The best science fiction stories with thought-provoking twists on Shepherd.com

I was recently asked by a new book recommendation site, Shepherd.com, to create a list of recommended books to go with my SF novella, Looking Through Lace.

I decided to create my list around my favorite “holy crap!” SF novels and short stories, and named it “The best science fiction stories with thought-provoking twists.” You can check out my list here.

If was tough trying to choose only five, but still two books by Ursula K. LeGuin are on it. 🙂

Two new books written with Jay Lake finally published!

Shortly before the recent theatrics with the Amazon Content Review Team (see my blog posts here and here) I finally got around to publishing two works I wrote with Jay Lake before he died. There are a number of reasons why it took me so long — Jay died in 2014, after all, shortly before what would have been his 50th birthday. Not only was I working on Second Contact at the time of his death, there were all the complications of a publication with shared revenue to take into consideration. Since half of the proceeds will go to Jay’s heirs, I didn’t want to have to deal with the accounting necessary for expenses such as editing and cover art. That meant I would have to do all of that myself, which drew out the process quite a bit. Not only did it require a series of beta readers, I also had to create the covers myself. I did pay for the cover art out of my own pocket, but the designs I did myself. But before I came up with the ones I finally ended up using, I created several rejects — also requiring a certain investment of time.

I’m actually quite happy with the final results — but feel free to tell me you don’t agree in the comments below. 🙂

Because I don’t want the complications of advertising costs either, I’ve created a free version of the prequel story, “The World Always Begins in Light.” That is all the advertising I will do, other than trying to get it listed on free sites now and then. As I said, I just don’t want to have to deal with the accounting. :/

Anyway, on to introducing what I decided to call the “Lost Colonies Series”:

THE WORLD ALWAYS BEGINS IN LIGHT

Sharan never wanted to be fleeing for her life on a foreign planet. But when Arnoldson leads a mutiny and takes over the ship, that is exactly where she finds herself.
She never wanted to betray Polity Force Protocols either — only, in order to survive, she doesn’t have a choice. While Arnoldson attempts to become a god, Sharan assists the rebels fighting him. Will they be successful? And even if they are, will Sharan ever be able to go home again?

Also available on Apple, B&N, Kobo, and others.

SECOND CONTACT

Over 100 years after the mutiny and war started by the original expedition to the planet Bonificium, a new recontact team arrives to assess the damage done. But even the Polity admits the mission to put the situation to rights is logically impossible.

Field agent Rogelio finds himself drawn into the politics of the planet, even as he — against all rules and regulations — starts falling in love with one of the planet’s leaders …

When the new star appears in the heavens, the people of Bonificium know it means that the Sky People have returned. Armsmistress Melia is determined that her people will make the new visitors from the stars their own — and she decides that the starman Rogelio is the key …

Also available on Apple, B&N, Kobo, and others.

Be my guest and grab your free copy of the prequel story, wherever you get your digital fiction!

All’s well that ends well?

Looks like calling Amazon’s customer service atrocious and sending them a link to yesterday’s blog post did the trick. Last night I got an email — that seemed to be from an actual person! — that Oregon, Elsewise had been approved, and my documentation for my publishing rights was sufficient. I even got an apology for the “inconveniences.”

It’s interesting, though, that I had to start getting nasty before anyone with more than two peas for brains (or possibly anyone at all?) took a look at my case and realized how I was being sent in circles for nothing.

Lessons to take away from this rather nerve-wracking experience:

  • Whoever or whatever is on the other end of emails from the Amazon Content Review Team does not answer questions, so it is futile to ask them. Answering questions is beyond the scope of the Artificial Non-Intelligences (or ANIs for short).
  • Being tactful and diplomatic is unnecessary when dealing with ANIs, and may even be detrimental.
  • If at first you don’t succeed, don’t try again. ANIs will keep spouting blocks of text back at you in accordance with certain keywords found either in your email or the documentation you sent as proof of authorship.
  • If your case concerns a collection of short stories with a different title than any of the stories in the collection, you’re up sh*t creek to start with, and should escalate as soon as possible. ANIs have a fixation with the book title, and are incapable of understanding the difference between book title and story title.
  • Trying to address the illogical demands of the ANIs will only lead to grief. I’m not quite sure what it was in yesterday’s email that triggered an end of the runaround, but the threat of bad publicity probably doesn’t hurt. “Atrocious” or some other negative adjective in connection with “Amazon service” may also help in getting out of the vicious circle of contradictory demands in the varying text blocks.

