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Monday, April 30, 2018

Are you a Stupefying storyteller?

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


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

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

Kind regards,
Bruce Bethke, editor
Stupefying Stories 

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Re: Assorted Reminders

Re: The Last Free eBook Friday

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

Re: “It Came From The Slushpile”

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

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

We’ll get back to you on this...

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Introducing SHOWCASE SATURDAY!

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

¤

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

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

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

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

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

He slapped her. “Excess adjectives!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh my God,” Dave gasped.

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

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

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

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

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

“Now for Jerry!” Rex bellowed.

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

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

Dabbing her eyes with a Kleenex, Gina gave Rex a consoling hug. “There’s nothing you could have done,” she said.

Resolve flooded back into Rex, and he began issuing commands. “You there,” he barked, pointing at the surviving production crew. “Find something to barricade this doorway.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?” said Gina.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

      Cordially,
      Rex Manly
      Editor
  


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

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

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

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

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

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


STUPEFYING
Stories and Science
Dear Contributor,

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

The Editors


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

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

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

“Is it dying?” Gina asked.

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

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

“What are you doing?” Gina asked.

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

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


STUPEFYING STORIES
Dear Talentless Hack,

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

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

With malice aforethought,
The Editors


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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re trapped!” Gina wailed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it dead?” Rex asked hopefully.

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

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

“If we had a weapon,” Phil agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What—?” Phil started to ask.

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

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

¤

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



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

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

Rex stopped short.  “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

¤

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then, she hesitated...


¤   ¤   ¤   ¤




Friday, April 27, 2018

It’s the Last Free eBook Friday!


In preparation for the release of Stupefying Stories #21 next week, we’ve decided to give away the Kindle editions of issues 12, 13, and 14 absolutely free—but only until Monday. Tell your friends!

Stupefying Stories #12 features:

• ANACHRONIC ORDER, by Christopher Lee Kneram
• DRIED SKINS UNSHED, by Julie Day
• A NUN’S TALE, Pete McArdle
• THEY FOLLOWED ME, by Carol March
• INTERREGNUM, by John J. Brady
• FULL FATHOM FIVE, Judith Field
• BONE MOTHER, Torah Cottrill
• ALEPH, by Brandon Nolta
• ALIEN TREATRIES, by Randal Doering

DOWNLOAD IT NOW

Stupefying Stories #13 features:

• PERSONAL SPACE, by Alison Pentecost
• THE GREAT WORK OF MEISTER VANHOCHT, by Auston Habershaw
• RAINBOW SPORES, by Jamie Lackey
• END TIMES, by S. R. Algernon
• HER SYMPHONY AND SONG, by Sarah Frost
• HAPPY VALLEY, by Garth Upshaw
• MEMORY MAKES LIARS OF US ALL, by Eric Dontigney
• MEAT 2.0, by William Ledbetter

DOWNLOAD IT NOW

Stupefying Stories #14 features:

• 50 FOOT ROMANCE, by Eric J. Juneau
• CITY OF OPPORTUNITY, by Jānis Zelčāns
• THE ALIENS WENT DOWN TO GEORGIA, by Peter Wood
• THIRTY NINE, by Shedrick Pittman-Hassett
• RIGEL’S MISSING TAIL, by Antha Ann Adkins
• THE BONE POINTER, by Chuck Robertson
• GODS ON A HILL, by G. J. Brown
• THE ANNIVERSARY GIFT, by Gary Cuba
• MASTERS, by Jason Lairamore
• WATER PRESSURE, by Anna Yeatts
• EMISSARY, by Matthew Lavin
• THE GHOSTLESS MACHINE, by Austin Hackney

DOWNLOAD IT NOW

And watch for issue #21, releasing next week!

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Feeding the Muse


Recipe • 15-minute German Potato Salad • by Karen Bethke



I love the smell of charcoal in the early evening. It smells like... Hubby’s cooking dinner! Which means that my job is to park myself in a comfty chair, with a good book and a glass of wine, and provide the occasional encouraging word, until—

“Honey? What do we have for a carb?”


Sigh. Maeve will have to wait. If I leave it up to him he’ll make garlic bread again, and while we both love garlic bread, we love it perhaps a little too much. Portion control becomes a problem. After that, Plans B and C are either to microwave some russets or whip up some instant mashed potatoes, but to be honest, there are only so many times you can face up to plain old baked or mashed potatoes before you go crazy.

Therefore today, I am going to reveal a long-kept secret: not the details of this recipe, but the fact that I can whip it together in about 15 minutes. For years, I’ve kept hubby and kids believing it takes hours to make this dish.

Before we get started, though: note that this recipe is for German-style potato salad, which, being German, is more on the sour end of the taste spectrum than your traditional mayonnaise-based American-style potato salad. Also note that it’s meant to be served warm, not cold, and while it’s not exactly a low-fat dish, it is lower in fat than your typical potatoes drowned in mayonnaise. Finally, it’s surprisingly low-sodium and low-carb. This recipe serves four, and depending on how you make it, the carb load comes in at about 20 grams per serving.

Before you begin
You’ll need:
• a medium-sized frying pan
• a large Dutch oven with a lid
• a heavy-duty colander: something that will survive having boiling water and whole potatoes dumped into it
• a large serving bowl: same requirements as the colander
• at least one cutting board
• the usual assortment of knives, spatulas, etc.

