Friday, November 29, 2013


For the latest news, latest download links, and best of all, FREE STORIES, check out our companion webzine, STUPEFYING STORIES SHOWCASE, ready to read now at this link:

This week featuring:
  • “Special Delivery,” by Peter Wood
  • “The Cubes,” by Taylor Vaughan 
  • “Rheum,” by Parker Lee
  • “Caveat Emptor,” by Steve Coate
  • Junk Food Cinema, by Badger & Vole
  • 2013: The Year in Pre-Review, by Bruce Bethke

Saturday, November 23, 2013


Sometimes a project is released, and other times, it escapes. This one is definitely more of an "escape," and deserving of front-page top-of-the-fold coverage. Ergo, imagine Paul Winchell reading:



Saturday, November 16, 2013


For the latest news, latest download links, and best of all, FREE STORIES, check out our companion webzine, STUPEFYING STORIES SHOWCASE, ready to read now at this link:

This week featuring:
  • “An Indelible Feast,” by Alex Shvartsman
  • “Stanhope's Finest,” by Natalie J E Potts
  • “Allegory at Table Seven,” by Jarod K. Anderson
Plus Badger & Vole Review “Thor: The Dark World,” and we preview a new writers-on-writing feature we're thinking of adding, “Learning Experiences.” Check it out!


Friday, November 8, 2013


For the latest news, latest download links, and best of all, FREE STORIES, check out our companion webzine, STUPEFYING STORIES SHOWCASE, ready to read now at this link:

This week featuring:
  • “Jackie, We Hardly Knew Ye,” by Carly Berg
  • “Tempora Mutantur,” by Anatoly Belilovsky
  • “White,” by Jennifer Davis
  • “Happily Ever After,” by Edward Ahern
  • “Lessons Learned From My Fifth Attempt to Conquer the World,” by Jason Andrew
  • Badger & Vole Review “Ender's Game
  • “Armistice Day” by Bruce Bethke

Monday, November 4, 2013

Book Release: TWO, The 2nd Annual Horror Special

STUPEFYING STORIES is thrilled (and more than just a little relieved) to announce the release of:

TWO is one of the biggest and best collections of horror stories we've ever assembled, containing sixteen fresh and exciting new tales of ghosties and ghoulies, vampires and zombies, monsters and mayhem, and things that go bump in the night! Edited by Philip K. Dick Award-winner Bruce Bethke, TWO features:
  • "Second to Last Stop" by Evan Dicken
  • "Cabrón" by Jóse Iriarte
  • "Blood and Water" by Rose Blackthorn
  • "Gris-Gris for a Mal Pris" by Rebecca Roland
  • "Zombie Angst, or How to Pair Human Brains With a Good Chianti" by Stone Showers
  • "Wall" by Yukimi Ogawa
  • "A is for Android" by Holly A. Cave
  • "The Things That Perish Along The Way" by Keith Rosson
  • "Choice" by Shona Snowden
  • "Offworld" by Anton Sim
  • "An Incident in Cain's Mark" by L. Joseph Shosty
  • "Professor Pandemonium's Train of Terror" by Simon Kewin
  • "It Came From Hell And Smashed The Angels" by Gregor Xane
  • "The Waiting Line (Many Elbows)" by Leah Thomas
  • "The Revenge of Oscar Wilde" by Sean Eads
  • "Eulogy to be Given by Whoever's Still Sober" by Nicole Cushing
Now available for the Amazon Kindle and Kindle Reader App at these links.


(Don't have a Kindle? Then get the free Kindle Reader App for your smartphone, tablet, PC or Mac, or use the free Kindle Cloud Reader to read it instantly in your browser!)

More links coming soon!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


For the latest news, latest download links, and best of all, FREE STORIES, check out our companion webzine, STUPEFYING STORIES SHOWCASE, ready to read now at this link:

This week featuring:
  • “Soft Magic” by Paul DesCombaz
  • “The All-Seeing Ring” by Kelda Crich
  • “The Calling Card” by Eric J. Guignard
  • “The Blue Ridge Wreath” by Georgia Ruth
  • Badger & Vole Review “Marvel's Agents of SHIELD
  • “Family Matters” by Bruce Bethke

Friday, September 6, 2013


For the latest news, latest download links, and best of all, FREE STORIES, check out our companion webzine, STUPEFYING STORIES SHOWCASE, ready to read now at this link:

This week featuring:
  • “Reckoning” by David Steffen
  • “Bacco Joe” by K.B Sluss
  • “In Vino Veritas” by Anatoly Belilovsky
  • “A Hole” by Jason Armstrong
  • “Why SHOWCASE?” by Bruce Bethke
  • “Q&A: About SHOWCASE”
  • “New Release Calendar”

Wednesday, August 28, 2013


For the latest news, latest download links, and best of all, FREE STORIES, check out our companion webzine, STUPEFYING STORIES SHOWCASE, ready to read now at this link:

This week featuring:
  • “The Storyteller” by Alex Shvartsman
  • “Here There Be Monsters?” by Robert Lowell Russell
  • “Oath” by Guy Stewart
  • “Not Taken” by Kit Yona
  • “On Writing Oath” by Guy Stewart
  • “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” by Bruce Bethke
  • “Q&A: About SHOWCASE”
  • “New Release Calendar”
And of course:
  •  Badger & Vole (almost) Review: The World's End

Sunday, July 28, 2013


For the latest news, latest download links, and of course, FREE STORIES, check out our (usually) weekly companion webzine, STUPEFYING STORIES SHOWCASE, ready to read now at this link:

This week featuring:
  • “The Piano is a Percussion Instrument,” by Maude Larke
  • “Timeless Bore,” by Peter Wood
  • “After the Kaiju Attack,” by John Zaharick
  • “Space Program,” by Lance J. Mushung
  • “The Wishing Hour,” by Romie Stott
And of course:
  •  Badger & Vole Review: Pacific Rim

Saturday, July 13, 2013


For the latest news, latest download links, and of course, FREE STORIES, check out our (usually) weekly companion webzine, STUPEFYING STORIES SHOWCASE, ready to read now at this link:

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


...and we’re back! After a planned three-month hiatus that accidentally stretched out into six, STUPEFYING STORIES returns—retooled, reworked, and better than ever! With more and bigger stories by more outstanding authors, STUPEFYING STORIES MK.II is tanned, rested, and ready to rock! Chock-full of great stories and novelettes, our July issue includes:
  • "All the Beautiful Lights of Heaven" by Russ Colson 
  • "Showing Faeries for Fun and Profit" by Julie Frost 
  • "Indigene" by Lawrence Buentello 
  • "Cottage Industry" by Evan Dicken 
  • "The Robot Agenda" by Samantha Boyette 
  • "The Wrong Dog" by Kyle Aisteach 
  • "The Music Teacher" by Mark Niemann-Ross 
  • "The Last Unit" by Judith Field 
Not to mention our exciting cover story, the unabashedly old-school alien world sci-fi pulp adventure, "For the Love of a Grenitschee" by Mark Wolf.

STUPEFYING STORIES: It's the SF/F reading you've been looking for! 

Now available at these links.
For Amazon Kindle: 
U.S. -
U.K. -
Germany -
France -
Spain -
Italy -
Japan -
India -
Canada (English) -
Canada (French) - unnecessarily complex URL
Brazil -

For Barnes & Noble Nook:
links coming soon

In the Apple iTunes Store:
links coming soon

More Links:
coming soon

Friday, June 28, 2013

It's even more aliver!

The incredible THIRD issue of STUPEFYING STORIES SHOWCASE is out of the gates and up and running on Featuring new stories by Arthur Bangs, A.G. Cauthen, and Simon Kewin, as well as review and previews, it's full of good reading, and best of all, FREE!

We've also done a bit of work this week on our new reader forum, THE FEEDBACK LOOP, and it should be much easier to use. Check it out.

Friday, June 21, 2013

It's alive....again!

