraid of bears. She had not been able to imagine consoling them.”
-Timothy Findley, Not Wanted on the Voyage.
When I look at Noah in Not Wanted, when I look at Trump, at the people railing against immigrants, the LGBTQIA+ community, minorities, Indigenous populations, women…I see a similar streak of fear. Look at their eyes. Listen to their tone of voice. You see it too, don’t you? These awful, cruel, immoral people—they’re all so scared.
Being scared is fine. Let’s be quite clear about that. But fear comes with a choice. You can act in spite of fear. You can love. Or you can let fear decay into hatred and cruelty. You see, being brave isn’t something you are. Being brave is something you choose: over and over and over.
It’s a hard choice to make, of course. Choosing bravery is exhausting. When you’re brave, you confront that fear: whether yours, or someone else’s. In choosing bravery, you imagine another way.
But that is the choice that three million people made this past weekend. It’s the choice that many millions more make in their own spaces. We’ll have to remake and recommit to it even more in the near future.
And yes, bravery is a choice that I will make in my fiction. If fear is a failure of the imagination—then let there be new stories to challenge it. Rewrite the characters and change the ending. Undermine the dominant narrative.
Bring people to a place where they can imagine consoling bears.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Puccini’s “Crisantemi” (Chrysanthemums) is a devastating little elegy for strings. I love the constant tension between fragile delicacy and driving momentum. It’s a restless, unsettled piece. Apt, since Puccini composed it for the death of the Duke of Savoy (chrysanthemums are a symbol of death in Italy). In places, it almost makes one think of rain – perhaps a brooding, ruminative walk through evening drizzle.
Welcome to 2017, everyone. The year’s unfolding like a blank sheet of paper: no creases or smudges yet. As per my own tradition, I’ve written out my creative goals in Sharpie and tacked them above my desk. There, they’ll serve as a north star for the year: something around which to orient myself.
But I don’t really want to talk about my creative resolutions. They’re there: novels and scripts and short stories, oh my! I’ll do them. You’ll see them unfold over the next twelve months.
No, I want to talk about a question posed to me by a friend: “Do you have any personal resolutions?” I hemmed and hawed and eventually said no, not really, but the question stuck with me. I mean, I’m generally quite happy. My friends are awesome. I love living in my little garret. I have a weird-but-charming cat.I’m still working on getting my French back up to snuff. Does that count?
Then I thought vaguely that I might like to attend to my diet better. Whilst I’m in good health, it occurs to me that my family’s track record for stroke and heart disease is not super fantastic, and it might be better to bolster my defences now.
But then I thought, “No, I have a better one.”
I want to be more like Carrie Fisher.
Of all the celebrity deaths in 2016, Carrie Fisher was the one that shook me. Maybe because it was so unexpected. Maybe because she was young. Maybe because it was cardiac arrest. Or maybe because I’ve really only appreciated her in the last few years.
See, I didn’t grow up with Star Wars. Leia was not my first princess, not my childhood heroine. Instead, I got hit with the prequels. They left me terribly unimpressed, and I didn’t find my way to the original trilogy until university.
And then—well, then, of course I fell in love with Princess Leia. How can you not? She’s the one with the caustic humour; she fires the guns; she is strong and brave and good.But all that aside—it’s a mix of General Organa and Fisher herself that impresses me most. Tough. Resilient. Still delivering caustic humour (my God, that wit!). Sure of herself and who she is. It was really only when she did the media rounds for The Force Awakens that I saw that side of her—tough as nails, smart as a whip, and a heart of gold. Of course, of course she was human. I’ll pass on following all her examples. But dammit, she was a good human.
Did you know that she was a talented script doctor? I didn’t until earlier this year. It didn’t surprise me much.
And you know about her mental health advocacy, right?
And the books? Fiction and non-fiction?For so many children, Princess Leia showed that girls can shoot just as well as boys, that you can be tough and tender, and that heroines get shit done. For me, I nurtured a gradually growing admiration for Ms. Fisher: for her honesty, her talent, the way she carried herself. Until suddenly, she was gone. It still doesn’t feel real. There’s always a certain bafflement, isn’t there? How does someone so loved, so vibrant, just go out like a snuffed candle?
Except the lessons and the example and the admiration remain. While I’m cautiously hopeful for 2017, I know that we’re going to need a lot more heroes and heroines. We’re going to need a lot of tough, tender people who get shit done. We all need to be tough as nails, smart as whips, our hearts of gold beating together.
So that’s what I’m thinking about as 2017 opens. I know I can write stuff and produce stuff and keep to goals and timetables. That’s great—but in this brave new world, it’s no longer enough.
May the Force be with you.
What I’m Listening To This Week
For no particular reason, this Mendelssohn piece came floating through my head. It is absurdly catchy—especially the alto line—so once it struck, it stuck.