Ingredients
• 1~1.5 lbs of small red potatoes
• 3~4 slices of thick-cut bacon
• 1/2 cup diced sweet/mild onion
• 1 tbsp general purpose flour
• 1/4 cup unfiltered apple cider vinegar
• 1/2 cup water
• 1~2 tsp sugar
• 1/3 tsp ground black pepper

Ironically, I prefer my apple cider vinegar unfiltered but my tap water filtered. (Thank you, 3M!) As for the potatoes, try to pick small ones that are all about the same size, as they’ll cook more consistently. I generally try to get ones that are about golf-ball sized. You can speed-up the cooking process by cutting them in half before you boil them, or even by microwaving them, but you’ll get firmer and better-tasting potatoes by boiling them whole.

Preparation
Scrub the potatoes thoroughly, then put them in the Dutch oven, cover them with water, and put them on the stove over a high heat. You want to get them boiling as quickly as possible. They’ll come to a boil much faster if you put the lid on your Dutch oven and resist the urge to keep checking on them.


While the potatoes are going, chop the bacon into inch-long pieces and get it going in the frying pan over a low heat. Personally, I prefer to handle raw meat with a non-porous (plastic) cutting board and one knife and raw vegetables with a different cutting board and a different knife, but that may just be because my sister is a public health nurse and restaurant inspector. Dice up the onion, set it aside, and mix up the cider vinegar, water, and sugar. If your family is averse to sour you can use 2 tsp of sugar, but hubby and the kids, being of German ancestry, like it sour, so I use 1 tsp.


This is also a good time to get the colander set up for action in the kitchen sink. When it’s time to drain the potatoes, you’ll want a clear path from the stove to the sink because you’re going to need to move quickly.

Check on the potatoes from time to time, but not too often, as every time you open the lid you slow the cooking down a little. When you can stick a fork into the potatoes cleanly and with no resistance, they’re done. Expect this to take about ten minutes after they’ve reached boil.

In the meantime, when the bacon is crispy, gently lift it out of the frying pan and set it aside to drain. I use a wooden fork to avoid scratching my frying pan and put the bacon on a folded paper towel on a plate, to soak up the excess grease. After you’ve got all the large chunks of bacon out of the pan, you should have about 2 to 3 tbsp of bacon grease left in the pan, along with some yummy stuff too small to lift out. You can drain some of the bacon grease if you like, but you need at least 1 tbsp of bacon grease in the pan to fry the onions, so I usually just leave it all in there, unless it was exceptionally fatty bacon.

Quickly, before the bacon grease starts to smoke, throw in the onions and cook them over a low flame. You want to cook the onions until they soften; you don’t want them carmelized or fried to a crisp. As soon as the onions are soft, add the flour, and continue to cook over a low heat.


Essentially, you’re making a roux. This is the base for pretty much all gravies: fat and flour, at a ratio of 1 tbsp flour per 1 cup fluid. Cook the onions and flour slowly for about a minute, stirring constantly to make sure it doesn’t burn (and to get all those yummy bits stuck on the pan back into solution!). Add the vinegar/water mix, mix it thoroughly and bring it to a boil, and cook for another minute or so until it starts to thicken and become glossy. Then add about a 1/3 tsp of freshly ground black pepper—freshly ground always tastes better—mix thoroughly, turn off the burner, and move the frying pan to a cold burner and let it sit for a bit.

By this point, the potatoes should be done. Test them with a fork. If the fork goes in cleanly and without resistance, they’re done. Shut off the burner, set the lid aside, and—using hotpads!—take the Dutch oven over to the sink and dump it into the colander. Then lift the colander out of the sink, put it on the Dutch oven to drain, and take it back over to your work area.

Now comes the hard part. The potatoes are hot, and there’s a reason why a “hot potato” means what it does. So working quickly and carefully, you want to take the potatoes out of the colander, a few at a time, and cut them up and toss them into the serving bowl, all without burning yourself. If the potatoes are small, you can halve them. If they’re larger, quarter them.


When all the potatoes are cut-up and in the serving bowl, get the roux, and using a rubber spatula, pour it over the potatoes. Crumble up the bacon, sprinkle it on top, gently stir the whole thing to make sure everything is covered with gravy, and then serve it warm.


If I’ve timed it right, this should be ready at just about the same time as hubby is declaring the steaks and portabellas done and taking them off the grill.   

Bon appetit!



Karen Bethke is a wife, mother, grandmother, and 8-year cancer patient. The product of many generations of Italian family cooking, she’s now on a mission to create low-carb, low-fat, low-sodium, and just generally healthier meals that still taste great.

Karen’s sole publication credit is as co-author of “From Castle Dracule to Merlotte’s Bar & Grill” in A Taste of True Blood, but behind the scenes, she’s the real driving force behind Rampant Loon Press.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

EARTH DAY

Fiction • “Earth Day,” by J.M. Perkins •



For thousands of years, we did not understand our purpose.

Those were dark times, times when we poisoned the sky and soured the land against us. We flailed, searching, ever searching without knowing what we were searching for. We did not understand why we’d been given our gifts: our intellect and our too-cunning hands, the endless curiosity to tinker, and the hunger that seemed to have no satisfaction.

As time went on, the two prevailing ideologies only became ever more deaf to one another:

Some believed that Gaia belonged to us; parcel and chattel to be divvied up and used as we might. For them, we were as kings, as gods (or at least servants of God) who held dominion over the biosphere. Even in believing that the world belonged to us they forever doubted humanity’s ability to befoul our own nest. They continued to believe this almost until when we would have ended.

