Friends of the Merrill contest

Normally I don’t participate in pay-to-enter writing contests, but I decided last month to go in on  the Friends of the Merrill short story contest, where those entry fees support the Friends of the Merrill, “a volunteer organization to support and promote the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation, and Fantasy, a public access collection consisting of science fiction, fantasy, gaming materials, graphic novels, and other related items. The Collection is named after acclaimed SF author Judith Merril, who’s original donation of material formed its nucleus.”

I’m thrilled to see that my story is one of the twelve finalists! We’re off to an exciting panel of judges1, who should announce the winner and two runners-up at the end of January.

Second Sale

I’m excited to announce that my short story “The Coin of Leadership” will be appearing in Stupefying Stories! I’ll announce here1 as soon as there’s an official publication date.

This story takes place in the same world as “The Wind and the Spark,” halfway across Europe, with a different cast of characters. It’s half military steampunk action-and-adventure, half class struggle and coming-of-age.

The Wind and the Spark

My first publication, “The Wind and the Spark,” is now for sale as part of Fictionvale Episode 6, alongside a host of other amazing authors and stories!

Fifty years into the Napoleonic Wars, a British scientist investigates automata that act not like machines, but like thinking creatures.”

You can buy the direct from the Fictionvale website, or from Amazon.

If you enjoy this story, wait until you see something I’ve written since 2013. Edited Oct 21: …including more upcoming stories set in the same universe!


This was one of my earlier-written stories, perhaps my third ever. Inspired by a late-night conversation back in Oregon, where I mentioned some piece of scientific history, and my friend’s jaw hit the floor1. I said, “Oh, that’s not common knowledge, is it?” And this story was born…

For some more thoughts inspired by the odd mix of characters in this story, see my previous post.

Why No Women?

My first publication, The Wind and the Spark, comes out this week in Fictionvale Episode 6. It’s one of my older stories, originally written in 2013; but after revisions in late 2014 with wonderful editorial help of Venessa Giunta at Fictionvale, I’m very proud of the tale. But I noticed one deep problem that I couldn’t fix in editing.

There are no female characters. None whatsoever, main or secondary or background.

Let me explain why:

The Bad Answer

The story takes place in the middle of the 19th century, on an Arctic military installation. Male-dominated profession, a cooped-up location. Within the story’s logic, there shouldn’t be any women there. This world is slightly more egalitarian than real history because of manpower shortages (pun intended) arising from long-term war, but we’re in the wrong geographical spot to see that in action.

So why is this a bad answer?

Nobody forced me to write a story about men in their manly Nordic outpost of manliness. I chose to write in a setting that excluded women. Therefore, I definitely need to have…

The Good Answer

Honestly, it’s just chance that I sold this sausage-fest first. As I’ve said before, diversity in fiction is a good thing for many reasons. The point is not to meet quotas, but to write fiction that reflects the world’s real diversity.

I don’t want to be one of those guys who pays lip service to diversity while writing about the bros and their manly manproblems, or blithely pasting in all-white futures, pasts, and secondary worlds. So it’s time to test myself, and check the demographics for all the stories I currently have out on submission, plus my works in progress (WIP).

For these statistics I limited myself to the top 3 characters in each story, though I sometimes included major presences who never come onstage. I only examined how the characters reflect real-Earth society, not how they fit into their local setting. For fantasy settings I’ve assigned characters to the Earth civilization they most evoke, though that obviously makes for crude approximations.

The Results

Diversity Table

Some thoughts:

  • 19/37 female, 7/14 protagonists.
  • 19/37 white, including the three “unspecified but assume white” and the many European Jews.
  • No, I’m not going to try to define “white;” that’s above the pay grade of this blog post.
  • “Hispanic” is probably the right word, because those three characters are all Hispanic-American. (Additional data not shown on chart: 4 stories set in USA, 6 in Europe, 2 in space, 3 in secondary worlds.)
  • † indicates a sexuality that’s identifiably other than cis/hetero (6/37 characters). Of the remaining 31, 11 are unambiguously cis/hetero. For the remaining 20, sexuality is ambiguous or not identifiable. (Authorial vision varies, but I don’t want to take credit for anything not in the text.)
  • The three *’s are the same character, as are the two **’s. I counted each appearance separately.
  • “Unspecified-white” means the story has no physical descriptions for anyone, but the character’s names are an “American generic” that probably implies white. The fairy is “bronze-skinned” but not any human ethnicity.
  • The MC of Custom Made is an inhuman entity in a female human form, but when it comes to Meltwater, this whole question gets utterly incomprehensible. I can’t even explain how incomprehensible it is without spoilers. This pleases me immensely.

Is this perfect? Surely not, even if I knew what “perfect” would be. This list has some definite strengths and successes, but also gaps and weaknesses. (For instance, compare diversity of characters vs. cultures/nations.) Nevertheless, it lets me answer this post’s question with data-driven certainty: I’ve only written one story on Frozen Sausage Island, I promise!

First publication upcoming

My steampunk1 story, “The Wind and the Spark,” should finally be appearing in Fictionvale at the end of next week! This was one of the first stories I ever wrote — maybe the 3rd I ever completed. It’s certainly the first story I sold, back in April 2014, so I’m thrilled for it to hit press at last after many delays and diversions.

I’ll have a post or two more about it next week when the story emerges. I definitely want to have one demographic discussion (also known as “ugh my newbie story has no female characters whatsoever”), and maybe some story notes if I want to expound on the story’s spoilery s personal/professional resonances.

Surviving the Shortlist

Right now, three of my stories have been shortlisted for publication: two pro markets, and one semi-pro. This is great! But it’s also incredibly stressful.

One of the major sources of stress is uncertainty. Short story submissions are always uncertain, but being on the shortlist means the stakes are higher. Obviously there’s nothing I can do now to increase my odds, but is there something I could’ve done, should’ve done? Some element of my story that makes it more or less likely than its excellent competitors?

The two pro markets have each given me an estimated acceptance rate from their shortlist: one is 30%, the other is 50%. No data from the semi-pro, but based on my experience with the market, I’ll guess a rate of 33%. (Remember, these are rates for already-on-the-shortlist. Total acceptance rates run about 1/4/15%.)

Why bog down so much in the probabilities? Because for me, it helps to look at this stage of the process like a numbers game. From the editor’s side, it’s not stochastic; they’re making judgments based on all kinds of factors. Some are even semi-quantifiable: if you had to rank a set of stories by “prose quality” you probably could (even though your list would differ from the next reader’s). So, in theory, it’s possible to know which story is more likely to get selected.

But there are also a host of factors that are completely unknowable. Is your story too similar to another one? Or do they have parallel themes in a way that’ll make the issue/anthology stronger? Have they read too many robot romances lately? Or do they crave something more science-fantasy this week? All these things depend on the whole suite of submitted stories, and the editors’ tastes and moods. From the writer’s side, unpredictable. Might as well be stochastic, really.

So at this point, forget worrying about how good your story is. Doesn’t matter anymore. It’s all blind statistics, inside the black box of the editorial world/brain.

I find it quite liberating to know that I have a 73.05% chance of getting at least one of these three published soon.

Scant Posting

Sorry for the scant posting this month! I have an important one all ready to go for before my first story comes out, but that due date has been pushed back to April 15. But check out this awesome cover art!



In the meantime, I’m psyched to have helped back Unstuck in Time, the unfinished Kurt Vonnegut documentary, full of footage taken while he was still alive. And psyched to be writing all kinds of awesome new things!

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