I hope the next time something like this happens to me, I’ll remember to take my own advice!

Oh, and in the midst of all this kerfuffle, I actually sold 2 copies of Oregon, Elsewise — probably more than all of last year. 🙂

Looks Like “Oregon, Elsewise” Will Soon No Longer Be Available on Amazon

For a surprisingly long time, Amazon has been surprisingly nice to me. When I request changes and / or additions to my categories, the changes are made much faster than they used to be, and when a category is turned down, the reason makes sense. When I write to price match a book to make it free in order to promote other books in a series, the response has been prompt, and on occasion I have even been wished good luck with my sales.

Now, unfortunately, I find myself in another skirmish with Amazon, this time over my short story collection Oregon, Elsewise.

I had the story collection on sale for 99c, and last week, I finally got around to changing the price back to $2.99. A few days later, I received the following email from Amazon:

Hello,

During our review, we found that your book contains interior and/or cover content that’s available from a different publisher. We need you to confirm your publishing rights before the book is made available on Amazon.

Oregon Elsewise: Eight short stories of an Oregon that never was by Nestvold, Ruth (AUTHOR) (ID: 6316799)

To publish the book(s), reply to this email and send documentation and/or verification showing you hold rights to the content. Please submit any documents you have, along with an explanation of any previously published books within 5 days. If we do not receive the appropriate documentation, the book(s) will be unavailable for sale on Amazon.

Acceptable documentation may include:
• A letter from the previous publisher reverting rights back to the author
• A signed copy of the agreement between you and the author
• A signed copy of the agreement between the author and the previous publisher
• A signed letter from the previous publisher indicating that they do not object to your edition
• Documentation showing the previous publisher holds nonexclusive rights

Examples of documentation we cannot accept include:
• A personal statement by you that you have the publishing rights
• A copyright application for which registration has not been confirmed
• Contracts that have not been signed by all parties
• Ghostwriter agreements or contracts
• Private Label Rights documents

Need help with what to send us?
For more information about how to confirm your rights and frequently asked questions (FAQs), visit Help:
https://kdp.amazon.com/help/topic/G200672400

If you have questions or believe you’ve received this email in error, reply to this message.

Thanks for using Amazon KDP.

Given the obvious boilerplate email, I could only guess at what someone or something at Amazon was objecting to in my extremely modest short story collection. I’ve gotten a couple of objections from Amazon like this before, and they usually had to do with stories that were available in archives of online magazines. For that reason, I came to the conclusion that the problem was with my short story “The Leaving Sweater,” which (at the time of this writing) was still in the archives of Strange Horizons.

I scanned the original contract for “The Leaving Sweater” and sent the jpgs to Amazon as an attachment to the following email:

Dear Amazon Representative,

I am attaching a scan of my contract with Strange Horizons for my short story “The Leaving Sweater.” This contract makes it clear that Strange Horizons had exclusive rights to my story for only 60 days after first publication in 2007. They continue to have non-exclusive rights to my short story, which is why it is still available on the Strange Horizons site 15 years after the first publication. I can, however, also request that the story be removed from the site, if you deem that necessary. But since “Oregon Elseweise” is not in KDP Select, I assume “The Leaving Sweater” can remain on Strange Horizons.

From this contract, it should be clear that I hold the rights to my short story and it can be republished in my collection, “Oregon Elsewise.”

If this is not the story for which you needed publishing rights information, please let me know, and I will scan whichever contracts you need and send them to you.

I hope this clears things up.

Sincerely,

Ruth Nestvold

No such luck. Here’s the answer I received from Amazon:

Thanks for your message regarding the following book(s):

Oregon Elsewise: Eight short stories of an Oregon that never was
Nestvold, Ruth (AUTHOR) : 6316799

We’ve reviewed the information you provided. Based on our review, we’re unable to confirm that you hold the necessary publishing rights.

The information you provided is insufficient because of the following concerns:

• The title of the book listed on the document(s) does not match the title you entered in your KDP account
• The document(s) does not list the author of the book
• The author of the book listed on the document(s) does not match the author you entered in your KDP account

• The model name listed on the document(s) does not match the book details you entered in your KDP account

In order to publish the book(s), reply to this email within 5 days and provide us with further documentation and/or verification showing you hold rights to the content.

