Skip to content

Author: Sandy

Thunderdome Rules: How to Judge Flash Fiction Competitions Quickly

In 2012, I joined a flash fiction competition on the SomethingAwful forums. I also joined the next week, and the week after, and I came to realise in February that Thunderdome has been running for almost 8 years. This week was Thunderdome #400. Our weird little writing weekly writing competition has got people into grad programs, dream jobs, got people publishing deals with Big 5 Publishing Houses; The Dawnhounds started in a Thunderdome side group; the Discord channels spun off it house a terrifying array of Serious Authors who I know started out writing flash fiction about sentient farts on SomethingAwful.

Each week, Thunderdome has three judges. The head judge is the previous week’s winner, and the other two are people they’ve shoulder-tapped to help out. In eight years of Thunderdome, I’ve never seen less than 3 judges. It might’ve happened in a week I took off, but it’s extremely unusual and it takes a lot of coordination. 

One thing about judging Thunderdome is that you’ve got to read anywhere from 5000 to 200,000 words in about 48 hours and pick a winner. You’ve gotta do that with three people, often in different timezones. Since I’m one of the original members and I’ve won a lot, I’ve spent a lot of time in the judge’s seat, and at some point over the years I came up with a simple scoring system to help process a lot of different pieces of fiction in a very short space of time. 

I’m going to be using a specific example I ran, week #268: NEEEEEEEEERDS. It had 24 entrants, together writing almost 40,000 words. We got the results out in about 18 hours.  

The system looks like this: 

  1. Count the number of entrants, which we’ll call n
  2. Each judge must rank the stories 1-n
  3. An individual judge’s fifth-best story gets 5 points, their 20th-best story gets 20 points. 
  4. Add up all judges’ totals for each story 
  5. Divide by 3, get a final score for each story 
  6. One final round of checks: are all judges happy with the winner winning? Spot-adjustment based on discussion. 

It’s like golf: the story with the lowest points in the winner. It’s best with 3 judges, though it’s workable with 2–5. You’re trying to spread it out without creating a massive amount of work for yourself. 

It’s a bit mechanical on the face of it, but the fact that the judges are basically just preference ranking means there’s a lot of space for the art-ness of things to shine through. Your judges are following their hearts, and then you’re taking that in a structured way and outputting a number that lets you figure out exactly how everybody is feeling. 

If you’ve got weeks and months to turn the competition around, I wouldn’t use it as more than a neat little guide. If this thing needs to be out tomorrow, it can be a lifesaver. I brewed it up to hit TD’s aggressive deadlines, but as my career has thrown me to the four corners, I’ve taken it with me to other competitions and it’s proven an incredibly useful tool.

Even if you don’t follow the numbers purely, it’s great for getting your head in the right space, for figuring out which stories nobody really clicked with and helping to surface the ones everybody loved but nobody brought up in discussion, for having it clearly laid out in a way that helps everybody quickly and easily lock down the likely candidates.

It’s yours now. Use it wisely.

Writer Advice #0: Embrace your Bullshit

The first draft of The Dawnhounds came from a group called WAD. It was 2013, and Brandon Sanderson was releasing a weekly video of his creative writing lecture at BYU, through a channel called Write About Dragons, or WAD. Every week, we’d watch a new Sanderson video on Youtube, discuss it in a video chat, then we’d crit somebody’s latest chapter. 

If you’ve never run into Sanderson before, there’s two important things to note:

  1. He’s famously prolific
  2. He fucking loves rules

Which I don’t mean in a negative way: Sanderson has a rule for everything, and I think it’s a big part of how he writes so effectively—when he comes to build a house, the scaffolding comes pre-installed. Probably the most famous are his rules of magic, which I’ve seen bizarrely applied to everything from Bitcoin to 100 Years of Solitude.

The entire first draft of The Dawnhounds followed Sanderson’s methodology to a tee. I tried to write like him structurally, and I tried to write like him aesthetically. It was awful. It was a stiff, lifeless draft. It sat doing nothing in my drive for 4 years before I decided to try draft 2, and it ended up being an almost-total rewrite. 

To be clear, this isn’t a criticism of Sanderson: he writes good books, and his methods clearly work for him. They catastrophically didn’t work for me. I wrote a book like Brandon Sanderson would’ve written it, but I’m not him, and it came across like a teenager attending a job interview in his big brother’s ill-fitting suit. 

A big part of why it didn’t work is because I scrubbed a lot of the things I loved, but felt self-conscious about, and that didn’t fit within the structure. There were no revenants, no circuit magic, no mushrooms, no LGBT people, no fight against fascism. It’s not unrecogniseable from the finished manuscript: there was a port city loosely based on Singapore, and a plague; there was a young cop racing against time to stop it; there was a vaguely Ottoman pirate captain called Sibyl Sibbi. The things in it were the things that I thought were marketable, were standard, were expected of fantasy. I was obsessed with the idea of making a Good Fantasy Book, based on what everybody else was making. It didn’t work. 

