Off the Grid ... How it works

I will put a link to this post in the sidebar for future reference. This FAQ may change given the popularity (or lack thereof) of this series, my life, my writing commitments, etc.

The series will officially kick off in March 2016. A few people have already expressed an interest in writing for Off the Grid, or have pitched an idea to me. This is great, and I'm glad I've got so much excitement about the series.

I'm doing this because I know a lot of super authors who have received very little recognition for some really great series and stories. I've heard our online chatter called a feedback loop, and I can't think of a more appropriate description. When an author's work doesn't make it into that loop, then s/he is washed under the tide.

In order to combat the feedback loop, I'm giving authors, reviewers, and fans some space on my blog.

If you have a question that is not covered below, drop it in the comments, and I will incorporate it into the FAQ.

FAQ

What is Off the Grid? Generally speaking in any given year, the SFF/horror community is filled with publications. As time goes on, the community tends to get into a feedback loop where only six or seven books are discussed. Off the Grid is my attempt to level the playing field a bit, but also to give folks a chance to discuss other forms of fiction such as novellas, novelettes, short stories, and poems.

When will it run? Off the Grid will run every Wednesday for as long as I have a post for that Wednesday slot, until I run out of time to manage it, or people lose interest, whichever of these things comes first.

What kind of works can we talk about? Stories should be traditionally published. If the story/poem is online (ie Tor.com, Lightspeed, etc.), then provide the link and I will post the link along with your review. I will allocate one Wednesday a month to a self-published work. Since everything is shiny-new right now, we'll see how that goes.

What if I know the person whose story I'm writing about? Feedback loops online are usually perpetrated by big name authors who know one another and recommend one another's works to others. There is really nothing wrong with this as long you're talking about a quality story. With social media and the tight circles online, it's inevitable that we'll sometimes want to talk about a friend's book, or someone who is published by the same publisher. I suggest full disclosure in these circumstances.

Do I have to be an author or reviewer? For now, I'm going to say no. (Remember: shiny-new.) This is a community project, so I would like to invite the genre community to be involved. However, any submissions should use proper grammar should be pitched like any other submission.

Wait. I have to pitch my idea? Yes. This prevents overlap of two or three people writing about the same book, and also gives me time to look at the book in order to decide whether it's a good fit for the series. I have final say on all pitches, because it's my blog.

What kinds of stories can I talk about? The series will encompass: novels, novellas, novelettes, short stories, or poems. Keep it genre: science fiction, fantasy, horror, magical realism, etc.

Does the story have to be published in the current year? No. The item should be something that is getting very little online discussion and/or promotion; however if you've just discovered a previously published author and want to gush about one of their work(s) that garnered very little attention, then come and gush.

Does it have to be written in a specific format? Guest posts can be a formal review or a more lighthearted post about what you liked/disliked about the item, or why we should check out this particular author. I will ask that the post be at least 500 words.

If you want to contribute a guest post to Off the Grid, contact me. Tell me the name of the story and a little about yourself (if you have a blog, if you don't, if you are either traditionally published or self-published, because this will enable me to link back to your blog). In other words, pitch your idea to me, and I'll let you know if I have an opening.

the characters seal the deal

When people ask me what I read, I tell them everything. I read non-fiction, literary fiction, genre fiction, graphic novels--all of these things are expressions of who and what we are. The characters within our stories are reflections of us. Sometimes we don't want to see our prejudices mirrored back to us, but if we pause and examine what the authors are saying to us, we might just learn a little bit about being a better person.

Read More

Review Roundup for The Broken Road (#SFWApro)

October is the time for scary stories, and I do prefer writing creepy stories so I scheduled The Broken Road to publish in October for that reason. Lynn summed the effect up very nicely when she said The Broken Road contains "Nothing bloodthirsty or dripping in gore – just plain goosebump-invoking chilling."

I've also been kind of pleasantly surprised that several folks have tagged the novella as science fiction as well. So if you're still on the fence about whether or not you would like to read The Broken Road, here is a quick review round-up for you so you can see what others are saying:

Read More

Writing other cultures -- Diversity in SFF

Or writing outside of your comfort zone, as I like to call it.

I'm not talking about sprinkling people with different colored skin throughout my novel, or even about adding a gay person here or there to show diversity. I'm talking about taking the time and energy to immerse myself in another person's skin. It's not an easy thing to do, but writing about other cultures has broadened my world view and raised my awareness; it has made me more empathic to other people who live differently than me.