Please reply to confirm your publishing rights within 5 days. Otherwise, the book(s) will be unavailable for sale on Amazon.

For more details about KDPs copyright guidelines, visit Help:
https://kdp.amazon.com/help/topic/G200672400

By this time, my husband and I were already beginning to argue whether there were any real people behind these emails, or if they were only generated by AIs. I was still hopeful there might be an actual person or persons dealing with my case, and I answered with the following email:

Hello,

I don’t understand this response. My book “Oregon Elsewise” is a collection of several of my short stories, previously published in various venues, which I list under “Credits” in the manuscript of the book:

“If Tears Were Wishes” first published in Abyss and Apex, January 2008.

“The Leaving Sweater” first published in Strange Horizons, June 25, 2007

“The Old Man and the Sneakers” first published in Farthing, April 2006

“The Other Side of Silence” first published in Futurismic, 2006.

“Sailing to Utopia” first published in Flytrap, May 2006

“The Sea Gives, the Sea Takes Away” originally published in a revised version as “A Debt to Collect” in Northwest Passages, 2005.

“Story Hunger” first published in the collection Story Hunger: Short Fantasy Tales About the Power of the Word, 2013

“The Tiresias Project” first published in Futurismic, July 2004

I do not have a contract for “Oregon Elsewise” (the complete collection) because that is the name I came up with for this collection of my short fiction. I have already provided you with a copy of the original contract for “The Leaving Sweater,” which is addressed to me, Ruth Nestvold, and clearly states that I am granting Strange Horizons first publishing rights to my short story, “The Leaving Sweater,” exclusive to Strange Horizons for a period of 60 days.

If “The Leaving Sweater” is not the short story for which you require further publishing information, please let me know which of the above stories you need the original contract for. None of them will include the title “Oregon Elsewise,” however, because that is only the name for this individual collection, not any previously published fiction for which I have a contract. There is no story in the book entitled “Oregon Elsewise,” which you will see if you look at the book more closely.

I would greatly appreciate it if you would take a closer look at this matter. It is not unusual for authors to give collections of their fiction a completely new title, and not merely “The Leaving Sweater and Other Stories.”

Thank you in advance for looking into this. I hope it can soon be cleared up. Please let me know if you require copies of my contracts with Abyss and Apex, Farthing, Futurismic, Northwest Passages and Flytrap, in addition to the contract I already provided from Strange Horizons.

Sincerely,

Ruth Nestvold

Sounds fairly convincing, right? Nope. Here’s the next boilerplate, hard-to-decifer email I received from the Amazon Non-Intelligences (artificial of not):

Hello,

Thanks for your message regarding the following book(s):

Oregon Elsewise: Eight short stories of an Oregon that never was
Nestvold, Ruth (AUTHOR) : 6316799

We’ve reviewed the information you provided. Based on our review, we’re unable to confirm that you hold the necessary publishing rights.

The information you provided is insufficient because of the following concerns:

• Documentation or information explaining the edition previously published on Amazon has not been provided.
• Documentation has not been provided to confirm you are the original author of the content.
• Documentation has not been provided to confirm that the author granted you rights to publish the content.
• Documentation has not been provided to confirm that rights were reverted to the author from the previous publisher

In order to publish the book(s), reply to this email within 5 days and provide us with further documentation and/or verification showing you hold rights to the content.

We’re unable to accept the following documentation to confirm publishing rights:
• A personal statement by you that you have the publishing rights
• A copyright application for which registration has not been confirmed
• Contracts that have not been signed by all parties
• Ghostwriter agreements or contracts
• Private Label Rights documents]

Please reply to confirm your publishing rights within 5 days. Otherwise, the book(s) will be unavailable for sale on Amazon.

For more details about KDPs copyright guidelines, visit Help:
https://kdp.amazon.com/help/topic/G200672400

If you have questions or believe you’ve received this email in error, reply to this message.

Thanks for your cooperation,
Amazon KDP

Sara
Amazon Content Review Team

Sara! A person!
Isn’t that the name of an AI? husband Chris says.
No, that’s Siri, says I.
Same difference, says husband Chris.

But writer Ruth still has not given up completely. The short stories in question were originally published so long ago (over fifteen years), that most of the contracts were in a hybrid digital / print form. The publisher sent me the contracts per email, asked me to print them out, sign them, and then send the signed copies back.

