Sunday, November 8, 2009

Reviewer Time: SMD from "World in a Satin Bag"

It’s Sunday and you guessed it. It’s time for yet another “Reviewer Time” feature. I am also punctual, so there is this week’s shocking surprise. Nobody expected this twist. Comedy attempts aside let’s head on to the introduction of our guest. He is a pretty active guy and has been dabbling with oh-so-many things in the fiction that it’s mildly perplexing how he can be as active as he is at the time being. His name is Shaun Duke, recognizable as SMD and apart from his review obligations over at “Fantasy and Sci-Fi Book Lovin’ News and Reviews”.

Shaun’s main domain aka “The World in a Satin Bag” is a bit tricky and doesn’t completely fit the form of this feature, since my aim is to introduce you guys to review blogs. However there is that matter that Shaun is a reviewer and of decent quality. Whenever you have the chance do check up the links he posts on his own blog so that you can see for yourself that the argumentation and language can create a respectable opinion. There is no formal structure and he is up close and personal like a friend relaying his experiences of a book. And sometimes everybody needs the individual treatment. I find this quality to his reviewing style a definite strength.

But to the main blog. Visually it’s a very bright place in a shade of green I never thought I would appreciate, but it worked rather well. The only aspect I didn’t like so much is the link lists, which have been packed into tiny boxes with scrolls to browse. It’s personal, but I am always known to be frank. Ah, apart from that little thorn in my eye, content wise there is a lot to learn about writing and the things that happen behind the industry’s curtains as far as Shaun’s involvement allows. It certainly is not a review blog in its distilled form, but there is much more to enjoy, if you are as fanatic to want to know about all aspects in the industry.

The man is an avid reader with strong ties to fantasy and sci-fi, a writer in the making, a reviewer, an editor and a moderator to a writing group. If that isn’t literature’s Renaissance man of the twenty first century, I don’t know who can be. And he is not even thirty. So we can expect his posts to become more in depth, more entertaining and more sophisticated.

HM: I will stop rephrasing this question. It gives me headaches, so let’s cut to the chase. Who is Shaun Duke, when he logs off from his blog?

SMD: I am the alpha and the omega. Okay, so I’m not, but wouldn’t that be cool? Ego trip anyone?

Who I am when I’m not blogging? Well, I’m a new teacher, a graduate student at the University of Florida in English, studying science fiction, postcolonialism, and fantasy, and a book nut. When I say book nut, I mean that I own more books than anything else, and have since run out of space for them all. I love books. The smell of them. The taste. The texture (I’m starting to sound like an Austin Powers character here).

Other fun info about me: I’m twenty-six, which is really old in people years, and even worse in dog years, and slightly mental. I am also the editor of Survival By Storytelling Magazine and an assistant acquisitions editor (a fancy title for “reader” with a smidge of power) at Absolute Xpress (a division of Hades Publications). Beyond that, I’m nothing. I don’t exist. Poof.

HM: I am a big fan of lists, so I want you to list me three fun facts that your readers probably would never ever guess about you.

SMD: There are, obviously, many things that I keep from my readers (or try to) to maintain something of a “me” in myself (that means something philosophically). I would hate to think that someone would plagiarize me, considering how much trouble I would probably cause in spaces other than the one I currently occupy. But there are things that I probably haven’t mentioned that I can certainly divulge.

First, I love the 80s. The music, the clothes, the TV, the movies, and just about anything else to do with the era in pop culture. That said, I want to be clear that I don’t dress up in 80s garb or listen to 80s music religiously, just that I have a fond appreciation for 80s pop culture. There have been instances where I have spent weeks upon weeks listening to Tears For Fears and A-ha, for no other purpose than to feed my delusions.

Second, I can’t eat cantaloupe or any other melon, except for watermelon. I don’t know if I’m allergic, but every time I have tried to eat cantaloupe, I have become ill in the stomach. So, I don’t eat the stuff, and if it so much as touches anything else I’m eating, I can’t eat that too. Even the smell gives me the ickies.