I try to follow three rules when writing outside my comfort zone: 

  1. Talk to people from the culture or who live the lifestyle that I'm trying to represent, and if possible, ask someone from that culture to beta read the story for me. That is the best way possible to prevent stereotypical errors that I might be blind to but that someone from that culture would be highly sensitive about.
  2. Read and watch documentaries about the people and/or time period that I want to portray. I try really hard to immerse myself in someone else's world before I put the first word down.
  3. Be respectful.

When I first started Garden in Umber, I had one character who I knew was gay. He was a very minor character, not one who I saw as rising up to take over the story, but he did. In the beginning, Diago was almost an afterthought, a side-character and a very stereotypical gay man. I'm almost ashamed to admit that now, but if I don't tell you where I began, you won't truly understand how I learned the lessons that I did.

While I worked on my character sketches, I happened upon some blog posts about the lack of competently rendered gay characters in novels, especially in SFF. The more I read, the more I realized that my character was exactly what people hated to see, and they very clearly articulated why they found a lot of the gay characters offensive.

Sometime around this same period, Dark Scribe magazine did an interview with several gay horror authors (The Fear of Gay Men: A Roundtable Discussion on the New Queer), one of whom I had met online and whose work I greatly admire. I emailed Robert Dunbar, explained the situation, and Rob set up a place for me to ask questions. Then he did the most generous thing of all and asked some of the fine gentlemen who participated in the Dark Scribe interview to answer my questions.

Other members of the online gay community showed up and were very generous with both their time and their honesty. One thing they said, over and over, was that they were tired of seeing gay characters being all about sex. They said (and rightly so) that gay people are whole, complex people with many passions and many loves--that there was more to being gay than sex.

In short, they taught me many things and directed me to some wonderful resources. My character Diago went from being a frivolous stereotype to being a much darker character, but he has reason to be dark.

I don't know anything about being a gay man in the 14th century, but I do understand what it means to have people treat you badly because of who and what you are. I know what it means to be shut out of "polite" society, and all I can do is translate those feelings of loss to Diago and Miquel.

To honor all those people who took the time to answer my questions, Garden in Umber is about love, not sex, because sex is not always about love. Love is about acceptance and thinking beyond yourself, and those are the themes of Garden in Umber.

Writing Garden in Umber took me far outside my comfort zone, but it was a worthwhile journey. I learned to understand love from an entirely different viewpoint. Hopefully, I've translated all these things accurately, and if I haven't, I hope people will at least appreciate the fact that I tried.

Of course, if I hadn't read those posts on gay characters a few years ago, I never would have undertaken my journey the way I have. If I hadn't asked questions or reached out, I would have written another stereotypical gay character from a heterosexual viewpoint.

Having learned my lesson with Garden, I decided to use the same approach when I wrote my short story "La Santisima." The story initially began as a story about the drug war, but I was at a loss for a supernatural element for the story. I contacted Sabrina Vourvoulias, who kindly answered my questions and pointed me toward some valuable resources. Through those resources, my story opened up to shift completely away from drugs to immigration. The story became less of a cliche and more realistic than I imagined.

Sabrina kindly read the story for me and she advised removing and rewriting portions that were stereotypical and might be offensive to people. Neither of the things that Sabrina picked up on were intentionally introduced to be racist, but they reflected my ignorance about the culture. So I tweaked the trouble spots again, and now I'm very pleased with the story.

Writing diversity into stories takes the author (and the reader if the author has done his or her job properly) outside of the confinements and comfort of commonly perceived notions. It's not easy writing, but that is why I call it writing outside of my comfort zone.

Nor will I lie to you, it is harder to get these stories published, at least for now. Publishers are hesitant to try new things, but to their credit, publishers are giving us works by Nnedi Okorafor, NK Jemisin, Saladin Ahmed and more. Authors like Sabrina are utilizing small publishers like Crossed Genres to get their important works and voices heard. Maybe if we write more and more stories with people of different lifestyles and cultures, these works will become easier to sell. I'm willing to take that chance. I hope you'll take the chance and read a book by someone from a culture different from your own.

If you have a moment, recommend a novel or story that has changed the way you think about a certain culture or lifestyle. Name an author whose work put you outside of your comfort zone.

Gender Bending Entry #10 Meghan's Bike by Marian Westwood

This is the last entry in the Gender Bending experiment. At the end of this post, I have listed the previous nine entries along with links. Everyone has until 9:00 p.m. EST on Thursday, January 3 to enter your guess as to whether the author of these excerpts is male or female. After that, I will close all the comments to all of the blog posts associated with this contest.

