Monday, June 29, 2020

On Writing: The Curse of “Write What You Know” • by Bruce Bethke

Aspiring fiction writers and Creative Writing instructors share a lot of really bad advice with each other, but of all these, “Write What You Know” is probably the worst, or at least the most misunderstood. I hold this one piece of advice and everyone who shares it personally responsible for all those whiny novels about angry middle-aged housewives trying to work up the courage to file for divorce, those excruciating short stories about the terrible angst and drama of growing up gay and Jewish in suburban New York, those tedious novels about 20-something-year-olds with newly minted MFAs who are simultaneously working at Starbucks, breaking up with their girlfriends, and struggling to find their existential purpose in the world, and most of all, for all those wretchedly unreadable novels about middle-aged small-college Creative Writing instructors who are going through their midlife crises, estranged from their own children, separated from their wives, crushed by self-doubt because they never really pursued their dream of becoming a novelist, and tormented by their desire to have an affair with that hot and perky 19-year-old in their 10:00 MWF American Lit 201 class.

(Or perhaps even worse: the corresponding attempted novels by hot and perky but marginally literate 19-year-olds who are like totally creeped out by the way that smelly old professor—I mean like, seriously, really old, like, he must be almost 45!—stares at them all the time in their 10:00 MWF American Lit 201 class, but then again they’re just starting to realize that there might be an easier way to get an “A” in the class than by reading that big fat book by that Moby guy.)

C’mon people, this is fiction! “Write What You Know” isn’t a license to give voice to your inner Theodore Dreiser and whine at length about all the tedious and frustrating details of your daily life! It’s a spice you can use to add flavor to what you write! Use it sparingly!

Especially if you’re writing science fiction: write what you don’t know! Write what nobody knows! If you’ve had an interesting and exciting life, write an autobiography! If you’re only twenty years old and all you know is what you’ve read in other people’s books and seen in other people’s movies and TV shows, get out of the dorm! Live a little!

If you’re writing science fiction because you are in fact the latest reincarnation of an alien who was exiled to Earth ten million years ago and you must purge all your negative memories before you can return to your home planet—look, they’ve made great strides in psychiatric medications in recent years. You really should give them another chance.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Opinion: Waiting for Thermidor • by Bruce Bethke

I am a science fiction writer. I get paid to think about the future. I do it a lot, have been doing it for decades, and have given a lot of thought to exactly how I do it.

Consequently, here’s a writing tip for you. If you want to write formulaic, derivative, science fiction-flavored prose product (which I will admit, can be quite lucrative), you should read and watch nothing but other people’s science fiction. Do this for years, without fail, and you will never be at risk of accidentally having an original idea.

Case in point, ten years into the Stupefying Stories saga I remain appalled by the amount of thinly disguised Star Trek fan fic that continues to show up in our slush pile. These stories bother me not because they exist, but because of the utter desolate poverty of authorial imagination they reveal. For pity’s sake, folks, if you want to write an “our navy at war in space” story, at least read the World War II Pacific theater combat history that Gene Roddenberry lived, and based his hopes and visions of the future on.

Do this, and possibly, just maybe, you might come up with an idea for a story that has not already been used and reused until it’s threadbare by every generation of SF writers for the past 75 years.

Which segues into our second writing tip for today. If you do want to think seriously about the future, and increase your odds of having an original idea once in a while and perhaps even of writing a story that might be of some consequence someday, read history. Knowing humanity’s past is not a perfect guide to imagining humanity’s future, but it’s a good place to start.

Personally, I read a lot of history, and the more I read, the more I realize the truth of one of my favorite quotations:

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

—Karl Marx

The trick when you see an historical pattern repeating itself is to figure out which it is this time: tragedy or farce?

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

From the archives...

Found while continuing the archaeological dig in my office, looking for something else: the complete manuscript for Will Write For Food: Twenty Years of Short Stories by Bruce Bethke. The book was to be a (nearly) complete collection of the short stories I saw published in various magazines between 1980 and 2000, but then the publisher sobered up and canceled the project.

