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Thursday, October 18, 2018

Letters to the Editor




Quentin Walker writes:
“I am a writer in my free time and an avaricious reader [...]”
(Good opening. We like writers, and always need more readers. And if you’re a writer who writes without also reading, you’re probably going to be a lousy writer. I think you meant voracious, though, not avaricious.)
“When submitting short stories, do you accept anything with horror Lovecraftian themes? Or do you just like straight science fiction and fantasy?”
First off, if you want to know what we like to see in submissions, our Submission Guidelines are always a good place to start. If you take a quick look at them, the first thing you’ll notice is that we are CLOSED to unsolicited submissions right now. At the moment we’re in the last stages of cleaning up after our 2018 open submissions period, deeply into contracts & copy-editing mode, and down to the last two acceptances and six rejections I need to write and send.

But as for Lovecraftian horror in particular: to be honest, there are a hell of a lot of writers out there writing fanfic-grade Imitation Lovecraft, and the market is pretty much supersaturated with it. You would not believe how many lame-ass rewrites of “At the Mountains of Madness” or “The Colour Out of Space” we’ve seen and rejected. It’s gotten to the point where the moment we see the word “Arkham,” “Miskatonic,” or “eldritch” in a manuscript, it goes straight into the form rejection pile.

We will, on very rare occasions, buy something Lovecraftian, but it had better be pretty damned brilliant—or funny—or better yet, both, if you want to get our attention. Like, for example, “Harbinger of Doom (for the Home Team)” by Dan Micklethwaite, which you’ll find on our old SHOWCASE site, or “The Cuttle Out of Ground” by Steve Ruthenbeck, which we’ll be publishing very shortly in Stupefying Stories.

Thanks for asking, and have a nice day.

Bruce Bethke
editor, Stupefying Stories 

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Talking Shop

 

Op-ed • "Horatio Alger Got It Half Right," By Eric Dontigney 



Hard work matters for anyone trying to make a living as a writer. Hard work matters a lot. You can’t phone it in day-after-day. You can’t do it just when you feel like it. You have to show up every day and put in a real effort. This is the basis of the Horatio Alger stories and the foundation for the Horatio Alger Myth.

Not familiar with Horatio Alger and his myth? Here’s the backstory, in brief. Horatio Alger, Jr. was a writer from the mid-to-late 1800s. He wrote books that glorified the Protestant work ethic and moral virtue. The general theme was that hard work and moral fortitude would transform the hard-working poor into the middle class or even upper class.

That sentiment, which ignores all kinds of facts about entrenched poverty, social stratification, and exceptional individual talent, has been accepted as a truism by a wide swath of the American public. It’s an unusually destructive truism because it puts all the responsibility on the shoulders of the individual. You’ve heard it before. “If you just worked a little harder, you’d be successful.”

If hard work was enough to ensure success, all those single mothers working two jobs to support their kids would be millionaires. Hard work is only part of the story. Hard work helps ensure your basic survival. It can, can, even develop into a sustainable career. What hard work really does is set you up to get lucky.

I don’t mean luck in the traditional, out-of-a-clear-blue-sky fell $1 million, kind of luck. That kind of luck only falls onto a handful of people. I mean something more akin to situational luck. Let’s say you do freelance writing on the side. You work hard at it. You develop a few consistent clients because you work hard. One of those clients refers you to some people in their business network.

Those referrals put you in contact with a startup company. You do a little research and realize that the company is poised to become a unicorn (a startup that will get valued at over $1 billion). Plus, they just locked down a new round of funding, so they have money to burn and a desperate need for someone with a working knowledge of their industry.

Rather than go with one of the other referral opportunities, you negotiate an agreement with the startup. You secure a byline and a great pay rate to write content for them. By itself, this is situational luck. You got lucky that one of the referrals was for the right kind of company. You got luckier by recognizing the opportunity for what it was and acting on it. That luck compounds by making you marketable to bigger companies.

Here’s the thing. You might never get that referral to the ideal client who can make you marketable to bigger companies that pay the really stellar rates.

You might say, “That’s fine for non-fiction, but what about fiction?” The same general principles apply. You work hard and write short stories or novels. You submit them, get rejected, and write more – hopefully better – stories or novels. You submit again. This is the fiction writer’s version of putting in the work and effort.

Eventually, you get a story accepted to a semi-pro or professional market. That publication makes you more marketable for the next story you send out. It gets easier to sell your fiction. The wheel turns and you’re eventually making a living at it. With fiction, however, luck plays a much bigger role.

You need the right stories to fall into the hands of the right editors at the right times. You can engineer this a little by studying what a magazine has published over the last two years. If you haven’t seen a single dystopian story in the last 24 issues, you probably shouldn’t send your dystopian story to that publication. The editor is clearly burned out on those kinds of stories.

The exception to the rule is if you’ve written the best dystopian story in the last 30 years. Statistically speaking, though, you almost certainly haven’t written the best dystopian story in the last few decades. Most of us don’t possess that rare spark of genius that lets us transform an over-worn topic into something compelling.

