Edward Willett

When Words Collide 2017: Canada’s best writing conference

Last weekend my wife and daughter and I made our annual pilgrimage to When Words Collide in Calgary, which has become, not only my favorite writing conference, but, I think, the best writing conference in Canada. (Admittedly, I haven’t been to all of them, but I don’t see how any of them can be appreciably better!)

There are panels on every aspect of writing, and even though many of them are aimed at writers who are just starting out, there are plenty of others of interest to more experienced writers. This year, I particularly enjoyed Tawny Stokes’s panel on pitching books to TV/movie production companies—something I intend to pursue more aggressively—and hearing the talks of the guests of honour: Jennifer Estep, Sam Hiyate, C.C. Humphreys, and Guy Gavriel Kay. (Will Ferguson was also a guest, but was only able to attend for one day, and missed the Friday night session where the others spoke.)

For my part, I gave two presentations. One involved leading attendees through the Seven-Sentence Short Story plotting exercise (created by James van Pelt), which I’ve done about four years in a row now, and which has proved quite popular. (My own example this year wasn’t one of my best efforts, so I’ll spare you reading it.)

I also gave, for the first time, a presentation called “Working with DAW Books,” in which I outlined my own rather unique journey from published-on-a-small-scale to published-by-one-of-SF-and-fantasy’s-major-houses. Someone commented that it seemed a rather narrow focus for a presentation, but while of course it was specifically about working with the wonderful people at DAW (the “DAW family,” as it’s known, is an accurate description, not hyperbole), it was also about, in general, the process of working with a major traditional publisher: editing, copyediting, proofreading, cover art, etc. It must have been reasonably interesting: someone told me a later a friend of theirs said it had been their favorite presentation of the convention to that point.

One regular feature of When Words Collide is what’s known as “Live-Action Slush.” A panel of editors listens to readings of the opening pages of stories submitted anonymously, each editor putting up a hand if they would have stopped before the end of the page is reached, then explaining why or why not they put up their hands.

There are science fiction panels, fantasy panels, YA panes, romance panels, etc. I love being the reader, and this year did two: historical novels, and a very special one where the panel wasn’t made up of editors, but of kids aged 11 to 16. (One of the 16-year-olds was my daughter, Alice.) We didn’t have that many writers submitting work to it (which astonishes me—seems to me kids’ feedback is the most valuable of all) so I bravely read a page from my own middle-grade work-in-progress, and did indeed get some excellent feedback, including a critical comment from Alice, which I appreciated. (No, honestly, I did!)

Another regular feature at the convention I always try to be part of is “Writers at the Improv.” This is hosted by IFWA, the Imaginative Fiction Writers of Alberta, and they’ve been doing it since way back when I used to go to ConVersion, a now-defunct Calgary science fiction convention. Normally teams of two join forces to craft sentences using words provided by the audience, creating a story over the course of the hour, with the teams competing to get the most sentences into the final product. This year I was a team unto myself, competing with two two-person teams of IFWA members.

The resulting stories are always…unusual. This year’s began with a velociraptor chasing a velocipede down a vellum-covered roadway, and ended with everyone being taken bodily into heaven. So, of course, the final title was “Velocirapture.” (Which, it turns, out, is the name of a five-piece “adventure prog” band from Florida. Who knew?)

Besides the programming, When Words Collide also offers an opportunity to catch up with old friends and fellow writers, like Robert J. Sawyer, my fellow DAW family member Gerald Brandt (as seen in the photo, taken by Rob Sawyer), and Liz and Hayden Trenholm, who used to live in Calgary and now live in Ottawa: Hayden owns Bundoran Press, which brought out my titles Right to Know and Falcon’s Egg.

You also make interesting new connections, and, hopefully, pick up new readers: there’s a mass autograph session, opportunities to sell books in the dealer’s room, room parties hosted by publishers and others, and more.

If you’re interested in writing in any genre, you should be going to When Words Collide. They cap attendance at 700 or so and it fills up every year, so register earlier rather than later—and maybe I’ll see you there next year.

The Space-Time Continuum: What’s the Big Idea?

Here’s my latest “Space-Time Continuum” column from the Saskatchewan Writers Guild‘s magazine Freelance.

“Where do you get your ideas?” is a question every author has heard multiple times. I usually say something about how story ideas are all around us, and give some examples.

But recently I’ve realized there are two different kinds of ideas at work in a book: the idea that starts the book, and the idea at the heart of the book—what you might call the “big idea.”

Or, at least, that’s what I’m going to call it, because that’s what bestselling science fiction writer John Scalzi calls it in his popular blog “Whatever,” where for years he has generously provided a weekly spot for authors to promote new books. I recently wrote a “Big Idea” essay about my latest book, The Cityborn (DAW Books), which is what got me thinking along the lines.

I began that essay by saying that, “Some books are born from big ideas, others have big ideas thrust upon them.”

It’s another way of saying that sometimes, even though we have a little idea that gives us a book, we don’t know what the big idea at the heart of the book is until we’ve worked on the book for quite a while. The authorial process (at least for me) is often as much a process of discovery as it is of ex nihilo creation.

In the case of The Cityborn, for example, I was a good 60,000 words into its 110,000-word total before I understood what it was about.