Listen to the alto and soprano lines twisting around each other like ribbons—they’ll run in counter directions for a bit, join back together, support each other…it’s really quite wonderful.
Welcome back! Last week, we looked at some great fiction from a talented bunch of authors. This week, our year-in-review continues with Things I Did In 2016.
Every year on New Year’s Day, I sit down with a piece of 8.5 x 11 paper and a Sharpie, and I write down my creative goals for the year. I ask myself, “When we get to December 31st, what do I want to have accomplished?”
Here was my list for 2016:
Let’s go through these one by one.
Write first draft of Sing to the Bones
I did that in February. It was insane. In hindsight, I have mixed feelings about writing a novel that quickly, but I’m also not sure that I could do it any other way.
This was a novel that I had to let sit for a while (I also had to go to Ireland to really get it right in my head). I spent October editing it to a second draft, and sent it to readers again. I’m waiting on a few last notes to come back, and I intend to start agent-hunting in the New Year.Finish scripts for Pod-Con
Man, we didn’t even touch this. For those newcomers, this is a podcasted musical that Lauren Harris and I wanted to write. However, I’m moving away from audio fiction, so I’m not sure this is still in the cards. Honestly, I’d mentally removed it from the list.
Produce Folklore somehow
Folklore was an early code-name for Six Stories, Told at Night. Making this list in January, I knew grant decisions wouldn’t go out until March. I figured if I didn’t get the money, I’d throw it up on Audible or something. But as it happened, the Ontario Arts Council did give us the grant, and so this one-woman audio drama rolled out exactly as hoped…although the response was even warmer than I’d dared dream!Write a play: Southern Ontario Gothic
That was November! It was slightly less insane than writing Sing to the Bones. This will get edited around the New Year, and hopefully I can haul some actors in to read it in late January/early February.
Write and submit short stories to pro markets
Really, I wanted to put, “Sell a short story to a pro market,” but I can’t control whether my stories get bought, so I didn’t. But that was the real goal, deep in my heart of hearts.
And I did sell stories to pro markets! “La Corriveau” sold to Strange Horizons and “The Love it Bears Fair Maidens” just came out at Apex. “Wendigo” also won the Toronto Star Short Story Contest, which I will count as publication (hey, most government arts councils do).Outline TEGG novels
I did that! Sort of. Enough that I can knock off the first novel of the trilogy in summer 2017.
So…I achieved my creative goals. But as is my wont, I felt like I could’ve done more, like I could’ve tried harder. Then I realized that I did more than what I’d put on the list. Looking at the year in its entirety, this is What I Did In 2016:Got my Masters’ degree
Wrote the first draft of a novel
Edited three manuscripts for other people
Wrote eight short stories
Wrote the first draft of a full-length play
Wrote two pantomimes for the museum dayjob
Wrote, produced, and released a s***-tonne of videos for the museum dayjob
Got an Ontario Arts Council grant to produce Six Stories, Told at Night
Produced and released Six Stories, Told at Night
Produced and released the Heartstealer audiobook
“Don’t Read This Story” came out at Daily Science Fiction
Sold “La Corriveau” to Strange Horizons
Sold “The Love it Bears Fair Maidens” to Apex
Won the Toronto Star Short Story Contest with “Wendigo”
Wrote/currently producing “On Thin Ice” for the final season of Tales From the Archives
Edited the first draft of a novel into the second draft
Was a guest at Can*Con
Became an Active Member in SFWA
Sold one more story, details to come.
…so do I still feel like I could have done more?Absolutely. Much like Alexander Hamilton, I will never be satisfied. On the one hand, I think that’s a good thing. Hunger goes a long way in this business. On the other hand, that perpetual ache is something I’m going to have to learn to live with.
But while I might not be completely satisfied, I am pleased. Very pleased. See, in 2015 one of my Stonecoast mentors told me that I was on the cusp, to be patient, and to just keep working as hard as I could. Some big breaks came my way in 2016. I don’t think I’ve tipped over the cusp yet, but I feel a lot closer, and I’m excited to see what 2017 brings!
What I’m Listening to this Week
Y’all know I’m honest with this segment. Last week I saw my colleague Devon Hubka’s one-woman show Everything I Need. It was a delightful exploration of her love of theatre and pursuit of acting. This song recurred as a motif throughout:
Not only is it ridiculously catchy, the lyrics speak to me, particularly in light of this week’s post. No room for doubt—just shut up and dance.
