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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?

Cheers,
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!”

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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: https://www.amazon.com/Guy-Stewart/e/B001KHE6U2.

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

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Monday, June 11, 2018

The Story Thus Far

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


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

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

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

Friday, June 1, 2018

Talking Shop


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

                                                                                                                                                                               

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

Florid example:

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

Informational example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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