In 2015, I became obsessed with Dan Harmon’s story embryo. I’m a huge Community fan, on a level where I’ll defend season 6 to the death. Harmon’s essay was invigorating—it took the Hero with a Thousand Faces and animated it for me, for the first time in my life. I was raised on Save the Cat, and somebody daring to ask why we care about these stories blew my fucking mind. For a solid 18 months, every single thing I wrote followed Harmon’s embryo. It followed it on a macro level, but also within scenes, within individual interactions, every fucking place I could fit it. I was trying to crack the mathematically perfect story. It’s bullshit in hindsight, but it made sense at the time. I ended up in the same place I’d ended up with Sanderson: I love the guy who wrote this, but I’m writing generic shit that anybody could write

At some point in early 2018, I sat down with that first draft of The Dawnhounds. I hated it, but I liked the cop. She was the Straight Man to her husband, a police morgue technician. They were the first people to find an infected body, and they had fun banter. They’re the reason the draft was called, within WAD, “the ass mushroom book”. I tossed aside Sanderson’s rules, and I tossed aside the idea of writing to market. Instead, I wrote about the shit that I love: I love mycology, and I love old sailing ships. My dad’s an electrical engineer and he taught me circuitry from a young age, and I still love electrical systems. I love language, and the way it shapes our culture and our world. I love cosmic horrors. I love stories about LGBT+ people, and particularly stories that would’ve helped me as a teenager—stories about shooting stars burning their way right out of the night. 

My relationship with the cops also changed: I came out in 2015, and I got closer to the community, and I heard horror stories from my new friends. I grew up white and upper middle-class and extremely straight-passing, and the cops had always been good to me. I’d written a book where two nice bantery cops … solve a crime and their bosses shake their hands and everybody gets a medal and their city loves them. It was a safe story, and one that wouldn’t generate any major backlash, but I couldn’t tell it any more. 

I made the cop queer, and I made the department ugly and crooked and homophobic. I made the city a mushroom city. I added a magic system basic on circuitry. I spent too long on a conlang. I wrote a cosmic horror based on my own experiences with depression and suicide; a big ole’ wail of despair and fog and baffelement who lives in the emptiest place in existence. I wrote about opera and I wrote about the strings section and I wrote a whole lot about old sailboats. After years of trying to write somebody else’s story, I just took all my favourite ingredients and I made gumbo. 

It worked. 

I sat down with the final draft and I realised—after ten years and half a dozen scrapped attempts—that I’d written my debut novel. I didn’t follow Sanderson’s rules. It didn’t follow Harmon’s embryo. It didn’t have any marketable elements. Readers loved it. 

I’m not going to pretend I’m a superstar author, but I sat down with a fellow writer a few weeks and I asked: “am I a cult author?” and she grinned and said “fuck yeah”. This thing is selling; we’ve only got one box left from the second print run. It’s getting great reviews. It’s a contender to win the SJV for Best Novel at WorldCon 78. In an event that still baffles me, Tamsyn Muir read it without me or my agent sending it to her, and told me she loved it. I trust her judgement better than my own, so I guess I wrote a good fuckin’ book. I broke every rule I’d taught myself in the last ten years, and I wrote the best thing I’ve ever written. 

Don’t get too attached to somebody else’s structure or aesthetics. Your worst enemy is the voice that says “stories don’t work like that!”, who says that something you care about is something readers won’t. Be unashamed of your story, because that’s the only way it can be your story. 

In short: Love your bullshit.

It is uniquely, powerfully yours.

That’s Not a Plot Hole: Birds of Prey and internal consistency

I’ve mostly avoided the Birds of Prey discourse, because it seems like a magnet for the sort of exhausting dude with Comics Opinions who my life is blessedly free of these days. I also haven’t read the source material, so line up to shout about that if you wanna. I am going in mostly blind, but I got back from Birds of Prey and I think it’s a great illustration of two storytelling principles that the internet (and the CinemaSins nitpick crowd in particular) critically fails to understand. 

External consistency is when a text aligns with our real world. Almost every text has some: we see a baseball bat and we know that it hurts to get hit with, regardless of whether the world of the text has set it up. We see Harley ordering a bacon and egg breakfast sandwich and the camera lingers on the bacon and we know shit, bacon sure does smell good after a rough night. The bacon in the world of Birds of Prey could taste like rotten fish, but unless otherwise stated—because, by default, we assume a text to be externally consistent—we treat it as tasting like bacon. 

Internal consistency is when a text aligns with itself. Dragons don’t exist, but when one shows up in Game of Thrones you don’t complain about it being unrealistic because it’s an established and expected deviance from the real world. If a dragon showed up in Pride and Prejudice, you might have issues, because Pride and Prejudice hasn’t established itself as a text where that sort of thing happens. 

Failure to understand these terms was rife in the discourse around the later seasons of Game of Thrones: “why do you care that they can teleport from one end of the country to another, there’s an ice zombie horde!” Because an ice zombie horde is internally consistent with the setting, but we’ve been given no reason for dudes moving so fast it’s basically teleportation. Worse, earlier seasons worked hard to establish that those sort of movements took a huge amount of time and effort, so the sudden jump runs directly against the established facts of the setting. 

Lack of understanding here also leads to people shouting about plot holes where no plot hole exists. It’s an approach to film where everything must adhere strictly to the rules of our own world or otherwise it’s considered defective.

