2008 Million Writers Award is now open

storySouth's 2008 Million Writers Award for best online short story is now open for nominations from editors and readers. Once again, the Edit Red Writing Community is sponsoring the contest, which means there is a $300 prize for the overall winner. For those who don't feel like wading through the rules, here's the award process in a nutshell:

  • Any story published during 2007 in an online magazine journal is eligible. The caveats are that said online mag or journal must have an editorial process--meaning no self-published stories--and the story must be at least a 1,000 words in length. Readers may nominate one story for the award. Editors of online publications may nominate up to three stories from their publication. All nominations are due by March 31.
  • A group of volunteer preliminary editors will go through the nominated stories--along with other stories that catch their interest--and select their favorites. These will become the Million Writers Award notable stories of the year. I will then go through all the notable stories and pick the top ten stories of the year. The general public will then vote on those ten stories, with the overall winner receiving the award and cash prize.

Complete information on all this, along with links to where people can nominate stories, is available on the award website. I will also be regularly publishing comments and information on my blog and website as the award process as it unfolds.

Ranking online magazines and journals

Editor's note: I originally posted this information on my personal blog, but thought storySouth readers would also appreciate it.

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Scott Boyan at Thinksimian has completed a wonderful meta-analysis of storySouth's Million Writers Award to determine the best online literary journals and magazines. Basically, Scott crunched the numbers from the first four years of the award to see which online magazines placed the most stories in the notable and top ten listings. You can access Scott's complete analysis as a Google spreadsheet, but here are his top ranking online journals and magazines:

  1. Pindeldyboz

  2. Eclectica Magazine
  3. Narrative Magazine
  4. Agni
  5. Identity Theory
  6. Word Riot
  7. FRiGG
  8. Fiction Warehouse (Note: See my recent post about this journal)
  9. Strange Horizons
  10. Barcelona Review
  11. Clarkesworld Magazine
  12. Fail Better
  13. Stickman Review
  14. Mississippi Review
  15. HOBART
  16. 42opus
  17. Summerset Review
  18. Small Spiral Notebook (Note: no longer publishing)
  19. Blithe House Quarterly
  20. ChiZine
  21. Thieves Jargon
  22. Storyglossia
  23. Barrelhouse
  24. King's English
  25. Gowanus
  26. Drunken Boat
  27. Intergalactic Medicine Show
  28. Literary Mama
  29. Write This
  30. Danforth Review

Thanks to Scott for doing this analysis. And as a reminder, the 2008 Million Writers Award will start accepting nominations in about a month.

Review: 2008 Novel and Short Story Writer's Market

Editor's note: I originally posted this review on my personal blog, but thought storySouth readers would also appreciate it.

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The 2008 Novel and Short Story Writer's Market (N&SSW) is now out from Writers Digest Books. While I'm of a mixed mind about the book's usefulness in actually submitting to fiction markets, I've decided to recommend it once again for both new and experienced writers.

First, the back story on my mixed recommendation. When I reviewed last year's edition, I mentioned that one problem overtaking the venerable market compilation is that online resources like Duotrope's Digest and Ralan's listing (which is specifically for speculative fiction writers) have overtaken N&SSW by offering free submission information that's more up-to-date than anything a printed book can offer. I especially like Duotrope Digest, which offers an easy-to-use online market and submission database. When I asked N&SSW editor Lauren Mosko if Writer's Digest Books was considering making all of N&SSW's listings available online, she said that "Free market resource sites like Duotrope's Digest are certainly on our radar, but we feel confident Writer's Market will remain the brand writers can trust." Lauren added that they were preparing for the upcoming redesign and relaunch of WritersMarket.com.

So it's now a year later. One very good change is that N&SSW began offering a nice blog, which contains market and other useful writing information. I highly recommend writers check out the blog on a regular basis. In addition, the updated Writersmarket.com has been launched. However, Writersmarket.com remains a subscriber based system which, in my opinion, doesn't offer enough extra information and ability above Duotrope Digest to justify the subscription cost of $29.99 for one year. In addition, purchasing N&SSW doesn't give you access to Writersmarket.com. So when you buy the book you're locked into an already out of date data set, at least with regards to market information.

However, I'm still recommending the market guide because editors Lauren Mosko and Michael Schweer have compiled an amazing collection of articles to aid both beginning or experienced writers. N&SSW once again features in-depth information on writing and submitting in genres such as literary fiction, mysteries, romance, and more; of particular interest to SF/F writers is an informative interview with author Kelly Link and John Joseph Adams' "Speculative Fiction: The Next Generation." For me, the authors interviews are the best part of N&SSW, especially since they give valuable insight into the business side of writing and help writers benefit from the mistakes and successes of others.

So if you're looking for a book which helps you write and submit a compelling story, along with giving useful advice from top authors in all fictional genres, this is a great book to own. But if you're purchasing N&SSW merely for the market listings, I suggest you give N&SSW a pass and move over to Duotrope.

Pindeldyboz to end print journal

Must be something in the air, because a few weeks after Small Spiral Notebook hung up its editorial coat, another major journal is taking its exit stage left. Pindeldyboz will cease publication of its print edition with the next issue, with a final release party scheduled for Monday, Dec. 10 in New York City. Works from the print Pindeldyboz have been selected for anthologies such as Best American Non-Required Reading and New Stories From the South, The Year's Best.

However, the good news is that Executive Editor Whitney Pastorek tells me the web edition of Pindeldyboz will continue. Over the last seven years, the online Pindeldyboz has published over 1000 stories by more than 600 authors and was named the Best Online Publication of 2003 in the storySouth Million Writers Award. If you're interested in submitting your works for the online edition, they will reopen for subs on January 1.

Jason Sanford's new science fiction and fantasy blog

In the past I've blogged a good bit about science fiction and fantasy on storySouth's main blog. While I still believe there is a lot of crossover between the different literary genres (as indicated by our annual Million Writers Award, which honors all types of online fiction), I am now blogging about science fiction and fantasy matters at my new personal blog. Included in this blog are stories of the week, reviews of SF/F magazines, and highlights of whatever catches my interest, such as my current post on David W. Hill, an American science fiction writer who is not well known on these shores but massively popular in China.

Small Spiral Notebook to cease publication

I just received an extremely sad e-mail from Felicia Sullivan, editor and publisher of the wonderful online and print journal Small Spiral Notebook. As she says:

"After six years of publication, articles in major newspapers and magazines (NYT, New Yorker, Poets & Writers, Utne, Time Out NY, just to name a few) and solicitations from top agents and publishers, which have helped our writers score agents and book deals, I'm sad to announce that SSN will cease publication on 12.31.07. This was a very difficult decision for me to make, however, it was one that I felt was best for the journal. We will continue to publish reviews, interviews & features until the end of the year, and the site will remain online indefinitely. We will publish a final print issue in 2009. Subscriptions will be fulfilled.

I want to thank you all for your unwavering, wonderful support and for reading! I’d also like to extend a special thanks to my wonderful staff. SSN wouldn’t be where it is today without my incredible and devoted team of editors, reviewers, feature writers and readers. My humble thanks.

Small Spiral Notebook has long been on of the brightest stars in the online literary universe and I both congratulate Felicia for the work she's done and wish her the best in the future. I should also note that SSN just scored several notable mentions in this year's Best American Short Stories and Best American Non Required Reading. Felicia says people can keep track of her in the future through her website.

Story of the Week: Profile of a mine disaster's last survivor

My new selection for story of the week is an excellent journalistic profile from my local paper, The Columbus Dispatch. The article revolves around reporter Randy Ludlow's interview with Sigmund Kozma, who at age 95 is the last living survivor of the 1930 Millfield Mine disaster. The 600 word article is a perfect example of how brevity in prose and writing style can actually heighten a story's emotional impact.

Note the sparse power of the opening:

There's the name of Sigmund Kozma's buddy.


It's chiseled into the stone of the pillar next to the post office.

Wilbur was Sig's best friend. They grew up tramping the fields, hitting the swimming hole and chasing girls. Sig was sweet on Wilbur's sister.

Eighty-one other names are engraved in stone as well, men Kozma knew from the company town of the Sunday Creek Coal Co.

After that powerful introduction, Ludlow resists the urge to veer off into political or historical asides and simply provides the barest of needed background in two descriptive sentences. In the first, he states that "Kozma is the only miner still alive among the 138 who walked out of that hellish hole on Nov. 5, 1930." In the second, he writes that "It was spitting snow the day of Ohio's worst mine disaster." That second sentence is an absolute gem, with "spitting" providing a perfect counterpoint to snow, turning what would normally be a beautiful image into an apt illustration of the horror that unfolded 77 years ago. The story then provides more of Sigmund Kozma's memories of the disaster before closing where it began, with Kozma remembering all the friends he lost so long ago.

This is an absolute masterpiece of local journalism. I'd highly recommend the story not only to any budding journalists, but also to anyone who cares at all about story craft.

Read the entire story:

"Ex-miner mourns pals 77 years after blast" by Randy Ludlow, The Columbus Dispatch.

New online magazines and journals worth checking out

I've been remiss lately in highlighting new online journals and magazines. As I gear up for next year's Million Writers Award for best online fiction, these are some of the places I'm keeping my eyes on.

The first journal I recommend is Our Stories: A Unique Literary Journal. The journal features extremely strong fiction and wonderful interviews with writers such as Matthew Sharpe. and George Saunders. Another strong point are the essays by editor in chief Alexis E. Santi, such as his recent "Life is Not Told In Revision." I should add that Santi is a fellow returned Peace Corps Volunteer--he served in Romania, while I did my tour in Thailand. While this isn't the reason I'm recommending his journal, I wonder if his PCV experiences help explain why his journal focuses so much on creating a strong community between the journal's authors, editors, and readers.

Another online magazine I highly recommend
is Subterranean Press Magazine. Focusing on speculative fiction, Subterranean is a professional-level online magazine which started out in print. While I'm not privy to the details of their conversion from print to online (although I do know they published in print for two years, and I wouldn't be surprised if simple economics dictated the change over earlier this year), the simple fact is that Subterranean is perfectly suited to an online venue and probably has a bigger readership online than they ever did in print. Each quarterly issue features top-notch fiction, essays, and art by the biggest names in speculative fiction. If you are at all interested in spec fic, started digging into Subterranean.

Looking back on a writing career without regrets

Writer Tom Purdom recently turned 70. Fifty years ago he published his first short story; his most recent was published this year. In his new essay "With age, liberation: The young cellist, the mature writer and the rest of us," Tom explores why artists of all stripes do what they do, and how after fifty years he has decided he hasn't wasted his life. I highly recommend this extremely moving and insightful essay.

Josie Fowler and her final book

Just over a year ago, my good friend Josie Fowler passed away after a long battle with breast cancer. I first met Josie while living in the Twin Cities and can honestly say she was one of those rare human beings who bring joy and love into the lives of everyone they meet. I couldn't begin to recount all my great memories of Josie, so let me just say I miss her deeply. I will also share a moving tribute from another of Josie's friends.

Another thing I want to share with you is Josie's life work, or one aspect of her life's work. Her book Japanese and Chinese Immigrant Activists: Organizing in American and International Communist Movements, 1919-1933 was recently published by Rutgers University Press and I recommend it to everyone with an interest in community and activist organizing. While the book is a heavily researched academic examination, it is also a fascinating read. I remember all the work Josie put into researching this subject in her final years and I'm glad her work is now being shared with others. I'm also glad that Josie learned shortly before her death that the book had been accepted for publication.

Story of the Week: Ted Chiang's "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate"

Forgive me father, for I have sinned. My first sin: I've been away on vacation, so I haven't updated this blog in nearly forever. My second sin: I've selected Ted Chiang's "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" as my new story of the week. Selecting the story, of course, isn’t a sin. The sin comes from praising a story so highly when it isn't online, meaning my readers will have to either buy a copy of the September 2007 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction or order the limited edition book from Subterranean Press.

