Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Talking Shop

“To Be, or To Be Someone Else” • by Bruce Bethke

As new books move into the copy-editing and production phases, an old question keeps coming back up. “Should I use my real name, or a pseudonym?”

The answer, as is so often the case, is, “That depends.”

When I first started writing, I made the decision to publish everything I wrote under my real name, mostly because my ego was very tightly tied up in what I was doing. For many years that seemed to work well. I wrote; I published; my ego saw my byline in many places and was made glad.

In retrospect, though, I wish I’d used at least one pen name. This is because:

Bad Imitation Lovecraft Contest Update

Yay! We’ve got some entries! Read ‘em and then try to beat ‘em!

Friday, October 26, 2018

The Son of The Friday Challenge Returns Again for the Last Time...Again!

Okay, I know, I said we were never going to do another Friday Challenge...

But then, last week’s discussion of Lovecraftian horror got us talking. What if what the world needs right now is yet another writing contest? Specifically, a Lovecraftian horror writing contest? But not just any contest, no: what we want to do is go full Bulwer-Lytton on this thing. Ergo, Rampant Loon Press is appalled to announce...

The First Annual Rampant Loon Press Bad Imitation Lovecraft Writing Contest

Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to write one paragraph—beginning, middle, or end of a story, we don’t care—of truly rancid, turgid, clotted prose, in the inimitable and yet all-too-often imitated style of the legendary H. P. Lovecraft. Throw everything you’ve got in there: Arkham, Miskatonic, pustulence, ichor, eldritch, sunken R’lyeh—get it all out of your system. Give it the whole fnlakghing works. Extra credit for making it all one single ghastly run-on sentence; double extra credit if you can correctly identify this kitchen utensil and work its properly Lovecraftian name into your contest submission.

But, there’s a catch. Your contest submission can be no more than 100 words long, at the most. We are looking to capture the distilled and pungent essence of Lovecraft—everything about his style that makes us cringe—in a single paragraph.

So think about it. Let the unspeakable soul-crushing horror of it all burn. Then enter your submission in the comments section of this post—or if you can’t get past the captcha, email it to submissions@rampantloonmedia.com and we’ll post it for you—and on Saturday morning, November 3rd, we’ll announce either the winner or the finalists, depending on the quantity and quality of the entries we receive. The deadline for entries is midnight Friday, November 2nd. The author of the winning submissions will get all the honor, glory, and recognition commensurate with winning such an auspicious competition.

Oh, what the hell: and a $25 Amazon gift certificate, too.

Sound like fun? Then on your mark, get set... Start writing!

Update 10/29/18: If this all seems like something of a mystery to you, please consider this outstanding example of the idiom: “Harbinger of Doom (for the Home Team)” by Dan Micklethwaite.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Book, and its Contents

I continue to be surprised by the analogies between writing fiction and performing music. Putting together an issue of Stupefying Stories is exactly like working up a set list for a bar band. You want to open with a bang, to get the crowd’s attention—get ‘em up off their butts and out on the dance floor, at least in a metaphorical sense—mix it up good, alternating fast and slow numbers and short and long numbers so that you don’t tire ‘em out too soon—build to the big dance party number that’s the climax of the entire set—and then cool ‘em down gently, while leaving them happy and eager to stick around for the next set.

And not coincidentally, leaving them thirsty, so that when they leave the dance floor, they go back to the bar and buy another round of drinks. After all, that’s why the bar hired your band in the first place, innit? To keep the customers dancing and thirsty?

That’s where the analogy breaks down: we can’t sell you a six-pack of Rampant Loon Brew or a bottle of Château Rampant Loon rosé to help you better enjoy the stories. Maybe Barnes & Noble is on to something with all their big mall coffee shops and snack bars that also happen to sell books...

Right. Let’s get back on topic.

So, to build your set list, you dig into your inventory and start picking out pieces that go together. We don’t exactly do “theme” anthologies, but we do seek commonalities in subject, mood, and tone. These two stories obviously need to be together; those two are too much alike be in the same book. These three taken together constitute a sort of mini-trilogy, but those two go together like sand and Astroglide. Ouch!

Eventually, we wind up with something vaguely like a theme—for Stupefying Stories #22, it turned out to be “Pirates, Magic, and Monsters”—and a short list of fifteen or so candidate stories. Then, we start whittling down the shortlist. The objective is to end up with nine stories that go together in something that starts to feel like a flow, and that taken together come in at the length of a short novel: between 40- and 50-thousand words.

Why nine stories? Because Amazon. It’s a stupid, arbitrary limit and we’re working on ways to get around it. Why 40~50K words? Because that’s what we’re comfortable with producing right now. Once we get production running smoothly, we expect to grow to 60~75K words per issue.