Third, I am a cancer survivor. Yup. I had the big-C, still do, if we want to get technical about it (there’s no cure, only remission). I’ve mentioned it, I’m sure, but nobody probably remembers or knows, and that’s fine, because I don’t make a big deal of it.

Hopefully that’s what you were looking for.

HM: I haven’t had an entry with a strange enough name to ask about its origin, so I am quite grateful for your “The World in a Satin Bag” title. How did you come up with it and what does it mean?

SMD: I never started WISB with the intention of being one of those blogger folks (not that I have anything against them, because I love bloggers). I started WISB as an experiment to see if I could write a novel, from start to finish. I named the blog after the novel (The World in the Satin Bag) and the novel is still up, in its entirety, on my blog—just scroll down on the left sidebar to find the chapter links. I don’t know if the novel is any good, but it’s there to read nonetheless.

I became more of a blogger probably in my second year, when I pushed to really provide content rather than infrequent posts of chapters, but ultimately the blog has its roots in that fantasy novel about a boy trying to rescue his friend from the world in the satin bag.

HM: Your blog is a mash-up as far as content goes. You combine reviews with a wide range of topics and your personal experience as a writer and such. Did you ever feel like segregating content and make it purely writing oriented or review oriented?

SMD: Yes, but I rarely do anything with my blog without talking to my readers first, as far as serious changes in content/structure are concerned. While my blog is, more or less, a personal endeavor, I am mindful of what my readers have to say, because clearly whatever I’m doing interests them in some way. Their opinions matter, even if I disagree with them (and often I do, if you read some of the comment sections).

Although, to be fair, all of my content, generally speaking, is united under a single subject: science fiction and fantasy. I try not to break from that very often; sometimes it’s impossible, though (just look at some of my posts on politics).

But now you’re making me think that something is wrong with my blog. Why aren’t you leaving comments, Mister?

HM: What was the inspiration behind the conception of “The World in a Satin Bag”and how did you decide on this form of blogging in the first place?

SMD: Well, as I said, I started WISB as an experiment to see if I could finish a fantasy novel. I never intended to be a blogger person until some time later, and now I can’t imagine not doing what I’m doing. I love blogging. It’s a fantastic way to share my thoughts on things I’m interested in.

As for how I decided on the form of blogging I do now, well, I think it was easy to choose something that is always an amalgam of all the things that I love: science fiction, fantasy, writing, literary criticism, and books. It also seems logical, I suppose, that my content would be kind of all over the place, but still centralized on that SF/F theme.

HM: What’s the part of review blogging that liberates you from the mundane troubles and makes it worth the time and effort and what part frustrates you the most?

SMD: Let’s talk about what frustrates me the most: crappy books. Good lord almighty do I hate reading a crappy book. There is nothing worse than being stuck with something so poorly written that you’d rather gouge your eyes out and dump yourself into the Mariana Trench to be crushed by the extreme ocean pressures…honestly. There have been times when I have actually questioned the value of mankind based on the horrendous nature of a single 200-page novel. This is the trouble with publishing today. Too many books, too many ways to make them, and not enough gatekeepers making sure that the good books reach our shelves. Then again, I am notoriously picky when it comes to books, and I have been known to have an unusually short attention span when it comes to reading; if you can’t keep me entertained, I’m out.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I can say that what I love most about reviewing is finding that brilliant gem. These are books that I can’t stop reading, for whatever reason. Sometimes they’re great books as far as the writing is concerned, and sometimes they’re just entertaining, if not stylistically unremarkable. That is by far the most liberating, amazing experience that makes it all worth it: when you find that book that you feel guilty for putting down, that makes you laugh or cry or vocally display your shock and amazement. It’s hard to find them, but when you do, it’s one of the greatest things in the world. This goes along with my “good books are like viruses” theory.

HM: This is a fairly new question I plan on keeping in the general template for awhile so here goes. As a reviewer do you go through all lengths to finish a novel or do you drop it after it feels too much to read?

