Nebula Award Winners 2014

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Wow! I’m really getting good at predicting these things.

The 2014 Nebula Awards held yesterday. And most of my favorites won. The only place where I was off with my predictions was in the Short Story Category, I thought “Alive, Alive Oh,’’ by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley was a definite shoe-in.

Special congratulations goes to Alliette Bodard (a friend) who took home the award for best novellette for The Waiting Stars. She wrote the first science fiction short story I ever read.

I put a link to all the short stories which can be read online for free. You’re welcome.

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Best Novel
Winner: Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)

Best Novella
Winner: ‘‘The Weight of the Sunrise,’’ Vylar Kaftan (Asimov’s 2/13)

Best Novelette
Winner: ‘‘The Waiting Stars,’’ Aliette de Bodard (The Other Half of the Sky)

Best Short Story
Winner: ‘‘If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love,’’ Rachel Swirsky (Apex 3/13)

[Nominees]

‘‘The Sounds of Old Earth,’’ Matthew Kressel

Selkie Stories Are for Losers,’’ Sofia Samatar

‘‘Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer,’’ Kenneth Schneyer

‘‘Alive, Alive Oh,’’ Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation
Winner: Gravity

[Nominees]:
Doctor Who: ‘‘The Day of the Doctor’’; Europa Report; Her; The Hunger Games: Catching Fire; Pacific Rim

Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy Book
Winner: Sister Mine, Nalo Hopkinson (Grand Central)

Full list here.

There’s some media buzz about the fact that more women won awards this year than men, so everyone’s happy, for now.

Expect to see me there next year, fingers crossed.

P.S. If you’ve not read Ancilliary Justice by Ann Leckie, you absolutely should. I started reading it last week and I can testify that it’s solid sci-fi, and it’s different.

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A Definitive List of Fantasy Fiction

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First and Foremost, this isn’t THE definitive list of Fantasy Fiction. It’s more like a personal recommendation list.

I’m currently an editor and Ghostwriter but I plan to write my own books someday and they will most definitely be in the SFF genre (Science Fiction and Fantasy).

I’ve read a lot of Science Fiction but my mileage in Fantasy is very low. So, I’m calling on you to help me out. Tell me the books that are absolutely must reads in the genre. These books have to be books that you personally feel that if i haven’t read, something in my life isn’t complete. Or you know, you just really love the book(s).

Please, don’t recommend the books that have a reputation of being good, for example The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. I have tried twice to read that book but couldn’t make it past page 25. I’d prefer personal recommendations. This means that along with book title, please leave behind a sentence or two about what the story is about and why you liked it.

Here is a list of books I have already read, Or I’m still reading that made me fall in love with the genre.

  1. Mistborn Trilogy – Brandon Sanderson
  2. Allow of Law – Brandon Sanderson
  3. Steel Heart – Brandon Sanderson
  4. Seventh Son – Orson Scott Card
  5. The Circle Trilogy – Ted Dekker
  6. Zoo City – Lauren Beukes
  7. I am Number Four – Pittacus Lore
  8.  The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch
  9. Dead Beat – Jim Butcher

As you can see, it’s really small. So, please drop your recommendations in the comments. Anything that qualifies as fantasy is okay. But it must have impressed you in a personal way and be really, really good.

How to Open your Story like a Pro

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All good stories begin with a good opening. All.

Without exception.

It seems like I’m stating the obvious but you’d be surprised how often stories with “empty” openings land on my desk.

As is now mandatory with writing courses, writers are taught that there are several ways to open a story – Start with action, Do a flash forward, Open with a thematic sentence. I want to discuss the latter.

In the award winning novel Old Man’s War, John Scalzi begins the story with:

I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.

Over the next 362 pages, Mr Scalzi takes you on an amazing adventure that captures that sense-of-wonder with three resonant themes –

–          Old People

–          Dead People

–          His Wife

In Stephen King’s tour de force novel 11/22/63, the massive 849 pages begins with the deceptively ordinary words:

I have never been what you’d call a crying man.