For those who don't know Ted Chiang, let me enlighten you. Chiang is a science fiction and fantasy writer who has published a grand total of ten short stories in 17 years. While that total would be insignificant in most literary genres (let alone in speculative fiction, where some writers churn out that many stories each year), Chiang is still one of the best living fiction writers. Notice I didn’t say best SF/F writers, or best genre writers. Chiang is simply one of the best fiction writers PERIOD.

This isn’t merely my opinion. Chiang’s first eight published short stories were nominated for numerous awards and won three Nebulas and a Hugo. His short story collection Stories of Your Life and Others is a must have for anyone who loves short fiction; I reread the stories in this book at least once a year. Even though Chiang only writes short stories, each of his stories have enough depth and life to fill entire novels. He also combines lyricism with philosophical explorations of the human universe in ways I have seen no other modern writer even attempt to do.

Chiang’s new story "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" is no exception. Set in ancient Baghdad, the story channels the Arabian Nights into a tale surrounding Fuwaad ibn Abbas and his experiences with the “Gate of Years,” which depending on how one reads the story is either a magic portal or a scientific wormhole through which one may go 20 years into either the past or future. While lesser writers have used this time-traveling theme to showcase paradoxes like killing your own grandfather, Chiang uses the story to explore how we are all responsible for our own actions, even when we use time itself to try and evade them.

I refuse to share more of the plot, other than to say that I both smiled and cried at the end. This is a great story, equal to Chiang’s best, and I suggest everyone pick up their own copy today.

Best of the Net Anthology Seeks Submissions

Erin Elizabeth Smith, managing editor and founder of Sundress Publications, is putting out a call for the second volume of their Best of the Net Anthology. As she says, "This project works to promote the diverse and growing collection of voices that are choosing to publish their work online, a venue that still sees little respect from such yearly anthologies as the Pushcart and Best American series. This collection is intended to bring more respect to a innovative and continually expanding medium. Our inaugural issue included work by Bob Hicok, Anne Boyar, Matt Hart, David Dodd Lee, and CS Fuqua."

Submissions from editors will be open from July 1, 2007 to August 31st, 2007. Winners will be announced in December. The anthology will be released online on January 1, 2008.

For more information, go to Best of the Net Anthology.

Harvey Goldner, a great poet you've never heard of, dies

Harvey Goldner, a great poet you've probably never heard of, died on July 4th. As it says in his obituary, Harvey lived in Seattle and drove a taxi to make ends meet. More importantly, he'd published several volumes of amazing poetry, along with an upcoming collection titled The Resurrection of Bert Ringold.

His publisher, Cinco Puntos Press, has a nice memorial page up for Goldner. In addition, Bookslack has put together a collection of links to Goldner's poems.

The best thing anyone can do to honor Goldner's life and passing is to read his amazing words and let others know about him.

Read the essay before you join the reaming

A while back The New York Review of Science Fiction accepted an essay of mine called "Dipping Their Toes in the Genre Pool: The U.S. Literary Establishment's Need-Hate Relationship with Speculative Fiction." Well, I guess the essay has been published because I've already infuriated the first subscriber of that wonderful publication (not that infuriation was my intention).

Matthew Cheney writes a blog called "The Mumpsimus" and evidently my essay caused him to spend "the last hour yelling at all of the various moving boxes" in his apartment. He also has a lot of other truly unique words to express his view of my essay. Cheney's rebuttal consists mainly of arguing that there isn't a true literary establishment and that I'm part of the "special, marginalized club" of science fiction writers who have martyr complexes over not being accepted by the greater literary world.

Now, anyone who knows me will laugh at this last statement. Through my work with storySouth and the Million Writers Award, I have tried to show that the best writing exists outside of genre. While I’m a firm believer in Sturgeon's Law that 90% of everything is crap, the remaining 10% can be an amazing thing to behold, whether or not its classified as literary fiction or speculative fiction.

A number of people have since commented on Cheney's blog attack, including authors L.E. Modesitt and Eric Bosse. Personally, I agree with Modesitt, who says there's more a sense of "cultural indoctrination" among the literary elite than any single monolithic literary establishment.

But that actually brings me to the irritating point about all this—how people are commenting on the essay without having read it. Obviously Cheney and Modesitt read the essay. But I'm not sure the other online commentators discussing Cheney's attack have (and since the essay's not available online, I can't give readers a link). Despite Cheney’s words, the essay isn't about whether or not there is a literary establishment; instead, the essay focuses on how literary fiction is now appropriating the themes and tropes of speculative fiction.

As stated in the essay, literary trends in recent decades have veered toward the unreadable subgenres of metafiction and “small novels.” Metafiction is, at essence, fiction about fiction. This fictional form is laced with large amounts of irony and self-conscious reflection, with David Forest Wallace’s Infinite Jest being one of the best-known recent examples. As for the small novel, perhaps Pulitzer-Prize winner Gail Caldwell best described this type of fiction as the “myopic sensitive heart-rending personal blah, blah, blah, blah, blah small novel.”

As a result of focusing on these types of fiction instead of stories which offer actual plot, character development, and insight into life, fewer people than ever before are reading literary fiction. In an attempt to change this, some of the top literary writers (like Cormac McCarthy) have been producing novels that take on the larger-than-life ideas and themes found in speculative fiction. Despite this change, and despite the amazing reception these literary speculative fiction novels have received, most of the people who make up the literary establishment (such as top-level book reviewers) continue to praise literary authors who write speculative fiction, but denigrate books on similar themes by spec fic authors. The essay explores all this through the reaction to The Road, McCarthy's amazing Pulitzer-Prize winning post-apocalyptic novel, and how the very people who praised that novel felt quite comfortable ignoring the previous spec fic novels in this subgenre which influenced McCarthy's book, like Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz. Some of these reviewers even showed their ignorance of literature by instead acknowledging such questionable influences on McCarthy as the Night of the Living Dead and Mad Max films.

Before people praise the “smackdown” Cheney supposedly laid onto me, grab a copy of the NYRSF and read the essay for yourself. I think you’ll find that the reports of my reaming have been greatly exaggerated.

Update: While I disagee with David Moles' view of my essay, I have to give him credit for this hilarious book cover mockup.

Jonathan McCalmont also offers an interesting analysis of all this in Sanford and Cheney on Genre and the Literary Establishment.

Million Writers Award update

As people may have noticed, the Million Writers Award is rolling along, with the notable stories of the year now up on the site.

Unfortunately, it will take a little longer for me to finish reading all these notable stories. I'm aiming to have the top ten stories selected by June 1, at which time the public voting will begin. My sincere apologies for the delay.

Story of the Week: Harry Turtledove's "News from the Front"

Every so often you read a short story which rearranges your conception of life. You go in thinking up is up and down is down, then you finish the story and find yourself walking on the ceiling. Such is the effect of reading Harry Turtledove's "News from the Front" in the June 2007 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction.

For those who don't know him, Harry Turtledove is the master of alternative histories, having published a slew of novels exploring what would have happened if, for example, the South had won the Civil War. His stories are heavily researched and always historically accurate—right up until he diverges from how history actually happened and shows readers what might have happened if a few things had been changed.

Now he has written "News from the Front," a short story about World War II and the United States response to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Where Turtledove diverges from history is to have the media back then behave as the media behaves today, which is to believe that the public's right to know if more important than helping the country win the war. In the story the media reveals military secrets and picks apart every error the Roosevelt administration and the U.S. Military make in the first year of the war (and as any history buff will testify, there were mistakes a plenty). To say the least, the war doesn't turn out well.

Of course, this is Turtledove's way of analyzing the media's handling of the current Iraq War.

Science fiction writer James Van Pelt says the story has already made him reconsider how the war in Iraq is playing out:

What was cool was how this form of fiction made me think about today's situation. Personally, I think we're wrong to be in Iraq, not because of any deeply informed study of the war on my part, but because I'd always believed that America was the "white hat" character in the western that is the world. In my vision of America, we never draw first. Invading Iraq because of what we thought they might do just feels wrong to me. It doesn't feel American (plus, it sets a horrible precedent that gives us no moral high ground when some other government does a preemptive invasion of another country).

Harry's story, though, made me rethink the progress of this war. The parallel he sets up is that we couldn't have won WWII if the press behaved like it behaves today. By extension then, would the war in Iraq been very different (and perhaps more "successful") if the press' behavior had been more like the press during out WWII?

I don't know, and I'm not a particularly political person anyway (unless you ask me about No Child Left Behind!), but Harry's story once again struck me with the power of fiction, and the power of science fiction in particular, to raise disturbing issues.

I agree. There is a disclaimer at the start of the story, saying it's "foolish to infer a writer's politics from his or her work." Readers can take or leave this disclaimer as they wish.* All that matters is Turtledove doing what all fiction writers should do, which is to cause readers to consider things anew, in this case a major difference between this war and the wars of our grandparent's time. Anyone interested in history or current affairs should read this story. Unfortunately, the June 2007 issue of Asimov's isn't online, so I suggest people run down to their nearest bookstore and buy a copy.

I'm sure Turtledove will be attacked for writing this story, which is a real shame. As they say, those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. Only with this story, Turtledove attempts to show that the alternative is also true: That those who don't consider how history might have turned out are also doomed to repeat it.

*Addendum: While I'm not a big fan of disclaimers before stories, and despite my comment about readers taking or leaving the disclaimer as they wish, in Turtledove's case it is definitely accurate to say one shouldn't infer his politics from his work. A few years ago Turtledove published a short story called "Bedfellows," about the Boston wedding of President Bush and Osama bin Laden. To say that story stirred up a hornet's nest is to put things mildly. Bloggers and commentators said that he must be a left-wing loony. Now, with "News from the Front," he'll probably be called a right-wing nut. The truth, though, is that he's simply a great writer who doesn't mind poking holes in everyone's preconceptions.

Interzone: 25 Years of Quality British Speculative Fiction

As a science-fiction-loving teenager in rural 1980s Alabama, my options for quality short fiction were limited. My grandfather subscribed to several science fiction magazines—most notably Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine (as it was then called)—but otherwise the only way to find quality sf short stories was to buy paperback anthologies and collections at the local bookstore.

As I read these anthologies and collections, I noticed a fascinating trend: Many of the best short stories were being published in a British magazine called Interzone. Unfortunately, in those pre-internet days, I had no way of locating even a single copy of this trend-setting publication.

The good news, though, is that Interzone—now Britain's longest running science fiction magazine—is still around and as vital as ever. In 2004, long-time editor David Pringle stepped down and sold the magazine to TTA Press. Now edited by Andy Cox and a slew of fellow talented editors, Interzone has returned to its roots, publishing cutting-edge speculative fiction from new and established writers.

The February 2007 issue of Interzone (issue 208) features several strong stories, my favorite being "The Star Necromancers" by Alexander Marsh Freed, which is a far-future tale set in a universe where the stars are fading and the differences between science and religion are hard to state and even harder to believe in. Jason Stoddard also has an amazingly disturbing and well-written tale about the perils and limitations of communications among both humans and aliens in "Softly Shining in the Forbidden Dark." The highlights of the issue, though, are essays about three writers: Elizabeth Hand, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke. The Hand article/interview is an in-depth exploration of her life and writing, while the essays by Gaiman and Clarke examine their unique views on writing short stories. Their verdict? To Gaiman, "Writing a short story is the equivalent of looking over and thinking it might be fun to try and climb that tree. And you just shin straight up it." For Clarke, though, "Short stories scare me. A novel is something that happens to me. A short story is something I have to make happen."