The incredible SECOND issue of STUPEFYING STORIES SHOWCASE is out of the gates and already up and running on its new permanent home, Featuring four new stories by Robert Lowell Russell, Franziska Louise, Robert Bagnall, and Joy Bernardo, it's tested, ready (mostly), and best of all, FREE!

And with this issue, we also introduce our new reader forum, THE FEEDBACK LOOP.

God help us, we've got a reader forum. What were we thinking?

Friday, June 14, 2013

It's alive!

Okay, so it was more of an escape than a launch, the paint isn't completely dry in places, and trust me, you don't want to look behind that tarp, but Issue #1 of our new webzine, STUPEFYING STORIES SHOWCASE, is on the interwebs! Featuring four new stories by Sarah L. Byrne, Samuel Marzioli, A. G. Carpenter, and Gary Cuba, as well as a surprisingly gentle review of Star Trek Into Darkness, it's new, it's ready, and best of all, it's free!

Click here to see what all the fuss is about.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Previews of Coming Attractions

Oh, what a month it's been. One kid just graduated from college; another is finishing high school today. One daughter and her husband are all moved into their new house; another and her husband just barely made it into their new apartment in time. Three weeks ago my new grandson made his big debut on the stage of life: I'm a grandfather. I'm still having trouble integrating that word into my self-image. In my mind's eye I'm still in my mid-thirties.

In my low back, though...

On the STUPEFYING STORIES front, what was planned as a two-month hiatus in January and February has stretched out into five, but we're back in production mode now. We still have what were planned to be a March/Late Winter issue and a May "Mother's Day" issue half-done and in the pipeline to be released sometime in the coming month, but the April "Death & Taxes" issue has pretty much missed its window, so we're going to work those stories back into our regular stream. What I want to talk about today, though, are these developments.

The as-yet-unnamed webzine: If you've been following the discussion on our Facebook page, you know we're teetering on the brink of launching a webzine. This is in addition to our regular books and anthologies, author participation is strictly on an opt-in basis (so if you've sold a story to us, don't be afraid that it's suddenly going to appear on the web without your foreknowledge), and basically, this gives us another way to attract reader's eyeballs, and a way to publish some of the stories we've been sitting on for a long time, because, while we still love them, we weren't able to work them into books during that period when we were possessed by "theme anthology" madness.

The webzine is moving forward with surprising alacrity. Watch this space for further news.

PUTREFYING STORIES: Our repeatedly delayed zombie special had become a problem child. Despite our efforts to close it and get it released, we kept reopening it, because some new story would come in and we'd find ourselves saying, "We just have to find a way to sneak this one in." The book, frankly, became too big, bloated, and unwieldy to manage.

And then one day Ash whispered the solution in our ear: "It's a trick. Get an axe." Which is what we did: we chopped it in half. PUTREFYING STORIES (Volume 1) is now in production and moving toward a June 17 release date, with Volume 2 on track for a September release date. Will there be a Volume 3? Will PUTREFYING STORIES become it's own quarterly series? That's the problem with the undead. You can never be certain when they're really finished off.

TALES FROM THE WILD WEIRD WEST: This theme special, which has been a loosely kept secret until recently, is go for launch, and we're looking at a mid-July release date. Please don't carpet-bomb us with your vampire cowboy, werewolf cowboy, or zombie cowboy stories now. It's too late. With only a very few exceptions, the table of contents for this book is already settled.

MYSTERIES!: Our repeatedly delayed, rescheduled, and re-envisioned mystery theme special is back on the menu, and scheduled for an August 1 release date. Nicolai, Thomas, Jeff, Kent, and David: my God, yes, it's really going to happen, at last! We've even commissioned a cover! You know we're serious when we've commissioned a cover!

The print edition: It seems we jumped the gun when we announced that we were adding a print edition. We put a lot of effort into it, to correct the things we saw as major flaws in our last attempt at a print edition (which, by the way, we still have several boxes of in the warehouse, and you can buy a copy of at this Amazon link, if you're so inclined). We did correct those flaws and make some major improvements in the design, and we thought we'd reduced the unit cost significantly in the bargain, but when we started getting quotes for the printing and binding, we discovered we were very badly mistaken. For a few weeks we were scrambling, trying to come up with a workable alternative that we could still get out by July 1, but then last week we stopped, took a deep breath, and said: "Wait. What are our first principles? 'Always spend more money on the people who create the content than on the package it's delivered in.'"

We still want to add a print edition to the lineup, but not one we'll have to sell at nine bucks a copy and sell through the entire print run just to break even on, not one we'd have to shortchange authors to put out, and absolutely not one we'd have to bet the whole company on. If I wanted to gamble on long shots, I'd go out to the horse track.

We'll continue to study options for a print edition, but at this time, we're not going to rush into anything. Stay tuned for more news as it develops.

Okay, I think that about wraps it up for this progress report. Is there anything else?

Oh wait, yes, there is. COMING JULY 1, 2013....


Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Slush Pile Survival Guide

"The Talk" (Part Three)

by Bruce Bethke

Previously, in "The Slush Pile Survival Guide:" Part One | Part Two
And now the horrible, terrible, no good, very bad conclusion...

¤    ¤    ¤    ¤    ¤

This is the part of The Talk where English teachers and Creative Writing professors wince, aspiring writers plug their ears and sing, "La la la, I can't hear you," and even successful authors with long lists of publication credits sob and cry out, "Please, God, say it ain't so!" The essential dichotomy we're dealing with here is:
  • Writing fiction is a craft, which frequently aspires to be an art.
  • But publishing fiction is a business.
And what, pray tell, is exactly the sort of business that publishing fiction is?

This is where most discussions of the craft of writing run off the rails. We writers love to talk about all the fiddly little bits that make up the things we do. We can spend hours debating things like symbolism, metaphor, deconstructionism, narrative voice, character development, the three-act structure, and the proper use of the Oxford comma

Admittedly, there is value to be gained from having these sorts of discussions. The conventions of manuscript formatting are important to the aspiring writer, not in and of themselves, but because nothing screams "I'm an amateur!" at an editor as loudly as a page filled with single-spaced block paragraphs. Grammar is important, not because Miss Thistlebottom has her hobgoblins and they must be obeyed, but because it's the protocol that makes coherent interpersonal communication possible, and without coherence you have word salad. Words are the tools of our trade and it's important to know what they mean and how to use them correctly, not because we revere Webster's Dictionary like a bible, but because you don't want editors to laugh as loudly when they read your story as we did when we read the one that began with a description of the terror and loathing the lead character felt when he saw a man "wearing the cossack of Christ."

But all this is inside baseball. I have resisted coming to this conclusion for a long time -- resisted it quite vigorously, in fact -- but the evidence I've seen in two years of reading slush pile submissions is incontrovertible. To become a successful, commercially published, fiction author, you do not need to be a great writer.

You need to be a great story-teller.

¤    ¤    ¤    ¤    ¤

Are these really two distinctly different craft skills? The evidence of the slush pile says so. Every day I see and reject submissions that are simply overflowing with brilliant, genuinely beautiful writing, submitted by people who seemingly have no clue as to what a story is or how to tell it. Conversely, every once in a while I'll accept a submission that, if judged purely as a piece writing, has very serious flaws -- but Holy Cow, is there the story there!

You want to know something? That's (sort of) okay. Sloppy grammar, inconsistent voice, mangled syntax, and bungled tense are all mechanical problems. We can fix those in the edit cycle. We have the knowledge, we have the technology, and from time to time we have the time.

But no amount of editorial bondo can fill the void left by the complete absence of a story.

"Okay," some smartass in the back of the room always says at about this time. "Purely for my own reference, in your mind, what exactly is a story?"

That's easy. Any creative writing textbook -- say, How to Write Short Stories, by Sharon Sorenson -- will give you the stock answer:
"A short story is a narrative. It tells about imaginary events that happen to imaginary people, and the events lead to a crisis. [...] In the most simplified description, a short story has a beginning, middle, and end. The characters meet and somehow resolve a conflict, thereby permitting the author to convey a message, otherwise called a theme."
That's not enough, though. Remember, for the business of commercial publishing, we don't need stories that are merely very well-written; we need stories that are entertaining.

