Category Archives: Status Updates

FAQ Elaboration: Is My Story Speculative?

If you write science fiction or fantasy, you’re usually confident about where your work would be shelved in a bookstore. Fantasy? That’s dragons. Science fiction? Spaceships. Dragons on spaceships? Now you are “cross-genre”. But if your work does not happen to contain dragons nor spaceships, it isn’t always as clear where it might be shelved. Surely any fiction is “speculative”! What does it mean in the context of the Merril Collection and this contest?

The Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy collects “science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction, as well as magic realism, experimental writing and some materials in ‘fringe’ areas such as parapsychology, UFOs, Atlantean legends etc.” Broadly, fiction that includes any element which has not yet been found in the real world is speculative. But behind that is a complex history of the fantastic in literature that defies easy classification – all of which can be found in some form in the Merril Collection.

Myth and Legend

From St. George and the Dragon to Fafnir of the Volsungs, the Greek Titans to the Mabinogion’s Bran the Blessed, and unicorns from Pliny to Marco Polo, early literature is full of fantastic things. These original tales are not generally thought of as “fantasy”, however, though contemporary retellings are. The difference? Early dragons, giants, and unicorns were presented in earnest. Even if they were not always meant to be taken literally (the dragon slain by St. George is, probably, an allegory,) they were not invitations to the imagination. The stories and their monsters were to be taken seriously.

What does this mean? Interpretive retellings of myths and legends are definitely speculative – but the inclusion of religious symbols is not. Whatever you think about today’s big religions, they are not considered fantasy from a literary standpoint.

Fairy and Folk Tales

Fairy tales, on the other hand, were and are considered flights of fancy. These “little stories” were always intended to light up the imagination for the purposes, usually, of entertaining us. Despite being muddied from time to time with superstitious folk beliefs, a fairy or folk tale is distinguishable from a legend by an explicit statement that it takes place in another world, be it “once upon a time” or “in a land far, far away”.

What does this mean? Fairy tales, folk tales and retellings of both are definitely speculative!

The Paranormal

We have always been fascinated with the unexplained. There is a great shady area in literature (and life) where unexplained phenomena are hashed out. Ghosts, cryptozoology, near-death experiences, parapsychology and a lot more are still taken quite seriously by some, and lumped happily into “folk tales” by others. Is it real, science fiction, or fantasy?

Because the paranormal is unproved in real life, any fictional accounts are going to necessarily be speculative. What if this ghost were real? What if everyone had ESP? Whether you consider paranormal elements to be true or fantasy, your story will need to invite the imagination to turn it into a narrative. There are holes to fill, and you will fill them.

What does this mean? Unless you are writing a non-fiction manual or treatise, paranormal elements are absolutely speculative. If you believe in them, your account will be science fictional. If you don’t, call it fantasy or horror. Either way, you had to make things up to make it work!

Magical Realism

Magical realism is a term given to stories where something wondrous or fantastic happens in an otherwise mundane setting. It is different from urban fantasy in that even the inhabitants of your world find the magical elements to be out of their world. There tends to be an aesthetic to magical realist novels that is distinct from conventional “fantasy” – an acceptance of magic in every day life without trying to explain or systematize it.

What does this mean? Though magical realist novels are often exempt from the fantasy shelf at the bookstore, they are still considered speculative by us. If your characters consider it magic, so do we!


Weird or slipstream fiction invites the imagination in ways that defy conventional genre categories. The imaginary elements might be more inherent to the world than in a magical realist novel, but they also aren’t presented with nonchalance the way they would be in a secondary-world fantasy. Aesthetically, weird stories can be creepy or off-putting, as strange and unexplainable things appear in order to unsettle us and/or the characters.

What does this mean? Is there something about your characters or the weird phenomena which is mis-matched because it simply isn’t found in the real world? It’s speculative! You don’t even need to be able to put a name or face on the phenomena, as long as it is otherworldly.


Horror is broadly anything which is scary, but that can cover a lot of territory, from war and death to ghosts and monsters. You might be very creative about putting your characters in mortal danger, but that doesn’t always mean it is speculative. Simply being horrifying does not make a story speculative.