The April 2007 issue (issue 209) is Interzone's 25th anniversary spectacular. As might be expected, the issue includes retrospectives of the magazine from a number of noted authors, including Sir Arthur C. Clarke and Michael Moorcock (who evidently predicted, back in the 1980s, that Interzone would only last three issues). This issue also packs in a ton of top-quality fiction, including an interview with and new story by Hal Duncan. Other fiction standouts include Alastair Reynolds, who presents a well-written, if slightly predictable, post-apocalyptic story (although it's not the nuclear or virus-laden apocalypse most people expect) with "The Sledge-Maker's Daughter." Finally, new writer Jamie Barras has a great slipstream/science fiction story with "Winter," which is not only well written, but showcases how effective the unreliable narrator technique can be in storytelling. I should note that Barras has published several excellent stories in recent issues of Interzone. That, combined with his wonder of a tale from Strange Horizons last year ("Spinning Out," reviewed here) marks him as a writer to watch. This appears to be yet another case of Interzone recognizing and bringing attention to a talented writer early in his or her career.

I should note that Interzone is the best designed science fiction magazine on the market. The artwork truly strengthens the fiction without ever overwhelming the printed type with designer gimmicks (which is what too many magazines do, making the text unreadable). In addition, both issues feature the best film reviews I've read in ages in Nick Lowe's Mutant Popcorn column. As someone who has tired of the wink-wink, nod-nod insider's game of critiquing which passes for film reviews in most newspapers and magazines, Lowe's writing is truly a breath of Godzilla-flame-throwing, melt-your-eyeballs-to-their-sockets fresh air.

For people in the United States, copies of Interzone are carried by a number of independent bookstores, along with the Barnes and Noble chain of stores (which appears to still have issue 208 in stock). People can also order individual issues or a subscription on Interzone's website. One suggestion: If you order a subscription, order the two-year deal. Overseas subscribers who order two year subscriptions get a large discount on their postage and delivery charges.

Postcard-sized stories from hell

As readers may remember, I've been rather tough on flash fiction over the years. That said, there are some good examples of the short short fiction genre, and editor Jeff Crook (of Southern Gothic fame) has found the perfect place for stories under 500 words: HELL!

Jeff is editing Postcards from Hell, which are (in his words) "postcard-sized stories mailed once a week to your home. The stories are concise, brilliant glimpses of horror, like a door opened and then slammed shut." This is a devilishly clever concept and I encourage people to pop for the $6.66 to receive these postcards (only $3.33 for e-cards sent to your e-mail address). In addition, Jeff is still looking for submissions, so writers should feel free to jump into the burning lake of fire and dash off their best short short fiction.

Stories of the week, hodgepodge edition

I'm trying to get back into the swing of selecting regular "stories of the week" (although I make no promise about always doing this on a weekly basis). Because it's been a while since I've picked a great story to share with readers, I'm making up for lost time by selecting a hodgepodge of recent—but great—stories.

My first selection is "Tabloid Reporter To The Stars" by Eric James Stone. This wonderfully written science fiction story deftly pulls off laugh after laugh while also illuminating critical issues surrounding science, religion, culture, and, most importantly, what exactly is that thing we call truth. The ending alone is worth the price of admission. My favorite line: "'Yes, I am a Seeker of Truth.' And I'm willing to lie in order to get it."

And about that price. The story is published in the new issue of Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show. IGMS is rapidly becoming one of the top speculative fiction publications, a fact that is all the more amazing because IGMS is totally online. Readers purchase each issue for the extremely reasonable price of $2.50. In addition to top-notch fiction, IGMS features excellent columns and reviews (which can be accessed for free) and a new story in each issue by publisher Orson Scott Card (set in his award-winning Ender Saga universe).

My next two selections are from the April 2007 issue of Realms of Fantasy, which focuses this month on fantasy stories "from exotic lands." The first story is "The Rope: A New Tale of the Antique Lands" by Noreen Doyle. Set in a middle-eastern land in the 19th century, this inward-revolving tale focuses on a young girl and the rope charmer she travels with. The story shows the beauty, hope, and terror of reaching for one's dreams—and in letting one's audience influence what your dreams should be.

The other story to check out in the issue is "The Tao of Crocodiles" by Euan Harvey. Set in Thailand, this story of ghosts and violence is a creepy example of how each of us is embedded within our culture—even if we think we aren't. Not only is this a great ghost story, its also a wonderful slice of Thai life and culture. I spent two years in Thailand as a Peace Corps Volunteer and even though it's been ten years since I left the kingdom, the story washed over me as if I'd never left the country.

I should note that Realms of Fantasy is a purely print magazine. But with all the great fiction in this issue, it’s worth tracking down your own copy.

Of course, speculative fiction isn't the only game in town. The current edition of the Mississippi Review online focuses on "prose poems." Now, as storySouth readers may remember, I have said some harsh words in the past about short short or flash fiction. That said, a number of the prose poems (short shorts, flash fiction, whatever you call them) in the current Mississippi Review are top notch. My favorites are "Thinking of Hansel and Gretel" by Robert Bly and "To My Love" by Mark Budman. While I still believe that too many writers forsake plot, character development, and the other elements of traditional short stories for the easy writing thrill of short shorts, the prose poems by Bly and Budman show that in the hands of a skilled writer, the genre can reach the top levels of literature.

Finally, Blackbird: An Online Journal of Literature and the Arts has a new story by Liliana V. Blum (translated by Toshiya Kamei) called "A New Faith." As with all of Blum's stories (including "A Sip of Light," published last year in storySouth), the language of the story is extremely atmospheric and draws the reader through the lush tale.

So there you have it, the best stories I’ve read in the last month. One of the points I've tried to make over the years with both storySouth and with our Million Writers Award is that great stories exist both within and outside of the boundaries which define traditional literary genres. All of the stories named here may belong to extremely different genres and writing styles, but they share one common element: They are great stories.

Confessions from the man who single-handedly destroyed poetry as we know it!

It's not often we see the true impact of our lives. After all, human lives are immensely complex. To track the outcomes of all the little things we do in life—the cheerful greeting we gave to a sick neighbor, the angry motorist we cut off during rush hour traffic—would be impossible. Still, if life has taught me anything it is that the universe has a strange sense of humor. And so it was that a few months ago I learned the true impact of my life:

I’ve single handedly destroyed poetry as we know it!

First, a little background. In the late 1990s I returned from two years service in the Peace Corps with a need to do what do many human do, which was find a job so I wouldn't starve to death. I eventually landed an editorial position at a small commercial book publisher called Meadowbrook Press. As often happens with editors, I blossomed forth and soon became an older editor, overseeing a number of books for young adults and children, including a fiction line for kids and our press’s giggle poetry books.

Yes, you heard me right. Giggle poetry. Funny poetry for kids. You know, poems along the lines of Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein and The New Kid on the Block by Jack Prelutsky.

The catch, though, was that at Meadowbrook Press we only occasionally dipped into the literary leanings of Silverstein and Prelutsky. This is because early on our publisher, Bruce Lansky (now known as the King of Giggle Poetry) had a revolutionary idea. Instead of relying on esteemed poets and literary critics to decide which funny poems should go into our anthologies, we could cut straight to the source and ask actual kids which poems they liked. Lansky soon developed a time-tested recipe for letting kids pick their favorite poems (the methods of which I am forbidden to reveal under threat of tickle torture, except to say that the testing caused kids to sphew milk through noses and laugh nonstop for days). This innovative process soon revealed the long-held secret to getting kids to read poetry:

Give them lots and lots of potty humor!

I can not begin to tell you how liberating this revelation was. We called upon the poets of America to reach deep into their skivies and produce some heaping helpings of rhythmic retention. For example, one poem I helped select for an anthology was "Swimming Ool" by Kenn Nesbitt. I leave it to the reader to follow that link and discover the subtle joys of "Swimming Ool" for yourself. All that needs to be said is that the poem plumbs the watery depths of pure potty humor.

After discovering what kids really wanted in poetry, we proceeded to publish anthology after anthology of pure potty humor. With titles like A Bad Case of the Giggles and Kids Pick the Funniest Poems, these books sold in numbers that most poets and poetry publishers can only dreams of. Millions of copies of the books were soon in circulation.

My particular role was to oversee publication of Miles of Smiles. Shortly after that book hit the bookstores, Bruce Lansky asked me to lead development of an online giggle poetry presence. I soon designed a nice little website called Giggle Poetry and turned the little beast loose in the world. (I should also note that the Giggle Poetry website hasn't changed much since I created it, at least according to the Internet Wayback machine).

At this point, you are no-doubt wishing I would cut to the chase and state exactly how I've destroyed poetry as we know it. Here, then, is the chase:

If you now type the word "poetry" into Google, Giggle Poetry is the number three search item with over 20,000 links to the potty humor site. Only poetry.com (which isn't a good thing, as a number of people have called poetry.com a scam) and the esteemed American Academy of Poets rank higher. In addition, the rankings fluctuate. Only a few weeks ago Giggle Poetry was number two, with the Academy sliding back behind the potty.

That's right. The little Giggle Poetry site I created years ago has gone big time. Every time a new reader searches online for poetry, there's a good chance they are getting a great big pile of rhyming potty humor in the face.

Perhaps this doesn't matter. After all, if potty poems help kids to read, then so be it.

But then I think about some young, impressionable child (perhaps a burgeoning Homer, Shakespeare, or Dickinson) feeling his or her first poetic yearning to create verse. This child types poetry into Google and opens up the Giggle Poetry site, where "Tinkle, Tinkle, Little Bat" by Dianne Rowley jumps out at the youngster. The child goes, "So that's what poetry should be. Maybe one day I will write a great poem like that."

As I said, I've single handedly destroyed poetry as we know it. But whenever I catch my kids howling over some choice piece of Giggle Poetry, I wonder if destroying poetry is really such a bad thing after all?

Why editors liked your story and still rejected it

Every so often someone e-mails me with one of the great questions in any writer's life, "How could you reject my story after saying you liked it?"

The answer to this question comes from Dena Harris, a writer who recently spent a day as an editor. As she writes, the hardest part about dealing with submissions was to separate "the very good from just the good."

While Dena writes about submissions to a speculative fiction magazine, what she says also applies to all fiction publications. It is easy to separate the horrible and excellent stories out of any submission pile. The hard part comes when one sorts the very good from the merely good. Add into that decisions on if a story can be saved through editorial intervention--and if a story is worth the time of said intervention--and you begin to get an idea of why an editor could like a story and still reject it.

Update on 2-16-06:

I failed to mention that I first read Dena's post on Side-Show Freaks, a blog by Edmund Schubert, the editor of Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show. Unfortunately, Schubert has had some backlash over the posting, which is a true shame. I saw the post as an educational tool for writers, enabling people to learn about the submission process so their next submission will have an even better chance of being published.

Yes, there is humor in the post, but sometimes humor is the best way to describe and handle life. As someone who has read through tons of slush piles in his day, what Dena is describing is the truth of the slush pile. Yes, editors laugh over extremely bad submissions. But editors also live for the thrill of finding that one diamond in the pile of coal. Such is the duality of life. I should also note that a close read of the post will show that the editors are finding a number of diamonds in that slush pile--and that such finds are what drive them to endure reading through more short stories in a single day than most people read all year.

So I'd suggest people refrain from being offended by the post and instead see it as insight into how the editorial process works.

Southern Gothic Online . . . and in Print

One of the strengths of Southern Literature is that it encompasses such a diverse group of writings, including within its literary borders everything from the African American literature of Zora Neale Hurston, "lost cause" novels like Gone with the Wind, the books of the Southern Renaissance, and, drum roll please, Southern Gothic writings. Southern Gothic literature utilizes gothic archetypes, the fantastic, and the grotesque to illuminate such human frailties as violence, hate, and racism. Among the classics example of this subgenre are As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (along with his short story "A Rose for Emily"), A Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O'Connor, and Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison.

A favorite online literary journal of mine in recent years has been Southern Gothic Online. Edited by Jeff Crook, this impresive journal is keeping the Southern Gothic tradition alive while also updating these style of stories for the 21st century. While the site's design could be easier to navigate, the fiction and poetry published by Jeff are first rate. Now I've learned that Jeff has expanded the journal to a print journal. I wish him the best of luck with this wonderful endeavour. Southern Gothic Online is also a paying market, so writers please take note and submit your works. Readers, if you like what you see please consider a donation to help the journal continue its great work.

