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Monday, June 11, 2018

The Story Thus Far

Quite a few people have written recently to ask, “Where the hell is Bruce?” The short answer is that for the past few weeks we’ve been in the land of ice and snow, with the midnight sun, where the hot springs flow—


Really, the Icelanders are very proud of their extensive use of geothermal energy, which they insist on calling “green,” even though the actual byproducts tend to be more of an unearthly blue. They claim this is merely the result of perfectly harmless silicates suspended in the water and not plutonium waste or Cerenkov radiation or anything like that, so there is absolutely nothing to worry about.

Personally, though, if I was scouting locations for the next Bond villain’s lair, I would definitely look into filming exteriors around an Icelandic geothermal plant. Between the bleak near-Lunar terrain, the miles of massive water pipelines, the networks of weird little polygonal buildings capping all the boreholes, and the constantly hissing and venting of massive amounts of steam, it’d be a great place to stage a big set-piece battle against an army of minions.

But never mind that now. The salient point is that after a few weeks of being much further out of touch than we’d planned to be—and there are many stories to be told about that, but in the interests of brevity, I’ll withhold them for now—we’re back. The Intern did a great job of keeping the slush flowing while we were gone, but there’s still a sizable pile of correspondence waiting for my attention. 

Friday, June 1, 2018

Talking Shop


Op-ed • "Substance and Style," By Eric Dontigney 

                                                                                                                                                                               

Writing fiction is a precarious amalgamation of substance and style. It’s also a mix that almost no one gets right. You know this because at some point in every book, you find yourself losing interest. Either the prose got too florid or it got too informational. Let’s look at a quick example of each.

Florid example:

Robert gazed across the azure vastness that stretched out before him as the water curled toward the shore tipped with frothing white that looked incandescent in the midday sun. He sighed as a great melancholy swept over him, dampening his inner vision and stealing the joy from his clifftop vantage.

Informational example:

Bob stood on a cliff, stared at waves and was sad.

Neither of the examples was particularly fun to write. I don’t imagine either was much fun to read. Both conveyed almost precisely the same information. Neither belongs in a novel or short story. The pertinent question is: What’s wrong with them?

So let’s take the first passage. Setting aside that it comes off like a passage from third-rate, 19th century Brit Lit, this passage relies too much on style. It overplays description in a sad bid to overcome a lack of pertinent information. In short, it tries to do too much with too little.

The second passage/sentence fails because it relies too much on substance. It conveys information, but it does it with no real style. Sure, I know the who, what, and where, but I simply don’t care about any of it. That sentence could come straight out of a psychiatrist’s notes about a patient. It is utterly lifeless.

I’ll grant you that I set up both passages to fail, but you see this kind of writing all over the place. It’s not just in amateur fare, either. You can find passages and sentences like those above in contemporary novels sitting on bookstore shelves.

Let’s see if we can’t write a better version of those passages.

Robert stood on the cliff’s edge and watched as the waves rolled in, inevitable and coldly oblivious. The salt tang in the air reminded him of better times spent sailing on the bay with Jessica. As he thought of their small sloop and the accident, a fresh tide of depression washed over Robert.

This version of the passage is almost exactly the same length as the florid version, but it works a lot better. You sacrifice a bit of the descriptive flair to get a lot more information. You end up with the who, what, where, and why, and you care more about the consequences. He isn’t just some guy staring at the ocean and acting emo.

This is man who suffered some kind of serious loss. We know there was an accident, but not what caused it. The passage poses subliminal questions. Did Robert cause the accident? Did he overestimate his skill and take the boat out in bad weather? Did another boat capsize Robert and Jessica? Is the depression a result of the loss, guilt, or both?

These kinds of sub-surface questions help drive the curiosity of the reader, propelling them forward into the story. It’s done by marrying enough substance to enough style. I use a basic rule of thumb to evaluate the informational side of this balance.

Every sentence needs at least one piece of information I think the reader needs. If I can’t readily identify that information when editing, it’s a sentence relying too much on style.

The style side is a lot trickier, because style is personal. Some writers lean toward minimalism, while others lean toward descriptive generosity. I’m more of a minimalist. That means I’m likely to cut things others might see as style because I see it as florid.

Beta readers come in handy when you’re trying to evaluate style. Ask them to point out passages where they started losing focus or getting lost in the descriptions. It’s not a precise system, but there’s a good chance they’ll nail down the passages where you relied too much on style.

Good writing marries substance to style in some imprecise ratio that gets decided on a case by case basis. The ratio that works for one writer will fail for another. There are, however, some clues that you’ve gone the wrong way. If you find yourself reaching for lots of adjectives, you’re probably overcompensating for thin substance. If you find yourself listing facts about your characters or setting, you need more style.

________________________________________________

Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One.  Raised in Western New York, he currently resides in Memphis, TN. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at ericdontigney.com.

Eric’s last appearance in our pages was “Memory Makes Liars of Us All,” in Stupefying Stories #13, his next will be “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it! 


________________________________________________

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Talking Shop


Op-ed • "It's Time to Retire Writer's Block," By Eric Dontigney 

                                                                                                                                                                               

So let’s talk about the much-feared affliction called writer’s block. Rather, let’s talk about why I don’t give much credence to it. Here’s my problem. Virtually every discussion of it I’ve ever seen points to some cause that doesn’t have anything to do with writing. There’s a tragedy in the family. Financial stress. A marriage breaks up. Illness. I might even lend some credence to these claims if writing were some ephemeral process that we don’t understand. It isn’t.

Writing is primarily a skill. It’s the organization of ideas within the accepted rules of grammar, and we can even fudge the grammar a little. There are accepted structures in writing. The 5-paragraph essay was popular when I rolled through college and most academic papers follow the same structure, just bigger. Journalists use the inverted pyramid. Screenwriters and even some novelists use 3-act or 5-act structures.  A recent trend in blogging holds that paragraphs shouldn’t go over 3 sentences because it’s easier to read on screen. Once you know the rules of grammar and get a handle on structure, you don’t lose that knowledge because life goes in the toilet.

I’m sure someone is thinking something like, “But what about ideation? I can’t write until I have a great idea.” Not true. That’s not even kind of true. The vast majority of fiction doesn’t stem from some single, original idea. Here’s the idea behind nearly every detective novel ever written: A crime or moral outrage occurs and a detective investigates. Sure, an idea can be original or groundbreaking, but most originality stems from careful and clever details.

Consider American Gods, one of the more beloved modern fantasy novels. The core idea is that gods walk among us with their own, sometimes alien, agendas. It’s not a new idea. Diana Wynne Jones used it. John James used it. Harlan Ellison used it. What makes American Gods special is all of the details layered over the base idea…well, that and Neil Gaiman’s nigh-uncanny talent.

Plus, there are lots of reliable techniques for generating story ideas. There’s the classic brainstorming approach. It’s not my favorite, but it works for some people. You can go somewhere people gather and create imaginary lives for the people you see. Restaurants, stores, bars, zoos, and parks are all good for that. Check out the latest news. There’s almost always something bizarre happening that can serve as fodder for a story.