In the long-run, though, it’s mostly just blind luck. A lot of great stories never see the light of day. It’s not a question of talent or hard work or even the story, but a matter of the story or novel not finding the right hands.

Hard work is a necessary condition of finding success. Horatio Alger got that much right. If you won’t work hard at something, you’re incredibly unlikely to find success at it. Unfortunately, hard work isn’t always or even often a sufficient condition for finding success as a writer. For that, you need some luck.


________________________________________________

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 near Dayton, OH. 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 “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it! 


________________________________________________

Monday, October 15, 2018

Status Update: 10/15/18




Just a few metrics for you this morning. Of the more than 800 submissions we received during our 2018 reading period—I don’t have a solid final number at this moment, as we had some issues with submission tracking and stories being sent to old email addresses and such that we didn’t get fully nailed down until June—we are down to the following numbers.
  • ACCEPTED - 52 stories
    • Contract pending - 10
    • Standalone novellas - 1
    • Accepted for SHOWCASE - 19
    • Already published - 7

  • TO BE ACCEPTED - 24
    • For SHOWCASE - 3

  • PENDING FINAL DECISION - 37
    • Standalone novellas - 4
    • For SHOWCASE - 5 (probably to be accepted)
    • Main sequence stories - 28
With 76 stories already accepted or tagged as to be accepted—counting those accepted for SHOWCASE separately, which we should have been doing all along—basically, we have 28 “main sequence” stories in the final bin and the space and budget to accept 14 at most.

We should be finished making our final choices by this evening.

Cheers,
~brb

P.S. I’ve had some authors ask if their story was silently rejected. I know we’re from Minnesota, The Passive-Aggressive State, but we don’t do silent rejections. If you submitted a story to us this year, you will receive a response.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

SHOWCASE: “Playing God,” by Matthew A. J. Timmins




The bio was just a bright orange marble rolling around in her backpack. I probed it with a finger. It was soft and sticky. I rolled it back and forth, but when I pulled my hand away a pseudopod stuck to my fingertip.

“Ow!” I pulled my hand out and the bio came with it, dangling from my finger like a booger.

“Hey,” Lumi hissed. She pulled the creature loose and tossed it into her backpack, looking quickly around the room. “Watch it!”

She was right; bios weren’t allowed in school.

“It bit me!” I said, examining my purple fingertip.

“Don’t be a baby.” She zipped her backpack shut and slung it over her shoulder. “It was hungry. It’s just a baby. If you come by after school, I’ll show you a full-grown one.”

¤

Lumi’s set-up was much nicer than mine. She had a whole room dedicated to it. My dads made me use a corner of the garage. She had the latest printer, tanks, and ‘riums. Even an incinerator.

“Just a minute,” she yelled, when I knocked on the door. It was covered with bedazzled hazard symbols.

The door flew open and I was looking at a pink hazmat suit with bunny ears.

I backed away and glanced down at my own jeans and t-shirt. “Whoops,” I said. “I didn’t realize we were cooking.”

She twisted her helmet off with a click and smiled at me. “We’re not. I was just moving one to a bigger tank. Come on in!”

As she shimmied out of her suit I turned away, embarrassed even though she was fully clothed underneath. I looked at her row of glowing development tanks. Most of them were empty, but in one floated a curled up little bio something like a cross between a kitten and a snake—but Lumi was much too good to simply mix-&-match. It would probably have eight arms or laser eyes or something. Above the tanks were her ‘riums: her zoo. There were nearly a dozen bios, all of them deadly, most of them pastel. I’d seen most of them before. There was the snarkbite, the aquahop, a pair of gib-gib worms, and my favorite, the fuzzy little cupcake dragon. There were also a few that I hadn’t seen, including a nasty looking spider-base and a mysterious speckled cube that was labeled ‘Matty’s clockshell.’ There was even a funny rocky guy with a wispy beard and wings, though I don’t think even Lumi could cook up a flyer.

“So, did you bring anything?” she asked, tossing her suit over a chair.

I reached into my bag and pulled out a small specimen box. “Just this.”

“What is it?”

I upended the box and out tumbled my bio. It was a bright yellow hemisphere ringed with hundreds of little legs. With no visible head or sense organs, it looked a bit like half a grapefruit. Across it were red markings that spelled out the letters H-O-O-B-E-R. “This is Hoober. I made him for Dan. As a Father’s Day present.”

 She picked it up and turned it over. Hoober’s little legs went crazy and its sucker tongue stuck out from its central mouth, looking around.

“My spiralsaur could defeat this,” she said.

“It’s not for fighting.” I took Hoober back. “It’s for Dan’s dog. It eats fleas. And ticks. She loves it.”

“Why ‘Hoober’?”

I put the bio back in its box and dropped the box in my bag. “It was supposed to be ‘Hoover,’ like the vacuum cleaner, but I made a typo.”

She grinned but didn’t laugh at me. Instead, she skipped over to a terrarium and with a pair of tongs picked up a squirming orange blob about the size of a baseball. Carefully, she placed it in a high-walled arena. The blob began to pulse and jiggle. Pseudopods—some short and fat, others long and skinny—grew out of the blob and waved around before being reabsorbed.