The Return of Brad Vice

As regular storySouth readers may remember, last year the editors of this journal strongly defended Brad Vice against charges of plagiarism. While our defense had a bitter-sweet ring to it since the University of Georgia Press had already pulped all copies of Vice's book, we saw this as an opportunity to bring attention to the great wrong being done to a great writer. Yes, Vice had made mistakes. But despite the screams from partisans bent on destroying his reputation, his mistakes never reached the level of a deadly literary sin.

Several new developments suggest that our view of Vice as a talented writer who made a minor mistake is gaining traction. First, River City Publishing plans to issue a new edition of the book in the spring of 2007. As reported in the Oxford American, "The revised version will more closely mirror Vice’s 2001 dissertation from the University of Cincinnati, which contained many of the stories that ended up being published as The Bear Bryant Funeral Train. Unlike the UGA Press edition, it will be divided into two sections, the latter of which is set entirely in Tuscaloosa. In his dissertation, Vice described the Tuscaloosa stories as an 'attempt to reconcile the seemingly incompatible movements of Southern regionalism and international postmodernism.' In that vein, it contained epigraphs by Albert Camus, Basho, Guy Davenport, Bear Bryant, and, more importantly, Carmer, all of which will reappear in the River City edition." This edition will also include an introduction by Vice and critical essays by John Dufresne, Erin McGraw, Don Noble, and Jake Adam York (my fellow storySouth editor).

This info is contained in the new issue of the Oxford American. Two articles on Vice from the issue are also available online: "The Strange Case of Brad Vice: In defense of a destroyed treasure" by Michelle Richmond and "Absurdity and Madness: The Making of the Bear Bryant Funeral Train" by Brad Vice himself. These essays add much to the overall understanding of both what Vice did and the literary world's overreaction.

Personally, I'm glad that Brad Vice is getting a second chance. I look forward to the spring rerelease of his book.

Why has the New York Times ignored the passing of author Jack Williamson?

If the New York Times is justifiably famous for one thing, it’s for their in-depth obituaries on famous and not-so-famous people. While the paper has been criticized by people on both the left and right—most recently for revealing classified secrets during a time of war—few people say anything disrespectful about the paper's wonderful obituaries. The reason for this reverence comes, in part, from the paper's attempt to profile not only the world’s great leaders but also the less-known people who influence society. For example, in today's paper is a profile of George B. Thomas Jr., who wrote an influential college calculus textbook. While few people have heard of Thomas, he is now immortalized with a NY Times obit.

Now, though, I wonder if the New York Time's remaining reputation is about to take an even bigger hit. I speak about their lack of an obituary for science-fiction great Jack Williamson.

For what it's worth, the entire mainstream media has missed the ball on this, with Williamson's death being mentioned by only a handful of media outlets (most notably the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the New York Newsday). While this lack of notice by the entire media is wrong, the New York Times' pride on being so comprehensive with their obits makes their lack of mention of Williamson even more appalling.

For those who don't know him, Jack Williamson's writing career spans the complete history of science fiction. Not only did he write some of the genres most famous novels, he also won all of the genres top awards, including being named a grandmaster by the SFWA. In addition, he was the first person to write about genetic engineering and antimatter and he coined the term “terraforming.” For those last items alone, his passing should have been mentioned by the Times.

To see what type of obituary Williamson should have been given, read the glowing words the English newspaper The Independent gave him. Their headline says it all: " Jack Williamson: Father of American science fiction."

It's a shame the media in this country, and especially our so-called paper of record (which with each passing day becomes less worthy of that claim), forces this country's readers to go overseas to learn about such an important American.

Update on Nov. 14, 2006

The New Yorks Times finally did a short obit on Williamson, as did the Los Angeles Times. I honestly wasn't impressed with the NY Times obit, finding it to be a bare bones summary of Williamson's extraordinary life. I wonder if the New York Times threw something together at the last minute because of criticism they received at not doing anything on Williamson (which is not how they usually do obits--for famous and influential people, they often write the copy years in advance).

The LA Times obit was much better but the best, by far, remains the The Independent's coverage of his passing. This is still a case where the American media dropped the ball.

Stranger than Fiction: When novels become attack ads

Now that the mid-term elections are over, editorials and opinions are being flung around like crap from a monkey's cage. While most of this writing will disappear into the ether, one essay worth reading is "Stranger Than Fiction" by Kathleen Parker. While the essay is nominally about the Virginia Senate race between Sen. George Allen and Jim Webb, Parker takes a unique look at how Webb's fiction writing was used to attack him during the contest.

Webb, a Vietnam veteran, has written a number of novels drawing on his personal experience as a US Marine in Vietnam, including 1978's Fields of Fire (ranked by some literary critics among the best novels of the Vietnam War). As might be imagined about any fiction focusing on this war, Webb's novels contain many disturbing elements, all of which Webb states he personally witnessed.

During Webb's campaign for the senate, his opponent selected a number of disturbing passages from Webb's novels to demonstrate that Webb was unfit for office or, at least, had a questionable character. Parker decries this attempt at using fiction to analyze a writer’s inner self. In addition, she forcefully denounces the literal mindset which sees fiction in the same vein as reality.

As she says, "The impulse that invites such a witless interpretation of fiction comes from the same dark ignorance that fuels the self-ratifying fanaticism of radical Islam. Literalism is the enemy of civilization, and that is no fiction."

Read the essay.

Print or electronic: the 2007 Novel and Short Story Writer's Market and online submission databases

Fall is the time for fiction writers to regroup. As the wind picks up a chill and costumed kids run amuck in search of candy, the distractions of spring and summer disappear. Soon winter will be here, offering the solitude of cold and sleet and snow. If writers can’t lock themselves into their converted den and hammer out their fictional masterpieces now, they’ll never get them done.

Fall is also the time when writers reassess their publication success. The reason for this is the annual reappearance of the Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market. For 26 years this wonderful collection of markets for short stories and novels, published by Writer’s Digest Books, has reminded writers in exquisite detail of all the places they’ve yet to be published in.

Seriously, I dare say there isn’t a fiction writer out there who hasn’t used this book at some point to plot their submission strategy. I’ve personally used N&SSWM for a number of years and always look forward to each new edition. And based on what I’ve read so far, the 2007 N&SSWM is an improvement over the already high standards of previous years.

That said, the submissions game is changing. As I’ve recently mentioned, there is a new online submission tool called Duotrope's Digest. Duotrope offers much of the same information as N&SSWM, along with a similar number of markets (with both offering around 1,300 markets, although Duotrope includes poetry markets in its total but excludes publishers of novel-length fiction, while N&SSWM offers short stories and novels but omits poetry since Writer’s Digest Books offers an entirely different book for poetry markets). Unlike N&SSWM, though, Duotrope is a searchable database and compiles submission response statistics for its listed markets, enabling writers to estimate how long each market might take to respond. Finally, Duotrope is free to use while N&SSWM costs $26.95.

For all of those reasons, a few writers have asked me why they should bother with N&SSWM.

My answer: fiction writers face long enough odds on getting their stories published. I find both N&SSWM and Duotrope useful—although for different reasons—and if using both tools gives my submissions an edge, then so be it.

Unlike Duotrope, each entry in N&SSWM is compiled by professional editors. This gives me a trust factor which Duotrope has yet to earn. N&SSWM is also more than a listing of markets. For example, the first quarter of the 2007 N&SSWM is stuffed full of useful articles on publishing your fiction and includes sections on craft and technique, getting published, and interviews with authors. There are also individual sections devoted to each genre of fiction writing, including mystery writing, romance writing, and so on. The articles focusing on the needs of genre writers are both useful and fun to read (I particularly loved the article “Laugh Until You Scream” by Carol Pinchefsky, which tells an author how to write funny horror stories).

Another reason I still use N&SSWM is that it contains more listings than Duotrope and is easier to quickly locate the market I want. When I find a market I’m interested in, I then go to Duotrope and see what their submission response time is. In short, I use both Duotrope and N&SSWM because at this point they complement each other perfectly.

That said, what about the future? Duotrope Digest is rather new, meaning it will probably grow and adapt significantly in the coming years. There are also other useful compilations of submission data on the internet. What does this foretell for N&SSWM? Will N&SSWM eventually go online and offer both a print and internet edition or will it remain a book edition only?

Currently Writer’s Digest Books offers an online, fee-based searchable database at WritersMarket.com. Personally, I’m not a fan of this database, finding it to be poorly designed and, most importantly, including only paying fiction and nonfiction markets. The fact that WritersMarket.com omits the non-paying markets that are more receptive to beginning fiction writers is the main reason I won’t use the system. Even though the database is updated daily, what good is updated data if the data doesn’t include the markets I’m interested in?

I recently asked Lauren Mosko, the editor of the 2007 Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market, if Writer’s Digest Books is considering making all of N&SSWM’s listings available online in a fee-based system. Lauren said that:

“Free market resource sites like Duotrope's Digest are certainly on our radar, but we feel confident Writer's Market will remain the brand writers can trust. Our printed market information is updated annually (and in the case of WritersMarket.com, daily), and all our submission, payment, and needs information comes directly from each publishers' editors. The editors of each book in our Market Book series take personal responsibility for contacting publishers for updates, so we don't have to rely on publishers' Web sites for information or place the burden of research on our readers. Although we'd love to see all nine Market Books online in the near future, right now we're preparing for the upcoming redesign and relaunch of WritersMarket.com.”

Lauren is correct about how the currently available online submission systems, like Duotrope, place the burden of research on their readers. As I said earlier, the accuracy of N&SSWM is why I have returned each year to this wonderful book. I’d strongly recommend any writer who is serious about publishing their fiction purchase the 2007 N&SSWM.

That said, I’m not sure if I will be able to make the same recommendation a few years down the line. In the market for useful submission data, Duotrope Digest has made a solid start into N&SSWM’s territory. In many ways this challenge reminds me of how blogs and online news sources have taken on the print newspaper industry. While newspaper editors initially ignored this competitive threat—stating that they had brand loyalty and the trust of their readers—today the headlines are full of newspapers cutting staffs and trying to save their sinking bottom line. Ironically, most people read such dire headlines online instead of on newsprint.

How Writer’s Digest Books responds to this changing playing field will determine if they remain the premiere source of market place information or if they are overtaken by the new kid on the online block.

Previous comments about submission databases:

Duotrope's Digest is an excellent submission tool for writers
The fast and slow on submission responses

Citizendium update

As I mentioned in my previous post on the subject, Citizendium is a new expert driven encyclopedia which aims to correct the main problems of Wikipedia. As Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger, who is leading the creation of Citizendium says, "Wikipedia has accomplished great things, but the world can do even better. By engaging expert editors, eliminating anonymous contribution, and launching a more mature community under a new charter, a much broader and more influential group of people and institutions will be able to improve upon Wikipedia’s extremely useful, but often uneven work. The result will be not only enormous and free, but reliable."

While I haven't talked much about this, I have spent a good bit of time editing Wikipedia and currently serve as one of the online encyclopedia's administrators. I have also been involved in the early discussions on Citizendium. Some of my concerns with Citizendium, which I expressed in my previous post, have turned out to be unfounded. (This includes my concern about the name--it grows on you, it really does!)

In the coming days Citizendium will be gaining a good deal of press coverage as the Citizendium launches its pilot project. For an overview of Citizendium, please see Modern Dragon's wonderful article on the subject.

I don't know where all of this will lead but, as I stated a few weeks ago, I am certain of one thing: All humanity will end up winning by this next phase in the creation of a free, reliable encyclopedia.

Story of the Week:"Spinning Out" by Jamie Barras

My main intention in selecting stories of the week is to give added exposure to worthwhile tales. That said, I also want to prove that great stories are not merely found within the dry, dusty pages of esteemed literary journals. Great stories appear every day in newspapers, online journals, blogs, and other places. These great stories are being written in ever possible genre of fiction and nonfiction.

