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Thursday, May 6, 2021

A Twelve-Step Program for Writers • Part 6


 

 

In 1997, in a few minutes of whimsy, I knocked off twelve lines of highly concentrated and somewhat snarky advice for writers seeking to develop or repair their writing careers. To my surprise these words of wisdom remain available on the SFWA web site. To my even greater surprise Guy Stewart has taken the time and trouble to explicate them in depth. Herewith, Guy’s Commentaries.

—Bruce Bethke

The sixth step:

We are entirely ready to let someone else take the blame for the way our last book tanked.

As I only HAVE one book, I can’t exactly address this. My ONLY book is still being sold even though (as I talked about earlier), the contract I signed was essentially a work-for-hire and they continue to print copies (it’s ranked #1,775,076 today!) and sell it. So I can’t actually say it tanked…it’s just that I signed a stupid deal and have absolutely no one to blame but myself. I stopped promoting the book ages ago because I have little desire to lend my name to a poor deal I made when I was young.

So then, I’ll move on to the present. I have a science fiction manuscript that made it out of the slush pile at BAEN BOOKS. My agent is confident that VICTORY OF FISTS will sell somewhere. (It never did…) I had a short, kids’ science fiction story in the January issue of CRICKET MAGAZINE, and have had several more as well as appearing a half-dozen times in ANALOG Science Fiction & Fact. So what’s up now?

I’m looking at my platform whilst reading the book CREATING YOUR WRITER’S PLATFORM (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/create-your-writer-platform-chuck-sambuchino/1111306282?ean=9781599635750) in which Chuck Sambuchino forces me to ask the question: “What is my visibility as an author?”

That’s what a platform is.

It’s relation to the sixth step of the Twelve Step Program should be obvious, but if it’s not, it goes something like this: If you’re invisible as an author, then your book will tank.

Apparently, the halcyon days of book promotion tours on the publisher’s penny are gone forever. In fact, as far as doing tours at all, there are fewer and fewer places that a flesh and blood writer can go to. If there’s nowhere for a writer to go, then how do we let people know that we’ve written a book?

One way, I suppose would be to talk to all the people you see, but as a writer sees few people in a day, that’s sort of a moot point. How about the people you email, text, FB or otherwise interact with in cyberspace? How many of you have been to a webinar? (Scary fact: the dictionary program of Word RECOGNIZES THE WORD WEBINAR AS A REAL WORD AND IT IS ALREADY A PART OF THE STANDARD DICTIONARY!) How many of you even knew what a webinar was in 1990? (According to the online dictionary, the word is a portmanteau of “webcast seminar” and was coined in the early 90s.)) How many of you have led a webinar? (I can now say that I have – several times.)

With the birth of the cyber platform comes the necessity of having some sort of online presence. That of course, has created an industry dedicated to creating a class of cyber etiquette for authors. How many times can I mention my writing before my friends and online contact begin to block me—or worse yet, start to mark my FaceBook posts and emails as SPAM or junk?

So, in this cyber world, is Bruce’s Sixth Step even a valid statement anymore, because the only answer possible is that I AM THE ONLY ONE WHO CAN PROMOTE ME!



 

Guy Stewart is a husband supporting his wife who is a multi-year breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, and recently retired teacher and school counselor who maintains a writing blog by the name of POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS (https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/) where he showcases his opinion and offers his writing up for comment. He has 72 stories, articles, reviews, and one musical script to his credit, and the list still includes one book! He also maintains GUY'S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER & ALZHEIMER'S, where he shares his thoughts and translates research papers into everyday language. In his spare time, he herds cats and a rescued dog, helps keep a house, and loves to bike, walk, and camp.

 

NEXT TUESDAY: Step 7, We humbly hope our new publisher will not find out what we said about our last publisher. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

A Twelve-Step Program for Writers • Part 5


 

 

In 1997, in a few minutes of whimsy, I knocked off twelve lines of highly concentrated and somewhat snarky advice for writers seeking to develop or repair their writing careers. To my surprise these words of wisdom remain available on the SFWA web site. To my even greater surprise Guy Stewart has taken the time and trouble to explicate them in depth. Herewith, Guy’s Commentaries.

—Bruce Bethke

The fifth step:

We have proclaimed to God, to ourselves, and to anyone else who would listen the exact nature of the many failings of our former editors and publishers.

Before I go on here, I should say that I have a deep and abiding respect for Bruce as a writer, an editor, a teacher, and especially as a friend.

I hesitate to presume anything so rash as that I “know him”. Our lives have intersected a number of times, in several ways, and at more than a few venues. We’ve lunched together, worked together, and argued. But I cannot presume to know him because much of our relationship is mostly through the Internet these days.

On the other hand, I do know that he has a razor sharp sense of humor, a critical and perceptive eye, and I take anything he says seriously.

However, I do NOT take everything he says at face value!

When WORKING together, I interpret his comments to mean exactly what he says. In personal commentary, I ALWAYS take his comments to be carefully and clearly expressed. When we discuss the state of the world however, I take what he says as I would take a grain of sand (some would say “salt”, but I’ve learned his crystals aren’t that small, so I’ll say sand here and imply that it is a granite crystal): a possible irritant designed to elicit honest discussion or to simply make me think.

A bit of background before I go on: I am the oldest child in my family, first born male child and a son of privilege. I married into a family in which I was the last adult before the children were counted and figured sometimes I BELONGED at the children’s table at Thanksgiving.

As the usual oldest, I was always cast as the part of a parent, or the shoemaker or the princess’s father in high school. I had one friend who was older than me and mobs of friends who were younger. I was consistently cast in the role of “mentor” and have been my entire life. I had no older brother; I had no one to kick my metaphorical ass when I made stupid choices or decisions.

From the beginning, Bruce became my mentor. He’s not a lot older than me (I got to be a grandfather first!); but as far as writing and life experience, he is indeed my mentor. His wife was diagnosed with breast cancer before mine was and as a result, he was able to pull me up beside him and be a shoulder on which I could lean. He was an “award-winning author” first; published first; created a genre-defining word first; and was an editor first.

All of this I say to point out that I don’t take EVERYTHING he says as serious and sometimes have to search a bit to find the meaning.

The meaning here, if I may be so bold as to speak it, is that we should refuse to burn our bridges no matter how awful our experience. By this I do NOT mean that we be doormats to whims of agents and editors, I mean that gossip, slander (even if it’s true), and bad-mouthing someone is NEVER appropriate; not because “today’s junior prick is tomorrow’s senior partner” (in case you were wondering, it’s a line from WORKING GIRL) but because nothing ever happens in a vacuum and everything is fodder for character building.

Bruce is a smart man; he has learned from experience. He takes what he has learned and passes it on. Sometimes he passes it on without embellishment and sometimes he makes me dig for meaning. This is a “dig for meaning” kind of wisdom.

And if it wasn’t meant that way? Meh. That’s how I’m going to take it!

 


 

Guy Stewart is a husband supporting his wife who is a multi-year breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, and recently retired teacher and school counselor who maintains a writing blog by the name of POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS (https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/) where he showcases his opinion and offers his writing up for comment. He has 72 stories, articles, reviews, and one musical script to his credit, and the list still includes one book! He also maintains GUY'S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER & ALZHEIMER'S, where he shares his thoughts and translates research papers into everyday language. In his spare time, he herds cats and a rescued dog, helps keep a house, and loves to bike, walk, and camp.

 

NEXT THURSDAY: Step 6, We are entirely ready to let someone else take the blame for the way our last book tanked. 

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Clash of the Schlockmeisters 3: Revenge of the Stiffs!

Once upon a time there was an absolutely brilliant science fiction and horror writer named Richard Matheson. You know his work, even if you don’t immediately recognize his name: a quick glance at his list of film credits on IMDB should elicit at least a few gasps of surprise, as a tremendous number of his novels and short stories were adapted for movies or television scripts and he did a lot of work adapting other writers’ stories to screenplays as well. 