Twelve-plus years later I have somewhere between little and no interest in resurrecting this project and releasing it through Rampant Loon Press, but do think the introduction I wrote for that book remains relevant today. Ergo, here it is. 
Short-story writers commonly make two very serious mistakes. The first happens after they’ve just finished writing a story and are preparing to submit it for publication, when they suddenly feel the need to write a “cover letter.” This cover letter typically details all the interesting background information the writer feels the reader needs to know in order to fully appreciate the story, but in fact serves only to provide prospective editors with an excuse to reject the story without actually reading it.
No editor has ever bought a lousy story because it was preceded by a brilliant cover letter. Untold thousands of great stories will languish forever unpublished, though, because they habitually arrive on editors’ desks wearing really ugly cover letters.
The second serious mistake typically happens years later, when the writer, having enjoyed some measure of critical and commercial success, is invited by a publisher to prepare and submit a “Complete” or “Best of” short story collection. At this point few writers can resist the temptation to write an “Introduction,” which essentially amounts to being an even bigger, fatter, and more long-winded cover letter recapitulating the writer’s entire career.
For your reference, after many years of writing and selling short stories, here in its entirety is what I have found to be the most effective cover letter:
Dear [editor_name],
Here is my latest story. I hope you enjoy it.
Kindest regards,
Bruce Bethke
And with that said:
Dear Readers,

Here is my short story collection. I hope you enjoy it.
Kindest regards,
Bruce Bethke

Monday, June 22, 2020

Opinion: The Author Is Not The Work • by Eric Dontigney

So, for anyone who has been disconnected from all news and social media for the last week or two, the once-beloved J.K. Rowling has come under intense fire for anti-trans statements. Since a cis-gendered white guy is not the best person to discuss the nuances of that firestorm, I’ll leave the analysis to the better equipped. The other thing Rowling’s comments have triggered is a more disorganized collection of arguments that Rowling’s position on trans gender identity somehow ruins Harry Potter. This second reaction is troubling because it shows a fundamental failure to distinguish the author from the work.

Unlike actors who often get inextricably tied to roles, authors generally enjoy a life separated from the life of their work. This is a good thing because many, many cherished and revered books were written by truly awful human beings. Norman Mailer, famous for the Pulitzer prize-winning book The Executioner’s Song, stabbed his second wife in a drunken rage. Good old Jack London of The Call of the Wild fame was a towering racist who thought forced sterilization of criminals was a keen idea. Dostoevsky was a degenerate gambler and chronically cheated on his wife, Anna. Charles Dickens left his wife to take up with an actress 27 years his junior. Stories of Hunter S. Thompson’s often seemingly insane actions are too numerous to recount.

The big takeaway here is that all of these famous authors did things or espoused things that we would find unsavory at best and unforgivable at worst. Yet, as a rule, we take their works as having a life of their own beyond the failings of their authors. I don’t think many people would argue that A Christmas Carol is diminished by Dickens’ wandering eye or that Crime and Punishment is less of a masterpiece because of Dostoevsky’s gambling. It’s generally accepted that authors are not the final arbiters of meaning when it comes to their books. Reading is about the relationship between the reader and the text. Readers superimpose their personal lens onto the text, the story, and the symbols. They draw meanings and conclusions based on their own preoccupations.

For example, let’s say you ask a 20-something man and 40-something woman to read The Iliad. Ask them what the story was about after the fact and you’ll probably get a superficially similar answer. It was about the Greeks attacking the city of Troy. Probe a little deeper, though, and you’ll likely get vastly different answers. The young man might focus on the glory or adventure of it all. The more experienced woman might think of it in terms of the futility of war or the needless waste of life. Good luck disproving either perception. All of this, I might add, comes independent of any considerations of what kind of person Homer (who likely never existed anyway) was in life.

The idea that J.K. Rowling’s intolerances detract from the Harry Potter novels is absurd. It assumes that her preoccupations somehow supersede that personal relationship readers have with a text. It also wrongly assumes that no writer can create characters or stories that transcend the writer’s limitations. Writers can and do write characters who are nobler, humbler, more faithful, more tolerant, more giving, more understanding, simply better than themselves all the time. Just as they write characters who are more psychotic, more sociopathic, pettier, and more intolerant than themselves. The only thing that Rowling’s intolerance should change is the opinions people hold about her.

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

Saturday, June 20, 2020

From the archives...

Found while doing an archaeological dig through the mess in my office, looking for a particular something I wanted to use in a chapbook project. I’d completely forgotten the conversation I had with Patrick Lucien Price that led to his writing this intro for my story, but it seems fairly trenchant today.

This story was written in September of 1986, sold to Amazing in December of 1986, and published in the May 1988 issue. Sigh. It’s my usual problem. Right idea, just thirty some years too early.

Book Review: The Fugitive Heir

When you’re an author, nothing cheers you up like reading a glowing review of a book you wrote. When you’re a publisher, the pleasure of seeing a positive review of a book you published is almost as good, as it means someone out there has validated your opinion of the author and the work.

After all, I wouldn’t publish novels and stories if I didn’t like reading them, would I?