Oh, I had a good science fiction premise, a fast-moving plot, interesting characters, and a (I hope) fascinating setting. I’d had the idea for the book, I just hadn’t discovered the idea within the book.

The initial idea came (as is true of a lot of my books) in the form of a striking image: that of a young man scavenging for survival on a giant trash heap, outside a great city.

My process for building a novel from such an idea is similar to that of an oyster crafting a pearl around a piece of grit. I ask myself questions: “Why did that rubbish heap form? How big is it? What kind of city created it? Why are some of them reduced to scavenging? Who rules this city? Why do they allow this to continue?” My answers gave me the skeleton of my story.

This process is the same even if the initial idea takes the form of something other than an image. The classic seed for science fiction stories, after all, is “If this goes on…”: looking at something happening now, whether sociological, technological, or scientific, and projecting what it might mean in the near or far future. In that case, the series of questions might begin with, “Who is helped by this?” and “Who is hurt by this?”, a good way to disc

over the conflict and characters that lie at the heart of the potential story.

But no matter how much plot-development and character building I do before I start writing a story, the writing process itself has a way of changing it. To return to The Cityborn, even though I had a complete synopsis and knew exactly where the plot was going to go, it wasn’t until I started writing the characters, exploring not only the world in which I had placed them but their thoughts and feelings, that I finally twigged to what the story was about.

In fact, it came to me in a literal epiphany, one morning while I was writing in Atlantis Coffee in downtown Regina (a favorite haunt of mine). What makes my characters unique within the world they inhabit is that they were literally designed (with genetic modification and the injection of microscopic robots into their bloodstreams, this being science fiction) to fulfil a certain role. You might say they’re predestined, in a way even John Calvin never dreamed of.

What I realized that morning was that the big idea at the heart of The Cityborn was just another, albeit higher-level, question: namely, can individuals break the chains forged by the circumstances of their birth, the way they are raised, the expectations and restrictions placed upon them by their society?

Once I had that question in mind, all of my subsequent writing and revision worked to strengthen my answer to it: which (it won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read my other books) was a resounding “Yes!”. The value of individuals, the importance of individual liberty (and individual responsibility) is a “big idea” that runs through many of my stories—but it’s particularly central to this one, and in a way, it seems so obvious it surprises me that I didn’t twig to it sooner.

But ultimately, that’s what makes writing such an interesting process. Readers make new discoveries with every page they turn…and writers make new discoveries with every page they write.

 

The Cityborn is out! Reviews, interviews, and more…

The Cityborn, my eighth novel for DAW Books (though only the fourth under my own name) officially released on July 4. All of the United States celebrated with fireworks, which was nice.

This is an ongoing post that I’ll update as new things appear online.

It’s been getting some nice attention! It made Inverse Entertainment’s list of “7 Essential Science Fiction Books for July 2017” and Barnes & Noble’s list of “The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Books of July 2017.”

I wrote a “Big Idea” for John Scalzi’s popular blog WhateverYou can read it here. John has generously provided these guest spots for many years for authors to promote their new books. The last time I claimed one was for Terra Insegura.

Quite a few reviews popping up:

RT Book Reviews says:

“Willett brings J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise into the distant space age in this dystopian tale of class, power and freedom that will entertain devotees and non-genre fans alike. The worldbuilding in this book is impressive, creating an atmosphere that is both fascinating and oppressive, and characters who are magnificently complex…the ending provides a fascinating study about loyalty and power that grounds this book in our own time as much as the titular city of Willett’s imagination.”

Publishers Weekly opines:

“Willett (the Helix War series) wraps his capable new adult science fiction adventure around the fate of a mysterious many-tiered city and its inhabitants…Willett’s spunky protagonists and colorful world will entertain SF adventure fans.”

Future Fire notes:

The Cityborn is a well-told story that moves along rapidly, yet not so quickly that the reader is unable to get a feel for what’s going on in the characters’ minds…characters with depth and internal conflict.”

Culturess says:

A novel that doesn’t promise an entire trilogy? Be still our hearts. Edward Willett’s The Cityborn does fill that niche, but it’s a decent read, too…if you’re thirsting for a sci-fi read and don’t want to get tangled up in having to remember plenty of details for more than a single book, The Cityborn should appeal to you.”

NovelKnight proclaims:

“I’ve finally read a dystopian that I’ve enjoyed…I’d definitely recommend The Cityborn, especially for fans of sci-fi looking to branch into dystopian, and for readers like me who are tired of the typical dystopians out there.”

JBronderBookReviews says:

“Dystopian stories are my all time favorite and I couldn’t wait to get into The Cityborn…once things start going, you will be flipping the pages as fast as Alania and Danyl are moving to keep ahead of the Provost. There is a lot happening in this story and it does a great job of building the world we find ourselves in…Overall this is a great dystopian story. It’s my first book from Edward Willett and I hope to read more of his books.”

Koeur’s Book Reviews states:

“This was some crazy shjt. Not that anything is new under the post-apoc/SciFi sun, but the way it was constructed and interleaved with the characters makes it inescapably poignant.”

Amazing Stories says it was…

“…a well-written book that kept me interested all the way through. Recommended for YA readers and adults alike.”