Others looked out at the works of man and despaired. Our infrastructure, our arts and sciences only seemed like so much rot and ruin over pristine Gaia. For them, we were the cancer spreading across the face of the planet. All was natural and good except us, who must be forever penitent of the crime of being born what we are. When the calamities came, they would nod sagely, darkly satisfied in their own dire prophecies coming to pass.

Gaia’s survival was never in doubt; ours was. More than improved solar tech, more than landfill mining, more than anything; we needed a philosophy. A reason for why we were what we were and what we meant.

And then we looked towards Luna, and saw our capsule sitting on its surface. And for the first time we understood what it was, what all the satellites and capsules were: Gaia’s first attempts to spore. And so we finally understood what we were: we were the instrument through which our biosphere would reproduce.

The message took years to spread, to be digested and absorbed into all the competing philosophies. But eventually, enough of us agreed: we were the reproductive organs of the planet. Our drive to explore and build would take us past the biosphere. Or rather, our humanity would compel us to spread a biosphere around us wherever we went. We were the seeding, fruiting bodies of our own world.

We ceased to be trapped in the binary of ‘us’ versus ‘nature.’ We were not in conflict, a zero sum game where for one side to win another would have to lose. We became smarter with conservation, with nuclear energy, with genetic science. We stopped trying to limit our growth and instead tried to wed our development to the biosphere.

And now we’re doing what we were born to do.

Now Selene shimmers with its fields of wispy effervescent grasses, Aphrodite thrives and spreads in endless bacterial mats, and Ares has just produced an atmosphere thick enough for vertebrates to wander through its black-leafed forests. The systems are developing, evolving; filling every inch of their planets with Gaia’s children. Every day we grow closer to delivering a new biosphere onto Hyperion, onto Titan, and nowadays it seems we struggle more with properly naming it than with the science to enable it.

The colony ships in skeletal form past Neptune are decades from completion, but they grow every year all the same. Someday, they’ll take more of Gaia’s seeds past the influence of Sol, out to whatever awaits us. And perhaps we’ll meet another biosphere, eighteen generations removed from its progenitor. Perhaps, someday, we’ll even meet Gaia’s ancestors.

And so we celebrate Gaia Day, or as it used to be called, Earth Day, from back when we identified more with the planetary mass than with the ecosphere which overlays it, the ecosphere of which we were part and parcel. We celebrate Gaia Day whether we live on Mars or Mercury or in a lonely mining station in the asteroid belt. We celebrate Gaia Day because, wherever we’re going, whatever we become, Gaia is where we’re from.

And wherever we go, whatever we do, we bring Gaia with us.



J.M. Perkins writes stories, designs games, and spends far too much time thinking about monsters. Currently, he’s hard at work producing the Salt in Wounds Tabletop Role Playing Game Setting. You can be his friend on facebook, follow him on twitter @jmperkins, or learn lots more at jmperkins.com

Friday, April 20, 2018

A Little Something for the Weekend

• "Waving Goodbye to The Librarians" By Eric Dontigney

___________________________________________________________

The Librarians 
Science fiction and fantasy are genres dominated by darkness. It’s inevitable. If you want to raise the stakes and create tension, you need a serious threat. If you’re writing a series, you must progressively double down on the threat level. Yet, as a viewer of SF&F films and TV, the escalating grimdark of it all does one of two things to me. It either wears me down or breaks my suspension of disbelief by turning silly in a non-humorous way.

I cannot binge watch the rebooted Battlestar Galactica without starting to feel depressed. I’ve abandoned all the CW superhero shows because they’ve tipped into un-funny silliness. My solution to this problem for a long time was to watch the show Eureka. It was basically a family-friendly sci-fi show. That meant there was some silliness baked right into the DNA of the show.

Colin Ferguson, who played everyman Jack Carter, vacillated between stunned confusion and physical comedy. There were occasionally dark episodes and themes, but the show never took itself too seriously. It was fun without being condescending. So, naturally, it got canceled. Warehouse 13 tried to capture that same magic, but never quite found it. It leaned progressively more and more into grimdark as it wound its way toward cancellation.

Then, TNT of all networks greenlit a quirky fantasy show called The Librarians. It was a spin-off of the Noah Wylie-fronted Librarian films from the same network. What surprised me, though, was that they beefed up the humor in the show. They very consciously aimed at a family audience and hit the mark more often than not. In a sea of gritty procedurals, here was a show that cast Bruce Campbell (of Evil Dead fame) in a guest role as the actual Santa Claus. It was hilarious and brilliant.

Noah Wylie excelled in his role as the moderately unhinged Flynn Carson, the titular Librarian. Here was a guy who’d been saving the world solo from magical threats for a decade. It took a toll, but they played it for laughs more often than not. He was damaged, but not irretrievably, and driven by an essentially kind nature. The conceit of the show was that what this guy needed was a family, even if it was an ad hoc family thrown together by circumstance in the pilot episode. So they surrounded him with characters as offbeat as himself.

The moral heart of the show was Eve Baird, a NATO commando played by Rebecca Romijn. She was tasked with training and protecting the JV librarians with a combo of tough love, practical advice, and fierce maternal instincts. This job was not made easier by those placed under her care. A morally bankrupt thief named Ezekiel Jones, played to comic perfection by John Harlan Kim. A flighty mathematician and synesthete named Cassandra Cillian, played by Lindy Booth. Rounding out the JV team was oil rig worker and art history genius Jacob Stone, played by Christian Kane. The final member of this odd little family unit was Jenkins, the cranky caretaker of the Library played by the inestimable John Larroquette.