But in the context of the story, you get to understand just how important that statement is to the entire story of a man trying to avert JFK’s assassination. George Amberson, a loner with nothing to lose(except time) gets to experience life in the 60s and 70s. What’s not to cry about?

Ready Player One, the 2010 cyberpunk hit starts with a more traditional opener:

Everyone my age remembers where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about the contest.

This sets the stage for a rollercoaster ride of sci-fi, 80s and pop culture references(mostly American pop culture). What is most striking about this opening is the way it introduces the reader into the exact type of novel it is – this is a book about a game, and everyone is in on it.

Looking at my favorite book of last year, Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson, another novel with a traditional opener, the same rules apply:

I’ve seen Steelheart bleed.

It’s impossible to explain how much weight those four words are to the entire story of David and the Reckoners, a group of freedom fighters who hunt down and kill Epics(Superheroes), without filling this post with spoilers. But the entire story is driven by that one fact – Steelheart, a superhero with superman-like powers has one weakness and only David has the key to unlocking that weakness.

Finally in the mega franchise that is now The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins captures readers not with a sentence but with an entire paragraph.

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

She uses more words but the purpose is still the same (she captures the entire core of the story in those four sentences) and they carry the same effect. As you well know (assuming you’ve read the book, seems everyone has), Prim – Katniss’ sister, The Reaping and Katniss Everdeen’s sense of responsibility play the central roles in the plot of the trilogy.

What I would like to point out is the way these openers not only pique the interest but also convey the soul of the entire story.

When you’re done with these novels, re-reading that first sentence/paragraph effectively summarizes the entire journey you just embarked on.

I’ve been working in publishing for a few years and I keep noticing the same rookie mistake – writers starting their story with placeholder text. That is, story openings with sentences and paragraphs that do nothing but start the story. This is dangerous. At  its worst, it would take you at least 5 pages to get to the real story you want to tell. This may have been acceptable in the 80s and 90s but it hurts your today.

Listen, your story’s opening is the most important part of your story. It’s your welcome mat. It should embody the soul of your story, foreshadowing events to come, reveal your narrative style and draw the reader in. Nailing your opening is what separates the rookies from the veterans, the published from the unpublished.

Sometimes, when editors and agents say they could determine whether a story had the “right stuff” after about 3 pages, writers call bullshit. But the truth is we do. And the opening is one of the 3 things we consider (the other 2  being character and voice).

Here’s what you should do:

  1. Start your story anywhere. When you’re yet to transfer prose from the ethereal into the tangible, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed, especially if you’re planning a multi-part story(duologies, trilogies or series). Sometimes what you just need is a way in to the story world. Some writers start with the ending. Others begin with the pivotal scene. The point is, just get your story down in black and white.
  2. Finish the story.
  3. When you’re sure you are done with the story, go back and rewrite your first 5 pages keeping in mind what those 5 pages ought to achieve (depending on your genre).
  4. Then rewrite your first page.
  5. Finally, duke it out with that first sentence for as long as it takes keeping in mind that it should embody the soul of your story.

If you’re serious about getting respect and acclaim as a good writer, take my advice – learn the rules.

P.S. All the examples I used are from SFF(Science Fiction and Fantasy), but that doesn’t mean it’s restricted to this genre.

In Purple Hibiscus, another personal favorite, Chimamanda Adichie starts the novel with these words:

Things started to fall apart when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère.

The entire novel revolves around Kambili’s coming-of-age journey and the dynamics of her family.

Different genre. Same rules.

MY 2013 READING LIST

These are the books that kept me up late into the night, kept me company during long bus rides and rekindled my dream of becoming published some day.

Spirituality

1. Jaded – A.J. Kiesling

At a time when my faith was floundering, I picked up this book from my stash and read. Talk about a godsend. This was timely.