Finally, I’ve done some online interviews: for NovelKnight, and for Unbound Worlds,  Jean BookNerd, and MyLifeMyBooksMyEscape.

Keep checking back on this post as I try to keep it up to date!

 

New Aurora Award Storybundle includes my novel Marseguro

A new Storybundle has just gone live featuring winners of (and finalists for) Canada’s Aurora Award for best Canadian science fiction and fantasy. It’s curated by Douglas Smith, so I’m going to let him explain it in the guest post below…

The Aurora Award Bundle #2

Curated by Douglas Smith

How would you like to own, at an incredible bargain, ten books that readers like yourself have already voted to be the best examples of speculative fiction published in Canada? Well, here’s your chance. I’m once again curating an ebook bundle for StoryBundle.com that contains more winners and finalists for Canada’s premier speculative fiction award, the Aurora Award.

The Auroras are awarded annually by the Canadian Science Fiction & Fantasy Association (CSFFA) for excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy. The award started in 1980 as the Casper and was renamed the Aurora for the 1990 awards. I’m honored to have won the Aurora three times and to have been on the final ballot another sixteen.

This Aurora bundle again delivers a great mix of SF and fantasy, adult and YA novels, as well as a selection of short fiction. The books included reflect the long history of the Auroras, with titles spanning a quarter century of Canadian speculative fiction from 1992 to 2016.

This time, the bundle provides a great introduction to several wonderful series, including the first book in four separate series and the second book in a series that can be read as a stand-alone title. It also lets you sample the rich tradition of Canadian short speculative fiction, with two acclaimed collections.

In Destiny’s Blood, Marie Bilodeau delivers action, romance, and mystery in an interstellar SF tale of two sisters fighting to save each other—and all life. And it all begins in a flower shop.

C. Bell’s Drowning in Amber is a fast-paced paranormal murder mystery featuring amateur detective Marie Jenner who can talk with ghosts.

Druids, by Barbara Galler-Smith and Josh Langston, kicks off a magnificent epic historical fantasy trilogy, set a thousand years ago when the Celts ruled Europe.

D.G. Laderoute’s Out of Time is a YA fantasy adventure combining time travel with First Nations lore as two fourteen-year-old boys—one white, one Anishinabe—join forces across time to battle a monster.

Dave Duncan’s fantasy The Cursed takes place in a fallen empire where a plague leaves its survivors ostracized but with magical powers, powers that might be the key to rebuilding their world.

In Defining Diana, Hayden Trenholm updates the locked room mystery to 2043, where nuclear war, biotechnology, and all-powerful corporations have changed the Earth we know.

Golden Fleece, which was the first novel by Canada’s best known SF writer, Robert J. Sawyer, is an SF mystery set on a colony ship as told by the artificial intelligence controlling the ship.

In Ed Willett’s Marseguro, modified humans on a distant water world finds themselves in a battle for survival with a future Earth ruled by a fanatical theocracy.

Hair Side, Flesh Side, Helen Marshall’s award-winning first collection of short stories, is a brilliant introduction to one of the brightest new lights in Canadian speculative fiction.

Finally, my own collection, Impossibilia, delivers a mix of SF and fantasy, including an Aurora winner, a finalist, and the story prequel to my novel, The Wolf at the End of the World.

And if you are looking for still more pedigree, the bundle includes two CSFFA Hall of Fame inductees (Sawyer and Duncan).

– Douglas Smith

For StoryBundle, you decide what price you want to pay. For $5 (or more, if you feel generous), you’ll get the basic bundle of five books in any ebook format worldwide:

  • Destiny’s Blood by Marie Bilodeau
  • Drowning in Amber by E. C. Bell
  • Druids  by Barbara Galler-Smith and Josh Langston
  • Impossibilia by Douglas Smith
  • Out of Time by D. G. Laderoute

If you pay more than the bonus price of just $15, you get all five of the regular titles, plus five more:

  • The Cursed by Dave Duncan
  • Defining Diana by Hayden Trenholm
  • Golden Fleece by Robert J. Sawyer
  • Hair Side, Flesh Side by Helen Marshall
  • Marseguro by Edward Willett

The bundle is available for a very limited time only, via http://www.storybundle.com. It allows easy reading on computers, smartphones, and tablets as well as Kindle and other ereaders via file transfer, email, and other methods. You get multiple DRM-free formats (.epub and .mobi) for all books!

It’s also super easy to give the gift of reading with StoryBundle, thanks to our gift cards – which allow you to send someone a code that they can redeem for any future StoryBundle bundle – and timed delivery, which allows you to control exactly when your recipient will get the gift of StoryBundle.

Why StoryBundle? Here are just a few benefits StoryBundle provides.

  • Get quality reads: We’ve chosen works from excellent authors to bundle together in one convenient package.
  • Pay what you want (minimum $5): You decide how much these fantastic books are worth to you. If you can only spare a little, that’s fine! You’ll still get access to a batch of exceptional titles.
  • Support authors who support DRM-free books: StoryBundle is a platform for authors to get exposure for their works, both for the titles featured in the bundle and for the rest of their catalog. Supporting authors who let you read their books on any device you want—restriction free—will show everyone there’s nothing wrong with ditching DRM.
  • Give to worthy causes: Bundle buyers have a chance to donate a portion of their proceeds to charity.
  • Receive extra books: If you beat the bonus price, you’ll get the bonus books!