When looking at his bio on IMDB, bear in mind also that this is just a list of his work in visual media. In the 1950s he was a regular contributor to Galaxy, F&SF, and the rest of the pulp magazines, producing quite a few stories that continue to show up in “Hall of Fame”-type short story anthologies, and he wrote a bunch of novels that continue to live on in screenplay adaptations. Rather than recapitulate his entire career here, though, I’ll just point you to his Wikipedia page if you want to learn more, and finish with my assertion that if you’re an aspiring science fiction or horror writer and you don’t know Richard Matheson’s work, you should, if only to keep yourself from trying to rewrite stories he was writing and selling to magazines and as TV series scripts 60 to 70 years ago.

Which brings us to today’s topic. In 1954 Matheson wrote a clever little vampire/zombie horror novel entitled I Am Legend. This novel has been adapted to film three times: first as the 1964 Vincent Price film, The Last Man on Earth, again in 1971 as the Charlton Heston film, The Omega Man, and at last under its original title as the 2007 Will Smith film, I Am Legend.


The Vincent Price version is both the most faithful to the original novel and surprisingly good, for being a Vincent Price film. Apparently Matheson liked working with Vincent Price, as he wrote the screenplays for Roger Corman’s 1960s series of Edgar Allan Poe movies, all of which starred Price.

After The Last Man on Earth, though, true to Hollywood, the subsequent remakes continued to drift further and further from the original source material, until the use of the original title for the 2007 Will Smith version begins to seem like an ironic joke. So to kick off today’s discussion:

1. Which of these three films is the version most worth watching now? 

2. Which is the version best avoided? 

3. Did you know that The Last Man on Earth is in the public domain now, and that you can download or stream a fully legit copy from The Internet Archive?

4. For that matter, did you know that The Internet Archive exists, and that you can find an amazing amount of public domain material there? If not, why not?

5. Finally, given that Will Smith’s character didn’t just die but blew himself to little bits at the end of I Am Legend, what is your reaction to the news (I am not making this up) that Will Smith has signed on to star in the “Untitled I Am Legend Reboot,” which is currently in development?

The challenge has been presented. Have at them, hammer and tongs. And always remember:

Have fun!

See you tomorrow,
~brb

Thursday, April 29, 2021

A Twelve-Step Program for Writers • Part 4

 

 

In 1997, in a few minutes of whimsy, I knocked off twelve lines of highly concentrated and somewhat snarky advice for writers seeking to develop or repair their writing careers. To my surprise these words of wisdom remain available on the SFWA web site. To my even greater surprise Guy Stewart has taken the time and trouble to explicate them in depth. Herewith, Guy’s Commentaries.

—Bruce Bethke

The fourth step:

We have made a searching and fearless inventory of every old unsold scrap and fragment of manuscript in the bottoms of our filing cabinets, in hopes of finding something we can sell to somebody, somewhere.

Oooo…

Sitting beside me is a MS I will read then send to my agent—even after she told me she’d be happy to handle my NON-science fiction stuff, but just didn’t know what to do with my science fiction.

A bit of history, though. The reason it was never submitted...well, it WAS submitted. I worked with the editor of CRICKET BOOKS on it for nearly a year. She would send pages of suggestions, I’d rewrite and send the changes back. She’d make fewer changes, etc. All very cool and above-board.

Then something happened that I have never understood. I’ve pondered it for 11 years and I still don’t understand what happened.

Someone else published my book.

It’s true. Once day I was writing, happy as a clam, with a very possible publication contract approaching. A week later, the editor said I’d done good work, but we were done.

My book was an historical/fictionalized recounting of the Great Hinckley Fire of 1895. The event was not only full of excitement, but terrifyingly horrible. The same editor I was working with purchased and published a shortened version of the story in CRICKET MAGAZINE (where not only was it the lead story of the July 2001 issue, she also bought a “fact” sidebar! In my mind, I was practically THERE!)

Then the “other” book came out and not only did it recount the adventures of Maggie—but my character was named MEG…

That was eleven years ago. The “other” book is out of print, the author hasn’t written anything new in years and my novel, while similar, just needs a bit of brushing and polishing...as a time travel novel for YA.

I also sent off a short story that might or might not be dead. See, I “trunk” stories all the time. Most of the time it’s because they’re hideously bad. But sometimes I “trunk” them (I should probably change that. “Trunk” is an antiquated reference to taking a paper manuscript, tying it with twine and tossing it in an old-fashioned, round-topped sort of giant suitcase sort of like a pirate’s treasure chest)…sometimes I archive them because even though I LIKE them a lot, no one else seems to.

As has been my experience in the past, I just have to find the right someone. For example, “Mystery on Space Station Courage” was written specifically for HIGHLIGHTS FOR CHILDREN. They weren’t interested. When I sighed and sent it to the second market, CRICKET bought it and the relationship there was a long-standing one and the editor has moved on.

I had written “Peanut Butter and Jellyfish” specifically for ANALOG and while the editor thought it was nice, he didn’t buy it. I sent it around, then archived it. When I stumbled across a newer market whose audience was exactly the one I was aiming at, I sold it for a little bit of cash to CAST OF WONDERS in England. They made a podcast out of it that was fantastic!

While Bruce meant #4 tongue in cheek, I think I know him well enough to see that there’s a grain of real advice in there that has gotten me sales in the past—and just might get me sales in the future, as long as I stir in a modicum of honesty when evaluating those old stories…

 


 

Guy Stewart is a husband supporting his wife who is a multi-year breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, and recently retired teacher and school counselor who maintains a writing blog by the name of POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS (https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/) where he showcases his opinion and offers his writing up for comment. He has 72 stories, articles, reviews, and one musical script to his credit, and the list still includes one book! He also maintains GUY'S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER & ALZHEIMER'S, where he shares his thoughts and translates research papers into everyday language. In his spare time, he herds cats and a rescued dog, helps keep a house, and loves to bike, walk, and camp.

 

NEXT TUESDAY: Step 5, We have proclaimed to God, to ourselves, and to anyone else who would listen the exact nature of the many failings of our former editors and publishers. 

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

A Twelve-Step Program for Writers • Part 3

 

 

In 1997, in a few minutes of whimsy, I knocked off twelve lines of highly concentrated and somewhat snarky advice for writers seeking to develop or repair their writing careers. To my surprise these words of wisdom remain available on the SFWA web site. To my even greater surprise Guy Stewart has taken the time and trouble to explicate them in depth. Herewith, Guy’s Commentaries.

—Bruce Bethke

The third step:

We have made a decision to turn our lives and our professional careers over completely to our New Agent. God help us.

As I’ve only had a FIRST agent, this is a tough one to comment on, so I’ll have to rely on the blogosphere:

“I gratefully signed with an agency, and we sold my first and second novels…in a two-book deal. But within twelve months, the blush of first love rubbed off the bloom, and I discovered that my first agent was not my match.” (http://www.themillions.com/2012/11/finding-true-love-finding-a-literary-agent.html)

“I was about to give up hope and on the verge of falling into a deep depression, when a big fat letter showed up from…a Literary Agency… “Dear Sir, I have read your most extraordinary book and would love to represent you”…someone thought my novel was ‘Extraordinary,’ so I read [in] the contract proposal…that he wanted $1800 to do some polishing of the novel…” (http://williammanchee.net/myfirstliteraryagent.html)

“…the first agent who took me on was a paragon of imperfection…we communicated only by phone, fax, or letter…She said my first novel was brilliant…I trusted her…she or her assistant rarely returned a call or replied to a fax…I never received a single copy of a rejection letter...The relationship was a black hole…I sent her a registered letter ending the relationship.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lev-raphael/first-kill-all-the-litera_b_1935093.html)

From what I can tell so far, God IS the only one who can help here…I don’t mean that in a bad way, but as a Christian, I have a decent idea about what I can control and what I have to leave in His hands. I can’t control anyone but myself (and if you put me in a room with a fresh Boston Cream Pie, I cannot even guarantee that…)

So according to Bruce Bethke, that is exactly what I’m going to be doing!