Which brings us back to Birds of Prey. Which I loved.  It’s gorgeous, it’s well-acted, it’s funny as hell, it’s easily the most enjoyable a DC movie has been in years. It’s not perfect (a few weird continuity errors stuck in my craw) but I had a great time with it and I’ll definitely be giving it a rewatch when it shows up on streaming. Very early on in Birds of Prey, they establish a rule: gravity is about 70% earth normal. This is never stated, but people jump higher, people seem less tethered to the ground, when somebody gets hit they go flying in a really satisfyingly kinetic way. It would be very easy to CinemaSins that, and do it constantly: *DING* GRAVITY DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY *DING*. But that’s the secret, in here, it does. And it does consistently. Everybody who goes flying in Birds of Prey (and a lot of people go flying) does so with the same regard for the world’s internally consistent gravity. 

Birds of Prey also establishes early that people are tougher than in the real world, and can take hits that would absolutely kill a normal person. This is par for the course in superhero movies, but it’s really obvious here—a lot of heads slam into walls or floors at a velocity that would shatter skulls and spines, and they’re totally fine and get up and keep fighting. 

The world of Birds of Prey is vaguely ridiculous and hyperreal—a man tries to kill Harley with a giant rubber-band ball filled with fireworks, there’s an extended fight on trampolines, a teenage girl swallows a huge diamond without coughing up blood and dying. At one point, Harley puts a lighter under a dude’s beard and his whole head instantly catches fire. As a bearded dude who used to chain smoke, I can confirm: if beards worked that way, I’d have been fucking dead years ago. But it doesn’t feel unreal, because all of the other shit. If Harley’s assassin is going to try to kill her a giant rubber band ball in a slingshot on the back of his pickup, then sure, a dude’s beard can go up in flames like it’s soaked in kerosene. I can’t believe either of those things, but I can believe both of them, because together they start to create an internal consistency

When Wile E Coyote gets an anvil dropped on his head and then springs up and plays concertina music, you don’t stand up and say “that wouldn’t happen! That coyote is surely dead! And where would a road runner get access to an anvil anyway? He cannot fill out the proper paperwork!” because the world of Wile E Coyote and Roadrunner establishes clear rules about where it breaks from reality and those are some of them. Keep in mind, Wile E Coyote and Road Runner remains externally consistent in a lot of regards: if you see a cactus, you know it’s pointy; if you see an anvil, you know it’s heavy; if you see dynamite, you know it goes boom. It wouldn’t work without these references to the real world. As ridiculous as it sounds, it’s realistic in a lot of regards and it wouldn’t work if it wasn’t—there would be no tension or point to watching Wile E Coyote eat a hot dog with a stick of dynamite in it if we didn’t know what dynamite did. It is not entirely unreal, it just has multiple structured breaks from reality, which are applied consistently within the text

Imagine if Birds of Prey were shot and edited like Man of Steel. Lots of grey, everything hyperrealistic-but-with-superheroes, all 9/11 symbolism and serious men gurning at the camera. Imagine if BoP were that movie, and then Harley held a lighter up to a dude’s beard and his whole fucking head instantly caught fire. That would be terrible, because it’s not internally consistent, but in Birds of Prey it lands because Harley’s world is just like that, and is like that consistently. 

Wonder Woman had an interesting version of this problem, and I think it’s because it happened during the Grim and Gritty DCEU era but it wasn’t that sort of movie at its heart. In the church scene in Wonder Woman, gravity works a lot like it does in Birds of Prey, but it comes out of nowhere and it feels like they’re hurling action figures around. It’s weightless and toothless. It’s such a weird break in the rules that it knocked me right out of the movie. If the upcoming Wonder Woman 1984 does the exact same thing—based on what the marketing says about its tone and world—it’ll be much less of an issue, because WW84 exists in a hyperreal world, more in-line with Birds of Prey. Its aesthetic creates a set of expectations about its internal consistency—it’s more comic-y, it’s less serious, it’s a place where a kick can send a man flying through a brick wall like it’s made of styrofoam.

In the world of Birds of Prey, Harley can rampage through a police station with a bean bag gun/grenade launcher hybrid, disable dozens of officers, and somehow cause 0 casualties. A cop gets hit with a bean bag and the impact smashes him into a filing cabinet behind him; his head snaps back fast enough that it almost certainly broke his neck. He is fine, and it’s not a problem for the movie that he’s fine, because everybody in this movie can take the same amount of damage before suffering serious injury, and that amount is a fuckload

External consistency is passive. It’s the “unless otherwise stated”. We assume Harley’s bacon and egg sandwich tastes like that same sandwich from the real world, because nothing about the film indicates otherwise. We assume when she hits somebody with a baseball bat that it’s going to hurt them, rather than make them feel loved and comfortable. External consistency is a program running in the background that you never really notice, but it keeps everything from burning down.

Internal consistency is active. In film, it’s a product of the editing and the acting and the costume design and the script and every one of the million little things that come together to make a text. It’s a system of structured, intentional breaks from reality that let the story work like it needs to. 

Our storytelling discourse is worse because we don’t understand this. We’ve created a conversation around texts where any break from reality is a PLOT HOLE. I am sympathetic towards Patrick Willems when he says SHUT UP ABOUT PLOT HOLES—I think part of the reason we got there is because people don’t understand internal consistency, and assume any instance of it is a plot hole, and therefore bad. If we follow through on that in our films—if we are terrified to make anything that isn’t internally consistent—what’s left? 