This week's story, "Spinning Out" by Jamie Barras, is a classic science fiction and sea adventure story published in two parts on the online magazine Strange Horizons. The reason I call this a "classic" science fiction story is that it includes all the elements of the great science fiction stories--namely, a larger-than-life setting, the use of technology as a main plot device, and a strong sense of adventure. In addition, the story is also a classic tale of the sea, as the young man narrating the story finds himself on a sailing ship in the adventure of his lifetime.

I love how this story so effortlessly melds the genres of science fiction and sea adventures into one beautiful written story. The call of the sea and the call to explore other worlds are in many way different sides to the same human coin--our instinctual need to see what is over the next horizon. That this story so perfectly combines the old and new versions of humanity's attempts at exploration is an amazing thing to behold.

As a side note, this story also resonates because it doesn't attempt to be overly "literary," which is something that has plagued too much of science fiction since the New Wave movement of the 1970s. In short, Jamie Barras knows he has a good story here and he simply tells it, without overreaching literary devices or angst. The story itself draws the reader in and the story is, in the end, what remains after we leave this wonderfully crafted world.

Read the story.

In search of a lost poem: "Andy-Diana DNA Letter" by Andrew Weiman

I'd like to share a great poem with you, but I can't. You see, the poem is missing. Disappeared without a trace. And despite the poem's name, there is no way to sample its DNA, to track its where abouts, or even to let you read it.

The poem is "Andy-Diana DNA Letter" by Andrew Weiman. I first came across the poem in high school, where it formed the epilogue to the 1981 Harper Anthology of Poetry, edited by John Frederick Nims. As Nims wrote in the introduction to the poem, "Our anthology opened with an anonymous poem of nearly 800 years ago on the themes of love, separation, death. Now it comes to a close with a poem on similar themes and nearly as anonymous, presented here to stand for all those (poems) being written by the young in whose vision poetry proliferates. It is 'nearly as anonymous' because the poet is not yet a presence in our literary world. This is his first published poem."

What followed was a three-page love poem, from Andy to Diana, written as a string of DNA. The poem pulses just like an actual DNA strand, narrowing and widening as Andy declares his love of Diana in a colloquial tone which simply rolls off the tongue. That said, the poem is also incredibly complex. Not only does it physically resemble the double helix of DNA, the sounds of the poem wrap around each other, mimicking the matching protein identifiers of each line of DNA in what Nims calls a "phonemic double helix."

According to the brief bio in the book, Andrew Weiman was born in Orlando in 1956 and wrote the poem while studying clinical psychology at New York University in 1980. I wish I could share with you the poem but there are no copies online (and for copyright reasons I can't reprint it without permission). Anyone wishing to read this masterpiece will have to find a copy of the 1981 Harper Anthology of Poetry or the literary journal Poetry (Vol. 137 No. 2, November, 1980) which first published the poem.

This poem should be read by anyone with a true love of poetry. However, more than thirty-five years after the poem was first published, the author and poem are still unknown. I want to change this. Just as detectives use DNA to solve crimes, I hope someone out there will notice this little blog posting and track down the author. What became of him? Did he write other poems or was this his sole poetic creation? And finally, and most importantly, is there a way to reprint the poem online so it can be shared with a new generation of readers?

If anyone knows the answers to any of these questions, please e-mail me at storysouth at yahoo dot com.

Reviving Gustav Hasford

You may not remember Gustav Hasford's name but anyone who has seen Stanley Kubrick's film Full Metal Jacket knows him. Not only was the film based on Hasford's Vietnam novel The Short Timers, but Hasford helped write the Academy-Award nominated screenplay. In addition, the main character, the wise-cracking Marine journalist Private Joker, was based on Hasford himself.

Of course, the question of how much of the script Hasford wrote was a bone of contention between the author and Kubrick. As Hasford once said in response to Kubrick’s offer of an "additional dialogue” screenwriting credit, “Those fuckers retyped my novel and tried to put their names on it!"

No, Hasford wasn't an easy man to get along with. Even though Hasford was self educated on an endless number of subjects, he never graduated from high school because he stubbornly refused to take the graduation exams for his diploma. He fought with Kubrick for years over the movie and about receiving credit (with Kubrick once stating, "I can't deal with this man"). In addition, Hasford was arrested in 1988 for stealing hundreds of books from libraries in the United States and around the world. When Hasford finally died in 1993 on a Greek island from diabetes and aegina-related problems, he was nearly broke and living by himself in a run-down hotel.

If Hasford had a focus to his life (aside from his writing), it was his decision to enlist in the Marines during the Vietnam War. As Hasford later wrote, “The South is a big Indian reservation populated by ex-Confederates who are bred like cattle to die in Yankee wars. In Alabama there is no circus to run off to, so we join the Marines.” After working on a stateside military newspaper for a while, Hasford requested a transfer to Vietnam. From these experiences would emerge his most famous novel, The Short Timers.

When Hasford's first novel was published, it received rave reviews but sold only a few thousand copies. The story is told in the same type of short, staccato writing that Hasford wrote for military newspapers while in Vietnam. This style pulls the reader through as if every word and description hinged on adrenaline-fueled rage. As Harlan Ellison wrote about the book, "It is one of the most amazing stretches of writing I've ever encountered."

Unfortunately, Hasford's novel is now out of print and, without the movie version of the book, would probably be forgotten. This is a shame. Philip Beidler, a professor of English at the University of Alabama and recipient of the Eugene Current-Garcia Award for Alabama's Distinguished Scholar, has called the book a work of "indisputable genius.'' Others have ranked the novel along such Vietnam literary classes as Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato and The Things We Carried and John Del Vecchio's The 13th Valley.

Anyone interested in Hasford's life and writings should read "Mangling Frail Civilian Sensibilities: The story of Gustav Hasford, literary snuffie" by Jason Aaron. Originally published in Aura, UAB's literary journal, and in The Viet Nam War Generation Journal, this article is a fascinating introduction to this almost forgotten writer. Aaron is Hasford's cousin and reprinted the article on a website he has devoted to Hasford, which is Aaron's attempt to keep alive the literary reputation of this Alabama novelist. The website also features complete online editions of all of Hasford's out-of-print novels, including The Short Timers (and its highly praised sequel, The Phantom Blooper).

As one of the initial reviews of The Short Timers stated, "Read it if you dare."

Where have all the comments gone? Spam and online communities

Readers of this blog may have noticed that we are no longer accepting comments to particular blog entries. While we love hearing from our readers, we have also been overwhelmed with spam trying to sneak in as reader comments. While our programming system prevented this spam from being published, removing the junk took valuable time that we are no longer willing to expend.

The sad truth is that automated spam is overwhelming many of the reader feedback mechanisms which make blogs so attractive to people. The first thing to go from many blogs was the trackback feature, which enabled people to see which blogs had linked to another blog's new entry. Now reader comments are under attack. In the coming months I'm sure fewer and fewer blogs will allow people to respond to posts.

In many ways all of this is a new aspect of the tragedy of the commons theory, in which individual interests conflict with the common good. As Wikipedia says, "The parable demonstrates how free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource ultimately dooms the resource through over-exploitation."

In this instance, though, most people support the common good and merely wish to interact and comment about items of interest to the online community. They are being twarted by the individual interests of a few spammers. I wonder if this will be the new tragedy of the commons in the coming decades: the selfish desires of a few ruining life for the many.

Knowledge Smackdown: Wikipedia vs. Citizendium

I have long been a fan of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Founded by fellow Alabama native Jimmy Wales, the encyclopedia has harnessed a grassroots network of editors from around the world and created the fast-growing knowledge system in human history.

Of course, there are problems with Wikipedia, notably the errors and vandalism which sneak in from anonymous editors and the fact that debates over issues at Wikipedia often resemble old-west shootouts. In addition, there is also no way to verify the accuracy of any Wikipedia article (although this fault also rests with most online knowledge outlets). In short, while one shouldn't use Wikipedia as the totality of your research in any particular area, it remains a good place to start understanding any particular subject.

However, the fact that Wikipedia isn't an authoritative source of knowledge—with authoritative being read as having earned a stamp of approval from well-known experts—hasn't sat well with everyone. One of these people is Larry Sanger, who co-founded Wikipedia with Jimmy Wales. Sanger was originally the editor in chief of Nupedia, an expert-created online encyclopedia owned by Wales. When Nupedia was unable to attract a large number of articles, Sanger proposed creating a wiki to spur the development of articles and the result was Wikipedia. The exact credit each of these men should receive has long been a source of contention but one thing is certain: Sanger left Wikipedia in 2002 with a bad taste in his mouth about a number of the ways Wikipedia was being run, most notably that Wikipedia's setup discouraged academic experts from taking part.

Now Sanger has proposed creating an alternative to Wikipedia, which he calls Citizendium. This encyclopedia will supposedly take many of the things that have worked well with Wikipedia—such as using a neutral point of view in articles and the fact that articles on Wikipedia are created under the GNU Free Documentation License, which allows people to copy and adapt Wikipedia's work without charge. Citizendium's aim is to create an "expert culture and community that encourages subject specialists ('editors') to contribute and 'citizens' (to be called "authors") to respect the expert contributions."(from Wikipedia's article on Citizendium)

To start Citizendium, Sanger will create a fork of Wikipedia by importing the million plus Wikipedia articles into Citizendium. Sanger's organization will then let their experts and authors improve these articles (as said before, the articles are available under the GNU free license).

I'm of two mind in this affair. Part of me really likes the fact that these two organizations will fight it out, so to speak, toward creating the ultimate database of human knowledge. Because both organizations will be using the GNU free license, their work will be available to any human being on the planet without charge. In addition, the competition might cause Wikipedia's community of editors to finally address the long-standing problems of anonymous editors and reliability of articles. It is also probable that articles will be traded back and forth between the two projects, with the best articles rising to the top of both encyclopedias like fine cream.

That said, I am troubled by some aspects of Sanger's Citizendium. Aside from its pretentious title (which participants are already saying must be changed), this feels in some ways like an attempt by old-guard academics to retake control of humanity's knowledge. Clay Shirky states this in Larry Sanger, Citizendium, and the Problem of Expertise, where he notes that Sanger main beef all along with Wikipedia is that it doesn't give enough deference to academic experts.

I have no problem believing in the worth of experts. The problem, though, lies in deciding what makes one an expert. I wonder if Citizendium won't implode from the weight of trying to decide who is an expert. Is a person with a Ph.D. more of an expert than a person in the same field with more knowledge and life experience? Is a tenured professor in her twenties more of an expert than an adjunct professor who has been teaching for fifty years but never attained tenure for personal reasons? I know many people who lack the academic credentials in their respected fields but know far more than their academic peers with Ph.Ds and such.

There is also the fact that, as Clay Shirky says, experts don't exist outside of institutions. It is difficult to be an expert without a university or other official institution to stand behind you. By this reasoning, I imagine that Citizendium will gravitate toward deeming people associated with universities and other institutions of higher education as experts.

I hope they don’t take such a simplistic approach at defining the worth of a contributor’s knowledge. Wikipedia's strength is that it has been created outside of institutions in an online world where the weight of knowledge and reliability of sources decides what’s correct, not the pedigree behind one's name. In short, Wikipedia is in many ways a marketplace of ideas and knowledge, were market forces work to create the available information. The process is rarely pretty and doesn't get everything right. But as Wikipedia's explosive growth and accuracy attest (notice that almost all the links here are to Wikipedia articles), this marketplace of ideas can be a powerful force. If Citizendium is restricted to institutional experts, it will lose it connection to the most powerful force available for the compilation of knowledge.

Still, I am optimistic about all of this. Competition is a powerful force and perhaps Citizendium will improve on Wikipedia. Or, perhaps, Citizendium will force Wikipedia to improve its own processes. Or vice verse.

But no matter what happens, I am certain of one thing: The winner will be all of humanity.