 


 

Guy Stewart is a husband supporting his wife who is a multi-year breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, and recently retired teacher and school counselor who maintains a writing blog by the name of POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS (https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/) where he showcases his opinion and offers his writing up for comment. He has 72 stories, articles, reviews, and one musical script to his credit, and the list still includes one book! He also maintains GUY'S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER & ALZHEIMER'S, where he shares his thoughts and translates research papers into everyday language. In his spare time, he herds cats and a rescued dog, helps keep a house, and loves to bike, walk, and camp.

 

NEXT THURSDAY: Step 4, We have made a searching and fearless inventory of every old unsold scrap and fragment of manuscript in the bottoms of our filing cabinets, in hopes of finding something we can sell to somebody, somewhere. 

Monday, April 26, 2021

The State of the Loon • 26 April 2021

 

What began as a challenging week evolved into a challenging month. The Mrs. is back in daily radiation treatments and we expect to be getting the results of all of last week’s new diagnostic work later this week. You’ll know something when we know something.

The Stupefying Stories 24 release date has been pushed back to at least May 15th, as I try to figure out what’s gone wrong with our marketing. Book sales—not just of Stupefying Stories but of all our titles—fell off a cliff about a week ago. Books that were selling suddenly stopped selling. KENP numbers dropped to next to nothing. It was already clear that our social media-based marketing strategy wasn’t working, but this is … something else, and we need to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it before we release more books. After all, there’s not much point in publishing a book if no one knows it exists.

Expect to see more inline banner ads on the Stupefying Stories web site. Like this. Click it. Please.

 

Rest assured that we’ll only be huckstering Rampant Loon Press titles here, unless, of course, someone wants to pay us to run their book ad on our site, or to do some sort of ad exchange or quid pro quo. We haven’t figured out any of the details yet, but if you’re interested in this or have any brilliant ideas you’d like to suggest, contact me.

Finally, coming Saturday, May 1st, something very new: The Peter Wood Flash Fiction Challenge. Watch for it!

—Bruce Bethke


Thursday, April 22, 2021

A Twelve-Step Program for Writers • Part 2

 

 

In 1997, in a few minutes of whimsy, I knocked off twelve lines of highly concentrated and somewhat snarky advice for writers seeking to develop or repair their writing careers. To my surprise these words of wisdom remain available on the SFWA web site. To my even greater surprise Guy Stewart has taken the time and trouble to explicate them in depth. Herewith, Guy’s Commentaries.

—Bruce Bethke

The second step:

We believe that an Agent far greater than Our Last Agent can restore us to publications, sales, and critical acclaim.

While I have seen this happen, I’m not sure that Bruce personally experienced this. For the entire time I’ve known him, he has been represented by Ashley Grayson Agency.

I haven’t had an agent long enough to wonder what “an Agent far greater” would be like. So far working with my agent has been a great experience. She understands me and after a few tries, I began to see what she was trying to tease out of my writing.

Hearsay is a different story altogether and while I’d never name any names, I have heard lots of stories. Also, if you’d like to read about bad agent experiences, you can read about them on plenty of author’s and writer’s group web sites.

What I’ve heard is that the agent doesn’t make or break you. For example, I’ve never had an agent before, yet I have written and gotten work published in some of the best markets: ANALOG, CRICKET, CICADA as well as others (including an article in THE WRITER). All of that without an agent.

What I’ve heard is that you and your agent are a team with different areas of expertise. Your agent may no longer want to be a full-time writer, editor, or publisher but they know the industry well enough and have enough connections within the industry—as well as knowing what editors and  publishing houses want—to have a good idea of where to direct your work.

Agents have also built a level of trust with editors at publishing houses and when they send a piece to an editor, the editor knows that the manuscript has been edited to within an inch of its life! They know that all that needs to happen now is for them to sit down and find out if this piece will fit the company’s goals and programs.

The gist of it is, is that the writer produces the best and most original piece of literature that they can. They tell their story as clearly as possible. They pay attention to all the things first time writers have drilled into their heads (whether by teachers, mentors or by reading about writing: dialogue. pace. plot. characterization. milieu. originality.).

Working together, the writer and agent form a team. For many, it’s a lifetime thing: besides Bruce, writer Anne McCaffery and her agent Virginia Kidd worked together for decades. But like everything else, blaming your non-success on anyone but yourself is an exercise in futility as the only person you can change in this world is yourself. I suppose that would be the best anecdote to go with this second step of Bruce Bethke’s Twelve Step Writer’s Program…

 


 

Guy Stewart is a husband supporting his wife who is a multi-year breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, and recently retired teacher and school counselor who maintains a writing blog by the name of POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS (https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/) where he showcases his opinion and offers his writing up for comment. He has 72 stories, articles, reviews, and one musical script to his credit, and the list still includes one book! He also maintains GUY'S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER & ALZHEIMER'S, where he shares his thoughts and translates research papers into everyday language. In his spare time, he herds cats and a rescued dog, helps keep a house, and loves to bike, walk, and camp.

 

NEXT TUESDAY: Step 3, We have made a decision to turn our lives and our professional careers over completely to our New Agent, God help us. 

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

A Twelve-Step Program for Writers • Part 1

 

In 1997, in a few minutes of whimsy, I knocked off twelve lines of highly concentrated and somewhat snarky advice for writers seeking to develop or repair their writing careers. If you have any familiarity with 12-step programs these lines should seem familiar; to my surprise, these words of wisdom remain available on the SFWA web site. To my even greater surprise Guy Stewart has taken the time and trouble to explicate them in depth, so without much further ado, I will turn this space over to Guy, to present his in-depth commentary. [Nota bene: the dates may seem a little off. I’m not sure exactly when Guy began writing his commentaries.]

—Bruce Bethke

The first step:

We admit that we are powerless over publishers, and that our careers have become completely unmanageable.

This has a peculiar sharpness right now as I have a story that has been received at ANALOG since June. I’m at 129 days since that reception—beyond the number at which they recommend we inquire. I did that several days ago and I haven’t heard since. DUOTROPE gives the range of response times between 5 minutes and 231 days—though the average for a rejection is 23 days and the average for an acceptance is 95 days. (Note: They did not take the story nor has it sold since…)

As I know I am powerless to sway editors, it makes it all the more difficult that former editor Stan Schmidt (who accepted the three stories I’ve had published in ANALOG) retired and managing editor Trevor Qachri ascended to the throne. The question now is: does he like my writing enough to buy my work or not? (Turns out he likes my work just fine!)

I’d submitted HEIRS OF THE SHATTERED SPHERES: EMERALD OF EARTH to Andrew Hartwell, editor at HarperCollins Children’s Book in October of 2011. Not having heard anything by March 27 the following year, I sent a query at which time he said he’d get to it soon. I heard from him on July 20, 2012—four days after my new agent, Karen Grencik (Red Fox Literary) emailed him about it. (The book still hasn’t been published, but I’m hopeful!)

It’s a good thing for me that my writing has not become a career. My career as a teacher with a slight change of venue recently to become a school counselor. (And since writing this, I’ve retired!) But I’d like my career to be as a writer. At least my second career as I contemplate retirement. (As the Enterprise computer said in STAR TREK:Enterprise, “Working…”)

All right, I know now that I am helpless when it comes to editors. So what does the Twelve Step plan say for writers?

The “real” first step of AA reads, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.”

In terms of the Writer’s 12 Steps?

This means that the first step is the biggest step. The intent here is to break through a writer’s denial that editors have anything to do with their writing. It’s a decision to make a change, to see if the compulsion to have a writing career is detrimental. To free us from a desire to please a particular editor. (This is different than writing to editorial specs. They have a magazine to put out. ANALOG isn’t going to publish a straight up sword and sorcery story—there has to be a solid science connection.)

“We admitted” is a declaration, an acceptance of our condition as writers. It’s a realization that we need help, and it implies that we are now pursuing a solution, a life-changing surrender, our biggest admission to the world. And surprisingly enough, this step can keep us in reality all by itself. A writer who fully internalizes the first step is well protected against that consistent belief that they are in control.