Given how long ago the original publications were, some of the contracts were in hard copy in boxes in the attic. But I dug them out, scanned them, and sent them with the following email to Amazon:

Hello,

I am attaching copies of the remaining contracts for the short stories contained in my collection “Oregon Elsewise.” Some are scans of paper contracts, others PDF files. In all the contracts it is made clear that after a period of exclusivity from between 60 days and 18 months, all rights reverted back to me. None of the short stories were published after 2008, which means I now hold all rights. For “Story Hunger,” which was not previously published elsewhere, I have scanned a rejection letter as proof that I am author of the content. In addition, I have written to the editors at Strange Horizons and asked them to remove my stories from their archives, as per my contracts with them. Hopefully that will keep such problems from happening in the future.

If this documentation is not sufficient to prove to you that I have the publishing rights for the short stories contained in my collection “Oregon Elsewise,” please remove it from Amazon. The short story collection sells a couple of copies a year at most, and it is not worth my time to continue to pursue this matter.

Sincerely,

Ruth Nestvold

It was not sufficient. Here is the final email (for me, at least) I received from Amazon:

Hello,

Thanks for your message regarding the following book(s):

Oregon Elsewise: Eight short stories of an Oregon that never was Nestvold, Ruth (AUTHOR) : 6316799

We’ve reviewed the information you provided. Based on our review, we’re unable to confirm that you hold the necessary publishing rights.

The information you provided is insufficient because of the following concerns:
• Some documents are missing valid signature is missing from one or both parties
• Some document(s) does not list the title of the book

In order to publish the book(s), reply to this email within 5 days and provide us with further documentation and/or verification showing you hold rights to the content.

We’re unable to accept the following documentation to confirm publishing rights:
• A personal statement by you that you have the publishing rights
• A copyright application for which registration has not been confirmed
• Contracts that have not been signed by all parties
• Ghostwriter agreements or contracts
• Private Label Rights documents

Please reply to confirm your publishing rights within 5 days. Otherwise, the book(s) will be unavailable for sale on Amazon.

For more details about KDPs copyright guidelines, visit Help:
https://kdp.amazon.com/help/topic/G200672400

Publishing books without holding the necessary publishing rights is against our content guidelines and may result in the suspension or termination of your KDP account.

If you have questions or believe you’ve received this email in error, reply to this message.

Thanks for your cooperation,
Amazon KDP

Daniela
Amazon Content Review Team

And now it’s Daniela. (Another AI? How am I to know? None of my questions are ever answered.)

And as if the rest weren’t enough, I’m also being threatened with the termination of my KDP account. But I have no idea what else I can possibly provide to prove that I’m the author of the short stories I wrote — stories that I included in a collection I mostly created for my friends and family, since I grew up in Oregon, and that I dedicated to Nancie Fadeley, the significant other of my father, and my substitute mom.

So if my bad luck holds, it might even be the beginning of the end of my writing career. All because of a collection of my short stories that never earned me more than a few dollars.

New Historical Fantasy: In the Shadow of Helios

Happy new year, everyone! A little late, I realize, but I’ve been busy. This week, I published a new book, In the Shadow of Helios. The really good news? It’s free until Jan. 26!

Mage Kalandra believes she is leading an ideal life — until she learns her husband died trying to run away with another man’s wife. And now she’s plotting revenge on a dead man, with no thought to the consequences for her people or her home …

In a world where Rome never ruled, the Christian religion remained a niche cult, and the Colossus never fell, the islands of the Mediterranean control a trading empire that makes them one of the wealthiest confederations in the world.
On Rodos, one of these islands, Kalandra receives a jasper seal from a simple fisherman, along with news that shatters her world. The revenge she sets in motion not only leads her into the arms of her childhood sweetheart, it puts their whole island nation in peril.
Will she be able to reverse what she has done in time to save Rodos?

At this time, In the Shadow of Helios is only available on Amazon. My sales on other venues have practically disappeared, so until I have time to figure out how to sell on B&N, Kobo and the rest, I’ll be sticking with Amazon for a while.

The paperback is not out yet, but I’m working on it!

If you do download and read the book, I would really appreciate a review! As a new release, it’s still reviewless, making it much harder to market.

Wishing everyone a much better year than the last couple have been!

Announcing the 3rd and final book in The Glassmakers trilogy

I’m pleased to announce that Shards of Glass, Book 3 in The Glassmakers series, is now available as both ebook and paperback.

