Tales of the Elopus

August 9, 2014


I wrote a total of 14 micro-stories for the GISHWHES contestants in the past week, and now I’m going to post them for people to read, one at a time, as updates in my Kickstarter campaign.  They are free for everyone to read, whether you back the campaign or not, so check out today’s story “The Most Dangerous Game” here, and check back daily for more tales!

I’m also very excited that the campaign has reached its first stretch goal. Now it’s on to the Big One — the audio book which will unlock if the campaign raises $4000+. I’m very excited about the possibility of working with Tina Connolly on the audio book and feel optimistic about being able to reach that goal — there is still 18 days remaining in the campaign.

Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma and Other Stories by Alex Shvartsman

Click on the cover to visit the Kickstarter campaign!



August 5, 2014


If you’re a popular science fiction writer, chances are you’ve been inundated with requests in the last few days. People–sometimes fans, sometimes total strangers–have been asking you to write micro-fiction. The more famous the writer, the more such requests.

So what’s going on? There’s an actor named Misha Collins (a star of Supernatural TV series) who runs a very popular Internet scavenger hunt called GISHWHES — or Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen.” Teams of players race to complete fun and wacky tasks, such as snapping a photo of elderly people mud wrestling, staging a water balloon fight set to opera music, etc. They score points for each item completed, based on the difficulty of the challenge.

This year, Misha Collins also directed his minions to do this:

Get a previously published Sci-Fi author to write an original story (140 words max) about Misha, the Queen of England and an Elopus.

An Elopus is sort of like a Cthulhuphant — half elephant, half Octopus pictured in their logo above.

Cue the many Big Name writers befuddled by all the requests:

And those are the polite tweets. Some authors are quite mad at Misha for doing this.

Personally, I’m of two minds about this. On one hand, I feel that Misha has done nothing wrong. No one is forcing any writer to participate in this exercise. It’s completely voluntary, and many of my colleagues welcomed the chance to help out the contestants while picking up a few potential new readers/fans.

On the other hand, I feel strongly that writers shouldn’t be expected to produce commissioned stories for free. Even tiny little micro-stories of under 140 words.  It may not take very long to write one, but a good writer spent years polishing their skills and there’s value in that. Also, there are other important things they could be doing with that time.

This afternoon I stumbled upon a brilliant post by Michael A. Burstein whereupon he offered to write these stories in exchange for at least one team member picking up a copy of one of his books. This seemed like a very fair and rational way to approach the situation, so naturally I stole it.

The idea meshed perfectly with my ongoing Kickstarter campaign to fund my short story collection. So I posted an update on Kickstarter and share it on social media, basically offering the following:

* I will write a Misha story for free for anyone who is already a backer of my campaign.
* If anyone wants one who isn’t a backer, all they have to do is pledge $10+ to the campaign, and they will get a micro-story for their team out of it AND all the rewards that go with whatever level of pledge they select.
* I will post all the micro-stories I write in this fashion as backer updates on Kickstarter (set to private, so only backers can see them, thereby protecting First Rights in case I ever want to do anything else with those stories.)

This worked out really well. Over the course of the evening, I managed to adopt a total of four GISHWHES teams. I already wrote and sent stories for the first three teams (and I must say, I’m pleased with how those stories turned out!) Going to write the fourth tomorrow, and any more that come in (a couple of other folks expressed interest.) I also raised almost $100 extra for my campaign, and exposed it to a whole bunch of new readers because so many people were kind enough to retweet my offer.

My offer is still open to interested GISHWHES teams. And there are other options, too. Lots of other great writers are willing to work with you — including the above-mentioned Michael Burstein, and Nathaniel Lee, who is the master of micro-fiction! So please, take advantage of our skills and our imaginations. So long as there’s a fair quid pro quo involved.



Blog Tour: #My Writing Process

July 21, 2014

Typically, I avoid blog tours. However, last week I was tagged by James Beamon, who is among the few writers I readily concede are way funnier than I am. Plus, I don’t much care for the tumbleweeds that have been rolling around this blog lately (busy Alex is busy!). So here’s the deal: I answer four questions about my writing process, then tag two more suckers… writers, I mean writers!, to do the same.