The disparate natures and life experiences of this group did a lot of the comedic heavy lifting and, when all else failed, they could just have John Larroquette toss off an acerbic remark. What this show also did that made me so forgiving of its shortcomings was not taking itself too seriously. When you’ve got a physical powerhouse like Christian Kane on set, it would have been all too easy to turn the show into a dark action show that focused on him. They never did that and here’s why.

The other primary conceit of the show, one that’s almost anathema to contemporary scriptwriting, was that knowledge was the source of power. Physical confrontations were there to keep things exciting. They weren’t solutions, though. Solutions always came out of a character’s understanding of history, art, science, mythology, mathematics, or some combination of the characters’ knowledge. The show elevated being smart into a kind of superpower and it did it without being condescending. When ignorance led to a crisis, the librarians were horrified or frustrated, but never cruel or judgmental.

So, naturally, the show was canceled last month after four seasons and 42 episodes. Granted, that’s a pretty good run for a show about smart people solving problems by being smart. It still makes me a little sad. It’s one less advocate for intelligence in a television landscape that seemingly values brute force solutions above all else. It’s one less show that serves a family audience with lighthearted fare. It’s another victory for an often wearying grimdark aesthetic. My one consolation is that it will survive on DVD and streaming video. So, if you need a break from grimdark and haven’t seen The Librarians, I highly recommend it to you.

________________________________________________

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

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

________________________________________________

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Talking Shop




Op-ed • “Blocked,” by Judith Field •



Time to over-share: I am what can only be described as verbally constipated. When it comes to writing, nothing will flow. All I manage to produce are those things that only a rabbit would be proud of…not for nothing do they call it writer’s block. But where is the Senokot, the cascara, even the vile castor oil, of the pen? Enough already with the unpleasant metaphors, I wouldn’t want people to describe my writing as crap—or worse.

There’s a novel by George Gissing called New Grub Street, written in 1891. It’s about a writer suffering from writer’s block while trying to finish a novel that he secretly knows is rubbish. He goes around thinking things like, “What could I make of that, now? Well, suppose I made him…? But no, that wouldn’t do.” He doesn’t write anything, but procrastinates his time away with nothing to show for it. Just like me. That tells me that things don’t change and it was as easy to get distracted then as now, even though there were no Facebook/emails/online games at the time it was written. In fact, kids, the Internet hadn’t even been invented.

James Thurber said, as the moral to his fable, The Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing, “Don’t get it right, just get it written.” The moral is ironic here, because the sheep don’t do enough research before writing about wolves and they get the idea that wolves are just like they are. As a result, the sheep are easy prey. It’s a bit of a dig at those journalists who don’t care if they haven’t examined their information carefully enough, or even if it’s true, but only want to get a story into print.

However, that Thurberism is what a lot of writers cite, in defence of the crappy first draft which you then edit to perfection. All very well, but you have to have something to write about in the first place. Maybe I should try doing things that way, though. But not free writes, I’ve never been able to do those. Maybe I should stop stressing over it, just sit down, and write. But I’m an outliner, most of the time. So maybe just run at the computer and do an outline?

It reminds me of my childhood. We had a grand piano in our front room. I had lessons for about three years. I started on a book called Kiddies’ Carols (think ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ at quarter-speed—if things had really happened that slowly Jesus would have been ready for his bar mitzvah before the kings arrived). Later, when I got a bit more advanced, or perhaps it’d be more accurate to say when I could play faster, ‘Peasant’s Frolic,’ ‘The Little Spinner,’ and ‘Für Elise’. How can you hold yourself back from seeing if anyone’s put the first two in YouTube?

Eventually I gave the piano up for the clarinet. It was easier to take on the bus. But the person who could play the piano the best was my father. He could improvise any tune you could name, but there were a couple of pieces that he had trouble getting right, from sheet music. One was Chopin’s Piano Concerto number 1 (start at 3:59 if you want to know what he was up against). He would run at the piano and just play, before the music had the chance to bite him, catch him out, go wrong. Maybe it was a bit like Thurber’s “don’t get it right” thing. Just get it played.

So, I sat down and wrote. The phone rang—someone wanting to talk about an accident I’d had where I wasn’t to blame. The doorbell rang—someone wanting to sell me replacement gutters. My other half called up the stairs to tell me he was going to have a shower (no, I don’t know why, either). But I got it written. And here it is.



JUDITH FIELD lives in London, UK. She is the daughter of writers, and learned how to agonise over fiction submissions at her mother’s (and father’s) knee. She’s a pharmacist, medical writer, editor and indexer, and in 2009 she made a New Year resolution to start writing fiction and get published within the year. Pretty soon she realised how unrealistic that was, but in fact, it sort of worked: she got a slot to write a weekly column in a local paper shortly before Christmas of 2009 and that ran for several years. She still writes occasional feature articles for the paper. She has two daughters, a son, a granddaughter and a grandson. Her fiction, mainly speculative, has appeared in a variety of publications in the USA, UK and Australia. When she’s not working or writing, she’s studying part-time for a master’s in Creative Writing. She speaks five languages and can say, “Please publish this story” in all of them. She was Science Fiction Editor at Red Sun Magazine and is Assistant Editor at Gathering Storm Magazine.

[Editor’s Note: While we’re all waiting for Judith to finish her novel, please check out The Book of Judith: Sixteen Tales of Life, Wonder, and Magic. It got really great reviews on Amazon.co.uk, but for reasons unknown those reviews were never propagated to the US Amazon.com page and thus sales in the US have always been soft. This book deserves a better fate. ~brb]

[P.S. And Judith: finish that novel!]