This is an argument against a writer’s typical line of insane thinking: that all I have to do is write a really fabulous book and it will get published. Once we do get published despite the odds, our devious minds can be planning a full-scale return to the belief that all we have to do is write. It’s this line of thinking that shows us the unmanageability in our lives: that even if we are clean for a period of time, both our obsessive and our compulsive nature leave us no way to manipulate or wiggle our way out of a relapse.

The first step is our greatest defense against relapse, because it clearly reminds us of what we are inviting back into our lives if we choose to think we are in control again.

While I may be reading way more into Bruce’s humorous piece, there is more than a grain of truth here as I continue to write and continue to send my stuff to editors.

Does any of this resonate with your condition?

 


 

Guy Stewart is a husband supporting his wife who is a multi-year breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, and recently retired teacher and school counselor who maintains a writing blog by the name of POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS (https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/) where he showcases his opinion and offers his writing up for comment. He has 72 stories, articles, reviews, and one musical script to his credit, and the list still includes one book! He also maintains GUY'S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER & ALZHEIMER'S, where he shares his thoughts and translates research papers into everyday language. In his spare time, he herds cats and a rescued dog, helps keep a house, and loves to bike, walk, and camp.

COMING THURSDAY: Step 2: We believe that an Agent far greater than Our Last agent can restore us to publications, sales, and critical acclaim.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Separating the Toxic Creator from Their Work • by Eric Dontigney

The speculative fiction community has had a rough go of it in recent years with so many beloved creators being outed as everything from jerks to outright sexual predators. I’ve steered clear of this topic because I’ve long been a champion of Joss Whedon’s short-lived, much-beloved Firefly (and the film Serenity). I’ve also been somewhat disheartened by the general approach of damning anyone who gets accused of misconduct. When revelations of misconduct first starting happening, the reactions struck me as being very much, “Guilty, no matter what comes next.”

That never sat right with me. It’s not that I doubted that abuses took place. I was pretty confident that most of the allegations held water. My problem was that the whole thing took on the character of a witch hunt. I doubt there has ever been a witch hunt in which perfectly innocent people didn’t get their lives destroyed. If the general assumption is that every accusation is true, a person with an axe to grind can level an accusation and watch a well-meaning mob rip someone apart. Hell, this is why we have due process. 

Of course, there is also this idea in the law called “preponderance of evidence.” It’s a term used in civil trials that correlates with, but isn’t identical to, “beyond a reasonable doubt” in criminal law. My understanding of preponderance of evidence is that it essentially means that one side offers better evidence on which to judge a claim. It’s not necessarily about more evidence but the more meaningful evidence. This brings us back to Whedon.

Like a lot of Whedon fans, I took a dismissive attitude toward some of the early claims. The earliest public crack in the Whedon edifice was probably when his ex-wife Kai Cole wrote an open letter about his infidelities. I won’t lie. I read it as petty character assassination with an intent to publicly damage her ex’s career by exposing private matters. At the time, Whedon still had a lot of feminist cred and the golden glow of having written/directed/produced so many works that meant so much to so many people. I was making a cardinal mistake.

There is this principle in psychology called the Halo Effect. No, sadly, it has nothing to do with Master Chief. The Halo Effect is when someone makes a positive impression on you very early on. Once you form that opinion, it tends to become your default position when evaluating anything related to that person. So, let’s say that the first time you meet someone, they help you in some meaningful way. That makes you think they’re a good person. After that, you’re WAY more likely to ascribe good intentions or look for explanations that minimize bad intent when that person does things that you’d otherwise read as unacceptable behavior.

It’s even worse when that person is someone you don’t know personally. My only interactions with Joss Whedon came through his work, which I and so many others held very dear, and public accounts that tended to treat him as a nerd god and good guy. Of course, I was a hell of lot younger and knew a hell of a lot less about how things like press tours, interviews, and career preservation worked when I was watching/reading those things. I formed my perception of Whedon based on unreliable sources and narrative content that don’t really tell you anything about a person’s character. Once I formed that opinion, though, it stuck.

So, instead of giving Kai Cole’s open letter a fair read, I read it with a jaundiced eye. I just knew Whedon was a good guy. Okay, maybe he had some fidelity problems, but he wasn’t airing his dirty laundry in public. He wasn’t talking about all the bad stuff that his ex-wife surely did over the course of their relationship. Without even realizing it, I was trying to mentally minimize the bad intent of Whedon’s unacceptable behavior. No matter what, I rationalized, these were private failures that had nothing to do with his work. If that open letter had been the last of it, I probably would have cheerfully continued on in my little bubble of denial and never given it another thought. Except, as we all know now, that wasn’t the end of it.

Account after account of Whedon’s crappy on-set behavior have come out over the last couple of years. I might have discounted even these, except there was a sick consistency to the accounts. When you boil them all down, they basically tell the same story. Whedon acts like a capricious, if not malicious, and abusive petty tyrant toward the people who work on his shows and movies with women as frequent targets for his behavior. If the accounts were scattershot, detailing wildly random stories of different kinds of off-putting behavior, you could chalk it up to Whedon having the occasional bad day. It’s the rare person who has never taken out their bad mood on a co-worker or subordinate. They exist, but they’re rare.

When every account reinforces the nature of the behaviors, though, both the volume of evidence and the preponderance of evidence seem to sit with the accusers. So, where does that leave fans of the work that Whedon leaves in his wake? The problem that many fans have is that Joss Whedon does make good and often complex TV shows and films. Buffy really was one of the first shows that did anything meaningful in terms of female empowerment on TV, though I have issues with the exact kind of empowerment offered on the show. Firefly and Serenity played with ideas about family, guilt, and survival that you don’t see that often in science fiction TV. The Avengers was a good, if flawed, film.

For fans of these works, the implicit message from cancel culture is that we must disown all of these shows and films because Whedon is a bad-faith actor. While I don’t have an ethical problem with Whedon suffering career damage or even career implosion at this point, disowning all his prior works seems like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. By boycotting all Whedon’s prior works, we also boycott the work of everyone else who worked on those shows and films. Did some of those people know about the problems and choose to do nothing? Yeah, probably. Are they, then, also morally responsible? Maybe so. Should we also boycott everything they ever worked on? Should I not watch Nathan Fillion’s The Rookie just because he worked with Whedon in the past? Do you see the problem?

Unlike a novel, which generally has one primary author, TV shows and films are inherently collaborative efforts. Someone like Whedon gets the lion’s share of the credit, but his creative output involved hundreds or thousands of people in the final analysis. There were writers, actors, directors, second unit directors, producers, special effects artists, camera-people, makeup artists, key grips, set builders, production assistants, editors, and countless other jobs that I can’t name off the top of my head. I’d be willing to bet that most of those people showed up to work every day with no bad intentions. In fact, most of them probably showed up and worked really hard to do a good job. Why? Because people have bills and mortgages and working in Hollywood is still a job. While all of us have worked with people who are jerks or creepy, most coworkers sit somewhere on the spectrum of basically normal with normal personality flaws. Most people show up for work and do their jobs without going out of their way to be abusive dicks. You don’t fire the entire accounting department because Jessie never learned how to play well with others. You just fire Jessie.

Boycotting Whedon’s entire body of previous work is like firing the entire accounting department. It accomplishes little to nothing useful in the long run. Maybe you deprive him of a couple of bucks if you won’t buy new copies of his old films and shows, but that’s about it. It’s a moral stand with no strength in it. He’s already made most of the money he’ll ever see off of those works. It doesn’t hurt him. It ultimately fails to make a useful separation of the toxic creator from his work. The real problem isn’t Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Angel, or Dollhouse, or Firefly, or Serenity, or The Avengers. Liking those shows and films isn’t the real problem.

Whedon himself is the problem. It’s not your relationship with his past works that’s going to change anything. It’s what you do in relation to his future works that will change things. That's where boycotting can have a real effect. Don’t tune in to his new shows. Don’t buy tickets to his new movies. Raise a stink if some studio hires him or makes him a showrunner. He does damage when he’s given authority over others. Do your best to make giving him power over others unprofitable for studios. If his works stop making money, people will stop hiring him.