Fucking mumblecore, that’s what. 

Which has its place in the film landscape, but if we follow our path to its endpoint, it’s just all mumblecore all the time, and I can’t help but think that’s a film landscape that is more grey, less fun, less able to delight and surprise. Mumblecore’s a nice break if you’re feeling quiet and introspective, but if the PLOT HOLE shouters online get their way, it’s all we’ve got left and I can’t help but feel that’s not what any of them want. 

tl;dr for the CinemaSins crowd: it doesn’t matter whether something isn’t realistic, so long as it’s unrealistic in a consistent manner.  OR: shut up, that’s not a plot hole.

p.s . Mary Elizabeth Winstead needs more comedy roles because goddam that mirror scene had me in stitches. It’s like Dave Bautista’s turn as Drax smashed into Leslie Nielsen. She has such pure, sincere Comic Straight Man energy, but she also knows exactly what she’s doing and it’s wonderful. Please give that woman more work.

edit 06/04/20: this post has been incredibly popular and seems to resurface every few weeks when some big name RTs it so uh … I wrote a novel called The Dawnhounds, it came out last year, it’s probably going to win some awards. It’s about a disgraced ex-cop racing against time to stop a plague from tearing her city to pieces. Tamsyn Muir called it “a wonderful queer noir fever dream”. You can buy it (or read it free on Kindle Unlimited) by following this link here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07YSBKKGG.



Computers Are Not Your Friends: the Iowa Caucus, the Shadow App, and the End of Faith

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said AI could be racist, it almost burned down the internet. Smug dudes in baseball caps were hooting and hollering and falling over themselves to laugh at the ridiculous idea that a computer system could hold human values. AOC was right. It’s one of the predominant issues in AI right now—an artificial intelligence is built from human datasets, and the selection of those datasets is done by a human, and that means there’s a chance to program human biases into an AI. 

In 2018, researchers at MIT created a “psychopath AI” called Norman, named after Norman Bates. They exclusively fed Norman horrifying data: car crashes, dead bodies, mutilation and destruction. Norman came out fucked up. Not everything is as dramatic as turning an AI into a serial killer, but we’re seeing similar issues everywhere: facial recognition cameras—predominantly trained on datasets of white men—continue to not recognise black women. There’s something we need to acknowledge if we’re going to have healthy democracies: technology is not impartial. It is made by people and used by people, and it is as capable of bias as those same people. 

We’re currently seeing this at the disastrous Iowa Caucus—the Shadow App that delivered miscounts was made by a secretive company that took funding from Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Pete Buttigieg, and a number of its staff are former Hillary staffers. In one particular caucus, Shadow took Bernie Sanders’ 116 votes, compared them to Buttigieg’s 73 votes, and came out with the same number of delegates. There’s not enough there to say it was intentional, but there’s more than enough to spur conspiracy theories, to destabilise trust in our institutions—to make millions of people around the world shrug and say “eh, fuck it, what’s the point?” and never show up to vote. 

I don’t think the Shadow team called a Ratfucking Meeting and drew out plans to Ratfuck Bernie; I think the Shadow team worked through unconscious biases that would level out the playing field, because their guy is a frontrunner but not the frontrunner, and wanted to see their guy win. Because they’re people, and people have biases, and the machines they make often carry those biases, even when they don’t know they’re doing it. 

We tilt towards people we like. Hell, I’m doing it right now: I like Bernie, and I’ve sat down and tried to be professional and make sure everything in this article is as objective as possible, but extricating the self is hard. I think I’ve succeeded, but if the internet has got a surplus of anything, it’s folks who are ready to loudly disagree. The least I can do is say: I’m a leftist, and that probably changes the data I give you, whether I know I’m doing it or not.  

Maybe somebody on the Shadow team did fuck up, honestly, without bias. That’s where the tech world seems to be leaning on this whole circus. Shadow tried to do a very complex job using limited funding and an extremely short timeframe (two months and $60,000 is nothing in Silicon Valley terms, especially to find a solution to electronic-fucking-voting), and they may well have just dropped the ball. If you want a fun experiment, bring up electronic voting with a group of policymakers, then with a group of engineers. The general consensus from techies is that we’re just not there yet and we can’t guarantee safe or reliable systems, but politicians all over the world are rushing to implement it anyway. The issues with Shadow seem pretty clear-cut, but it’s based on a relatively small dataset, and they might’ve just not considered that. They just didn’t scale their tool correctly, and God knows it wouldn’t be the first time a startup failed to scale down effectively. We wind up with the same problem: we trust our tech too much. We trust it like it’s a fortress and not a matchstick palisade. 

In the UK, a group with strong ties to the LibDems launched a ‘tactical voting site’ that leant heavily LibDem, recommending them as the tactical vote even in strong Labour constituencies. GetVoting claimed impartiality, claimed to be just the data, but it ended up making wildly misleading claims during one of the most crucial elections in recent history. In the end, the Libdems split votes across the UK. Did GetVoting do it on purpose? I think there’s a stronger case there than with Shadow: the results are further from reality, the funding links are tighter. It doesn’t matter: in the end, nobody won.