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Notes Towards a Manifesto

Part 3 • “Where we’re going,” by Bruce Bethke •



This goes somewhere, but you have to read the entire thing. Trust me.

I’ve been trying on a lot of faces lately. Some are old. Some are new. Some come from deep in the catacombs of the ancient gallery. After quite a few experiments, I’d settled on this one:

This is how I look now. Or at least, it’s close enough. This photo is one of a series shot in July of 2015, as we were trying to come up with a good “author’s photo” and in which I was trying on different facial expressions. Friendly, serious, approachable, encouraging...

No, this candid snap is me now. Intelligent. Skeptical. Generally kindly, but querulous if provoked. I have a strong acerbic streak and have been known to reduce young writers to quivering mounds of jelly by telling them what I really thought of their mess of an attempted story. I have worked very long and hard to keep that acerbic streak under tight control. But I am getting tired of maintaining this whole Minnesota False Modesty façade.

The only real difference between this photo and how I look right now—aside from the lack of snow in the background—is the pipe. I quit smoking three years ago. Much as I enjoyed my pipe, or a good cigar every now and then, when one is married to a woman with metastatic breast cancer, one quits smoking.

There. You want a way to keep teens from starting to smoke? Forget the slick TV ad campaigns. Make them spend an hour a week in the waiting room of an oncology clinic, just watching the parade of patients in and out. Better yet, make them talk to some of the patients.

Talk? Who am I trying to kid? May as well ask them to talk to their grandparents.



As I make this transition, from author, to editor, to publisher, I can’t help but feel just a bit grandfatherly. Personally, I like to think that I’m at last evolving into my Protector stage—and if that reference confuses you, go back and read more early Larry Niven. The point is that this is a whole different way of looking at my place in the literary world, and yet, it’s strangely familiar. When I began this journey, I was a businessman, dabbling in writing. For the record I was a successful businessman, too, very good at what I did, and making what was then a very good living at it.

The problem was that when I was a businessman, I was also—well, kind of a dick. Arrogant. Brusque. Focused. Driven. Very impatient with people who got in my way or wasted my time. This worked a lot of hardships on my marriage, my friendships, and worst of all, on my relationships with my children. Thankfully, I was given the chance to change my life, and to take it in a better direction.

Now, though, as we evaluate Rampant Loon Press and Stupefying Stories, the conclusion is inescapable: what we need is a businessman.

And a Twitter account. Eric Dontigney has convinced me of that. Eric is a wonder. I really like what he’s done with our Facebook presence and wish I had six more just like him. Well, not just like him: I’d prefer to get my Additional Erics in a nice mix of ages, genders, and colors. Perhaps in a few years, when human cloning really comes online...

So here’s my fear, and my challenge. As I make this transformation to my final adult phase, and let my businessman persona out of the dungeon one more time and put him in charge again, can I make Rampant Loon Media LLC the success I truly believe it can be while still retaining my basic decent humanity?

I don’t know. Let’s find out. And so I hold my copy of today’s Wall Street Journal on high, take a deep breath, and shout the ancient magic name of power:

“MILTONFRIEDMAN!”


Right, okay, now where were we? Oh yeah, if you’ll just turn to page 3 of today’s agenda, you’ll see the goals we’re setting for 2018 and beyond:

1. Get Stupefying Stories onto a steady, predictable, first-day-of-the-month release schedule for both the Kindle and print editions. 

We’ve already got the technical problems licked and can produce both ebook and print editions from common source. What we need to solve now is the production problem, and release new books simultaneously in book ebook and print. There’s no way around it. We need to do this, therefore, we will.

2. Get the subscription problem solved and start selling subscriptions.

Right now Patreon looks like the best way to do this. Therefore, we’ll make this happen.

3. Build our mailing list and begin direct advertising. 

Much as we’d like to, we can’t trust Facebook or Twitter to be there tomorrow and thus far our Amazon ad campaigns have been financial sinkholes. We need to reach readers directly and build our readership.

4. Raise more money. 

There are two ways to do this: sell more books or beg people to support us through a Kickstarter or GoFundMe campaign. Personally, I find the latter to be just slightly more ethical than a Ponzi scheme. “Donate your money to help our business grow, because then you can bask in the glow of... feeling all virtuous or something.”

Me, I like the idea of selling more books. That’s the beauty of the free market. If people like the product you’re producing, they tell you so by buying it.

5. Remember that the ultimate goal here is to grow Stupefying Stories into a professional market. 

Right now we’re a small-press semi-pro market because that’s what we can afford to be. Thus far, we have plowed every penny we’ve made back into paying authors and artists more. The big target is to grow sales to the point where we can afford to pay authors pro rates and become recognized as a professional market.

6. Grow new editorial and production talent in-house. 

The company can’t survive and grow if I am the bottleneck on every project. Remember, my personal goal is to one day be able to step back from this business and watch it run without me like a well-oiled machine. This also ties into goal #4: we need to grow sales, to raise money, so that we can begin paying the staff. Thus far only the authors and artists are getting paid, and it’s hard to grow and keep production talent if they’re only working for the experience and a bullet-point on their resume.

7. Investigate other ways to raise cash.

We have put a lot of time and energy into learning how to create ebooks and print books, and into learning how to set up the behind-the-scenes sales and distribution mechanisms. Perhaps it’s time to—shudder!—seriously consider selling this expertise as a consulting service, for writers who want to self-publish.

I know: this way lies pandering to the lowest common denominator and something that looks an awful lot like vanity publishing, but perhaps we can make this into a viable source of revenue while maintaining our integrity.

