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. how we settled on the cover...


Mark Keigley said...

Man toc guys and gals... I am so stoked to be in with y'alls in such an incredible lineup! You rock, Bruce and team!

Judith said...

I wish to be associated with the remarks of the last speaker.

~brb said...

Okay, the last author sign-off has come in. This is the confirmed TOC for #22.