Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Status Update

Meanwhile, in the offices of Stupefying Stories...

Just a few quick notes here to let you know what’s going on. First and foremost, STUPEFYING STORIES #21 releases this coming Friday, August 3. We’re still undecided as to whether we’re going to launch it with another Free e-Book Friday, but we’re leaning in the direction of doing so. Stay tuned for more details.

Next, we’re rolling out some new changes to our Submission Guidelines, effective August 1. If you’ve been watching, you know that we’ve been tweaking and refining our guidelines all along, and if you haven’t been watching—well, that explains some of the stories that have turned up in our Inbox. The most important change we’re making is that we’ve decided to go back to our 6-months-on / 6-months-off reading schedule, to clear time for new book production. Therefore, effective 9/30/18, we will be closed to unsolicited submissions until 4/1/19.

It’s fun reading everything that comes in, but the sheer volume of submissions we’re receiving is getting in the way of releasing books, y’know?

Speaking of releasing books: STUPEFYING STORIES #22 is scheduled for release on August 31, #23 on September 28, and #24 on October 26. We can’t decide whether to release #25 on November 23 or 30, but we have time to decide, and #26 is slated for December 28. The key consideration here is that issues #22 and #23 are already full-up, and #24 is pretty close to filled, so you can stop sending us horror stories now. We already have all the horror stories we’re going to need for the rest of this year.

Finally, the Saturday SHOWCASE feature resumes this coming Saturday, August 4, with “The Moshe 12000,” a story I either need to brag about or apologize for, I’m not sure which. After that we’ll be running new SHOWCASE stories every Saturday, from now until either writers stop writing or The End of the Universe, whichever happens first.


Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed: “The Whole Alternate History Thing” • by Bruce Bethke

The temptation when writing alternate history is to assume that your one chosen detail of history has changed, but everything else—and everyone else—has remained roughly the same. Yes, in your timeline Lincoln lost the 1864 election and as a result the Union settled for a negotiated peace with the Confederacy—but a decade later, you’ve still got General Custer in command of the 7th Cavalry as it rides across the Dakotas, towards its fateful appointment with the Sioux on the Little Bighorn.

Wait a minute. General Custer? General George Armstrong Custer? Who rose through the ranks so rapidly because he was the hero of the Battle of Appomattox Court House? Which in our timeline took place on the morning of April 9, 1865, which means that in your timeline, it never happened?

You begin to see the problem?

History is Brownian motion expressed in human lives. We like to imagine that we see grand sweeping vistas and irresistible forces working to produce inevitable results, and those sorts of patterns are easy to discern (or at least imagine we discern) in hindsight. But to the people living in the moment, it's just a constantly swirling blizzard of tiny changes, which only later can be thought to have had a pattern. Case in point: as I was toying with the idea of an alternate timeline that might flow from one event, the tiny changes began to snowball with astonishing rapidity. The U.S. never got into the Spanish-American War—

Well, some claim this war was a historical inevitability. In the 1890s the United States was feeling its oats, and the State and War departments were full of younger men who’d missed the Civil War and were eager to prove themselves. If not Spain, then somewhere else: perhaps Mexico, or maybe China. We were a pugnacious young country then, and history as told now conveniently elides the fact that in 1895 we even went to the brink of a shooting war with England over the border dispute between British Guiana and Venezuela. Luckily, trouble elsewhere in the British Empire pulled our chestnuts out of the fire, by motivating the British to accept a negotiated settlement so that they could turn their full attention to more important matters, and by the end of the Second Boer War the Brits had decided we might be more useful as allies than adversaries.

But let’s stick with our initial assumption: that the U.S. never got involved in the Spanish-American War, and the jingoistic faction in our government didn’t find another suitable war to take its place. What kind of snowflakes are in motion and perturbed by this change?

How about these? In 1892, as part of a modernization program, the U.S. Army replaced the post-Civil War single-shot Trapdoor Springfield rifle with the Krag-Jorgenson, a beautifully made bolt-action rifle whose .30-40 cartridge was perfectly suited to hunting whitetail deer. Likewise, in the same year they retired the venerable .45 caliber 1873 Colt Single-Action Army (a.k.a., the SAA, or “Peacemaker” of cowboy movie fame) and replaced it with the brand-spanking-new 1892 Colt Double-Action Army, in the then-new caliber of .38 Long. Similarly, in 1895, the Navy and Marine Corps adopted the 6mm Lee, the rapid-firing high-velocity wonder weapon of its days, along with the Colt “potato digger” machine-gun in the same caliber and the M1892 Colt .38 revolver.

In the Spanish-American War, American casualties in combat were relatively light: for every American killed in battle, ten more succumbed to tropical diseases. This was largely due to the poor training, morale, leadership, marksmanship, and equipment of the Spanish soldiers, a fact which George Orwell would comment on at considerable length forty years later in Homage to Catalonia.

Once in a while, though, the Americans ran into Spanish soldiers who were well-trained, -led, and -equipped, and then it was a different story. The Battle of San Juan Hill, for example, would probably be considered a classic military clusterf### of the please-let’s-change-the-subject variety now, if not for the involvement of a certain future President. In this battle, a force of 15,000 American troops assaulted a hill held by about 750 Spanish troops—no, I did not drop a zero—who were adequately trained, led, dug-in, and armed with the latest Mauser rifles.

