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Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Who are you writing for?

 

I’m going to push the schedule for Introspection Week. Yesterday was an in-clinic day for my wife, and sometimes we can take these in stride but other times they end up consuming the entire day, as happened yesterday. So given that I already have a really terrific guest column lined-up for Friday and the Introspection Week wrap-up scheduled for tomorrow, rather than delay everything by a day, I’m going to double-up on today’s posts and throw the tough question straight at your head right now.

We have already established that you want to write fiction, and specifically, that you want to write some form of genre fiction. When you write your stories—

Who are you writing for

I have a wonderful little book of Mark Twain’s writings about the practice and business of writing around here—somewhere, and I’m sure I could find it if I was willing to spend the rest of the afternoon looking for it—but I’m not, so I’m going to cheat and paraphrase instead. This book includes some of his correspondence with other writers of his time, and one letter in particular stands out. In it Twain was trying to disabuse a younger writer of the notion that writing should be art purely for art’s sake, and that one should relentlessly speak whatever one believes to be The Truth, regardless of one’s audience, or even if one is speaking to no audience at all.

Twain’s reply (paraphrasing now) was that writing alone purely for one’s own pleasure and satisfaction was like having sex alone purely for one’s own pleasure and satisfaction, and the practice should be discontinued by the time one reaches adulthood. 

Disagree with Twain all you like—and there is a multi-billion dollar sex toy industry that says Twain was wrong—but the essential truth of what he said was echoed decades later in all my communications theory classes. Every act of communication involves three things: a transmitter, a medium, and a receiver

When you transmit your message in the medium of the written word: who do you think is receiving it? 

Over to you,
~brb

Why do you write genre fiction?


I grew up in a house full of books. I never realized that this was unusual. My parents were both teachers. My Dad, I think, was a frustrated historian turned basketball coach, because public school boards find winning basketball coaches much more valuable than history teachers, while I know my Mom had had some minor success as a poet. She’d belonged to a literary sorority in college and had stayed in touch with her sorority sisters well into the 1970s, inviting them over for social gatherings all the time. I know that at least one of her sorority sisters went on to become a mystery writer of some note, because I remember her giving me a signed hardcover of one of her books which I’ve long since lost, but for the life of me I can’t remember her name now.

The point is, I grew up in a house full of books, including the attic. Magazines, too: Life, Look, The Saturday Evening Post, National Geographic. I think the only part of the house that didn’t have at least one bookcase and a stack of magazines was the basement, and that was only because being right on the bluff overlooking Lake Michigan our house was remarkably damp, and any paper product stored down in the basement quickly turned to mildew and silverfish food.

As a child, I was surrounded by readers, and I learned to read early, constantly, and omnivorously. Again, I never recognized this as being unusual. What was unusual, so far as my parents were concerned, was that with everything I had to choose from, I preferred to read science fiction. I was a cerebral sponge, absorbing Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe, H. G. Wells, Andre Norton, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury…

Later, as an adult, when I wrote fiction, that’s mostly what came back out: fantastic and science fiction, filtered through what I’d seen and what I’d learned. I certainly didn’t set out to become a science fiction writer, and have sold more than a few things outside of the genre. My Mom, who adored Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, and Erle Stanley Gardner, kept hoping it was just a phase I was going through, and when I sold a story to Hitchcock’s she was ecstatic, because she thought I’d finally seen the light.

The question has continued to haunt me all my adult life. As one of my less tactful co-workers once put it, “You’re a pretty good writer. Why do you write this sci-fi crap when you could be writing real literature?’

I think I know what my answer is, but before I say it, I’d really like to hear your answer.

Why, given all the possible kinds of fiction you could be writing, have you chosen to write fantastic fiction? 

Over to you,
~brb

Intermission



I am so proud of myself. This morning I saw a heated debate erupt on another writer’s site on the subject of pulp magazine page layout and typography, and I stayed out of it

Honestly, I felt like I’d blundered into the Old Sci-Fi Writers’ Home and into the middle of an argument over whether Smith-Corona, Remington, or Underwood made the best typewriter. [“And don’t you dare bring Olympia, Olivetti, or Brother into this! Honestly, Germans, Italians, and Japanese? What’s this world coming to?”] I had to leave before they started tipping over wheelchairs and hitting each other with their canes.

—Bruce Bethke

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P.S. Please buy a print copy of Stupefying Stories. We put a lot of work into the SS#22 and SS#23 page layout and typography—and even the choice of paper—and we think they look pretty good.

Of course, everything we do is designed for ebook release first, and we have a lot of short story collections and original novels available on Kindle, most of which are free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Stupefying Stories Magazine

Monday, June 28, 2021

Why do you write fiction?

 

Yesterday’s post seems to have touched a nerve, so let’s continue with the line of introspective questioning. We’ve established that you want to write; perhaps even that you need to write. (You’d be surprised by how many successful writers answer the question of why they write with something on the order of, “I can’t not write.”) We’ll assume for the moment that you have some talent for writing, or at least that you’re trainable.

Next question: why do you want to write fiction?

There is a world full of opportunities out there for people with above-average verbal communication skills. For example, my training is in newspaper journalism, although I’ve never actually worked in the field. Internships, I think, come at the wrong end of education programs: by the time I finished my internship as a reporter I realized that there was no way I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing that, and quickly switched over to technical communications. So while I am known as a science fiction writer, I have actually spent most of the past 40 years writing enormous amounts of highly technical nonfiction, for which I rarely received bylines, but in general, for which I was paid very well.

So to reiterate the question: of all the things that you could do with your ability to express yourself in words, why do you want to write fiction? 

Submitted for your consideration,
~brb

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Why do you write?

 

The longer I consider the question, the more it begins to resemble a dance. We circle each other; writers both accomplished and aspiring ask for that “one piece of advice” that they believe will do… something for them, and I keep finding I can’t answer that question without asking my own questions, first.

• Why do you write?

• What do you hope to achieve by writing?

• What do you want to have accomplished by the time your career is over?

• Do you want to write, to be a writer, or to have written? 

I have more questions for you, but these will do for a start. Before I can give you meaningful help and directions, I need to know where you want to go. 

And if you don’t know where you intend to go as a writer, this is as good a time as any to start thinking about it.

Over to you,
~brb 

 

Saturday, June 26, 2021

“What Makes the Measure of a Novel?” • by Bruce Bethke

 

Jason Wittman writes:

“Finished a rough draft of another novel last week (though it's barely long enough to qualify as a novel, clocking in at a little over 49,000 words, and it will probably be smaller after I've trimmed off the fat). It takes place during the golden age of Hollywood, and it involves vampires, the afterlife, and fictionalized versions of famous movie stars. I'm having problems getting my novels to 100k length—maybe my writing rough drafts in longhand has something to do with it. Oh well, nothing I can do but keep writing.”