And this is where I begin to venture onto unstable ground, because this is a relatively recent epiphany for me. I never gave it much serious consideration when I was a working writer. I just did it, and most of the time it seemed to work. Thinking very seriously now about the distinction between the two...

The more I consider it, the clearer it seems to me that writers who consistently produce entertaining fiction are engaging in a form of temporally abstracted performance art, not unlike a musician laying down tracks in a recording studio. Knowingly or not, they are telling a story to their audience, but delivering it in a media format that can be enjoyed later, at the individual audience member's convenience.

Entertainment comes in many flavors. If you've ever watched a master story-teller at work -- Jane Yolen, for example (and if you ever get the chance to listen to her tell stories, by all means, do so) -- you'll be astonished by how interactive the process becomes. A great story-teller doesn't just plod through the words: she can make the audience laugh at the jokes, chuckle and smile at the wit, gasp with surprise at the horror, or shudder with chills at the terror. A great story-teller can make his or her audience cheer when the heroine tries and wins; choke-up when she tries and loses; sigh when someone falls in love; and snarl when that love is betrayed.

In short, a good story-teller elicits an emotional response from his or her audience.

A great story-teller can elicit that response without even being in the same room. Some can even do it at a distance of centuries. 

To revise and expand upon Ms Sorenson's rather antiseptic and clinical description, then:
"A story is a narrative that tells about events that happen to people (or equivalents thereof). A short story has a beginning that engages the reader's interest, a middle that rewards that initial interest by pulling the reader deeper into the story and engaging him or her on some kind of emotional level, and an ending that leaves the reader feeling, 'Wow! Thank you for telling me that story! Please tell me another!'" 
Note that a great story does not leave the reader feeling something like, 'Wow! That was really awesome, the way you used that McDonald's Shamrock Shake on page 4 as a metaphor for rebirth!" That sort of reaction only comes from other aspiring writers.

And herein we see the problem inherent in trying to become a good story-teller by exposing your stories to your writing group or creative writing class...

¤    ¤    ¤    ¤    ¤

So how does one become a good story-teller? At the moment, I honestly don't know. As I said, this is all a rather recent epiphany for me, and I'm still working out the implications. Was I born with an innate ability to tell stories that other people find entertaining (most of the time), or is this a talent I developed by accident during the decade I spent doing music and theater, before I ever started to get serious about being a writer?

When I have a workable theory, I'll let you know. Until then: keep writing!

Kind regards,

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Slush Pile Survival Guide

"The Talk" (Part Two)

by Bruce Bethke

...continued from Part One...
"Mr. Bethke? How do I become a writer?"
The Snark is strong with me. You have no idea how hard it is not to answer, "Well, what exactly is a writer? It's someone who writes, isn't it? Have you ever written anything? You have? Congratulations! You're a writer!
"Next question?"
But it's cruel to leave the kid hanging there gaping and floundering like that, so instead I answer: "As a writer, words are the tools of your trade. Learn to use them with precision. Now, is that really the question you meant to ask, or do you actually mean:
"How do I become a successful, commercially published, writer of genre fiction?"
Nine times out of ten that restatement of the question meets with agreement, and then we have the basis from which to begin an intelligent conversation. The tenth time the kid actually does want to become some kind of artist or poet or free-form literary genius or something, and then the only possible answer is:
"To become a True Writer, you must find some quiet place where you can work without interruption or distraction, and then you must write, at least ten hours a day, every day, for the next ten years. You must write, write, write, never once listening to all the people who want to tell you that your writing is terrible or that you're wasting your life. You must struggle, and suffer, and learn to live on ramen noodles, and do battle every day with the terrifying emptiness of the blank page, until you at last find your own, unique, expressive voice. Then, and only then, will you be able to enter into communion with, and begin to channel for, your secret inner Muse."
This advice is sheer fatuous nonsense, of course, but any with luck it'll keep the kid out of everyone else's hair for the next ten years.

¤    ¤    ¤    ¤    ¤

The more I consider the question, the clearer it seems to me that one cannot become a writer. One either is a writer, both blessed and cursed with a need to write that borders on OCD, or else one's time and energy is better spent doing just about anything else. The evidence to support this assertion is conclusive. As millions of teachers and students prove in hundreds of thousands of classrooms every day, if a student lacks the innate desire to write, all that trying to force them to become a writer does is take them from "I don't want to write" to "I can't write," and if the teacher really pushes the issue, the rest of the way into "I'm not gonna write, and you can't make me!"

So in order to have an intelligent conversation on this topic, we must first assume that the innate desire to write, so strong it borders on being a compelling need to write, is there.

While we're on canards, let's dispose of another right away. No one, but no one, can teach you exactly how to become a successful, commercially published, award-winning, or the worst lie of all, best-selling writer, much less how to get every word you write published. Anyone who claims they can do this is trying to sell you something, most likely a workshop, a seminar, or a self-help book.

And I'll have more to say on this in a minute, but first: if you can't learn to become a writer, much less learn the secrets of becoming a successful writer, then why are we having this conversation?

Because if the initial spark is there, you can always learn to become a better writer. And while writing for publication always involves the risk of failure, by becoming a better writer, you can tilt the odds of succeeding in your favor.

Here's how to do it. After thirty-some years in the trade, and after getting to know hundreds of published writers and meeting perhaps thousands of aspiring writers, I have identified these four factors as the key traits that separate the successful writers from the vast herd of wanna-be's, amateurs, has-beens and never-weres. The traits critical to success as a writer are:
  • talent
  • good craft skills
  • good work habits
  • luck

"Well, duh," you say. "Paging Captain Obvious."

No, in point of fact, it's not obvious at all...

¤    ¤    ¤    ¤    ¤

About Talent:
There's no getting around it; it's almost impossible to succeed as a writer without at least some modicum of innate talent. Some of the most pathetic characters you'll ever meet in the writing trade are the people with superb craft skills and great work habits, but absolutely no talent. This ain't prose karaoke, folks. While your friends and writing group might love it, very few people in the publishing industry care how well you can perform a story that's almost exactly the same as one Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein made famous sixty years ago.

The saddest part is, some of these poor benighted souls will soldier on for years, always thinking that one more workshop, one more creative writing class, one more seminar, or one more self-help book is going to make the difference. Not to be unkind, but Writer's Digest makes a fortune off these poor sods. (In fact, it's very important not to be unkind, as every once in a while one of them turns out to have an astonishing amount of raw talent: it's just been buried under years of accumulated course syllabi and witless writing group critiques, and nearly smothered to death.)

Sometimes I think of raw talent as an ember, which needs careful tending in order to become a fire. Other times I think of it as a double bitted axe, with which you're as likely to cut off your own foot as clear the forest. What I have observed consistently is that good craft skills, good work habits, and a little talent beats lousy craft skills, lousy work habits, and great gobs of God-given raw talent every time.

Talent, it seems, is very much like beauty. If you're blessed with an overabundance of it, there's a pronounced tendency to coast and never develop your other abilities. Then one day the talent falters, and your latest book flops so badly it leaves a smoking crater, and you're left wondering, "What the Hell happened?" Some writers never recover from this. Instead, they call it "writer's block"

And then they start buying self-help books about it...

About Good Craft Skills:
There's a tendency to think of this in terms of simple line-level skills, but this goes far mere punctuation, spelling, grammar, and sentence structure. The best writers I've known really think of story-telling as a craft; they think of their stories or novels in the same way that a master cabinetmaker thinks about a piece of furniture he or she is making; and they are always working on refining their skills and improving their tool set. The best writers never trust to talent and luck to carry them through, and they're never afraid to throw out entire sentences, paragraphs, chapters, or even books if they're not working.

(And I have lots more to say about this subject, but that's the next column.)