For Stupefying Stories #22, I also insisted on one other criterion: at least half the stories had to be ones we’ve had in inventory since the Great Acquisition Binge of 2015. The last time we thought we had all our production problems solved, I made a lot of promises to a lot of people, and insofar as possible I intend to honor them. If you’re a writer who has had a story accepted by us, no matter how long ago, we will publish it, if you’re still willing to let us do so.


Eventually, after all the give-and-take and reshuffling and horse-trading, we ended up with this set list for #22. This is still subject to change: we’re still waiting for some author sign-offs. But as of today, the TOC for #22 is:

“Groundskeeper,” by Kirstie Olley
A beautiful princess, kidnapped and locked away in a sorcerer’s tower. A deadly labyrinth, filled with traps and monsters. So, Mr. Handsome Prince, before you go charging in there with your sword in hand, did it ever occur to you to wonder who maintains the labyrinth?
“Rain Charmer,” by Gef Fox
Gef is one of our original contributors, beginning with “A Wolf Like Leroy” in  Stupefying Stories #8.
Gef was also the first person to interview me who was more interested in talking about Stupefying Stories than in talking about a certain story I wrote 38 years ago, and for that I will always be grateful. “Rain Charmer” is a wonderful funny little contemporary fantasy story about... well, about rain. And about being careful what you wish for.
“Ohōtsuku-Kai,” by NM Whitley
Our association with NM Whitley goes back even further, to the days of the original Friday Challenge, when it was just another feature on the old Ranting Room blog site. I don’t believe we’ve ever officially published a story by him, but we’re making up for it with this one, which is a terrific next-century science fiction tale set in a world in which the United States is still recovering from the effects of the Second Civil War, the Japanese, Koreans, and Russians are all jostling for position in the Chinese shadow, and someone has discovered a new power source that seems too good to be true.

And there are pirates, of course.
“Upon the Blood-Dark Sea,” by Auston Habershaw
Speaking of pirates, here is a tale of dark magic and darker deeds, spun by master storyteller and occasional “Talking Shop” contributor Auston Habershaw, whose name you may recognize from his appearances in F&SF, Analog, and Galaxy’s Edge, or from his many epic fantasy novels. One of his very first published stories, though, was “Thief of Hearts” in Stupefying Stories #7, and his most recent appearance was “The Great Work of Meister VanHocht” is Stupefying Stories #13 (which surprisingly is not in the catalog). Over the past six years, it’s been a pleasure and a privilege to watch as Auston’s awesome writing Jedi powers have developed.

Issue #13 also marks the first appearance of Eric Dontigney in our pages. I really need to get that catalog updated.
“The Fisherwoman,” by C. J. Paget
Pirates, ghosts, kids on a summer adventure: what’s not to like? Loads of fun.
“The Yin-Yang Crescent,” by Ian Whates
A magical mystery—oh, great, now I’ve got that stupid Beatles song stuck in my head—a paranormal mystery, set in a world in which parallel versions of London exist in overlapping space/time, but only those with the gift can cross between them.
“The She-Dragon of Bly,” by Jason D. Wittman
Jason first showed up in our pages in Stupefying Stories #5 with “Emissaries from Venus.” When “The She-Dragon of Bly” showed up in my inbox, I expected it to be good, but I didn’t expect it to be this good. In an alternate timeline in which the Soviet Union won WWII, England is now a Soviet satellite, some magic actually works, and Premier Kruschev is going eyeball-to-eyeball with President Patton, the last surviving member of His Majesty’s Dragonslayer Corps is pulled out of retirement, because it seems dragons are not extinct after all and one has taken up residence in a prominent Politburo member’s country estate. Here there be dragons, indeed!

As we were putting #22 together, once we decided to include this story, everything else seemed to coalesce around it, and we knew this 9,000-word novelette was going to be our cover. Now all we needed was the right illustration...
“With Possum, You Get Free Were-Fi," by Mark Keigley
Mark Keigley, under the pen name of “Mark Wolf,” first appeared in our pages in Stupefying Stories #11, with “Tiny, Tiny Hungers.”

With Stupefying Stories #12 he got the cover with “For the Love of a Grenitschee,” an outstanding old-school alien planet pulp adventure—and not coincidentally, chapter 1 of his novel Trader’s Profit, which we’re going to be releasing Real Soon Now. Honest.