What am I working on?

My main focus this year has been my first novel. It’s called Eridani’s Crown and I like to describe it as the politics of Game of Thrones meets the character arc of Breaking Bad. While my writing strengths tend toward the humorous and the lighthearted, the novel I’m working on is grimdark fantasy. No one is more surprised about that than me. This is slow-going. I have approximately 25,000 words written. But I haven’t given up hope of finishing the book this year. We shall see.

To counter-balance all the dark, I’m always working on some short story or another, either on spec or for invitation anthologies. Right now I’m mulling over a humorous SF piece titled “Golf to the Death.” It doesn’t help that I know absolutely nothing about golf.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Once again, I tend to write the funny. At first, I didn’t picture myself as a humor writer. My early stories were all serious (or, as serious as pulp-ridden urban fantasy and space opera gets). But then I tried writing a sillier story, and discovered that such fare comes more easily to me. There aren’t as many people writing humorous genre stories than serious ones, so that immediately sets my work apart. Also, I tend to pepper my stories with pop culture references. How Earth Narrowly Escaped an Invasion from Space is a perfect example of such.

Why do I write what I do?

Because it’s fun. I have no desire to make writing my full-time job. I’m not in it for the money (because I could make way more if my hobby involved flipping burgers instead of slouching over a keyboard), and I have no cause or agenda in need of tireless pushing. Therefore, I write stories that are exciting and fun for me to tell.  A lot of the time I think back to myself as a teenage reader back in the former USSR, devouring any science fiction book I could get my hands on. Would the past-me dig the yarn I’m writing? If so, I’m satisfied with my output.

How does my writing process work?

An idea comes first. Usually it’s a what-if scenario, but it could be an interesting character or a cool visual, or even just an interesting opening line. Then I try to figure out what the story is about and where it’s going. The most important factor for me is the resolution. I never sit down to write a story unless I know exactly how it ends.

Once I have the ending, it’s like a lighthouse. I may not have the precise directions on how to get there, but I can see its light in the distance and know the general direction in which I must travel. Every scene of the story must drive it toward that lighthouse in some way. I tend to make up the middle part as I go along, discovering some cool things I may never have intended when I envisioned the story, and doing some worldbuilding. But, sooner or later, I get to the end. Then I tighten up the story and often adjust some of the earlier parts to better jive with the resolution.


The two writers I’m tagging next are:

Deborah Walker — an extremely prolific short story writer from the UK who is also in the process of working on her fist novel at the moment.

James A. Miller — Jim’s first short story sale was to me, for UFO3.  This is the first time since the inception of the UFO series that I bought a story from a previously-unpublished author, and I’m very happy about this.  Because, when he makes it big, I get to brag about how I’d ‘discovered’ him.  So visit his blog, and give him a virtual high-five.



An Awesome Way To Say No

March 22, 2014


It isn’t often that a rejection makes my day, but today one did.

I submitted a humor flash story to a brand-new market called Ruthless People’s Magazine (which you should all check out, since they’re offering an extremely competitive $100 per flash story pay rate). The story is about a hapless writer who can’t get his work published, and contained the following bit of dialog:

“They bounced ‘No Quarter’ without so much as a personal comment,” he said.

I racked my brain. “Is that the epic fantasy retelling the War of the Ring story from the point of view of the Ents?”

“No. I sent that one to Colossal Fiction just the other week. ‘No Quarter’ is an existential literary prose poem about the narrator’s inability to pay at a parking meter.”

Although RPM didn’t want this story, not only did they respond within hours, but the editor included the following at the bottom of his reply:


Canto the First

Cannot park here. Cannot be here. Pockets empty. Property—now beholden to the hexing, vexing State. No quarter. No quarters. No place in this world. I stand beside this parking meter. Pockets empty. This Grey Maypole, phallic intrusion into God’s own space. I want to grip it. Shake it! Strangle it! Choke the chicken livered authority. But who am I? Am I am, at all. Rage, empty! Impotence of steel! My vehicle is carried off and I am all – up ended. Inverted! Pockets empty. The Quarter Master mocks and pins a ticket to my brow. Am I here, circular, boundaried—no. I am quarterlessly quartered and rendered/dismembered non-Euclidian. My parallels? Parked. In this Pocket Universe I HAVE CEASED TO BE.