About Good Work Habits:
Good work habits are just exactly what you know they are; you're just deluding yourself if you think that writing fiction is some kind of ethereal artistic thing that's above all that. A lot of would-be writers seem to think that writing fiction requires spending a lot of time sitting on their duffs, thinking high-flown thoughts, and waiting for one or the other of the Muses to stick her tongue in their ear. The history of literature is strewn with the wreckage left by promising writers who had an abundance of talent and great craft skills, but terrible work habits. There is no more damning epitaph for a writer than, "He did brilliant work -- when he felt like doing it."

Ask yourself, which would you rather leave behind: an awe-inspiring body of finished work, or a pile of fragments and clutter that leaves people thinking, "Wow! What promise! What potential! I wonder what he could have done if he'd ever gotten his @#($* together?"

About Luck:
There's no denying it: Luck is the joker in the deck, the wild card that trumps everything, the -- pardon the expression -- Golden Snitch that wins the game in defiance of all logic, sense, and justice. We all know of some writer who's been lucky enough to become insanely, maddeningly, wildly successful, despite an utter and complete dearth of talent and skill. (Although, let's face it: if asked to name such a writer, each and every one of us would point to a different one. The critical deciding factor here seems to be, "Any writer more successful than me!")

For every undeserving writer the Fates have smiled upon, though, there are probably thousands more no one has ever heard of, because when they took their swing, they had the bad luck to miss the tree and hit their own foot instead. The ways in which a writer's luck can turn bad are beyond counting. Right story, wrong time; right story, right time, wrong editor; right story, right time, right editor, wrong publisher; right story, right time, right editor, right publisher, wrong cover artist... be continued...

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Slush Pile Survival Guide

"The Talk" (Part One)

by Bruce Bethke

And once again, Spring returns to the North Country. In the space of two short weeks we've gone from watching the glaciers calve...

To watching the trees bud, the grass turn green, and the crocuses, tulips, and daffodils erupt from the ground in a glorious riot of color, only to get nommed to bits every night by hordes of ravenous bunnies.

Still, the flowers keeping trying. You have to admire that.

Along with the flowers, another sure sign that Spring has returned are the messages like this one, which have begun popping up in my email Inbox lately:
"Dear Mr. Bethke,

"I teach [subject] at [school], and I was wondering if you'd be interested in coming in to talk to my class about..."
Actually, yes; schedule permitting, I would be delighted to come in and speak with your class.


My reasons are complex, and not always altogether clear to me. Some part of it is born of a simple and honest sense of altruism. Another part is born of a nagging sense of obligation. When I was a cocky young brat just starting out in this business, a lot of older and more experienced writers and editors were much more patient with me than I really deserved. While it's too late to repay their kindness now, I can pay it forward, so this is something I always try to do.

Then there is another, somewhat more mercenary and perhaps less admirable part.

I wouldn't do anything so precious as to claim that I do this for market research, or to "keep a finger on the pulse of the next generation" or anything like that. But the truth is, these conversations always end up being very educational for me. We who live and work inside the ant farm of SF/F publishing tend to take the long view, and given half a chance will tell you all about some story that Arthur C. Clarke first published in Galaxy in 1952. We tend to forget that out there, in the so-called real world, time continues to slide by -- and it does so in the form of window, about ten years long. For most people out there, five years ago is ancient history, and five years in the future is almost unimaginable.

Couple that with the other ten-year window -- that short span of years between the age when a young person is old enough to begin reading for pleasure and the age at which his or her literary tastes have become ossified for life -- and it's enough to make you feel positively Tralfamadorian.

So from time to time I feel the need to step out into the rushing time-flow, to talk to this year's crop of students, but mostly to listen and learn. And some of the things I learn are astonishing.
  • Science fiction, fantasy, horror? Those bright lines of demarcation between genres and subgenres that we in the business claim to see so clearly are invisible to younger eyes. Steampunk elves? Sure. Fighting vampires and zombies on spaceships? Why not? As long as the story is exciting and the imagery is engaging, all else can be forgiven.
  • Print, video, graphic novels, online gaming? It's all one continuous media space now, and the different incarnations of a given property are all just different points on the same continuum. Books, live-action movies, animated movies, graphic novels, and video game cut scenes are all treated as equally valid. "The movie was cool but the game totally sucked" is a trenchant critique.

  • Star Wars? Bring that up in a classroom today and you're most like to spark an argument over whether Disney's decision to close down LucasArts and turn all game development over to Electronic Arts was a disaster or a catastrophe. "Oh, you mean the movies? I think my Dad still has those on DVD and watches them once in a while."
  • Star Trek? "Wasn't that movie with Chris Pine and Zach Quinto great? I am so waiting for Into Darkness to open next week!

    "What, you mean the old stuff, like with Captain Piccard, or the really old stuff, that my Grandpa still watches?" To this generation, the original Star Trek occupies the same cognitive space that old Flash Gordon serials occupied for mine: some pretty cool ideas, hampered by hammy acting, plodding scripts, and laughably cheap special effects. The idea that Into Darkness is a re-imagining of a thirty-year-old idea bothers them no more than the idea that The Wrath of Khan was an expansion of "Space Seed" bothered their parents.
  • Harry Potter? "I think my older sister read all those books. I'm more into Twilight. And World War Z. And The Walking Dead. And The Hunger Games."
  • Doctor Who is a series you watch on Netflix. Any mention of Dr. Who is sure to start a vigorous argument over which one's the best Doctor -- Matt Smith or David Tennant -- with one smug girl in the back insisting they're both wrong, it's Christopher Eccleston. Mention Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker, or how wonderful it was to see Elisabeth Sladen one more time in "The Stolen Earth," and all you'll get is a roomful of blank looks. "Who?"
  • Radagast the Brown gets a surprising amount of name recognition. The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are those films by Peter Jackson. Dwarves are awesome. Elves are probably gay. (This last assertion is always followed by a sudden nervous look around, and then, "Not that there's anything wrong with that.")
  • A generation of steady indoctrination has failed: most girls still don't want to be kick-ass warrior women. They want to be Disney princesses, or better yet a Disney princess with a longbow and a talking unicorn for a companion.
  • If dwarves are awesome, tharks are even more awesomer. Disney totally botched the deal with John Carter, because the film really resonates with teenage boys, most of whom have watched it on DVD or Blu-Ray and can't wait for the next one to come out. I haven't yet had the heart to tell any of them that it took 80 years for this one to get made, so they're probably in for a long wait.
  • Only Goths like Batman. Captain America is awesome (now that was a surprise), and boys don't want to be Batman or Superman, they want to be Tony Stark -- provided they also get Gwyneth Paltrow in the deal.
  • No teenagers read comic books any more. They can't afford to.
Of course, this is all incidental. The kids aren't there to teach me -- at least, not consciously -- they're there to hear me teach them The Secret. And no matter how I might try to steer and control the conversation, it always ends up with one brave student finally getting up the nerve to ask:
"Mr. Bethke? How do I become a writer?"
Oh, boy... be continued...

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Slush Pile Survival Guide

"The Story Arc: Without One, Your Roof Caves In"

by Barbara V. Evers

As a first reader for Stupefying Stories, I recommend rejecting more submissions because of incomplete story arc than any other element of writing.

What is a story arc? Think of it as representing the plot of your story. It’s the structure into which the characters, world, and action of the story must fit. Most stories follow the traditional three-act structure: the story begins with some action to hook the reader, which introduces a problem that must be solved or a question that must be answered. In the second act the tension builds, one stone upon the next, until in the third act, the climax answers the question or solves the problem.

Now, imagine you are building a house. You lay the foundation, but once you’ve laid it, you immediately try to put on the roof. This is often what I see in story arc development. The writer starts out well, but then skips part of the development, puts in fluff that doesn’t contribute to the story, or otherwise fails to provide any second act supporting structure. Then, when they put on the roof in the third act, there’s nothing there to support it, so it caves in.

Readers—and people who buy houses—don’t like that. They want a progression where each piece contributes to a solid structure and justifies the ending. We don’t have to see how it all fits together as it’s being built, but once it’s done, we should be able to think back and say, “Ah, now I understand why A happened, and led to B.”