He is asking an implicit question here: “What is the right length for a novel?”

My answer is: “That depends.”

From an artistic standpoint, I am a firm believer in not worrying about arbitrary word counts. Let the story be the length it needs to be to tell the tale; no more and no less.

From an awards standpoint, the rules typically are pretty clear. Most awards-governing bodies consider any single and complete narrative work over 40K words in length to be a novel. 

But from a marketing standpoint: ah, now that’s where things get interesting. The generally accepted vague and evasive answer is, “Whatever length the market wants novels to be this year.” Note the crucial qualifier: this year

¤     ¤     ¤

If you take a deep dive through the history of SF/F, you’ll find that many of the classic novels of the genre fall into the 45K- to 65K-word range. By the time I came on the scene, the common standard length had grown to around 100K-words. I used to wonder about that. Were the Golden Age authors better at cramming more content into fewer words? Did they possess a gift for succinct and incisive writing that has since been lost? Was it simply more work to bang out a novel on a manual typewriter, therefore they were motivated to economize? 

Then I began to look at copyright pages and front matter, and the answer became clear. All those Golden Age SF novels I grew up reading and grew to love: they were never intended to be standalone books. Most were written to be published as three- or four-part serials in pulp magazines, and in that context, 45K~65K words was just the right length to fit the format.

When the Great Mass-Market Paperback Boom came along after WWII, there was a huge demand for content to fill all those new pages but a limited supply of new content being created. The solution was obvious. The pulp magazine publishers—Street & Smith in particular—were sitting on enormous piles of fiction they’d bought from authors on “all rights forever” contracts. It was a simple matter to reissue that material in reprint or theme anthologies, or to re-license the material to other publishers. Pull together all the sections of a serial into a single volume, slap on a lurid cover, maybe give the thing a new title if you thought the original title wouldn’t sell— (“Dorsai! What the hell is that about? Let’s call it, oh…”)

Voila! A 160-page mass-market paperback you could still make a profit on, even if you were selling it off a newsstand or spinner rack for just 40¢ a copy!


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Sidebar
: Not that many authors were happy to see their old works living on forever in unending streams of reprints, reissues, and repackagings, none of which they were being paid for. There is a direct linear connection between this publishing practice and the founding of SFWA, which essentially was created to force Street & Smith to change their contract language—and thus, by the actions of The Law of Unintended Consequences, to kill off the reprint anthology market.

Still, it’s worth considering: if Street & Smith had not bought all those Golden Age authors’ works on that “all rights forever” contract, and if they had not subsequently been so very successful at re-selling reprint rights to the newly emerging “paperback originals” publishers, would the SF/F genre as we know it today even exist?
__________________________________


This state of affairs lasted for more than twenty years. Science fiction specialty bookstores were very rare. Most “real” bookstores only dealt in “real” books, and as everyone knew, real books had hard covers. SF/F hardcover originals were extremely rare. (Remember, even H. G. Wells’ The War of The Worlds was first published as a magazine serial.) Mass-market paperbacks in general, and SF/F paperbacks in particular, were the domain of newspaper and magazine rack-jobbers, and were mostly found on newsstands and in spinner racks in dime stores, truck stops, and to some extent, college bookstores. Most paperback publishers also had a healthy mail-order catalog business, and in all of these contexts, the cheap, thin, and essentially disposable 160-page mass-market paperback novel had a distinct advantage. Less weight to schlep around. More product could be packed into a minimum of floor space. It was the front cover that caught the prospective customer’s eye and the back cover and flyleaf that made the sales pitch, so what was printed on the spine, and therefore how thick the book was, was relatively unimportant. The sweet spot for novel length remained around 60K words.

This began to change in the late 1960s, as Americans changed the way they shopped. Shopping malls began popping up all over the country, and with them came the big mall bookstore chains: Waldenbooks, B. Dalton, Borders, Crown Books, etc., etc. Now, whatever their superficial differences, the big chain bookstores all shared one common trait: to improve floor traffic and pack maximum inventory in minimum floor space, they displayed most of their books spine out. Only new releases and special titles were displayed front cover out, only really special titles were displayed on the aisle end cap, and pretty soon the chains were demanding that publishers pay for any special high-visibility product placement in their stores.

Invoking The Law of Unintended Consequences again, the net result was that publishers started demanding longer books from authors, and the “standard” length for a novel eventually rose to around 100K words. The reasons for this are simple and stupid. At 100K words, a mass-market paperback comes in at about 360 pages in print, which gives it a spine roughly one-inch thick. Which increases its visibility on the shelf when it’s displayed spine out. Which also gives the customer the feeling they’re buying more, as due to all the distribution costs and mall overhead and such the retail price of that 40¢ paperback has now risen to $5.99.

But back to the thick spine: that’s the key. I wish I could remember which publishing industry bigwig it was who pulled me aside and told me that the secret of success for an SF/F writer was, “to get your six inches into B. Dalton,” because that’s such a wonderful, awful quote, but by the time I came along that was the accepted wisdom. To be successful in this industry you needed to write one 100K-word novel a year, so that you could occupy enough shelf space in the chain bookstores to catch the customer’s eye, even if all your books were displayed spine-out. 

¤     ¤     ¤

Accepted wisdom tends to drift over time, and this was no exception. For a time there was a sort of an arms race in the mass-market paperback business, as publishers tried to occupy more shelf space by putting out ever thicker books, and the “standard” length for a novel grew to 140K words, 160K, 200K… It topped out around 1990 in the heyday of what Joel Rosenberg used to call the “BFFB”—Big Fat Fantasy Brick—(and sometimes Joel added a third “F” in there)—but became a case of diminishing returns, as the numbers of customers willing to pay $15 or $20 for an 800-page paperback—at least, one that didn’t have “Stephen King,” “Anne Rice,” or “Jean M. Auel” on the cover—dwindled. Gradually, the accepted “standard” length for a novel subsided to around 100K words. 

Except—

In the meantime, what very few people besides my agent noticed, was that while all this other sturm und drang was going on in the publishing industry, Pocket Books and Harlequin were continuing to move absolutely ungodly numbers of mass-market paperback novels, all of which fell into the 50K- to 70K-word length. With complete seriousness, he advised me that if I really wanted to make money as a writer, what I needed to do was to adopt a female pseudonym, start bashing out a series of 50K-word formulaic romance novels with SF/F set dressings (preferably fantasy shading into horror), and get in on the leading edge of this “paranormal romance” tsunami that he saw coming. He was certain it was going to so overwhelm the market that it would leave only wreckage of any other genre that stood in its way.