StoryBundle was created to give a platform for independent authors to showcase their work, and a source of quality titles for thirsty readers. StoryBundle works with authors to create bundles of ebooks that can be purchased by readers at their desired price. Before starting StoryBundle, Founder Jason Chen covered technology and software as an editor for Gizmodo.com and Lifehacker.com.

For more information, visit our website at storybundle.com, tweet us at @storybundle and like us on Facebook. For press inquiries, please email press@storybundle.com.

Curator’s Notes

Destiny’s Blood:

One of several books in this bundle that get you started on a new series, in this case Marie’s Destiny trilogy. Destiny’s Blood won the Foreword Award and was a finalist for the Aurora. Destiny’s Fall (also an Aurora finalist) and Destiny’s War complete the series. Marie is an Ottawa-based writer who lights up a room the way her prose lights up a page. If you haven’t read her work before, this book is a great introduction.

Drowning in Amber:

I’ve included several books in series in this bundle, most of which are the first title. E. C. Bell’s Drowning in Amber is the second book of a trilogy, but it and all the books in the series can be fully enjoyed as a stand-alone work. The first title, Seeing the Light, won the BPAA award for Best Speculative Fiction Book of the Year and was shortlisted for the Bony Blythe Award for Light Mystery. The third book is Stalking the Dead.

Druids:

An introduction to yet another series! This time, it’s the Druid trilogy by the writing team of Barbara Galler-Smith and Josh Langston. I’ve never had the chance to meet Josh, but I’ve known Barb since I began writing, and it’s always a thrill to read her work. Captives and Warriors complete the trilogy.

Out of Time:

For a bundle that’s coming out shortly after Canada’s 150th birthday, it seemed appropriate to include a fun YA adventure (to remind us we’re still young) in an environment that many associate with Canada (the wilderness, specifically the shores of Kitche Gumi, or Lake Superior).

The Cursed:

Shortly after I started writing professionally, I sat on my first panel at a genre convention, an unknown among established pros. One of my fellow panelists was Dave Duncan, and I still remember his gracious welcome to a newbie. Dave is an international best seller and an acknowledged master of epic fantasy and science fiction, with fifty-plus novels and over a dozen series. In 2015, Dave was inducted into the Canadian Science Fiction & Fantasy Association Hall of Fame. The Cursed is often cited by fans as a favorite Duncan title.

Defining Diana:

I’ve known Hayden almost since I started writing in the late 90’s. He’s been an Aurora finalist ever so many times and has won the award four times. He also owns Bundoran Press, so he knows the writing game from all sides: writer, editor, and publisher. Here’s your chance to read the first book in The Steele Chronicles, a near-future SF trilogy, each volume of which earned a spot on the Aurora Award ballot. Steel Whispers and Stealing Home complete the trilogy.

Golden Fleece:

I couldn’t  put together an Aurora Award bundle and not include a Robert J. Sawyer title. Rob’s won the Aurora fourteen times with another thirty ballot appearances. Rob is one of only eight writers in history — and the only Canadian — to win all three of the world’s top Science Fiction awards for best novel of the year: Hugo, Nebula, and John W. Campbell Memorial Award. In 2013, Rob was also inducted into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association Hall of Fame. Golden Fleece was Rob’s first novel.

Hair Side, Flesh Side:

I first met Helen when she worked for the excellent Canadian press, ChiZine Publications, and edited my second collection, Chimerascope. I didn’t realize how lucky I was at the time. Helen has established herself as a master of the short form, and this, her first collection, is ample proof. Aside from being a finalist for the Aurora Award, Hair Side, Flesh Side also won the Sydney J Bounds Award.

Marseguro:

Here’s your chance to read the first entry in Ed Willett’s acclaimed two-book series of thought provoking SF adventure. Marseguro won the Aurora Award and its sequel, Terra Insegura, was a finalist for the award. It’s a series that will make you both feel and think, and is a great introduction to the work of an author of more than fifty books.

 

 

 

Publishers Weekly reviews The Cityborn…”will entertain SF adventure fans”

Another review has bubbled up, although the release of The Cityborn is still more than a month away. This time it’s from Publishers Weekly:

“Willett (the Helix War series) wraps his capable new adult science fiction adventure around the fate of a mysterious many-tiered city and its inhabitants…Willett’s spunky protagonists and colorful world will entertain SF adventure fans.”

Entertainment is what this book is all about, and the common thread running through all the reviews–people seem to be finding it a fun read. I’m sure you will, too. :)

Now I’m looking forward to receiving my authors’ copies and actually seeing the book in the dead-tree flesh..could be any day.

Door into Faerie a finalist for the 2017 Aurora Award for Best Young Adult Novel!