We often talk about datasets and AIs and applications as though they spring into existence fully-formed from cracks in the earth; we live in an age of perfect miracles, and we trust them with our lives. 

That trust is killing us. 

Sometimes it’s malice, sometimes it’s incompetence, sometimes it’s something more gentle and strange and human that’s hard to put a name to. The end result is the same. Technology can be liberating and empowering, but that same power is dangerous if mishandled, and right now we’re a bunch of drivers who refuse to admit that we’ve blown a tyre; refuse to admit that it’s possible for tyres to blow; drivers who are careening down State Highway 1 with our dicks in our hands screaming that our car can drive all the way to heaven.  

How to Pick the Right Comp Titles (for Science-Fiction and Fantasy)

For many of us, comp titles are one of the hardest parts of pitching. You’re trying to find titles that:

  1. Match aesthetically with your MS
  2. Match thematically with your MS
  3. Are popular enough that the agent has heard of them 
  4. Aren’t so popular that you look like you don’t know what you’re doing 

And that’s hard. So I’m going to break this down into two parts: 

  • The Great List of Swamps, wherein I go through all the things you shouldn’t do with comp titles. 
  • The Little List of Lights, where I talk about the rationale behind making good comp choices. 

But before we begin, the most important thing to remember: 

Rule #0: any rule mentioned in this article may be broken, but breaking it must be motivated. If you’re going to break a rule, ask why, and if there isn’t a better choice that doesn’t break it. I want you to imagine yourself defending your position to me, and see whether you still feel okay with your pick at the end. 

Rule #0 Corollary: you have 2 comp titles. You may freely break the rules on one of them, but may god help you if you break them on both. 

The Great List of Swamps

This list is in descending order, from the gravest sins to the most minor. The closer to the top something is, the more you need to check in with Rule #0. Numbers 1 and 2 are the gravest sins, only to be broken in times of emergency; everything else is to be used with discretion. 

#1: Popular Nerd Franchises 

This is easily the most common sin; pitch parties and submission inboxes are lousy with these. If you pick something super popular that everybody knows, then you’re not actually giving much information about your title, because everybody else is picking it, and picking it for different reasons. “This is about teenage wizards” = Harry Potter, “this is set in a magic school” = Harry Potter, “this has an allegory for fascism” = Harry Potter, “the author initially seems progressive but is actually a massive TERF dipshit” = Harry Potter etc etc. 

What counts as a popular nerd franchise? Well if you have to ask “is x a popular nerd franchise” then the answer is probably yes, but here’s an incomplete list of the worst offenders: 

  • Harry Potter
  • Game of Thrones
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • Doctor Who 
  • Marvel/DC
  • Sherlock
  • Supernatural
  • Anything with “Joss Whedon” within 100 feet of it 

There are exceptions to this: if you’re hugely into the X-Men and think some specific arc or writer’s take on a character really does reflect something thematically and aesthetically about your title, then it’s worth a shot pitching that at certain agents—Connor Goldsmith, for example, is a huge X-Men fan and will probably know what you’re talking about. ORIGIN: THE TRUE STORY OF WOLVERINE = acceptable rule break here, but just X-MEN is too big and too broad, and is pretty much meaningless. 

#2: Video Games, Movies, and TV

I love video games. Love ‘em too much, probably. The number of Steam games I have with four-digit playtimes is quite frankly embarrassing. I expect somebody is going to call me a snob and say I hate these mediums because I’m some awful book dude, but it’s not that at all. 

I don’t expect anybody to read books. It’s 2020, I’ve seen the stats. Many of the smartest people I know barely read novels any more, and that’s fine. BUT, if you want to write books, you’re expected to read them. And if your comp titles aren’t books, then it looks like you don’t read enough. You’re less likely to recognise literary cliche or know how to produce good prose, and you’re just generally less likely to understand the medium you’re working in. It’s like rocking up to a ska band and saying “Hand me that trombone, my dude in checkered Chucks; I can paint the fuck outta fruit.” The issue isn’t that you’re a bad artist or an invalid artist, it’s that you’re in the wrong fucking room.

Especially if there’s a novel that’s a better comp, seeing this makes me think you just don’t know books. 

#3: Any books that got a major TV or movie adaptation  

Same as above, except it can kinda come off like you’re trying to stealth it, like you’re the kid who watched the movie before giving his book report. 

#4: Comics

This gets its own section, because it tends to be less problematic than the other mediums—there’s more crossover in skills required, and a lot of literary folks are huge comic nerds (see: Connor Goldsmith—one of the best agents in the business—talking about X-Men for 90 minutes and barely slowing down). Still, comics work differently: the addition of images totally changes the way stories are told, and folks coming at you from solely comics are often super strong in some areas but struggle in other core competencies.

It’s that same thing as games/movies/tv: if a novel comp exists, using a non-novel comp makes me wonder whether you’re reading enough. Comics are definitely a lesser sin, but they can trigger a little alarm. If I see a solid comics comp, my gut says “great dialogue and plotting, workmanlike prose”. There are worse things for a publisher’s gut to say, but it’s important to be aware of. Use comic comps in moderation, but make sure there’s at least one prose fiction comp.