Where do most writers go wrong? Short stories are tricky. You must start with action, setup, and tension, all in the first paragraphs. Every word and scene must contribute to the completion of your story arc, and usually in fewer than 5,000 words. In a novel you can slow down the pace, but not so in a short story. It much surge forward, each sentence and paragraph building a complete picture.

However, examining a novel’s story arc can help you see how this works.

Novels typically contain more than one story arc: there’s the extended arc of the full story, and beneath it several smaller arcs, or subplots. Fantasy and science fiction series also typically connect through an overall arc that bridges the entire series, beginning in the first book and concluding in the last book, and each book in the series has its own arc that is both self-contained and contributes to the series’ overall arc.

For example, take J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. What is the overall arc of the seven books? Harry must defeat Voldemort. Each of the books in the series contributes to this, but each book has its own arc, too. In the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the book’s arc is that Harry wants to fit in and be accepted by a loving, caring family. In the beginning of the book we meet Harry, hopeless and lonely, living with the Dursleys. Enter Hagrid, and Harry begins to form a picture of his family that his aunt and uncle never shared with him. At the end of the book, when everyone is boarding the Hogwarts Express to return home for the summer, Harry says, “I’m not going home, really.”* He now knows that his true home is Hogwarts, where he is a hero with friends who care for him. Close of the story arc.

Everything that happens in-between these two scenes contributes to building this arc. Harry wants someone to care for him, and mysterious letters begin to arrive. He learns he’s a wizard. He learns that his parents didn’t die in a car accident, they were killed. On top of that, he’s famous. The tension begins to mount as Harry learns about his past and begins to place each new piece in the picture of his new life. Most of the arc of the first book allows Harry to learn about the world of wizards and witches, and the reader learns with him.  If you re-examine this book—or any book, for that matter—with the end in mind, you will begin to see how each scene contributes to the full arc of the story. When you read a book or story to study it, ask yourself: what is the overarching problem or question in this story? Then examine how each scene contributes to solving that problem or answering that question.

At the end of The Sorcerer’s Stone, we can say: “Ah. Now I understand why Hagrid picked up the secret item from Gringott’s on the same day that he took Harry to the bank. And now I understand that the scene of Ron and Harry playing wizard’s chess was in there to set up the scene where Ron must direct a life-sized version of the game, with his, Harry’s, and Hermione’s lives on the line.” Imagine if we hadn’t had the earlier scenes setting up those parts of the story. Ron’s winning at wizard’s chess would feel unrealistic and forced, and the discovery of something hidden on the forbidden third floor of Hogwarts would hold less intrigue without the knowledge that Hagrid withdrew something mysterious from the bank’s vault. Each piece contributes to the whole arc, and no questions are left unanswered.

That, in sum, is a story arc. Whether you’re writing short stories or a series of novels, your arc must be a complete structure by the time you reach the end. Don’t let your roof collapse because you didn’t spend enough time developing the supporting walls.

[* Actually, that line of dialog is in the movie, not the book, but it merely makes explicit what is implicit in the book. Sometimes screenwriters get it right.]

In addition to being a first reader for Stupefying Stories, Barbara V. Evers has a Master of Arts in Professional Communication and is a writer, mother, wife, corporate trainer, avid reader and movie-goer, and generally curious individual. She blogs at An Eclectic Muse.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Slush Pile Survival Guide

"Things Change"

by Bruce Bethke, Editor

Why bother reading submission guidelines? After all, you know your story inside and out, and you also know everything worthwhile there is to know about the magazine to which you plan to submit it. (Or at least, you read a paragraph or two about the magazine, on someone else's blog, about a year ago.) Why waste your time looking at submission guidelines now?

Short answer: because in the publishing business, things are constantly changing.

Magazines come and go all the time. If you've been in the writing trade for any length of time, you already know this. Even entire publishing companies can spring into being overnight and vanish again just as quickly, obliterated by bankruptcy or reduced to gray goo by a corporate acquisition.

Inside the typical magazine's office, things change just as often, and often just as abruptly. Some publishers should put revolving doors on the assistant editors' offices (if the assistant editors even rate offices) and seriously consider doing the same for the editor-in-chief. Editors come and go frequently, and when there's a change in a name on the publication's masthead, it's worth investigating. Did he jump, or was he pushed?

Sometimes the transition is benign: the outgoing editor got a better offer or decided it was time to retire, and there is an orderly transition of power to the groomed replacement. Sometimes it's bizarre: I know of one case where the editor simply got tired of pretending to be a man, and decided to reveal to all the world that she was in fact a woman. Even the most benign of transitions are still changes, and like Dr. Who, the new editor -- even if it's the same person -- is unlikely to have exactly that same tastes or make exactly the same choices as the previous editor.

Other times the transition is not so benign, and that's when paying attention really pays off. Editors get fired all the time because publishers are unhappy with monthly unit sales, or ad revenue trends, or subscription renewal rates, or the current editorial stance of the publication, or any of a vast number of other reasons, not all of them entirely sensible. When this happens the owners generally decide it's time to bring in someone new to shake things up and change directions, and I've seen new editors take their mandate to shake things up very profoundly to heart. I've seen new editors reject submissions precisely because "that's exactly the kind of [stuff] that [the previous editor] got fired for buying." I've even seen new editors go so far as to reject unread all submissions addressed to the previous editor, on the grounds that any author still putting that guy's name on the envelope clearly isn't paying attention. [An aside to those of you still addressing your submissions to M. David Blake: do I really need to say it?]

And then, once in a rare while, you get into a situation where the editor has an equity stake in the publishing company or is otherwise dug-in like a tick and well-nigh immovable, but the publication still undergoes a significant change in direction, because the editor and the other stake-holders have agreed that a significant change in direction is necessary.

Therefore, after a year and a half of going off in six directions at once, we are now announcing some substantial changes to STUPEFYING STORIES. First and foremost we've decided to stop calling it an anthology series, to abandon our ad hoc release schedule, and to change over to being a monthly magazine, released promptly on the 1st day of each month, and to begin selling it by annual subscription as well as by individual copy. The monthly mag launches in July. Stay tuned for more details.

Second, we've decided to let it become the science fiction and fantasy magazine our fans seem to want it to be. We're still willing to stray further out-of-genre that most other SF/F publications, but we're no longer buying straight-up mystery or crime stories, contemporary mainstream stories, or I-don't-know-what-the-heck-this-is-but-I-thought-you'd-like-it stories. We're still committed to publishing all the stories we have in current inventory, but we're not buying any more stories that do not have some kind of SF/F element.

Third, we've decided to expand beyond ebook-only publishing and currently are exploring our options for doing a print edition. To reiterate, this is still in the exploratory stage, and we'll be announcing more details when we know more.

There's more to come; it'll be filtering into our submission guidelines over the course of this coming weekend. But these are the most salient points.

Thanks for reading,
Bruce Bethke
Editor, Stupefying Stories

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Slush Pile Survival Guide

"Twelve Tips for Making A Good First Impression"

