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Friday, July 13, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed • "5 Tips for Writing a Fantasy Series as an Organic Writer," By Eric Dontigney 


Organic writers don’t really plot. That’s a bit of a challenge when you find yourself writing a series. As someone who’s about 3/5 of the way through writing a series, I feel like I’m in a position to offer a few survival tips. Brace yourselves. Advice is coming!

Tip 1: Take Notes After Each Novel

When someone plots a series, they build themselves a roadmap to follow. They think through the details ahead of time and weave them into the structure of the series. In short, they don’t need to remember that X character took this action in book three because Y character slighted them in book one. It’s all in the outline.

Since you don’t have that roadmap to follow, you need a detailed summary of where you’ve been. At the very least, you need a list of characters that appeared and a summary of what they did. You’ll benefit if you describe their relationships with the other characters. You also need a summary of the plot and, maybe more importantly, any unresolved subplots you worked into the story.

When you write subsequent books, you can review all that information and decide which characters and subplots to pull forward in the next book, and which ones to bring back later. You’ll find someone who is willing to write this all up for you if you’re really lucky.

Tip 2: Decide How the Series Will End

“Wait,” you say. “Isn’t that plotting?

Yes, I admit, this isn’t purely a purely organic approach. It will, however, save you a lot of agony as you go along. More to the point, you don’t need to know every last detail of the ending. You should, however, have a general sense of what the final resolution will look like and who will survive it.

What’s the benefit of doing that?

It gives you something to aim at. Most series hit a point where, to readers at least, it feels like the characters are just spinning their wheels. We’ve all read those series. They survive because we love the characters and world more than the individual books. It’s my opinion that this happens because the writers don’t have a clue about how things will resolve.

Armed with the knowledge of how things end, you can weave in details and subplots that push the series toward the inevitable end. It creates and builds tension as you go.

Tip 3: Accept that the Process Gets Less Organic with Each Book

You get almost unlimited carte blanche in the first book of a series. You can make the characters do and say whatever you want, as long as you’re consistent with their characterizations. That becomes increasingly less true with each subsequent book. By the time you get around to the third or fourth book, you’re at the mercy of everything that came before.

Any significant changes in character behaviors, socioeconomic statuses, and relationships require explanation on the page. Just as importantly, if you’re playing fair, your main character’s relationships must evolve. That means you must consider how those relationships will be affected by the events in the last book and play that out in the new book.

Some writers do an end run around this problem by changing the setting and supporting characters in every book. Granted, this does let you avoid the problem, but it’s not very satisfying for readers. Your main character never has to deal with the fallout from his or her choices, which is some of the ripest ground for character growth.

Tip 4: Get Your Magical System in Order

I talked about this pretty extensively in another post, so I’ll just hit a couple of highlights here.
First, you must figure out how magic works in your series. This is one of my pet peeves about a lot of fantasy series. You see magic users do something in the first book that becomes impossible for one reason or another in later books.

Since you’re probably looking at writing several hundred thousand words or more that involve this magical system, you don’t want things changing willy-nilly every forty pages. That’s a very real possibility if you write organically. Pin down the rules and stick with them.

Second, don’t overwhelm readers with irrelevant details about the magical system. If it doesn’t forward the story or character development, it doesn’t belong in the book.

Tip 5: Resign Yourself to a Longer Editing Process

Organic writing lends itself to following those fascinating bunny trails. It also lends itself to overextended scenes, unnecessary chapters, and gross continuity errors. It’s really easy to write a character into a chapter only to realize that you killed that character in a previous novel or that they’re supposed to be out of town.

Beating all of those inadvertent flaws out of your novel takes more time than a draft written from a plot outline. You just get fewer bunny trails, unnecessary scenes, and continuity errors when you work from well-conceived outlines. Accepting that you must budget more time from the outset makes the process slightly less grueling. It also makes it easier not to rush through revisions.

Writing a fantasy series as an organic writer is tricky because you lose some of the organic qualities as you go along. Despite the challenges, it can still be done. You must keep track of the details from each book and provide explanations for significant changes. You should pin down the rules of magic before you start, since it’s a series-spanning element. Figure out, in general terms, how the series will end. Beyond that, you can still enjoy a largely organic writing experience.