#5: Nonfiction

Controversial one here, and further down the list for good reason. Honestly, I really like seeing a nonfiction comp: it tells me you read widely and you’ve done research. Nothing is a worse morass of cliches than SFF by somebody who only reads SFF, and nonfiction prose is often just as lively as fiction. Still, two nonfiction (and no fiction) is troubling, and raises the same question: do you read this genre? Do you know what people are doing? Or are you just some snobby boomer dude rolling in trying to fix a genre he barely understands? This gets its own special rule: absolutely use nonfiction, but make sure the other comp is SF/F.

#6: Shit the Agent hasn’t heard of 

And here’s your devil’s choice: too popular (like Harry Potter) and you’re dead meat. Not popular enough, and the agent will shrug and pass on. I’ll say this though: agents tend to read a lot of books and know the industry, and it’s much harder to go too small than go too big. If it got a deal with a US or UK publishing house, they’ve probably heard of it; by the standards of obscurity, Perdido Street Station or Ambergris or whatever you’ve earmarked as something weird they don’t know is fuckin Justin Bieber.

Also, they’re more likely to have read in their genre: every SF/F agent has read Gideon the Ninth at this point, but I can’t guarantee they’ll have read Killers of the Flower Moon. They don’t need to have read it (just be aware of it), but you take a bigger risk if you step outside their genre. 

#7: Anything Old

Right now the bottom, and can work in your favour if you pick the right titles, but still worth talking about. If you pitch me with THE NIGHT LANDS X THE MUSIC OF ERICH ZANN I’m going to think a lot better of you than the millionth HARRY POTTER X FIREFLY guy, but I might wonder whether you’re aware of the modern market and how it has changed. SF/F doesn’t look or read anything like it did as little as 20 years ago, and while throwbacks have their place, we got rid of some stuff for a reason—the trends that lasted tend to be the ones that sold as well today as they did in the 70s, and the ones that didn’t have been rightfully left in the dustbin. 

There’s a reason this is down the bottom of the swampy list: it can be a problem, but it doesn’t have to be. Like comics and nonfiction, I love seeing that you’ve read older texts, I just want evidence that you don’t only read older texts

The Little List of Lights

#1: You are looking for aesthetic matches. The Dawnhounds has a kinda fungal dieselpunk/1910s/Southeast Asian vibe that I didn’t think existed in a lot of places, but beta readers compared it a lot to Ambergris, Leviathan, and Borne—’biopunk’ wasn’t quite right since that tends to lean more towards sci-fi like The Windup Girl, but the mushroom-y-ness seems to be what a lot of readers picked up on and I came to realise it was a major draw, and what a lot of people took away. 

#2: You are looking for thematic matches. The Dawnhounds is about queer found family coming together to fight back against colonialism, and about hope in the face of absolute darkness, also the universally-acknowledged fact that all cops are bastards. That was harder, especially at the time*. Hope is pretty universal, but I admit I hit a wall looking for the others. I went away and caught up on my reading list, and, well, see what I ended up going with. 

(*I sort of regret that I stopped pitching in August, because in September Gideon the Ninth came out and blew down the walls and we’re all still trying to figure out what the fuck to do about it. It’s dark but it’s also funny, it’s about queer people but it refuses to let them die pretty, it’s about staring down the void and managing to eke out a draw. It is also—and this was a problem during pitching, because Americans told me it would never sell—unapologetically Kiwi at times in its prose. Now that Gideon has made it to the New York Times while including the line “absolutely chocka with ghosts” intact, maybe there’s room for a bit more Kiwi-ness in SF/F. But that’s neither here nor there—it’s just something I’m gonna have to die mad about. Gideon was a perfect thematic comp title for The Dawnhounds and it came out like two weeks too late.)

#3: you want to show that you actually read SF/F. A lot of my early pitches using eXistenZ and other Cronenberg titles as comps, and I think they did more harm than good. They weren’t accurate enough to justify stepping outside of prose fiction. I wanted to get across the malleability of bodies and the genemod stuff, but something like Lilith’s Brood would’ve both been more accurate and also better-illustrated where I was coming from. 

For The Dawnhounds, I ended up going with: THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT X BORNE

Putting It All Together

“So what do good comp picks look like, smartass?” 

I’m glad you asked. The following books don’t exist, I’m just sorta riffing, but here’s the sort of comps that might stand out at a pitch party. 

Murder, romance and intrigue at a school for teenage necromancers. GIDEON THE NINTH X WITCHMARK

A witch journeys over a beautiful and broken land, to save a son who doesn’t deserve it. FIFTH SEASON X SHADOW OF THE TORTURER  

A traumatised WW1 veteran must hunt down his ex-boyfriend, now a vampire, through the streets of 1920s Paris. AMBERLOUGH X THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY

And here are the sort of comps that will be totally ignored:

In the far future, a man must save the universe from aliens. FIREFLY X ALIENS

A Brave Knight Must Fight Against Zombies. AMC’S THE WALKING DEAD X THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF FIVE ARMIES 

Good Wizards on dragons fight against Bad Wizards on dragons for the fate of the world. HARRY POTTER X GAME OF THRONES