On Monday, January 7, 2013, I will post the big reveal.

Ready?

Last post and this is how it works:

Several authors submitted pieces they had lying around. I asked only that they choose something that would not easily be identified with their writing style. Fans can easily pick up on an author's voice, and since several of the authors are very well known, I didn't want people recognizing specific writing styles.

When an author didn't have pre-written piece, they wrote a piece just for this blog, primarily because we knew that once it hit the interwebs, it would become a freebie for everyone.

We took a brief hiatus for the holidays; however, I'm back now and will be running posts until we reach the end of the contest. Please keep your comments focused on the question at hand.

As always, please don't break my website.

Here we go ...

READ THIS FIRST: The rules and the prizes. Your mission: comment on whether you believe the author of this excerpt is male or female.

Meghan's Bike by Marian Westwood

Meghan sped down the hill in front of her house on Clinton Road.  Her daddy stood at the foot of the hill, at the intersection, watching for traffic coming down Trinity Street.  Meghan pumped her legs as fast as she could, imagining that she was on a roller coaster, like her big sister rode when they went to the Enchanted Forest.  Meghan wasn't tall enough at the amusement park, but here, on their hill she could fly.  Laughing, screaming with joy, she lifted her feet from the pedals and held them out to the side.

"Look, Daddy!  No feet!"

He grinned and raised his hands over his head with his thumbs up. 

The training wheels of her bike rattled across the grate of the storm drain, as she zoomed through the intersection.  As the Clinton Road began to rise again, she put her feet on the pedals and pumped as fast as she could.  This time she would make it up the hill on the other side of the intersection.  Her bike slowed, the chain barely dragging the wheels around.  She imagined a roller coaster car, clunking its way up the rise.  Meghan stood up in the seat and pushed all her weight down with each stroke.  Slowly, achingly, she climbed the hill.  

At the top, in front of the Emerson's house, she turned her bike around and waited for her daddy to give the all clear. 

He looked both ways and then nodded.  Cupping his hands around his mouth, he shouted, "Meghan Dougherty, come on down!"

She pushed off from the curb and settled her feet on the pedals.  The pink streamers on the end of her handlebars fluttered out, snapping at her arms.  She zoomed down the hill, giddy with speed.

 As the wind roared past her, Meghan closed her eyes, imagining the great roller coaster around her as she barreled down the hill.  "Look, Daddy, no eyes!"

"Meghan, no!"

She squeezed her eyes tighter as if that would prove she wasn't afraid

Her training wheels rattled across the storm grate.  Meghan heard a car horn.  Her daddy screamed.

For a moment longer, Meghan was flying.

***

Now, if you've made it this far, you have one last chance to guess the gender on Entries 1-9. All comments will close on Thursday, January 3 at 9:00 p.m. EST. Click on the link to go to the entry, and remember, one comment per entry:

Entry #1 -- Bearna by Jamie Sears 

Entry #2 -- The Ballad of Sophie Nu by Dirigible Elephant 

Entry #3 -- The Education of Rebecca Cavendish by Alice Leakey 

Entry #4 -- Untitled by Jackson Harris

Entry #5 -- Untitled by S.A. Daniels

Entry #6 -- Untitled by Kyle Schuler

Entry #7 -- The Hated by A.K. Reid

Entry #8 -- White Space by T.J. Breckenridge

Entry #9 -- The Sea-Folk’s Price by Z. Riddle

Gender Bending Entry #9 The Sea-Folk's Price by Z. Riddle

A mystery author has popped into the game with a haunting post about the Sea-Folk. This adds another book to the original list of authors, but this author will remain unnamed for now.

Entry #9 The Sea-Folk's Price is a disturbing tale to set us off into the new year.

Here is how it works:

Several authors submitted pieces they had lying around. I asked only that they choose something that would not easily be identified with their writing style. Fans can easily pick up on an author's voice, and since several of the authors are very well known, I didn't want people recognizing specific writing styles.

When an author didn't have pre-written piece, they wrote a piece just for this blog, primarily because we knew that once it hit the interwebs, it would become a freebie for everyone.

We took a brief hiatus for the holidays; however, I'm back now and will be running posts until we reach the end of the contest. Please keep your comments focused on the question at hand.

As always, please don't break my website.

Here we go ...

READ THIS FIRST: The rules and the prizes. Your mission: comment on whether you believe the author of this excerpt is male or female.