We’re getting into the last weeks of 2016, which means it’s time for year-in-review posts! Next week, we’ll get into What I Did in 2016. This week, I want to talk about what Other People Have Done. So, here are some things I Read and Loved in 2016. (I did read and love much more than this, but alas, I cannot fit them all.) Not all were published in 2016, but that’s okay. In no particular order:
The name “Alex White” should be familiar. He wrote the theme music for Six Stories, Told at Night! Alex is a ridiculously talented Renaissance Man, and I was excited to crack into his debut novel.
Ghosts have always been cruel to Loxley Fiddleback, especially the spirit of her only friend, alive only hours before. Loxley isn’t equipped to solve a murder: she lives near the bottom of a cutthroat, strip-mined metropolis known as “The Hole,” suffers from crippling anxiety and doesn’t cotton to strangers. Worse still, she’s haunted.
It’s an evocative world, but for me, the novel’s greatest strength is its protagonist: Loxley. She’s neuro-atypical, difficult, flawed—and oh, so very real. Plus, there is a veritable arsenal of Chekhov’s guns, which pleases me.
At Can*Con this year, I was asked, “Have you read any Elizabeth Hand? I think you’d like her.”
“Oh!” I replied. “I love Liz!”
And I do—as former student and reader. I read the back cover copy of Mortal Love at my graduating residency and had to have it:
In the Victorian Age, a mysterious and irresistible woman becomes entwined in the lives of several artists, both as a muse and as the object of all-consuming obsession.
Liz writes everything from sci-fi to noir thrillers. The books I’ve read are beautifully-wrought, vibrantly-coloured fever dreams. Completely entrancing, even as the colours keep shifting, shifting….
This was a “Sure, I’ll try it!” find from the library:
Nevada, 1869. Golgotha is a cattle town that hides more than its share of unnatural secrets. A haven for the blessed and the damned, Golgotha has known many strange events, but nothing like the darkness stirring in the abandoned mine overlooking the town…
1860s setting aside, I did not expect to enjoy this as much as I did. It’s not so much a single, linear plot as immersion into a world. Nor is it a single genre: Weird West, epic fantasy, and Lovecraftian horror all come together. Some reviewers aren’t convinced of the execution; I think it worked, but you have to play by the novel’s terms, rather than your own expectations.
Another library book: “I like Peter S. Beagle, so I will probably like this!”
Jennifer Gluckstein moves with her mother to a 300-year-old farm in Dorset, England, to live with her new stepfather and stepbrothers, Julian and Tony. Initially lonely, Jenny befriends Tamsin Willoughby, the ghost of the original farm’s owner’s daughter.
Peter S. Beagle writes beautiful fiction, okay? Beautiful, unassuming fiction that wallops you with emotion. While I loved the way history exerts its inexorable power over the plot, I adored the nuanced relationship between Jenny and Tamsin. But then, I am a sucker for strong friendships and (pseudo-) sibling relationships in my fiction.
I bought this the day it was released. Howard has a discomforting ability to punch my very specific emotional buttons. And we seem to have very similar tastes and interests. And styles. And we were clearly both taught by James Patrick Kelly. And it’s a little uncanny, actually. Anyway—
Imogen and her sister Marin escape their cruel mother to attend a prestigious artists’ retreat, but soon learn that living in a fairy tale requires sacrifices, whether it be art or love.
Sibling angst? Check. Musing on art and artistic obsession? Check. Faerie? Check.
Goddammit, Kat Howard. There’s a little unevenness here and there, but I loved this, finishing in a tearstained rush on the bus.
Marie’s a pal of mine from my Dragon Moon days – I was stoked to pick this up at Can*Con. It’s a French translation of her novel Destiny’s Blood.
Layela et Yoma Delamores – des jumelles – ont passé la majeure partie de leur vie dans la rue, survivant grâce à de multiples petits larcins. Maintenant dans la vingtaine, Layela a convaincu sa sœur de se ranger : avec l’argent amassé, il est temps d’ouvrir un commerce. Mais quelques jours après l’inauguration de leur boutique de fleuristes, Yoma disparaît…
(Tl;dr: Epic space opera: twins try to open a flower shop after a life of petty crime, but then one disappears…)
My French is okay. I can make myself understood (clumsily), and I mostly understand when I’m listening/reading. About 1/3 of the way through this novel, I felt like I stopped translating in my head and just started reading. As is typical for Marie’s work, this is both surreally funny and bitterly dark. I was shipping two characters pretty hard, but I think my hope arose mostly from my spotty FSL skills.
Bonus Short Story: “Three Letters from the Queen of Elfland,” by Sarah Monette.
Found in a collection of shorts from Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. I’m sensing a theme with what I like: Victorian things, Faerie, and unconventional relationships. This story has all three in spades, and the emotional undercurrent nearly melted even my icy heart.
So that’s my 2016, reading-wise. What about you? What did you read and love?