SMD: I have a short attention span when it comes to reading. If I am not interested in what is going on by page 50, then I’m out. That might sound remarkably stringent, but I have a lot of books to read for review and for school, and I can’t be bothered to waste hours and hours getting to something worthwhile. Some folks have criticized me for this, but we all have different processes for reading that force us to exclude certain kinds of books. None of us like books that are written poorly, and some of us don’t like Harlequin Romance novels. Nobody throws a fit over excluding novels that fit into those categories, right?

So, yes, I will drop a book if it becomes too much to read. If it’s badly written, I’ll drop it on page one. If it’s incredibly boring, I’ll give it until page 50. There are other reasons I might drop a book (poor plotting, etc.), but they’re too numerous to mention here.

HM: I am hooked on these cover art battles and am totally a believer that the cover is essential for the novel as the story, since it can spark the initial chemistry between a reader and a novel. And I basically enjoy novels harder, when their cover art is not to my liking. It’s prejudiced and I am trying to overcome it, but what about you?

SMD: I’m unapologetic about my prejudicial treatment of books based on what kind of covers they have. The fact of the matter is, people do judge a book by its cover. It’s not the best way to judge books, but can you blame them? You try walking into a bookstore and picking up every single book in your favorite section and reading the back cover and the first few pages. People don’t have that kind of time, and neither do I.

That said, I don’t automatically boot a book off my list of interests based solely on the cover. While I won’t buy a book that is pink and has flowers on it, I might buy another one that doesn’t have an appealing cover if something else grabs my attention (the blurb, title, author name, etc.). The synopsis is probably one of the most important things that can exist on a book cover, because it is the only thing that tells a reader for sure that a particular book is worth delving into further.

But, let’s be realistic. When we all browse the shelves at Borders or wherever, we do subconsciously disregard books that do not visually stimulate us. That’s reality. Publishers know this, and so should we. All this talk about how bad it is to practice this, consciously or not, is pointless. People are not going to change so long as publishing remains as it is.

HM: I think I have established that you are a writer in the making. I assume that after so much activity you have several publications. Depict how the writer road has been for you and do you plan to write the next best SF/F novel?

SMD: Goodness, you would be sorely mistaken. I have zero publications to my name. I do have two honorable mentions in the Writers of the Future Contest, but as far as actual publications, I have none. Well, I did have a story published in a college journal once, but they cut the last four pages off of my story, so I refuse to count it (I mean, come on, the last four pages are the freaking climax!). This is what I call heresy.

But the writer’s road has been a lot like everyone else’s for me, as boring as that sounds. A lot of writing, a lot of submissions, and a lot of rejections, with a few nice rejections to give me that ego boost all writers desperately need. Those honorable mentions were some of the first indicators that I’m doing something right, and I have no intention of stopping. I have something like sixteen stories out there right now, with another twenty or thirty in various stages of disrepair…I mean completion.

As for writing the next best SF/F novel: I can hope. I just want to tell good stories. While it would be lovely to win awards and go down in history as some awesome SF guy, I think it’s better to be realistic. I have only one goal with my writing: tell good stories that people will enjoy. That means I get to write stories I like, and I like most of my stories (there are a couple bad apples in there, and I have gone to great lengths to punish them for their failures).

HM: Are you more Fantasy or more Science Fiction? You seem to love both, but what preoccupies your mind most?

SMD: I tend to talk more about science fiction than fantasy, but I actually do love both. I think some of my readers and friends have come under the assumption that I have read more science fiction than fantasy, but I don’t think that’s actually true. It’s probably about 50/50.

It’s less equal with my writing, though. I’ve written more science fiction shorts than fantasy ones, but I’ve attempted or completed more fantasy novels than science fiction ones. Not sure why that is. It might have something to do with the nature of the beast, with SF being more attuned to the short form than fantasy, but that’s nothing more than a guess.