With “Possum,” Mark reverts to his real name, and delivers a terrific hard-SF generation ship story with his usual totally out of left field “Whoa, didn’t see that coming!" Keigley twist. Clever ideas; great fun—albeit with a dark edge that should stick with you long after you’ve finished the story.
“Glamour for Two,” by Judith Field
Finally, we end the set with “Glamour for Two,” another sweet and clever little contemporary fantasy story from Judith Field. I’ve been in love with Judith’s writing ever since “The Prototype” first showed up in my inbox, and subsequently in Stupefying Stories #6. She’s been a regular contributor to both Stupefying Stories and SHOWCASE—heck, we practically created the Theian Journal concept around her story, “The Fissure of Rolando”—and she writes wonderful little stories about life and love and characters who find magic even in the most mundane places. I like her stories so much, I’ve published a book of them, and if you haven’t read The Book of Judith, this story will be a good introduction. If you have read The Book of Judith and enjoyed it, you’ll be happy to know that this is a brand-new “Court & Anderson” story.
...next: how we settled on the cover...

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Book, and its Cover

“You can’t judge a book by its cover.”

Everyone says that, but does anyone actually believe it? Yeah, sure, there may be a few edge cases out there who ignore the cover art and withhold judgment until they’ve actually read a good portion of the content—and of course, there’s the National Library Service braille and audio book library, which I wholeheartedly support—but most prospective readers judge books...

a.) first, by the recommendations of their friends—
b.) then by prior experience with the author, if any—
c.) then by recommendations from famous media personalities—
d.) then by published reviews and online ratings—
e.) then by the reputation of the author, if they have no prior direct experience—
f.) then by a quick glance at the cover art—
g.) and then, God willing, by actually reading a significant portion of what’s behind that cover.

Hence the problem for the indie publisher, and especially an indie publisher like Rampant Loon Press, which likes to focus on new and upcoming writers who are just beginning to build their reputations. If the author doesn’t already have an established rep (scratch b and e), and we don’t have the budget for the kind of publicity and advertising campaigns needed to get major traction with c and d, that leaves us with a, f, and if we’re very lucky, a little d, mostly in the form of online reader reviews, as tools to use to coax prospective readers along to point g, which is the entire objective of this exercise.

As for going bigger on d: no, seriously, we don’t have the budget for that, and thanks for offering to help, but it isn’t just a matter of coming up with another $50 or $100 or so. It costs a minimum of $425 to get into Kirkus Reviews, and the costs of a serious advertising campaign just go up from there. Online advertising is nominally cheaper, but not very effective: for all the money we’ve spent on Facebook and Amazon ad campaigns, we’d be better off if we’d just heaped dollar bills in a big pile and set fire to them. At least then we’d be warm. 

As regards a, that’s something you can’t buy or force to happen, no matter how much money you throw at it. You can only try to build a community of people who might eventually become friends, and that in a sense is what we’ve been trying to do, with greater or lesser degrees of success, ever since the launch of The Ranting Room back in February 2005. (Hmm. There’s still some good stuff out on that site. I should loot it and recycle it here.)

But—building a community of writers, and people who like to read? To build a community of people who are by nature quiet, reclusive, introverted, and averse to communal activities?

Well, it’s certainly a challenge. And for my next I trick, I shall enter the Iditarod with a sled pulled by a team—of cats!

I suppose I could go the c route, or rather the pseudo-c route, and pretend to be a famous media personality. That could work. If you make your pond small enough, it’s easy to look like a big fish. If I claimed to be leading a literary movement—or better yet, a revolution!

Nah. No. That’s not me. I’ve been resisting that siren’s call for 35 years, and it’s been the source of much tension around here. Stupefying Stories: it’s not about me. It’s about the writers whose stories I want lots of other people to read, because they’re writing great stories.

Which brings us, in a rather longer and more roundabout way than I’d planned, to item f, and to Stupefying Stories #22: how we planned it, how we picked the stories we wanted to include in it, how we decided on the cover story, and how we wound up choosing between two potentially terrific pieces of cover art:

...to be continued...

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Status Update: 10/23/2018

With the 2018 reading period all wrapped up, we’re deep in the throes of book production. If you submitted a story to us in 2018 and have NOT received either an acceptance or a rejection from us by now, please query, as it means something has gone off-track.

If you’ve received an acceptance from us and have replied to it, the next step is that we will send you a contract.

Friday, October 19, 2018

And that’s a wrap

“...good luck placing it elsewhere.

“Kind regards,
“Bruce Bethke
“editor, Stupefying Stories

Hmm, hmm, re-read it one more time to avoid the ohnosecond*, looks okay, click Send, and...

We’re done! Okay folks, we have now responded to every short story submission sent to us in our 2018 reading period. With a few exceptions—and if you’re one of those exceptional people, you already know who you are—if you sent us a story this year, you should by now have either an acceptance or a rejection in-hand.

If you have NOT received either an acceptance or rejection from us, please send a query to submissions@rampantloonmedia.com, as it means something’s gone askew.

Now, on to contracts and copy-editing—which may take a little longer than planned, as Adobe unleashed yet another insufficiently tested “upgrade” on Adobe Sign users this week, crippling our e-contracts system and causing a mob of customers with torches and pitchforks to try to storm their office.

