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Why SF #3: Michael Matheson on the Friends of Merril Short Story Contest

Why SF? Asking kindred spirits in the SF community the story of why they give back and create forward.

Michael Matheson is a writer, editor, and sometime lecturer. A submissions editor with Apex Magazine, and a book reviewer for ChiZine, Innsmouth Free Press, and The Globe and Mail, he is also the editor of the Friends of the Merril Collection newsmagazine Sol Rising. As a writer he has work published or forthcoming in several venues, including the Lovecraft eZine, One Buck Horror, and the anthologies Future Lovecraft, Chilling Tales 2, and The Mark of the Beast.

He maintains an online presence at his blog, A Dark and Terrible Beauty, which can be found at http://michaelmatheson.wordpress.com.

Interviewed by Tegan Lott

Tell us about the Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest

The Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest is a way to accomplish several goals. On one hand, it's a method of creating exposure, and helping to fundraise for, the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy - which is a special collection of the Toronto Public Library System, and the largest, (at 72,000 items and growing) as well as the most comprehensive, collection of its kind in North America. On the other hand, the contest is an opportunity for writers at any stage of their career, from established pros to those who've never tried writing a story before, to enter an inexpensive contest and get some feedback on their work (we're looking into being able to do more of this going forward since time constraints made it almost impossible the first time out), and have a chance at winning a cash prize. It's also a great opportunity for entrants who make it to the final round of the contest to have their work read by some of the best Canadian editors and writers in the speculative fiction field (and me).

Actually, I'd like to think our final judges panel was one of the reasons we had such excellent turnout for the inaugural contest year. And with Leah Bobet, Sandra Kasturi, Mike Kelly, and Chris Szego making up four of the five judges on the panel, it's little wonder that we had so many entries. Taken together, the members of our final judges panel make up a great cross-section of individuals who all split their time between writing and editing, in one fashion or another, in the speculative fiction field - and all of whom, I might add, have a wide breadth of knowledge and insight into the state of that field from their differing perspectives as publishers, editors, and booksellers.

And, of course, though things went exceedingly well in our first year, we're hoping to run an even better contest going forward. Given everything we learned in that inaugural year, and all the feedback we've received so far (and still hope to receive), we're looking at every aspect of the contest's infrastructure with an eye to seeing how we can improve the contest year to year. We're also looking at restructuring with an eye to seeing what we can fix in the immediate future. Everything from the nature of the prizes to contest administration is under scrutiny, and we hope to have a very strong slate of changes and "upgrades" to the contest in place before the start of the coming 2012-2013 contest year. We've talked about some of the changes we're already going to be instituting, or are leaning toward, here: http://friendsmerrilcontest.com/2012/07/26/an-update-on-coming-changes-and-the-opportunity-to-offer-input/. And we'll be talking about other changes on the contest website as we confirm them.

Describe your role and involvement in the Friends of the Merril

I wear a couple of different hats working with the Friends of the Merril Collection. I've been editing the Friends of the Merril Collection newsmagazine, Sol Rising, since midway through 2010, and I help out in whatever other capacities arise that I'm able to provide assistance with. And, of course, with the advent of the FoMSSC I've been acting as contest administrator for that, as well as doing the slush wrangling, and acting as one of the final panel judges.

What prompts a project like this, and what makes it worthwhile for the Friends of the Merril to support writers in this fashion?

The story behind the genesis of the FoMSSC involves a fair amount of internal discussion among the Friends, and conversations I had with others outside of the Friends as well. It was actually a fairly convoluted genesis, simply because a project like this goes through several developmental stages between its inception and the point at which everything starts coming together and actually has a hope in hell of getting off the ground. I won't go into the whole long history here, but it's easy enough to state where this started, which was that I was looking for a way to open up the Friends' activities to directly supporting the generation of new speculative fiction. Obviously, the Merril Collection itself is a venue for writers, readers, editors, academics, and others with an interest in, obsession with, or avocation to speculative fiction, but the Friends had never really had an opportunity to give specific impetus to getting people to write their own new fiction beyond basic inspirations. The closest the Friends have ever come is through supporting, and creating programming to highlight, the instances in which the Merril Collection has hosted Writer in Residence programs for speculative fiction writers like Judith Merril, Robert Sawyer, and, most recently, Karl Schroeder.