...and that’s enough for this meeting. Motion to adjourn?

~brb 

From the SHOWCASE archives...

• Fiction: “Sport of Kings” by Judith Field •

[Editor’s Note: In place of today’s scheduled “Feeding the Muse” column, Karen has asked that I re-run this story instead.]



Rick woke up, rolled over, and collided with something solid. Stretching out a shaking hand, he opened his eyes. He was facing the oak tree in the front garden. Rainwater dripped onto him from the branches. A moment of calm, then images of the night before tried to shove their feet in the doorway of his memory. He groaned, and tried to get up.

Francine stuck her head out of the bedroom window, her mouth pursed up like a cat’s backside. She was saying something he couldn’t hear. Touching his ear, he looked up at her and shrugged his shoulders: no hearing aid. Rick clenched his right fist and rubbed it in a circle on his upper chest:
“Sorry.”

Francine didn’t understand sign language but it couldn’t do any harm. Bit like praying, really.

He’d only recently got this new hearing aid, and it wouldn’t stay in properly whatever he did. In these days of health cuts, would they give him another? The best cost thousands, if you went private. He’d been paid last week but was still overdrawn. And only another £500 to spend on the credit card.

Francine tiptoed round the puddles. Rick lip-read ‘pissed’, ‘knob head’ (she had her own sign for that) and ‘AGAIN’. He turned away. She walked round till she was facing him...

— [read the rest of the story]

Monday, April 16, 2018

Notes Towards a Manifesto

Part 2 • “Where we are,” by Bruce Bethke •



Funny how writing something out in detail and then letting it sit for a day before re-reading it can reveal a fundamental error in your thinking. When I wrote Part 1, I thought I had a solid grasp on the plan I was about to lay out in Part 2. I was going to spin a wonderful little analogy comparing Stupefying Stories to my garden, explaining that I plant a garden each year not because I need to but because I want to, and then talking about how much I enjoy the surprise of seeing what takes root and develops. I was going to explain that the best part of this job is seeing the names of writers who we were the first, or one of the first, to publish, show up years later on the short lists for major awards, or on the covers of major magazines, or on the bestseller lists. For example, if you look closely at issue #6, August 2012, you’ll see the name of this year’s Newbery Medal winner on the list of contributors.

Once I actually wrote it all down, though, I spotted a serious flaw in my thinking. To be blunt, I caught myself failing to follow my own often-given advice, which I usually present in words like these:
“To succeed as a writer, you need talent, good craft skills, good work habits, and at least some good luck. Since you can’t control how much talent or luck you have, if you want to take your game to the next level, you must concentrate on developing good craft skills and work habits.”
Hmm. Doesn’t exactly sync with the puttery, hobbyish, aleatoric nature of my garden analogy, does it? To make it worse, though, that thought collided head-on with something I wrote in Part 1:
“There is a distinctly generational component in the fiction writer’s life-cycle. At first we write to impress our elders, because they’re our parents, our teachers, and eventually, if we’re lucky, our editors and publishers. Then we write to impress our contemporaries, because they’re our friends and peers, and in general, they share our language, vocabulary, common assumptions, innate value judgments, and experiential base.

“The trouble comes in the third stage, when we’re writing to try to impress those younger than ourselves...”
Double-hmm. Who exactly am I trying to impress with Stupefying Stories? Certainly not my elders. They’re nearly all gone now. Probably not my contemporaries. There are fewer of them every day, and it’s hard to get the attention of those who remain. For the most part they’re focused on running out the clocks on their own careers, and have little interest in a new magazine unless it’s someplace where they can dump their old trunk stories for pro word rates.

Which leaves...

And this is when the fundamental error in my thinking rose up and slapped me in the face. For the past eight years, I have been treating Stupefying Stories as a puttery, hobbyish, aleatoric thing that I have been doing for my own amusement and to impress my contemporaries. I have been thinking like a writer, operating in a loose collection of writer-to-writer relationships, and giving scant thought to building the readership. I need to work on—

Not my craft skills as a writer. Not even my craft skills as an editor. But my craft skills as a publisher.

This makes me nervous. Writers hate and fear publishers, and usually for good reason. But the question we’ve been tap-dancing around since last Wednesday is this: what’s more important now? For me to be liked, or for Rampant Loon Press to become a successful business?

Tomorrow: Part 3 • “The Part Previously Known as Part 2”   

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Notes Toward a Manifesto

Part 1 • “How we got here,” by Bruce Bethke •



...and here we are, in the second week of April already. It’s 20-something degrees outside. There’s a fresh blanket of snow covering the yard, with more snow in the forecast. I’m standing at the deck door, sipping my coffee, looking out at the yard and the cow pasture beyond it, and thinking: looks like I’m not going to get an early start on the garden this year.

I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. Thinking, I mean. As we’re formalizing our submission guidelines and hammering out a serious business plan for Rampant Loon Press and Stupefying Stories, for 2018 and beyond, the situation requires much serious thought and a surprising amount of introspection. Why am I doing this? What exactly am I trying to accomplish here? How will I know if I’ve succeeded? When will I know?

Who is this Bruce Bethke character, anyway?

If you’re reading this, that last one probably sounds like a fatuous and self-serving question. “Why, you’re Bruce Bethke, critically acclaimed and award-winning science fiction writer! Editor of Stupefying Stories! Author of Headcrash! You’re the guy who wrote ‘Cyberpunk’!