Refusing to watch old projects of his because they’ve got his name on them only deprives you of something you love. It also negates all of the hard work of everyone else involved in those projects. So, I say, separate the toxic creator from the work. If you love Firefly, keep loving Firefly. Boycott Whedon’s new works instead. Make it clear to studios that you won’t support someone who behaves so badly on set. Encourage others to do the same. That is the way you can effect real change in the now.

 


 

Eric Dontigney is the author of highly regarded novel, THE MIDNIGHT GROUND, as well as 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 online at ericdontigney.com.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Clash of the Schlockmeisters 2: Electric Boogaloo!

In honor of Earth Day, this week CLASH OF THE SCHLOCKMEISTERS! dips deep into the cinematic cesspool to dredge up these two outstanding examples of the eco-horror genre, which, trust me, really was popular for a while in the 1970s. Both based on successful novels, by John Christopher and Roger Zelazny respectively, these two films are the movies Roland Emmerich must have watched as a child and been left thinking, “I can’t do much worse, but I certainly can do the same damned thing a lot bigger, longer, louder, and more expensively!”

 

Again, in this head-to-head battle of losers, we’re looking for the answers to a few simple questions:

1. Which of these two movies is the more cringe-inducing to watch now? 

2. Do either of these movies have any redeeming values?

3. Would Jan-Michael Vincent have sold the role better if his motorcycle helmet had had devil horns on it?

4. “An Adventure You’ll Never Forget:” is that a promise or a warning? 

The challenge has been presented. The clock is ticking. Have at them, hammer and tongs, and already remember: 

Have fun!

See you tomorrow,
~brb




CLASH OF THE SCHLOCKMEISTERS!
appears each Sunday morning on StupefyingStories.com, until we either run out of films to slag (fat chance) or find a better feature to run in this space (slightly better chance). The rules are simple: the two contestants in this head-to-head “too bad they can’t both lose” battle must be big-budget productions, released by major studios, made by experienced directors and producers, and starring recognizable movie stars. 

Please feel free to suggest future matchups, but remember, no indie, low-budget, semi-pro, student, or badly dubbed foreign films will be considered, nor will we consider anything distributed by The Asylum, as mocking such movies is like beating up a kid in a wheelchair. Be advised also that I do have a soft spot for Roger Corman and consider his book, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, to be excellent reading for anyone who dreams of building a company based on hopes, ideas, chutzpah, and no investor capital, and therefore I feel no need to deprecate his films. 

Golan-Globus, on the other hand…

Finally, be advised that Robo Vampire has earned the permanent title of All-Time Worst Movie Ever Made, eclipsing even the combined stench of the collected works of both Ed Wood and Uwe Boll, so there’s really no need to dig any deeper into the manure pile. What we’re looking for here are movies that the people who made them truly believed were actually pretty good, and therefore deserving of mass-market success.

Which brings us back to Golan-Globus, and The Apple

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Ray Bradbury Week: The Wrap-up • by Bruce Bethke



For a bunch of people who insisted we didn’t have anything new to say about Ray Bradbury, we certainly said a lot. Nine years after his death, and some fifty or sixty years after the peak of his writing career, depending on how you define that peak, Bradbury remains a true giant of the genre.

But of exactly which genre? That’s the question.

This past week has been fun for me, as it gave me the excuse to go into the stacks, to pull out a bunch of books I haven’t looked at in years, and to slip back in time, albeit briefly, to the period in time between the late 1960s and the late 1970s. I am not about to go Brian May on you. My long-abandoned thesis will remain forever unfinished. But after this week of retrospection and introspection it seems clear to me that my core idea of 40-some years ago was essentially correct: that his publisher’s continued assertion that Bradbury was “THE WORLD’S GREATEST LIVING SCIENCE FICTION WRITER” was dead-wrong on at least two counts.

First: Ray Bradbury was not a science fiction writer. In the first draft of this column I included here a bunch of quotes from John Campbell and Isaac Asimov and the like to define “science fiction” and show how Bradbury rarely met the definition. In the second draft, though, all that stuff—especially the quotes from Asimov; good God, that man was a windbag—bored me right out of my mind, so I decided to replace it all with these two lines of dialog, which handily summarize the Campbell/Asimov view. True science fiction is: 

DON: How many science fiction writers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

ROB: As you know, Don, while Thomas Alva Edison patented the first commercially successful incandescent light bulb in 1880, research in incandescence had been ongoing since the 1760s and dozens of researchers in the U.S. and Europe had developed and patented similar devices. Edison’s true genius lay in developing an integrated system, in which the light bulb was but a small part, far less important than the Edison Jumbo generator or the Edison main-and-feeder parallel power distribution scheme...

[Snort. Yawn.] Excuse me, I dozed off for a moment there.

Second: even if he once was, by the late 1970s Ray Bradbury was no longer a living writer of science fiction in any meaningful sense of the term. True, he was still getting the occasional byline in Weird Tales and Omni and the like, but for the most part he had moved up and out of the SF genre ghetto decades before. While he began his career writing for the pulps—Amazing Stories, Astounding, Fantastic, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Galaxy, and the like—by the late 1950s he’d moved up to the big leagues: Mademoiselle, Life, Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, The New Yorker, Women’s Day, and Good Housekeeping. (!!!) He sold a surprising number of stories to romance magazines. He sold an equally surprising number of stories to Playboy and Penthouse. [No faulting him there; for a while Playboy was the market we all wanted to crack, as Alice Turner at Playboy paid as much for a short story as Donald Wollheim paid for an entire original novel for DAW Books.]

People often talk about the sort of misty-eyed sense of nostalgia that Bradbury’s stories evoke, because so much of his fiction seems to be set in a sepia-toned American world that began in the rural Midwest in the 1930s, deep in the heart of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn territory, and came to an end in Southern California in the late 1950s, on the glaring and garish fringes of the Hollywood movie business. Being the sort of person who looks at copyright pages and publication credits, I get a completely different sense of misty-eyed nostalgia, for a time in my childhood when Americans read, and short fiction was considered an important part of our collective intellectual life. Looking at the list of magazines Bradbury wrote for is like reading the names on a memorial to the fallen in some forgotten war. Yes, The New Yorker still exists, although it’s just a thin shadow of its once chubby and successful self, and I suppose Playboy is still around, although I haven’t paid attention to it in decades.

But there was a time when a large portion of the American public read short fiction. Weekly! And talked about the stories they’d read! 

Imagine that…

Ray Bradbury was a good, kind, and thoughtful man, and blessed with a wonderfully long life and career. He escaped from the ghetto of pulp fiction, crossed over into the larger world of mainstream literature, and brought some of his fantastic ideas along with him when he went out for an explore in the big wide world. But whenever people talk about Bradbury—whenever they try to summarize his career, or cite their favorite story, or quantify his influence, or come up with a list of his most important stories—they always come back to the same ten or twelve short stories, and one novel, all of which were written between 1945 and 1955. As for the novel, Fahrenheit 451, I remain convinced that more people talk about it than actually read it, and when they do talk about it, most people are actually talking about Truffaut’s 1966 film in lieu of having finished reading the novel.

If you want to test that proposition: ask people how it ends. If they say it ends with Montag finding his place with the Book People, and the final scene is of the Book People walking through a snowy countryside, reciting the books and poetry they’ve memorized—nope. They haven’t read the book.

As for his short stories, though, it’s remarkable how out of all the enormous quantity of short stories he wrote and saw published, it’s always the same dozen or so from early in his career that people that remember and cite as being their favorites. And—here’s the heresy, and the nub of my thesis—considered objectively, these stories by and large are not science fiction.

They’re horror. Sometimes horror with sci-fi settings, props, and stage dressings, but horror all the same. As Eric Dontigney might have put it, Bradbury’s best-remembered stories excel at “punching readers in the feels.”