What does this mean? If your horror element could happen in the real world – however unlikely – it isn’t speculative. Cannibals, serial killers, extremely creative engineers of death-traps, kidnappers and sadists – these are messed up, but not otherworldly. Monsters, zombies, alien invaders, invented diseases and parasites: these are made up, and therefore considered speculative.

Alternate Histories

Whenever you write history, you are writing an alternate history. You weren’t there, so what you are writing probably didn’t happen the way you are going to tell it. Historical fiction has been a huge genre since Sir Walter Scott and even earlier, but has never really been considered fantasy or speculation.

On the other hand, historical fiction that tracks wildly from the path history is generally understood to have followed becomes more and more speculative. The more your history deviates from what “really happened”, the more speculative it becomes.

What does this mean? If you are at the point where your historical fiction has to invent new technologies, nations, social orders, cultures, or major figures in order to account for the changes you have made to the timeline, you are well into speculative territory. Think of it as historical science fiction!


We can dream up anything. That’s what we do here, that’s what this contest celebrates. The raw imaginative power of dreams is often a theme or device used in speculative fiction – see Neil Gaiman’s Sandman for a case in point. But a story whose speculative elements occur entirely in the context of a dream and have no connection to the story’s “real world” is not a speculative story.

What does this mean? In short, if there is any possibility that the dream world is any more than “just a dream”, it is probably speculative. If a character wakes up at the end of a flight of fantasy and nothing carries over, it probably isn’t.

Anything else?

When in doubt, query! But if after you have read through all of this, you still aren’t sure where your story stands, it is probably speculative enough for us. Submit and see what happens! You have a little less than three weeks left – we hope to hear from you!


One More Month!

Dragon Writer by Andrew Ferez

We have been open to submissions for two months now, with one month to go!

Submissions have been strong so far, but we have a ways to go. Our submission numbers are up 15% – we’re nearly two weeks ahead of where we were last year. Queries and website traffic are up as well, thanks to posts on Gawker, io9, and Jezebel. While most of our submissions are from Canadians, we have representation from the US, the UK, Brazil, and Spain.

But don’t be discouraged – your odds of placing in the Contest are still very high! Our slush pile isn’t as deep as those of most pro ‘zines – and, of course, you can submit to them simultaneously. We would love to see more international submissions, more submissions from women, POC, and members of the QUILTBAG community. We strongly encourage those unique pieces you worry won’t fit anywhere else. We are a open and welcoming Contest with a great love of work that challenges us!

Want to see what your donations are doing? Come on out to some of the Merril Collection’s upcoming events!

Nnedi Okorafor at the Merril Collection
Fri. Mar. 06, 2015
7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.

Award-winning fantasy author Nnedi Okorafor discusses writing and fantasy at the Merril Collection of Science Fiction on Thursday, March 5, in the lower level, Lillian Smith branch, 239 College Street, starting at 7PM.

Music for the 21st Century: the 3rd annual FilkOntario Concert at the Merril
Sat. Mar. 21, 2015
7:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m.

The Friends of the Merril Collection and FilkOntario are co-sponsoring the 3rd Annual Filk Festival, Music for the 21st Century. Music will be created in the lower level of the Lillian Smith Branch on Saturday, March 21, starting at 7:00PM.

19th Fantastic Pulp Show
Sat. May 09, 2015
All Day

The Friends of the Merril Collection are sponsoring the 19th
Fantastic Pulp Show. The event will feature ‘golden age’ pulp magazines from the 1920s – 1960s. A lecture on pulp art will take place in the 3rd floor reading room of the Merril Collection at 1:30. The pulp show will take place in the lower level of the Lillian Smith Branch, between 10:00AM and 4:00PM. Call 416-393-7748 for further information.

So submit soon, and submit often! The contest closes on Sunday, February 15th, 2015. We look forward to reading you!

One Month Down, Two to Go!

Submissions have been open for one month, but no fear – they are open for two more! Our readers are poised and eager to see what else you have for us.

Want to help the contest in another way? Help spread the word by posting our poster on your webpage, in your local bookstore, or anywhere else writers might see it.