Not the first time I’ve ignored good advice. 

¤     ¤     ¤

Now that that tsunami has swept over us and retreated—and the second tsunami, which was the advent of Amazon, and the third tsunami, which was the advent of the Kindle marketplace—we’re back to the original question: what is the “right” length for a novel?

I’ve already given my arts & crafts reply. Now, my totally mercenary market-driven reply.

Consider this: the physical artifact of the printed book is no longer important. Its height, width, most of all its thickness: none of that matters anymore. Most readers never see the back cover, much less the spine. How the book displays on a bookstore shelf is not important because there are so few bookstores left. What matters most is the front cover—and even then, most of your prospective customers are only going to see it as a thumbnail image about the size of a postage stamp, unless you can get them to click through for a closer look.

Essentially, we’re back to the spinner rack marketing model.

Consider this: the Pocket Books and Harlequin strategies were a complete success. Readers now expect a book to be part of a series, episodic in nature and coming in regular installments. A 100K novel a year is too big and too slow. George R. R. Martin and The Game of Thrones have become objects of derision. Most readers expect a new book to be just the start of a series, and they want to be able to read the series the way they binge-watch a TV series on Netflix.

Consider this: it is now well-proven that the Internet has changed the fundamental ways in which people read. “tl;dr” is now accepted as a legitimate critique. While there are still people who read slowly and savor longer works, there are fewer of them every day. Most readers have shorter attention spans and want faster gratification. 

Conclusion: If you’re writing a novel and you’ve hit 70K words, it’s already too damned long! Split it in half! Better yet, find a way to split it into thirds and extend it to make it a 120K- to 150K-word trilogy. Write the entire thing, at least through the rough draft stage, but plan to release it in monthly installments. And whatever you do, do not absolutely, completely, end the thing. Always leave enough threads hanging that you can continue the series, if the customer demand is there.

Submitted for your consideration,
~brb

________________________________

In a world...


Where the Soviet Union won WWII, England is now a Soviet satellite, some magic actually works (sometimes), and Premier Kruschev is going eyeball-to-eyeball with President Patton—

The last surviving member of His Majesty’s Dragonslayer Corps is called out of retirement, because it seems dragons aren’t extinct after all and one has taken up residence in a prominent Politburo member’s country estate. Read the rest in THE SHE-DRAGON OF BLY, by Jason D. Wittman, just one of the terrific tales in STUPEFYING STORIES 22!

Available now in paperback, on Kindle, or free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

 



Friday, June 25, 2021

Talking Shop: Eric's Writing Challenge Update

As promised, I'm checking in with an update on the writing challenge, which is also an update on the space opera I'm working on for Bruce. So, writing challenge first.

As of Thursday night, I've written 5875 words, give or take a small rounding error. That means I'm averaging a little under 850 words per day. I'm not destroying that 500 words daily goal, but I am meeting it. In reality, the word count is a lot more variable than the average suggests. Some days I write almost exactly 500 words. Yesterday, I wrote close to 1500 words. I took one day off. All in all, though, the experiment is working. I've churned out nearly 6000 words worth of novel that didn't exist last week. I'm also about 2400 words ahead of my target. There's a fair to midland chance some of the words are even good. Fingers crossed.

Now, to put that in context, I've been working exclusively on the space opera, which we're tentatively calling Rinn's Run. At present, here's where that stands.

Total word count: 14,150

Complete chapters: 11

Percentage complete: Approximately 14%, based on a completely hypothetical 100,000 words for a complete draft. 

If you're wondering how I do it, this is the best explanation I can muster. First, I always start from the basic assumption that I can find 500 words to write that will forward the story. I might have to work for the words, but they are there for the finding. Second, I decide that I'll do it. I think the decision to sit down and write is just as important as believing that I've got the words inside me to put on the page. It's been my experience that once you sit down at the computer, open the file, and make yourself start writing, the process moves along pretty smoothly. You might write a couple of bad sentences before your imagination and hard-won writing skills really kick in, but they will kick in.

I hope this helps inspire anyone who's struggling with getting the words on the page. You can do it. It might be a struggle some days, but you can do it. Now, to shamelessly crib from Stan Lee:

 "Excelsior!"


Tourist Trap • 5

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This week’s Pete Wood Challenge was pretty simple. In keeping with this being the first week of summer here in the northern hemisphere, and therefore of summer vacation season, the challenge was to write a 100-word story centered around the concept of “tourist trap” without resorting to any of the ideas that have become shopworn and threadbare horror movie clichés in the past 60 years. With that as preamble, here is this week’s winning entry, by Hayley Stone

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“Crush Depth” • by Hayley Stone


As Namora approaches maximum depth, the tourists lean into the viewports to glimpse Old Miami. I’d make more shuttling folks between ports, but this old gal can’t compete with the commercial submarines.

“Did you see that?” Some kid is on his feet, pointing. “Something swam past the window!”

“Please remain seated,” I say.

“I saw it, too,” an adult seconds.

“Just fish—”

Namora shudders, startling screams out of my passengers. The depth gauge trills in warning. I blow ballast, but it’s no use. 

“Told you!” the kid screeches as giant suction cups blacken the viewports.

Guess we were both right.

¤     ¤     ¤

 


Hayley Stone is an award-winning author and poet from California whose short fiction has appeared in Apex Magazine, Fireside Fiction, and more. She is best known for her weird western novel, Make Me No Grave. Find her complete list of works at www.hayleystone.com.

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In a world...


Where the Soviet Union won WWII, England is now a Soviet satellite, some magic actually works (sometimes), and Premier Kruschev is going eyeball-to-eyeball with President Patton—

The last surviving member of His Majesty’s Dragonslayer Corps is called out of retirement, because it seems dragons aren’t extinct after all and one has taken up residence in a prominent Politburo member’s country estate. Read the rest in THE SHE-DRAGON OF BLY, by Jason D. Wittman, just one of the terrific tales in STUPEFYING STORIES 22!