Well, I suppose we could always go back to paper contacts and US mail... 


* ohnosecond: the period of time that elapses between the instant you click ‘Send’ and the instant you realize, “Oh no, did I really send that?”

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Letters to the Editor

Quentin Walker writes:
“I am a writer in my free time and an avaricious reader [...]”
(Good opening. We like writers, and always need more readers. And if you’re a writer who writes without also reading, you’re probably going to be a lousy writer. I think you meant voracious, though, not avaricious.)
“When submitting short stories, do you accept anything with horror Lovecraftian themes? Or do you just like straight science fiction and fantasy?”
First off, if you want to know what we like to see in submissions, our Submission Guidelines are always a good place to start. If you take a quick look at them, the first thing you’ll notice is that we are CLOSED to unsolicited submissions right now. At the moment we’re in the last stages of cleaning up after our 2018 open submissions period, deeply into contracts & copy-editing mode, and down to the last two acceptances and six rejections I need to write and send.

But as for Lovecraftian horror in particular

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Talking Shop


Op-ed • "Horatio Alger Got It Half Right," By Eric Dontigney 

Hard work matters for anyone trying to make a living as a writer. Hard work matters a lot. You can’t phone it in day-after-day. You can’t do it just when you feel like it. You have to show up every day and put in a real effort. This is the basis of the Horatio Alger stories and the foundation for the Horatio Alger Myth.

Not familiar with Horatio Alger and his myth? Here’s the backstory, in brief. Horatio Alger, Jr. was a writer from the mid-to-late 1800s. He wrote books that glorified the Protestant work ethic and moral virtue. The general theme was that hard work and moral fortitude would transform the hard-working poor into the middle class or even upper class.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Status Update: 10/15/18

Just a few metrics for you this morning. Of the more than 800 submissions we received during our 2018 reading period—I don’t have a solid final number at this moment, as we had some issues with submission tracking and stories being sent to old email addresses and such that we didn’t get fully nailed down until June—we are down to the following numbers.
  • ACCEPTED - 52 stories
    • Contract pending - 10
    • Standalone novellas - 1
    • Accepted for SHOWCASE - 19
    • Already published - 7

    • For SHOWCASE - 3

    • Standalone novellas - 4
    • For SHOWCASE - 5 (probably to be accepted)
    • Main sequence stories - 28
With 76 stories already accepted or tagged as to be accepted—counting those accepted for SHOWCASE separately, which we should have been doing all along—basically, we have 28 “main sequence” stories in the final bin and the space and budget to accept 14 at most.

We should be finished making our final choices by this evening.


P.S. I’ve had some authors ask if their story was silently rejected. I know we’re from Minnesota, The Passive-Aggressive State, but we don’t do silent rejections. If you submitted a story to us this year, you will receive a response.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

SHOWCASE: “Playing God,” by Matthew A. J. Timmins

The bio was just a bright orange marble rolling around in her backpack. I probed it with a finger. It was soft and sticky. I rolled it back and forth, but when I pulled my hand away a pseudopod stuck to my fingertip.

“Ow!” I pulled my hand out and the bio came with it, dangling from my finger like a booger.

“Hey,” Lumi hissed. She pulled the creature loose and tossed it into her backpack, looking quickly around the room. “Watch it!”

She was right; bios weren’t allowed in school.

“It bit me!” I said, examining my purple fingertip.

“Don’t be a baby.” She zipped her backpack shut and slung it over her shoulder. “It was hungry. It’s just a baby. If you come by after school, I’ll show you a full-grown one.”

SHOWCASE: “Bootleg Bees,” by Laura Jane Swanson

The bees were dying again, dropping like the proverbial flies all over the garden and the yard. “Metzger must have gotten some fancy new seeds again,” Emil sighed. It had to be Metzger; Hammond and Anderson down the road were too cheap to keep buying crazy upgrades that grew their own pesticides. Bad enough that the whole neighborhood had to keep upgrading their bees to keep up, not to mention the ridiculous price of brand-name bees.

“We need that Heirloom Protection Act,” Hannah sighed. Without it, Indiana’s right-to-farm laws meant people could plant what they liked, even if it killed the neighbors’ bees.

“Well, until that pig grows wings, I guess I’d better ask Metzger what upgrade to order this time.”

“AgriCorp will engineer actual flying pigs before they’ll let that law pass,” Hannah said, sweeping dead bees from the porch.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

SF/F Writers in the Real World

Eric Dontigney found and posted an interesting article on our facebook page yesterday. If you missed it, here’s the link:


The original article is on syfy.com, and the subject is, “Does your science fiction or fantasy world have to be woke? Experts debate at NYCC.”