Ask “Why” about things you see. For example, there’s an older gentleman who lives in my neighborhood. He walks up and down the street a few times a day when the weather is good. Why? I write urban fantasy, so my answers lean that direction. Maybe he’s an aging sorcerer checking on his wards. Maybe he’s protecting us from restless spirits. Maybe he was a rogue Vodou priest 30 years ago, and he’s watching for signs of vengeful Loa. When you get right down to it, ideas are everywhere.

“But, but what about plotting?” There’s nothing magical about plotting. Academics argue about how many plots there are, but it’s probably in the neighborhood of six. If you can argue the minutia of Game of Thrones episodes, you can master the basics of the six essential plots. Besides, a lot of stories unconsciously fall back onto Joseph Campbell’s monomyth or some part of it. George Lucas quite intentionally and shamelessly built the original Star Wars movies around the monomyth. For those writing women protagonists, Maureen Murdock lays out an alternative myth structure centered on the feminine journey.

In other words, if you’re struggling to plot your novel, there’s plenty of resources out there to help you find your way. Plot is a known quantity. The specific plot you choose for a story is more about personal style and any native genre restrictions. In capital-L literature, your protagonist can fail or die. It’s almost expected. In genre fiction, there’s a general expectation that your protagonist will triumph in the end.

You can, however, subvert those expectations to excellent results. Charles Stross’ Laundry Files novels are a great example. Every seeming victory on the part of Bob Howard, the usual protagonist, peels away his humanity a bit at a time. All of which happens on the way toward an unavoidable, Lovecraftian apocalypse. Granted, that kind of meta-plotting isn’t for beginners, but it can be done.

So what does all of this have to do with writer’s block and my disbelief in it?

If writing were some ephemeral process, guided entirely by the invisible hands of some mercurial spirit, then writer’s block might seem plausible. The reality is far more mundane. Writing is a skill, guided by known rules, structures, and techniques. You can learn them. You can apply them. You can write every single day. Saying you’ve got writer’s block is a less blatant way of saying, “I don’t want to.” Here’s how I know this.

Doctors, lawyers, and engineers are also in jobs that require creativity and higher-order thinking within accepted rules, structures and techniques. When their lives go sideways, they take a little time off to put things in order as well as they can. Then, they go back to work. People undergoing chemotherapy still go to work. They may not be 100%, but they show up and do their jobs. You’ve got an uphill battle to convince me that writing is more demanding than performing surgery, or designing a building, or defending a client in court. You’ve got an impossible battle to convince me that writing is harder than showing up to a job while battling a life-threatening condition.

Think about it. How would you react if someone said they couldn’t work because they had “doctor’s block,” or “engineer’s block,” or “lawyer’s block?” You’d roll your eyes at them. Writers get away with it only because dubious ideas about inspiration as an external force have filtered into the public consciousness. People let it slide because everyone knows those pesky muses are fickle. The truth is that it’s time to retire the term writer’s block. If Brandon Sanderson can write 20+ books in 12 years, the rest of us ought to be able to muster the discipline to write a few hundred words a day.

________________________________________________

Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One.  Raised in Western New York, he currently resides in Memphis, TN. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at ericdontigney.com.

Eric’s last appearance in our pages was “Memory Makes Liars of Us All,” in Stupefying Stories #13, his next will be “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it! 


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Saturday, May 19, 2018

SHOWCASE

Fiction • “Our Range in Time,” by Jennifer R. Povey •


In some ways, what I remember are the least important things. The first dance at the wedding. The...

Yeah. Things like that, the flotsam and jetsam of a life lived, if not well, then at least without complications.

Which might be why I’m hesitating now. They say they can give me another life. More time, to live over, to try everything again. I just don’t know whether I should. Whether I really need that time.

That’s what we don’t realize, any of us. We have so much space and we have so much time. They’re the same thing and...eh. I ramble. I think it’s because I’m old. Still reasonably healthy, but old. The brain goes last, they claim, unless you have something wrong with it.

Pheh. It goes first, or maybe it’s the mind that goes, the mind that flows into new patterns. It’s the weight of memory, and they can’t take that from me. Well, they could, but then it wouldn’t be me. No continuity. No difference from dying.

I stand up. I can still do that, although it’s harder than it used to be. I walk out onto the balcony, stiffly. Four legs in the morning, two in the day. I’m in the evening and I need my third leg, the cane. But at least I don’t float in a chair like most people my age.

I know I’m going to do it. I don’t actually want to die. Nobody does. Even somebody who’s over a hundred, well over a hundred. Who has had most of his organs replaced, with plastic and metal.

They have better now. They can regrow everything, rejuvenate it. Now even us old farts can be brought back to a semblance of youth. Old eyes in young heads. Used to know an actor like that. Young guy, but his eyes always looked like he’d got them from his grandfather. I don’t remember his name.

Will I get those fragmented memories back? That would be getting more time too, and the decision is made. I might get them back, I might lose them, but I choose life. I choose time. I choose not to die. With this, I can start again. Do something different. Do something new.
¤

Maura stopped reading the note and shook her head. Her grandfather. He’d tried the most experimental rejuvenation.

It had wiped his memory. They were retraining him now, putting him through school again. It was better, she supposed, than being dead, but reading his notes and his journals made her wonder. Made her think about it. Would she have done the same thing?

If they were right about how it worked, then she would not have to. She had visited him again that morning. At least now he believed her when she told him who she was. At first he had looked at his face in the mirror and insisted he could not be anyone’s grandfather. And flirted with her, which had been so embarrassing.

Time. He had put it down to increasing the time you occupied. An interesting theory and thought. Everything she did at the clinic was about that. And it had been she who had got him into the trials, when he was finally dying, when replacement parts weren’t enough. She still was not sure, reading the last note again, whether it had been the right thing.

No. It had been his choice. Doctor Morson was in the doorway.

“We’ll get the kinks aired out, you know.”

She nodded. “How about mechanical augmentation? Maybe we can store the memories...”

“They haven’t lost their memories. They’ve lost the indexing system.”

She frowned. “Which would mean they might still be accessible. Have we tried dream therapy?”

“Working on it now. I have all the patients who will cooperate keeping diaries.” He frowned. “I still think it beats being dead.”

“Oh, definitely, but it feels as if we gave them more time in one direction whilst robbing them of what they already had.”

“You read his note again. About time and space.”

Maura nodded. “Yeah. He was a smart guy. Heck, he still is. And maybe this time he’ll go into something completely different.”

Even if he had his memories, the time they had given him would be more than enough to get another PhD. Heck, with the way lifespans were going, one wouldn’t be enough to do interesting work any more. She frowned at that. Not everyone was smart enough to get a PhD, and what would they do? Robots did most of the menial work. Except waiting tables. People had never really warmed to robot waiters and only fast food joints used them. Well, she had seen them bus tables in higher quality places.

“That...hrm. Wait.” He paused. “I think you have something.”

“Have what?”

“Why some subjects are retaining memories and others aren’t. It may not just be a factor of physical brain age after all. Did your grandfather ever talk about wanting to do something different?”