Honoring 9-11 Victim Gopal Varadhan

In memory of the September 11th attacks, storySouth is taking part in a massive blogger initiative to honor all 2,996 victims. Several thousand bloggers have each agreed to honor one of these people. It is my honor to write about Gopalakrishnan Varadhan, who was killed in the north tower of the World Trade Center. He was 32 years old.

But this elegy isn't about how Gopal Varadhan died. Rather, it is about his life—and how the lives of all the people who died in the Sept. 11 attacks continue to ripple through the lives of those who remain.

Gopal Varadhan was the oldest son of Raghu and Vasu Varadhan, both professors at New York University. Gopal grew up in New York and attended the Bronx High School of School. Along with his younger brother, Ashok, he spent many summers visiting his grandparents in the Southern Indian city of Chennai. His younger brother described the city as having “Mosquitoes that seemed the size of hummingbirds, exhausting heat and ... unreliable electricity.” Despite that, he said the brothers always had fun as they spent their time “absorbed in themselves … and impersonating relatives' nuances.”

From an early age Gopal was a dedicated musician. According to his mother, as a teenager Gopal soundproofed his room with egg cartons so he could play his acoustic guitar without disturbing people. While still in high school, he started a “ska-inspired band” called City Beat, in which he played a Fender Telecaster. His band cut a record and played at a number of influential clubs in New York, including CBGB & OMFUG on Bowery Street.

Gopal eventually worked as an engineer on controversial punk rock star G.G. Allin’s “Hated In The Nation” album. This compilation CD became Allin's first widespread international release and is the most popular item in Allin's discography. Gopal continued to write songs throughout his life, eventually creating melodies “for which his girlfriend, Valerie Toscano, was to compose lyrics.”

However, music wasn’t Gopal Varadhan’s only passion. After graduating from high school, Gopal earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics from New York University. After college he worked at Merrill Lynch, trading fixed-income derivatives. In 1999 he left the company to start an online advertising business.

In August 2001, Gopal joined Cantor Fitzgerald as Managing Director of its interest rate derivatives business in the United States. In that position he oversaw all of Cantor's interest rate derivative products, including swaps, options and futures. His younger brother, Ashok Varadhan, said Gopal was excited about the challenges his new position would bring.

His younger brother also said that on Sept. 11, 2001, Gopal phoned him from his 105th-floor office in between the two terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. "Basically, he knew that he was going to die," Ashok Varadhan said. "He was affectionate, but at the same time, very worried."

Ashok Varadhan added that Gopal “was about as good of a role model as a younger brother could ask for. He was all the things that big brothers are supposed to be—protective, caring and affectionate."

This view of Gopal was echoed by Ramesh, who interviewed for a position with Gopal in the days before the attacks. According to Ramesh, they talked about music and Madras and other subjects. Gopal so impressed Ramesh that he said, "Man, I want to be like him when I'm his age". Ramesh was especially amazed at how Gopal balanced so many things in his life and added that, “the human race is poorer for (his) loss.”

That is so true. Gopal Varadhan contributed so much to the world that even I, a man who never had to the honor to meet him, can see the influence he had over the lives of those around him. The world is truly a poorer place without him.


(Note: I am indebted to a number of references which detailed the life of Gopal Varadhan. In order to not break up the narrative flow, I have not placed footnotes in this elegy. All information, though, comes from the sources below.)

1) Cantor Fitzgerald Hires Gopal Varadhan as Managing Director of U.S. Derivatives Business. Business Wire; 8/7/2001. Accessed Sept. 8, 2006.

2) New York Times "Portraits of Grief": Accessed Sept. 8, 2006.

3) Wikipedia, Hatred in the Nation article. Accessed Sept. 8, 2006. Gopal Varadhan is listed as an engineer in the album's credits.

4) Gopalakrishnan Varadhan: A Talented Son and Big Brother by Nick Iyer, Newsday, April 12, 2002. Accessed Sept. 8, 2006.

5) SEPTEMBER 11, 2001 victims page for Gopalakrishnan Varadhan, comment by Ramesh posted on Feb. 15, 2006. Accessed Sept. 8, 2006.

The Resident Redneck (or a Southern Writer in San Francisco)

Dustin Wells has written a fascinating article about being a Southern writer in San Francisco. The article, published in SoMa Literary Review: New Voices From San Francisco's Subculture, focuses on the publication of Dustin's short story "Mom Didn't Want Her Girls Playing With Guns" in the current issue of storySouth.

Without giving too much away, Dustin writes about the trials and tribulations of being stereotyped as a Redneck in that most liberal of West Coast cities and the ironies of MFA programs which preach inclusion but don't want anything to do with his short story. Read the article and pass it on.

The fast and slow on submission responses

Last week I mentioned a new site called Duotrope's Digest, which is a free online database of over 1200 current markets for short fiction and poetry. Duotrope allows authors to log in and track their submissions, enabling the site to compile rejection/acceptance rates for the listed magazines and journals. This leads to the most amusing part of Duotrope's Digest, their market response-time statistics.

Now, these response time stats must be taken with a large, clotted-together piece of salt since they are based on self-reporting by writers (with self reporting being a very inaccurate way of collecting statistics). Still, these stats are a decent way of knowing how long your submission might linger at different magazines. Their stats also match up nicely with my personal experience. For example, I have submitted fiction to Another Chicago Magazine and they took almost a year to respond (which corresponds with the reported response time of 357 days, which Duetrope indicates is the worst in their database). Another place I've submitted to, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, is listed as one of the fastest responders, averaging 14.5 days per submission. In my experience the assistant editor of the magazine, John Joseph Adams (aka, Slush God, who maintains a wonderful blog detailing his editorial adventures), does indeed respond within two weeks to most submissions. I can also vouch that a few of the other submission response times listed within these statistics appear to be accurate (for example, Black Warrior Review is indeed rather slow in responding, as are Zoetrope: All-Story and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine).

As a writer these slow reponse times drive me up the wall. As an editor, I have a lot of sympathy for the circumstances which delay the review of submissions. Many writers flood the markets with their stories, overwhelming editors. This results in editors having less time to spend with any particular submission, which, ironically, causes writers to flood the markets with even more of their stories, creating a never-ending cycle of submission hell.

What's the answer to this? On the submission end, I'm not sure. All editors can do is strive to respond to submissions as quickly as possible. As for writers, we shouldn't overly obsess on response times. Give a magazine three months to respond (unless their guidelines say otherwise). If you haven't heard back by then, submit the story elsewhere. Most importantly, though, keep writing. After all, what matters most are the stories we create, not how long it takes a magazine to respond.

Duotrope's Digest is an excellent submission tool for writers

A few weeks ago storySouth's fiction editor, Scott Yarbrough, mentioned a new site called Duotrope's Digest. It seems a writer had submitted a story to him after first learning about storySouth on Duotrope.

As is the way of the modern world, I immediately Googled Duotrope and soon wondered how I could not have known about this amazing submission tool. In short, Duotrope's Digest is a free online database of over 1200 current markets for short fiction and poetry. Complete guidelines are provided for each market along with a link to the market's website. (As an editor, I like this last feature since it requires that anyone submitting to a place at least check it out online. I'm always amazed how many writers submit to magazines without actually reading said magazines). The report on each market also includes average response times to submissions, as provided by anonymous and registered users, along with acceptance rates.

The fact that Duotrope can track submission times and rejection/acceptance rates leads to an interesting part of Duotrope's Digest, the response time stats. Here a writer can see which magazines and markets are among the fastest responders and which are "the slothful" (to use Duotrope's phrase), which have high acceptance rates and which are "challenging" (to again use their phrase). Of course, any writer should take these stats with a pinch of salt since they are dependent on the self-reporting of fellow writers, a notoriously unreliable means of collecting information. In addition, the website's servers are extremely slow, meaning it can take long periods of time for needed information to pull up.

Still, Duotrope's Digest is an amazing aid to any writer submitting their poetry and fiction to different places. I'd recommend that all writers sign up for their free service, which enables one to use their submission tracker and also receive their weekly newsletter (which I enjoy because of its regularly updated market news). If you really like what Duotrope's Digest is doing, then consider supporting their enterprise with a donation.

An Idiot's Guide to Growing Kudzu

Anyone who doesn't laugh at How to Grow Kudzu by Tifton Merritt obviously hasn't been exposed to the charm of this now legendary Southern invader.

Among my favorite parts:

Deciding When to Plant:

Kudzu should always be planted at night. If kudzu is planted during daylight hours, angry neighbors might see you and begin throwing rocks at you.

Selecting the Proper Fertilizer:

The best fertilizer I have discovered for kudzu is 40 weight non-detergent motor oil. Kudzu actually doesn't need anything to help it grow, but the motor oil helps to prevent scraping the underside of the tender leaves when the kudzu starts its rapid growth. It also cuts down on the friction and lessens the danger of fire when the kudzu really starts to move. Change oil once every thousand feet or every two weeks which ever comes first.

The Sorrow Psalms: new poetry anthology revives interest in elegies

Of all the poetic forms, the elegy can be the most stirring and profound. Whether written as a poetic lament for a friend (as John Milton did in 1637 with his pastoral elegy "Lycidas") or as a lament for all the dead (as in Allen Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead"), a well-done elegy reaches beyond death as an abstract concept and embraces it as the very essence of what every human experiences at the end of their life.

Unfortunately, in recent decades elegies have fallen out of favor with both poets and the reading public. Perhaps this is a result of our ever-extending life spans and a youth-obsessed culture which promises that we can forstall the inevitable for another day—and if we can't do that, we can at least ignore it. This view has never set well with me. By sanitizing death and locking it away in a rarely seen closet, we are unprepared for the end when it finally comes to ourselves and those we love. This doesn't mean one should embrace death; it means that one embraces life even more when one realizes death waits for us even on the most beautiful and sunny of days.

Perhaps my feelings on death have caused me to embrace The Sorrow Psalms: A Book of Twentieth-Century Elegy, edited by Lynn Strongin and published by the University of Iowa Press. A gifted stylist, Strongin's poetry and nonfiction have graced storySouth several times. With this anthology, though, Strongin has transcended everything she has accomplished as a writer. In one fell swoop she has provided proof that the elegy is not dead but instead thrives, blossoming forth from a new generation of poets.

The anthology opens with W. B. Yeats’s “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” and continues through such well-know elegies as Tate's previously mentioned poem to lesser known poems like Billy Collins' masterful "The Dead." Perhaps because of the solemn, death-obsessed nature of Southern Literature, Southern writers are well represented in this anthology, with James Dickey (and his wonderful poem "Buckdancer's Choice"), R.T. Smith, G.C. Waldrep, Allen Tate, and Carolyn Maisel being just a few of the names here.

As someone who reads very few poetry anthologies each year, this is one I have found myself turning to time and again over the last two months. The poems here reassure and calm, teach and enlighten, and most of all connect us even more to life by going through the valley of death. I can not recommend this anthology enough.

Drivers, a new short story collection by Nathan Leslie

There are few experiences so quintessentially American as the automobile. Yes, the world is full of cars, with the Germans and Japanese car industries continually giving Detroit a run for its money. However, after spending a number of years overseas I believe I can safely state that most of the world sees the automobile very differently than Americans do.

You see, for much of the world a car is merely a status symbol or a means of getting from point A to point B (or, of course, both). In the United States, though, the automobile is a symbol of freedom. Yes, people in America purchase cars for the same reasons of status and transportation that appeal to people in other countries. But if one digs deeper into the American car psyche, one finds a deep yearning for freedom, for the ability to pick up and leave our old lives and drive around this gigantic country of ours and never stop. Forget about the car actually taking you someplace--the more important fact is the freedom the car could one day give you.

I have been thinking about the American love of cars while reading Nathan Leslie's new short story collection Drivers. Evey story in this collection focuses on cars, either through the vehicles themselves (such as a lovely Studebaker Starliner) or through the people who drive them. I have long been a fan of Nathan's first person writing style and this collection showcases his ability to great effect. However, if this was merely another collection of short stories, I doubt it would have siezed my imagination so tightly.