Experienced journalist, Kiesling explores the true meaning of church and community and offers hope to those who’ve been hurt , disappointed and offended by “the church”. Filled with paradigm-shifting truths.

2. The War is Over – Andrew Wommack

If I ever become a bible teacher, I want to be as simple as Andrew Wommack. His writing style complements his teaching – easy to read, easy to follow and easy to believe.

In this book, Wommack reassures Christians of God’s love for man and His finished work on the cross. Emphasis on finished. Over and over again, Wommack drives home the point that God’s favor and acceptance isn’t something to be labored for, but rather something that is already given to every believer. Just believe and drink freely.

Writing and Craft

3. On Writing Well – William Zinsser

I really hope I get to meet Mr. Zinsser before he dies. I would like to tell him how much his book has improved my writing. I want to let him know that I’m now one of his biggest advocates, regularly recommending this book to anyone who cares to handle a pen. I loved this book and I think it goes side by side with Mr. King’s On Writing.

Simplicity is the bedrock of all good writing. That and consistent practice. That is the lesson running through the soul of this book. It’s a handbook every writer should have and reference occasionally as it covers nearly every facet of non-fiction writing – Sports writing, Comedy, Review and Critique writing, Memoirs, Conducting interviews, Travel  writing and so on. The list is exhaustive. Get this book.

Psychology and Social Science

4. Power of Habit – Charles Duhigg

I loved reading this book. The subject matter has a certain universal appeal. And the treatment the author gave it is engaging. It just didn’t have that OMG factor that I got from Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine last year.

5. How Laziness Saved My Life – Okechukwu Ofili

I’d heard some good things about the book. Debonairs bookstore even listed it among their bestsellers once. So it was only a matter of time before I got my hands on a copy.

Not bad for a Malcolm Gladwell wannabe. That might sound like damning praise but when you consider that Malcolm Gladwell has spawned a slew of big thinkers and a whole new genre of social science writers, you realize it’s not. Ofili’s personality comes through in the book and there are a few interesting ideas in here. It’s just that the research backing it up is measly. Nevertheless, had a good time reading it.

6. Made to Stick – Chip and Dan Heath

7. Think! – Edward de Bono

8. David and Goliath – Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell is the master of the art of presenting BIG IDEAs and unintuitive thinking in social science. His bestseller – The Tipping point- is still being referenced in marketing circles today. David and Goliath may not attain such epic status but it’s a compulsory read nonetheless.

David and Goliath is a study in the tenacity of the underdog. Mr. Gladwell in his usual style, weaves tale after tale of disadvantaged people surmounting great odds and rising to the peak of their profession. As is now regular practise, Gladwell has gotten a lot of flak for the way he uses research and statistics in defending his ideas. But that is beside the point. His stories and his ideas are, if nothing else, fascinating. A good read.

Novels

9. The DarkTower I – Stephen King

10. Percy Jackson I – Rick Riordan

11. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card

12. A Visit From The Goon Squad – Jeniffer Egan

13. Brief Encounters – Ben Fountain

14. Inferno – Dan Brown

This year involved a lot of firsts for me. This was my first Dan Brown book. It was about time I saw what all the hype was about. And boy, did I find out. This book took off like a hurricane from the first chapter and didn’t let up till the final 3 pages.

Our protagonist, Robert Langdon, wakes up with amnesia to find himself in the middle of an international cat and mouse game involving terrorists, secret government agencies and …let’s just say to say more would ruin the plot.

From what I hear, this is his weakest book so far, so I think I’m in for a treat with his other novels.

15. Seven Wonders – Adam Christopher

16. Crystal Rain – Tobias S. Buckell

17. The Emperor’s Soul – Brandon Sanderson

My first Sanderson novel. This is the book that spoiled me for other others. Sanderson’s style, intricate magic systems and clever worldbuilding hit all the right notes within my brain. This novellete drove me into a Brandon Sanderson frenzy. Ironically, the book is just a little over a 100 pages but, Damn!