“All the time. I think it’s why he agreed to the rejuvenation. He said he wanted to get another degree, in a different field.”

Morson nodded, then abruptly grinned and fled the room. He did that...he was a brilliant man and brilliant men went off on their little tangents. Not much could be done about it. Maura was just left wondering what his idea was.

No. She understood it. He was implying that the people who had lost their memories somehow, subconsciously, wanted to.

For her, it would not be an issue. She was young, and would never need the kind of wholesale cellular regeneration her grandfather had gone through. Well, unless she was in some kind of bad accident.

Accident victims almost always lost chunks of their memories, mind, although not generally all of them. They had put that down to trauma. And some of the very old had already lost their memories. There was an ethical twist. If somebody was far gone into senility, did they have the right to rejuvenate them anyway? Most of the ones they had done had lost their memory. Of those who kept it, one had committed suicide. It had felt like a slap in the face to her family.

Maura just thought that maybe she hadn’t wanted to live. There were actually people arguing that suicide should become a human right, at least if you were over a certain age. She wasn’t sure how she felt about it.

Was losing one’s memory a form of suicide? She swiped a hand across the smart desk to sleep the computer and went to see her grandfather.

He was staying in a sort of student dorm right now. Not that he couldn’t survive on his own per se, so much as he had to relearn everything academically. Basic skills like tying shoelaces had survived.

She didn’t call him grandfather. “Clark?” she called as she knocked on the door. He didn’t want to be called grandfather. She didn’t blame him, not when he looked no older than she did. It might be that generational terms would fade out.

“Come in!”

When she did, she found him in his living room doing an old fashioned, cut cardboard jigsaw puzzle. Of just the kind he had once loved. “You still like puzzles.”

“They feel right, somehow.”

“Clark. You wanted to change. Before. You wanted to try something new. And you weren’t sure about living longer.”

He turned to face her, puzzled. “And I lost...”

“I don’t think you lost your memories at all. I think you blocked them. And I wanted you to know that if you want a fresh start, then it’s fine.”

His face broke into a smile. “Maura...”

“It’s fine. You’re alive, and that’s what matters.”

“...and is it okay if I want to get my MD and work in the clinic?”

She laughed. And then she stepped over and hugged the most brilliant physicist of his generation. “You’ll be the best.”

And from then on, she did not even call him grandfather in her mind. But at the same time she remembered who he was deep in her heart.



Jennifer R. Povey is in her early forties, and lives in Northern Virginia with her husband. She writes a variety of speculative fiction, whilst following current affairs and occasionally indulging in horse riding and role playing games. She has sold fiction to a number of markets including Analog and written RPG supplements for several companies. She is currently working on an urban fantasy series, Lost Guardians.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Talking Shop


Op-ed • "Managing Magic in Your Novels, Part 2," By Eric Dontigney 

                                                                                                                                                                               


In Part 1, I laid out some of the questions that you need to answer before you launch into writing a fantasy novel. Now let’s turn our attention to some of the problems you’ll face once you start putting words to the page.

Every Last Detail

You’ve put a lot of effort into working out all of the ins and outs of your magical system. You know how it works, what its limits are, whether it’s a secret, and whether its limits can be transcended. Depending on how much time you spend on this part of things, you may have a pretty substantial amount of writing on the page already. Your first impulse is probably to get every last one of those details on the page.

It’s a mistake you commonly see in historical fiction and alt-history. Someone pours a lot of effort into learning all about a given time period. Then, they want you to know that they know just about every little thing about the era. So, they lovingly describe the food, the clothes, the architecture, the government, the monetary system, the state of trade, and so on and so forth ad nauseam. The problem is that this loving attention to detail is often secondary to, if not irrelevant to, the plot.

For example, I’ve read enough about Medieval/Renaissance Florence and the Medici family that I could probably write a novel set in the period. In doing so, I could talk extensively about how many of the Medici suffered from gout. That opens the door for a delightful little field trip into Renaissance medical practices. The only problem here is that I can’t think of a single meaningful reason to do that, except as a brief aside for why one of the Medici might not appear in public on a given day. At which point, there isn’t a particularly compelling reason to go into it.

A similar argument applies to the construction techniques used on Brunelleschi's Dome at the Florence Cathedral. While it’s fascinating, there aren’t many good reasons to talk about it on the page. So, what’s the takeaway here? Just because you know it, it doesn’t mean the reader needs to know it.

Relevance Before All Other Masters

A caveat here. Your first draft is all about getting the story down on the page. If you need to fill an extra 50 pages with all those details about your magical system to get the story down, then do it. Your first draft isn’t for public consumption, so it can be as bloated, disorganized, and inelegant as finishing requires. Once you turn to revisions and editing, though, things change.

The question you must always ask yourself while revising and editing is this: Does this detail about magic matter to the reader?

Another way of asking the question is: Does this detail forward the story in a meaningful way?

The sad truth is that, more often than not, the answer will be that it doesn’t matter. You might very well find that 95% of the information you generated about your magical system won’t end up in the novel. That extensive history of magic can end up being one or two lines because it doesn’t forward the story you’re working on. The cost you put on magic, on the other hand, may take up pages and pages of consideration because it’s central to a character’s decision-making. That information matters to the reader and the plot.

So, Why Bother?

If all that information isn’t going to end up on the page, why bother with generating it in the first place?

First, we’re back to the law of narrative consistency. You must do all that legwork so that when you’re writing, you know what magic can do and how it happens. That keeps your descriptions consistent across the length of the novel. Consider how often writers change a central character’s name halfway through a novel’s first draft. They’ve probably written that name dozens of times and they still end up changing it. How hard is it to imagine that you’ll change how magic is done halfway through if you didn’t do all that legwork?

Second, it actually speeds things up in the long run. Knowing exactly how magic works in your book means you aren’t figuring it out on the fly every time your wizard/mage/sorceress/witch violates the natural order. It's more like a fill in the blank problem.

Magic user does (blank) and then the bad guy (blanks). Afterward, the magic suffers (blank) because the cost of magic is (blank).

It’s really the same logic that applies to building character profiles. You figure out all of those character details so you can apply consistent reactions across the novel. It makes your life easier in the first draft and the revisions. Let’s face it, writing novels is hard enough. Anything that makes the process easier is a boon.

________________________________________________

Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One.  Raised in Western New York, he currently resides in Memphis, TN. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at ericdontigney.com.

Eric’s last appearance in our pages was “Memory Makes Liars of Us All,” in Stupefying Stories #13, his next will be “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it! 


________________________________________________

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Talking Shop


Op-ed • "Managing Magic in Your Novels, Part 1," By Eric Dontigney 

                                                                                                                                                                               

Magic is a staple of all fantasy literature. At first blush, this sounds like a recipe for anything goes. Magic is, by definition, outside the bounds of natural law. It’s irrational. That means that are no rules, right? It means exactly that, right up until you have a character use it. Once a character uses it, you become bound by the rule of narrative consistency.