But, my primary academic subject as a graduate student is science fiction, so I spend a lot more time thinking and talking about that than anything else. That’s not to say there isn’t anything to say about fantasy, just that the issues I am most interested in happen to be most prominent in science fiction. Then again, I am presenting a paper next week (Friday the 13th, actually) that deals with a fantasy novel in relation to fabricated histories…strange (the novel is The House of the Stag by Kage Baker, and if you haven’t read it, you should; it is amazing).

HM: What’s the story archetype or trope that will always keep you entertained no matter how many times it is done and on the polar end what is the one trope or story that will bug you out no matter how many twists are presented?

SMD: To be honest, any archetype or trope has the potential to entertain me. It all has to do with how well an author does it. I have grown tired of the thinly veiled clichés and even more tired of the ridiculous level of repetition the fantasy genre has gone through in the last few years with urban fantasy—the fact that nobody has even bothered to try to be more clever with these things is sad.

However, I am about done with anything to do with the undead (more specifically vampires and werewolves; they were cool when hardly anyone was doing them, but now that every urban fantasy is practically a direct copy of what has already been, I can’t seem to get into any of it). That’s not to say that someone can’t do something good with vampires, though; one of the stories we accepted for Survival By Storytelling was an amazing vampire story that completely changed my perspective on them.

Overall, it doesn’t really matter. A great writer can take even the most overused cliché and turn it into something gold.

HM: I bet you have heard about the FTC regulations the US government has issued targeting review bloggers. What is your take on all of this and the potential effect on blogging in general?

SMD: Initially I was very concerned. People who should have been “in the loop” were saying things that, to me, spelled trouble for those of us who get free books for review (the fellow who though that returning a book meant you didn’t get a free product is a complete idiot; the product is the story, not the paper it’s printed on). Such concerns have largely been dispelled now that the FTC has clarified that its policies are designed for the folks getting things like free cars, etc.

That said, however, I think it was inevitable that a change was going to be made. The reality is that the FTC, however poorly they went about doing everything, is responding to a real and serious ethical dilemma that has been broached in different mediums. The Internet is a new playing field, and if you’re someone who is giving positive reviews in exchange for monetary or other forms of compensation, then you should have to tell your readers about it. If I get a free car in exchange for giving an “honest” review of the car or something else, well, I think it is reasonable to question whether or not my opinions have become biased—a free car is drastically different than a free book for a lot of obvious reasons.

And we shouldn’t forget that the FTC is also responding to real instances in which people have been paid for positive reviews of products, even if the product isn’t all that great, and yet have not disclosed the fact to readers; bloggers do have financial influence, and the FTC is only doing what it deems necessary to protect the consumers from false reviews and other ethical issues in the economy. Lord knows we’ve had enough ethics violations in the last year, don’t you think?

I don’t think this change in policy will really affect those of us on the bottom rung (not anymore, at least), but it certainly will change the ways some of the big boys have to operate. Whether or not the FTC will actually be protecting readers is up to debate. I have a sneaking suspicion that readers already know that certain bloggers get money or free, expensive stuff in exchange for reviews, so the policy amendment might do nothing whatsoever. Only time will tell!

HM: There has been some talk of sexism in the industry with female authors being ignored in anthologies. I didn’t think it was much of an issue really, because I enjoy female authors, the ladies have been bringing home impressive quantities of awards and history will most certainly remember names like Ursula Le Guin and Mercedes Lackey. But still what do you think?

SMD: Don’t forget Octavia Butler, James Tiptree, Jr. (although, maybe you can’t count her since she had to pretend to be a man), Karen Miller, J. K. Rowling, Kage Baker, Elizabeth Bear, Elizabeth Moon, Anne Rice, Audrey Niffeneger, Holly Lisle, and numerous others whose names probably deserve to be mentioned, but would take up far too much space for this interview.

I’ve stirred a little trouble on this topic in the past. My problem with a lot of what has been said is that it seems like the SF/F community has developed a habit of resorting to sensationalist bashing rather than honest, civil discussion of what should be important issues. The lack of female authors in the genre is disturbing for a lot of reasons, but it is also unfair to assume that every single anthology or magazine that does not have work by female authors is the result of sexism. But the people who throw the fits never ask: how many women submitted, or how many did the editor ask to submit, or how many stories submitted by women were good stories? These are important questions, in my book, and ones that should be asked along with all the others.