The Mauser came as a nasty shock to the Americans. It was more accurate, more powerful, and had longer range than the Krag. Worse, some of the American troops were still armed with Trapdoor Springfields, and when they fired their black-powder .45-70 cartridges they may as well have been lighting smoke grenades and waving flags saying (in Spanish), “WE’RE HERE! SHOOT AT US!” The Americans took 1,400 killed or wounded before they overran the Spanish positions, and probably wouldn’t have taken the hill at all without excellent use of supporting fire from their Gatling guns.

Nonetheless, take the hill they did, and in due time they won the war, thus gaining control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Whereupon a new problem arose: some Filipinos weren’t happy with the notion of trading one colonial master for another, and the Philippines promptly erupted in a bloody guerrilla war that lasted years.

If the .30-40 Krag-Jorgenson was a disappointment in Cuba, the .38 Colt proved to be a disaster in the Philippines. As many Americans learned to their profound but very short-lived dismay, you could shoot a charging Moro tribesman six times in the chest with the Colt .38, but if you weren’t lucky enough to hit his central nervous system, he could still decapitate you with his parang before he died or you finished reloading.

It was as a direct result of these two experiences, then, both related to America’s involvement in the Spanish-American War—the inadequacy of the Krag in Cuba and the failure of the Colt in the Philippines—and a third experience, that of the discovered folly of equipping the Army and Navy with completely incompatible rifles when soldiers and Marines might end up fighting side-by-side—that the War Department launched two crash development programs. The first was to find a rifle and cartridge that equaled the Mauser and met the needs of both the Army and the Marines, and the result was the legendary M1903 Springfield, with its entirely new .30-03 cartridge—which had some teething problems, and was quickly superseded by the .30-06. The second was to find a pistol and cartridge that would stop a charging Moro in his tracks, and the result of that was the equally legendary Colt 1911, and the all-new .45 ACP cartridge.

And to imagine a 20th Century without either .30-06 rifles or Colt .45 automatics...

Well, now you know why my alternate history prognostication process seized up shortly after 1900.


Thursday, July 19, 2018

Talking Shop

Status Update: Some Lessons from the Slush Pile

In the slightly more than three months since we reopened to unsolicited submissions, we’ve received nearly 600 stories. We do log and track every submission received, and we do generate stats and look for trends. Our submission guidelines and reviewing processes are not everlasting and unchanging: we will be refining them as we move forward.

For an example of a process change, beginning in mid-June, we began sending confirmation-of-submission-received messages to all authors, to reassure them that we had in fact received their story and logged it into our tracking system. The confirmation message now includes the tracking number, which makes it much easier for us to respond to author’s queries. Going forward, you should receive a confirmation-of-receipt message within 72 hours of submitting your story, and we’ll be working to shorten that response time. 

For an example of a guidelines change, let’s talk about zombie stories. We aren’t quite ready to declare that we won’t consider them at all, but we are getting very close to shooting them on sight. Please, read Stupefying Stories #20, or at least SHOWCASE. If you don’t have a story better than “Zombie Like Me” by Clancy Weeks or “Lucky” by Russell C. Connor, we’re probably not the market for it.

That’s “better than,” not “almost as good as.” We see a lot of stories that might best be described as prose karaoke—but that’s a topic for another column.

The slush pile did get a bit backed up while we were in Iceland, but I’ve waded in with my metaphorical plunger and gotten things flowing again. The slush must flow. As of this morning we have 48 stories tagged as to be rejected, but for one reason or another the rejections haven’t been sent yet. (Most often it’s because the story has been tagged as needing a personal rejection, because either I or one of the first or second readers has something substantial to communicate to the author. {And no, K., I am not going to ask that author whether she was on drugs or off her meds when she wrote that story.})

We have 44 more stories on hold, which most often means they’re off with a second reader. One of the little behind-the-scenes changes we’ve made recently has been to expand our cadre of second readers. The first readers have the easy job: they just have to separate the wheat from the chaff. The second readers have to grade the wheat and make recommendations, and that job is considerably harder.

My job, of course, is to make the final cuts. Choosing to buy Brilliant Story “A” and reject Brilliant Story “B” is not fun. I have a whole new level of respect for George Scithers and Charles C. Ryan now.

Right now we have 16 stories tagged to be accepted, but that part of the process has been taking a back seat to getting the slush flowing and the book production process rolling again. As of 0700 this morning we had 20 stories out with the first readers, although that’s probably up to 25 by now.

It’s been a messy past three-plus months, but the business is making forward progress again.

Upward and onward,
Bruce Bethke

Friday, July 13, 2018

Talking Shop

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


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

Tip 1: Take Notes After Each Novel

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

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

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

Tip 2: Decide How the Series Will End

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

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

What’s the benefit of doing that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tip 4: Get Your Magical System in Order

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

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

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

Tip 5: Resign Yourself to a Longer Editing Process

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

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

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


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

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