“This is my jellyoid,” she announced.

“It looks like snot,” I said.

She glared at me. “Yeah, well, it can beat any of your stupid ‘forms!”

I didn’t answer. We both knew she was right. Lumi liked to cook dangerous bios and challenge other dackers. My bios were harmless, useful, or cute. I told people it was because I was pacifist, but Lumi knew it was really because I couldn’t afford the ‘bricks.

“All I’ve got with me is Hoober, and it doesn’t fight.”

“That’s ‘cause it’s stupid.” She stuck out her tongue. “Let’s fight anyway. I promise I won’t let the jellyoid hurt it.” She grabbed my backpack.

“Hey!” I shouted. “That’s my dad’s—leggo!”

I grabbed a strap and tried to snatch my bag back, but she held firm. There was a brief tug-o-war and then my backpack ripped, spilling my stuff all over the floor: my mask, a hand-me-down tablet, and two specimen boxes.

“Hey!” I shouted again. “That bag was brand new.” My dads weren’t going to be happy.

“Oh!” She grabbed the second box before I could stop her. “What’s this?”

“It’s nothing, give it back!” I tried to snatch the box back but she darted away.

“You said you only had one bio.” She held the box up and peered inside. “Hi there, little fella. What’s your name? Want to come out and play?”

“Don’t,” I begged. “It’s not…it’s not finished yet.”

She gave me a look. “Of course it’s finished.”

She opened the box and the bio crawled out onto her hand. It was a light blue salamander-base with six stubby legs and pink frills around its neck. There was also a pink valentine heart on its back with the letters L-U-M-I inside. It had beady black eyes and a wide smiling mouth, and when it looked up at her, it trilled softly.

My face was burning up and all I could do was stare at my shoes.

“Mikoto,” she squealed. “It’s adorable!”

And I smiled.



Matthew A.J. Timmins lives in Massachusetts with his wife and like most writers, has far too many cats. His debut novel, The Miseries of Mr. Sparrows, was published in November of 2015. His short stories have appeared in the magazines Betwixt, Stupefying Stories, and Unlikely Story as well as in multiple anthologies.

When not writing he enjoys role-playing games, watching Formula 1 racing, and writing about himself in the third person.

SHOWCASE: “Bootleg Bees,” by Laura Jane Swanson




The bees were dying again, dropping like the proverbial flies all over the garden and the yard. “Metzger must have gotten some fancy new seeds again,” Emil sighed. It had to be Metzger; Hammond and Anderson down the road were too cheap to keep buying crazy upgrades that grew their own pesticides. Bad enough that the whole neighborhood had to keep upgrading their bees to keep up, not to mention the ridiculous price of brand-name bees.

“We need that Heirloom Protection Act,” Hannah sighed. Without it, Indiana’s right-to-farm laws meant people could plant what they liked, even if it killed the neighbors’ bees.

“Well, until that pig grows wings, I guess I’d better ask Metzger what upgrade to order this time.”

“AgriCorp will engineer actual flying pigs before they’ll let that law pass,” Hannah said, sweeping dead bees from the porch.

¤

“A whole grand? For bees?” Emil threw down his phone in disgust.

Hannah picked it up and looked at the quote. Indeed, AgriCorp wanted to charge them a thousand dollars to restock their hive with state-of-the-art bees that wouldn’t be killed by Metzger’s new crops. Disgusting.

She handed the phone back to Emil. “Don’t order just yet. I’m going to talk to Hammond.”

¤

An hour later, she came home grinning. “I placed an order with Hammond’s bee guy. They’ll be delivered next Wednesday. Only two hundred, and there’s a money-back guarantee if they die. They’ll be good until Metzger upgrades again.”

Emil folded his arms and looked down his nose. “Don’t tell me you went and ordered some weird bootleg bees.”

“They’re artisanal,” Hannah said defensively. “They’re custom-engineered, one batch at a time. Hammond’s used them three times now with no problems. And they’re guaranteed.”

“Hammond’s too drunk to notice a problem if it stung him on the ass.” But even Emil couldn't deny that two hundred was a much more reasonable price.

¤

Hannah had to endure Emil’s snarky comments about bootleg bees for the next several days, but the package arrived right on schedule in Wednesday’s mail. “See?” she couldn’t resist saying.

Emil shook his head. “We don’t know how they’ll do.”

That was nothing compared to what he said later that evening when they went to transfer the bees to the hive. “What on Earth are those things?” he demanded.

Hannah could only stare into the open package. It was glowing, and the bees were green.

“I figured this was a mistake,” Emil said, “but I wasn’t expecting weird-ass radioactive glow-bees.”

“I’m sure they’re not radioactive,” Hannah said. “They scan the mail nowadays, because of the terrorists.”

“Those bootleggers probably are terrorists,” Emil grumbled. “Who else would be crazy enough to engineer bees one batch at a time?”

Hannah threw up her hands. “You’re welcome to go borrow a Geiger counter from Anderson, but I’m going to get them into their hive while you do.”