With that said though: a decades-long writing career. A dozen or so short stories and one novel that will live as long as people still read English.* If you want to be a writer, Ray Bradbury’s life and works are definitely worth studying. Read and learn.**

—Bruce Bethke

 

P.S. * Truffaut insisted that Bradbury’s dialog sounded much better in French.

P.P.S. ** But for the love of God, don’t imitate!

P.P.P.S. Finally, the lesson here is, I think, that if anyone tells you “That’s not science fiction” or “This is what you need to do to write science fiction,” ignore them. Don’t pigeonhole yourself.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Ask Dr. Cyberpunk • with your host, Bruce Bethke



So how exactly did “Cyberpunk,” the—well, rather cyberpunkish short story—go from being an urban high-tech lowlife tale to being Cyberpunk, the weapons-laden deep words military boarding school novel?

The trouble began in the Spring of 1980, when I sent the first version of the story to George Scithers at Asimov’s. The original-original version of the manuscript, which very few people outside of my 1979~1980 writing group and Scithers’ staff at Asimov’s have ever seen, was considerably shorter. What I was most interested in at the time was the dramatic inter-generational power shift that this new technology was about to make possible, and so the original manuscript ended with these lines: 

I threw some pillows around 'til I didn't feel like breaking anything anymore, then I hauled the Starfire out of the closet. I'd watched over Dad’s shoulders enough to know his account numbers and access codes, so I got on line and got down to business. I was finished in half an hour.

I tied into Dad's terminal. He was using it, like I figured he would be, scanning school records. Fine. He wouldn't find out anything; we'd figured out how to fix school records months ago. I crashed in and gave him a new message on his vid display.

"Dad," it said, "there's going to be some changes around here."

Scithers apparently liked the story, up to that point. He held onto it much longer than usual, and then sent it back (this was in the days of actual paper manuscripts and self-addressed stamped return envelopes) with a fairly detailed letter telling me what was wrong with my story. It’s a pity I lost that rejection letter years ago. Some library or museum would probably love to have it now. 

The gist of it was a mash-up of the classic old John W. Campbell rejection: “You’ve stated a problem. Now solve it!” along with the observation that Asimov’s readers would never go for a story that ended with the punk kid winning. (Asimov’s readers were very different people in those days.) Further, he added that he’d run the story by a Real Computer Banking Expert, who assured him that everything that happened with computer banking had to be backed up with a paper trail, so no matter what mischief Mikey was able to do by hacking into his dad’s bank accounts, it would all be undone automatically within 24 hours.

[“Oh really?” said the Time Traveler From The 21st Century, as he looked up from checking his bank account’s web page to confirm that his payroll direct deposit had gone through, and then checked his mortgage escrow balance and queued up a few credit card payments.]

However (and this is the moment when the trouble began), Scithers added that if I could find a way to rewrite the ending and fix all the problems he’d found in my story, he’d love to see it again.

Hmm. Fix the problems. Fix the problems… Hmm again. Now just exactly what kind of ending would Lt. Col. George Scithers, US Army Reserve (retired), really get off on seeing grafted onto the end of this story? 

Then I bashed out a coda in which Mikey gets his comeuppance and gets packed off to a military boarding school out in the middle of absolutely frickin’ nowhere. The name of the school, the “Von Schlager Military Academy,” came to me in a moment of inspiration. It’s from the German verb schlagen, usually translated as to hit, strike, or beat. Ich schlage, du schlägst, wir schlagen—the imperfect subjunctive form is left as a challenge to your liguistic acuity. 

I resubmitted the revised story to Asimov’s, and this time Scithers held onto it even longer, then sent it back with a rejection letter stating that while he liked the story, he’s run it by a Real Mainframe Computer Expert, who assured him that the whole idea of punk kids running around causing trouble with cheap, powerful, portable personal computers the size of notebooks was just too far-fetched to be credible.

Y’know, old George could have saved us all a lot of time and trouble if he’d just ignored his computer expert and bought the damned story then and there. 

—Bruce Bethke


NEXT WEEK: How “Cyberpunk” evolved into “Elimination Round,” and how I completely missed my big chance to be known as the guy who invented the “battle royale” teens-fighting-other-teens-for-the-entertainment-of-adults cliche! 



Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Essential Bradbury • by Eric Dontigney



So, Bruce suggested that I write a blog post about the must-read Bradbury stories. I liked the idea at first. Any excuse to revisit Bradbury is usually a good one. Then, I did a Google search to see what turns up on all of these kinds of lists. Guess what? Those lists all resemble each other pretty closely. The list usually looks something like this:

1. “The Veldt” [i]

2. “The Small Assassin” [o]

3. “A Sound of Thunder” [g r]

4. “The Fog Horn” [g r]

5. “There Will Come Soft Rains” [m]

6. “Kaleidoscope” [i]

7. “The Long Rain” [i r]

8. “Marionettes, Inc.” [i]

9. “The City” [i]

10. “I Sing the Body Electric” [e]

You can trade out a story here or there. For example, I’m a big fan of “Skeleton” [o] and less a fan of “I Sing the Body Electric.” Still, most of these show up on every list. This tells me that these probably are the best stories by consensus opinion. Or, they’re the ones that get anthologized most often. Either way, if you’re looking for a Bradbury primer, you can start with these. You’ll get the bleary-eyed nostalgia and obsession with the teetering cusp between childhood and adolescence Bradbury is famous for in at least some of them.

That left me at something of a loss. The list has been written. The reasons why people chose those stories aren’t substantially different from any I might use to justify my otherwise arbitrary choices. The reality is that we tend to have a visceral reaction when in the presence of truly great writing. We get chills. We feel our hearts race a little. We know we’re reading something special, something that often transcends the boundaries of genre trappings. Bradbury was a master of short fiction, and it shows. What more can I really add to that? Not much. 

Bruce also mentioned he was thinking of writing something about the prescience of Fahrenheit 451. I can certainly see why he was thinking about writing something about that book. It’s arguably Bradbury’s most famous work. It’s so famous, in fact, that the title has lodged itself into the lexicon as a synonym for censorship. It’s so famous that most people don’t even talk about the writing or the story. They talk about what it means. As I considered all that, I realized that Fahrenheit 451 falls into that rarefied category we usually dub: Important Books.

I have kind of a problem with Important Books. We get so caught up in the importance of the book that we leave off of other questions. Things like, was this a good story

I recently read through Chris Fox’s Void Wraith saga. It was a six-book series. The books are not on the list of Important Books. They don’t touch on deeply important questions of free speech, the negative impact of mass media, or how the march of technology alters society. They did tell a good story, though. I cared what happened to the characters. I wanted to know what happened next. I was interested. 

That made me think back to when I got Fahrenheit 451 as assigned reading back in high school or college, I’m not sure which. I had an unusually good high school English teacher, so it might well have been then. Did Fahrenheit 451 tell a good story? Was it something I would have read to completion if I’d just picked it up on my own?

Thinking back now and skimming through the first few chapters of the book, I’m inclined to think that I’d have abandoned it for something else. I’m not arguing that it doesn’t touch on relevant and ongoing issues in society. I’m as aghast as anyone else at the idea of burning books. I’m even old enough now to mourn a time when mass media hadn’t reduced people’s attention spans to that of the average fruit fly and gutted their critical thinking skills. I can recognize that watching endless hours of streaming television has a numbing effect on people and encourages them to disengage from actual human relationships.

Yet, the story itself isn’t that interesting. We’re supposed to see Guy Montag as the protagonist, but he’s a terrible fit for the role. He’s incredibly passive right up to the moment that circumstance forces a choice between fleeing and dying. So, he flees. It’s not a heroic act. It’s not an act of conscious resistance to the system. It is self-preservation and nothing more.

The people he runs to aren’t all that interesting either. They’re understandably paranoid, but there’s an underlying vibe that Montag might not be all that welcome to stay if he didn’t conveniently have part of The Bible memorized. They aren’t a resistance in any traditional sense. They aren’t taking action to overthrow the system. They’re on the run and plan to stay that way. Nor is it entirely clear how Montag finds them at all. The nuclear strike at the end of the book is something of a deus ex machina. Yeah, it levels the city and makes it feasible for the book rebels to turn back the clock, but almost every important action in the book stems from external forces at work.