It’s an interesting question, and one that deserves further debate, which is why I’ve reposted it here. I don’t think I’m the person to lead this discussion, though. When I look at this, what I see is further proof that we’re locked in a time loop and condemned to recapitulating the past fifty years. Right now we’ve made it up to reliving 1970—seriously, the parallels are alarming—except that last time around, the demand was for “relevance” in SF/F, not being woke. As far as SF/F goes, “relevance” was a political fashion trend that nearly destroyed the genre.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Status Update, 10/10/18

(Using the illo of a P.O.’d cat in a pink bunny suit, just because I haven’t used it in a while and want to see if facebook picks it up.)

Ten days after the end of our 2018 reading period, we’ve got things pretty close to settled down. Out of the more than 800 stories, novelettes, and novellas that showed up in our inbox in the past six months, we’re down to selecting the final 40 or so really outstanding tales we can use. I’m pleased to say that this reading period has reinforced one of my core beliefs, as well as one of the fundamental raisons d'être for Stupefying Stories: there are a lot of really good writers out there, writing a lot of really terrific stories, and somebody needs to be doing something to help readers find these writers.

This “Somebody” character, though: whenever I catch myself writing or saying “somebody” ought to do something, I stop in my tracks. No, the proper way to state the question is, “What can I do to make this happen?”

Hence Stupefying Stories. Finding, selecting, and publishing these brilliant stories is one-half of the answer. Now comes the grimy work: drawing attention to the stories we’re publishing.

For the next six months, then, that’s what we’ll be concentrating on: publishing books and trying to draw attention to them. In all honesty, I’m not entirely sure how to do this. I’m very familiar with the way the publishing business used to work, but what worked five years ago doesn’t work today. Hell, what worked even six months ago doesn’t work today. I suppose, if I were to start publishing barking mad political screeds...


No. Get thee behind me. That’s not who I am. As someone who remembers the past sixty-some years, I have trouble getting worked up about the current outrage d’jour. 

So instead, expect to see more activity on this blogsite, and particularly more writer- and reader-oriented content. My work schedule changed right after Labor Day and I lost the Thoughtful Hour I used to have every morning for reflection and writing, but I’ve pretty much adapted now. I have a sizable backlog of mail to be answered, and much of it involves thought-provoking questions that deserve public answers.

Expect also to see new SHOWCASE stories going live at 7am Central time every Saturday morning. We have stories already in the queue through the end of November, and I’m really pleased with the way the new incarnation of SHOWCASE is taking form. I’m particularly excited about our first three-part serial in years: “Market Futures,” by M. Ian Bell. Look for it in November. This is a test case, and if it gets a good reception, we have at least one novel we’d like to serialize beginning in January of 2019.

Finally, we expect to release the long-delayed Stupefying Stories #22, sometime next week. We have more books already in the queue behind it—but this is enough for one day. I have to have something to write about tomorrow!

Bruce Bethke
Editor, Stupefying Stories

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed • "Why Short Fiction Is Harder to Write than It Looks," By Eric Dontigney 

Most professional writers will tell you that writing a good short story is substantially harder than writing a good novel. It sounds far-fetched, doesn’t it? Science fiction and fantasy novels often run 100,000-words, give or take. It’s the rare magazine that takes short stories longer than 5,000 words. If your short story is only 5% the length of a full-blown novel, it should only be 5% as difficult, right? Sadly, it’s not.

A good short story must do all the same things as a novel, so that means the writer needs to know almost as much about the world. You need to understand the society, politics, magic, gender norms, and technology. Even if you satisfy yourself with a sketchy understanding of those things, it still takes a while to work those details out.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

“The Avenging Tree” • by Patrick Hurley

Just outside a small Tennessee town, amid the rolling hills and lush valleys, there stood a young apple tree who’d sprung up in a holler a ways away from where her mama had first let her crab apples fall.

Though their roots had never quite touched, the young tree loved being near her mama, watching that great tree sway in the breeze, offering shade and fruit to travelers all throughout the nearby town. When she was young, the sapling told herself that one day she would do her mama proud and help others, just like her mama did.

Then, the boy came.

He appeared with the suddenness of a forest fire and descended on her mama like a plague of locusts. The young sapling never liked the boy. She saw the fierce hunger behind his eyes and knew he would be no good for her mama.

Her mama’s nature was to give whatever was asked of her, and so she gave all she could to the boy, ever to her detriment. It was lucky the sapling had already taken root before the boy came along, for he harvested so many of her mama’s apples that it looked like the sapling would grow to be an only child.

In the end, after the boy had shrunken into an old man, all that was left of her mama was a worn-down stump. The old man would sit on this, defiling her mama’s remains with his backside, enjoying the sun that should have been her mama’s, even daring to complain of the lack of shade that had been his own damn fault, having cut down her mama’s great limbs to build his house. And worst of all, the pitiful stump still offered kind words and weak excuses to the old man who’d taken so much from her.