¤

She didn’t want to know what Emil told Anderson, but she was secretly a tiny bit relieved when the machine revealed no radiation. At least she didn’t have to worry about the rest of the neighbors finding out; Anderson was as paranoid about gossip as he was about everything else.

“We’ll call the company in the morning, just to be sure,” she said to placate Emil. “You have to admit, they’re kind of pretty, almost like fireflies without the flash.”

“Those bootleggers aren’t going to give back our money, though,” Emil groused.

¤

 “The bees are fine,” Hannah said when she got off the phone. “The lab uses a fluorescent protein as a marker, so they can see that the pesticide resistance genes got engineered-in right. The glow is supposed to turn off, but now and then it doesn’t. It’s harmless, though. They use the same protein in fancy cocktails and Halloween candy sometimes.”

“Told you they wouldn’t give us a refund,” Emil said. But that evening as they sat on the porch, she caught him smiling at the faint green glow showing through the cracks in the hive.

¤

He wasn’t smiling the first time they harvested the honey, though. “No one is going to buy glowing green honey. They’ll think it’s radioactive.”

“Not everything that glows green is radioactive!” Hannah snapped.

“Yeah, but people are stupid.”

She couldn’t argue with that. “We could borrow Anderson’s Geiger counter to show them it isn’t.”

She didn’t really think that would convince anyone, but Emil reached for his phone.

¤

Anderson showed up an hour later. “I want a look at this honey.”

The glow from the honey was visible the moment Emil opened the door to the shed. Anderson whistled. Then he counted the jars. “I’ll take as much as you’re willing to sell,” he said enthusiastically.

“Excuse me?” Emil stared at him.

“It’s perfect. The college kids who buy my weed will love it!”

Anderson didn’t even balk when Emil asked double the usual price. “You have to come up with a new label, though, something really special. Bonus points if it sounds illicit.”

“Oh, I know just the thing,” Hannah said. “It was Emil’s idea.”

Emil raised his eyebrows.

Hannah grinned. “Bootleg Bees.”



Laura Jane Swanson holds a degree in biochemistry and has done graduate work in molecular biology and science education. She lives in Indiana with her family, where she dreams of the coast and knits lots of socks. She writes science fiction and fantasy.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

SF/F Writers in the Real World




Eric Dontigney found and posted an interesting article on our facebook page yesterday. If you missed it, here’s the link:

https://www.facebook.com/StupefyingStories/posts/2348861001822526

The original article is on syfy.com, and the subject is, “Does your science fiction or fantasy world have to be woke? Experts debate at NYCC.”

It’s an interesting question, and one that deserves further debate, which is why I’ve reposted it here. I don’t think I’m the person to lead this discussion, though. When I look at this, what I see is further proof that we’re locked in a time loop and condemned to recapitulating the past fifty years. Right now we’ve made it up to reliving 1970—seriously, the parallels are alarming—except that last time around, the demand was for “relevance” in SF/F, not being woke. As far as SF/F goes, “relevance” was a political fashion trend that nearly destroyed the genre.

If you don’t remember the bulk of the painfully serious and relevant SF that was being published circa 1970—well, lucky you. If you want a quick refresher, you could track down and watch Silent Running, the movie I lifted the above still from, as a representative example. Or I could spare you the pain of listening to Peter Schickele’s hideous soundtrack music and sum it all up in one phrase:

SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!

Yeah, remember how we ran out of oil in the year 1985 and the world reverted to tribal savagery? Remember how we ran out of mineable copper in the early 1990s, which caused the complete collapse of all industrial economies based on electricity and electronics? Remember how in the year 2000 the world population hit 20 billion souls, all fighting tooth and claw for what little food and water remained, and how in the end we resolved the problem by resorting to industrial-scale cannibalism?

Yeah. Neither do I.

What I did remember, though, as I was thinking about writing this column, was that the long and gloomy winter of “relevance” eventually gave way to the exuberant spring of Star Wars, and while many serious literary critics at the time condemned Star Wars as being mere escapism, C. S. Lewis had already answered that charge.
“Stories of the sort I am describing are like that visit to the deck. They cool us. They are as refreshing as that passage in E. M. Forster where the man, looking at the monkeys, realizes that most of the inhabitants of India do not care how India is governed. Hence the uneasiness which they arouse in those who, for whatever reason, wish to keep us wholly imprisoned in the immediate conflict. That perhaps is why people are so ready with the charge of ‘escape’. I never fully understood it till my friend Professor Tolkien asked me the very simple question, ‘What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?’ and gave the obvious answer: jailers. The charge of Fascism is, to be sure, mere mud-flinging. Fascists, as well as Communists, are jailers; both would assure us that the proper study of prisoners is prison. But there is perhaps this truth behind it: that those who brood much on the remote past or future, or stare long at the night sky, are less likely than others to be ardent or orthodox partisans.”
It was snowing here as I drove in to work this morning, but already, I’m thinking about Spring.

What are you thinking about?

Kind regards,
~brb

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Status Update, 10/10/18



(Using the illo of a P.O.’d cat in a pink bunny suit, just because I haven’t used it in a while and want to see if facebook picks it up.)