The Sea-Folk’s Price by Z. Riddle

Dai stomped through saltgrass and spinewort along the sea-cliff’s edge.  He wanted to howl curses out into the basso roar of the waves below, but this was no night to say such things aloud.  The full moon rising out of the sea was baleful orange, the surf seething and clawing at the land like a wolf roused to wrath.  It was a wild night, a raidheilge night, when the sea-folk would hunt close to shore, and they loved to catch curses and twist them against the speaker. 

Dai saw no sleek dark heads bobbing in the roiling foam, but lightning flashes of green and indigo lanced along the breakers, a sure sign of the sea-folk’s presence.  At the promontory’s highest point a mile distant, where pinprick lights outlined the Dragonhead Inn’s stacked, overhanging balconies, sightseers from the city would be pressed against the balcony rails, chattering like eager children and peering out into the waves. 

Old Owain, proprietor of the inn, would’ve warned them not to climb down to the beaches.  Cityfolk might think the sea-folk were ethereal sprites who granted wishes and seduced seamen, but the fishers knew better.  They’d buried the savaged corpses of capsized friends and relatives, seen the water churn red with the blood of fools who ventured too far into the waves.  Some, like Dai, had seen more. 

Flat black shark’s eyes staring into his, a fanged grin amid seaweed hair, and blood blooming in the water, so lovely, so terrible…

Dai’s breath came short.  His stride increased until he was almost running along the clifftop despite the chancy terrain, but the desperate anger burning in his chest didn’t ease.  By rights he should be working at the inn tonight, same as he had the last two years.  Carrying cinnamon cider and mulled wine to the guests crowding the balconies, and keeping a weather eye to make sure none were so foolish as to disobey Owain’s warnings.  But his father had gotten to Owain first.

Your father needs you, boy, Owain had said when he turned Dai away.  He can’t work the nets with his hands pained bad as they are, not alone. You’re done here.

I don’t work the boats, Dai had insisted, through gritted teeth.  Not anymore. I told you that when I first asked for a job.

You do now, Owain said, a terrible sympathy shining in his dark eyes.  Or do you want those pretty little sisters of yours to starve?  Now Andras has run off, you’re the only hope your father’s got. I can’t pay you half so much as he can earn with you in the boat. 

Andras.  Without slowing, Dai snatched up a stone and pitched it off the cliff.  The rock arced through the air and disappeared without a trace into the cauldron of waves.  Better if the rock had smashed his older brother’s head.  Andras, with his hard strength from years at the oars, his rough mockery, his wild, flashing grin -

Andras, who’d run off with Dilys the butcher’s daughter, leaving only a scrawled, barely readable note about seeking his fortune in the city.  Dai didn’t hate him for running.  Didn’t even hate his brother’s typical selfishness in forcing Dai to take his place. 

Dai hated that he’d lacked the courage to run first.

He could still run now.  His steps slowed, thinking of it.  Get away from the sea, before -  

But, no. He wasn’t Andras, who never thought beyond his latest passion.  The twins’ small faces wouldn’t leave his mind’s eye.  If Dai left, six-year-old Cadi and Efa might not starve outright; the other fishers would help as they could.  But they’d see to their own families first, and coin was scarce for all living on the Skali Coast.  Even Owain, with wealthy merchants bedding down in his inn, hadn’t much extra.  Dai knew, because he’d helped Owain with the ledgers.  The inn devoured money, with all the constant repairs and food orders and wages for cook and groom and maids, and most months the rooms were near empty.  Only now, in the fall, when the sea-folk came close to shore and the idle rich flocked to the coast to see magic flicker along the waves, would Owain make enough to see the inn through the rest of the year.    

Cadi and Efa had never been strong, born early as they were.  Living on scraps, they might survive a while, but when the winter plagues swept through the village…they’d die, as Dai’s mother had the winter after the twins’ birth. 

Old grief knotted his chest at the memory.  No.  He couldn’t simply slink away.  But what could he do?  His father thought it was simple fear that kept him from the sea, and so did Owain.  None of them understood.  None knew the truth of that terrible day two years ago, when Jakin had died and Dai had rowed in alone, numb and shivering with shock.

Against his will, the sea drew Dai’s eye.  He stopped dead, staring.

Someone was walking on the slender silver crescent of sand between cliff and waves.  A girl, in a pale dress already sodden with salt spray, thin fabric clinging to breast and hip.  Tendrils of dark hair rose and whipped in the wind like kelp in a storm-tide.