Say you have a character cast a spell in the first chapter. They wave their hands significantly and utter some kind of nonsense word while casting that spell. For better or worse, you’re stuck with significant hand waving and nonsense words as key components of using magic. If not a rule for everyone in the book, it’s a rule for that character. If that character’s mode of casting spells changes every time without a very good in-universe explanation for why, it’ll shatter suspension of disbelief.

So, how do you, the stalwart writer of fantasy fiction, avoid that and other pesky pitfalls in your novels? The goal here is to lay out some general guidelines that should work across any version of fantasy you happen to write. So, let’s begin at the beginning.

How Does It Work?

Even if you plot by the seat of your pants, you need to know how magic works in your fictional universe from the outset. I’m not suggesting that you must figure out every possible permutation of every possible application of magic that could conceivably appear in your novel. What you do need is a solid foundational understanding of it. Here are a few starter questions that I believe must be answered from the get-go:

Is magical ability inherited, bestowed, or does it appear randomly?

Does using magic require any special equipment or training?

What, if any, cost is involved with using magic?

What are the limitations on magic?

Can the limits be transcended? If so, how, by whom, and under what conditions?

Is magic openly acknowledged or a functional secret?

So what makes these questions, as opposed to all the other potential questions, so critical? The answers to those questions will fundamentally shape what can and cannot happen on the page.

Take question 1. If magical ability is inherited, your magical characters will be born into family traditions and all the baggage that entails. If it’s bestowed, that has implications for the cosmology of your fictional universe. Someone must do that bestowing? Is it a god? A powerful nature spirit? An angel? If magical ability appears randomly, that sets up your character to be ostracized by friends or family. How do they cope? Who do they look to for guidance, and how do they find those guides?

So what about question 2? Why does that matter? If using magic requires special equipment, odds are good that it’s difficult to come by. Unless magic is an open practice in your universe, it’s not like your hero can swing by Ye Olde Magick Shoppe for some Eye of Psychedelic Tree Frog. Where do they get that equipment? What’s the price? How does the loss of equipment impair them? If it requires specialized training, who does the training and where do they do it? What’s the training regimen look like? You’ll get very different results depending on whether the training is more like Hogwarts or more like the Spartan agoge.

As to question 3, it’s almost a trope in fantasy that all magic comes at a price. Hence, you must figure out what that price looks like. Don’t be afraid to get creative here. It’s not a cost if it’s not something people value. It doesn’t even need to be an obvious cost. Maybe the price is memory. The more powerful the magic, the more memories or more important the memory you lose. How cautious would that make magic users? Yeah, maybe your character could bring down those castle walls, but it might cost them the memory of their child. Most of them would say no, unless it was literal life or death.

Question 4 is partially tied up with question 3. There can be psychological limits to magic, in that someone isn’t willing to pay the price to get something done. That said, you also need to know what inherent limits there are on using magic in your universe. What things are not allowed or impossible? Maybe magic can only influence inanimate matter. So, you can’t just hurl a fireball at someone to kill them. You need to trap them inside a wooden structure and then set that structure on fire. These kinds of limits are a good way to avoid using magic as a deus ex machina for every problem.

As to question 5, if you are going to allow those inherent limits to be transcended, what are the conditions? Who can do it, and why can they do it? Did they cut a deal with something? Are they using some other kind of magic? If so, why does that magic allow them to transcend those limits?

The answer to question 6 will define what kind of problems your character can face. If magic is an open part of the world, it’s not really a big deal if your character is hunting a demon. They won’t have to lie to friends about it. They won’t need to explain why those bones look so weird or how they seemed to pull lightning out of the sky. One potential annoyance they’ll face is one faced by many doctors or lawyers, which is people trying to get free advice from them. Your wizard is just trying to have a quiet pint at the pub and Yarg wanders up with a hypothetical question about removing a curse “for a friend.”

In Part 2 of Managing Magic in Your Novels, we’ll take a look at some of the on-the-page problems you’ll face as you write and edit.


________________________________________________

Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One.  Raised in Western New York, he currently resides in Memphis, TN. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at ericdontigney.com.

Eric’s last appearance in our pages was “Memory Makes Liars of Us All,” in Stupefying Stories #13, his next will be “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it! 


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Saturday, May 5, 2018

SHOWCASE

Fiction • “How Lurlene Learned to Love Herself,” by R.W.W. Greene •



Lurlene had almost thrown it out when she hauled Buddy’s things to the curb after their last big fight, and came closer yet when he called a year later to ask her to take him back and, by the way, bail him out of jail.

The SuperDupe-R™ had been on the market for barely three months two decades ago, before the world’s governments had raced in with their lobbyists and laws. Buddy had found one, still in the box, during a demolition job when times were good, and hauled it home. Lurlene might have been able to sell it to buy her mother some of the pricey pain pills that were the only thing that gave her any peace at the end, but fear kept her from putting it on Craigslist. Possession of forbidden tech was a felony, and although she’d cleaned up her act quite a bit since her bad old days, Lurlene couldn’t afford another one of those.

Now she stood over it and picked packing peanuts off the cheap, white plastic. It was a dead end, just like her. Lurlene's father had left when she was a baby, and, even though Lurlene had come home to take care of her, her mother had died cursing her failure to measure up. She’d wasted far too much time on Buddy, too, who had proved himself to be a first-class peckerwood. Enough was enough. Lurlene connected the SuperDupe-R to her kitchen tap and poured the sacks of pre-mixed nutrients into the dispenser. She ran the sterile cotton swab around the inside of her mouth, dropped the swab into the analyzer, and pushed the big red button.

A week later the “done” bell sounded. Lurlene opened the hatch gingerly, half expecting to see one of the abominations the preachers had warned about—two heads, maybe a tail and horns, heart pumping arrhythmically outside of its body. Instead, the little girl inside the machine was pink and perfect, biologically five-years-old, with a preloaded, state-approved education.

The girl blinked as her eyes tested the light for the first time. “Are you my mommy?” Her accent was American standard, just like the actors on the soaps Lurlene watched every day.

“I’m your mama,” Lurlene said. “And you’re my little girl.”

The girl’s head had been pumped full of oxytocin to enhance the likelihood of a solid bond. She beamed like sunlight. “What are you going to call me, Mama?”

“Delia. That was my grandma’s name. Delia Lambeaux.”

Little Delia held her arms out. “Pick me up.”

Lurlene wrapped the girl in a warm, dry towel, and they rocked in her mother’s chair until it was time to make lunch. She dressed Delia in hand-me-downs and made them each a fried-bologna sandwich.

“This is good, Mama!” Delia said.

“I made it just like my mama used to. She taught me everything I know about…” She frowned. “About everything, I guess.”

Delia took a nap after lunch, waking in time to watch the soaps. Lurlene explained who all the characters were, and who loved whom and who hated what. The next morning, she made liver mush and grits, and they walked hand in hand to the trailer-park swimming pool.

“I love it, Mama!” Delia splashed in the pool for hours, blow-up water wings forcing her into an awkward dog paddle.

“Who is she?” a neighbor said, her soft arms rippling like vanilla pudding as she fanned herself with a magazine.