Ten days after the end of our 2018 reading period, we’ve got things pretty close to settled down. Out of the more than 800 stories, novelettes, and novellas that showed up in our inbox in the past six months, we’re down to selecting the final 40 or so really outstanding tales we can use. I’m pleased to say that this reading period has reinforced one of my core beliefs, as well as one of the fundamental raisons d'être for Stupefying Stories: there are a lot of really good writers out there, writing a lot of really terrific stories, and somebody needs to be doing something to help readers find these writers.

This “Somebody” character, though: whenever I catch myself writing or saying “somebody” ought to do something, I stop in my tracks. No, the proper way to state the question is, “What can I do to make this happen?”

Hence Stupefying Stories. Finding, selecting, and publishing these brilliant stories is one-half of the answer. Now comes the grimy work: drawing attention to the stories we’re publishing.

For the next six months, then, that’s what we’ll be concentrating on: publishing books and trying to draw attention to them. In all honesty, I’m not entirely sure how to do this. I’m very familiar with the way the publishing business used to work, but what worked five years ago doesn’t work today. Hell, what worked even six months ago doesn’t work today. I suppose, if I were to start publishing barking mad political screeds...

TRUMP! KAVANAUGH! PELOSI! SOROS!

No. Get thee behind me. That’s not who I am. As someone who remembers the past sixty-some years, I have trouble getting worked up about the current outrage d’jour. 

So instead, expect to see more activity on this blogsite, and particularly more writer- and reader-oriented content. My work schedule changed right after Labor Day and I lost the Thoughtful Hour I used to have every morning for reflection and writing, but I’ve pretty much adapted now. I have a sizable backlog of mail to be answered, and much of it involves thought-provoking questions that deserve public answers.

Expect also to see new SHOWCASE stories going live at 7am Central time every Saturday morning. We have stories already in the queue through the end of November, and I’m really pleased with the way the new incarnation of SHOWCASE is taking form. I’m particularly excited about our first three-part serial in years: “Market Futures,” by M. Ian Bell. Look for it in November. This is a test case, and if it gets a good reception, we have at least one novel we’d like to serialize beginning in January of 2019.

Finally, we expect to release the long-delayed Stupefying Stories #22, sometime next week. We have more books already in the queue behind it—but this is enough for one day. I have to have something to write about tomorrow!

Cheers,
Bruce Bethke
Editor, Stupefying Stories

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Talking Shop


Op-ed • "Why Short Fiction Is Harder to Write than It Looks," By Eric Dontigney 



Most professional writers will tell you that writing a good short story is substantially harder than writing a good novel. It sounds far-fetched, doesn’t it? Science fiction and fantasy novels often run 100,000-words, give or take. It’s the rare magazine that takes short stories longer than 5,000 words. If your short story is only 5% the length of a full-blown novel, it should only be 5% as difficult, right? Sadly, it’s not.

A good short story must do all the same things as a novel, so that means the writer needs to know almost as much about the world. You need to understand the society, politics, magic, gender norms, and technology. Even if you satisfy yourself with a sketchy understanding of those things, it still takes a while to work those details out.

You still have to build fairly complete character profiles for any major players in the story. Again, even a sketchy character profile includes some level of personal history, important relationships, faults, and strengths.

In terms of story, your plot must carry the reader through some kind of crisis, catharsis, revelation, or mission that draws to a mostly satisfactory ending. This is an absolute must. If it doesn’t, you haven’t written a short story. You’ve written vignette. You have to pack in enough nuance that the plot makes sense without being obvious. The ending must seem like it can realistically stem from those details.

You still have to engage in worldbuilding. Yet, you can’t be explicit with it. There isn’t enough room. You must imply the big picture with carefully placed details. Do it right and you weave a sufficient illusion of a world to achieve suspension of disbelief. Overdo the details, though, and your story loses momentum.

This is hard to do well in 100,000-words, where you’re allowed some extraneous words or paragraphs. You can dole out information slowly to create tension and build relationships. You have space to breathe. You get none of those advantages when writing short fiction.

In short stories, every single word matters. You can’t misstep even a little with pacing. You must make your characters compelling in the first 300-500 words because you have to get on with the story after that. The story must make almost immediate sense. You can’t leave the reader in a partial state of confusion for 5 chapters because you’re at 3000 words already and have to wind the story down.

In short, you must craft a world and plot that could be a novel, but compress it down to 5000 words or less. The sheer volume of prep work and difficulty of communicating everything on the page in the right way makes short stories a non-starter for a lot of writers. They put in all that work figuring out the details of this new fictional world and think something like:

“Man, I might as well just write a novel.”

It’s also the reason why so many established writers base the short fiction they do write on their existing novels or series. It lets them skip 95% of the worldbuilding and character building. All they must do is offer a few establishing details that confirm you’re in the same world and move on to the plot. It’s a lot easier.