Forced to flee Venice once again, Chiara and Pasquale hope to find a place for themselves among the witches and glassmakers of London. But when Chiara learns that Dowager Princess Zilia is throwing so-called hidden purveyors of magic into prison – including their friends and relatives – she knows she can no longer run. She and her loved ones will never be safe unless she returns to Italy to face her greatest enemy.
But what chance does a mere glassmaker have against one of the most powerful women in the Venetian Empire?

In this conclusion to The Glassmakers series, various fairy tale retellings and elements find their way into a magical alternate history, including “Hansel and Gretel” and “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.”

You can get Shards of Glass at the following distributors:

Amazon Ebook / Paperback

Kobo

Apple

B&N

Smashwords

Other

I am very happy to have finally finished this trilogy, after a long publishing hiatus. But my “year of publication” is going quite well so far, and hopefully I can keep up with it. Wish me luck!

My books on Amazon: http://amzn.to/13yzpZv
My books on iTunes: http://bit.ly/12Ehva0
My books on Barnes & Noble: http://bit.ly/17ONHvK
My books on Kobo: http://bit.ly/Z5g9H3

Announcing my first Kindle Vella, Dragon Touched

You’ve probably heard about Amazon’s new serial fiction offering, Kindle Vella. “Vellas” are stories told in episodes between 600 and 5000 words long. The first three episodes of a Vella are always free to read, but if you want to read on, you have to purchase tokens. Amazon does give its customers 200 tokens to try out the service. The number of tokens needed to read an episode are based on the length — an author has no say in the price charged. Packages of tokens range in price from $1.99 for 200 tokens to $14.99 for 1700 tokens. Episodes cost 1 token per 100 words (rounded down), which means that for $14.99, you would get at least 170,000 words of fiction. That sounds pretty good at first, but if you are big fan of humongous epic fantasy novels, it won’t won’t go very far. Take my novel Yseult, for example: since it comes in at over 190,000 words, if it were a Vella, the largest package of tokens wouldn’t even get you to the end. Right now, Vella has only been rolled out for the US, probably as a testing ground.

It’s a testing ground for me as well. I have no idea if this will go anywhere, either for Amazon or myself, but one of the novels I finished during my “year of completion” (more commonly known as the Year of Corona), was Dragon Touched. It’s an experiment to start with, an urban fantasy with steamy romance elements and dragons, coming in at under 50,000 words — a much better length for Vella-style fiction. Another reason that I decided to try the system out with Dragon Touched is that it’s a bit of a departure from my usual historical fantasy and science fiction. I don’t know if that will go anywhere either, but it was worth a try. The description:

Kyla Drake has long been plagued by visions of fantasy creatures. What she doesn’t know is that the creatures are real, a war is about to break out between them — and she is at the center of the conflict …

This is the way it appears on Amazon as of this writing:


Link: https://www.amazon.com/Dragon-Touched-Book-Blood/dp/B099HX59WQ/

If you’re so inclined, check out my first attempt at urban fantasy — three episodes free, remember! And if you want to help me out a bit, a thumbs up would be nice. 🙂

Some notes on my experience for other writers who are also interested in testing the Vella waters:

The description. Amazon officially allows 500 characters for the book description of a Vella, but this is way too much. I started out with about 350 – 400 characters, but when I saw Dragon Touched on the Amazon page after I published the first couple of episodes, the description was cut off before the genre elements were even mentioned. It’s better to aim for something about the length of a tweet. As you can see from the above screenshot, even what I have now is a bit too much.

Formatting. Vella doesn’t allow any fancy formatting, only bold, italics, and underlining. It doesn’t even do tabs or centering. And if you cut and paste from your word processor into the text box, you will lose whatever formatting you have. I didn’t notice that right away, and I had to go back and put the italics back in for the first half-a-dozen episodes I published. It’s also possible to upload a doc or docx file, and I assume that would keep the italics. But who creates individual documents for every chapter of a book they’re working on? I write in Scrivener anyway, and I figured it was easier for me to compare the text box and my file on screen and reinsert the italics rather than exporting individual files for every single chapter.

Publishing. It is rather time consuming to publish chapter by chapter (or episode by episode). But on the other hand, for a Vella there is no need to worry about ebook generation and formatting. I create my ebooks with Vellum, and it typically takes me a couple of hours per book. So all told, publishing with Vellum is probably easier.