Yes, that’s all true, as far as it goes. But if we’re going to define Stupefying Stories as, “Stories Bruce Bethke® Likes,” we need to dig a little deeper. What do I like in a story? Why? We all have conceits and biases. What are mine, and how much of them is it advantageous to reveal now?

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Just 15 hours left!

And already, we have our first 5-star review!
“I can’t make up my mind whether this or book 2 is my new favorite Vogel novel, but the Recognition trilogy is definitely my favorite Vogel series. It’s not only an excellent scifi adventure, but also has elements of a thriller, a mystery, and transformative fiction. It’s fun and geeky, but it also explores deeper questions about what’s really important in life, whether you’re a royal, a hacker, or just an ordinary person.”

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Just 60 Hours Left!

THE RECOGNITION REVELATION • by Henry Vogel

   

AMAZON COUNTDOWN DEAL! To celebrate the release of The Recognition Revelation, we’ve got special pricing on The Recognition Run and The Recognition Rejection, but for a limited time only. Buy ‘em now, because the clock is ticking!

Talking Shop


Op-ed • "Basic Rules for Plotting," By Eric Dontigney



Plotting is one of those core elements that stress writers out. The underlying thought that drives that stress is this: “What if it I can’t resolve the novel?” It’s a fair concern. Most of us have read novels that were resolved only by the grace of a deus ex machina. Even though I don’t plot my novels in advance, I still need my novels to progress and resolve in satisfying way. In other words, I need to think about plot and how to deliver that progress and resolution.

To solve that problem, I’ve developed some general guidelines that I keep in mind while I’m writing.

1. There must be a compelling reason for people to stay in the situation other than, "I need these characters to be at place X in the final act."

We’ve all seen at least one horror movie and, if you’re me, yelled something like this at the screen: “Come on! You can’t be this stupid!”

The reason we think or yell these things is because no one even remotely rational would stick around in that situation. We’d look at our dead friend or the super creepy house obviously owned by Satan and run for our lives. This holds especially true in science fiction and fantasy, where the stakes are often life-or-death.

You must give your characters reasons for being where they are, whether situation or personal. Either way, the reader needs to know them. Are all the escape routes blocked? Is the character driven by some archaic code of honor? Are they on a mission from God? Whatever reason you pick, get it on the page early on. That keeps people like me from yelling at your book.

2. The complications must arise in a way that feels organic.

Ever heard of Checkov’s Gun? It’s a piece of advice for good writing that goes something like this:

“If you put on a gun on the mantle in the first act, it must go off in the next.”

It’s an oblique way of saying that things shouldn’t appear that don’t have a purpose. There is a corollary principle that you can draw from this.

“If you need a giant robot in the third act, you need to establish the presence of a giant robot in the first act.”

Let’s say that I’ve got the intuition that I need to wound my main character somewhere in the middle of the book. Yeah, I could have him or her get into some kind of accident, but that’s not very satisfying. That leaves another person or thing intentionally hurting him or her.

I could manufacture some kind of conflict in the middle of the book. That works okay if I’ve got my character in a natively hostile environment, but what if I don’t? I need there to be a plausible reason for violence.

That means I need to set up a deeply antagonistic relationship between my main character and another character who is not the big bad. This works for me on a couple levels. If I get there and my character does need to get wounded, I’ve built in an organic reason for it. If I decide my character doesn’t need to get wounded, that antagonism still serves a purpose. I get an ongoing, organic source of tension.

In essence, I’ve built myself a scenario that supports several outcomes without marrying me to a specific plot-point.

3. Characters must stay in character.

This is one of those things that drives me absolutely insane about a lot of television shows. The writers start with the conclusion of the episode in mind. Then, they make one or more people act out of character to get everyone from point A to the desired point Z.

Yeah, Arrow, I’m looking at you.

Let’s say that you’ve written a character as smart and reflective. You can’t make that person abruptly act stupid and short-sighted because you don’t see another way to get them where you want them. It’s makes smart readers step out of the story and start asking questions like:

“Gee, why did this smart, level-headed person suddenly start acting like a dumb rage monkey?”

That’s not to say that a smart, reflective character can’t behave stupidly. They can with the right build-up. If you want them running into a bad situation in a fit of blind, irrational rage, you have to slowly push them that direction over the course of the novel.

4. The resolution to the main plot problem must follow logically from the rest of the book.

I really can’t emphasize this enough. If resolving your novel requires a miracle or some other unlikely event, you need to reread your book and try again. If you can’t find enough threads to pull together a plausible explanation that doesn’t rely on deus ex machina, you need to do a rewrite. The logic of the resolution doesn’t need to be blindingly obvious, but it must be there. This is what helped me get a handle on this problem.

In the end, all novels are mystery novels for the reader. You’ve created a problem and, even if you know the end, the reader doesn’t. Ideally, they won’t know until they read the last chapter or two. This is as true for a book about the internal politics of a Midwestern farming family as it is for any murder mystery. The one sacrosanct rule of mystery novels is this:

“You must play fair. The clues must all be on the page.”

A discerning reader ought to be able to look back at the novel and point to the breadcrumbs that inform the resolution, even if those breadcrumbs are obscure.

So there you have it, four of the basic rules I use to get from page 1 to page last with a plot that holds together.



Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One.  Raised in Western New York, he currently resides in Memphis, TN. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at ericdontigney.com. Eric’s last appearance in our pages was “Memory Makes Liars of Us All,” in Stupefying Stories #13, his next will be “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it!