The most dynamic characters in the books are Millie Montag and Captain Beatty. The first is a drug-addled, suburban housewife who takes petty vengeance on her husband. The second is a fallen idealist who seemingly commits suicide by fireman. In other words, these are the primary antagonists of the story. The problem is that I simply didn’t care about any of them. I didn’t care what happened to them. I didn’t care what happened next. 

Fahrenheit 451 is an important book because it forces us to examine important issues. I’m just not so sure that it’s actually a good book.



Eric Dontigney is the author of highly regarded novel, THE MIDNIGHT GROUND, as well as 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 online at ericdontigney.com.

 


 

P.S. A few editor’s notes about Eric’s Top Ten list…

[i] denotes found in The Illustrated Man.

[g] denotes found in The Golden Apples of the Sun.

[r] denotes found in R is for Rocket.

[m] denotes found in The Martian Chronicles.

[o] denotes found in The October Country.

[e] denotes found in I Sing the Body Electric.

As you can see, you can find half the stories on the Top Ten list in The Illustrated Man and a good share of the rest in R is for Rocket. Bradbury’s paperback publisher excelled at repackaging and re-repackaging his stories many times over. For example, R is for Rocket and The Golden Apples of the Sun contain many of the same stories, just in different order. As a young reader, spending my own hard-earned cash on sci-fi paperbacks bought by mail-order (“Bookstores? What are these bookstores you speak of? We don’t have any of those in my town.”), I can’t adequately describe how quickly it turned me off to Bradbury to realize that I’d just bought his “new” book, only to find it was full of the same old stories I’d already bought twice before.

Purely from a consumer advisory standpoint, then, if you want to get all the Bradbury you reasonably need, buy The Illustrated Man, R is for Rocket, The Martian Chronicles, and perhaps The October Country, and skip the rest, unless you really want to read I Sing the Body Electric. And if you should happen to come across a copy of The Toynbee Convector somewhere, just put it back on the shelf and pretend you didn’t see it.

—Bruce Bethke

P.P.S. 

And be sure to check out THE MIDNIGHT GROUND. Seriously, it is really good, and I want to encourage Eric and get at least two more books out of him before someone from one of the big publishing houses discovers him and takes him up to the big leagues. 

“The Long Rain” • Review by Peter Wood



There have been very few good visual adaptions of Ray Bradbury’s fiction. Bradbury adapted his own novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes, in 1983; “The Elevator” (1985) in the reboot of the Twilight Zone; several episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Almost all other adaptions are cringe-worthy. Most episodes of The Ray Bradbury Theater are hard to endure, thanks largely to wooden acting and poor production values.

My favorite Ray Bradbury adaption is “The Long Rain” segment of the otherwise forgettable 1969 film, The Illustrated Man. Skip the rest of the movie, as well as the version of “The Long Rain” that ran on The Ray Bradbury Theater and starred Marc Singer.

“The Long Rain,” first published in 1950 and republished in several anthologies including the Illustrated Man, tells the story of four astronauts who have crashed on Venus where it is always raining. They stumble about in the downpour seeking shelter. It’s the rare story that is more about setting than plot.  The astronauts are pretty forgettable and could have been lifted from any of a million cookie-cutter war movies.

That’s fine, because the deluge becomes more or less a character. Just take a look at the first paragraph, where Bradbury describes the rain before introducing any of the characters.

THE rain continued. It was a hard rain, a perpetual rain, a sweating and steaming rain; it was a mizzle, a downpour, a fountain, a whipping at the eyes, an undertow at the ankles; it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains. It came by the pound and the ton, it hacked at the jungle and cut the trees like scissors and shaved the grass and tunneled the soil and molted the bushes. It shrank men’s hands into the hands of wrinkled apes; it rained a solid glassy rain, and it never stopped.

Bradbury highlights how little the humans matter by following this with a half-page of dialogue without tags. Nobody is identified. Make no mistake about it. This story is about the rain.

Don’t believe me? Check out the passage after the dialogue.

The two men sat together in the rain. Behind them sat two other men who were wet and tired and slumped like clay that was melting. The lieutenant looked up. He had a face that once had been brown and now the rain had washed it pale, and the rain had washed the color from his eyes and they were white, as were his teeth, and as was his hair. He was all white. Even his uniform was beginning to turn white, and perhaps a little green with fungus.

Holy crap. The rain is literally destroying the humanity of the four men who still aren’t identified.

This is a rare feat, to make the setting the center of a story. Frank Herbert pulls this off, I think, in Dune where the desert planet, Arrakis is so vividly described that the characters almost become secondary.  The planet in Hyperion by Dan Simmons dwarfs the characters and is never out of mind. The frozen landscape of Jupiter in Desertion by Arthur C. Clarke eclipses the puny humans who dare to colonize the planet.

Lawrence of Arabia comes to mind. David Lean’s masterpiece is as much about the desert as the characters and should be seen on the big screen.

The film of The Illustrated Man misses the mark completely on two of its stories, “The Last Night of the World” and “The Veldt.” Director Jack Smight only succeeds with “The Long Rain.” To be fair, he was a bit out of his league with a theatrical release. Most of his career, Smight only directed television. One of his  best TV credits is the Twilight Zone episode, “The Lonely,” where Jack Warden is imprisoned alone on a desert asteroid. Smight in that episode also emphasizes setting over character at times for good effect. He filmed the episode in Death Valley.

Speaking of The Twilight Zone, the original only adapted one Bradbury story, “ I Sing the Body Electric.” Marc Scott Zicree ponders in The Twilight Zone Companion why Rod  Serling didn’t use more Bradbury. He notes that there were budget constraints for some adaptions.

To be fair to Smight, Bradbury doesn’t translate well to film or television.  If Serling couldn’t pull it off, why should we expect Smight to succeed? Bradbury had much greater success with radio plays where his words have more effect. X Minus One adapted “The Veldt,” “Marionettes, Inc.,” “Mars is Heaven!,”  “There Will Come Soft Rains,” “To the Future,” “Dwellers in Silence,” “And The Moon Be Still as Bright,” and “Zero Hour” for radio in the early 1950s, and there isn’t a dud in the bunch. Those versions rely on Bradbury’s prose and the listener’s imagination, not hokey special effects or scenery chewing.

 

“The Long Rain” stars Oscar-winner Rod Steiger as the leader of the stranded astronauts. Soaked to the skin, he shouts over the rain, as his men slog through the mud. Like the story, the characters are secondary. No backstories. Just men fighting a losing battle against the elements. Why it works so well is that it’s not hard to do some serious world building with minimal sets and special effects. The men are beaten down and frankly don’t have a whole lot to say. The rain is front and center, just like in the short story.

It occurs to me that the other short story adaption that succeeds is also about people losing their humanity to a degree and being overwhelmed by nature. In the second version of the Twilight Zone “The Elevator” runs a little long, but it’s worth checking out for the genuinely shocking ending that comes out of nowhere, yet makes perfect sense after a moment’s reflection.

If you want a Bradbury story on Venus that is character-driven, check out “All Summer in a Day.” The rains on Venus only stop once ever seven years for two hours and young school children anxiously await the sun, which most have never seen. And, if you’ve read Bradbury stories like “The Playground,” you know what he thinks of children.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention what a tour de force the writing is in “The Long Rain.” Bradbury ruminates about rain for over five thousand words without ever getting stale. I have had over sixty short stories published and I can’t imagine writing about rain for a paragraph.

The only work that might surpass “The Long Rain” for ingenuity of prose is The Crystal World by J. G. Ballard. Part of his end-of-the-world trilogy that included the Drowned World and the Burning World, Ballard imagines Armageddon where the world is turning to crystal. Try to write a paragraph about crystal. Ballard wrote a novel and, I swear, he never uses the same description twice.