“My cousin’s daughter,” Lurlene said. “Daddy’s side. You never met her. She’s from up north.”

The neighbor nodded sagely. “She favors your pa.”

Lurlene and Delia stopped for a Moon Pie and an RC Cola on the way home, took a nap together, and spent the afternoon watching the soaps.

The machine’s instructions had warned that Delia’s growth hormones would take a while to stabilize, so Lurlene took it in stride when the girl was ready for her tenth birthday party a week later. Lurlene made the cake herself, and they ate half of it while sitting on the trailer’s small porch watching insects fry on the zapper.

“Where’s my daddy?” Delia said.

Lurlene had avoided the word “clone” around the girl. “He died before you were born, baby girl.” She fought back tears so real she almost believed them. “He would have loved you so much.”

Delia’s bottom lip stuck out. “Why don’t we have any pictures?”

“Looking at them made me sad, so I burned them all up.” A character on their favorite soap had done something similar the day before, so the answer made sense, dramatically speaking.

“Did you love him?”

Lurlene pulled the girl into her arms and breathed in the clean smell of her hair. “Not as much as I love you.”

The next day they went to the pool to cool off. “Who is she?” said the soft-armed neighbor.

“Another cousin,” Lurlene said. “T’other one’s older sister.”

“Alike as two peas,” the neighbor said. The women around her nodded.

That weekend, Delia snuck out. Her body was fifteen, her features hinting at the good-looking woman she would grow into. Lurlene found her necking with a neighbor boy in a tree house. They had their hands up each other’s shirts and blinked wide-eyed and wild at the sudden illumination Lurlene cast into their secret space. The next night, Lurlene fired up her stun gun to rescue Delia from Woody Wilson, a middle-aged n’er-do-well who plied the girl with booze and cigarettes. Lurlene left Woody unconscious, his britches around his ankles, and took her daughter home to mend. She spent the night covering the girl’s forehead with cold washcloths and holding her hair back while she emptied her stomach in the trailer’s tiny bathroom.

“I love you, Mama,” Delia said, finally sober and pain-free enough to sleep.

Lurlene sat up all night to keep their nightmares away.

The next week, Delia ran away with an older boy. He had a car and rolled packs of cigarettes into his T-shirt sleeves. Delia was biologically seventeen years old and had “Wild Thing” tattooed on the back of her neck. They stole all the money Lurlene had in the trailer and left a cloud of dust in their wake. Lurlene was dry-eyed as she watched them drive away. She’d left home about the same age, about the same way. She cleaned the trailer from top to bottom, pushed the self-destruct button on the SuperDupe-R, and hauled the ashes to the curb. She watched the soaps alone and cried. The next day Delia sent an electronic postcard from Las Vegas.

She came back two weeks later, tall, skinny, twenty-something, and chain-smoking. Her halter top and cut-off shorts revealed several more visits to the tattoo parlor. “He left me,” she said. “Said I was getting too old for him.”

“They do that.” Lurlene’s mother had given her an earful when she had come back from running off, claimed she’d shamed the family and would never amount to a jar of spit. “You want something to eat?”

Delia turned and beckoned to the third-hand car parked on the roadway. The passenger door creaked open. “Come out meet your grandma!”

Tears stacked up in Lurlene’s eyes as she watched the little girl skip across the hard, red dirt. The girl stopped about halfway and put her finger in her ear.

“She’s come over shy,” Delia said. She patted her leg. “Get on over here!”

The little girl walked the rest of the way, giving Lurlene a good look at her. She was skinny, her hair needed a wash, and her elbows and knees were scabby and bruised.

“She likes to run,” Delia said. “Climbs and jumps on everything.”

“Come here and give me a hug.” Lurlene held her arms out. “I’m your grandma.”

The girl stopped just out of range. “You look like my mommy,” she said.

With little more than ten biological years separating them, Lurlene supposed she did. “Your mama was my little girl,” she said. “What’s your name?”

“Ashley.” The girl kicked at a rock. “I’m five.”

Lurlene pulled her eyes off the little girl and found Delia’s face. “She’s beautiful.”

Delia nodded. “Lucky she don’t take after her daddy.  Guess I don’t take after mine, neither.”

“You know ‘bout that.”

Delia scratched the faded needle scars inside her elbow. “Doctor says my growth hormones have settled. I'll age normal from here on out.” She nodded at the girl. “She grew quick at first, too.”

“I couldn’t have my own child, and—”

 “Don’t much matter how it happened.” Delia took a final drag of the cigarette and ground it out under her flip-flop. “Need you to watch her while I go to college upstate. She needs to go to school. Make friends.”

A normal life. “I can do that.”

Delia dropped to her knees in front of her daughter and pulled her into a rough hug. “You stay with your grandma.”

“How long?” the girl said.

Delia wiped at her eyes with the palms of her hands. “Until I get back. But I’ll come visit.” She stood up. “You mind your grandma, hear? Be a good girl.”

The girl nodded.

Lurlene bent to take her granddaughter’s hand and with the other she took Delia’s. “I love both of you,” she said. “I’m proud of you, too.”

“I love you, too, Mama,” Delia said. “I’m sorry I left the way I did.”

“It don’t matter. Just make it count for something. Don’t be like me.”

Lurlene and the little girl watched Delia drive away. This time there were no clouds of dust.

“You hungry?” Lurlene said.

The girl nodded.

“Let’s go inside and I’ll make you something. We can put the TV on. My soaps are about due.”

The little girl took her hand and followed her into the trailer. “Don’t you have any books?”

The soaps had never been much comfort anyway. Watching people whose lives looked better and brighter than hers. They seemed dimmer now. “There’s a library in town. Let’s eat, then you and me will go see.”



R.W.W. Greene is a New Hampshire writer with an MFA he exorcises vigorously in dive bars and damp coffee shops. His work has seen daylight in Near to the Knuckle, Jersey Devil Press, and Daily Science Fiction, among other places. Greene keeps bees, collects manual typewriters, and Tweets about things @rwwgreene. He maintains a website at rwwgreene.com

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

A little something for the weekend...

Public Service Announcement • “Avengers: Infinity War,” by Bruce Bethke •


This is not a movie review. It’s a warning. If you’re determined to see this movie without any preconceptions, stop reading right now—but don’t say you weren’t forewarned.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Are you a Stupefying storyteller?

If you look at the left column this morning, you’ll notice that we’ve cleaned out some old cruft, but more importantly, we’ve added the one new thing that a lot of writers have been asking to see:


Yes, we are open for submissions, but please, before you send us a story, read our guidelines. Better yet, read our guidelines, and then click on the SHOWCASE link in the left column and read a good sampling of the stories you’ll find there. What we’ve published in the past is not necessarily a precise guide to what we’d like to publish in the future, but in the four years that SHOWCASE was operating as a quasi-independent free webzine we published more than 170 stories, so browsing around that site should give you a fairly good idea of what we like to see.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back to working on issue #21, which will be released later this week.