Heh. Damned thing writes itself.

So there you go — in case you ever wondered what an existential literary prose poem might be like.

I shall have to submit more material there, and soon!




February 23, 2014

Aliette de Bodard recently posted on her blog that she’s willing to occasionally translate quality short stories into English, after Benjamin Rosenbaum made a similar offer.

Aliette is an awesome writer. I’d be glad to let her translate my English language stories into better English 😉 So if you are a writer published in French, Spanish, or Vietnamese, this may be a great opportunity for you.

I should also add that I do the same thing with Russian-language stories. I’ve translated a small handful so far, and those translations are selling/getting published. If you are an SF/F author who writes in Russian, please feel free to reach out to me. I’m *very* selective about what I translate (basically, I have to really love the story) and, like Aliette, I will consider for translation only material that has been professionally published and is under 7000 words.



2013 Year In Review

January 1, 2014

Another year has come and gone — almost too quickly. It wasn’t as much of a spectacular writing-accomplishments year for me as 2012 was, but it was pretty darn good anyway.

I luuuurve me some data to crunch, so I continue the annual tradition of sharing my submission info with the world. First, I’d like to address my 2013 resolutions, which were definitely a mixed bag:

* Complete at least one novel and begin shopping it around to agents/publishers

Failed that one miserably. I have approximately 20,000 words written on the novel so far, and keep distracting myself with short stories. Definitely must get this done in ’14.

* Continue to participate in the Write1Sub1 initiative and write at least one new short story per month.

Blew that one out of the water by completing two short stories per month instead.

* Translate into English at least two SF/F short stories by Russian authors

Translated one short story (The Ferryman by Siarhey Bulyha) and am shopping it around.

* Attend at least one major SF con (something like WorldCon or World Fantasy) and a few smaller ones

WorldCon accomplished:

Ken's Hugo receives the George R.R. Martin seal of approval.

Ken’s Hugo receives the George R.R. Martin seal of approval.

I also got to attend LunaCon, BaltiCon, CapClave and PhilCon, and will likely be back to all or most of these next year. I  already registered for next year’s WorldCon in London.

And now, to the good stuff:

Short stories written in 2013: 24

This is not counting a handful of stories I started but didn’t complete for some reason. Totaling approximately 65,000 words. 11 of these have already been sold. One I felt wasn’t quite good enough to submit. The rest are out to markets.

Number of Submissions sent out (including reprints, foreign rights, podcasts, translation, etc.): 224

Number of Acceptances (includes stories submitted in 2012 but accepted in 2013):  39

Lost/Withdrawn: 2

Currently on Submission: 18 (with 3 more waiting for specific markets to open in January)

Rejections: 168

$ Earned from Short Fiction Sales: $1850

This is calculated based on what I’ve been paid for in 2013 (i.e. a bunch of stories from 2012, and a bunch of recent sales haven’t been paid for yet).

Non-Reprint Sales: 19

Pro Rates ($0.05+ per word) 13

Semi-Pro Rates ($0.01 – $0.04 per word) 5

Token payment: 0 (the only token market I even bother to occasionally submit to anymore is Every Day Fiction)

Royalty-only: 1 (A story I wrote for an anthology edited by a friend)

I also edited and published two anthologies: Unidentified Funny Objects 2 and Coffee. and began working on at least two more for 2014.

Overall it was a solid year, and I look forward to do more of the same in 2014. I do hope to get my first novel finished (and maybe even a second one if I can find a way to switch to novel mode). Otherwise, my major goal is to break into more of the top short fiction markets that haven’t yet published me.  And, most importantly, continue to have a great time being a part of SF/F fandom.