This year’s Merril Contest poster has been illustrated by Toronto artist Jenn Desmarais (as has our new header.) Working in digital as well as paper mediums, her work is influenced by Laurie Lipton and H.R. Giger. Check her out on Facebook!

The poster is available as a digital download by clicking above. Paper copies are also available – contact if you’d like to post one local to you.

And, of course, don’t forget those stories! Full guidelines here. Queries and questions can be directed at the contest administrator, Charlotte Ashley, at

The 2014 Winners/Honourable Mentions: One Stands Alone

It took us a fair bit longer than it has in past years to choose a winner for this contest. Couple of different reasons for that, all of which are largely internal, so we’ll not be sharing them here. Though we do apologize for making everyone wait so long (especially the finalists) after the promised deadline to see the results of this year’s contest.

So, without further ado, we present to you the first place winner of the 2014 Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest:

First Place ($500.00 CDN):

Scott Shank (Unnamed)

And we have two honourable mentions to award, respectively, to the following shortlisted writers:

Honourable Mention ($50.00 CDN):

Star Spider (The One in Green)

Honourable Mention ($50.00 CDN):

Barry King (The Politics of Bird Flight)

We’re again this year not purchasing the winning stories. Though there has been some debate about going back to doing so, which we’ll talk more about once we’ve come to a decision on that. But in the meantime, we also need to mention who the remaining finalists (or, technically, finalist) were, and attribute the remaining story to its rightful author, who we will once more congratulate for making it to the shortlist. So:

Charlotte D’Arcy (The Walk)

Now, ordinarily, the remaining shortlist attributions would have three names. But we had a, well, an interesting year, and we’ll go into more about that with the forthcoming numbers breakdown post.

In fact, we’ll have updates aplenty to follow on forthcoming changes to the contest in advance of next year (based on what worked and what didn’t this year we’re changing things up again), along with the promised numerical breakdown and additional information that we provide every year.

But, for now, we’re going to give everyone some space before we do that. It’s taken us this long to decide on a winner, and for the moment we’d like to just let all the winning parties/recipients of their honourable mentions revel in their victories, and give us a breather so we can get in touch with everyone and get them their prize monies.

In the meantime, we would like to, once again, take the opportunity to thank everyone who has helped with, participated in, otherwise aided or supported the contest this year. We’d also like to take a moment to again congratulate this year’s winner, honourable mentions, and shortlisted writers, and very much hope you will take the opportunity to do likewise.

As always, if anyone has any questions, or needs to get in touch with us for whatever reason, you can do so by e-mailing me, Michael Matheson, at, or you can find us on Twitter @fomcontest.

A Breather Before Returning to the Fray: The 2014 Finalist Shortlist

Well, that’s another reading period and rush to get a finalist list compiled done and over with. We had an interesting, and … well … strange year three, actually. This year’s finalist list is compiled from about half of the number of submissions we had in the first year, despite having a significantly larger prize available this year than in either of the first two initial years.

It was an interesting shift in submissions, and not just because of the numbers. From year to year we see slightly different submissions patterns. The first two legs of the three month submission period have been more or less identical all three years running. It was the last third of the contest this year that was odd. And unexpectedly slow. We have a fair bit of number crunching to look at and see what we can shift to amend that. Though I’m inclined to think that part of it relates to the prize structure we used this year.

I’m always interested by the reasoning contests employ for using the significantly larger first prize and a couple of honourable mentions as opposed to offering a scaled three tier (first, second, third place) set of winning placements. I’ve heard differing accounts of how people react to the former, but given the first hand evidence gleaned from trying it this year I think we’re going to go back to a three tier placement system. People seem to feel better about having a larger number of chances to actively place, and to effectively be on the pedestal, as it were; the idea of being a mere honourable mention seems to lower interest–this based on feedback I’ve heard, and the significantly smaller pool of entries themselves this year. We have a small core of dedicated entrants from year to year, but the rest of the submissions we receive are totally reliant on a combination of prizes offered, our outreach (general and specific), and how we talk about the contest. Those, let us call them casual entrants, are the equivalent of people who purchase gratuitous or upsell items while shopping, or who purchase things off the impulse bays in a retail environment (the racks set up with candy, magazines, and other often low-cost per unit/relatively high-margin items near cash registers, for those of you who’ve never worked retail). Those are the people who are going to end up entering because they came across the contest while planning on doing something else. And I suspect that offering fewer placement prizes actively hurt us with that potential pool of entrants this year.