I’m honoured that Door into Faerie has been shortlisted or a 2017 Aurora Award (for the best Canadian science fiction and fantasy) in the Young Adult category. This is the second Shards of Excalibur book to be a finalist for the YA award: Twist of the Blade was also shortlisted. Other titles on the final ballot include Day of the Demon by Randy McCharles (CreateSpace), Heir to the Sky by Amanda Sun (Harlequin Teen), Icarus Down by James Bow (Scholastic Canada), Mik Murdonch: Crisis of Consience by Michel Plested (Evil Alter Ego Press), and The Wizard Killer – Season One by Adam Dreece (ADZO Publishing).

Any Canadian citizen or permanent resident can vote for the Aurora Awards! All you have to do is pay a $10 membership fee to the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association. Not only will you be able to vote, but you’ll receive a voters’ package that includes many of the nominated works in all categories in electronic format–including Door into Faerie!

It’s a great way to support Canadian science fiction and fantasy and reward your favourite writers, so please consider joining and voting!

And congratulations to everyone on the ballot! Here’s the complete list:

AURORA AWARDS BALLOT

This ballot is for works done in 2016 by Canadians. The Aurora Awards are nominated by members of the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association. The top five nominated works were selected. Additional works were included where there was a tie for fifth place.

Best Novel

Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay, Viking Canada
Company Town by Madeline Ashby, Tor Books
The Courier by Gerald Brandt, DAW Books
The Nature of a Pirate by A.M. Dellamonica, Tor Books
Quantum Night by Robert J. Sawyer, Penguin Canada
Stars like Cold Fire by Brent Nichols, Bundoran Press

Best Young Adult Novel

Day of the Demon by Randy McCharles, CreateSpace
Door into Faerie by Edward Willett, Coteau Books
Heir to the Sky by Amanda Sun, Harlequin Teen
Icarus Down by James Bow, Scholastic Canada
Mik Murdoch: Crisis of Conscience by Michell Plested, Evil Alter Ego Press
The Wizard Killer – Season One by Adam Dreece, ADZO Publishing

Best Short Fiction

Age of Miracles by Robert Runté, Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts, Laksa Media
Frog Song by Erika Holt, Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts, Laksa Media
Living in Oz by Bev Geddes, Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts, Laksa Media
Marion’s War by Hayden Trenholm, Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts, Laksa Media
Seasons of Glass and Iron by Amal el-Mohtar, The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, Saga Press
When Phakack Came to Steal Papa’s Bones, A Ti-Jean Story by Ace Jordyn, On Spec Magazine

Best Graphic Novel

Angel Catbird, Volume One by Margaret Atwood, Johnnie Christmas and Tamra Bonvillian, Dark Horse Books
Crash and Burn by Kate Larking and Finn Lucullan, Astres Press
Earthsong by Crystal Yates, Webcomic
It Never Rains by Kari Maaren, Webcomic
Weregeek by Alina Pete, Webcomic

Best Related Work

Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction edited by Dominik Parisien, Exile Editions
Enigma Front: Burnt, managing editor Celeste A. Peters, Analemma Books
Lazarus Risen edited by Hayden Trenholm and Mike Rimar, Bundoran Press
Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts edited by Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law, Laksa
Media
Superhero Universe (Tesseracts Nineteen) edited by Claude Lalumière and Mark Shainblum, EDGE

Best Visual Presentation

Arrival, director, Denis Villeneuve, Paramount Pictures
Orphan Black, Season 4, John Fawcett and Graeme Manson, Temple Street Productions
Killjoys, Season 2, Michelle Lovretta, Temple Street Productions
Dark Matter, Season 2, Joseph Mallozzi and Paul Mullie, Prodigy Pictures
Murdoch Mysteries, Season 9, Peter Mitchell and Christina Jennings, Shaftesbury Films

Best Artist

Samantha M. Beiko, cover to Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts
James Beveridge, covers and poster art
Melissa Mary Duncan, body of work
Erik Mohr, covers for ChiZine Publications and Company Town for Tor Books
Dan O’Driscoll, covers for Bundoran Press

Best Fan Writing and Publications

Amazing Stories Magazine, weekly column, Steve Fahnestalk
BCSFAzine #512 to #519, edited by Felicity Walker
The Nerd is the Word, articles by Dylan McEvoy
OBIR Magazine #4, edited by R. Graeme Cameron
Silver Stag Entertainment, edited by S.M. Carrière
Speculating Canada edited by Derek Newman-Stille

Best Fan Organizational

Samantha Beiko and Chadwick Ginther, co-chairs, Chiaroscuro Reading Series: Winnipeg
R. Graeme Cameron, chair, VCON 41, Surrey, BC
Sandra Kasturi and Angela Keeley, co-chairs, 2016 Toronto SpecFic Colloquium
Derek Künsken and Marie Bilodeau, executive, Can*Con 2016, Ottawa
Randy McCharles, chair, When Words Collide, Calgary
Matt Moore, Marie Bilodeau, and Nicole Lavigne, co-chairs, Chiaroscuro Reading Series: Ottawa
Sandra Wickham, chair, Creative Ink Festival, Burnaby, BC

Best Fan Related Work

Ron S. Friedman, Villains and Conflicts presentation, When Words Collide, Calgary Comic Expo, and File 770
Kari Maaren, Concert, SFContario
Derek Newman-Stille, Speculating Canada on Trent Radio 92.7 FM

Best of the Decade

This is a special category for this year’s awards for works published between January 2001 and December 2010. Multi-volume stories were considered if they began prior to 2001 but ended before or close to 2011. We defined a multi-volume story as one with a continuous narrative. Finalists were chosen by an eight-person jury from across Canada. The winner will be chosen by our membership’s votes.

Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson, Tor Books
The Blue Ant Trilogy by William Gibson, Berkley Malazan Book of the Fallen, Steven Erikson, Tor Books
The Neanderthal Parallax, Robert J. Sawyer, Tor Books
The Onion Girl, Charles de Lint, Tor Books
Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay, Viking Canada

Great review for The Cityborn from RT Book Reviews

There’s a great new review of the The Cityborn in RT Book Reviews (not currently publicly accessible online; once/if it becomes so, I’ll link to it). Reviewer Bridget Keown gives it 4/5 stars and writes:
 
“Willett brings J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise into the distant space age in this dystopian tale of class, power and freedom that will entertain devotees and non-genre fans alike. The worldbuilding in this book is impressive, creating an atmosphere that is both fascinating and oppressive, and characters who are magnificently complex. Though the final revelation feels somewhat rushed after so much energy has been invested in building the conspiracy surrounding the protagonists and their environment, the ending provides a fascinating study about loyalty and power that grounds this book in our own time as much as the titular city of Willett’s imagination.”
 
I reminded someone of J.G. Ballard? I can live with that. :) Also, I like the notion this will appear to non-genre fans, too. That’d be swell.

The Space-Time Continuum: Aliens in Science Fiction

Having just posted my column from the February/March 2017 issue of Freelance, the magazine of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild (see previous post), it behooves me to be more timely and post the most recent column, from the April/May issue. And here it is!

I remember being confused, as a kid, the first time I encountered the term “illegal aliens.” “Alien,” to me, had only one meaning: intelligent creatures from other planets. How could they be illegal? I wondered. Not being from this planet, were they really subject to its laws?

Yes, I was a weird kid.

Aliens are one of the great tropes of science fiction, as the length of the article in the Science Fiction Encylopedia makes clear—it’s some 17,000 words long. The first complete short story I wrote, “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot,” at age 11, featured aliens—the title character landed on a planet inhabited by intelligent but not-very-friendly extraterrestrials from whose tentacles he had to escape.

You might think (as I once did) that the idea of intelligent lifeforms on other worlds was an invention of H.G. Wells, author of the seminal alien-invasion novel The War of the Worlds (1898), but as the aforementioned encylopedia article makes clear, the concept goes all the way back to antiquity.

The Pythagoreans, for example, said there must be intelligent life on the Moon. Epicurus taught that there must be an infinity of life-supporting worlds. Plutarch was down with the whole Moon-dwellers idea, and in the second century A.D. Lucian wrote the first journey-to-the-moon story.

On the other hand, Plato and Aristotle would have none of it, and their view that no other worlds could exist, and therefore no intelligent inhabitants of such worlds, held sway right up until Copernicus put the sun at the center of things and Galileo aimed his telescope at the moon. The philosophers of their time began debating the question of what it would mean if there were intelligent aliens, recognizing that their existence would dethrone humanity as the center of creation just as astronomy had dethroned the Earth as the center of the universe.

Concurrently, authors begin telling tales of encountering such aliens, frequently living on the moon. Those early “aliens” tended to be the literary equivalent of the aliens of pre-CGI television—nothing more than humans in rubber suits, wearing prosthetic head bumps, or forced into funny ears.

By the 19th century, though, science—in particular, Darwin’s theory of evolution—had given writers the wherewithal to imagine aliens that, having evolved in a completely different environment, were deeply different from us. The Science Fiction Encylopedia credits Camille Flammarion with imagining the first truly alien aliens: he conceived of intelligent, gentle trees; seal-like creatures with tentacles who, like sharks in the ocean, had to be in constant motion through their atmosphere to breathe; even animals and plants made of silicon (hello, Star Trek’s Horta) and magnesium.

Then came The War of the Worlds. Wells’s invading Martians, whose rapacious nature was clearly heavily influenced by the Darwinian notion of “survival of the fittest,” observed us for a long time, laying their plans, and then set out to conquer us, using their superior technology. They are completely inhuman (gray, leathery, many-tentacled) and ill-adapted to the Earth (which makes one wonder exactly why they wanted it), having trouble with the higher gravity and the thicker atmosphere. Eventually, of course (spoiler alert!) they fall prey to common bacteria, their super science having apparently overlooked the germ theory of disease.

Alien invasion became something of a cliché after Wells, with most aliens, especially in movies, relegated to the role of BEMs (Bug-Eyed Monsters). But in modern science fiction, aliens are far more complex. They may, as the Science Fiction Encylopedia puts it, “have minds somewhat less capable than ours, of comparable capacity, of greater (even vastly greater) power, or minds so different that comparison becomes impossible. They may appear as invaders…or teachers, as allies or enemies, as victims of human exploitation or judges of human civilization, as Secret Masters guiding human history…or as utterly indifferent forces paying no attention to humanity at all. Aliens may look like us, resemble (more or less) any number of Earthly species, or take on shapes we have never seen or imagined, forms so strange we sometimes fail to recognize them (and they us) as fellow beings at all.”