My Top 5 2013 Blog Posts

December 31, 2013

I’ve been moderately good about updating the blog this year — lots of publication and story sale news, but also an occasional interesting post about other things. As the year winds down, I went over my blog posts of 2013 and picked out my favorites. That is, the five favorite entries that I wrote, not the 5 best I read on the Internet


#5: It Came from the Slush Pile

I was posting regular slush updates during the UFO2 reading period, and at some point came up with the following bit of wisdom:  “This doesn’t mean that you can’t sell us a zombie reality TV story about a road trip in space. But it won’t be easy.” I suppose I shouldn’t have been at all surprised to find a flash story that used all those tropes in my inbox shortly thereafter! I couldn’t include it in UFO2, but I offered the author, Rachel Winchester, an opportunity to publish it on my blog (and paid her for it. You all know how I feel about 4-the-luv markets by now).

#4: Getting Short Fiction Published

I’m kind of cheating here. This was linked from my blog, but actually posted at SF Signal. They interviewed me about all sorts of submission-related things, including what kind of bribes I accept (for the record: coffee, chocolate, and flattery.) The interview came out really well and is easily one of my favorite blog posts this year. I would also like to give a shout-out to SF Signal, who don’t only provide an amazing service to the SF/F community, but have been incredibly generous and helpful to me as a publisher, in promoting UFO books.

#3: Hijacking the Space Marines

There was an outcry earlier this year about Games Workshop bullying indie author M.C.A. Hogarth over the use of the term “space marine.” They claimed ownership of it as part of their miniatures game, despite the term enjoying a healthy and consistent usage in a variety of science fiction stories that predate their company. Fortunately mine was but one voice of many, M.C.A.’s books were restored on Amazon, and GW hasn’t taken any action against her, to my knowledge.

#2: How I Spent My WorldCon: An Illustrated Report

A lengthy post about what it was like to attend my very first WorldCon, and to go on stage to pick up Ken Liu’s Hugo. With pictures!

#1: 5 Practical Tips on Writing Humor

Once again, I leave my own blog to find my favorite article of 2013. I wrote this as a guest-post for the Dark Cargo blog, and was very pleased with the result. There are precious few articles that deal with humor writing in any sort of practical way (since it is even more difficult to try and teach someone to be funny than it is to teach someone to be a good writer), but I hope that my advice will be of some use to those interested in writing humorous SF/F in particular.

Paying Back, 2013 Edition

December 26, 2013

Every year, I spent a bit of money I’ve earned from my fiction on supporting worthy writing-related web sites and magazines, be it via subscription or donations. In the past, I made most of these purchases in December, but this year I ended up spreading it out more throughout the year because of so many worthy Kickstarter projects I simply had to support. Even so, there are two in particular that I supported this month that I’d like to draw attention to in this post:

Crossed Genres

This is a quality magazine that is extremely supportive of diverse voices as well as new authors. They began to pay professional rates at the beginning of 2013, and are now holding a subscription drive in order to continue to publish and to pay writers fairly in 2014.  I was one of over 300 people who already bought a subscription, but they aren’t there yet — they need 600 subscriptions total to fully fund, and the subscription drives ends December 31.  Click here for more details.


The Submission Grinder

There is a fine balance between supporting the writing-related services you love, and becoming an over-charged customer. When Duotrope became a paid service at the rate of $50+ a year, I could not justify paying that much for what they offered. I was happy to donate $20 per year in previous years because it was a) voluntary and b) more along the lines of what I felt comfortable spending on a service where most of the value is added by its users Wiki-style to begin with.

Fortunately, the fine folks at Diabolical Plots have stepped in and created an excellent alternative service called The Grinder, which they are committed to keeping free for everyone.

While the Grinder is new and does not yet have the volume of users of Duotrope (they are growing fast, though!) — a much greater percentage of their users are neo-pro SF/F writers, and so the data for the markets that interest me is generally as reliable or more reliable than Duotrope, even with less people reporting.  They are constantly updating the site, introducing new and innovative features, and they’re extremely open to feedback. All in all, I am very thankful for the service they have provided to the SF/F writing community this year, and I encourage those of you who can afford it to kick in a few bucks and those who cannot to support them by uploading your submissions data, therefore improving the accuracy of their database.


Whether you choose to support these two venues or someone else (and there is no shortage of worthy candidates!) please consider spending a few extra dollars with venues that provide you with free, quality services year-around.  Your help will keep them going and available for you and for many other users who may not be fortunate enough to have the disposable income for this.