by Katherine Karr, Editorial Minion

When you send a submission to STUPEFYING STORIES, the very first thing that happens is that it's received by a kindly, somewhat gray-haired, grandmotherly type woman -- in other words, me. Some mornings Bruce beats me to the inbox, but most morning's it's my job to:
  • receive the email
  • download the attachment
  • run it through our anti-virus and anti-malware filters
  • verify that the story file is actually openable and readable
  • log the submission into our tracking system
  • send the author an email confirming receipt of the submission and providing the tracking number
  • and then and only then do I put your submission into the review queue, for consideration by the first readers and editors
Since my mother taught me that it's always important to make a good first impression, here's what you can do to make a good first impression on me.
  1. Keep your anti-virus software up-to-date. If my anti-nastyware filters find a virus or trojan in your submission, it's dead on arrival.
  2. Make sure you're sending us the story you want us to consider. You wouldn't believe how often a submission arrives with one story title given in the cover letter, a different title as the name of the attached file, and yet another title in the manuscript itself. I have no way of knowing whether you decided to change the title of your story or sent us the wrong file by mistake.
  3. Make sure you're sending us a file we can read. Whatever else you may have heard, .rtf files are best, Word 97-2003 (.doc) files are the next-best, and Word 2010 (.docx) files the nextest-bestest. Bruce has a philosophical attachment to Open Office and its friends, but .odt files often prove troublesome. Don't send us Apple .pages files, PDF files, or Word Template or Macro files or anything like that.
  4. Send us a file, not a link to a file-sharing site. Email accounts get hacked or spoofed all the time and we receive an unbelievable number of email messages that ostensibly are from names we recognize, but in fact contain a link to a Belorussian malware site or something. All such email messages are deleted immediately.
  5. Be careful about putting web links in your cover letter. If you include too many, our filtering software may decide your message is spam and can it. Just this morning I fished such a submission out of the trash. The author had included so many links to other sites where his fiction is available, our filters decided it was spam and trashed it.
  6. ARTISTS! If you're hoping to get a cover assignment, send a query first, and preferably send it directly to Bruce. If you try to email your portfolio to the submissions address, it just overflows our inbox and takes me offline until Bruce can go in and manually delete your messages from our email server. He gets very crabby when he has to do that.
  7. Put the name of your story on the subject line. Including your name is nice, too, but don't go overboard in either the TMI or minimalist directions. I receive a lot of submissions that try to pack the author's entire c.v. into the subject line, but even more with the subject line, "Story Submission." When I have to search through several thousand email messages to find a particular one, meaningless subject lines make me cranky.
  8. Send one story per email. If you send one email with three story files, it complicates my job and according to Bruce is a pretty good indicator that you've just discovered us and decided to dump all your old trunk stories on us. Multiple submissions go straight to the "short shrift" pile.
  9. Write some kind of cover letter. You don't have to give us your entire resume, your philosophy of literature, or a detailed synopsis of your story, but whenever I receive an email with a blank subject line, no body content, and an attached file named "story.docx," it gets put into containment until Bruce has the time to examine it thoroughly and verify that it's safe to open.
  10. In the body of your message, be sure to include your name, your pen name if used, the title of the story, and whether this submission is exclusive to us or a simultaneous submission. This is important because exclusive submissions go to the top of the pile. This may only mean that your story gets rejected faster, but still, the editors will look at your story sooner rather than later.
  11. If you've sold to us previously, be sure to include that in your cover letter, because submissions from previous contributors also go to the top of the pile. (It's a big pile. There's a lot of room at the top.) Don't count on me to recognize your name, because as much as I wish I knew each and every one of your personally, I don't. I mean, how often does your own grandmother have trouble remembering whether your name is Katy, Kari, or Kathy?
  12. Finally, if you send a query about your story or a withdrawal because you've placed it with another publisher, please include the story title and the tracking number we sent you when we received your submission. It makes it a lot easier for me to track down your submission and keep our tracking database up-to-date.
Thanks for reading this, and I look forward to seeing your submissions,

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

2013: The Year in Review, So Far

Good grief, is it the end of March already?

I was doing some unnecessary grumbling the other day, along the lines of why am I so tired and where has all the time gone, when my wife simply said, "Look at your planner." So I did.

Oh yeah, that's right. I've been on The Kick since the second week of February.

The Kick, if you're not familiar with it, is a distance-runner's term for the last leg, the last lap, that last chance to change the outcome of the race. It's the moment when you dig down deep within yourself, find every last reserve of energy you've been holding back, and pour it all out in one enormous burst, to leave everything on the track and save nothing for whatever may come after you've crossed the finish line. Which, in case you've wondered, is why so many distance runners celebrate finishing a big race by immediately keeling over and barfing.

I don't run anymore, thanks to a downhill skiing accident some years ago that made hamburger out of the cartilage in my right knee. I do however work in software development, and the last weeks before a big software release have more in common with the end of a big race than you might imagine, except that distance runners generally don't carbo-load on Dr. Pepper and Nacho Cheese Doritos and programmers generally attribute their keeling over and barfing to having had too much fun at the release party.

One software release, I could have taken in stride. Two releases would have been doable. But I've wound up running the anchor leg on three different software releases in the past two months, and something had to give. I'm sorry to say it was STUPEFYING STORIES.

Some things are going very well. The changes to our submissions process have proven effective: we're now getting much faster turnaround on first and second reads, and the Fearless Slush Pile Reader Corps is back to keeping pace with new submissions. The submissions audit has gone mostly pretty well: we still have a few stories in the Curios & Relics bin, but are largely caught up to about 60 days ago. At present there are 44 stories in the "Well, do we buy it or not?" bin, 54 stories in the "Let's buy it now!" bin -- (although there are some issues here; more about that in a moment) -- and 24 stories currently awaiting rejection. Sorry, I don't have the aging data handy at the moment.

The contract audit has gone rather less well. After several rounds of, "It was filed where?", we've decided to start over and reissue new contracts for everything we currently have under contract but not yet published, save for those folks who've asked to be released from their contracts. I'm somewhat disappointed that some writers have lost faith in us, but honestly, can't fault them for doing so. Our publishing schedule has been wildly erratic, and is likely to remain so for the next three months.

Ergo, if you're waiting for us to send you a contract, or waiting for us to send you the renewal for a contract that's either expired recently or is set to expire soon: please bear with us just a little longer. We are getting this straightened out. The mess was just plain bigger and more complicated than it looked at first. Particularly if you're one of the 54 authors in the "Let's buy it now!" spaghetti bowl bin: we're still figuring who's been sent a formal acceptance and now needs a contract; who's been sent a message saying they're going to be receiving a formal acceptance Real Soon Now but hasn't actually been sent an acceptance letter; and who still hasn't even been notified that we're holding their story for a second read, much less that we like it and want to buy it.

And, if you're one of the many authors who's sent me a query lately asking one thing or another: no, I'm not ignoring you. I am keenly aware of the stack of unanswered email sitting in that bin, and it gnaws at my conscience...

But I have a few more mods to check-in for the big software release that's scheduled to go out at the end of this week, and once I get them all buttoned up and ready to go, I can get back to getting caught up on answering email.

This is not where I wanted STUPEFYING STORIES to be at the end of March. I'd hoped to have at least two new books released -- preferably four -- and be in position to announce some of the big changes that we've been working on behind the scenes for the past few months. But Otogu the Insatiable is a capricious and sometimes whimsical taskmaster, and once again our plans ha' gang agley, as aft they do. Always learning and evolving, we are.

Stay tuned,

Friday, March 8, 2013

In lieu of a column today...

Here's a golden oldie from the archives of The Friday Challenge. The challenge was:
It's a few years in the future. You're a freelance writer working for some publication whose nature you're free to define, and you're writing a review of the controversial new children's book: Heather Has Two Mommies, Three Daddies, A Pig's Spleen and a Baboon's Heart. What do you want to tell your readers about this book?
Herewith, one of the more unforgettable answers.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Slush Pile Survival Guide

"The Trouble with Advice"

by Bruce Bethke

Thirty-five years ago I was living in Los Angeles, shopping my demo tape all over Hollywood, and trying to take my musical career to the next level. Auditions and callbacks were few and far-between, though, so I spent a lot of time either in my apartment or else down at the beach, watching the nonstop freak show, scribbling away in my notebook, and doing my best to follow in the unsteady footsteps of Jim Morrison. In my mind's eye the images from those days remain remarkably razor-sharp: I can still see the shape and color of the inside walls of that small apartment, and the way the cockroaches danced and scattered when I flipped on the lights, and the faces and houses in the surrounding low-rent but not altogether unpleasant neighborhood -- and the best places to go for cheap but still edible Asian or Mexican food -- and the near-miraculous way the smog would sometimes lift, sometimes for entire hours at a time, and the skies would clear enough for me to see the mountains, a thousand yards off in the distance. I can still remember all the different back ways and side streets I used to take to walk or bike down to the beach...

Many years later a business trip brought me back to Los Angeles, and one morning I found myself at loose ends in Hollywood with a nice rental car and a few hours to kill. On a lark I decided to drive back to my old neighborhood, to see if anything had changed.