April 18th 2022 UPDATE

In early 2020, the title I was trying to sell when I wrote this post got picked up by Saga Press for a June 2022 release, and you can preorder it here. Some nice things people have said:

“A wonderful queer noir fever dream.”—Tamsyn Muir, internationally bestselling author of Gideon the Ninth

“Fiercely queer. A strange and wondrous re-imagining of noir that takes its cues from biopunk and SE Asian mythos to create something wholly different. There’s real imagination at work here—I loved it.”—Rebecca Roanhorse, New York Times bestselling author of Trail of Lightning and Black Sun

The Dawnhounds roots in the mind like a night garden, vital and voracious. I can’t get it out of my head.”—Amal El-Mohtar, coauthor of This Is How You Lose the Time War

The Dawnhounds packs hard-hitting, mind-bending weirdness into a story that’s still touching and human. If you’re looking for gritty queer spec fic that isn’t unrelentingly grim, you’ve found it.”—Casey Lucas, award-winning author of Into the Mire

MY DEBUT NOVEL IS OUT: The Dawnhounds

I can’t believe I forgot to put this on the blog. I got a bit swept up in all the madness of it, but my debut novel The Dawnhounds came out in November 2019 and it’s … actually selling. I’m still a little bit speechless. I expected it to just drop off the world, but—much like its protagonist—it refuses to die pretty.

I’ve written about it (and Gideon the Ninth, and others) for The Spinoff, and there’s an upcoming review in Landfall for y’all to look forward to. If you’re in NZ, you can order it much cheaper and faster from Unity or Arty Bees, but Amazon is available for international readers.

Readers have described as “Ankh Morpork meets Ambergris”, “Disco Elysium meets Ambergris”, and I must assume “Ambergris meets Ambergris” because there’s only one definitive weird beautiful myco-fantasy right now, but fingers crossed I’m about to change that.

A dying world, an eldritch alien consciousness, a conspiracy in the highest houses, and one mediocre cop right in the damned middle.

It’s going to be a long night.

The Big/Ancient/Deep

My mate’s Charlie’s dad grows truffles and magic mushies out in the Moutere. He’s a tall guy, big-boned but skinny: got a head shaped like a tissue box. Charlie looks like his old man, but writ small—he’s got that flick of delicacy about him. Anyway, there’s an old place out on his block that we used to smoke weed in. Now most places like that are covered in graffiti, filled with rigs and dirty undies, but this place was fucking pristine. A perfect 20s farmhouse, preserved in amber, not even rust on the kettle. 

One time, me and Charlie are blazing up and we hear—I swear to fucking god mate—jazz. Coming from inside the house. It was maybe 9pm, middle of summer, sun still refusing to quite-go-down, and somebody was playing live jazz and we were high as shit so we sat and enjoyed it. It was real emotional stuff. You ever get that thing when you’re high, when the music manifests itself? Like it’s hanging in the air, and you could reach out and touch it. This was like that, but with fish hooks. I touched it and felt the tug and I started shouting, and Charlie started shouting, and we stumbled the fuck out of there. Got a bunch of cuts all over my arms that I don’t remember getting; I just remember moving through the trees, sweating bullets, knowing the music wanted me to follow and I did not want to follow.  

Went back in the light of day and the basement hatch was open, yawing madly, pitching down into darkness. Never even knew the place had a basement. I stood at the top of the stairs, bleary-eyed but stone sober, and felt fish-hooks in my blood. 

Charlie died last year. Took some bad Russian synthetic, started talking about the hole in the world, about the way wind sounds when it gets pulled down, then he went real still and he didn’t ever get un-still. Somewhere on the wind, I swore I heard jazz, and tasted amber. 

Poetry August 30th 2019

Really it’s more of a ramp

Every day I walk down the same steps as Katherine Mansfield; 
the asphalt zigzag where the fennel grows wild or 
I did until I realised I could shave five minutes off my commute
by going through the carpark, behind the skips.
My mother was born here, when the fennel still grew. 
She read me Mansfield when I was too young, and
could not understand. I know better than to reference better poets; 
you call their name, you welter in their shadow, so instead
It is mild today. A tui watches from the power lines. 
A tradie eats a six dollar pie. Steak and fennel. 
It is a three dollar pie, but moreso. 


Nevermind the world is ending

A tradesman on smoko, an old supermarket
a certain not-today-ness. Let us talk digital strategy etc. 
I am keyboarding; we don’t talk about the nukes. 
The world is afire, struck at dawn, whirling worldwise. 
It is the new unknown-ness. It is the place between Clouds. 
It is entirely companionable, the whole vicious mess of it. 
I have found another error. I am tired on the weekends. 
I mostly drift cloudlike, looming shadow on a warm day. 
I mostly drift.


Wayward and lorn and all that, you know? Does that make sense? I know what it means but I don’t feel like it makes sense.

A receipt fell out of my pocket 
for some food I don’t remember eating. 
I chased it and I do not know why—
maybe somebody could use it to steal my identity
or, you know, something. That’s a lot of work
for very little payoff. Just some receipts
for food I don’t remember eating.