Their appeal shows no sign of fading: witness the Oscar-nominated film Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s Nebula Award-winning 1998 novella “Story of Your Life.”

Aliens challenge our place in the universe, offer authors the intellectual challenge of trying to imagine a form of intelligence completely different from our own, and hold up a mirror in which to reflect humanity’s foibles. They are one more example of what has always drawn me to science fiction: it is the ultimate intellectual playground, the one literary form (with its cousin, fantasy) in which whatever you can imagine can be made real, even little green men—or tall winged tri-sexed hive minds with tentacles—from outer space.

How cool is that?

The Space-Time Continuum: Creating Magic Systems

This is a belated posting of my column from the February-March 2017 issue of Freelance, the magazine of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild. Don’t know how I missed posting it, but better late than never!

Most fantasy stories include magic: that’s kind of what makes them fantasy. (In fact, if I had to distinguish between fantasy and science fiction, I’d say, “The fantastical stuff in fantasy is ascribed to magic. The fantastical stuff in science fiction is ascribed to advanced technology.”)

However, different authors take different approaches to the use of magic in stories. In older books of the fantastic (think The Lord of the Rings), magic is (in the words of Brian Niemeier, winner of the inaugural Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel in 2016 for Souldancer) “mysterious, ineffable, and unpredictable,” whereas in most modern fantasy, magic is more likely to work “like a technology that we can systematize.” It’s the latter form of magic that has given rise to the term “magic system”: the rules established by a writer of fantasy to which the magic in his books adhere.

The designing of such systems seem to be a topic of endless fascination for those interested in writing fantasy, which is presumably why Niemeier wrote his essay, “How to Design Magic Systems,“, from which I just quoted. It’s also why I was on a panel entitled “How to Build a Consistent and Original Magic System” at the 2014 edition of the annual—and highly recommended—Calgary writing conference When Words Collide .

The star attraction of that panel was not, alas, me, but rather Guest of Honour Brandon Sanderson, widely acknowledged as among the best at crafting interesting magic systems for his bestselling novels.

Over the years, Sanderson has formulated his approach into laws, three of which (so far) he has explicated on his website, starting with his First Law: “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.”

Sanderson recounts how, while on a convention panel on magic early in his career, he stated as a given that, “Obviously, magic has to have rules,” and was shocked to be challenged by the other writers. They claimed systematizing magic robbed fantasy of its sense of wonder: that sense of the “mysterious, ineffable, and unpredictable.”

Sanderson calls that kind of magic “soft magic,” and he and Niemeier point out the problem it sets for writers: because it has no rules, it cannot be used to regularly solve story problems without becoming a deus ex machina. Since we don’t know what magic can and can’t do, every time magic is used to solve a problem faced by the characters the reader is left wondering why magic doesn’t solve all the characters’ problems—which of course would destroy the narrative.

Systematized magic, on the other hand, which Sanderson terms “hard magic,” operates in accordance with strict rules. Looking at my own books, in Magebane, magic requires energy in the form of heat, so the palace has giant coal furnaces; in my Masks of Aygrima series, magic is literally mined, and most magic-users must have a store of it handy in order to perform magic; and in my Shards of Excalibur series, my young protagonist can dissolve into water and travel anywhere it goes—but only fresh water, and she can only reappear in water deep enough to submerge her (giving swimming pools and ponds an unusually prominent role in the narrative).

These limitations heighten narrative tension, because magic is not always available to solve problems, and shape the plot, as the characters struggle to find ways to use their magic.

Or, as Sanderson puts it in his Second Law: “Limitations > Powers”; it’s by putting limits on magic that you make it interesting. Superpowers are a form of magic, and as Sanderson points out, how dull a character would Superman be if not for his Achilles’ Heel, Kryptonite? (For that matter, how dull a character would Achilles himself have been if not for his famous heel?)

Sanderson’s Third Law is, “Expand what you have before you add something new.” Or, as he sums it up, “A brilliant magic system for a book is less often one with a thousand different powers and abilities—and is more often a magic system with relatively few powers that the author has considered in depth.” This ties in with the previous laws quite nicely. The more magical powers that are available, the easier it is for someone to solve their problems with magic, which may result in a flabby narrative.

Note, despite Sanderson calling them “laws,” they are of course nothing of the sort—more “suggestions from experience.” After all, wizards in the Harry Potter books certainly have “a thousand different powers and abilities,” and limitations seem few, but the J.K. Rowling did all right.

In truth, there is only one absolute law of creating magic systems: it has to result in a better story.

Or, as Niemeier sums it up: “In magic as in everything else, make it fun for the reader.”

Paul Alexander Nolan: From small-town Saskatchewan to Broadway’s bright lights

 

This article just appeared in Refined Lifestyles Regina. I’ve known Paul since he was a kid–I performed with him several times back then, and have even had the chance to be in a professional show with him once, when he played the Beast in Persephone Theatre‘s production of Beauty and the Beast in Saskatoon in 2007 (I was Monsieur D’arque and several other things). It was great to chat with him for this article, the second time I’ve interviewed him.