Anyway, the full numeric breakdown is coming after we announce the winners and I’ve had time to look at all the information and organize it. But the numbers are going to be a fair bit different from prior years. And the discussion of what’s going to change from this year to next year will come up then as well. And, of course, that’s one of the excellent things about not being tied to a specific structure from year to year: we can alter how the contest is set up from as we go both in order to experiment and to refine what works for us.

Though a sneak preview would be to say that from conversations had thus far this year and from a preliminary l0ok at the numbers we’re likely going to revert to the three tier prize structure I just mentioned, and will also quite likely be opening the contest up to simultaneous submissions next year.

But all of that is for down the road.

Right now, we’re focusing on the finalist shortlist from the 2014 contest. And to start that off, thank you to everyone who entered this year. Especially given the smaller number of entries, as every one of those that did come in was very much appreciated. And we’ve posted the finalist list below, but we will, as always, be getting back to everyone who entered.

Again this year we ask that all of the finalists please refrain from mentioning which of the stories below is theirs, though they are as always free to mention that they have a story on the 2014 Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest finalist shortlist. We just don’t want to bias the Final Panel Judges before they see the shortlisted stories.

As to the final round of adjudications: The finalist stories will be passed on to the Final Panel Judges over the next few days, and the First Place winner and the Honourable Mentions will be decided upon and announced no later than April 1st, 2014.

In the meantime, the shortlisted finalist stories for the 2014 FoMSSC are presented below, sans author names:

The One in Green

The Politics of Bird Flight


The Walk

As was the case last year, once the winner/honourable mentions have been announced, we’ll release the names of all the writers of the remaining shortlisted works as well. And there is a reason there are only four shortlisted stories out of a possible six on that list, and I will discuss why that was the case in the coming numerical breakdown of the 2014 contest.

There are fewer response e-mails to send out this year, so we’ll hopefully be able to get through those in short order, though it will still take us a few days to get to everyone. Also, some of the slush readers this year have attached feedback to their responses, so any feedback earmarked for entrants will be passed along in the response letters.

For the time being, a well-deserved thank you to all of the entrants, our dauntless team of slush readers, everyone who helped promote the contest, and to those of you who have helped in various capacities since the contest’s inception.

And, that being said, any questions or comments you want to send our way? Address them to Michael Matheson at, or hit us up on Twitter (@fomcontest).

We’ll see you back here when we announce the winning story/honourable mentions and reveal the writers of all the shortlisted works.

The 2014 Reading Period is Now Closed!

We’ve had our local midnight, and the 2014 Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest reading period is now officially closed. (The PayPal button on the Pay Entry Fee(s) page is gone again and everything–it’ll return with the opening of the 2015 reading period come November.)

And so now the contest staff retreat to our individual lairs, libraries, and other congenial places, to read and reflect on this year’s entries in aid of preparing the coming shortlist.

Indeed, the next two weeks are for slush reading and making sure that any stray physical entries get accounted for. Everything else looks to be in order at the moment. I believe we’ve replied to everyone who sent us an entry (or entries), but if you’ve not heard from us at this point please do give us a shout. You can do so via e-mail (address your query to Michael Matheson at or via Twitter (@fomcontest).

And while we focus on getting everything organized and read on this end, I’ll take a moment to thank everyone who has been good enough to help out with the contest in any capacity:

A sincere thank you to those of you who submitted; to those of you who spread word about the contest; and to those who have been generally supportive of our efforts to promote and fundraise for the Merril Collection. This year’s contest was an odd one (no other way to put it really) in terms of the submissions patterns we saw. The first two years were fairly consistent. This one not so much. So everyone’s continued support has been distinctly appreciated.