So, next time the weatherman predicts rain, click on the television and watch the only decent part of The Illustrated Man. Then cozy up with your print copy of “The Long Rain” and imagine what it would be like if you were outside…and if the rain never stopped.

—Peter Wood

 

 


 

Pete Wood is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his kind and very patient wife. His first appearance in our pages was “Mission Accomplished” in the now out-of-print August 2012 issue. After publishing a lot of stories with us he graduated to being a regular contributor to Asimov’s, but he’s still kind enough to send us things we can publish from time to time, and we’re always happy to get them

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

How Ray Bradbury has driven my writing without me even knowing about it • by Guy Stewart



When Bruce emailed me with the announcement that this week was going to be “Ray Bradbury Week,” he asked, “How about a review of Fahrenheit 451, or something about the incredible impact of ‘A Sound of Thunder’?”

To tell you the truth, I couldn’t remember that particular short story, and it’s been like…a zillion years since I read Fahrenheit 451. I asked if could write something about a story that did leave a profound mark on me as a young person: “There Will Come Soft Rains.”

In the post-nuclear-attack 1970s, us littles still had memories of “duck and cover,” the sadly inappropriate policy that, when the nuclear attack sirens sounded and you were at school, you should get under your desk, cover your face, and close your eyes real tight…

When I was thirteen and reading every word of science fiction I could get my hands on in the school library and the public library—and without a single wise mentor or parent to guide me—I eventually ran across “There Will Come Soft Rains,” the second-to-last story in The Martian Chronicles. I read it, and to this day, the end of the story will flash into mind: the images, burned into the paint of the house, from a nuclear flash…as the house burns down and the home computer talks to itself.

Flash-forward to sometime at the end of the second decade of the 21st Century. My father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and being the closest child to where he lived, I was tasked with the job of making sure everything was going OK with him at the care center he lived at, in the Memory Care Unit. I began to wonder if there was a better way of caring for our rapidly fading parents and wrote a story that reflected the ultimate, pathetic (in the original sense) end of Human civilization as my own “world” ended, with Dad’s eventual death due to complications of Alzheimer’s. It was never published, but if you’d like to read it, the link below will lead you to the story on my blog site.

I chronicled my parents’ gradual deterioration (mom’s diagnosis was “age-related dementia”) on a blog you can find if you Google “Guy’s Gotta Talk About…”

In unconscious echo, I had returned to a Bradbury story I had read decades prior; and to this day, his poetic rendering of nuclear destruction is both chilling and oddly calming. Calming in that he puts into words that mimic prose, poetry that reflects deeper feelings of grief at the inevitability of something over which we—I—had no control.

Bradbury’s most famous novel, Fahrenheit 451, was required reading in high school, and I did my duty but haven’t read it since. I have it next to me on my desk, so there’s a good chance I’ll be picking it up soon to read it again.

But what I found startling was that I had written an echo of another piece of Bradbury’s work. “Invoking Fire” opens with a private library in the main character’s home being burned in toto. His Great Uncle is dead and he is charged with bringing a backpack full of books of increasing value to a mysterious library in the Erg of Bilma. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erg_of_Bilma).

So, why does the boy even try to do this? Because when I wrote it, it seemed inevitable that most books would become electronically stored. It seemed inevitable that given the editable nature of Wikipedia, anything online could be altered by anyone with the right skills. Certainly some of the altering was for puerile adolescent amusement. But what if someone altered the copy for political correctness? What if certain things became unacceptable in fiction? (And can anyone find a new or library copy of And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street? I don’t know. I’m just asking for a friend.)

Na’Rodeny’s Great Uncle collects hard copies of books. In this scene of the story, he and his non-girlfriend compare a passage from Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie:

“Read the first paragraph of your online copy of CARRIE,” said Angelique.

“What?” said Na’Rodney.

“Just do it!” she snarled, waving the hardcover book. He looked down at the screen. “Shut your mouth and follow along while I read from the original. ‘When the girls were gone to their Period Two classes and the bell had been silenced (several of them had slipped quietly out the back door before Miss Desjardin could begin to take names), Miss Desjardin employed the standard tactic for hysterics: She slapped Carrie smartly across the face. She hardly would have admitted the pleasure the act gave her, and she certainly would have denied that she regarded Carrie as a fat, whiny bag of lard. A first-year teacher, she still believed that she thought all children were good.’”

“Mine doesn’t say that,” said Na’Rodney softly, looking at his cellphone. “This is what mine says, ‘When the girls were gone to their Period Two classes and the bell had been silenced (several of them had slipped quietly out the back door before Miss Desjardin could begin to take names), Miss Desjardin employed the standard tactic for hysterics: She knelt down and touched Carrie gently on the shoulder. She hardly would have admitted how much this poor girl needed a guiding hand in her life. The daughter of a religion-crazed bigot, her mother regarded Carrie as a fat, whiny bag of lard. A first-year teacher, Miss Desjardin believed that all children were good.’”

Na’Rodney blinked and said, “Again.” He read his passage, eyes on his phone as she read the paper copy out loud. He looked up, “They’re different.”

“That’s what your great uncle and the rest of the Papers are worried about. If someone, somewhere went to the trouble of changing an electronic work of fiction, how many works of nonfiction will be changed?”

You can read the entire story if you follow the link below. But rereading parts of Fahrenheit 451 and my own story, I can see a reflection of Bradbury’s book in my own story. In particular, the theme, which is a fear of the written word and what it can do to us.

“In a 1956 radio interview, Bradbury said that he wrote Fahrenheit 451 because of his concerns at the time (during the McCarthy Era) about the threat of book burning in the United States. In later years, he described the book as a commentary on how mass media reduces interest in reading literature.”

I didn’t realize until I took up the challenge of reviewing something Bradbury, that my own writing has been affected by Ray Bradbury. My writing has been so deeply affected that I didn’t even realize that it had until now. Reflecting just now, I realize that my first Stupefying Stories fiction was written using more of a poetic style than I usually use—again, this was a reflection of Bradbury’s prose, which is written as if it were poetry. It evokes rather than illuminates. Reading a Bradbury novel or story isn’t like reading a Lois McMaster Bujold novel or story—nor should it be! There are times when I just want to read a good story well told.

But Bradbury’s work doesn’t seem to be that kind of story. His work evokes feelings, and while it entertains, it doesn’t feel like its main intent was entertainment. When I was a young teenager, I read The Martian Chronicles as science fiction. Reading it as an adult, it’s very much not just a bunch of science fiction stories…and I won’t say anything more because I haven’t read them for some time, and Bruce is going to be doing or did do a piece about them.

I’m sure everyone has an opinion of Bradbury’s work, but my discovery that I have unconsciously picked up his themes and style was genuine surprise.

—Guy Stewart

 


 

Guy Stewart is a husband supporting his wife who is a multi-year breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, and recently retired teacher and school counselor who maintains a writing blog by the name of POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS (https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/) where he showcases his opinion and offers his writing up for comment. He has 72 stories, articles, reviews, and one musical script to his credit, and the list still includes one book! He also maintains GUY'S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER & ALZHEIMER'S, where he shares his thoughts and translates research papers into everyday language. In his spare time, he herds cats and a rescued dog, helps keep a house, and loves to bike, walk, and camp.

References:

“A Sound of Thunder”: http://www.astro.sunysb.edu/fwalter/AST389/ASoundofThunder.pdf

“There Will Come Soft Rains”: https://www.btboces.org/Downloads/7_There%20Will%20Come%20Soft%20Rains%20by%20Ray%20Bradbury.pdf

Source Poem for the title: https://poets.org/poem/there-will-come-soft-rains

“Invoking Fire”: https://theworkandworksheetsofguystewart.blogspot.com/2017/07/invoking-fire-by-guy-stewart.html

“And After Soft Rains, Daisies”: https://theworkandworksheetsofguystewart.blogspot.com/2021/04/and-after-soft-rains-daisies.html

Wikipedia article on his novel: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fahrenheit_451