Available now in paperback, on Kindle, or free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

 


Thursday, June 24, 2021

Tourist Trap • 4

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This week’s Pete Wood Challenge was pretty simple. In keeping with this being the first week of summer here in the northern hemisphere, and therefore of summer vacation season, the challenge was to write a 100-word story centered around the concept of “tourist trap” without resorting to any of the ideas that have become shopworn and threadbare horror movie clichés in the past 60 years. With that as preamble, here is this week’s runner-up, by Zack Lux

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“Far Side of the Moon” • by Zack Lux 


“So, what do you think of all those conspiracies?” Mia asked the tour guide. The other passengers unclipped themselves and floated to the aluminum silicate windows. They oohed and ahhed as Earth grew smaller, the Moon larger.

“Conspiracies?”

“You know, how the grays on the far side want to infect our brains, force us to always tell the truth. Basically, turn us against each other.”

“Uh,” he stammered. “Well, what do you think?”

 Mia regarded him, then flashed a badge.

“Tell the pilot to turn us around… and that I think he’s smokin’ hot,” she gasped and covered her face.
 

¤     ¤     ¤

 


Zack Lux lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. When he isn’t writing stories, he enjoys exploring the many natural wonder of Northern California. Find him on Twitter @ZackLuxSF

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Do you miss Firefly? Do you like The Expanse? If so, then The Privateers of Mars is exactly what you need. [...] Structured as three loosely interconnected short stories, it reads like three episodes of a great science fiction show that you wish someone would make.”

—Amazon reader review




 

 

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Tourist Trap • 3

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This week’s Pete Wood Challenge was pretty simple. In keeping with this being the first week of summer here in the northern hemisphere, and therefore of summer vacation season, the challenge was to write a 100-word story centered around the concept of “tourist trap” without resorting to any of the ideas that have become shopworn and threadbare horror movie clichés in the past 60 years. With that as preamble, here are the next two winners, by returning contributors Cécile Cristofari and Eric Fomley

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“How Not to Save Your Marriage” • by Cécile Cristofari


The lush, green scenery was gorgeous, but Brenda’s mood was somewhat spoiled by Ron’s grumbling. Too hot. Too damp. What would have been wrong with just staying home?

Brenda forced a cheery smile.

“There’s even food! Over here!”

They raced to the buffet. The fare was strange, but deliciously sweet. Ron’s smile came back.

“Thanks for organising this,” he said, rubbing his two front legs together as he relaxed under the large green leaf.

Brenda’s wings fluttered happily.

She only had time to spot the leaf lowering, from the corner of her faceted eye, before green cilia closed on them. 

¤     ¤     ¤


 

After working in Canada for two years, Cécile Cristofari settled in her native South France, where she teaches English literature and writes stories when her son is asleep. Her stories have appeared in Interzone, Daily Science Fiction and Reckoning, among other places. She can be found on Twitter @c_cristofari, or on her website: staywherepeoplesing.wordpress.com.

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“Roy’s Playland — Half-price on Weekdays!” • by Eric Fomley


It’s a sham. A tire-swing with rotting rope, a rusty merry-go-round, a pool with oily black pond water. 

Roy comes out of the house to greet us, as does a smell like spoiled meat. He’s wearing patchwork jeans and his unbuttoned shirt shows a gaunt frame.

“Howdy, name’s Roy.”

He shakes our hands. Holds onto mine for a little too long, showing his broken, brown teeth.

“If y’all want to come inside, there’s good eat’n.”

We refuse.

He looks us up and down, licking his lips.

“You sure?”

We shake our heads.

He pulls a .45 from his waistband.

¤     ¤     ¤



Eric Fomley’s
work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Galaxy’s Edge, Flame Tree Press, and The Black Library. You can read more of his work on his website at https://ericfomley.com or buy him a coffee in exchange for a story at https://ko-fi.com/ericfomley.

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Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Tourist Trap • 2

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This week’s Pete Wood Challenge was pretty simple. In keeping with this being the first week of summer here in the northern hemisphere, and therefore of summer vacation season, the challenge was to write a 100-word story centered around the concept of “tourist trap” without resorting to any of the ideas that have become shopworn and threadbare horror movie clichés in the past 60 years. With that as preamble, here are the next two winners, by returning contributors Alicia Hilton and Roxana Arama

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“Day Trips to Purgatory: Buy the Total Experience Package!” • by Alicia Hilton


The ticket agent had an axe stuck in her bloody shoulder, but her smile was radiant.

David said, “One total experience.” He pulled out his wallet.

“Pay when you leave.” She handed him a wristband.

David walked towards the River of Fire. The bubbling lava smelled like roofing tar.

He boarded the ferryboat and sat on a bench beside an elderly woman who was sobbing.

David said, “You okay?”

She wiped her tears. “My husband went to Hell. I’m lonely.”

David said, “Day trip? I heard it’s a tourist trap.”

The woman grabbed David and threw him into the lava.

¤     ¤     ¤

 


Alicia Hilton
is an author, law professor, arbitrator, actor, and former FBI Special Agent. She believes in angels and demons, magic and monsters. Alicia’s recent work has appeared in Akashic Books, Best Indie Speculative Fiction Volume 3, Daily Science Fiction, DreamForge, Litro, Sci Phi Journal, Space and Time, Vastarien, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volumes 4, 5 & 6, and elsewhere. She is a member of HWA and SFWA. Her website is https://aliciahilton.com. Follow her on Twitter @aliciahilton01.  

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https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/23/Roman_caltrop.jpg

“History is Alive and Well” • by Roxana Arama


Roberto hit metal while digging the firepit for their romantic getaway in the Alps. The small object looked like a weapon, nails sticking out in odd directions.

“A caltrop.” Francesca showed him on her phone. “Lucky we didn’t step on it. The ancient Romans used them to slow the advance of enemy troops.”

“Watch out!” Roberto pulled her from the path of a hurtling boulder that tore through their tent.

Francesca recovered and checked her phone. “Hannibal clashed here with the locals… We’re setting off their old traps!”

Roberto ducked as something swished through the air. “Was that an—”

¤     ¤     ¤


Roxana Arama is a Romanian-American writer and a member of Codex Writers’ Group. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College, her work has been acknowledged in several literary contests and magazines, and she maintains the website Rewriting History: How writers turn history into story, and story into history at www.roxanaarama.com. She lives in Seattle with her family. Follow her on Twitter at @RoxanaArama.

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stupefy (ˈstü-pə-ˌfī) to stun, astonish, or astound

Edited by award-winning author Bruce Bethke, STUPEFYING STORIES is a bold attempt to grow a new general-interest science fiction and fantasy magazine from the ground up. For the past ten years we've been a part-time purely-for-the-love-of-it affair publishing on a wildly erratic schedule, but our goal is to grow to become a regular monthly magazine that pays pro rates—

And here's the radical part: we want to do this not by chasing after foundation grants, asking people to contribute to our crowdfunding campaign, or begging passers-by for spare change, but by selling books and magazines that people LIKE TO READ!