In any case, there’ll be number crunching in that regard later. And we will, of course, share that breakdown with you once it’s ready.

In the meantime, keep an eye on the blog for any updates, and in a couple of weeks’ time we’ll have the shortlist up and running.

And as always, if you have questions, queries, or just need to get in touch for whatever reason, use the e-mail address, or ping us on Twitter (@fomcontest).

See you all again in a couple of weeks.

Coming Into the Home Stretch – Two Weeks Left In 2014 Reading Period

Well, we’re coming up fast on the end of the 2014 Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest reading period. This year’s reading period will close at 11:59:59 p.m. EST (UTC-5) on February 15, 2014. (Or, put more simply, our local version of midnight on the date thereof.)

If you’re working on a submission (or more than one as we’re still allowing unlimited entries) hopefully things are going well. We’ve been delighted to see all the entries that have come in so far. Though, somewhat unaccountably, we’ve had a slower submissions year than the first two years of the contest. So we’re hoping to see a deluge of work correct that at the close, but we would very much appreciate it if anyone so inclined would go forth and help spread the word that we’re here, still looking for more entries, and we’ve got (really rather excellent) prize money to disperse.

Ideally we’d like to see an uptick in entries because of the contest’s mandate: to provide both exposure and financial support to the Merril Collection of the Toronto Public Library system (incidentally, the number of items listed in the Collection on that link is slightly out of date – the Collection houses closer to 80,000 items at the moment) through the efforts of the Friends of the Merril Collection. The contest has been quite a success in the first respect, and for two years running we’ve come so close to doing the second. (For those who aren’t already aware we’ve come just shy of breaking even on the prize monies every year the contest has run thus far.) Everything we (potentially) raise above the funds needed to cover the prize monies goes directly toward supporting the Merril Collection through Friends activities. The current Events page (for 2013) of the Friends’ website will give you an overview of the kind of things that means. And at the end of the year the Friends also make a direct donation to the Collection to help the Merril purchase special acquisitions.

So, long story short, if we can raise more than we need for the prize pool this year we can finally have something to put directly toward supporting the Merril Collection as well as paying the prize money for this year. Which was one of the major reasons the contest began in the first place. (The others being to offer another venue for people to get paid for their work, and to get writers some more exposure as well.)

Speaking to the prize pool (for those just now coming to the contest website): This year’s First Place Prize is $500.00 (CDN), and we’re awarding two Honourable Mentions (of $50.00 each) as well. Which is the highest we’ve yet offered.

If you have just come to the website and require some  additional information, the quick breakdown is as follows:

  • There is an entry fee of $5.00 (CDN) per entry. Though you may enter an unlimited number of times. (You just have to pay a fee for each story you send.)
  • Entries must be original, previously unpublished speculative fiction (SF/F/H, magic realist, fabulist, slipstream, and so on). The only exception is that you can send us something which was previously published in another language but has never appeared in English (though we need to see the English translation).
  • All entries must be a maximum of 5,000 words in length.

For the complete set of rules see the Contest Rules page and the FAQ page.

And, as always, any questions or queries can be directed to Michael Matheson at, or on Twitter @fomcontest.

That said, we’re looking forward to seeing the rest of the entries that come our way, and announcing the shortlist once the reading period is closed and we’ve had the two weeks it takes to get everything in order for that.

In the meantime, good luck to you all. Also, a hello and welcome to those of you who’ve just come across the contest for the first time. And we’re quite serious about feeling free to contact us. If there’s anything you need addressed, or any questions you have, let us hear from you.

Rise and Shine! It’s 2014 and the Current Reading Period is Halfway Over

A happy New Year to all!

The celebrations have been had. The libations partaken of. Now it’s time to rise and shine (or at least make a noble attempt to shrug off the hangover) and get back to writing.

Ideally some of that writing will result in a submission(s) to the 2014 FoMSSC. This post marks the halfway point of the current reading period, so you still have some time. A month and a half, in point of fact: all entries have to be in by 11:59:59 p.m. EST (UTC-5) on February 15, 2014.

As always, good luck to everyone submitting, and if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask. You can address all queries to Michael Matheson at Or you can ping us on Twitter @fomcontest.