What I’m Listening to this Week
Christmas music! John Gardner’s arrangement of “Tomorrow Shall be my Dancing Day” is delightful! It really does need to move quickly: the sprightly organ is perfect. Especially when the descant hits in the last verse: it sounds like we’re about to dance off the rails, but then we don’t.
Once, in the distant days of my youth, I was at a ChiZine reading series talking to Canadian fantasy author Caitlin Sweet. She was very kind to me (she ended up being the final, encouraging push to send Hapax into the world), and I’ll never forget the advice she gave me:
“Don’t worry about getting published too early.”
She went on to explain that publishing too early sets up expectations: both for you and by you. It can mess with your head. It tends to leave you perpetually insecure that you’re not living up to the promise and potential of your youth.
Naturally, I sold Hapax less than a year later. Go figure.
Anyway, she was right on some counts. I’ve gotten a lot better at managing insecurities, but there is sometimes a certain worry that things are taking “too long,” that I’m not living up to the expectation set. While I’m pleased with what I’ve accomplished so far, I’m nowhere near where I want to be.
So I did a little research.
I pulled up some stats on twenty-four modern science fiction and fantasy authors. Some have been at this for a few decades. Some are new to the scene. Some are American; some Canadian; some British. Some are friends. (Hi, Mur! Hi, Pip! Hi, Jim!) Some, I’ve never met. All are still writing; all are authors I admire.
Specifically, what I wanted to find out what this: how much time passed between an author’s First Sale, and their Big Sale?
By Big Sale, I mean the sale that you look at, and say, “Yes, they’ve arrived.” The sale that made them as authors. It was less black-and-white than you’d think. Some authors took the fairly traditional route of starting with a short story in a small magazine and then eventually landing a novel deal with one of the Big Five.
For those who are primarily short-story writers, I looked for the first big award: the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy Award, etc.
For one mostly-independent author, I went with the year they left their dayjob.
So a mixture of strict criteria, and saying, “Eh, I guess this makes sense?” Here’s what I found:
The average gap between an author’s First Sale and their Big Sale was 5.75 years.
Of course, looking at the data, there are some outliers. For some authors, their First Sale was their Big Sale, and they’ve been churning out fiction ever since. Conversely, three authors had more than ten years pass between the two.
Generally speaking, though, the bulk of my sample fell within 4-6 years.
There are some theories I can put forth for this Five-Year Gap. First of all, in the case of novels, you’re looking at an 18-month lag time…at least…between acceptance and publication. Add to that the agent hunt, which can take a year, and that goes part-way to explaining it.
Otherwise…dude, after your first sale, you’re still growing. I return once again to my “boy soprano’s breaking voice” analogy. When the first cracks in your voice appear, you don’t go straight to singing bass. You might wander around the different parts for a while until you settle. Even if you can hit the notes, the full richness and technical mastery of an adult voice won’t come until later.
Similarly, there’s still a period of growth that happens with new authors. And sometimes, I suspect, the gap between sales may be sheer dumb luck, or lack thereof, or other priorities.
Because Caitlin Sweet was right and I retain some neuroticism over my relative youth, I also examined biographical information, where available. If a birth date wasn’t on an author’s Wikipedia page, I didn’t hunt too hard for it.
Looking purely at biography, most authors seem to make their First Sale in their late twenties to early thirties, and their Big Sale in their mid-thirties to early forties. Again, there are outliers (looking at you, Rachel Swirsky). The age range, I suspect, probably has to do with the emotional maturity that develops through the twenties. Lots of university kids write well; there’s not always the same depth, which is to be expected.
One interesting thing I noted: the younger an author was when making their First Sale, the longer the gap tended to be until their Big Sale (Swirsky aside). This lends credence to my “emotional maturing = better writing” theory, and seems to jive with Kelly Robson’s thoughts on being a “late bloomer.”
Of course, comparing your career to others’ is rarely touted as a good idea. That way, madness lies. I mean: look at all my outliers! Everyone follows their own path!
…but sometimes, it is comforting to look at trends. We all follow our own paths, but it’s nice to see if you’re going in the same general direction. Looking at my own data, my First Sale was Hapax in 2012.
I haven’t made my Big Sale, yet. But looking at the charts, I seem to be right on track. 🙂
What I’m Listening to this Week
Regular readers know of my love for Ola Gjeilo’s music. Guess what??? I got to see him this weekend at a choral concert! (I also saw my lovely former collaborator, composer Norbert Palej.)
I hadn’t heard the “Credo” portion of Gjeilo’s Sunrise Mass before, and it totally captivated me. Listen to the frantic, pulsing strings: totally captures the rush of urban life. The “crucifixus” motif around 4:24 is a jagged little heartbreak, and of course, I’m a sucker for the last driving, thundering two minutes.
It’s not Monday! What am I doing here?