She had to be one of the gapers from the city.  Dai had heard the stories they told at the inn.  Dreamy, utterly false fancies of sea-folk granting heart’s desires, healing the sick, bringing lovers back from the dead.  Just the other day, he’d been washing the common room windows and overheard a pair of city girls sighing over a tale of a maiden with a sea-folk lover – in the tale, a darkly handsome man whose cruelty was limited to simple abandonment of a maiden yearning for his touch.

Through long practice, Dai had held his tongue – helped by his desire not to lose his view of the bountiful cleavage so enticingly displayed by the girls’ tight-laced corsets.  Something must’ve showed on his face, though, because the room’s other occupant, a man with corn-gold hair and silken clothes nearly as covered in fripperies as the girls’ dresses, had cast an ironic glance Dai’s way. 

Not a fan of folk tales? the man had asked, flipping a silver coin idly back and forth across his slender knuckles. 

Dai wasn’t.  Not that he said so at the time.  Owain didn’t like him talking to the guests.  But for all the foolish tales helped Owain drum up business, Dai thought them dangerous as rip currents.  Look at that idiot girl down there.  She was far, far too close to the water.  The sea-folk didn’t often leave the waves, but on nights like this one -

She was walking into the water.  Dai’s throat locked.  Oh, lords of the ocean, no!  One part of the tales was true: sea-folk could cast illusions.  The creatures used them to lure prey into reach. 

Dai flung himself forward along the clifftop.  There, the precipice’s angle wasn’t so steep – he slithered over the edge and skidded down crumbling limestone.  Saltgrass sliced his palms, stone grating against his skin, his breath harsh in his ears as the roar of the surf swelled. 

Sand beneath his feet now, and he was running.  The girl was waist-deep, and beyond, dark heads bobbed up in the foam.

Dai shouted, wordless and frantic.  The girl didn’t turn.  What illusion blinded her, stopped her ears?  He kicked off his boots and splashed into the surf, red blooming behind his eyes.  The icy shock of the water slammed the breath from his lungs. 

A wave slapped his face.  Hungry currents sucked at his legs.  He lunged for the girl’s arm.  Her skin was icy beneath his hand.  He pulled, and she turned at last.

Bone-pale face, lightless black eyes, and a wide, fanged grin –

Dai couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move, as understanding crashed in.  She wasn’t the prey.  He was. 

He threw himself backward, but she had both his wrists in an iron-hard grip.  She dragged him deeper, and the illusion blurred away, leaving dark, scaled skin and weedy hair.  He fought, not wasting breath on screams, but cold tentacles snaked around his legs, jerked his feet clear of the sea bottom. 

Ours, came an icy, alien voice in his head, just as it had that day two years ago.  Ours.  Dark heads were all around him, brine flooding his mouth and nostrils.  The creature who held him yanked his left hand up to its lipless mouth. 

A snap of gleaming teeth, and he screamed, then, as his smallest finger disappeared and blood sprayed dark into the water.

Ours, the voice said, silky soft.  We touched you once before, and we claim you now. Your bone and blood is in us.  You do our bidding, mortal man, or all who share your blood will pay the price.

A vision swam into Dai’s head, of little Cadi and Efa, his stern father, even vanished Andras: all of them shrieking, blood running black from their mouths and eyes as their flesh sloughed away.   

“No!”  Dai spat seawater, kicked and twisted in the creature’s grip.  It hugged him closer.  The stump of his finger throbbed, pain rising through shock.  Cold breath reeking of carrion washed over him.  He turned his face aside, squeezed his eyes shut.  “Don’t. Please. You – what do you want?”

Another vision: the rich man at the inn, lamplight gleaming on his golden hair, his pale eyes sharp and shadowed, the coin flicking back and forth over his fingers.

Kill this man.  Kill him, and bring us his corpse before the dark of the moon.  When we taste his dead flesh, your blood will be safe.

Dai sputtered, his surprise so huge his voice wouldn’t come.  They wanted him to murder some rich city man?  Why? 

The creature dragged Dai’s maimed hand up again.  Indigo lightning flickered, bright enough to blind, and agony melted Dai’s bones.  

The grip on his wrists, his legs, released.  The pain vanished with it, leaving Dai choking and flailing, abruptly alone in the surging waves.  He thrashed toward shore, terror still beating bright in his veins, but felt no touch other than that of the sea itself. 

He staggered up onto the sand.  Dizziness sent him to his knees, his head reeling.  How much of his blood had spilled into the sea?  He should stem the flow.  If he died here on the sand, the sea-folk might well cast their curse on his kin regardless.  He fumbled for his injured hand.

His breath stopped again.  Bone gleamed white at the severed joint, but no blood poured from the wound.  The ragged flesh was blackened – not as if seared by fire, but as if dipped in ink, or tar. 