For Rouleau native Paul Nolan, the moment it really struck home he was performing on Broadway came in March, 2012, in the first performance in Broadway’s Paul Simon Theatre of the Stratford production of Jesus Christ Superstar, in which Nolan played Jesus.

In Act I, Simon the Zealot sings “Simon Zealotes,” urging Jesus to lead his mob in a war against Rome. As Lee Siegel finished the song, the crowd erupted. “I’ve never heard anything like it,” Nolan says. “It was like getting punched in the face with sound, they screamed so hard.

“We all spontaneously got tears in our eyes. It wasn’t a sentimental moment, it was just a purely overwhelming sensation to have people react like that. It was amazing to all of us be there together, all of us having Broadway dreams as Canadians, all of us getting to fulfil our dreams at the same time.”

Many more Broadway roles have followed: Guy in Once, Pasha Antipov in Doctor Zhivago (for which he was nominated for the 2015 Outer Critic Award for Best Feature Actor in a Musical), Jimmy Ray Dobbs in the Steve Martin/Edie Brickell musical Bright Star (Nolan was a Drama Desk Award Nominee for Best Feature Actor), and, most recently, a six-week stint as Billy Flynn in Chicago.

He’s also performed at the Stratford Festival (The Who’s Tommy, West Side Story, and As You Like It, among others), in off-Broadway shows such as Daddy Longlegs, and in regional productions like the world premiere of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots in La Jolla. On February 18, he returned to Regina to perform James Bond movie theme songs with the Regina Symphony Orchestra. “I’d never sung with a big orchestra, so that was thrilling, but the real thrill was coming home to perform.”

It all began when a band gave a lunch-hour concert at Rouleau School. Inspired, Nolan asked his parents if he could take trumpet lessons. Instead (because they had an organ in the basement), they signed him up for organ lessons, which he hated—so much so, he turned down the idea of voice lessons a couple of years later. “Also,” he admits, “I played a lot of hockey and didn’t want to commit social suicide.”

But (fortunately) he reconsidered, and found he enjoyed his voice lessons with Betty Hayes. As a result, when Regina Summer Stage announced auditions for The King and I, Nolan’s father suggested he give it a go. “I didn’t want to, because I knew it would take my whole summer. But I ended up saying yes. It changed my life. I felt like I’d found a community of people that I belonged to.” Then a touring production of Les Miserables came to Regina and he had another epiphany: you could make a living doing musicals.

Through high school, he performed in some 16 productions with Regina Lyric Light Opera, Regina Summer Stage, Regina Little Theatre, and Do It With Class Young People’s Theatre. He credits voice lessons with Rob Ursan, then musical director (and now artistic director) of DIWC as “the major reason for my vocal ability.” Among the other directors he worked with was Kelly Handerek, who helped set him up with an agent when he moved to Toronto after graduation.

Nolan studied at the Randolph Academy, working on the side (among other roles, he appeared in a Nora Ephron-produced film, Strike!, and had the lead in a movie, Shapeshifter, shot in Bucharest). After finishing his schooling, he worked for the Disney cruise line, “sailing through the Caribbean, playing Hercules and Peter Pan, meeting friends I’ve still got.”

Then came Mamma Mia! at the Royal Alexander Theatre in Toronto, such a gigantic hit he stayed in the ensemble for a year. “Now I know how lucky a person is to have a job like that!”

He took most of 2004 off, traveling, working on the farm in Rouleau, even applying (unsuccessfully) to be a forest firefighter. “I honestly didn’t feel like I was my best self, so I decided, ‘I’m going to try something else, see what sticks.’”

He came back into the business playing Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar for the first time, in Orillia. A year or so later he played Jesus again, in a production directed by Max Reimer, who then cast him as Curly in Oklahoma! in Calgary—which led to the Stratford Festival auditioning and hiring him for its Oklahoma!, understudying the same role.

Five years at Stratford led to his third time as Jesus, in the production (directed by then-Stratford artistic director Des McAnuff) that transferred to Broadway. Though he’s worked elsewhere, he’s remained in New York ever since. “This city has granted me some opportunities, directors have granted me opportunities. I’ve run with those opportunities, and worked hard and done well with them.”

In 2014 he married actress Keely Hutton, a native of Newfoundland, whom he’d met at Stratford. “She’s one of a kind. Most of us take a job at the mention of the word. Keely’s a lot more selective, to my benefit. Keely has mostly dedicated her time to us.”

Up next: the starring role of Tully, a part-time bartender and singer, in Escape to Margaritaville, which features the music of Jimmy Buffet. The musical premieres May 9 at La Jolla Playhouse and will play other cities in route to a Broadway opening next spring.

Nolan is always hoping for a show that will be the perfect combination of art and relevance, like the smash hit Hamilton, which he’s seen several times, emerging “re-inspired” every time. But he says the real game changer for his career may be when he and his wife decide to have children. He fantasizes about moving to Newfoundland and having a more stable life…but New York keeps drawing him back.

“Artistically, theatre, for me, is a little bit like going to church,” he concludes. “I find out a lot about who I am through the stories I do, the things I’ve put myself through to tell those stories.

“It is kind of a sacred event both to see theatre, and to be part of bringing that to people.”