I’m getting ready for a con, that’s what! More specifically, I’m heading to Ottawa for the Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts and Literature. You can see why it’s up my alley. 😉
This is my first Can-Con, and I’m stoked. I haven’t been to Ottawa in years, and I’ll be spending the weekend with really wonderful writers – the Canadian contingent, if you will.
Everything on my schedule happens on Saturday…which will make for a very busy day, but it’ll be much easier to keep track of everything!
1:00 pm – 1:55 pm: Stormtalons: The Second Setting in The Ed Greenwood Group (Ed Greenwood, Marie Bilodeau, many authors, Me)
Ed Greenwood introduces the second setting in his new publishing venture, with authors on hand to chat worldbuilding and suchlike!
3:00 pm – 3:55 pm: Readings (Madeline Ashby, Eric Choi, Me)
As this con has a Canadian-content focus, I’ll naturally be reading from Six Stories, Told at Night. Actually, I’m hoping to play audio from the first episode: Blythe’s accent is much, much better than mine.
8:00 pm – 8:55 pm: The Beer Panel (Me, Brent Nichols, Mark Leslie Lefebvre, Max Turner)
Only the coolest conventions have beer panels. Join us in the Con Suite to hear us debate and discuss our favourite beverage. I’ll have Six Stories swag on hand for this panel!
The rest of the time, I’ll be gallivanting, meeting people, and possibly frolicking. This is my only official convention this year (I was budgeting for Dublin, but I’m hoping to hit more in 2017), and I hadn’t realized until this week how much I’ve missed the con experience. I miss the energy, the excitement, the creative boost…which makes this weekend all the more welcome.
So come say hi, grab a beer at the bar with me, and let’s celebrate Canadian spec-fic, eh? 😀
What I’m Listening To Today
I found a super cool vocal version of Beethoven’s 7th. The 7th is actually my favourite Beethoven symphony; this slightly updated version is nothing if not hypnotizing.
So I assume we’ve all seen the WIRED article, right? This one: the one really excited that podcast fiction is “finally” a thing?
Evidently, they’ve overlooked that podcast fiction kicked off in 2005, and that 2007-2009 was arguably the Golden Age of the Podcast Novel. In fact, the origins and development of the genre were the topic of a massive essay I wrote at Stonecoast. I suspect others will be doing overviews of podcasts from 2005-2012, so… I’d like to share a different portion of my essay, one that proposes a new means by which to classify the genre.
II. Parsing the Parsecs: Proposing a New Taxonomy of Podcast Fiction
Despite the genre’s significant development over the past decade, few attempts have been made to rigorously classify podcast fiction. Nevertheless, there is a generally understood difference between “full cast podcasts” and “straight reads.” A “full cast podcast” generally refers to a fully scored and produced podcast novel featuring the use of numerous actors, as in the case of Morevi, Chasing the Bard, Murder at Avedon Hill, Metamor City, et al. By contrast, a “straight read” features a single reader and minimal production. Mur Lafferty’s Heaven series is thus a “straight read,” alongside numerous audio fiction magazines such as the Escape Artists’ triumvirate—Escape Pod, PodCastle, and PseudoPod—and the Clarkesworld podcast.
However, the distinction between “straight read” and “full cast” is ultimately limiting, particularly within the field of “full cast” podcast fiction. “Full cast,” as it appears in general usage, obscures the distinction between fully-produced, fully-casted podcast novels, and fully-produced, fully-casted audio dramas. Adhering strictly to a straight read/full cast binary, both Morevi and We’re Alive could be considered full cast podcasts. However, Morevi was originally released as a print novel, and relies heavily on narration to tell the story. As such, it undertakes a fundamentally different approach to storytelling than does We’re Alive, which instead lies primarily on dialogue, performance, and sound, with minimal narrative segments.
This difference between podcast novel and audio drama is recognized by the Parsec Awards for Excellence in Speculative Fiction Podcasting. There, the primary distinction amongst podcasts is not between straight read/full cast, but rather between “story” and “audio drama.” According to the Parsecs’ 2015 category descriptions, a story “…uses narration as its primary means to convey scene and action,” whereas in an audio drama, “Storytelling is effected through the dialogue of its characters and sound effects/scenery presenting action and scene as it’s [sic] primary mechanism.” While these categories differentiate between the two major approaches to storytelling within podcast fiction, they also have certain limitations. Specifically, there is perhaps insufficient nuance in the “story” category.