Something was bound around his wrist.  A bracelet of smooth, dark shells, so tight to his skin he couldn’t get a finger under it.  He yanked at the shells, struck by the unreasoning, desperate conviction he must get it off – and was assaulted again by a vision of his baby sisters screaming, dying.  For remembrance, the sea-folk’s voice whispered in his head.  He retched, bile sour in his throat. 

Two years ago, as he’d been screaming the last air out of his lungs, struggling against the cold grip holding him under, they’d said, You beg to be spared? We’ll grant your wish, but there is a price.

He’d thought Jakin’s life the price.  He’d been wrong.

Gender Bending Entry #8 White Space by T.J. Breckenridge

I normally don't post on the weekends, but given the number of entries in this little contest, I took the posts through on Saturday and Sunday this week. If you missed the weekend entries, you can still read them and have your vote counted:

Entry #6 by Kyle Schuler

Entry #7 by A.K. Reid

How much longer will the experiment continue? There are a total of ten excerpts and the final excerpt will be posted on Wednesday, January 2, 2013. At that point the experiment will end and I will use the weekend to assess the data and choose a winner.

Without further ado, here is Entry #8 by T.J. Breckenridge. Here is how it works:

Several authors submitted pieces they had lying around. I asked only that they choose something that would not easily be identified with their writing style. Fans can easily pick up on an author's voice, and since several of the authors are very well known, I didn't want people recognizing specific writing styles.

When an author didn't have pre-written piece, they wrote a piece just for this blog, primarily because we knew that once it hit the interwebs, it would become a freebie for everyone.

We took a brief hiatus for the holidays; however, I'm back now and will be running posts until we reach the end of the contest. Please keep your comments focused on the question at hand.

As always, please don't break my website.

Here we go ...

READ THIS FIRST: The rules and the prizes. Your mission: comment on whether you believe the author of this excerpt is male or female.

White Space by T.J. Breckenridge

Margot knocked on her neighbor’s door.  While she waited, she stamped her feet to dislodge the snow. Their dogs barked inside, and a moment later Evelyn, her white-haired neighbor, peeked out.  She unlatched the door and said, "Oh, dear.  You must need something pretty bad to brave all this snow."

Eighteen inches of fresh snow totally enveloped their small town, as it did the rest of the Midwest.  But that wasn’t the worst thing about the day.  The worst thing was that Margot had to do something that went entirely against her nature: ask for help.  And all because that jackass husband of hers hadn't bothered to get the snowblower fixed.  She said, "I wondered if we could borrow your snowblower when Tom is finished with it.  Ours is out of commission, and Fred's likely to kill himself shoveling the driveway."

"Of course.  Tom's off clearing the sidewalk by one of our rental houses right now, but I'll have him bring it over when he finishes."

"Thank you.  It means a lot."  Already she was calculating the proper reward gift, probably a casserole or a batch of fresh oatmeal cookies.  She would never accept charity; her universe was entirely quid pro quo.

***

Fred wiped his face.  It was twenty degrees, but he was sweating like the proverbial pig beneath his layers of protection.  He'd already discarded his scarf and woolen hat, and debated whether to unzip his outer coat.

He took another look at the task ahead of him.  There was a foot of snow on the driveway at its lowest point, and it drifted up to a yard high along one side.    It was heavy, wet snow, too, the kind that made Dr. Oz warn people like Fred to take it easy to avoid a coronary.  Fred had already been working for an hour, and had barely cleared a third of it.  He adjusted his grip on the ergonomic shovel’s gracefully bent handle, and dug in to shift another load.

Then he heard the sound of a pull string on an engine.

He looked up.  At the far end of the driveway, near the godawful pile the town's snowplows always left there, his wife stood adjusting the thrower spout before settling the snowblower's big red mouth against the snow.  A plume rose fifteen feet into the air before landing in the yard, on top of the drift. She moved it forward slow and steady, carving a perfectly straight line that would eventually catch up to his erratic hand-made one.

"Hey, hey, HEY!" Fred called.  He jammed his shovel down into the snow blade-first and stomped his way to Margot.  "What the hell are you doing?"

"What you should be doing," Margot yelled over the motor.  "If you'd gotten the damn snowblower fixed, that is.  Watch your feet, I don’t want to chop off your toes."

He started to turn away, then instead pried her hand away from the kill switch.  The motor sputtered to a halt.  He said, "Look, will you stop helping me?  I've got it under control."