There are no real shortcuts to writing good short fiction. The closest thing to a shortcut is simply to consume a lot of good short stories. Seeing how other writers handle these same problems can help you clarify what is and isn’t working in your own short fiction. A few good sources for top-notch short fiction are:

·       The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy anthologies
·       The Best American Short Stories anthologies
·       Fiction magazines, like Clarkesworld or Stupefying Stories

Another good source is collections of short stories from authors you like. A few of my personal favorites are:

·       The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
·       Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman
·       Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King
·       Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin
·       Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison
·       Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger

Once you read a bunch of good short stories, the only thing left is to practice and then practice some more.


________________________________________________

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 near Dayton, OH. 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 “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it! 


________________________________________________

Saturday, October 6, 2018

SHOWCASE: “The Avenging Tree,” by Patrick Hurley




Just outside a small Tennessee town, amid the rolling hills and lush valleys, there stood a young apple tree who’d sprung up in a holler a ways away from where her mama had first let her crab apples fall.

Though their roots had never quite touched, the young tree loved being near her mama, watching that great tree sway in the breeze, offering shade and fruit to travelers all throughout the nearby town. When she was young, the sapling told herself that one day she would do her mama proud and help others, just like her mama did.

Then, the boy came.

He appeared with the suddenness of a forest fire and descended on her mama like a plague of locusts. The young sapling never liked the boy. She saw the fierce hunger behind his eyes and knew he would be no good for her mama.

Her mama’s nature was to give whatever was asked of her, and so she gave all she could to the boy, ever to her detriment. It was lucky the sapling had already taken root before the boy came along, for he harvested so many of her mama’s apples that it looked like the sapling would grow to be an only child.

In the end, after the boy had shrunken into an old man, all that was left of her mama was a worn-down stump. The old man would sit on this, defiling her mama’s remains with his backside, enjoying the sun that should have been her mama’s, even daring to complain of the lack of shade that had been his own damn fault, having cut down her mama’s great limbs to build his house. And worst of all, the pitiful stump still offered kind words and weak excuses to the old man who’d taken so much from her.

A shadow grew over the holler where the old tree’s daughter brooded. No longer a sapling, she now decided she would never allow herself to be used like her mother was. These greedy, stealing, hungry folk like the old man were her enemy.

Though the old man had taken her mother’s seeds, he had still found time to sow his own. He had a son who had another son, who was the spitting image of his selfish grandfather.

It was this boy, the son of the son, who began to visit the young tree’s holler and lay beneath her shade. The boy tried to talk to her the way his grandfather had talked to her mama. At first, the tree didn’t answer back. Then one day, the boy began to cry.

“Boy,” the young tree asked, unable to contain her curiosity, “why are you crying?”

The boy looked up, startled. “Who said that?” he asked.

“You know who said that, boy,” the tree responded. She gave her branches a quiet rustle. She wondered what the boy would do. His eyes widened. Then he smiled, a great wide grin, and shouted, “I knew the stories were true!”

“What stories?” the tree asked, suspicious.

“The stories my paw-paw told about wish-giving trees! He said if I ever found one that talked, it’d give me whatever I wanted.”

The tree had never been struck by lightning, but she now knew what it felt like.

“That’s not true, boy,” the tree answered, but the boy cut her off.

“Don’t you try to back out, now! Y’all helped my paw-paw and now you gotta help me.”

“Help you with what, boy?”

The boy told her he was hungry, so to make him be quiet, the tree gave him one of her apples. As the boy ate, the tree felt the old anger stir inside her. She was tempted to break a heavy branch off and crush him—or feed him a poison apple—but she couldn’t bring herself to do it.

For one thing, if she did kill the child, what then? Some might believe her branch had fallen by chance, but not the boy’s grandfather. He would know what happened, and he would come for her. The old man might not be strong enough to wield his ax anymore, but he had access to fire.

Also, however much she hated the boy’s family, the tree was no murderer. If she sought revenge, it would have to be of another kind. Something that would prevent the boy and his family from ever taking from the trees again. So she waited, giving the boy shade and an occasional apple, for those were free and meant little to her.

One afternoon, the boy came to her and began to complain, as he always did. He wasn’t doing well in school. The other boys and girls didn’t like him. They called him greedy. They called him mean. They didn’t understand him like the tree did.

“I just wish,” the boy said, “I could win the 400-Yard Dash.”

Now the tree knew what the Dash was, since her holler was right by the school. Once a season, the boys and girls of the school held the race to determine which one of them was the quickest on two legs. A ridiculous notion, the tree thought to herself, but whoever won this race would receive a prize and become the first picked in all the games and first invited to all the birthday parties.

The boy wanted to win that race more than anything, but he knew he wasn’t fast enough. He wondered, somehow, if the tree could help him.

The tree thought long and hard. She did possess a small amount of magic. And she had other gifts. And she had her apples.

It seemed to the boy that the tree had moved in some hidden way. The shadows under her apple-laden branches seemed just a bit deeper, the apples themselves a little more red and ripe.

“I want to help you, boy,” the tree finally said, her tone warm. “Yet all I have to give are my apples.”

“What good yer stupid apples gonna do me in a footrace?” the boy complained, kicking up dirt around the tree.

“You didn’t let me finish, boy,” the tree continued. “It’s true, all I have are apples. Yet I have in my branches one magic apple, just for you.”