We started out with a twofold idea at the core of running the FoMSSC: give writers a new venue for getting feedback and/or payment for their work, and generate exposure for the Merril itself. Certainly, the initial concept of how we were going to do that has changed radically, but I think in the end we found the best possible venue for doing this - especially since using an external website to do so has allowed us a somewhat more global outreach than we were actually expecting to receive, which is a benefit in and of itself.

And it must also be said that though part of what we're doing is inherently monetarily based (the Friends, as a body, exist in order to support and promote the Merril Collection, and the FoMSSC is in part a fundraising effort - there's really no other way to spin that) the larger goal of the contest is to expose writers who don't yet have access to the speculative fiction community to the wider body; to blow the door off its hinges. There's a thriving world of fans and craftspeople to be had in the speculative fiction field, and, granted, like any diffuse body it has its issues, but the field, and the people in it, have so much to offer. The Friends want to give people a place to find themselves, and through the running of this contest we're hopefully going to be able to get not just new writers, but those with a general interest in speculative fiction as well, to seek out places like the Merril, and local and far-flung conventions, and all manner of other organizations that promote a love of literacy and the extraordinary ideas that linger beyond the borders of the ordinary. We're doing this because it's the right thing to do. Because everyone deserves that moment of exultation when you find not just the place that exists for you beyond the borders you thought you knew, but a home there as well.

What is it that you're looking for in short stories submitted that would be different from, say, a longer, or even novel length, work, and what kinds of approaches are most effective at the length the contest is working with?

There are an inordinate number of ways to approach the writing of a short story; there's no right or wrong way, though there are elements and techniques that work better than others. But in a contest format, given the fairly short length of entries we're working with (5,000 words for sure, possibly larger, in the 2012-2013 contest), the stories need to be tightly executed, well-conceived, and fully-rounded to make an impact.

The main difference between the short form we're working with, and the longer form (novel length) is that the higher the word count you work with the more opportunities there are to explore the world in which the story takes place and the characters who move through it. In a short story everything serves the central theme; there simply isn't room to explore more than a small handful of aspects of the world you're creating at that length. Interestingly though, with the entries for the last contest, and also with the stories that I see as a submissions editor at Apex (where the maximum allowable word count is also 5,000), where most writers tend to go wrong with the short story form isn't trying to put too much in, but conversely leaving too much out: both venues receive a lot abstracts or sketches that start scratching out the ideas of the piece, but never really show us the whole of it.

A strong, captivating story is built around a central idea. But that idea has to be reinforced by other elements. Even in flash fiction, which we actually saw a fair amount of in the 2011-2012 contest, there has to be some sense of the character(s) we're following, or if we're not working primarily with characters then we need some way to interact with the ideas that are being explored. At the length we allow, strong characterization and plot-driven work is probably going to be the best approach, especially for newer writers who don't yet have a bag of learned tricks to call on. Truthfully, we're looking forward to seeing some experimental work in the coming year's entries, and I absolutely don't want to put any kind of restraint on the fiction coming in, but for a story to make it out of the slush pile there has to be something special about it - and as long as there is you can go about that any way you want.

In the end though, no matter what tricks, techniques, or choices for form (or lack there of) you apply to your story, the following is worth remembering. Effective and compelling speculative fiction stories are separated from ineffective ones by several key elements: the quality of prose, how intriguing the core concepts are, and whether or not in the end we care about what has happened. If you can carry the reader through the story with you, have them invest in the work and honestly care about what happens to your three-dimensional characters, that's the sign of a damn good story.

Now go write.

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