Available on Kindle, in paperback, and free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Why not take a minute now to check us out? 


Monday, June 21, 2021

Tourist Trap • 1

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This week’s Pete Wood Challenge was pretty simple. In keeping with this being the first week of summer here in the northern hemisphere, and therefore of summer vacation season, the challenge was to write a 100-word story centered around the concept of “tourist trap” without resorting to any of the ideas that have become shopworn and threadbare horror movie clichés in the past 60 years. With that as preamble, here are the first two winners, by returning contributors Jonathan Worlde and Carol Scheina

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“Have Earthlings, Will Travel” • by Jonathan Worlde

Cole parked his sleek Galaxy cruiser in his tribal unit’s crater on the far side of Planet Argonne. Vivisectors retrieved the hundred human captives from subzero storage, but the geneticists would take samples before the bodies could be turned over for nutritional consumption and fertilizer disposal.

Cole’s brother Miles asked, “How did you do it? Earthlings are getting harder and harder to catch. They’ve seen too much programming about extraterrestrials and are way too cautious nowadays.”

Cole laughed. “It’s easy. I just put up a sign by any freeway exit, Tourist Trap, and they come in by the droves.”

¤     ¤     ¤

 


Paul Grussendorf
is an attorney representing refugees, a former Immigration Judge, and a consultant to the UN Refugee Agency. His legal memoir is My Trials: Inside America’s Deportation Factories. He writes genre fiction under the byline of “Jonathan Worlde.”

Jonathan Worlde’s neo-noir mystery novel, Latex Monkey with Banana, was winner of the Hollywood Discovery Award with a prize of $1,000. Recent short fiction appears in The Raven Review, the 2020 anthology Ghost Stories of Shepherdstown, and in Cirque Journal. He is also a traditional country blues performer under the stage name Paul the Resonator, whose CD is Soul of a Man.

___________________________



“The Family Business” • by Carol Scheina

Karla didn’t think she’d ever return to the familiar scents of stale popcorn and tangy sweat, where the rides were coated with the gluey residue of well-aged soda spills.

“It’s no tourist trap; it’s our home,” Mom had always said to Karla’s skeptical face.

After the funeral, Karla wandered through the park, so empty without Mom. Tarnish and dust muted Karla’s teary reflection in the funhouse’s curved mirror. Then another face appeared.

“Mom?”

“I’m always here, Karla-kitty.”

Karla kissed the mirror, ignoring the gritty taste. She knew then she’d move deserts to keep this place running. It was their home.

¤     ¤     ¤

 



Carol Scheina
is a deaf speculative fiction author whose short stories have appeared in Escape Pod, Daily Science Fiction, The Arcanist, and other publications. You can find more of her work at carolscheina.wordpress.com.

___________________________





Sunday, June 20, 2021

The State of the Loon • 20 June 2021

 

Work is chugging along on SS#24, albeit more slowly than I’d like. While my ultimate goal is to grow Stupefying Stories to be a monthly magazine, at this point I’ll be happy when we can hit quarterly release targets on a consistent basis.

Yes, that is the cover teaser for SS#24. More teasers to follow as we ramp up to release.

_____

I have been watching the metrics very closely these past few weeks, and the metrics are very clear: what readers most want to see from us is more fiction, and less blather. Accordingly, this week we will be running eight new short-short stories from the latest Pete Wood Challenge, per this schedule:

Monday, 6/21/21
“Have Earthlings, Will Travel,” by Jonathan Worlde
“The Family Business,” by Carol Scheina

Tuesday, 6/22/21
“Day Trips to Purgatory,” by Alicia Hilton
“History is Alive and Well,” by Roxana Arama

Wednesday, 6/23/21
“How Not to Save Your Marriage,” by Cécile Cristofari
“Roy’s Playland,” by Eric Fomley

Thursday, 6/24/21
“Far Side of the Moon,” by Zack Lux

Friday, 6/25/21
“Crush Depth,” by Hayley Stone

If some of these names seem familiar, they should, as Zack Lux and Hayley Stone are the newcomers on the list. Jonathan Worlde, Carol Scheina, Alicia Hilton, Roxana Arama, Cécile Cristofari, and Eric Fomley have all shown up as winners in previous iterations of The Pete Wood Challenge—Carol Scheina twice!—so if you haven’t read their earlier stories, you can find them all at this link:

The Pete Wood Challenge

In particular, if you haven’t read Roxana Arama’s story, “For Sale: Used Time Machine. No Refunds!” you owe it to yourself to do so now. It makes great poignant Father’s Day reading.

_____

One inexplicable thing in the metrics is that every two days the 2014 Campbellian Anthology release announcement gets a specific number of hits, even though the book has been out of print for six years. The Campbell Award isn’t even called the Campbell Award any more, so I can’t explain this, except to guess that some bots somewhere have developed a fixation with the thing. 

_____

Another thing the metrics reveal is that readers want to see lots more “how to” articles on writing and marketing your writing. That, and they seem to want more articles discussing the works of famous dead SF/F authors. We are working on producing more of the former, but as for the latter, we are hampered by the limited supply of famous dead SF/F authors. Tempting as it sometimes is I refuse to produce any more of them.

If you are interested in writing a “how to” article on writing and/or marketing your writing, contact me at feedback@rampantloonmedia.com and pitch a topic.

_____

One thing the metrics have shown is that most of our readers do not want to see more movie reviews. Accordingly, we’re going to stop running those. I do so with some reluctance: I was growing quite fond of Clash of the Schlockmeisters! and had lots more spleen to vent. However, the readers have spoken—or more accurately, not read, which in its own way is a form of speech. Therefore, adios, movie reviews. 

_____

Finally, anent Notes towards a manifesto: I have one more of those to post, and then I think I’m done for now. If you have specific questions to ask, send them to feedback@rampantloonmedia.com, but otherwise these columns seems to have turned into a series of rambling reminiscences: in other words, more blather, which no one needs. 

An old friend recently asked, “Why don’t you just write a manifesto and be done with it?” What stops me is that I don’t like manifestos. More to the point, I don’t trust editors and publishers who operate according to their socio-political manifestos. Far too often I’ve seen them put their personal agendas ahead of the quality of the work they publish. 

As for me, if I had a agenda, I suppose it would be this:

Now do me a favor and buy an issue of the magazine, wouldja? Thanks.