A shadow grew over the holler where the old tree’s daughter brooded. No longer a sapling, she now decided she would never allow herself to be used like her mother was. These greedy, stealing, hungry folk like the old man were her enemy.

Though the old man had taken her mother’s seeds, he had still found time to sow his own. He had a son who had another son, who was the spitting image of his selfish grandfather.

It was this boy, the son of the son, who began to visit the young tree’s holler and lay beneath her shade. The boy tried to talk to her the way his grandfather had talked to her mama. At first, the tree didn’t answer back. Then one day, the boy began to cry.

“Boy,” the young tree asked, unable to contain her curiosity, “why are you crying?”

The boy looked up, startled. “Who said that?” he asked.

“You know who said that, boy,” the tree responded. She gave her branches a quiet rustle. She wondered what the boy would do. His eyes widened. Then he smiled, a great wide grin, and shouted, “I knew the stories were true!”

“What stories?” the tree asked, suspicious.

“The stories my paw-paw told about wish-giving trees! He said if I ever found one that talked, it’d give me whatever I wanted.”

The tree had never been struck by lightning, but she now knew what it felt like.

“That’s not true, boy,” the tree answered, but the boy cut her off.

“Don’t you try to back out, now! Y’all helped my paw-paw and now you gotta help me.”

“Help you with what, boy?”

The boy told her he was hungry, so to make him be quiet, the tree gave him one of her apples. As the boy ate, the tree felt the old anger stir inside her. She was tempted to break a heavy branch off and crush him—or feed him a poison apple—but she couldn’t bring herself to do it.

For one thing, if she did kill the child, what then? Some might believe her branch had fallen by chance, but not the boy’s grandfather. He would know what happened, and he would come for her. The old man might not be strong enough to wield his ax anymore, but he had access to fire.

Also, however much she hated the boy’s family, the tree was no murderer. If she sought revenge, it would have to be of another kind. Something that would prevent the boy and his family from ever taking from the trees again. So she waited, giving the boy shade and an occasional apple, for those were free and meant little to her.

One afternoon, the boy came to her and began to complain, as he always did. He wasn’t doing well in school. The other boys and girls didn’t like him. They called him greedy. They called him mean. They didn’t understand him like the tree did.

“I just wish,” the boy said, “I could win the 400-Yard Dash.”

Now the tree knew what the Dash was, since her holler was right by the school. Once a season, the boys and girls of the school held the race to determine which one of them was the quickest on two legs. A ridiculous notion, the tree thought to herself, but whoever won this race would receive a prize and become the first picked in all the games and first invited to all the birthday parties.

The boy wanted to win that race more than anything, but he knew he wasn’t fast enough. He wondered, somehow, if the tree could help him.

The tree thought long and hard. She did possess a small amount of magic. And she had other gifts. And she had her apples.

It seemed to the boy that the tree had moved in some hidden way. The shadows under her apple-laden branches seemed just a bit deeper, the apples themselves a little more red and ripe.

“I want to help you, boy,” the tree finally said, her tone warm. “Yet all I have to give are my apples.”

“What good yer stupid apples gonna do me in a footrace?” the boy complained, kicking up dirt around the tree.

“You didn’t let me finish, boy,” the tree continued. “It’s true, all I have are apples. Yet I have in my branches one magic apple, just for you.”

“That so?” the boy muttered, a doubtful look on his tone.

“A most special apple,” said the tree, lowering it down with her branches. “Take one bite, just before the race, and I promise you’ll win. No one will ever forget how fast you ran.”

If there ever was a magic apple, it was this glistening, ripe red fruit the tree proffered within its leafy branches. The boy could smell its juices even from where he stood. As he reached for it, licking his lips, the tree cautioned him. “You must wait to eat it, boy, until just before the race. If you eat it now, the magic will wear off by tomorrow, and you’ll lose.”

“You gonna give me that apple or not?” the boy said.

Gently, the tree released the apple into the boy’s waiting hands. “Remember what I said, boy. Wait until just before the race. Only then will you win.”

The boy stared at the apple hungrily, but put it in his pocket. “I’ll wait,” he said, “but I better win this race, y’old tree. My paw-paw said you helped him, so ya better help me the same way.”

“It was my mama who helped your… paw-paw,” the tree said.

“One tree or ‘nother, who can tell the difference? ‘s long as I get what I want,” the boy said. He began to walk back to out of the holler, down the winding road back to the house made from the tree’s mother.

“Trust me, boy,” the tree said softly, its voice whispering with its swaying branches. “You’ll get what’s coming to you.”


