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...

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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.

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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...

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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.

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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...

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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...