Instead, Nathan has woven his characters and stories into that most American of ideals--the freedom the automobile gives us, the freedom to drive away from our lives. Nevermind that many of the characters in this collection don't embrace this freedom, or if they do embrace it they don't know what to do with the gift they've been given. Instead these characters live their lives as we all live them: day by day, accident by accident, traffic jam by traffic jam. But despite this drudgery, the potential for freedom still lurks behind each story and that is what I loved about this book. That is also, I believe, why Americans love their cars. Even if you drive a beat-up minivan who's main purpose is driving the kids to and from soccer practice, when you grip that steering wheel you can at least dream of setting off down that highway and not stopping until your old life disappears in your rearview mirror.

Anyone who's found themself gripping their steering wheel in this type of manner will enjoy Nathan Leslie's new book.

Scott Yarbrough is storySouth's new fiction editor

As anyone who has submitted a fiction submission lately may have noticed, the reponse time has been a bit slow (glacial would perhaps be a better word). The fault for this rests solely with me. As storySouth has grown, instead of bringing on more editorial help I stubbornly decided to dig myself into a deeper and deeper hole with the fiction and nonfiction work.

The good news, though, is that after digging halfway to China, I've finally read the writing in the dirt. While I will continue to share co-editing work with Jake Adam York, and will retain responsibility for the Million Writers Award and nonfiction submissions, I am delegating all fiction editing to our new fiction editor, Scott Yarbrough.

Scott Yarbrough is a great fiction writer who has published fiction in Blackbird, Flyway, Apalachee Quarterly, The Clackamas Literary Review, New Orleans Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, and a number of other places. He has co-authored a textbook on literary studies and lives with his wife and two daughters in Charleston, South Carolina, where he teaches at a small college. Scott is also not a stranger to storySouth readers. His story "Stranded at the Top of a Ferris Wheel with Judy Long, County Fairgrounds, April 7, 1982" was published here in 2003 and honored as a story of the week selection by MobyLives.

I encourage people to drop Scott a line and welcome him aboard. In addition, he is now reading submissions for our fall 2006 issue. His contact information is on the guidelines page.

Oxford American's spring 2006 issue

I'm no longer feeling guilty about storySouth's spring/summer 2006 issue being a bit late. My reasoning: even though the temperature outside is in the mid 90s and July sits just around the corner, the spring issue of the Oxford American just hit the stands. As a son of the South, I'm certain that both of these late events result from the sluggishness of high temperatures and long, editorial fishing trips to cool, shady riverbanks.

That said, good things come to those who wait and the Oxford American's new issue if proof of this. The issue is titled "Best of the South." However, instead of mimicking the endless parade of "best of..." newspaper articles and books (featuring, for example, a list of the best barbecue places in the South), the editors of the OA have collected a series of odes to Southern cultural and physical landmarks.

One example of these odes is "An Ode to the Moon Winx Lodge Sign" by Michael Martone. This well written essay examines the history of a neon sign in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, as the sign's motel descends from a classy place to stay to an hourly rental spot to a flop house. Other essays in the issue explore such topics as odes to chicken feet, Memphis nights, and, in what must be one of my favorite titles, "An Ode to a Pretty Ugly Truck."

In recent decades the "ode" has fallen out of favor with many writers, so I am glad to see the OA bringing back this worthy part of our literary heritage. Check out the new issue of OA here.

Books to look for: Mockingbird : A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles Shields

As readers of W.A. Bilen's wonderful essay "Hiding Harper Lee" already know, the greatest living enigma in Southern Literature is Harper Lee, author of the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

While I agree with Bilen's point that people should respect Harper Lee's desire to have a normal life and to avoid the glitz and fanfare that have arisen around her only novel, I also understand that there are many people who desire to learn more about the author of what one of the top novels of the 20th century. For these people I suggest they check out Mockingbird : A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields. Shield's book examines Lee's life and her most famous book and puts to rest a famous rumor (that Truman Capote wrote To Kill a Mockingbird) while also pointing out that Lee had a much larger role in the creation of Capote's classic In Cold Blood than many people thought.

New issue of storySouth out in late July

As anyone who has submitted a story to storySouth may have noticed, our response time is lagging. The short reason for this is that we are awash in a deep sea of submissions. The good news, though, is that I'm bailing out my lifeboat and should get back to people on their submissions shortly. In addition, the next issue of storySouth will be a combined spring/summer issue and will be out by late July.

9/11 Haunts "Hole In The City"

Richard Bowes, whose story "There's a Hole in the City" recently won storySouth's 2006 Million Writers Award for best online fiction, is the subject of an article at SCI FI Wire. Bowes said that the story was inspired by the events of 9/11: "On 9/11 and for a few days afterwards, Greenwich Village where I live was partly cut off from the rest of the world. You had to show proof you lived here to enter the neighborhood. Outsiders could not come in without permission. No planes flew overhead; no cars moved on the narrow streets. It was, I think, closer to being a separate village than at any time since the early 19th century."

Read more at http://www.scifi.com/scifiwire/index.php?category=0&id=36001

The Da Vinci Code Wins a Big One for Free Speech

In a victory for fiction authors, a judge in Britain has rejected a copyright-infringement claim by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Their book was one of many sources of information that Dan Brown used while researching his blockbuster The Da Vinci Code.

As I've said before, writers need to be very worried about continuing attempts to copyright and patent protect the ideas and plots which form the core of fictional writing.

My favorite part of the judge's ruling is this quote: "It would be quite wrong if fictional writers were to have their writings pored over in the way DVC (Da Vinci Code) has been pored over in this case by authors of pretend historical books to make an allegation of infringement of copyright." (emphasis mine)

Pretend historical books! Bet the authors who sued Dan Brown wish they'd just kept their unimaginative mouths shut.

Million Writers Award now open

The 2006 Million Writers Award is now open for nominations through March 1, 2006. As with the award in previous years, individuals may nominate one short story published in an online magazine and editors of online magazines and journals may nominate three of their stories. Only stories over a 1,000 words in length will be considered.

For more information, including how to nominate a story, go to the Million Writers Award page.

New attack on Brad Vice is merely poor journalism

Normally Thanksgiving brings out the good in people . . . probably because everyone’s groggy from the tryptophan in the turkey they ate. However, it appears that Robert Clark Young missed out on this year's turkey and happiness infusion, as evidenced by his new attack-dog article on Brad Vice’s supposed plagiarism (an issue I debunked weeks ago).

In the article, Young expands upon the nasty comments he originally made about Vice on storySouth (such as this inane example, located in the comments below Jake's original essay). However, I’m going to ignore the fact that Young's comments attack anyone from the South and compares any defense of Vice to support of slavery (which Young implies all Southerners still support). And never mind the fact that Young's article is published in a poorly regarded weekly newspaper.

No, the more important truth is that Young's article is poor journalism.

The reasons for this are simple. First, Young's article tries to make it sound as if he has discovered a new case of plagiarism. However, all that Young has done is show that Vice used The Junction Boys, a nonfiction book about Bear Bryant by author Jim Dent, as a reference source for his short story "Report from Junction." Like any writer, Vice had to research some obscure issues (in this case, screwworms and one of Bear Bryant's early football stars) and used Dent's book to make sure he was accurate. The similarities in what Young points out arise from the sentences describing a common process. Descriptive terms can not be considered plagiarism since there are only so many ways to write certain descriptions. For example, how many writers have written the sentence "He ran up the hill"? If I wrote this exact sentence in a story of mine it would not be plagiarism because it is a simple descriptive sentence.

More importantly, though, the examples that Young gives from Vice's dissertation to support this new charge of plagiarism are incorrect. For example, Young states that Vice's dissertation has this sentence in it:

"(T)he maggots will most likely screw themselves into its brain ... before they exit back through its eyes."

I will admit that this sounds similar to Dent's original sentence of "They sometimes would screw themselves into the brain and exit through the eyeballs." However, when I read page 180 of Vice's dissertation I discovered that Young's use of Vice's quotation isn't correct. Vice's original sentence actually reads:

"In fact, with worms that close to its head, the maggots would most likely screw themselves into the bull’s brain and drive him completely mad before they exited back through the eyes."

That sentence no longer sounds at all like Dent's. By using an excerpt from Vice's original sentence, and the creative use of an ellipsis, Young makes his case for plagiarism sound stronger than it actually is. The other screwworm sentences Young quotes from are also different than what Young says they are (the sentences all occur in one short section of a paragraph on page 180 of the dissertation). Since Young says he went back to Vice's dissertation to get an accurate accounting of what Vice did, it is strange that the examples he gives to support his plagiarism charge are so inaccurate.

Of these so-called plagiarized sentences, the only ones that actually resemble each other are the last examples Young gives. Young states that Dent's book has the sentence "He kicked the gelding and rode up on a ghastly sight" while Vice's short story in his dissertation has "Kurt kicked the gelding and charged up to a gruesome sight." The reason these sentences are similar is that the character in Vice's short story is based on Dennis Goehring, who is described as "One of the most hard-nosed, toughest players Bryant ever had." Vice's character was originally called Dennis Schaffer and is obviously based on Goehring. Since Vice's book aims to intergrate fiction with the actual events that occurred during Bear Bryant's life (which is a form of literary sampling) it makes sense that Vice would adapt an actual event from Dennis Goehring's life to a story based on this most famous of the Bear's early players. The similarities in these sentences result from the fact that they are describing the same event (a cow giving birth to a calf, which is then eaten by buzzards).

Once again, though, Young fails to quote accurately from the dissertation. Vice's original sentence reads, "Dennis kicked the gelding and charged up to a gruesome sight," while Young's quote gives the character's name as Kurt. Obviously the name of the main character changed from Dennis to Kurt by the time the story made its way to book publication. In fact, this brings up the question of if Young actually took his quotes from Vice’s dissertation or the book publication of The Bear Bryant Funeral Train. The article is unclear on this (again, poor journalism). Regardless, Young states that Vice’s dissertation makes the clearest case for plagiarism, which strongly implies that his excerpts are from the dissertation. As Young says in the article, “Plagiarism tends to be a first-draft offense; it is now possible to trace Vice's plagiarism from its genesis in his original documents.” But despite this claim by Young, he fails to quote accurately from the original document.

While Young's use of creative excerpts from Vice's dissertation is bad enough, a worse sin is that he fails to mention anything that might support Vice's assertion (and the belief of others) that what Vice did was not plagiarism. For example, Young fails to mention that on page 144 of Vice's dissertation is an epigraph from Carl Carmer's book Stars Fell on Alabama. When the dissertation was published as The Bear Bryant Funeral Train by the University of Georgia Press, this epigraph was left off for some reason. As many commentators have remarked, if Vice had included a citation or epigraph in his book, no one would have accused him of plagiarism. Yet here in Vice's dissertation is that called for epigraph. Young, however, ignores this evidence in support of Vice.

The final reason that Young's article is poor journalism is that he fails to note his personal relationship with the Sewanee Writers' Conference. Since the last third of Young's article is an attack on the Sewanee conference and anyone who is connected with the place (such as Barry Hannah), one would think that Young might mention he himself attended Sewanee at the same time as Brad Vice. The failure to disclose this information leads one to wonder if Young's article is part of a vendetta against Sewanee and Vice.

In short, Young's article is simply poor journalism. By altering the quotes from Vice's dissertation and ignoring evidence that would support Vice, Young makes the plagiarism case against Vice appear stronger than it is. Young also fails to disclose a serious conflict of interest in his attack on the Sewanee Writers' Conference. Because of these issues, I am reluctant to trust this article.

SciFi Channel wades deeper into muck by dropping SciFiction journal

Today I learned that one of the best online journals for science fiction literature, SciFiction.com, is being shut down by the SciFi Channel. This is a shame because SciFiction is one of those rare places willing to give top-notch science fiction a home. It's also one of the few paying online markets for short fiction of any kind.