Here’s hoping that 2014 has been treating you well thus far. And that it will continue to do so. May it be an excellent year for your writing, in whatever capacity.

Now Awaiting the Crushing Pile of Stories Inbound: The 2014 FoMSSC Reading Period is Open!

Come midnight tonight (according to our local timezone, so UTC-5), the 2014 Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest reading period will open for the third consecutive year. And this year’s reading period will remain open until midnight (again, UTC-5) on February 15th, 2014.

For those of you not already familiar with the contest, follow along for a few minutes:

The Friends of the Merril Collection are running our third annual Speculative Fiction Short Story Contest in order to raise awareness of, and funds for, the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy through the Friends of the Merril Collection (whose stated objectives, codified in the organization’s constitution, can be found at

The annual Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest distributes cash prizes to three entrants, as judged by a panel of authors, editors and other notables in the Canadian Speculative Fiction community. This year we’ve adjusted the prize structure to grant the first place winner a prize of $500.00 (CDN), and are awarding additional prizes of $50.00 (CDN), each, to two honourable mentions.

The contest is open to international entrants without restriction on country of residence, entrant’s publication history (or lack thereof), or any other delimiting factors (though entrants not of age of majority will need a parent or guardian’s permission in order to enter).

Entries must be original, previously unpublished short stories with a maximum length of 5,000 words, and must be submitted as an e-mailed .doc or .rtf attachment (composed in Standard Manuscript Format) to We welcome, and indeed prefer, inclusive and innovative stories. Entries must contain some speculative element, however slight, but content is not otherwise restricted in any fashion. For a more detailed rundown of the kind of things we want to see in entries, please see last year’s post “It’s Time: The 2012-2013 FoMSSC Reading Period Opens at Midnight” and scroll down to the section titled “That Content Advice I Kept Promising and Am Finally Getting Around To.”

Again, the reading period runs from November 15, 2013 through February 15, 2014, and each entry must be accompanied by an entry fee of $5 (CDN). There is no limit on the number of entries you may submit.

For full rules see either the Contest Rules or FAQ pages. For all other information please use the menus and tabs to navigate the site.

And Some Final Words Before The Submissions Start Rolling In

Again, as always, we need to take a moment to acknowledge the work of those who keep helping to make this contest enjoyable on all sides. To those of you who have submitted work over the past two years, who’ve helped us to promote the contest, our past slush readers and those who’ve come onboard for this year’s reading period, and our past and returning Final Panel Judges, as well as everyone else who otherwise helps, aids, and supports the Friends, and by extension the Merril Collection, we offer our sincere thanks.

As ever, we’re looking forward to seeing what comes over the proverbial transom. If there are questions or concerns you would like addressed, please feel free to direct them to me, Michael Matheson, at And you can either follow the website here or the contest Twitter feed (@fomcontest) for updates.

Good luck to everyone!

Not Far Now: Two Weeks Until the 2014 FoMSSC Opens

Just a (very quick) reminder that the reading period for the 2014 Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest opens in a little less than two weeks, on November 15th. The reading period will run until February 15th, 2014.

As previously mentioned, this year’s prizes include a first place prize of $500.00 (CDN), and two Honourable Mentions of $50.00 (CDN) each.

Please feel free to browse the site for more information. You can find more information about the 2014 Final Panel Judges on the Judges page. And it’s highly advisable that you have a look at both the Contest Rules and FAQ pages (both have been updated for the 2014 FoMSSC) if you’ve never entered the FoMSSC before.

We’re looking forward to seeing this year’s crop of stories. Our preference for the kind of fiction we like to see holds fairly consistent from year to year. But for those of you not already familiar with some of the posts we’ve put up about the kind of content we always hope to see, you might want to have a look at the “It’s Time: The 2012-2013 FoMSSC Reading Period Opens at Midnight” post (scroll down to “That Content Advice I Kept Promising and Am Finally Getting Around To“) from November of last year.

Luck to everyone entering the contest this year. And, as always, everyone is welcome to direct any queries to Michael Matheson at Or you can find us on Twitter @fomcontest.