—Bruce Bethke

Saturday, June 19, 2021

SHOWCASE: “Signs and Symptoms” • by Judith Field

 

Mark slid open the secret drawer of the desk in the spare bedroom that he and his wife Pat used for the Court & Anderson office, and removed the ash wood wand. The warmth from the power stored in it spread through his fingers and the wood throbbed like a heartbeat. He took a breath, gave a dry, hacking cough, and closed his eyes, trying to will his power into the wand. A narrow beam of blue light squeezed out of the end, flickered, and then went out. Sighing, he muttered an incantation and the wand folded in two. He put it in his pocket.

Pat was pottering around in the kitchen, back home from a morning sorting out the invasion of reptilian arsonists (“Don’t dignify them by calling them dragons,” she’d said to the customer) in Abercrombie Gardens in Liverpool the day before, while he had expelled a bunyip from The Aussie and Firkin pub in Macclesfield. This afternoon’s job would be to sort out a library infested with a ghost writer—the deceased had written many a story in the place, but she had died of old age while waiting for publication. That was what happened when you started writing post-retirement. Mark opened the kitchen door.

Pat sat at the table, paperwork scattered in front of her. “Want some lunch, or shall we leave it till we get back?” she asked. “I think there’s some of yesterday’s pasta bake left, and a bit of that salad.”

“I’m not hungry.” Mark said.

“Well, I’m having a cup of tea. You?” She raised the pot and her eyebrows. “It’s Lapsang Souchong.”

He joined her at the table, coughing into the crook of his elbow. “Yes, please.”

She poured him a cup. He took a sip. “Where did you get this—Krazy Kuts?”

She shook her head. “Tesco’s as usual. Why?”

“It doesn’t taste of anything. Hasn’t got the usual kippery smell.”

“Smokey bouquet, you mean.” Pat drank more of hers. “Seems okay to me.” She looked up at him. “You’d better have a shave before we go out. Unless you’re planning on growing the full Gandalf.”

Mark rubbed his hand round his cheeks and coughed again. And again. And again. “I must’ve forgotten. I felt like I was wading through treacle this morning—everything seemed to take me twice as long. Actually, I’m not feeling great now. I think you’ll have to do that library job on your own.”

Pat put her palm on Mark’s forehead, then snatched it back.

“Wow! You’re burning up. You’d better go upstairs and lie down. I’ll see you in a minute.”

¤     ¤     ¤

Pat stood in the bedroom doorway. “I’ve ordered a COVID test,” she said. “It should be here tomorrow, then we post it and wait for the results. It’s still quicker than testing by magic, all those chickens’ entrails and tea leaves.”

“If it’s positive, bang goes working for two weeks. No money coming in. Haven’t you got an enchantment for this?” Mark coughed. “Put what you like in it—I can’t taste or smell anything. I feel like someone smashed a bottle against my head and made me swallow the splinters. Even my hair hurts.”

“There is a potion to lower a fever,” Pat said, “but we’re out of the slips of yew it needs. Paracetamol’s just as good.” She walked to the bedside cabinet, picked up a bottle of sanitizer, and rubbed a drop into her hands. “Back in a minute.”

Mark’s eyelids felt cool as they slid shut.

¤     ¤     ¤

He stood alone in a bathroom, very different from his and Pat’s. No tasteful white tiles with matching towels embroidered with Mage and Mage’s mate in curlicue italics. A bulb glared, unshaded, from a fitting dangling from the ceiling. No window. He leaned against the wall, dislodging flakes of catarrh-coloured paint. He took a step forward. The floor bowed under his weight. Water seeped from the gap between the scuffed vinyl tiles the colour of cooked liver. His feet crunched against something granular that released a chemical scent. He coughed.

Water dripped from the cold tap in the avocado-coloured basin, leaving a trail of rust that cut across the caked-on toothpaste. The plughole was blocked with either hair or a dead mouse. A single row of chipped yellow tiles, the grout between them blackened, separated the basin from a shelf cluttered with bottles, each with about an inch of liquid in the bottom. At one end of the shelf a candle, covered in dust, that looked like it had been lit once and blown out straight afterwards. At the other, a can of air freshener, “Garden of Delight.”

He scanned the room. Matching avocado-colour lavatory, closed lid. Avocado bath, grey plastic shower curtains stained with mould, pulled all around. The shadow on the curtain—just a stain? Something trapped behind it? A pile of soggy-looking towels in a pool of grey water, to one side. In the corner by the door, a cockroach trap, including cockroach. He tugged at the door handle. No movement. No visible means to unlock it. He pointed an index finger at the place where the lock would have been and recited a basic escape incantation. Nothing. Where was he? His sense of smell had returned. A scent of disappointment hung in the air like stale cigarette smoke, adding to the odour of mildew and mould. He turned back to the basin and picked up the can of air freshener. Empty.

With a crackle, the shower curtains opened. Pat, fully clothed including her mask, stepped out of the bath. She slipped on the slimy-looking bathmat as it scudded across the floor. One stiletto heel caught on a hole in the fabric.

Mark grabbed her arm. “How did you get here? And,” his voice croaked, “how did I?”

“You did it,” she said. “You brought us here.”

“What are you talking about? And where’s here? How do we get out? And to where?”

“I think I know,” she said, picking up one of the bottles and turning it upside down. The contents did not move. “I just need to check a few things.” She put it down and tried the door.

“Locked,” he said. “Magic proof.”

Pat flushed the toilet.

“I haven’t used it,” he said.

She shook her head. “Do you hear anything?”

“Only a trickle of water. So what?”

She frowned. “That’s the point. Empty bottles, no wet wipes, and a bog that takes an eternity to refill—don’t take the lid off the cistern to check. And, trust me, there is a spider in the bath. This is the bathroom from Hell.”

Magic seeped under the door. Pat grabbed two of the soggy towels, hunkered down, and stuffed the gap. She looked over her shoulder. “I told you not to look him in the eye!’

“Who?”

She stood and folded her arms. “You know.”

“I don’t. Look—don’t muck about. I’m not feeling well.” He sank down onto the toilet. The seat slid under his weight. The lid cracked.

“Look out,” Pat said. “Don’t fall in. I wouldn’t like to guess where you’d end up, or what might come out the other way.”

He jumped up. “I don’t know what you’re on about. I was asleep in bed.”

She sighed “Okay, you should have learned about this in the first book I ever gave you. We’re in the nether world. Which is full of nethers—remember? Things that can’t be imagined if all you know of is three dimensions.”