For example, the 2014 category “Best Speculative Fiction Story: Small Cast (Short Form),” included both the stories “Why the Sea is Boiling Hot,” (author Michael Spence, podcasted on Tales from the Archives) and “Growth Spurt,” (author Paul Lorello, podcasted on Pseudopod). However, while both “Why the Sea is Boiling Hot” and “Growth Spurt” are indeed small cast, short stories, they function very differently. Despite being small cast, “Why the Sea is Boiling Hot” adopts the production values associated with “full cast” podcasts: music and complex sound effects to denote an aethergate are particularly noticeable. Conversely, “Growth Spurt” has a single reader, no music, and no sound effects.  Despite being in the same category, “Why the Sea is Boiling Hot” is essentially a “full cast” podcast with a very small cast, whereas “Growth Spurt” is a straight read.
Thus, neither a full cast/straight read nor audio drama/story dichotomy is sufficient to classify podcast fiction. The full cast/straight read binary obscures the artistic differences between audio book and audio drama (though again, this difference is understood in general parlance), while focusing on that distinction to the exclusion of all else overlooks the many variances in production amongst podcast stories.
As such, this paper proposes a new taxonomy for podcast fiction. Examining the genre broadly, it is evident that some podcasts (PodCastle, Clarkesworld, Jim Kelly’s Free Reads, Heaven) use audio primarily as a means of distribution, whereas for others (Hidden Harbour Mysteries, The Antithesis Progression, We’re Alive, The Leviathan Chronicles), sound is integral to the story itself—whether the podcast in question is an audio book or audio drama. Therefore, this paper proposes classifying podcasts not by “full cast/straight read,” or by “audio drama/story,” but rather, by “read fiction” and “performed fiction.” “Performed fiction” relies on the use of dramatic techniques to tell the story—that is, music, sound effects, and acting— while “read fiction” does not. The category of “performed fiction” can then be subdivided into “audio drama” and “audio story,” under the same criteria utilized by the Parsecs. This classification, therefore, combines both the commonly-understood distinction between straight read and full cast, along with the Parsecs’ observance of stories and dramas as separate genres.
However, this means of classifying podcasts is not intended as a strict binary. Rather, conceiving of podcast fiction as a spectrum more accurately reflects the vast array of podcasts that have been produced. At one extreme are those stories which are read by a single narrator, without music, acting, or sound effects. Indeed, such stories might not have originally been intended for audio distribution at all. In its submissions guidelines, Pseudopod states, “We do not discriminate between previously published and unpublished works…we encourage new authors to send their work to other markets first, and then send it to us for audio rights after the story has appeared.” Thus, the stories it solicits are not necessarily written with podcasting in mind, unlike We’re Alive or Hidden Harbor [ETA: Or Six Stories, Told At Night]. As such, the performance is not an integral part of those stories—they lose very little when experienced as pure text.
The shift from read to performed podcast fiction occurs as a result of the use of dramatic techniques. Music, sound effects, and voice acting are used to communicate setting, atmosphere, and character in addition to what is already suggested by the text. Thus, reading and listening to performed narratives are ultimately very different experiences. The key distinction between read and performed narratives therefore lies not in the amount of dramatic techniques used, but rather, in their importance to the story. For instance, it is fairly common to have musical interludes introduce and finish segments of audiobooks; however, they have little impact on the storytelling. By contrast, the now-removed podcast Weather Child had relatively light scoring and sound effects, and a cast of two. As these elements were integral, Weather Child was nevertheless performed. This is particularly evident when considering its use of voice acting to portray character.
The use of voice acting is the most telling characteristic of performed fiction. Acting necessarily denotes performance. However, it is misleading to deem a read narrative “performance” when the reader has simply used different voices to distinguish characters. Here, this paper draws a distinction between “reading with voices” and “voice acting.” While reading, the reader speaks like the character. While performing, the actor speaks as the character. Admittedly, this distinction contains a certain amount of subjectivity, but it is generally useful.
For example, the podcast novels Weaver’s Web (Philippa Ballantine) and Ancestor (Scott Sigler) are both read by a single voice. However, Ballantine offers performances of her characters—this is particularly evident in her portrayal of the Weavers. Sigler can affect accents and emotions effectively—as in the case of troubled geneticist Lu Jian Dan—but ultimately, the difference is one of kind rather than degree. While some allowance should be made for a reader/actor’s particular skill, the difference between reading and acting is ultimately one of intention rather than talent.
Having determined the importance of voice acting in distinguishing podcast works as performed fiction, it is now necessary to examine the distinctions between performed narrative and audio drama. As the name suggests, performed narratives are primarily told through narration, whereas audio dramas are told through sound. This paper agrees with the general definitions put forth by the Parsec Awards.  However, this paper maintains that performed narratives fall along a spectrum. Weaver’s Web lies at one extreme: it is a performance due to its use of voice acting, but relies almost entirely on narration. Conversely, Hidden Harbor Mysteries is explicitly presented as a 1930s radio play. Therefore, it is unquestionably a drama. Not only is there minimal narration, but the narrator himself is another character. Yet between these two extremes fall podcasts such as The Guild of the Cowry Catchers, Metamor City: Making the Cut, and The Antithesis Progression. Sound is more integral to the storytelling than would be the case in a strict narrative, yet there is more narration than would be incorporated into a drama.