And while I’m updating the blog, also check out my story Nuclear Family, podcast by the wonderful folks at the Cast of Wonders.


Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!




Getting Short Fiction Published & a Coffee Giveaway

December 20, 2013


I was recently interviewed at SF Signal on the subject of getting one’s short fiction published. Really, the answer is very simple and straightforward: write a good story and keep submitting it until it sells somewhere. But if you want a more elaborate version full of snark, or to learn what sort of bribes I accept, or to see me slam non-paying  markets (again), then go ahead and click that link!

And speaking of getting short fiction published, I recently sold a humor flash “Bedtime Story on Christmas Eve, 1,000,000 AD” to Spark: A Creative Anthology and it will appear in the next issue., which launches on January 1 and features a foreword by Kevin J. Anderson.

A reprint of “Life at the Lake’s Shore” will appear in an upcoming “Outpouring: Typhoon Yolanda Relief Anthology,” a charity projected edited by Dean Francis Alfar. No link yet, but I will post one as soon as it’s available.

Not much else to report on the acceptances front at this time, but then things do tend to slow down around the holidays.

Meantime, I’ve been laboring away on Unidentified Funny Objects 3. I’m very happy to report that I already have three stories from three huge names in SF/F, and a fourth story in final edits. I have a really cool cover, too. Expect more information on this in January. A number of folks asked about the next submission period: we will have one in the Spring, most likely in March.  I am absolutely committed to keeping each volume of the UFO series open to subs from the public alongside the stories solicited from the top pros.

Meantime, there are a few days left to enter the giveaway for a signed paperback copy of COFFEE: 14 Caffeinated Tales of the Fantastic. Over 700 people already entered this giveaway, but it’s free to enter, so why not give it a shot? Just click here to participate.



On the Merits of Automation

July 7, 2013

Writing the first draft of a new story is always a lot of fun. You get to describe lush settings and exciting action, and have your characters say witty things. You don’t have to worry about the minor details, consistency, or proper punctuation. All of that comes later. The first draft is about getting your idea on paper.

Then comes the not-so-fun part of edits. By the time the story is finished, the author may have read it three or four times if they’re an expert (or think they are), and possibly as many as twenty times if they’re still learning the ropes or tend to do much of the heavy lifting in revision. After the first several reads it becomes very difficult to identify a basic problem in a story, such as an orphaned word left over from the previous draft or a bit of poor phrasing. Everything about the piece becomes so familiar, it is difficult to “turn off” that familiarity in order to hunt down errors.

Writers have different rituals for dealing with this. A very common and successful method is to put away a completed story for a week plus, so that you may return to it with a fresh eye, having forgotten some of the details. Other writers will read the story out loud, looking for spots where the prose sounds awkward. Others read the story from back to end, one paragraph at a time. This allows them to concentrate on the spelling and punctuation and not the plot or flow of the story.

The most effective method by far is to get another pair of eyes on your story. Swap with another writer of similar (or, preferably, greater) ability. Have them catch many of the little problems you missed, and you do the same for them later. This is my own preferred method. Every story I complete, I share with at least two or three critique partners. Each of them finds some issues with the story, which I consider before revising. Then it’s off to another couple of readers. Then and only then do I send the story out on submission.

Professional book and magazine publishers are big fans of this method as well. If your story is accepted, the editor may do some developmental edits with you, but after they’re done the story is always passed along to a copy-editor. A copy-editor is like a beta reader, but better. They are sentence-structure masters and punctuation ninjas, and can usually quote the Chicago Manual of Style (or whatever the publication’s preferred style guide is) from memory. A good copy-editor can make a tremendous difference in the quality of your book or short story.

Which begs the question — should you avail yourself of the services of a freelance editor *before* the story or novel goes out on submission, to improve your chances?

Sadly, in most cases the correct answer is no. Not because they won’t improve your work — far from it, but because it rarely makes sense financially. A good editor will charge somewhere around $30 an hour. It will cost $750-1000 to have an entire novel thoroughly edited. A 4-6000 word story may run you $50 or so, which is a huge percentage of what you can hope to earn from its sale, even if it’s placed with a pro-paying market.  There are editors who will work cheaper, and while a tiny percentage of them are brilliant people who’re just starting out, in most cases you won’t get the sort of professional a big New York publisher would hire working at deep discount rates.