Free episodes. I thought at first that I would be able to set the number of episodes that would be free myself, and had planned to make it the first five. As a result, I created what I hoped would be a good cliffhanger at the end of chapter 5. When I started uploading my episodes, however, I saw that with episode 4, I had no option for making it free. As a result, I may end up compressing the first five episodes into three, which I assume means uploading everything again. So for now I’ll leave it as is. I want to get the last book in the Glassmakers Trilogy published first.

So, yet another new publishing adventure in my old age. I’d love to hear what you think in the comments, either about Kindle Vella, or Dragon Time, or urban fantasy, or even old age. 🙂

A New Book (Finally!): Facets of Glass

I am pleased to announce that the second book in the Glassmakers trilogy, Facets of Glass, is now available on most ebook retailers.

Facets of Glass

When Chiara Dragoni learns that her beloved stepsister Minerva has been enchanted by a witch in the service of her enemies, she must leave the safety of Bohemia and return to Venice, where her life is in danger. Will she be able to break the spell without being caught by the Dowager Princess?

Amazon
B&N
Kobo
Apple
Smashwords
Other

For those who prefer to read in hard copy, I have not yet completed the formatting or the wraparound cover for the paperback version, but it should only be a matter of days now.

To celebrate the event, I have lowered the ebook price of the first book in the series, Island of Glass, to 99c (or the equivalent wherever you are on the globe).

Seventeen-year-old Chiara Dragoni is a master glassmaker of Venice, a position that is both a privilege — and a trap. For the glassmakers of Murano are forbidden to ever leave the islands of the Venetian lagoon.

When Chiara’s uncle is caught on the mainland and thrown into the dungeon of the Doge’s Palace, she must use all her talents, including magic, to help free him. But the gift she creates for the prince of Venice has unintended consequences, and now Chiara must decide whether to give up everything — and everyone — she knows and loves in order to save her dream.

Set in an alternate historical Venice with alchemists, witches and magic, the story uses familiar motifs from the beloved fairy tale “Cinderella” to tell a tale with a very different message.

Amazon
B&N
Kobo
Apple
Smashwords
Other

Paperback

If the sale price is not available for you, please let me know in the comments, and I will try to fix it!

I realize I have made readers of the first book in the series wait atrociously long for the second book, and I apologize. But in order to not make the same mistake twice, I wrote the final drafts of books 2 and 3 (Shards of Glass) simultaneously. According to my beta readers, Shards of Glass still needs some work regarding the pacing, but I promise it won’t take anywhere near as long for me to finish as the second book. Shards of Glass should be available by summer at the latest. 🙂

My books on Amazon: http://amzn.to/13yzpZv
My books on iTunes: http://bit.ly/12Ehva0
My books on Barnes & Noble: http://bit.ly/17ONHvK
My books on Kobo: http://bit.ly/Z5g9H3

Note: The Amazon listings contain affiliate links to help me track sales.

The Voice Germany Senior: My granddaughter’s art teacher

We just had a very exciting evening here in our living room in Bad Cannstatt. Since Mira’s mom wanted to watch “Tatort” (a German crime series) like she does every Sunday, the granddaughter came over to watch “The Voice Senior” with us — a new format for singers over 60. And one of the old folks who had made it into a team was her art teacher, also the guy who plays the guitar for her school band.

The coolest art teacher in Germany

Here’s the link to his performance of “Smoke on the Water” (I can’t seem to embed it):

https://www.sat1.de/tv/the-voice-senior/video/13-wolfgang-thunderwolf-schorer-smoke-on-the-water-clip

Of course, the teacher from Mira’s school was the last act of the evening, and she was hopping around all over the place by the time he finally performed. And he made it into the finals. 🙂