Thus, using these distinctions and taxonomy, one might say that We’re Alive is a large-cast audio drama, Weaver’s Web is a solo performed narrative, and “England Under the White Witch,” by Theodora Goss, as read by Kate Baker on Clarkesworld, is a read short story.
 Bryan Lincoln, Episode 73: Straight Read vs. Full Cast, accessed March 26, 2015.
 “2015 Category Descriptions,” Parsec Awards, accessed March 26, 2015. <http://www.parsecawards.com/2015-parsec-awards/category-descriptions/>
 “2014 Parsec Award Winners and Finalists,” Parsec Awards, accessed March 26, 2015.
 Michael Spence, Why the Sea is Boiling Hot, podcast audio, Tales from the Archives Vol. III, edited Philippa Ballantine and Tee Morris, MP3, 24:30-32:30, accessed March 24, 2015. <http://www.ministryofpeculiaroccurrences.com/2014/03/25/tales-from-the-archives-iii-three/>
Paul Lorello, Growth Spurt, podcast audio, Pseudopod, edited Shaun M. Garrett, MP3, accessed March 24, 2015. <http://pseudopod.org/2013/10/25/pseudopod-357-growth-spurt/>
 Lincoln, Episode 73: Straight Read vs. Full Cast, 35:06.
 “2015 Category Descriptions,” Parsec Awards, accessed March 26, 2015. <http://www.parsecawards.com/2015-parsec-awards/category-descriptions/>
So I’m still not entirely sure where Six Stories, Told at Night falls…but since it’s performed, and uses a lot of narrative – a solo performed piece?
Also, Tee Morris and I made this awesome infographic detailing other fiction podcasts pre-dating Welcome to Night Vale’s 2012 launch. Check it out, and discover some other cool listens!
What I’m Listening To This Week
Sometimes, there’s a song that I don’t even remember stumbling across. Amy MacDonald’s “This is the Life,” for instance. I heard this first back in high school, and it’s popped up again. Not my usual style, but quite enjoyable!
With Six Stories, Told at Night merrily dropping episodes, I’ve been reflecting on two much earlier plays I wrote. This was ages ago, when I was all of sixteen/seventeen. I’d written one play about an author who falls in love with her character—he’s onstage, but only she can see/hear him, which results in much hilarity and absurd humour. The second was a play written in response to that first play. It was a very pointed criticism of art criticism, in which characters debate the meaning of an abstract statue, resulting in much hilarity and absurd humour.
Both were pretty clever. Even at the time, though, I had whispers in my ear saying, “There’s a difference between being clever and being good.”
Being sixteen/seventeen, I ignored those whispers and merrily churned out more clever writing. Most of it wasn’t very good. But what do I mean, about the difference between clever and good?
Clever skims the surface. Clever is slick. Clever is a neat idea—perhaps even an original idea—perhaps even a good idea—but it isn’t followed through as fully as it could be. That’s the thing about cleverness, you see. It’s quick—the flash of a firefly, bright for a moment and gone.
Clever gets you praise. Clever makes you laugh.
Good makes you think.
John Scalzi’s written about this very topic, as it relates to young writers. If I may quote him, he noted that, “There’s nothing wrong with being clever, and it’s possible to be clever and good at the same time. But you need to know when clever is not always the best solution.”
I think that an important difference is this: with cleverness, there is usually an element of showing off. Like we said—the flash of a firefly. It can be easy to get distracted by the surface show, and not realize that there’s very little of substance underneath. So when Scalzi says you can be clever and good at the same time, I suppose that means you’ve got both the shiny, slick exterior trappings, as well as something of greater depth.
It’s really hard to do. Again, I think this is partly because cleverness directs its energy towards itself—look at me, my smarts, my humour—whereas things that are good direct themselves outwards, striving to connect to something within the audience. In a way, then, good cleverness needs to be oddly unaware of itself.
Recently, I wrote a story with a clever ending…but something about it nagged at me. I heard Jim Kelly’s voice in my ear, whispering, “Yes, yes…you’re very clever, but this ending cheats the reader. Try again, and write something good.”
The same whispers I heard eight years ago—cleverness is a tendency I need to watch in myself—but this time, I listened. I wrote a different ending. We’ll see if it’s a good one.
But hey, we’re learning!
Before we go…you want to see some of this play, don’t you? All right. Fine. I’d say to bear in mind that I was seventeen, but…well, anyway…here it is. The sculptor’s uncle has run into a haughty art critic.