“That so?” the boy muttered, a doubtful look on his tone.

“A most special apple,” said the tree, lowering it down with her branches. “Take one bite, just before the race, and I promise you’ll win. No one will ever forget how fast you ran.”

If there ever was a magic apple, it was this glistening, ripe red fruit the tree proffered within its leafy branches. The boy could smell its juices even from where he stood. As he reached for it, licking his lips, the tree cautioned him. “You must wait to eat it, boy, until just before the race. If you eat it now, the magic will wear off by tomorrow, and you’ll lose.”

“You gonna give me that apple or not?” the boy said.

Gently, the tree released the apple into the boy’s waiting hands. “Remember what I said, boy. Wait until just before the race. Only then will you win.”

The boy stared at the apple hungrily, but put it in his pocket. “I’ll wait,” he said, “but I better win this race, y’old tree. My paw-paw said you helped him, so ya better help me the same way.”

“It was my mama who helped your… paw-paw,” the tree said.

“One tree or ‘nother, who can tell the difference? ‘s long as I get what I want,” the boy said. He began to walk back to out of the holler, down the winding road back to the house made from the tree’s mother.

“Trust me, boy,” the tree said softly, its voice whispering with its swaying branches. “You’ll get what’s coming to you.”

¤

The day of the race was a fine one. The sun shone clear in the faded blue sky, casting a delicious light over the tree’s many leaves. There’d been fine rain the night before, and a delicious, cool wind blew through the holler, carrying scents from all sorts of far-off places.

From her place, the tree could make out the race’s long starting line, out in an open field behind the boy’s school near the edge of the wood. She watched as the children marched out from the school’s open door, all dressed in identical red gym shorts. Waiting for them out in the field were the children’s parents, grandparents, and town officials.

The 400-Yard Dash was a tradition enjoyed by everyone. The parents and grandparents watched, hoping to see their child win. The town officials watched, hoping for votes and good press from the local paper. From far off in the holler, the tree watched, hoping for revenge. She could make out the boy in his gym uniform. Her branches shivered when she noticed his grandfather, her mother’s defiler, yelling loudly for his son’s son in the crowd.

The school’s teacher began to line the children up along the starting line, making sure no one had their feet placed any further forward than they should, and told them to get ready. The tree noticed the boy had no apple in his hand. Had he ignored her prohibition and eaten the apple the night before?

Just then, the boy reached into his shorts pocket, pulled out the apple, and took a huge bite. If the tree had a mouth, she would have smiled.

Just as the boy finished swallowing, the teacher held up a pistol and began his count. Then, with a loud bang, the children were off and running.

The results of this particular 400-Yard Dash would become the talk of the town for many years. Parents chuckled over it with other parents over mint juleps, sweet tea, or applejack. The children who ran passed the story on to their children who passed it on to their children, causing the Dash to graduate from colorful anecdote into local tall tale, and after many years, into the town legend.

The only folks who never spoke of the Dash were the boy’s family. For them, it was “the incident,” their secret shame, never to be mentioned unless one wanted to start a brawl at family reunions.

The race started in the usual fashion, with all the children running hurly-burly towards the finish line at the school gym. A few unlucky kiddos tripped over their feet, a few slowpokes hung back, but the rest of the unruly mob flew forward. Some of the more athletic children began to pull away from the pack, and at first, the boy was stuck in the middle.

All a sudden, the boy’s bottom pinched, as if he’d just received a static shock. His eyes grew wide and his face took on a slightly greenish color. A child running next to him claimed to have heard his stomach groan louder than a tornado.

With a panicked look on his face, the boy began to pick up speed. His legs pumped and his arms flew. In a flash, he was moving away from the pack, passing the quicker children, running faster than any child who’d ever run the dash before.

Just as the boy passed the final child in front of him, there was a noise like a sweaty rocket blast: the loudest fart anyone in town had ever heard. The last child the boy passed swore she’d never forget the awful smell for all her days, claiming it smelled like the worst sour apples ever.

Those watching near the finish line saw telltale brown stains form in the boy’s red shorts as he continued to run, even faster than before, but in an awkward, pinched fashion, as if he was clenching certain muscles.

The boy didn’t stop when he crossed the finish line, ignoring those who were waiting to give him his blue ribbon, but kept sprinting, straight through the school’s open doors into the bathroom just next to the main entrance. From outside, all the astonished onlookers listened as more farts, and even worse noises, blasted forth, interspersed with the boy’s groans.

Several minutes later, the noises ceased. The toilet flushed many times, and the boy quietly shuffled back outside to claim his prize. Everyone couldn’t help but notice he had changed out of his gym shorts and into regular pants. They tried to keep quiet as the boy was declared winner of the Dash, but as he went up to claim the blue ribbon, another thunderous fart escaped his nether region, and, like a dam released, was quickly followed by the roaring laughter of the whole town.

The boy’s grandfather was so furious he nearly had a stroke. The boy himself moved away from the town as soon as he grew old enough.

And the tree? The next day the tree heard folks warn one another not to eat any of her apples, because they affected the gut “sumthin’ fierce.” She watched from her holler in the wood with quiet satisfaction. She didn’t think anyone would be coming around making demands of her again.