Something heavy and moist flap-floshed along the corridor outside, the sound growing louder as it came closer. Something thudded against the door, as if someone had thrown a bag of slugs at the door, and the bag had burst.

“Sounds like a big one. You summoned it,” Pat said. “Only you can send it back.”

Magic soaked through the towels and crawled across the floor. Jabbing his hand through the air, Mark stuttered out the repelling spell. The magic collapsed round Pat’s feet with the slap of a dropped pound of uncooked finnan haddock. “Not bad,” she said. “Now try something else. Only this time, with your trousers on.” He looked down.

He grabbed the last towel from the floor. Damp, and stained with streaks of what he hoped was hair dye. “This will have to do.” He wrapped it round his waist. “But that spell didn’t work. I don’t know what else to try. Got any ideas?”

“No.” Pat rolled her eyes. “Oh, hang on, I tell a lie. Well, some people say magical power is directly correlated to beard luxuriousness. Wizard retires, he shaves it off, makes it into wands. Do you think you can grow one in the next minute or so, clever lad?”

He shook his head.

“Then you’ll have to try another incantation.”

Mark felt his throat tighten. “Didn’t you hear me? That’s the only ward I can remember. Don’t you know any?”

“Yes, but you’ve got to do it. From memory—it won’t work if I prompt you. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.”

Another thud against the door. This time, the door moved but stayed shut.

Rules. Mark remembered something he had seen in a grimoire shoved behind the other books in the library. “We’re in Hell, right? And Hell is all about statistics—every spell’s got many possible outcomes. So, I’ll try the same one again.”

A beam of bright light shot through the keyhole. Something grabbed at the handle. It turned. Pat stood behind Mark and peered round him. “He’s going to be slow at this, without hands. Wait till it opens, then give him the works.”

The door clicked open. The eldritch horror outside was made of squirming gelatinous green snakes congealed into the shape of an egg. Trunks like an elephant’s sprung from all sides, some with eyes at the end, some with snapping mouths lined with jagged yellow teeth, all writhing and twisting towards him. At the top, a head, the face half-covered with wisps of blue-green hair. It opened its smirking mouth and spoke in an ultra-bass, cracked voice “You should have had your vaccine.”

Mark screwed up his eyes and repeated the incantation.

¤     ¤     ¤

Pat placed a glass of water on the bedside table. She held out an open hand and nodded towards the two white tablets in her palm. She tipped them onto the table and took a step backwards. “Go on, take them.”

He sat up, did as he was told, flipped his pillow over and sank back.

“Did you have your second vaccine dose?” Pat said.

He felt his face grow even hotter. “I meant to arrange an appointment, but we were so busy…”

“Oh Mark, why didn’t you book both at the same time? I give up. Probably a good idea for you to get some sleep.”

“Not if I have any more dreams, I’d rather stay awake. We were in this bathroom—”

Pat shook her head. “That was no dream. I’ve heard of people whose magical powers are amplified by body heat, so that if they get a fever it boils over and you can’t tell what’ll happen. I thought it was nonsense. Now I know better.”

“But I’ve had a temperature before, and this never happened.”

Pat sat on the end of the bed. “That was when your power lay dormant. Before you met me. Also, before COVID. It’s something they haven’t included in the list of signs and symptoms. I hope other mages aren’t as forgetful as you. We don’t need a pandemic of magic as well.”

Mark closed his eyes again.

¤     ¤     ¤

He lay alone on a beach of white sand. His skin tingled under the sun. He sat up and looked down. Naked again.  A scattering of tumbled rocks separated the sand from the rippling sea, shaded blue and green. Behind him, banana trees sagged under the weight of the fruit. Below them ferns sprouted. The scent of pineapple rose from the bushes.

Pat appeared to his right. What could be more natural than his wife popping out of nowhere, wearing nothing but a giant sombrero, fluffy baubles dangling round the brim?  

“This is better than last time,” she said, pointing to the striped parasol that had manifested to his left. “And I see you’re sticking to the dress code.”

A sign hanging on the pole of the parasol read, Welcome to the over sixty-fives’ naturist beach.  She stood up and removed her hat. Pearls of sweat rimmed her upper lip. Her white hair shone silver in the sunlight.

Mark gazed out to sea. Streamers of seaweed rolled in the surf. On the horizon, three humps protruded from the water, heading towards them.

“Paracetamol takes about twenty minutes to work,” Pat said. “And that sea-serpent’s got to take at least twenty-five to get here. So we should be okay.”

“You think?”

She shrugged. “Tide’s coming in. But, yes.”

“Isn’t there anything I can do?”

“Not about the serpent. We need something to take our minds off it. Shame we don’t have a pack of cards.”

Mark took her hand and pulled her onto the sand. His throat didn’t hurt any more, he didn’t need to cough, and he found that magic sand stayed on the beach, where it was meant to. The parasol flapped and billowed in the breeze.

_______________________


Judith Field lives in London, UK. She is the daughter of writers, and learned how to agonise over fiction submissions at her parents’ knees. She’s a pharmacist working in emergency medicine, a medical writer, an editor, and an indexer. She mainly writes speculative fiction, a welcome antidote to the world in which she lives. Her work has appeared in the USA, UK, and Australia. When she’s not working or writing, she knits, sings, and swims, not always at the same time.  


If you enjoyed this story, you might want to read another of Judith’s Court & Anderson stories, “Glamour for Two,” which can be found in Stupefying Stories 22. Alternatively, if you really liked this story, check out The Book of Judith: Sixteen Tales of Life, Wonder, and Magic, as it’s just full of Court & Anderson stories—and more as well!


 

 

Amazon reader reviews:

“Judith Field celebrates the extraordinary. It lives in every line of her stories alongside magic, friendly ghosts, and paranormal entities. Each tale also contains human beings who are warm, full of sentience, and often conflicting emotions. Allow yourself to be whisked away to ordinary suburbs where incredible things happen all the time.”

“Judith Field’s talent, or rather one of her talents, for she has many, is the ability to come up with an idea that’s almost laughably simple, then plonk that idea in the most prosaic of settings, and somehow end up with a tale so unique and so eldritch that it stays with you long after you’ve finished reading it.”

“A collection of tales of the fantastic that manage to be sweet, poignant, and laugh-out-loud funny all at the same time.”

“These stories present a refreshing fusion of styles. Life, wonder, and magic sums it up—often the fantastic and magical meets the reality of everyday life in a way that I’d imagine fans of Pratchett and Gaiman might appreciate. There are also hints of magic realism and a depth of characterisation that makes the writing truly engaging and a pleasure to read. The fact that some characters make repeated appearances across the stories is very welcome because they are so well-drawn that they stay with you. This collection is by turns funny, absurd, and poignant, and never less than thoroughly entertaining. Highly recommended.”