SAGE: Vince, Vince, Vince. Of course art should be enjoyed by everyone. But it should be commented upon and criticized by those who have the training for the job.
VINCE: What if commenting on art is part of the enjoyment?
SAGE: Your opinion does matter, just not as much as the opinion of someone who’s right. Now, if you’ll excuse me, they’ve erected another work by the south end, and I must see it.
VINCE: But wait, your write-up, it’ll be…
SAGE: A cutting exposé of the depraved messages infiltrating our cherished public spaces through rampant narcissism.
VINCE: Look, we can patch this up. Maybe… (He rummages in his pocket.) Maybe Queen Elizabeth can convince you to be a little kinder?
SAGE: What are you implying?
VINCE: (Looks through his wallet) Or maybe you can have a threesome with William Lyon Mackenzie King?
SAGE: Are you suggesting I have sexual relations with a dead prime minister and the Queen of England?
VINCE: No! All I meant was-
SAGE: Never mind family ties; this is why you so adore this monstrosity! Clearly, you are too emotionally immature to understand the wrongness of this statue… and you’re dependent on perverted fantasies!
VINCE: I was trying to bribe you, all right?
SAGE: Oh. That is hardly better! Sexual intercourse can be a wonderful and natural act, but money appeals only to the greed-driven, consumerist levels of the soul.
And then I had an elderly couple whose sole purpose was to wander onstage every so often and offer a dose of absurdity (they later partially resurrected themselves as Old Mabel):
ETHEL: George? Have you a sweetie?
GEORGE: Why, yes!
ETHEL: I like sweeties.
GEORGE: As do I.
ETHEL: Is it an orange sweetie, or a lemon sweetie?
ETHEL: Neither? Then… George, can it be?
GEORGE: Yes! It is a cherry sweetie!
ETHEL: Splendid! (Pause) George, have you only a single sweetie?
GEORGE: Yes, but I shall give it to you.
ETHEL: I couldn’t eat your only sweetie, heavens no. It would be terribly selfish of me.
GEORGE: Then I know what we shall do. We shall purchase other sweeties!
ETHEL: Sweeties are very nice to suck on.
GEORGE: They are. Do you suppose they make scotch sweeties?
ETHEL: Shall we ask?
GEORGE: I think we shall. To the shopkeeper!
They wander offstage.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Sigh…I do like Ola Gjeilo. This week, I’ve been playing a lot of “Unicornis Captivatur.” The text is a Latin chant from the Engelberg Codex, a compilation of chants from ~1400s Switzerland.
Basically, the wounded unicorn is presented to the court, it heals itself, there’s a lot of fairly conventional Christ metaphors, but also phoenixes and hydras eating crocodiles alive from the inside. (Listen for Idrus intrat crocodilum, around 1:45.)
Cover reveal and podcast announcement! Huzzah!
Our new audio drama, Six Stories, Told at Night releases soon—Episode 1 should drop on Sunday, August 14th. There will be links aplenty once that happens, rest assured.
Six Stories, Told at Night has been generously funded by the Ontario Arts Council. What does this mean? It means that, after years of podcasting on a shoestring, I could finally afford to do things properly. Custom music, pro rates for voice talent (an actor AND a singer, oh my), and a gorgeous cover image.
Would you like to see this gorgeous cover image?
Of course you would.
It’s designed by Starla Huchton, after all.
Here it is:
I am so incredibly grateful to the Ontario Arts Council. Someone, please correct me if I’m wrong, but I think I’m the first fantasy podcaster to receive government funding? While that’s neat for my ego, it’s also highly encouraging.
You guys, the government funded an independent podcast. Not only that, the government funded an independent fantasy podcast.
Ten years ago, not many people knew what a podcast was. Not many people outside the community took them all that seriously. While podcasts have since grown more mainstream, this feels incredibly validating. It reaffirms that yes, podcast fiction is legitimate art. It shows that podcasts have changed the way we tell stories—maybe not quite the way we all imagined ten years back, but nevertheless.
And it reaffirms the legitimacy of speculative fiction outside its community. For those keeping score at home—earlier this year, a straight-up fantasy story about cannibal ice monsters won the largest short story contest in Canada. Now Six Stories and its fairy tales contribute to the arts in Ontario. It makes me feel very honoured, very blessed, and very humbled.
It’s been a wild ride. Blythe sounds phenomenal, of course—I think this may be my favourite vocal performance from her. I can’t wait to show you what we’ve been working on. See you next Sunday!
What I’m Listening To This Week
So here’s how I do this: I literally just find whatever song has been most played on my iPod over the past week. That’s it.
Sorry. Not sorry.
This song has acquired a very special poignancy for me. Music starts at 1:04.