Genre Tropes and the Transmissibility of Story

By Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold

Story is not automatically story, especially when dealing with genre and its tropes. Trope can be a rather difficult concept to grasp, seeing as it includes so many different elements in literature. For the purpose of this article, we are using the term “trope” in the sense of a familiar and repeated symbol, meme, theme, motif, style, character or thing that is common in a particular type of literature. Such tropes are closely related to genre. Examples of this kind of trope in horror include the mad scientist or dark and stormy settings. Tropes can also be plot elements, such as the science fiction trope of an alien invasion that is deterred at the last minute.
The transmissibility of story is dependent on an understanding of (and, we would argue, interest in) the themes, motifs, props, and characters of the genre in question, from the wise old wizard of fantasy, to the plucky gal of chicklit, to the foreign planets of science fiction. But literary and mainstream fiction are not free of tropes either: the gut-spilling, angst-ridden, pseudo-autobiographical protagonist is a figure that appears repeatedly and almost exclusively in stories categorized as literary and mainstream.
When familiar tropes are missing or unfamiliar tropes present, this can lead readers to reject a story outright. Within our field, witness the endless skirmishes between the old guard of Silver Age science fiction and the various innovations which have proliferated since the New Wave arrived – in recent times famously exemplified by critic Dave Truesdale’s emphatic rejection of the Karen Joy Fowler story, “What I Didn’t See.” (2002) For readers who find confessional narrative self-indulgent, semi-autobiographical fiction may strike them as dishonest; for readers who prefer their fiction a step away from memoir, anything that cloaks the story in the kind of tropes used in science fiction and fantasy will be too far away from reality for them to be interesting. The transmissibility of story is dependent on an acceptance of those tropes.
We’ve written before about Samuel R. Delany’s concept of reading protocols and what Gardner Dozois calls “the furniture of science fiction.” To simplify, protocols are the experiences and assumptions that a reader brings to a genre work – the shorthand that enables understanding without repeated explication. “Furniture” refers to the signifiers for these protocols – the standard props and elements that characterize a genre. These concepts are closely tied together and work in concert with each other.
For example, a science fiction writer might use the term “FTL.” A reader with even the most modest experience in science fiction will understand this to mean “faster than light,” and most will be conversant with the basics of Einsteinian physics and the implications of supraluminal travel. A reader with no experience in science fiction might well not even be able to parse the acronym. Those who look up the term and find out what it stands for may still lack the theoretical background to understand the implications a regular reader of science fiction will immediately comprehend.
In genre, we have stockpiles of tropes of varying familiarity. These elements serve to enhance the transmissibility of the story. When a writer takes up a standard trope, either to serve in its stock role or to invert it for their own purposes, they are tapping into the traditions and shared referents of their genre.
One thing that distinguishes genre fiction from naturalistic fiction is that these shared tropes are a result of specific, self-selected reading experiences, rather than coming from the normal course of life in the culture where the story is set. Philip Roth doesn’t have to explain the details of Alexander Portnoy’s life, he merely cites them.
Without these tropes and the shared assumptions they signify to serve as lubrication in the machinery of plot, genre stories would be heavily constrained by the need to explain.

What makes a genre story transmissible, which is to say, accessible and meaningful to the reader, is its use of genre tropes. Viewed from that perspective, the tension for the genre writer lies in the balance between the degree of familiarity of the trope and the degree of novelty of the writer’s innovation within the story at hand.
While every genre has tropes, including mainstream and literary, the tropes of science fiction and fantasy are for the most part unconcerned with the emotional dimension of the story. Where character-driven tropes such the epiphany or the emotional framework of marital infidelity are broadly recognized in mainstream and literary fiction, science fiction and fantasy concern themselves first and foremost with the variation between the first world of the reader’s experience and the second world constructed within the story. These are mechanical, technological, magical, even sociopolitical elements – for example, romanticized feudalism in fantasy, or technocracy in science fiction – far more often than they are internal or emotional: plot and setting-driven tropes, rather than character-driven. Even the character-driven tropes our field does embrace at times tend towards the emotionally superficial – clouded succession to power, romanticization of certain roles (the scientist-as-hero), standard archetypes such the Dark Lord Brooding on His Obsidian Throne.
Examples of this distancing effect in genre abound, especially in the earlier history of the field. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (1951) is famously clinical in its approach to characters and their stories, focusing instead on the concept of future history, which was established as a core trope in the field, in large part due to Asimov’s work. Other major works in science fiction where the genre tropes intrude on the emotional experience of the story include Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) and its successor books. The fantastically realized world-building and sociopolitical gymnastics which are the core joy of that book to millions of readers are combined with characters who are either archetypical or lacking depth, depending on how one chooses to view the text. In either case, are not readily viewed as rounded, emotional human beings.
On the other hand, any story strongly felt can use genre tropes to its advantage, creating gut-wrenching emotional experience on the page as effective or more so than some fiction regarded as literary. One of the most famous short stories of post-WWII science fiction is “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin, published by John W. Campbell in Astounding magazine in August, 1954. The emotional impact of this story is so profound, echoing across the decades since, largely because it inverts the scientist-as-hero trope to conform to the stark realities of engineering in a deconstruction of the same classic SF tradition that produced such classics as Foundation.
The transmissibility of story itself is not a function of these emotional transactions, however – with perhaps the exception of such genres as romance, which demand the emotional dimension through their very nature and definition. The intention and realization of story moves from the writer to the reader through the tropes of genre, naturalistic fiction no less than science fiction or fantasy, taking here the word “genre” in its looser sense of meaning. Even naturalistic fiction has its tropes: coming-of-age plots, familiar setting, and firm grounding in a recognizable cultural context. Story happens in the context of the shared expectations of writer and reader, and the controlled management (or violation) of those expectations during the course of the narrative.