The day of the race was a fine one. The sun shone clear in the faded blue sky, casting a delicious light over the tree’s many leaves. There’d been fine rain the night before, and a delicious, cool wind blew through the holler, carrying scents from all sorts of far-off places.

From her place, the tree could make out the race’s long starting line, out in an open field behind the boy’s school near the edge of the wood. She watched as the children marched out from the school’s open door, all dressed in identical red gym shorts. Waiting for them out in the field were the children’s parents, grandparents, and town officials.

The 400-Yard Dash was a tradition enjoyed by everyone. The parents and grandparents watched, hoping to see their child win. The town officials watched, hoping for votes and good press from the local paper. From far off in the holler, the tree watched, hoping for revenge. She could make out the boy in his gym uniform. Her branches shivered when she noticed his grandfather, her mother’s defiler, yelling loudly for his son’s son in the crowd.

The school’s teacher began to line the children up along the starting line, making sure no one had their feet placed any further forward than they should, and told them to get ready. The tree noticed the boy had no apple in his hand. Had he ignored her prohibition and eaten the apple the night before?

Just then, the boy reached into his shorts pocket, pulled out the apple, and took a huge bite. If the tree had a mouth, she would have smiled.

Just as the boy finished swallowing, the teacher held up a pistol and began his count. Then, with a loud bang, the children were off and running.

The results of this particular 400-Yard Dash would become the talk of the town for many years. Parents chuckled over it with other parents over mint juleps, sweet tea, or applejack. The children who ran passed the story on to their children who passed it on to their children, causing the Dash to graduate from colorful anecdote into local tall tale, and after many years, into the town legend.

The only folks who never spoke of the Dash were the boy’s family. For them, it was “the incident,” their secret shame, never to be mentioned unless one wanted to start a brawl at family reunions.

The race started in the usual fashion, with all the children running hurly-burly towards the finish line at the school gym. A few unlucky kiddos tripped over their feet, a few slowpokes hung back, but the rest of the unruly mob flew forward. Some of the more athletic children began to pull away from the pack, and at first, the boy was stuck in the middle.

All a sudden, the boy’s bottom pinched, as if he’d just received a static shock. His eyes grew wide and his face took on a slightly greenish color. A child running next to him claimed to have heard his stomach groan louder than a tornado.

With a panicked look on his face, the boy began to pick up speed. His legs pumped and his arms flew. In a flash, he was moving away from the pack, passing the quicker children, running faster than any child who’d ever run the dash before.

Just as the boy passed the final child in front of him, there was a noise like a sweaty rocket blast: the loudest fart anyone in town had ever heard. The last child the boy passed swore she’d never forget the awful smell for all her days, claiming it smelled like the worst sour apples ever.

Those watching near the finish line saw telltale brown stains form in the boy’s red shorts as he continued to run, even faster than before, but in an awkward, pinched fashion, as if he was clenching certain muscles.

The boy didn’t stop when he crossed the finish line, ignoring those who were waiting to give him his blue ribbon, but kept sprinting, straight through the school’s open doors into the bathroom just next to the main entrance. From outside, all the astonished onlookers listened as more farts, and even worse noises, blasted forth, interspersed with the boy’s groans.

Several minutes later, the noises ceased. The toilet flushed many times, and the boy quietly shuffled back outside to claim his prize. Everyone couldn’t help but notice he had changed out of his gym shorts and into regular pants. They tried to keep quiet as the boy was declared winner of the Dash, but as he went up to claim the blue ribbon, another thunderous fart escaped his nether region, and, like a dam released, was quickly followed by the roaring laughter of the whole town.

The boy’s grandfather was so furious he nearly had a stroke. The boy himself moved away from the town as soon as he grew old enough.

And the tree? The next day the tree heard folks warn one another not to eat any of her apples, because they affected the gut “sumthin’ fierce.” She watched from her holler in the wood with quiet satisfaction. She didn’t think anyone would be coming around making demands of her again.

Patrick Hurley lives, writes, and edits in Seattle. He’s had fiction published in Galaxy’s Edge, Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores, Flame Tree Publishing’s Murder Mayhem anthology, Hy Bender’s forthcoming anthology Ghosts on Drugs, Abyss & Apex, The Overcast, and The Drabblecast. In 2017, he attended the Taos Toolbox Writer’s Workshop taught by Nancy Kress and Walter Jon Williams. He is a member of SFWA and Codex.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed • "Developing Writer Discipline," By Eric Dontigney 


Start time: 12: 57 PM 10/3/18

Inspiration gets a lot of credit among artistic types. We talk about how much we get done when we’re inspired. Yet, all of my practical experience tells me that inspiration has very little to do with getting words on the page.

Case in point. I was miserably ill most of last week. That was courtesy of a plague-carrier cashier who decided to cough all over me instead of covering her mouth. I spent most of the week huddled in bed or crouching over a toilet. Needless to say, I got no writing done.