That said, however, I want to be clear that I am not denying that there is a problem. There are not enough women in science fiction especially. I want to know why just as much as anyone else, but I refuse to resort to blaming every single editor who doesn’t publish enough women for being sexist bastards. Such a response is too simple. It’s like reducing the Israel/Palestine debate to “they just don’t like each other.” We need bigger, better discussions of what is going on, that looks at all aspects and doesn’t resort to attacks on the reputations of individuals, particularly when those individuals clearly are not actively engaged in sexist practices (there may still be a few out there who are sexist bastards, but blanket blames are hitting innocent people as well as the bad ones; that doesn’t seem fair to me).

HM: And also as Damien G. Walter has asked not a long while ago: Are we Post Sci-Fi?

SMD: Is this another one of those “science fiction is dead” things? I don’t know if we can call where we are now “post sci-fi.” I suppose we could, but such a thing would be entirely arbitrary. To me, post sci-fi would mean that science fiction no longer exists in a recognizable or distinct form (maybe because we’re in the future and there isn’t anything else for SF to really speculate on that wouldn’t fit into the normal category of fiction). And if that’s what post sci-fi is, then we’re not in that period at all. We’ve got a long way to go.

But, to make a point: SF literature is doing fine. It’s not doing well, but it’s not like the genre is dying. It’s certainly weak, but far from dead. SF film, however, has pretty much put the smackdown on every other film genre in the last few years. Just look at the movies and television right now. How many science fiction movies or TV shows have appeared in the last two years? More than you can count on your hands and toes combined. Now look at the sales figures. SF is kicking ass as far as film is concerned. It’s wiping the floor with a lot of the competition. I think John Scalzi pointed this out not long ago in regards to the whole “mainstream acceptance” argument. The fact is, science fiction is far from being dead. If anything, SF is alive and well, kicking and screaming and reminding us all why we like the genre.

But, maybe what everyone is concerned about is the decline of “serious” science fiction, which, let’s face it, hasn’t been doing well at all for years. (This, of course, is sad news indeed, and would certainly require a long and winded discussion far exceeding the appropriate length of an interview.)

HM: You are a pretty active guy. I can tell that, so how can you keep up with writing, blogging, actively promoting and participating in writing groups and such? Tell me the secret… Is there a secret cloning facility I am unaware of?

SMD: Yes, there is. I probably should have mentioned from the start that the original Shaun is not writing this. Shaun 112 is. That’s me. See, Shaun learned long ago that there was no way he could do everything he wanted to do without having an army of Shauns performing all the tasks necessary to make his life fulfilling. So, there are one hundred and forty nine of us, each doing something else. The real Shaun is currently in the Arctic doing research on Tranciclidical Boreanus, a rare species of insect that is invisible to the naked eye. He should be back in late December, but that all depends on the weather. I’m writing this and will likely be recycled or reassigned once I’m finished.

For a paltry fee, I can start a series of Harry’s if you like.

HM: I just read that you have launched a new magazine called “Survival by Storytelling”. Share more about the idea behind it, what you hope to achieve and just how much back breaking work does it involve?

SMD: Survival By Storytelling is an extension of Young Writers Online (which is discussed in the next question). We wanted our own magazine, not just for the members of YWO, but for anyone interested in seeing what young folks are capable of. So, we spent several months thinking up the idea, a few more months of polls for logos and names, and then came up with Survival By Storytelling!

The whole point of SBS is to publish fiction and poetry by young authors (25 and younger). And so we have. We spent almost a year going through submissions and managed to come up with an eclectic mix of stories from writers as young as thirteen to as old as twenty-five. Since I know a lot of folks reading this are SF/F fans, you’ll be happy to know that we snatched up a few fantastic genre fiction pieces; we’re one of those magazines that says “we are open to genre fiction” and mean it. We also commissioned articles on writing and the publishing industry from published authors; this issue contains articles from Paul Genesse (The Golden Cord and The Dragon Hunters from Five Star) and T. M. Hunter (Heroes Die Young from Champagne Books). Oh, and if you’re interested in The Time Traveler’s Wife, there’s an article in there about that, too!