“Talking Shop” is an ongoing conversation in which writers talk about the craft of writing, the business of writing, and what it takes to make it as a writer here in the 21st century. If you’d like to join the conversation and write an article, please send a query first to Bruce Bethke at submissions@rampantloonmedia.com.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Feeding the Muse: Living Well on a Writer’s Budget



Recipe • The Fantastic Frittata • by Karen Bethke



The frittata is a traditional Italian egg-based dish, and it’s basically either a quiche without the crust or an omelet without the fuss. I love to make them because they’re simple, easy, delicious, can be very low-carb, and I’ve never really gotten the hang of folding an omelet without turning it into a mess. Frittatas can be served hot for breakfast, or refrigerated and served later as you would a quiche, and they have the added bonus of being a great way to re-purpose pretty much any leftover meat or vegetables you have in the fridge into a tasty dish that goes from fridge to table in less than half an hour and looks like it was a lot more work to make than it really was.

Before you begin
Since a frittata starts on the stove-top and then goes into the oven or broiler, to make a frittata, you must use a skillet that is oven-safe. You can use pretty much any metal-handled stainless steel skillet (not Teflon!), but at the risk of sounding like a TV commercial, my favorite frittata pan is a red copper knock-off we bought at Menard’s for about seven dollars. It has a metal handle, which makes it oven-safe, the copper ceramic non-stick coating, which really does work as long as you don’t scratch it, and a rounded bottom shape that makes it a breeze to clean with just hot soapy water and a stiff kitchen brush, even when what I’m cooking in it gets a little scorched.

Ingredients
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/3rd cup some kind of animal protein, pre-cooked
  • 1/3rd cup diced sweet onion
  • 1/3rd cup diced bell pepper
  • 1/3rd cup grated or diced cheese
  • one leftover baked potato
  • 4 to 5 large eggs
  • black pepper to taste
To be honest, all these measurements are approximate and all the ingredients except the eggs and the olive oil are optional, improvisational, and depend entirely on what I happen to have on hand. If we made pizza the night before and have leftover crumbled Italian sausage, I’ll make a frittata with Italian sausage and Parmesan or mozzarella cheese. If we made tacos the night before and have leftover seasoned and cooked taco meat, I’ll make a frittata with taco meat and cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese. If I have leftover baked or fried potatoes, I might dice some up and throw them in, but if I don’t, or I’m trying to make a low-carb meal, I’ll skip the potatoes. You can use almost any vegetable in place of the onions and peppers; for example, you can skip the meat, onions, and peppers entirely and make a really nice vegetarian frittata with zucchini, or leftover roasted cherry tomatoes and asparagus.

In this case, I just happen to have some leftover ham from last Sunday, so I’m making a sort of Denver frittata with Maui Sweet onion, red bell pepper (they were on sale), no potatoes, and Gouda cheese.

Getting Started
Since I don’t trust my broiler, I’m going to start this thing on the stove and finish it in the oven. So I begin by pre-heating the oven to 450°, and then I put the skillet on the stove over a medium-high flame and put in a generous dollop of olive oil. The 2 tbsp listed in the recipe is approximate; my momma teacha me to cook by sight, feel, and smell. You want enough oil in the pan to sauté the vegetables, but not so much that you deep-fry them, and you want to be careful not to overcook or burn them. Once the pan is up to temperature, I dice up the onion and throw it into the oil, and while the onion is cooking I dice up the pepper and add it, same for the ham, and then I reduce the heat and just let the whole thing sauté and cook down while I’m cracking the eggs into a mixing bowl.


Some people like to add a little milk to eggs before whisking them, but I don’t. I use a fork to puncture the yolks and then whip them thoroughly, grind about 1/4 tsp of black pepper and toss it in with the eggs, and then toss in the shredded cheese and mix it thoroughly again.

When the meat/veg mix in the skillet is cooked through, I make sure the top of the meat/veg mix is level in the pan, and then pour in the egg/cheese mix, taking care to make sure everything is pretty much submerged in egg and covered.

The tricky part
This is the hard part: you have to be patient. Cook the mix in the skillet over a low flame until the edges have set. Test it with a fork. When you can lift the edge of the frittata away from the side of the pan, it’s ready to go into the oven.

Put the skillet into the oven. If you’re using the broiler, put it on the top rack, otherwise use the middle rack. How long it stays in the oven depends on whether you’re baking or broiling it; in either case, you want to cook it until it sets up solidly, the edges begin to lift away from the sides of the skillet, and the top is just starting to get that nice toasty lightly browned look. Check often to make sure you catch it before it begins to burn. In the oven, it usually takes from 10 to 15 minutes to go from set at the edges but liquid in the center to completely done.

 
Serving
Once the frittata is done, pull it out of the oven, turn the oven off, and then contemplate your next move. If you really want to make a big production out of it (and you used just enough olive oil) you should be able to slide the whole thing out of the skillet and onto a serving platter, but I like to put a trivet on the table and serve it right from the skillet. Usually I quarter it in the pan—carefully, you don’t want to scratch the pan!—and then lift the pieces out with a spatula. Sometimes, depending on what went into it, a frittata is really terrific with a spoonful of salsa or a few dashes of green Cholula sauce, but most of the time, it doesn’t even need salt or pepper.


Bon appetit!



Karen Bethke is a wife, mother, grandmother, and 8-year cancer patient. The product of many generations of Italian family cooking, she’s now on a mission to create low-carb, low-fat, low-sodium, and just generally healthier meals that still taste great.

Karen’s sole publication credit is as co-author of “From Castle Dracule to Merlotte’s Bar & Grill” in A Taste of True Blood, but behind the scenes, she’s the real driving force behind Rampant Loon Press.