The ironic thing is that the SciFi Channel's notice about shutting down the journal at the end of this year credits Ellen Datlow for, "an unparalleled record of critical success, earning 10 major awards, including three Hugo Awards, four Nebula Awards and a World Fantasy Award." SciFiction also placed a story as runner-up in the most recent storySouth Million Writers Award.

Anyone familiar with the crap that the SciFi Channel broadcasts (with the exception of Battlestar Galatica) has to wonder if the channel deliberately undermines everything it does that is remotely decent. For example, the most critically acclaimed show the channel ever broadcast was Farscape, and that show was dropped like a hot potato. In its place the channel broadcast even more low-budget movies about monsters that eat people in dark and scary places.

I will miss SciFiction and wish its editor, Ellen Datlow, the best. I also hope that science fiction fans will raise a fuss about this as they do whenever their favorite TV shows are cancelled. After all, without a market for literate and intelligent science fiction stories today, how can there be any good science fiction TV shows tomorrow?

Story-line patent could hurt the ability of writers to create new stories

e-Media Wire is reporting that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has published history’s first “storyline patent” application. The utility patent application, filed by Andrew Knight in November, 2003, seeks to protect a fictional storyline from use by other writers.

According to the article, "Knight, a rocket engine inventor, registered patent agent, and graduate of MIT and Georgetown Law, will assert publication-based provisional patent rights against anyone whose activities may fall within the scope of his published claims, including all major motion picture manufacturers and distributors, book publishers and distributors, television studios and broadcasters, and movie theaters."

While Knight's patent application focuses on a specific storyline (dealing with zombies and a man who wakes up after sleeping for decades), this is an extremely serious issue fo writers. Until now, writers have been able to write about anything they want to because copyright and trademark laws specifically forbid protecting this type of generality. In short, specific works can be copyrighted but ideas can not be covered. However, patent law is more inclusive, as seen by the numerous "business method practices" patents of the last decade, which cover business processes such as online shopping. If the patent office allows this application, you can bet that other storylines will be protected until eventually writers may face the loss of any area of life about which they write. Since there are supposedly only seven basic story plots, the loss of even a few generalized plots would seriously hamper writers.

I strongly suggest that people protest this patent application by contacting the U.S. Patent Office. You can also download the paperwork to protest this application. Unfortunately, it appears that it may be late in the game to start protesting this, but I'd bet that if writers raise a stink and cry about this Knight's patent application will have a tougher time of making it through.

It should be noted that Andrew Knight is taking this extremely seriously, as seen by his firm Knight and Associates , which calls itself "the first patent prosecution firm to attempt to obtain utility patent protection on fictional plots." Evidently Knight and Associates is "ready to turn valuable new fictional plots or storylines into U.S. utility patent applications." They are doing this for Knight's zombie plot despite what Manxom Vroom has suggested (namely that the plot, which features a man sleeping for 30 years, was written long ago and is called "Rip Van Winkle").

What really irritates me about this patent application is that it implies there is something difficult about coming up with an idea or general plot for a story. Writers meet people all the time who believe this. They're the ones who, upon learning that you are a writer, say, "I have a great idea for a novel. If you write it, I'll split the money with you." These people believe that coming up with the idea for a story is the hardest part about being a writer.

The truth is that writing a story is hard. Ideas and plots are a dime a dozen.

This must be stopped.

Follow-up: Here is an interesting analysis of the defects in this patent application, along with other thoughts on patenting plots and storylines, from a patent attorney named C.E. Petit.

Support for Brad Vice and a few words on sampling

I want to thank everyone who has e-mailed me in response to my article and Jake's article on Brad Vice's situation. E-mails have been running 5 to 1 in support of Brad, while online discussions I have taken part in seem to be split (I wonder if this difference results from the reluctance of some writers to speak publically about this issue, for fear of being attacked). This also appears to be an issue that brings out the passion in some people, as seen by the comments left on this blog.

What's more interesting to me is how many writers have contacted me to say that they have written stories based on or using parts of other writers work—not to plagiarize the other author but to comment or expand upon the cultural impact of that original work. One professional writer who e-mail me said she based several of her published novels on other's works because, in her words, "Books are made from books." Another published author, who is preparing a new short story collection, says Brad's situation caused him to go back through his manuscript and make sure he acknowledges everyone and anything that influenced his stories (which, for a well-read writer, can be a long, long list).

In many ways, this issue reminds me of the controversy around sampling, where musicians sample another musician's work in their songs. A number of popular artists do this, including, perhaps most famously, the Beastie Boys. In pop music, sampling both reminds a listener of the original work and also lets them hear that original work in new and exciting ways. A similar thing occured in the movie Forrest Gump, where Tom Hank's character is spliced into historic newsreels to mix fiction with fact.

Naturally enough, music sampling is controversial. Major music labels insist that sampling is theft unless the artist wishing to sample a song first gets permission. Many artists insist that sampling is covered under fair use and is an attempt to comment upon the music that makes up our shared cultural heritage.

All I know is that throughout history all types of artists, including writers, have used variations of sampling. Shakespeare was famous for this. (In fact, Shakespeare may have done much more than sample. Hamlet, for example, was supposedly based on a so-called Ur-Hamlet play written a few years earlier by another playwright, possibly Thomas Kyd.) In my view, this type of sampling is allowed because, as Jake says in his article about Brad's situation, copyright law doesn't mean you can't use excerpts from or comment upon another copyrighted work.

The important thing to remember about writing is that one does not create new works within a vacuum. Every piece of writing plays off of and is a part of our entire literary heritage. Literature is a ballance between the old and the new, between creation and modification.

People would do well to remember that copyright law was created to enable those who create—writers, artists, and so on—to make a living from their work. Copyright law wasn't intended to place a "do not touch" warning on the most important parts of our cultural history.

The literary lynching of Brad Vice

For anyone who loves stories, one of true joys in life is the discovery of a great new writer whose stories grab you deep in the gut and refuse to let go. While there are tons of books published each year by beginning writers, only a few of these books scream that THIS is a writer who is destined for great things. As a result, when you discover a great writer at the beginning of their career, you have found one of the rarest joys in life.

Unfortunately, though, over the last week this joy has been shoved back down my throat. The reason: Brad Vice, one of the most talented new writers to appear in the last few years, has been given the shaft by his publisher for what appears to be an honest mistake.

First, the background.

Brad Vice’s first collection of short stories, The Bear Bryant Funeral Train, won the Flannery O'Connor Award for short fiction from the University of Georgia Press a year ago and was recently published. The book is an excellent debut collection of fiction which appealed to me not only for Vice’s powerful writing but also for his unique look at the south. As someone who was born and raised in Alabama, I especially loved how Vice tied the central cultural figure from my youth—football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant—into the core of his stories.

I vividly remember the day the Bear died. Just as some people remember where they were when John F. Kennedy died, so do most Alabamians remember where they were when the University of Alabama’s legendary coach passed away. By tying his book into the mythology of Bear Bryant, Vice created stories that transcend the limited scope of so much of what passes for short fiction in today’s world. I know many other readers agreed with me because Vice’s book picked up positive reviews from around the country.

But just as every great story has a downfall, so too does the story of The Bear Bryant Funeral Train. Brad wrote one of the stories in the collection, “Tuscaloosa Knights,” in homage to Carl Carmer’s classic book, Stars Fell on Alabama. (Vice’s short story is reprinted on storySouth’s sister publication Thicket.) Specifically, Vice based his short story on a chapter in the book called “Tuscaloosa Nights" (and in particular a four-page section of that chapter called "The Flaming Cross," which describes a 1930s Ku Klux Klan rally in Tuscaloosa, Alabama). Vice’s story runs about twenty pages and closely follows some of Carmer’s dialogue and description (while using different characters and situations). Vice is quoted as saying that he used some of Carmer’s dialog because, “As a nonfiction resource, the dialogue had a truth value outside of Carmer’s text."

Unfortunately for Vice, he forgot to acknowledge that the story borrowed material from Carmer’s classic book. Soon a readers' adviser to the Tuscaloosa Public Library discovered this and raised concerns about the story. Vice’s publisher, fearing what might be unleashed, voided out his fiction prize and plans to destroy all of the books. In addition, Vice is now facing the possible loss of his teaching job at Mississippi State University.

In a day or two, my co-editor Jake Adam York will examine whether this copyright concern is truly valid. To me, though, the fact that Vice titled his story as an obvious play on Carmer’s original chapter title, and the fact that he acknowledged in interviews that the story was in homage to Carmer’s, shows that this was not an attempt to plagiarize the original story. Instead, Carmer was taking the time-honored route of updating and commenting upon a classic literary story. This is the same path recently taken by Pulitzer Prize winning author Suzan-Lori Parks when she wrote Getting Mother's Body, which is an updated version of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

Carl Carmer’s book is an American, and Southern, literary classic, and the section that Vice based his story on is the most famous part in the book. What Vice did is similar to someone writing a story based on William Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy—i.e., the source material of the story should be well-known to his audience (such as readers of southern literature). If I wrote a short story based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet (as author Tom Stoppard did with his famous book Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead), no one would question the validity of my story.

The problem, of course, is that even though Carmer’s book came out more than six decades ago, it is still under copyright (yet again, my co-editor will examine whether Vice actually violated the original book’s copyright). However, copyright generally does not prevent an author from commenting upon and basing another story upon that work. In fact, Alice Randall did just this with her novel The Wind Done Gone, which was based on the classic, and copyrighted, text of Gone with the Wind (Go here to read Houghton Mifflin’s defense of their publication of The Wind Done Gone). Yes, Vice should have included a small acknowledgement in the front of the book about how the story was based on Carmer’s work, but he is a young author and thought 1) He was covered by fair use; and 2) That the source material would be evident to anyone familiar with southern literature.

This brings me to what really infuriates me about this case: How Brad Vice was let down by the University of Georgia Press. Vice is a young writer who forgot to acknowledge his story’s inspiration source. However, the University of Georgia Press has no excuse. (For a short version of the Press’s response, go here.) The Press could have found other ways to fix this situation instead of simply revoking Vice's prize and destroying his book and reputation.

I know this because I used to be a senior editor at Meadowbrook Press, a commercial publishing company distributed by Simon & Schuster. Once, while working on an anthology of quotations, I discovered that a previous editor had forgotten to request permission for several sections of another of our company’s anthologies. To make amends, I contacted the author whose copyright we had violated, explained the situation, and offered payment to use the material. We then placed an errata insert page into all remaining copies of this anthology and added the copyright mention into future editions of the anthology.

I'm sure that the University of Georgia Press could have done a similar thing, resulting in all parties going away happy. In addition, if the issue is so serious to the University of Georgia Press, why didn’t their editors notice it prior to publication? I would think that the editors of Brad Vice’s book should have been familiar enough with southern literature to know that his story was playing off of Carl Carmer’s famous book.

To repeat, Brad Vice should have placed an acknowledgement in his book. Yes, he made a mistake. However, fault also rests with the University of Georgia Press, who should have searched for other ways to fix this problem instead of reaching for the nuclear destruction of an author and his book.

As I said before, there is a long tradition in fiction of authors borrowing or adapting older literary works to make new points and raise new issues (with Getting Mother's Body, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and The Wind Done Gone being only a few of the recent examples of this). Brad Vice thought he was following in the path of these novels with this short story. He should not be strung up for believing this and forgetting to add that one acknowledgement.

Because of the actions of the University of Georgia Press, The Bear Bryant Funeral Train is no longer available in most bookstores. However, if you can find a copy, I strongly suggest you purchase it in support of Vice. I also urge people to write e-mails or letters of support to Mississippi State University, which has opened an investigation of Vice that could result in him losing his job. Since this is an academic process, formal snail-mail letters of support are encouraged. Address and send letters to: Richard Raymond, Professor and Department Head, English Department, 316 Lee Hall, Mississippi State, MS 39762. You can also e-mail him at rraymond@english.msstate.edu.