@TEAM: THE SKY IS DEAD, PLEASE RESPOND

Utilizing modern, AI-driven data warehousing and big data visualizations, our teams engage in a systematic analysis of all areas of our production pipeline in order to deliver elegant digital solutions.

Our engineers have a combined 500 years’ experience, and specialise in the optimization and refinement of systems. It’s not 1976 any more: modern problems need modern solutions. Our company uses a CRISPR-like blockchain process in order to streamline the delivery of crucial data analytics into your business pipeline.

Our ethos IS our digital strategy. We work hard, play hard. We enable small businesses to live their dreams. We will plant a flag on the moon for you. Utilizing IOT assets for maximum effect, we will come to your house for dinner.

Our CMS comes with built-in SEO and DRM, with a handy WYSIWYG editor that helps you take your eCommerce storefront to the next level. Our CMS comes with CRM. Our CSM is afire, atop a hill at dawn, staring down into the barren valley below.

Our digital strategy is to drink from the cloud. Our digital strategy is to pray in locked rooms. Our digital strategy helps to supercharge your small eCommerce business.

We are inside your point of sale, maximizing our efforts to engage in hyperbolic supercharging. We are circling the great drain, wreathed in Saint Elmo’s fire, sliding between the plug and plug-hole, splicing ourselves with the sky as the future bears down.

We are the bleeding edge of digital strategy. We are raw. We are riding the block chain, screaming skyclad, laying down salt to keep the self-driving cars at bay. The cloud will bring rain and the rain will wash the salt away and I do not know what comes next.

Sascha Stronach is an author, poet, and editor from Pōneke, New Zealand. If you’re here via WorldCon stuff, you can find more info about The Dawnhounds (which won the SJV Award for Best Novel at WorldCon 78) here.

Umbrella Academy: what if Suicide Squad, but good?

Umbrella Academy is really fucking good. A loose adaptation from My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way’s comic series of the same name, it follows the Hargreeves siblings: a group of seven kids who are adopted by a cold and eccentric scientist after being born simultaneously, all over the world, to women who weren’t pregnant. He tries to train them as a superhero team, but it ends in calamity. The gang breaks up and goes their separate ways. Years pass, then they get a message—their adopted father is dead. One by one, they return home to mourn, rage, or steal his silverware.  

It’s hard to avoid comparisons to infamous bomb Suicide Squad: it’s a comic book movie about a team of antiheroes who must overcome their collective neuroses in order to fight a greater existential threat, with a bombastic classic pop soundtrack and so much stylisation it gives the viewer a contact high. It’s hard to pin down why Umbrella Academy works and Suicide Squad doesn’t. Yeah, there’s Squad’s troubled development history and last-minute recut, but a lot of UA’s best moments are similar to the worst moments from the Squad recut, like an extended sequence of the Hargreeves dancing alone to Tiffany’s 1987 banger I Think We’re Alone Now, a choice so on-the-nose that it rockets through obvious all the way to brilliant. It’s hard to say it’s in-keeping with the aesthetic of the comics (who would be? The Dresden Dolls? Nick Cave? The Mountain Goats? That weird shanty-punk band your mate with a beard insists will change your world?) but it’s in-keeping with the vibe, which is an altogether trickier thing to puzzle out. 

And that might be the secret: though Gerard Way wasn’t involved in the show, his source material is fertile ground for wonderful, wonderful melodrama. My Chemical Romance was never a subtle project—it was romantic in the classical sense: emotional in velocity and emotional in volume: reckless, weird and powerful. Suicide Squad was trying to balance David Ayer’s sombre, realistic antihero tale with Trailer Park’s bombastic phantasmagoria and got, well, a mess. Umbrella Academy knows exactly what it is and goes for broke. It’s packed with raw, unashamed emotion, much like those classic MCR tracks we were too cool to admit we loved back in high school. Which is why a very, very obvious pop song choice enhances the scene instead of distracting from it. 

The cast are revelling in the madness, with Kate Walsh’s Noir-Fatale-Meets-Middle-Management turn as The Handler being a standout. It’s also good to see Robert Sheehan getting some juicier roles: Mortal Engines—which looked set to be his big break—was a dud, and he’s been mostly wasted since Misfits. He can’t do a US accent to save himself, but failing to make the Oscar-Wilde-esque Klaus Hargreeves Irish was a mistake anyway. Cameron Britton and Sheila McCarthy have an unexpectedly sweet and gentle subplot—it’s lovely to see an older couple kinda just doing their thing. The melodrama crashes into it at 100km/h in the later episodes, but by then everything is hurtling downwind, glorious and fun and on fire. 

If you’re looking for restraint, this is not the show for you. This is a show where a character gets so mad that all the lamp-posts in the street bend towards them, because their emotions have the power to reshape the world. This is a show where a character threatens to electrocute another in a heart-shaped spa pool. This is a show where the main cast—each isolated by their own damage, desperate for human connection, trying to reach out to each other and failing because they haven’t yet learnt to stop lashing out in their pain—dance alone to I Think We’re Alone Now, then the camera pans out to show a cross-section of the house to show they’re all dancing together. It spits on subtle, and comes out with something so ridiculous that it makes its way back around to beautiful. 

Also, Robert Sheehan kisses another man and it’s fucking hot

Umbrella Academy is currently available on Netflix NZ.