Kind regards,
Bruce Bethke, editor
Stupefying Stories 

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Re: Assorted Reminders

Re: The Last Free eBook Friday

Just a quick reminder here that if you want to get the Kindle editions of Stupefying Stories issues #12, #13, or #14 free for the price of a click, you have 36 hours left in which to do so. As of midnight Monday, these books go out of print. If you want to sell a story to us, you really should read at least issue #13, and preferably all three. If you hope to sell a story to us and haven’t read at least one issue of our magazine—well, that would explain some of the things that have turned up in our slush pile recently.

Re: “It Came From The Slushpile”

Speaking of which: once we finally got this story exhumed, converted to html, and posted, we were surprised by how much of a period piece it was—being a time-capsule snapshot of how the magazine publishing business used to work thirty years ago—and yet by how so much of it is still spot-on today, particularly in its description of the contents of the titular slush pile. Have SF/F writers really changed so little in the past thirty years?

The Kid, after re-reading it, suggested that the time is right for an updated sequel that reflects the realities of the modern e-publishing business. Key dramatic reveal: “The slush pile...it was software! In cyberspace!” We were making great progress on it until we reached loggerheads over the title. I wanted to call it, “It Came From The Slush Pile: The Next Generation,” while he insisted that we call it “Slush Pile 2: Electric Boogaloo.”

We’ll get back to you on this...

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Introducing SHOWCASE SATURDAY!

Editor’s note: Today we’re [re]introducing a new/old feature on this web site; SHOWCASE, reincarnated as a weekly online fiction ‘zine. In the weeks to come you’ll be seeing new SF/F stories here every Saturday morning, and eventually even a serialized novel (we’re still working out the details), but today, to relaunch SHOWCASE, we’ve decided to go way back, to the place where Stupefying Stories really began. “It Came From The Slushpile” was first published in the July-August 1987 issue of Aboriginal Science Fiction magazine, and subsequently anthologized many times and even optioned for a screenplay that never made it into production, but this story...

Well, actually, it’s not a story. It’s true. It’s all true. It’s what it’s like here every day. Really.

Enjoy!
~brb     
 
Original art by Larry Blamire • Used by permission.

Fiction • “It Came From The Slushpile,” by Bruce Bethke •



The place stank. A queer, mingled stench that only the manuscript-buried offices of fiction magazines know. Groping for the light switch, Rex Manly, the two-fisted editor of Stupefying Stories Magazine, led two junior college interns into the cramped and windowless back office.

“This is the slush pile,” Rex said in his deep, mature voice. “Normally we try to stay on top of it, but our associate editor quit six months ago and we couldn’t afford to replace her. So we’ve let it get a little out of hand.” Rex found the light switch; after a few crackles from a dying transformer, flickery blue fluorescent light flooded the room. Sheila, the tall, willowy, blonde intern, gasped. Janine, the other intern, bit her lip and fought back the tears.

“There are some six thousand unsolicited manuscripts here,” Rex continued. “Of those, six hundred are worth reading, and one hundred worth publishing. At best, twelve suit our current needs and budget well enough to be purchased.

“Your job,” Rex said, as he laid his massive hand on the manila-colored heap, “is to sift through this and find the dozen gems that might be hiding here.” Suddenly, the  stack of manuscripts shifted and began to collapse around him like an erasable bond avalanche. With an agility uncommon in a man his size, Rex leapt clear. “You get half an hour for lunch,” he said calmly, as if nothing had happened. “We see there isn’t a clock in here, so we’ll send someone by at noon to check up on you. Coffee’s in the art department. If you didn’t brown-bag there’s a Burger King up the street.” The two women were still overawed by the Herculean— or rather, Augean—task they faced, and asked no questions. Rex closed the door as he left.

¤

“Ready for lunch yet?” the tall, shapely, brunette asked as she arched her back against the doorframe, and with studied carelessness caught a polished fingernail on the hem of her skirt, tugging it up to expose a flash of silk-stockinged thigh.

“In a minute, Gina,” Rex said to the Art Director, without looking up. “We’ve got a really tough comma fault here we’re trying to nail down.” Gina pouted and sighed heavily, reminding Rex that it was dangerous to leave her with idle time on her hands. “Tell you what,” Rex said. “Do us a favor and tell those two interns working the slush pile that it’s time for lunch, okay?” Without answering, the Art Director turned and sauntered down the hall, her high heels clicking out a seductive Morse code on the terrazzo floor.

This was followed, in short order, by a piercing scream.

Rex vaulted over his desk and ran out into the hall, to find Gina wailing hysterically. Mascara streamed down her cheeks like oil from a leaky rocker-arm cover. “What happened?” he demanded, as he grabbed her roughly.

“You’re hurting my roughly!” she cried. Rex relaxed his grip; Gina sobbed, buried her face in his broad chest, and said, “It’s awful! Terrible! Hideous! Grue—!”

He slapped her. “Excess adjectives!”

Gina shuddered, then regained her composure. “Sheila and Janine, they’re... Oh, it’s too horrible!” A small crowd was gathering around the door of the interns’ office, so Rex helped Gina into a chair and bulled his way through the staffers.

“Does anyone here know—?” He stopped, the question caught in his throat. Sheila and Janine lay on the floor, two crushed, ink-smeared corpses half-covered in manuscripts.

“The slush pile must have imploded,” said Phil Jennings, the Science Fact Editor, who’d slipped through the crowd to stand at Rex’s right elbow. “No one has ever researched the critical mass of unpublished manuscripts. They may undergo gravitational collapse, like a black hole.”

Rex crouched; Phil crouched with him. “But the ink stains,” Rex said softly.

Phil gingerly reached out and touched Janine’s face. “Still fresh,” he said.

“Then at least we’re getting through about using new typewriter ribbons.” Rex stood, resolve giving strength to his voice. “Okay, let’s get them out of there. Jerry, Dave,” he pointed to two of the keyliners, “get in there and get their feet. Phil, take Sheila. We’ll take Janine.” Cautiously, the two keyliners waded into the office, but before they’d gotten more than ankle-deep they both slipped and fell on the erasable bond. “Are you okay?” Rex called out.

“Think so,” answered Jerry, who was closest to the center of the heap, “but there’s something funny going on here. My foot’s caught on something.”

“Oh my God,” Dave gasped.

Behind Jerry, a large, white- and black-speckled pseudopod was slowly extruding from the slush pile. “Phil?” Rex asked calmly, his voice belying the cold horror he felt. “What do you make of that?”

Phil leaned forward, squinted, took off his glasses and cleaned them on the tail of his shirt, put them back on, and then squinted again. “Hard to tell from this distance,” he said softly, “but it looks like a plagiarization of an old Twilight Zone script.”

“What are you...?” Jerry rolled around and caught a glimpse of the thing slithering up behind him. His scream catalyzed the rest into action.

“Give me your hand!” Rex bellowed as he leapt into the room. In moments he’d wrenched Dave free and pushed him out the door, but by then the pseudopod had Jerry and was drawing him deeper into the pile. “Someone find a rope!” Rex shouted. Fighting for balance, he waded in deeper. Jerry clawed for him like a drowning man; their fingers touched briefly, and then Rex lost his footing and went down.