Our goals are fairly simple. We want to show that age has very little to do with writing a good story and we want to have a magazine successful enough to warrant a second issue, and then a third, and then a fourth. There’s no expectation on our part that we’ll sell millions of copies or anything absurd like that, but if we can sell one hundred or something like that, that would be fantastic. And SBS is non-profit. Every cent earned goes to paying the contributors or funding YWO, which is also non-profit. Most of the money goes to the contributors, though, because it’s more about them than YWO anyway. We hope to keep it that way.

Magazines, though, are a lot of work, as anyone who makes them will tell you. It’s even more work when you don’t have marketing departments, slush pile readers, artists, formatters, etc. My co-editor and I had to do everything on our own, largely from scratch because neither of us had ever done anything like this before. The hardest thing for me was formatting the magazine. I don’t have mountains of money to buy fancy equipment, so I had to use MS Word to do everything, and anyone who has used that program knows how much of a pain it can be. Plus, being a graduate student entails a monumental amount of work in and of itself. But we got it done, after trudging through, month after month, and now we’re here with a finished product in hand. No bad for a bunch of nobodies, eh?

HM: You are also connected with Young Writers Online, a writing group. I have a suspicion you have a high rank there. What’s your experience and involvement there so far?

SMD: I’m co-owner with a friend of mine, and thus, we are both Admins. My involvement has largely been reduced to more administrative duties as of late for a number of reasons not limited to time constraints, but we have a great team of moderators to keep things moving smoothly.

Young Writers Online is a fantastic website, not just because I own it. Our members are, generally speaking, amazing. We have a lot of great young writers and the whole purpose of the site is to provide a web community and a writer’s workshop environment for young writers. We try to balance the two so that the site fulfills two purposes: providing a positive environment for young writers and a place where they can go to get constructive criticism and improve their craft. The site has grown quite a bit since we first started it, despite the fact that some said we’d never amount to anything. Two years later and we have a bustling little community with its own magazine.

HM: Please finish with your own words.

SMD: I will give you all a poem. It’s mine. It’s terrible, but it’s from the heart, and I know everyone likes that. Right? This will make you all warm and snuggly inside, like a parasitic worm living in your chest cavity, or the sensation of a harsh drink running down your throat, or how you feel when you’ve eaten too much greasy food and your innards have begun to pickle. Yes, this will make you feel like that. So enjoy it, while you can.

When all seemed fine, and dandy too,

A message rose up from the grave,

And spoke to me in sundry cues,

With steal demands for this crazed gnave.

“Questions a’plenty, I have for thee,”

Said Markov of the distance plains,

“And answer them in days of three,

Or die this night by Death’s black reins.”

So great was this, the deadly threat,

That I, post haste, did answer he,

For fear of death would I have met

And driven cold in his killing spree.

Yet here I speak of wondrous things,

Of life and scribe and tender dreams.

And if it please this court of kings,

I’ll speak a word to break his schemes.

N’er again will ye steal my soul

With all your games of fear and sword,

For if I take up any role,

It will be wickedness that bends your word.

Now broken are his wicked ways

So ends our fun and playful days!

That is apparently all I have to say. Thanks for reading, and please send me your hate mail.

So say we all!

PS: I am honored to have been featured as a villain that brings death in a poem. It is quite the achievement on my path to become an evil overlord.


Hagelrat said...

Great interview boys. :)

Hagelrat said...

Oh and yeah, since you are both in the decade prior to mine I do get to call you boys, and say "aww bless": if i like. It's the joy of getting old. ;)

Harry Markov said...

Oh, you are so evil. But we get to call you Mrs. Hah!

S.M.D. said...

You so do not get to call me a boy. I have hair on my chest, thank you very much.

That is all.

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