Therefore I am delighted to report this morning that Berthold Gambrel of A Ruined Chapel by Moonlight (it’s a Gilbert and Sullivan reference) has just published a very positive review of Henry Vogel’s novel, The Fugitive Heir. You can read the review in full here:

I particularly liked this bit:

“The middle section of the book is almost a rom-com in space. I typically don’t read romance, unless it’s blended with some other genre, and that’s exactly what Vogel does here: a romantic road comedy, but in space!”

As is our practice, The Fugitive Heir is currently available both on Kindle and in print, and is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers. Somewhat unusually for us, this one is also available as an audio book.

» Buy or browse the Kindle edition
» Buy the trade paperback
» Get the audio book

I don’t say “Buy the audio book” because Audible always has some kind of promotion going, and you may very well be able to get the audio book free. It’s a great book to stream while you’re in the car, heading off somewhere for vacation!

In fact, if you’re looking for something to read or listen to while at the beach, at the cabin, or practicing social distancing, why not get the entire series?

» Book 2: The Fugitive Pair - Kindle edition
» Book 2: The Fugitive Pair - trade paperback
» Book 2: The Fugitive Pair - audio book

Where things get sticky is with the concluding book in the series: The Fugitive Snare. To talk business for just a moment, our foray into doing audio books taught us that doing audio books—or at least, doing them right—is way more expensive than producing print or Kindle ebooks, in return for a much lower margin. Ergo, we decided to hold off on doing any more audio books until the dynamics of the market changed.

We think that this change has now happened, and that it might be possible now to do The Fugitive Snare as an audio book without blowing the budget.

Therefore, this is the part where you can help. If you enjoy audio books—if you’d like to see us do more audio books—do one simple thing: Help us fund it! Buy some of the audio books we already have out there!

In the meantime, you’ll just have to finish reading the series with your eyes.

» Book 3: The Fugitive Snare - Kindle edition
» Book 3: The Fugitive Snare - trade paperback

Friday, June 19, 2020

Status Update: 19 June 2020

Obviously. things here at Rampant Loon Press are not going quite as planned. Ironic to note that I wrote such an optimistic post about our June book release schedule on May 23rd, just two days before...

The world has changed. Were he alive now, Heinlein might have declared this to be the beginning of the Crazy Years. As I watched the real-time live coverage on local TV of the looting and burning of places I knew very well from my younger years, I kept thinking of kristallnacht. For a few days and nights the trouble came uncomfortably close to where we live now—

Then the storm blew over, sweeping off to other cities, and things here returned to some semblance of normal. We came through unscathed. Other people I know were not so lucky. If you know me personally and want to talk about it you can email or IM me, but I have nothing further to say about it in any public forum.

This to me is the single most disturbing consequence of these events. In the past not-quite-four weeks the culture has undergone a shift that measured on the Richter scale. People now are afraid to talk. Writers are afraid to write. Self-censorship is everywhere and constant. Questions are not being asked and ideas not being put forth, for fear of inadvertently revealing that one has committed some heinous and unforgivable thoughtcrime.

Even here in our own little domain of science fiction and fantasy, the realm of escapist entertainment, the self-proclaimed “literature of ideas,” where supposedly no vision is too dangerous to be written down and shared with others—the genre that gave the world 1984 and the very idea of ‘thoughtcrime’ in the first place, for God’s sake!—I know of writers who have suddenly become afraid to express themselves, for fear of attracting the attention of those who seem to think they’ve been given a mandate to attack the Four Olds.

I will be blunt. For a few days there we did consider the possibility that the world had become too crazy, and that there was no longer any point in publishing science fiction in a culture that seemed to be hell-bent on rushing headlong to combine the worst features of 1984, Mad Max, and RoboCop, topped off with a large helping of Judge Dredd. Fortunately the temptation passed, and we’re now back to going ahead with our production plans, albeit yet another month later, dammit.

Eric tells me what I really need to focus on now is on sharply defining the Stupefying Stories brand, making it clear what we hope to deliver to readers and what exactly our vision of science fiction is. I’ve always been too much of a literary omnivore to do that, but it’s finally time I did. In the days and weeks ahead I will be writing and posting a lot more about what SF/F means to me and where I think it fits into our contemporary popular culture, as well as inviting in more guest commentators. It’s entirely possible that in so doing, we may publish some ideas that might begin to whisper at the possibility of being thoughtcrime.

If you’re the sort who is easily triggered: you have been warned.

—Bruce Bethke, Stupefying Stories

P.S. I replaced the first photo in this post, of the devastated burned-out landscape that is now Lake Street in Minneapolis, with a stock photo from a 2007 riot in Paris, as Minnesota Public Radio has blocked our cross-linking to their article, “Unbelievable Devastation: 1 Dead as Floyd protests boil over again.” Guess I shouldn’t have skipped Pledge Week. If you want to see the photo I originally wanted to use, click the link to the MPR site.