“Hold on, Rex!” Phil shouted. He pulled out his butane lighter, set it to High, and charged in, wielding the lighter like a flaming sword. With four wild slashes, he freed Rex.

“Now for Jerry!” Rex bellowed.

“Too late!” Phil screamed. Rex plowed back into the manuscripts, while Phil tried to stave off the advancing pseudopodia, but a sixty-page rewrite of Genesis 5:1-24 rose up and slapped the lighter out of Phil’s hand. Then the slush pile began building into a great wave that towered over them. “Rex! Get out!” Phil yelled as he dove headfirst through the doorway. Reluctantly, Rex followed. “Shut it!” Phil shouted. Most of the staffers had already run away, and those who remained were paralyzed with fear, but one of the freelance book reviewers still had something of his wits left about him and he pulled the door shut, just as the heap smashed against it with a great soggy thump.

Rex sagged against the wall. “Jerry,” he said softly. “Oh, Jerry, we’re sorry.”

Dabbing her eyes with a Kleenex, Gina gave Rex a consoling hug. “There’s nothing you could have done,” she said. Resolve flooded back into Rex, and he began issuing commands. “You there,” he barked, pointing at the surviving production crew. “Find something to barricade this doorway.”

“Phil!” he snapped. “What is that thing?”

Phil took off his glasses, chewed the earpiece for a bit, and then shrugged and said, “Beats the Hell out of me.”

“We pay you two hundred dollars a month for Science Facts,” Rex growled, “and all you can say is—”

“Hey, I only minored in Biology!” Phil said defensively. “I majored in Philosophy. You want a philosopher’s guess about it?” Rex said nothing, so Phil continued. “Okay, here’s the hard sci-fi guess: It’s a cellulose lifeform that mimics manuscripts for protective coloration. Maybe it’s symbiotic with that scuzzy blue mold that grows in old coffee cups. Kathryn was always leaving half-empty cups in there.”

Rex shook his head. “Too 1940-ish. Old hat.”

“Okay,” Phil said.  “Here’s the philosophical guess. It’s divine retribution for letting manuscripts sit for six months.”

“We never buy theological fantasy.” Rex thought a moment more, then reached a decision. “It doesn’t matter where it came from. The question is, what do we do about it?”

“Get more lighters,” the book reviewer said. “Torch the sucker.”

“We’d rather not,” Rex said. “This building’s a firetrap.”

“Let’s lure it into the paper cutter,” Gina suggested. “Do a Conan on it. Fight hacks with hacks, I say.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Phil answered. “It’s extremely amorphous. It may even be a colony organism. Cut it in half and we may well end up with two monsters.”

“Do you have a better idea?” Rex asked.

“I think we should attack its component parts,” Phil said. “If we can disperse them, we might destroy its will to exist.”

“Huh?” said Gina.

“We must reject it,” Phil said portentously. “Reject every last piece of it.”

“I know where there are some rejection slips!” the book reviewer shouted. He dashed over to the managing editor’s office, and in moments returned bearing two fistfuls of paper.

Rex took one, and pushed the other into Phil’s hands. “If it gets past me...,” Rex began. Phil nodded.

“Oh, be careful!” Gina sobbed, as she hugged Rex.

“Easy, kid,” he said coolly. “You’re getting mascara on my shirt.” Then he looked to Phil. “Ready?” Phil nodded.

Luckily, the staffers Rex had sent running to find barricade materials had simply kept running, so all he had to do was kick open the door, step into the breach, and start passing out the slips. In seconds, though, it became obvious that something was terribly wrong. Instead of being driven back, the thing was surging forward, swelling, growing. It even formed a pseudohead and started catching the slips on the fly, like a spaniel jumping for Doggie Snax. “What the Hell?” Phil wondered aloud. Then he looked at the slips he held:


STUPEFYING STORIES
Dear Writer,
      Thanks for showing us the enclosed manuscript. We’ve read it and are sorry to say we do not think it’s quite right for Stupefying at this time. Please don’t regard this as a reflection on the quality of your work; we receive a great many publishable stories but simply don’t have the space to print every one we like.

      Because of the great number of submissions we receive, we cannot make more specific comments. But again, thanks for giving us the opportunity to consider it, and we hope you find a market for it elsewhere.

      Cordially,
      Rex Manly
      Editor
  


“Rex!” Phil screamed. “Get out of there! “You’re encouraging it!” Rex hastily backed  out of the room; the thing followed him, swirling around his feet and emitting happy yipping sounds. When it realized Rex had gotten away, it began hurling itself furiously at the door, and it took both Rex and Phil to hold the door closed.

“What went wrong?” Rex demanded. “Analysis, Mister Jennings!”

“We need something colder and blunter,” Phil answered. “We need to stun it, depress it, crush its ego.” The thing built up into another great wave and crashed against the door; this time the book reviewer had to throw his shoulder into it, too. “And soon!” Phil shouted.

“The previous editor used slips like that,” Rex said. “Can you hold the door while we look for some?” Not waiting for an answer, Rex sprinted back to his office and began rummaging around in the filing cabinets.

“I hate working on spec,” the book reviewer said.

In a few minutes, Rex returned. “These are all we could find,” he said. “Will they do?” Phil took one and read:


STUPEFYING
Stories and Science
Dear Contributor,

We regret that we are unable to use the enclosed material. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider it.

The Editors


“It might,” Phil said. “It just might.”

With Gina’s help, Rex laid out a semi-circle of rejection slips in front of the door. When the last one was in place, he yelled, “Now!,” and Phil and the book reviewer leapt clear. The door burst open with a violence that nearly tore it from its hinges, and the disgusting, pulsating mass slithered forward, found the first rejection slip, paused...

“It’s working!” Phil crowed. The slush pile shuddered, drew back slightly, and began whimpering. This quickly built into a spastic quivering, and the pile began sloughing off return envelopes and loose stamps.

“Is it dying?” Gina asked.

Phil wiped the perspiration from his glasses, peered closely at the trembling hulk, and said, “I’m not sure.”

“I’ll show you how to make sure!” the book reviewer shouted, as he ran up the hall. “We give it the coup de grace!” He found a typewriter, cranked in a sheet of letterhead, and began frantically clacking away.

“What are you doing?” Gina asked.

“What I do best,” the book reviewer said with a wicked grin. “Crushing an ego.” He finished the letter, yanked it out of the typewriter, and ran back to show it to the others. “One look at this, and it will shrivel up and die!”

“A bit strong, don’t you think?” Rex observed. It read:


STUPEFYING STORIES
Dear Talentless Hack,

Were you by chance going to the town landfill on the same day that you mailed your manuscript? We ask because it appears that you got confused, discarded your story, and mailed us your garbage instead.

In the future you may save yourself postage by simply not submitting to us at all. We will be watching for your name; rest assured that we will never forgive you for attempting to foist this load of pathetic crapola off on us.

With malice aforethought,
The Editors


“I’m not so sure this is a good idea,” Phil said.