In my non-novel and short story writing life, I write blog posts and web articles for money. Yesterday was my first day back at the desk. I was still feeling lousy. I like paying my bills, though, so I worked. Over the course of a 9 hour day, I wrote four 1000-word articles.

Inspiration had nothing to do with it. How can you tell? I wrote about online business managers, the benefits of branding, tips for landing a dream job, and fixing your credit score. These are not topics that whip most writers into a frenzy of excitement. Inspiration didn’t get those 4000 words written. Discipline got it done.

Now, you might be thinking something like, “But writing fiction is different!”

It’s really not. We only think it is because writing fiction is an “imaginative exercise.” Trust me, writing about fixing your credit score is also an imaginative exercise. I had to imagine ways to talk about the topic in a new way. I had to dream up analogies. I had to keep it interesting. Sound anything like writing fiction?

Granted, 4000 words in a day is a lot for many writers, even professional novelists. I’m aware of that and I’m not advocating that you should aim for that. I write those kinds of articles professionally. When I’m writing fiction, I generally aim for 1000-2000 words a day. I’m also aware that 1000-2000 words a day might sound like a huge feat to many novelists. It’s perfectly achievable. I promise you.

Developing writer discipline breaks down into two main areas. Breaking down illusions and creating proper conditions. Let’s start with the first one.

Here are some common illusions to which novelists of all stripes cling:
  • The possibility of the perfect first draft
  • The necessity of inspiration
  • The idea that writing is or should be painful
  • That writing fast means writing badly

None of the illusions hold water. There is absolutely never a perfect first draft. No matter how sharp your writing, you will need to edit. Inspiration is nothing more than a nice bonus. You can write without it. I did it yesterday.

The whole idea that artists should be tortured souls who can only produce art if it comes at some horrendous spiritual cost is absurd. If I could take that notion out back and put a bullet in its head, I would do it gladly and pay for the privilege. Good writing is hard work, but there’s no requirement that it be painful. Moreover, there’s little evidence that making the process a soul-searing exercise actually makes for better writing. It’s just a myth.

The idea that fast writing is bad writing has a tiny kernel of truth buried at its heart. In high school, fast writing generally is bad writing because it’s a product of sloppy thinking. Now think about the skills you employ at your current or former jobs. You worked slower when you first started out. As you achieve mastery, you get faster.

If you’ve been writing for 10, 15, or 20 years, you should be faster! Writing fast isn’t a sign that you’re doing it wrong. It’s a sign that you’ve been doing it for a long time.

Now, let’s move on to setting the proper conditions. I don’t buy into this notion that every single little thing must be just so in order to get the creative juices flowing. I’ve written on buses, trains, and airplanes. I’ve written in hotels, at other people’s kitchen tables, and sitting in coffee houses. None of those are my preferred settings, but I’ve made them work.

The proper conditions are largely psychological. You must train your brain to associate certain things with writing. Specifically, you must associate things that don’t largely change from setting to setting. For me, sitting down with a keyboard in front of me will usually do it. I’ve trained my brain to tie that condition to productive writing.

Most people need a few more cues. Here are my recommendations. Pick a specific spot in your apartment, house, or yurt where you do writing. (This also works for restaurants, coffee houses, etc., as long as you use the same one consistently.) Get a pair of headphones or earbuds that feel comfortable to you. Pick out some inoffensive, non-distracting, instrumental music. Go to that same spot, listen to the same music, and write. Do it every day or as close as you can manage.

Here is the other thing. You don’t necessarily need to work on your novel or college thesis or whatever project is burning a hole in your psyche. The point is to train your brain to make the association. That means you must put fingers to keyboard (or pen to paper) and get words down. Write complete garbage if you need to, but write.

Make yourself do that for a month. Why a month? That’s the approximate amount of time it takes to create new habits. Once you create the habit and psychological associations, you’ll find that it’s much, much easier to be disciplined and write what you need to write every day.

Stop time: 1:58pm 10/3/18.


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 near Dayton, OH. 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 “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it! 


Monday, October 1, 2018

Status Update 10/1/18

Our 2018 open reading period is now over.  

Stupefying Stories is now closed to unsolicited short story submissions until April 2019. For more information about Stupefying Stories, including new book releases, editorial changes, thought-provoking articles, and of course, great free fiction every Saturday in SHOWCASE, follow this web page (there’s a convenient link in the left column, down the page a bit), follow us on facebook, or better yet, do both.

And now if you’ll excuse me, we’ve got to get back to sending acceptance letters and contracts and finishing up all the books we have in the queue for Fall and Winter release.

Kind regards,
Bruce Bethke
editor, Stupefying Stories | Rampant Loon Press