A master forger is entrapped to restore the soul of the emperor of the kingdom. She must do this while imprisoned, under threat of death by skeletal warriors and so many other complications.

18. The Rithmatist – Brandon Sanderson

19. Steel Heart – Brandon Sanderson

My best book of 2013, hands down. There was a point in Steelheart where I put the e-reader down, pumped my fist in a “hell yeah” gesture and spent the next five minutes basking in the images flowing through my mind. Such was the thrill of reading this book. This is superhero fiction unlike anything you’ve ever read.

20. Mistborn – Brandon Sanderson

21. Mitosis (A Reckoners Story) – Brandon Sanderson

22. Well of Ascension – Brandon Sanderson

23. Hero of  the Ages – Brandon Sanderson

24. Alloy of Law – Brandon Sanderson

25. Old Man’s War – John Scalzi

26. Ghost Brigades – John Scalzi

27.The Fall of Five – Pittacus Lore

HOW I DIFFERENTIATE BETWEEN SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY FICTION

PLEASE!!! Could everyone just SHUT UP!

Everywhere I go, it seems there is always a new definition of science fiction and fantasy and the difference between the two genres.

It’s really confusing. And exhausting.

Here’s one and here is another one. They both make valid points but it just doesn’t help me. The debate keeps going on without any resolution in sight. What is the distinction between science fiction and fantasy fiction? Can the lines truly be drawn?

Some really creative writers have stretched the genre, further complicating the lives of experts who’re trying to help people like me understand what the hell is going on. There was a time when it was easy to tell them apart. Elves never wandered into the future and time travelers didn’t faceoff against wizards.

Distinguishing between the two genres really bothers me because I eventually have to categorize my novel.

When the book publisher/book store asks, “What genre is your novel?” I want to know what exactly to say.

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So I invented my own way of identifying/categorizing fantasy fiction and science fiction. I call it – The Human Interface system (cue drum roll).

It’s simple. First, you count how many major characters are in the story, divide that by how many times the hero and the villain meet in person. Then depending on the presence/absence of an epilogue/prologue, you decide how often…. I’m kidding.

This is it – In the story, what is the interface between the real world (our world) and the story world? If it is magical/supernatural, then it is fantasy; if it is technological/scientific, then it is science fiction. Simple.

 TESTING THE THEORY

Let’s start with an easy one. In the Harry Potter series, the story takes place in a world of magic. Human beings ignorantly co-exist with witches and wizards and this is possible through magic. The human interface is magical therefore Harry Potter is a fantasy book.

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On the other hand, the Old Man’s War series chronicles the story of an intergalactic war taking place between human beings and hostile alien colonies beyond the Milky Way galaxy. It doesn’t get more sci-fi than that. Intergalactic travel is made possible by devices called skip drives, the workings of which are explained (well sorta).  This means the human interface is technological – science fiction.

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If the world in which the story is set in is not earth, but there are humans there, how did those people get there? Was it something supernatural that took them there or was it technological? For example, in Tobias S. Buckell’s Crystal Rain, humans are stranded for centuries on a foreign planet after their spaceship was shot out of the sky in a foreign planet. The only way those humans got there was through space travel therefore the human interface is technologgical – Sci Fi.

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In Zoo City, Lauren Beukes creates a South Africa where murderers are animalled – get attached to an animal that gifts them magical abilities. She doesn’t explain how this happens or where the animals come from. It just is. Something supernatural is responsible for the “animal” people, which means the human interface is supernatural – fantasy.

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If the story world is not set on earth, and there is no explanation how the story world came to be, nor is there any link between that world and our planet earth, then there is no human interface whatsoever. I guess you can call it whatever the hell you want to call it. I’ll call it fantasy e.g. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora.

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It really is simple.

I don’t think this method is perfect but I think it easily handles 98% of the books in both genres. If there is any exception to this rule, I’d definitely love to hear it. Please leave your thoughts in the comments section.