“Nonsense,” the book reviewer countered. “I’ve done this a thousand times. Just watch.” He slipped the letter under the nearest edge of the slush pile; within seconds, the thing was smoking, shaking, and letting out hideous groans. “You see?” the book reviewer said smugly—and in less time than it takes to describe it, the slush pile rose up, quivering and roaring, and squashed him flatter than a thin-crust pizza.

“Good God!” Rex shouted. “That only enraged it! Run!” he shouted, as if Gina and Phil needed instructions.

The thing surged down the hallway after them, bellowing angrily and engulfing chairs, desks, ashtrays—anything that stood in its way. There was no plan to their flight, only sheer adrenalin panic, and so they wound up dashing into the Art Department two steps ahead of the thing. Phil slammed the door in its pseudoface; sinews straining, Rex held the door shut while Phil tipped over a few filing cabinets and pushed them together to form a barricade.

Frustrated, the pile drew back and threw itself against the door with all its force. Miraculously, the filing cabinets held. “Well, we’re safe for now,” Phil said, between gasps. “It can’t get in.”

“Just one problem,” Rex noted. “We can’t get out, either.” The three of them looked around. There was indeed no other way out: no window, no door, no conveniently large air duct...

“We’re trapped!” Gina wailed.

“Get a grip on yourself!” Rex shrieked. “This is no time for hysteria!”

“I’m trapped in a dead end by a monster that wants me for lunch!” Gina sobbed. “Can you think of a better time?”

“She’s right, Rex,” Phil said softly. “Sooner or later that thing will realize it can just ooze around the barricade. We’re done for.” He took off his glasses and slowly, mournfully, began to clean them on his shirt tail one last time.

“NEVER!” Rex bellowed, finding his full imperative strength at last. “We do not buy stories that end in futility!

“Look at us!” he commanded, as he stalked about the room, gesturing wildly. “What are we? Three people trapped in a blind alley by an unstoppable monster? No! We are three archetypes! The brilliant, scientific, nearly omniscient mind! The curvaceous, screamy, eminently rescuable heroine! The aggressive, dynamic, mightily thewed hero! We have an obligation to beat that thing!

“You! Phil!” he ordered. “Go discover something! Me! I!” Rex paused, stunned with the realization that he’d dropped his editorial plural. “I’ll think of an ingenious plan to take advantage of whatever you discover. And Gina? You—” Rex sat down, and grumpily put his chin in his palm. “Aw hell, go make some coffee or something.”

As the weight of his new responsibility settled onto Phil, he sat up alertly and said, “Listen! It’s stopped!” Rex’s ears perked up; the thing had indeed stopped hammering at the barricade. Phil crept to the door and peered out. Rex followed, and saw the quiescent beast  lying in the hall.

“Is it dead?” Rex asked hopefully.

“Do archetypal monsters ever die?” Phil answered scornfully. “It’s dormant, of course.”

“So now would be the perfect time to strike?”

“If we had a weapon,” Phil agreed.

“We’re out of coffee,” Gina said. “Will tea do?” She held up a Salada tea bag.

Rex snatched the tea bag out of her hand. “Of course!” he cried, the light of inspiration burning fiercely in his eyes.

“Didn’t know he liked tea so much,” Gina muttered.

“Don’t you see?” Rex shouted, holding up the tiny paper tag on the end of the string. “Gina, honey, can you reduce our logo and make it fit on this?”

“Well,” she said dubiously, “normally it’d take a week to keyline and shoot the stats, but I think—”

“Don’t think! Do!” He spun around. “Phil! Help me with our paper stock. I want something truly obnoxious. Fluorescent Yellow will do, Blaze Orange would be better! And find some glue sticks! Lots of glue sticks!” Rex started dumping boxes on the floor and searching through the resulting heap.

“What—?” Phil started to ask.

“We,” Rex said proudly, “are going to create the ultimate rejection slip. One that crushes all hope, destroys all incentive, leaves no room for doubt, argument, or interpretation—”

“Well, we’d better hurry,” Phil said ominously. “I don’t know what it’s doing out there, but I’m sure I won’t like it when I find out.”

¤

An hour later, they were nearly ready. They’d had to modify the design slightly as they went along to suit the materials at hand, but the result—



—on a postage-stamp-sized slip of Neon Lime Green stock, was coming off the copier. “Remember,” Rex was saying, “we hit it hard, hit it fast, take no prisoners—”

“And we hit it soon,” Phil added, as he peered out the door. “I’ve figured out what it’s doing. It’s metastasizing.”

Rex stopped short.  “What?”

“Look at it,” Phil said. “Those lumps all over its back; they’re buds. It’s getting ready to reproduce.”

“Good grief,” Rex gasped. “You mean, we’ll have more of those things?”

“Worse,” Phil said pensively. “If I’m right, in its larval stage it takes the form of an unsolicited manuscript. In a few minutes this place is going to be crawling with stories: thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of stories. Stories about flying saucers, deals with the devil, time travelers killing their grandparents.” The panic began to rise in Phil’s voice. “Evil galactic empires, sexy Celtic witches, sentient dragons, killer robots disguised as toasters.” Phil was bordering on total hysteria now.

“Rewrites of the Old Testament! Star Trek ripoffs! Twenty-first Century Barbarians!

“Rex!” Phil screamed. “There are enough post-Apocalyptic nuclear holocaust stories in there to wipe out this entire solar system!”

“Gina!” Rex growled. “Hurry up with those slips!”

“Be patient!” Gina snapped. “You can’t rush quality work!”

“Omigod!” Phil yelped, his face ashen. “They’re hatching.”

“Gina!” Rex barked. “I need those slips and I need them now!

“Hold your damn horses. They’re just about ready...”

¤

Even with ten years’ experience in hand-to-hand fiction editing, the fifteen minutes that followed were the most ghastly Rex had ever lived through. Armed with the new rejection slips, he, Gina, and Phil waded into the heart of the beast, tearing open envelopes and slapping down tags. Gluing them to the manuscripts, to force retyping. In an odd way the process had a familiar feel, as if they were driving thousands of little stakes through thousands of tiny vampires’ hearts.

It was a grisly job, but at last, they were done. “It’s harmless,” Phil pronounced. “We’ve destroyed its will to live.”

Rex brushed aside a pile of spent glue sticks and collapsed into a chair. “Did we get it all? All?

“Here’s one we missed!” Gina called out, as she crouched on her hands and knees and peered under the receptionist’s desk. She fished out the manuscript and read aloud, “It Came From The Slushpile, by some guy I’ve never heard of.”

“Ugh!” Phil spat. “Sounds like a bad ’50s sci-fi movie.”

“I don’t know,” Gina countered. “Listen to this. ‘The place stank. A queer, mingled stench that only the—’”

“That’s the opening of John Campbell’s Who Goes There?,” Rex said wearily. “At least he plagiarizes from a good source.”

“So you don’t want to read it?” Gina asked. Rex answered her with a sneer more eloquent than any words.

“Okay,” Gina shrugged, as she dabbed some glue on a rejection slip and prepared to slap it down.

But then, she hesitated...


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