Patrick Hurley lives, writes, and edits in Seattle. He’s had fiction published in Galaxy’s Edge, Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores, Flame Tree Publishing’s Murder Mayhem anthology, Hy Bender’s forthcoming anthology Ghosts on Drugs, Abyss & Apex, The Overcast, and The Drabblecast. In 2017, he attended the Taos Toolbox Writer’s Workshop taught by Nancy Kress and Walter Jon Williams. He is a member of SFWA and Codex.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Talking Shop


Op-ed • "Developing Writer Discipline," By Eric Dontigney 

                                                                                                                                                                               

Start time: 12: 57 PM 10/3/18

Inspiration gets a lot of credit among artistic types. We talk about how much we get done when we’re inspired. Yet, all of my practical experience tells me that inspiration has very little to do with getting words on the page.

Case in point. I was miserably ill most of last week. That was courtesy of a plague-carrier cashier who decided to cough all over me instead of covering her mouth. I spent most of the week huddled in bed or crouching over a toilet. Needless to say, I got no writing done.

In my non-novel and short story writing life, I write blog posts and web articles for money. Yesterday was my first day back at the desk. I was still feeling lousy. I like paying my bills, though, so I worked. Over the course of a 9 hour day, I wrote four 1000-word articles.

Inspiration had nothing to do with it. How can you tell? I wrote about online business managers, the benefits of branding, tips for landing a dream job, and fixing your credit score. These are not topics that whip most writers into a frenzy of excitement. Inspiration didn’t get those 4000 words written. Discipline got it done.

Now, you might be thinking something like, “But writing fiction is different!”

It’s really not. We only think it is because writing fiction is an “imaginative exercise.” Trust me, writing about fixing your credit score is also an imaginative exercise. I had to imagine ways to talk about the topic in a new way. I had to dream up analogies. I had to keep it interesting. Sound anything like writing fiction?

Granted, 4000 words in a day is a lot for many writers, even professional novelists. I’m aware of that and I’m not advocating that you should aim for that. I write those kinds of articles professionally. When I’m writing fiction, I generally aim for 1000-2000 words a day. I’m also aware that 1000-2000 words a day might sound like a huge feat to many novelists. It’s perfectly achievable. I promise you.

Developing writer discipline breaks down into two main areas. Breaking down illusions and creating proper conditions. Let’s start with the first one.

Here are some common illusions to which novelists of all stripes cling:
·        
  • The possibility of the perfect first draft
  • The necessity of inspiration
  • The idea that writing is or should be painful
  • That writing fast means writing badly

None of the illusions hold water. There is absolutely never a perfect first draft. No matter how sharp your writing, you will need to edit. Inspiration is nothing more than a nice bonus. You can write without it. I did it yesterday.

The whole idea that artists should be tortured souls who can only produce art if it comes at some horrendous spiritual cost is absurd. If I could take that notion out back and put a bullet in its head, I would do it gladly and pay for the privilege. Good writing is hard work, but there’s no requirement that it be painful. Moreover, there’s little evidence that making the process a soul-searing exercise actually makes for better writing. It’s just a myth.

The idea that fast writing is bad writing has a tiny kernel of truth buried at its heart. In high school, fast writing generally is bad writing because it’s a product of sloppy thinking. Now think about the skills you employ at your current or former jobs. You worked slower when you first started out. As you achieve mastery, you get faster.

If you’ve been writing for 10, 15, or 20 years, you should be faster! Writing fast isn’t a sign that you’re doing it wrong. It’s a sign that you’ve been doing it for a long time.

Now, let’s move on to setting the proper conditions. I don’t buy into this notion that every single little thing must be just so in order to get the creative juices flowing. I’ve written on buses, trains, and airplanes. I’ve written in hotels, at other people’s kitchen tables, and sitting in coffee houses. None of those are my preferred settings, but I’ve made them work.

The proper conditions are largely psychological. You must train your brain to associate certain things with writing. Specifically, you must associate things that don’t largely change from setting to setting. For me, sitting down with a keyboard in front of me will usually do it. I’ve trained my brain to tie that condition to productive writing.

Most people need a few more cues. Here are my recommendations. Pick a specific spot in your apartment, house, or yurt where you do writing. (This also works for restaurants, coffee houses, etc., as long as you use the same one consistently.) Get a pair of headphones or earbuds that feel comfortable to you. Pick out some inoffensive, non-distracting, instrumental music. Go to that same spot, listen to the same music, and write. Do it every day or as close as you can manage.

Here is the other thing. You don’t necessarily need to work on your novel or college thesis or whatever project is burning a hole in your psyche. The point is to train your brain to make the association. That means you must put fingers to keyboard (or pen to paper) and get words down. Write complete garbage if you need to, but write.

Make yourself do that for a month. Why a month? That’s the approximate amount of time it takes to create new habits. Once you create the habit and psychological associations, you’ll find that it’s much, much easier to be disciplined and write what you need to write every day.

Stop time: 1:58pm 10/3/18.

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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 near Dayton, OH. 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 “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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