The themes of genres vary widely as well. The story of epiphany, for example, is a strong thread in twentieth century naturalistic fiction, beginning with James Joyce’s classic The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and continuing with various related forms of self-revelatory and semi-autobiographical fiction such as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963). In this tradition we could also count the consciousness-raising novels of the women’s liberation movement in the seventies, such as Marge Piercy’s Small Changes (1972) and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (1978). Of course, only a small percentage of mainstream and literary fiction is fictional self-examination of this sort, but it is interesting to note that this particular impulse is almost non-existent in science fiction and fantasy.
Our genre has not in general been so concerned with emotionally revelatory writing, certainly not autobiographical or semi-autobiographical revelation. There is a thread of stories built on a strong emotional dimension – novels such as John Crowley’s Little, Big (1981), for example, Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn (1968), or short stories such as David Levine’s “The Tale of the Golden Eagle” (2003), but more often than not the genre-related tropes seem to be more important than the emotional underpinnings.
This is not to say that the emotional structure of speculative fiction is suppressed, only that it serves the foreground concerns of genre. Often, the emotional transaction seems to come along for the ride rather than serving as the core driver of the story. Due to the primary payout of the genre experience – the exploration of the second world developed by the author, with the attendant thrill of discovery and sensawunda – few stories in science fiction and fantasy are written to be epiphanic or emotionally revelatory. Rather, they address some aspect of the tropes of the genre, using emotion as an optional tool to reach their point. Many of the strongest examples of the genre, however, do go the extra step and explore the emotional dimension of their subject.
It is interesting to note that a number of genre novels with a greater emotional underpinning appeared during and after the New Wave, when many of the elements of literary fiction were adopted by science fiction and fantasy writers. Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) stands out in this regard, as do the novels mentioned previously such as Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn.
By the same token, when literary writers adopt science fictional language, while still employing their core emotional tropes, the result is often oddly unsatisfying to genre readers. Kirstin Bakis’ Lives of the Monster Dogs (1997), Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003), and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow (1996) are examples of this trend. Reading them with genre expectations impedes the transmissibility of story because the tropes are misaligned. An experienced genre reader has expectations of genetic engineering, time travel and interstellar travel stories which can impede the enjoyment of such works. Excellent as these books are, genre trope expectations are not met in them.
The story is transmitted to the reader at least in part because of the tropes. Some are emotional, some are external. The transmissibility of story is both enabled and restricted by the tropes of the genre within which the story – and the reader – are functioning.

This article was originally published in the Internet Review of Science Fiction (IROSF) in February 2007. I have made slight editing changes and updated the links.

Works Referenced

Asimov, Isaac. Foundation. New York: Gnome Press Publishers, 1951.
Bakis, Kirstin. Lives of the Monster Dogs. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1997.
Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. New York: The Viking Press, 1968.
Crowley, John. Little, Big. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.
French, Marilyn. The Women’s Room. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
Fowler, Karen Joy. “What I Didn’t See.” SCI FICTION, July, 2002.
Godwin, Tom. “The Cold Equations.” Astounding, August, 1954.
Herbert, Frank. Dune. Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1965.
Joyce, James. The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1916.
LeGuin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Walker and Company, 1969.
Levine, David. “The Tale of the Golden Eagle.” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June, 2003.
Niffenegger, Audrey. The Time Traveler’s Wife. San Francisco, CA: MacAdam, Cage, 2003.
Piercy, Marge. Small Changes. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1972.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. (1963) New York: Bantam, 1972.
Roth, Philip. Portnoy’s Complaint. New York: Random House, 1969.
Russell, Mary Doria. The Sparrow. New York: Villard Books / Random House, 1996.

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