Oh, it'd changed, all right. It was now not so much a low-rent neighborhood as the exterior daylight set for some low-budget post-Apocalyptic sci-fi movie. The ghetto bars on almost every window weren't all that much of a surprise to me, but I didn't expect to see the coils of concertina wire on the perimeter fences and rooftops of the remaining businesses, or the gang graffiti tags on pretty much every flat vertical surface, or the knots and clots of young men standing around on the sidewalks and street corners, glaring at me with narrowed eyes, as if trying to decide whether I was worth the effort of car-jacking or if they should just bust a cap on my fool ass for trespassing on their turf.

I took a few heartbeats to soak it all in, then hit the gas, found the nearest freeway entrance ramp, and just about kicked the accelerator pedal through the floor in my desire to light up the afterburners and get the flaming flying hell out of there.

L. P. Hartley once wrote, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." This is not merely a truism but a serious problem for those in the advice trade, both those who would like to give it and those who hope to receive it. Maps both physical and cognitive are constantly changing, and the best we on the giving side can do is tell you what the landscape looked like when we last went that way.

To those who hope to receive advice, remember: any advice you receive from someone who's already been there and done that is by definition old. It may be useful as-is. More likely it will require some straining and filtering to be useful in the here and now. Much of it might be completely irrelevant, and some of it -- such as the mental map of a certain neighborhood in Los Angeles that I drew back in the 1970s -- might actually get you into serious trouble if you were to try to apply it now.

Case in point, when I first decided to get serious about writing science fiction for professional publication, about thirty years ago, there were six "pro" magazines on the newsstands, perhaps two dozen good-paying semi-pro mags, and at least a half-dozen book publishers with healthy lines of mass-market paperback originals. The typical editorial response time ranged from four to six weeks, and if you lived reasonably frugally it was possible to pay the month's rent with one decent short-story sale.

Since I wasn't haven't consistent success at first, I decided to sponge up all the advice I could find from the established Old School pros. It took me years to realize that their advice was in turn rooted in a time when there were two mail deliveries daily, no paperback originals market, a lot of pulp magazines on the newsstands -- for that matter, a lot of newsstands -- and far fewer writers competing for the available publication space. Back in their day, if you lived in New York, it was possible to mail a story to Astounding in the morning, get it back with comments from John Campbell that afternoon, rewrite it overnight and remail it the next morning, and have Campbell's check in-hand the following evening -- and that was at a time when 5-cents per word was serious money.

Now? There are, what, three major pro magazines left? A vast plethora of minor pro and semi-pro markets ranging from brilliant to awful, a paperback originals market that's coughing blood, an entry on the Endangered Species List for "neighborhood bookstores" tagged Believed Extinct in the Wild, and a good short-story sale might... Pay your cell phone bill for a month, and leave enough left over for lunch at Taco John's?

So how much of the advice that I sponged up from the Old School pros -- or even that I developed myself, from my own experiences in the 1980s and 1990s -- do you suppose is relevant now?

There is no going back to the way things were. Heck, there's not much point in going back more than a decade. When I first decided to revive The Slush Pile Survival Guide, I thought, "This will be easy. I've been writing this kind of stuff for twenty years! I'll just go back into the deep archives, exhume my old columns, and -- "

And discover that the world has changed in the years since then, far more than I imagined. True, many aspects of good story-telling haven't changed since the Neolithic age, but the business of selling your fiction and getting it published has changed almost beyond recognition in just the past ten years. A few of my old columns are still useful as-is, and a few more contain nuggets of information that might conceivably be reworked into something useful now, but most are now better off taken to the county hazardous waste site and left for safe disposal.

That is the challenge you face, when you read advice from any established old pro. You must be a discerning reader; you must weigh and evaluate what you see and determine what's relevant to you. I can't tell you with absolute assurance how to break into publication in today's fiction market, because I didn't do it, and I'm not the one who's trying to do it now.

Remember, I became a successful and award-winning fiction writer in a different century. And in a foreign country.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Slush Pile Survival Guide

"About That Secret Handshake"

by Bruce Holland Rogers

Pity the poor writer who feels that he or she is perpetually this close to selling novels or short stories. There is no discouragement quite like hers. She has studied her craft, she has tried her manuscripts out on test readers who have helped her sharpen her stories, and she has researched markets to make certain she's sending her work to the editors who publish that sort of thing. Yet her manuscripts keep coming back, either with form rejections or, sometimes, with rejections that offer a word or two of praise without ever saying, “Change the last word to nimbus and I will buy this story.”

Pity that writer, because she is being worn down in a particularly painful way. She has done all the work, has created something that she puts her name on as a way of saying, “Here is my say, my contribution to the conversation that is literature, that is art,” and the reply she gets time after time is, “Sorry. We can't use this.”

Because she feels close to breaking through, a writer in this position begins to think that there must be something right under her nose, some riddle that, once solved, would turn those rejections into acceptances. As the editor of STUPEFYING STORIES once wrote to me, “I hear from a lot of aspiring writers who seem to be searching for that special person who's going to whap them on the head with a magic wand and turn them into a Real Writer, or teach them the secret handshake, or reveal unto them how to decode the secret language of rejection slips.” That last bit is especially common. Tea leaves never get as much close scrutiny as a personalized rejection slip. However, efforts to find the special person, to learn the handshake, to decode the secret language are doomed to failure. I say this as a writer who craved those very things with every fiber of my body for years and years.

I once had a conversation about this with the late and much-lamented Damon Knight. Besides being a wonderful writer, Damon had also edited twenty-one volumes of the influential anthology series, Orbit. “What those frustrated writers need to understand,” Damon said, “is that the rejection message, 'I can't use this,' is actually a secret code that means: 'I can't use this.'”

The message of a rejection slip really is as straightforward as that. Even a rejection letter that says, “I especially liked the ending” is still a rejection that comes down to, “I can't use this.”

Consider this metaphor. The editor is a carpenter. Instead of assembling a magazine or a publishing line, he is framing a house. With the job partly finished, he's looking for some more lumber with which to finish the job. And here is the writer, now a supplier of wood, and on the bed of her truck rests the most beautiful block of polished mahogany ever seen.

The carpenter looks at the block of mahogany and may say to himself, “Wow! That is beautiful! Look at the subtle colors! Look at the grain!” But the carpenter is also going to say, “Sorry, but I need studs and joists and beams. This is beautiful, but it's the wrong shape. I can't use it.”

That is very often what an editor is saying. “I don't have a place for this in the issue I'm putting together. I already have a story too much like this one. I already have a novelist on my list whose topics are too similar to yours.”

In fact, with work that is competently written, that is almost always what an editor is saying. The work may be publishable elsewhere. With different timing, it might have been publishable here. But what the writer is offering isn't a match to the editor's current needs.

Now, that doesn't mean that most of what an editor rejects is gorgeous mahogany with subtle color and intriguing grain. Many unsolicited submissions are twigs, loose sawdust, bent boards or rotten logs. That is, many submissions come from beginners who haven't mastered the first principles of sentence composition or storytelling. But those aren't the writers who are longing to learn the secret handshake. The writers sending wood shavings to the carpenter are full of self-confidence and delusion, and they are either going to discover their defects and start correcting them, or are going to quit. The writers looking for the secret handshake are definitely not quitters.

So what should those frustrated writers do?

First, they should make certain that their work is delivering the effects they intend. They should test their manuscripts on honest, articulate readers; readers who don't have a reason to say, “Um, it was fine!” in order to avoid hurt feelings. But by the time writers are craving the secret code of rejection letters, they have probably been testing their work out on trusted readers. The problem probably is not raw quality. The problem is one of matching the manuscript with the right market at the right time.

There are only so many elements in this formula: suitable manuscript, right market, good timing. So the most obvious answer to the writer is: persist. Keep writing, keep investigating other markets, keep circulating the manuscripts. If you are writing round pegs, you will eventually find the corresponding round hole that isn't already occupied by someone else's manuscript.