"This will take you all day,” she said.  “That is, if you don't have a heart attack or a stroke first.  I'll be done in fifteen minutes."

"So what if it takes me all day?  It's not like we have to be anywhere, is it?"

"You're not a young man anymore, Fred.  You'll be fifty on your next birthday.  Just use the damn snowblower, and then get ours fixed tomorrow when the roads are clear."

"No!" he shrieked, like a child or a maniac.  "That ... it's not the point!"

Margot leaned on the snowblower's handle and sighed, with the exasperation only a long marriage could provoke.  "So the point is not to clear the driveway?"

"No, it's ..." He stopped, considered whether to keep going, then charged ahead.  "Ever since they told me I was diabetic, I've been eating right, losing weight, exercising more, all the bullshit the doctor insisted on, right?"

"Yes, as long as I buy you the food and make your dinners.  I even have to write down your snacks for you."

Normally he'd snap back at this, but he was onto something bigger.  "This was my first test to see if I was really getting healthier and stronger.  I don't want to use the snowblower, I want to shovel it myself.  A year ago I couldn't have done this.  I have to see if I can now."

"That's stupid, Fred.  Really.  I don't mean to be harsh, but you're going to be down with your back for a week after this, and I won't be able to take off work to help you."

They looked at each other.  The gulf between them had never seemed so wide; the distance from her pragmatic realism to his idealistic belief in meaning was so great that they heard only the indistinct echoes of each other's voices, not the actual words the other was saying.  He sagged, defeated, and she kicked the snowblower in frustration.

"I'll finish with the snowblower," he said, and waited for her to move aside.

"No, just stay out of the way," she said, and reached for the pull handle.

Gender Bending Entry #7 The Hated by A.K. Reid

The Gender Bending continues with A.K. Reid. Here is how it works:

Several authors submitted pieces they had lying around. I asked only that they choose something that would not easily be identified with their writing style. Fans can easily pick up on an author's voice, and since several of the authors are very well known, I didn't want people recognizing specific writing styles.

When an author didn't have pre-written piece, they wrote a piece just for this blog, primarily because we knew that once it hit the interwebs, it would become a freebie for everyone.

We took a brief hiatus for the holidays; however, I'm back now and will be running posts until we reach the end of the contest. Please keep your comments focused on the question at hand.

As always, please don't break my website.

Here we go ...

READ THIS FIRST: The rules and the prizes. Your mission: comment on whether you believe the author of this excerpt is male or female.

The Hated by A.K. Reid

The boys at the bar glare at Fisher when he walks in. Fisher knows they hate him. Everyone in town hates him. Hell, if he were in their situation, he'd probably be filled with hate, too.

Need makes many enemies. Magic, even more.

After Fisher sits down and orders a beer, the boys go back to their chatter. They’re old enough to know about the world, but still young enough to pretend it's not as bad as they've been told. Give them another five years and the laughter will be gone, along with any sort of light in their eyes. Fisher's seen their kind plenty of times, in plenty of dusty little towns like this one.

One of the boys lets out a hoot of laughter and slides a bottle cap down the length of the bar. It ends up in front of Fisher. Nothing but a harmless bit of fun, but fun isn't in Fisher's vocabulary. Fun can get you killed on this side of the river.

The boys are watching him. The bartender, too. Fisher picks up the bottle cap, rolls it around his fingers until it vanishes.

The boys look away. The barman pulls a face.

Just because they need Fisher doesn't mean they like reminders of what he can do. Or maybe they don't like that it reminds them of what he can't.

The beer is strong--one benefit he'll give the town. It isn't strong enough to keep the taste of the magic in the river from creeping into his mouth, but it helps. The river magic tastes like a bad hangover minus the pounding head. If the boys at the end of the bar could taste it, they wouldn't be chattering like magpies on a vine, and they probably wouldn't hate him so much.

But it is what it is. Fisher is who, what, he is. Gift, curse, or dumb luck, it doesn't matter.

He drains the last of his beer, tips his hat to the barman, and walks through the town. He passes a woman wearing tired on her face like yesterday's fashion. She doesn't smile, doesn't meet his eyes. A group of kids are kicking around a few stones. They fall to silence when he walks by, the stone forgotten.

As he draws closer to the river, the foul taste in his mouth grows stronger. When he was younger, he'd try to spit it out. He knows better now.

He stops about five feet away from the water and crosses his arms over his chest. The river itself is a wide black snake oozing along the edge of the town. Some say there used to be a bridge spanning across long before Fisher's time. About the only one in town who might remember would be Old Lady Twist, and she went mindfuck a few years ago. The only things she's capable of now are shitting in her diapers and drooling in her lap.