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

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, June 28, 2018

“The Ghost Returns” • Bruce Bethke

I didn’t intend to ghost. Heck, I didn’t even know that “ghost” was now a verb; shows how out of touch I am. Ghosting, ghosted, to ghost: still sounds funny to me.

I did intentionally back away from social media in early May, in one part to nip in the bud the Facebook-induced OCD I was beginning to develop and in nine parts to free up time to solve some behind-the-scenes technical problems with RLP. The problems we were experiencing with e-contracts turned out to have a simple root cause: Adobe was working on improving their integration with Microsoft Office, with the predictable result that, yeah, sure, it now works better with Word and Outlook—and worse with everything else, and sometimes simply doesn’t work at all.

Have I mentioned how much I hate Outlook? I mean, since yesterday?

Anyway, we now appear to have the e-contract issues resolved, so we should be getting all the promised contracts out to authors within the next few days.

After the intentional social media hiatus (SMH), there came an unintentional SMH, as we took off to Iceland for a few weeks for our first actual vacation in nine years. I didn’t intend to drop off the grid, but it turned out that once we got out of Reykjavik, comms were very spotty. I still have the message that popped up on my phone when we touched down at Keflavik airport. “Welcome to Iceland! Your [provider] phone will work here and you can expect up to 2G speeds!”

So my laptop was pretty much a paperweight the entire time. Surprisingly, SMS text messaging worked pretty well, though, so when we had a thunderstorm and power outage followed by a heat wave back home, I was able to walk our house sitter through the process of resetting the circuit breakers and rebooting the central A/C by text message, from about 40 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

Wow. Technology. Cool stuff. Definitely beats sending messages by pounding drums, like we did when I was a kid.

I have lots more to say about Iceland, which I’ll save for another time. Looking at all the photos I took, they seem about equally divided between idyllic pastoral landscapes and photos that could be postcards carrying the message, “Greetings from Mordor!” Fascinating place. Fascinating people. Fermented shark tastes every bit as vile as you imagine it does.

When we returned from Iceland I was jet-lagged all to Hell and gone but refreshed, energized, inspired, and ready to get back to work. Unfortunately, I then did get back to work, and the moment I walked into the office, I discovered that the project I’d thought was in decent shape when I left had gone to Condition SHTF while I was gone. So that’s consumed pretty much all available time since. The reactor leak is locked down now, though, so I am cautiously optimistic that life is at last returning to normal.

Finally, I want to publicly congratulate The New Intern and the minions on the great job they did with handling submissions while I was gone. They kept it flowing: the slush must flow. With a bit of distance, I can see that we need to make some changes to improve our processes, and we’ll be making those changes as quickly as we can. More to follow on this.

In the meantime, though: hi. I’m back. Judging from the pile of accumulated messages, Facebook missed me. I wonder how many of those messages are actually ads?

Bruce Bethke
editor, Stupefying Stories

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed • "Writer's Constipation: How To Make It Yield For Gentle, Predictable Overnight Relief," By Guy Stewart

In the early 2000s, I was working on my master’s degree. I was also working forty-plus hours a week as a ninth-grade science teacher. With my wife, and our fourteen-year-old daughter and seventeen-year-old son, we did, you know, family things.

The program was at a university in the neighboring state, which was an hour’s drive one way. Most people finished in two years, but I was taking two classes a week each semester. Doing it that way, it would take me five years to complete the degree – including 600 hours of “on-the-job” experience. I also took the summers off, not taking classes, but teaching five weeks of summer school for gifted and talented kids.

With all of that, something had to get cut out. Eventually, I stopped writing – and I hadn’t started my blog, yet, so my effective creative output dropped to zero.

For the first time in my life, I had no time for writing even though I’d come to believe that it was more than just a “hobby” or an avocation. I believed that it was something I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to make it a career, maybe even support the aforementioned family with it someday.