Of course, persistence does you little good if you are writing square pegs and there just aren't any markets that are square holes. Or, to return to our block of mahogany, persistence will do you little good if you insist on trying to peddle your mahogany block, as-is, to the carpenter who is framing a house. But if you can be honest about the carpenter's needs and clear-eyed about what you have, then maybe you can saw your block up, glue it in sections, and offer the carpenter a mahogany roof beam. Alternatively, you can admit that your block, which gorgeous, isn't suitable for the carpenter. You can display it in your living room for friends to admire. You can try building your own museum of fine woods and charge admission.

What the writer shouldn't do, however, is imagine that there is a secret or a magical solution, or think of editors as gatekeepers who are deciding who gets into the A-list club and who gets to stand on the sidewalk all night with the other peasants. Editing decisions aren't personal. Even though we're talking about the acceptance or rejection of art, editorial decisions are as objective as lumber purchases.

I said above that the pain of literary rejection wears writers down. It does. What we write is the work of our hearts. But to keep writing and maintain some sanity, you need to arrive at a place where you put your heart into your work as you write it, and then turn around and treat it like lumber. If you can do that, you'll be living in the real world.

Stories by Bruce Holland Rogers have been translated into over two dozen languages and have won two Nebula Awards, two Micro Awards, two World Fantasy Awards, and a Pushcart Prize. He teaches fiction writing at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts and is the author of Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer

To learn more about him and see more of his work, check out his website:

Monday, January 21, 2013

2012: The Year in Review (Part 4)

Continued from Part One | Part Two | Part Three

Announcing Some Mid-Trajectory Course Corrections

Therefore, as the cumulative result of our many eye-opening learning experiences in 2012, we've decided to make some significant changes as we move into 2013. Effective either immediately or phasing in over the next few months:

1. We've decided to let STUPEFYING STORIES become the science fiction and fantasy magazine it clearly wants to be. We're still willing to stray further into the gray areas between SF/F, horror, and mystery than most other publications, and we're still going to do a Halloween special (wouldn't miss that one!), but the straight-up contemporary mysteries, the exercises in depravity and revulsion that claim to be horror stories, and the "I don't know what the heck to call this but I thought you'd like it" pieces that are so experimental as to be unintelligible are out.

I know; when I first launched STUPEFYING STORIES, it was with the declared intention of overthrowing what I considered to be arbitrary genre boundaries. I still believe that needs to be done, but file that idea under H for Hubris, cross-indexed to I for Idiotic.

2. We are decoupling from the calendar for the next three months. We know that STUPEFYING STORIES sells best when we have a new regular edition ready to release on the first day of each and every month, but we've also learned the hard way that the demands of putting out a new book monthly, plus trying to launch a series double-length specials, has overloaded our capacity. Therefore, for the next three months, we are going to ignore the calendar to the extent possible and concentrate on getting the following books released:
  • PUTREFYING STORIES (a.k.a., "The Zombie Special.") This long-delayed double-length book is still stuck in the state of being about a week away from ready to release, but every time I've thought I've had that week clear, Otogu has interrupted. It's time to just finish this book and push it out the door, preferably on or about February 1.
  • FIVE STARS (a.k.a., "The STUPEFYING STORIES sampler.") This one is even closer to release--but I have got to get the zombie book out first.
  • THROWBACKS! This one isn't quite as close to release as PUTREFYING STORIES, but it's only a few weeks behind it, and once we've got the zombie book out the door it's next on the docket. Sadly, it's not going to make it in time for "Jesus Leads the Jets to the AFC Championship" to be timely and topical, but maybe we're getting an early jump-start on next season.
  • The once-again-nameless mystery special. Sorry Jeff, Nicolai, Thomas, and Kent; I know this one has been on and off the docket for a ridiculously long time. This project is still near and dear to my heart, and right up until mid-December we were still aiming for a January 1 launch and planning to make this the inaugural title in our new quarterly series. We still have the funding, but simply don't have the man-hours (okay Karen, person-hours) to launch another series at this time. So we're putting this one back onto the STUPEFYING STORIES PRESENTS list and targeting it for release on or about March 1.
  • M. David Blake is off on a mission from John W. Campbell Jr., doing an invitation-only pro bono special of his own design, and those who need to know about it do so already. I mention this now only because it's going to be a monster, and when it hits it's going to chew up a lot of admin time--but right at the moment, I have no clear idea of when that impact will happen. It's kind of like knowing there's an asteroid with your name on it somewhere out there, floating around in an intersecting orbit...
  • Sometime between now and mid-February, we'll be releasing STUPEFYING STORIES 1.12, which will be a regular issue/edition, and sometime in March we'll be releasing 1.13. But we're not going to sweat hitting any particular release dates right on the nose for those.
If all goes according to plan we hope to be back on our regular monthly schedule in time for the 1.14 release on April 1, and plan to be back on it for May 1. But things have gang agley aft enough in the past year that none of us is willing to stake his or her life, fortune, and sacred honor on those dates.

3. We are changing the way we handle submissions. Again. We stuck to my original ideas of making certain every submission got two full reads and of sending personal rejections whenever possible far longer than everyone said we would, but in the end, the sheer volume of submissions has ground us down. Effective immediately:
  • We no longer accept printed submissions sent to our P.O. box. They make the office admin's day when she finds an actual manuscript in the mailbox, but given the way our personnel are distributed across the entire continent, physical manuscripts are a pain to process. From now on, we accept electronic submissions only.
  • We no longer accept multiple submissions. No more bundling three stories into a single submission, please. Put your best foot (or hoof, claw, tentacle, or pseudopod, as the case may be) forward. If you've sent us one submission, please wait until you hear back from us before sending another.
  • We'll still consider simultaneous submissions, but exclusive submissions will be given preference. If your submission is exclusive to us, please say so in your cover letter.
  • We're going back to pre-screening submissions. We see an awful lot of submissions that are instantly and obviously Not Right For Us from page one, paragraph one. This is not to say that they might not be perfect for someone else; just, they're not right for us. Therefore, in the interests of making best use of our first readers' time, we're going to resume pre-screening.
  • We're going to be making greater use of form rejections. I hate to do this--believe me, I'd love to send each and every aspiring contributor a detailed critique of his or her story--but there just isn't enough time left before the heat death of the universe to do so. Ergo, don't be miffed if you've previously received a personal rejection and now receive a form rejection. It doesn't mean anything more than we're running out of time.   

4. We currently are conducting an audit of our submission files. In September 2012, we cut over to a new server dedicated to handling submissions. It's become apparent that the transition did not go as smoothly as we thought at the time, as we are still finding stories that were "misplaced" in the move. If you submitted a story to us before September 1, 2012, and either a.) never received an acknowledgement of receipt, b.) received an acknowledgement of receipt but never heard from us again, or c.) received a notice telling you your story was being held for further consideration but never heard from us again, please contact us now.

5. We currently are conducting an audit of our contract files. As a side-effect of the submission audit we're finding stories we accepted but for which we don't have contracts; stories under contract which we've forgotten we had; stories with old contracts that pre-date our use of the expiration date clause; and stories with expiration-date contracts that are about to expire. Late last year we moved to using Adobe EchoSign to do electronic contracts with e-signatures, and the difference this has made has been spectacular.

Therefore, if you have any concern about your contract in general, please contact us, but in particular, if you have an old pre-expiration date contract (Nicolai, this means you), or if you have a contract with an expiration date that's about to expire (Joshua, this means you), please contact us, and we'll re-draft your contract using EchoSign.


One more time, I want to stress that we accomplished a lot of really terrific things in 2012, and I can't begin to thank the STUPEFYING STORIES crew enough. Henry, Marc, Vidad, Kersley, Erin, Guy, Barbara, Allan, Frances, Jason, Eli, Ryan, Arisia, Tyler, Ricky, Paul, Mike, David, Alicia, Theo, and above all, Karen: THANK YOU! We couldn't have done it without you!

Responsibility for everything that went wrong or that we failed to accomplish in 2012 belongs on my desk, with most items to be filed under H, for Hubris. And with that said:

Upward and onward, into 2013!

Kindest regards,

Bruce Bethke