Bridge or no bridge, doesn't matter anyway. The river, like hate and fate, is what it is. Fisher is the only one who can get close, and he's the only one who can keep it from creeping closer.

No one knows what's on the other side of the river anymore or if there's even another side. The air there is all hazy grey. No signs of light. No signs of life.

Like a bullet or a bad choice, the wrong kind of magic sticks. You can't change it. You can't erase it. You can only deal with the fallout. The magician who broke rank and went haywire is long dead, but his ghost is a path of destruction half a country wide.

The dry soil crunches beneath Fisher's boot heels as he checks his wards and the marker he left on the shoreline. So far, his magic is holding firm. He takes a deep breath, digging deep inside to find what he needs, and extends his arms. The taste in his mouth changes, the foul vanishing beneath something similar to honey and orange water. When the magic starts to flow, his fingers tingle and warmth seeps through his limbs.

Maybe one day there'll be a magician strong enough to put everything to right, but right now, he'll have to do.

Gender Bending Entry #6 by Kyle Schuler

The Gender Bending continues with Kyle Schuler. Here is how it works:

Several authors submitted pieces they had lying around. I asked only that they choose something that would not easily be identified with their writing style. Fans can easily pick up on an author's voice, and since several of the authors are very well known, I didn't want people recognizing specific writing styles.

When an author didn't have pre-written piece, they wrote a piece just for this blog, primarily because we knew that once it hit the interwebs, it would become a freebie for everyone.

We took a brief hiatus for the holidays; however, I'm back now and will be running posts until we reach the end of the contest. Please keep your comments focused on the question at hand.

As always, please don't break my website.

Here we go ...

READ THIS FIRST: The rules and the prizes. Your mission: comment on whether you believe the author of this excerpt is male or female.

Untitled by Kyle Schuler

She wouldn’t look at me.

Standing there, lost in the trees, all I want her to do is give me one sign…just one.  If she so much as whispered my name, or glanced at me, I’d be there.  If she said, kill…I’d storm that fucking fortress and everybody inside it would be dead in a moment.

But all she did was sit there, huddling behind that big-ass tiger and clutching a borrowed coat around her narrow shoulders.  It was dark out but not dark enough.  I could see every bruise on her and I wanted to break something. 

If somebody breathed too loud, she flinched and I couldn’t stand it.

This was the mean, ball-busting little bitch who’d once pulled a blade on me.  When she was afraid, she kicked people in the teeth.  When she was nervous, she mouthed off.  And if she was pissed, you better check her hands for sharp objects.

And now…

Screams raged inside my head and I turned away.  No matter how many times, I tried to block it out, I kept seeing her as she came tearing out of the big pile of stone behind us.  I’d thought…

No, man.  Don’t go thinking.

If I started thinking, I was going to remember what she’d almost done.  What she might still do if she thought she had a chance.

And if I kept looking at her, I thought maybe I was going to be the one to lose my mind.  I couldn’t do this. But I couldn’t walk away from this place, either.  Shifting my attention to the fortress in the mountains, I flexed one hand, felt the monster inside me roaring, trying to come to the surface.  He was a mean-ass bastard even under the best circumstances.  And when another broken gasp came to me on the wind, I had to admit…these weren’t the best circumstances.

She wouldn’t look at me.  Wouldn’t let me get near her and any time I tried, she backed away like she thought I might hurt her.  The bitch of it all…I even understood that.  If I didn’t do something, I was going to explode.  The monster raging inside me saw to that.

I didn’t bother stripping out of my clothes as I slid off into the night.  The shift took care of them.  They fell in shreds around me and I paid about as much attention to them as I did to the snow blasting again my skin.  I knew it was there, but I didn’t fucking care.

There were only two things that mattered—one of them was behind me…and she didn’t want to see me.

The other was in that huge mausoleum of a house and as soon as he came out, I didn’t care if he was under guard or not, I was going to rip him apart.  I’d bury my claws in his gut and then rip him apart.  I could already smell the acrid, rotting stink of his blood and the burn of anticipation was the only thing that had made me feel good since this nightmare had started.

Hiding myself in the shadows, I looked back at her.  She huddled against the tiger and I whispered, “I’m so damn sorry.”

But it didn’t matter.  I hadn’t protected her.  The one thing I’d promise her and I’d failed.

No wonder she didn’t want to look at me.

I didn’t think I’d ever be able to face myself again, not after this.