But the five-year stint of taking classes, studying, and writing papers for the degree was NOTHING compared to the final push during the last semester. For six months, I didn’t turn on my computer for anything but grades and classwork. Neither one involved my imagination: work and rearranging and regurgitating data.

The flow of ideas slowed to a trickle and finally dried up. I know this now because there are virtually no scraps of paper and notes about ideas from that period of time. After Christmas, I realized that I wasn’t feeling well. I started to have regular bouts of heartburn. A “sour stomach” became commonplace. Aches, joint pains, and plantar fasciitis plagued me even though I hadn’t gained weight in some time.

A few visits to the doctor didn’t really solve anything, although they took care of my plantar fasciitis. My digestion was unimproved and (as my wife reports) I had gotten crankier (than usual!). I’d started feeling a tightness in my chest. While I wasn’t even fifty yet, I was somewhat concerned – I was biking some and walked a lot in my job. My family DID have a history of heart conditions, but I was sure enough that it wasn’t that because Dad, me, and my brothers were in the ARIC study (Atherosclerosis Risk In Communities). In addition to regular monitoring, all of us had CAT scans and MRIs of our hearts.

I’d stopped the whole “writing thing” by then – four stories published over the five year period from 2000 to 2005. I started to consider taking up normal hobbies like painting, singing in bands, camping, or WWF-TV-watching.

The semester before I was scheduled to graduate (my GPA was 3.89), I couldn’t take it anymore. The counseling program I was in was to be the first to create online portfolios. There were the usual glitches and hassles in both the system and myself that happen any time something new goes into effect. After a particularly frustrating attempt at uploading the requisite documents, I vented on a classroom of students who would have been challenging to me at the best of times. I lost my temper and shouted long and loud. A teacher I trusted came and talked to me later to find out what had happened, because, as he said, “I’ve NEVER heard you that mad!”

Early one morning, a few days later, I started writing again.

The dam broke. I started half-a-dozen stories, writing, writing, writing – and ignoring my “critical editor”. It didn’t matter right then how WELL I was writing, I was just getting words on paper. I’d write on my desktop, I’d write on my clipboard on the blank backs of unused worksheets. I’d add the files to my computer, then print and submit them with little real hope that they were good enough to publish.

Most of it was sheer…junk. My skills were so rusty, I could barely build a coherent scene let alone a click a gripping story. But something happened: while my feet still hurt (plantar fasciitis has little to do with putting my butt in a chair and more to do with years of walking on concrete floors in schools!), my joints stopped aching, I stopped having stomach aches and heartburn. It reminded me of the scene from MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL:

The Dead Collector: 'Ere, he says he's not dead.
The Dead Collector: He isn't.
Large Man with Dead Body: Well, he will be soon, he's very ill.

I got better because I wrote my guts (and ideas) out, almost literally. My cure for writer’s constipation was to WRITE. Most of the writing and ideas of that time weren’t very good, and only one got published.

Ironically, it appeared in the February 2016 issue of THE WRITER (yeah, THAT one…), and was titled “A Matter Of Time”. The magazine hadn’t been online for long at that point and my article doesn’t exist in the archives anymore. You can read it here on an ancillary blog I keep for stories and articles that either never made it into print and I either think are still good, or ones that have disappeared from the world.

I learned that to keep my literary guts clear and healthy, I had to write. Just write. Quality didn’t matter. At that time of my life, I was physically sick. But I got words down on paper. Once I did, I was able to write the concluding sentence of THE WRITER article: “Keep in mind that it’s all a matter of time – how you use it, and how your persistence will eventually pay off!”


Guy Stewart is a husband supporting his wife, a breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, teacher, and counselor who maintains a SF/YA/Children’s writing blog called POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS; and more seriously, the author of GUY’S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER AND ALZHEIMER’S. He has 66 publications to his credit, including a book that’s been available since 1997. In his spare time he keeps animals, a house, and loves to bike and camp. Guy has been a member of the Stupefying Stories crew since before the beginning, and his Amazon page is here:

If you enjoyed this column, you might also want to read his short story, “Bogfather,” which we published on this site back in December.


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

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

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! 


Saturday, May 19, 2018


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 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

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

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!