So what should you do to ensure that a manuscript you’re about to send to your favorite editor or agent isn’t a hot mess?  In addition to the methods I described above, you can also take advantage of some automated tools.

Your first step is to get the most up-to-date copy of Microsoft Word  your computer can run. It does a fairly good job catching not only typos but also poorly constructed sentences and a plethora of other annoying problems. It constantly amazes me how many writers default to antiquated or free word processors in order to save a few bucks. If you plan on becoming a gourmet chef, you wouldn’t buy your knife set at a 99c store. You would get the professional quality tools.  Writing doesn’t require you to spend a lot of money up-front on supplies the way painting or sculpting does, so if you plan on writing for hours on end don’t skimp on the essentials — a comfortable chair, a good keyboard, and the best word processor program. For the record, I don’t own a Mac. There may be wonderful word processor options for the Mac that are infinitely better than MS Word, or there may not be. I just don’t know. But I have tried various PC options including Google Docs, OpenOffice and Libre Office and found the Microsoft product to be superior (which is a statement I don’t make easily as a huge Google fan).

The next step would be to try out Grammarly.


When I first discovered this web-based service, I was highly skeptical.It bills itself as “the world’s best grammar checker” and claims to “correct up to 10 times more mistakes than popular word processors.” But can they really automate copy-editing? Certainly no software, whether it’s from Microsoft or from these folks, is a substitute for a live copy-editor.  The technophobe in me was curious, and I took advantage of the review account the PR people at Grammarly were kind enough to provide me with.

I loaded a number of manuscripts into Grammarly to see if it might be useful. Predictably, it did little or nothing to help improve highly polished manuscripts that were already copy-edited by a professional. The “errors” it found were mostly unorthodox sentence structure and dialog, places in the manuscript where text structure is intentionally less-than-neat. The software couldn’t compute the difference between bad writing and artistic license, nor should it be expected to.

The results were much better when I loaded unedited first drafts. It helped identify missing or misplaced commas, tense problems, and a few actual sentence structure issues that were in legitimate need of fixing. Given that it took only a few seconds to run the text through this software, it certainly didn’t hurt to fix some of the problems before sending the story draft to crit partners.

Since showing is better than telling,  I loaded the 1000-word chunk of text above into Grammarly after I wrote it, and without going back to do any edits. Here are the issues it identified and suggestions it made:

* The results were much better when I loaded unedited first drafts. <- Grammarly suggested I review this sentence for incomplete comparisons.

* Remove the comma here: “put away a completed story for a week plus, so that you may return to it with a fresh eye”

* Add the comma in front of  “as well”: “Professional book and magazine publishers are big fans of this method as well.”

* Remove the comma here: “They are sentence-structure masters and punctuation ninjas, and can usually quote the Chicago Manual of Style…”

* Reminded me to add a space after this period: “I was highly skeptical.It bills itself…”

Each suggestion comes with citations from the rules of English grammar which are often a good read, especially for those who aren’t already masters of the language. My overall takeaway is that this service is awesome for academic purposes, especially for high school and college students who are trying to improve their “proper” writing. It is less effective for professional wordsmiths, but  can still offer enough value to justify its price point. At $30 per month I wouldn’t use it on a recurring basis for one or two short stories that I write per month, but would probably buy a month’s subscription to run a novel-length manuscript through the software before showing it off to an agent or a publisher.

And while I stated above that it doesn’t pay to have your manuscript professionally edited by a live human if you plan on submitting it to publishers, you should absolutely make such an investment if you plan on self-publishing it. Too often, self-published books suffer from poor grammar and punctuation, and contribute to the already-tarnished image of self-published writers, hurting some really talented folks who are using the platform alongside the unedited masses.

There are many great freelance editors out there who are willing to take on new clients. The one I have worked with personally and can highly recommend is Elektra Hammond.

What live editors and electronic aides do you recommend?