Friday, June 18, 2021

Talking Shop: Quantity, Quality, and Fiction Writing • By Eric Dontigney


Lately, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the question of quantity in fiction writing. The long-standing argument is that quality takes time when you’re writing a book. It takes a lot of time. It can take a year, two years, even five or ten years if you happened to be named Thomas Harris. You can’t rush genius, so they say. I’ll grant you that genius works at its own pace. For that maybe half-percent of writers who qualify for the genius accolade, I hereby excuse you from the rest of this blog post. For everyone else, myself included, I’m forced to wonder what the hell is holding things up.

Let’s do a little math. Wait. Wait! Just hang in there with me for a little longer. I’ll do all the actual calculations. Let’s say your average writer works a day job, which holds true for almost all working writers. I’ll assume that your average productivity for a day is 500 words. I’ll also assume you only write about 300 days per year. After all, there are holidays, sick days, and “I’m blowing off work and taking my kids somewhere fun” days. I’ll also assume you’ll spend some of those non-writing days editing whatever you’re working on. So, 300 days per year at 500 words is 150,000 words per year.

Unless you’re writing Brandon Sanderson-level, Stormlight Archives-length novels, that’s at least a book a year. Depending on your genre and audience expectations, that might even be two books. Mind you, this is with the very conservative numbers of 500 words per day at 300 days per year. I can’t speak to anyone else, but I can crank out 500 words of fiction in an hour most days. It’s closer to half an hour on days when I’m bringing my A-game. Let’s assume that I write faster than average. Let’s say that writing 500 words takes you 1.5 hours. What must you give up in a day to make those 500 words happen? For most people, that means giving up one episode of something and cutting back on their Reddit or Facebook scrolling for 30 minutes a day. If that sounds like a big ask, writing books probably isn’t ever going to turn into a full-time occupation for you.

What about people who write books as their full-time job? I believe that those people ought to be able to manage 1000 words a day. If they’re writing at Eric-pace, they can knock that out before lunch. If they’re writing at half my normal pace, they can still knock that out before lunch. Assuming everything else stays the same, that’s 300,000 words per year. That’s absolutely two finished first drafts and could stretch into three. If you write short novels, it could be four. So, I’m forced to wonder, where are all the books?!

Now, for all the people who are about to start yelling at me about quality, 1000 words a day is a pretty leisurely pace if you write books as your job. There is no real excuse for not writing a very clean first draft. It shouldn’t take endless rounds of extensive revision to get to a pro-quality level final draft. If you’re in the 500 words a day club, the same probably holds true for you. More to the point, you can outsource a whole lot of that editing process. It’s not all on the writer’s head.

Now, over the past nine years, I’ve published five books. If I’d been writing 300 days a year at the 500 words per day pace, a pace that ought to be achievable by almost anyone, I should have written about 1.35 million words of fiction in those 9 years. Even if we assume that editing sheared about 200,000 words of fluff from that number, it still leaves 1.15 million words worth of books. My books trend a little longer, so let’s says my average book length is around 100,000 words. That’s 11-ish books. More than double the number of books I’ve actually published. When I consider that number, I start asking myself hard questions. Questions like:

“How are you spending your time, Eric?”

“Are you getting maximum value from your days?”

“Where are the books, Eric?”

I don’t have good answers to those questions. I suspect that most writers don’t have good answers for questions like that. The truly unsettling part is that some people consider me a fairly productive novel writer because I’ve published five books in a decade. They clearly haven’t done the math that I just did. I have no explanation aside from bad time management. I’ve allowed myself to fall into the traps that so many part-time fiction writers fall into. Writing takes time. You can’t rush the process. Etc. Etc. Etc. In other words, I let myself off the hook for getting words on the page.

Those are excuses. They’re the same kinds of excuses that let people drift through their careers without getting promoted or scoring substantial raises. They’re the same kinds of excuses that let people fantasize about their dream home but never actually build or buy it. At a certain point, you just need to look at yourself and say, “The problem here is me. I’m not putting in the necessary time and effort.” Unlike making big progress in your career or toward your dream home, putting in the necessary time and effort for fiction writing is comparatively easy. It’s an hour or so a day. That’s it. All you have to give up is an episode or two of television, sit down, and write.

So, I’m throwing down the gauntlet to myself (and anyone else who feels suddenly guilty about their fiction production levels) to meet the base level of production for the rest of the year. There are about 200 days left in the year. So, I’m going to put myself on the hook for 175 days’ worth of writing. That’s 87,500 words between now and the last day of the year. Since the book that I’m currently working on is a space opera for Bruce, I’ll make periodic updates here and more frequent updates on my own blog and social media profiles. If you happen across one of my profiles, feel free to hold me accountable and ask me about my current word count. If you’re buying what I’m selling here, sound off in the comments below from time to time with your own progress.



 

Eric Dontigney is the author of the 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.

 

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Notes towards a manifesto • 5

 

The Department of Useless Prescience checks in, reinforcing the idea that I am trapped inside a time loop. As I was writing this morning’s post I began to get a profound feeling of déjà vu all over again, so I checked and—yep.

From the July 2005 issue of Strange Horizons, with a few pertinent edits:

Lynne Jamneck: What's your opinion on the current state of SF writing?

Bruce Bethke: I believe you've actually asked at least three questions here. In terms of pure writing, the current state is better than it's ever been before. Compare any current issue of any major magazine to the clunky prose produced by the Grand Masters during the Golden Age or the psychotic fugues whipped out by the Young Turks during the New Wave, and I think you'll agree that for sheer literary quality, there are more highly skilled writers working now than ever before.

In terms of the market, on the other hand, things right now are as bad as I've ever seen in my adult life. From what I've read, you'd have to go back to around 1960 to find a time when the paying market for new SF was as tough.

What this means for writers, then, is that there are a lot of very talented people doing a lot of extremely good work, and publishing it in some pretty marginal venues. It's a difficult time to be trying to earn your living as a professional science fiction writer.


Lynne Jamneck: Are you seeing any interesting avenues in which the genre finds itself expanding?

Bruce Bethke: I think it's a mistake to talk about “the genre” as if it were a monolith. There may have been a time when it was possible for a dedicated fan to read a good sampling of all the new SF being published, but that time—if it ever really was—was long ago. What we’ve been going through for at least the last 30 [~brb: make that 45] years has been a sort of literary cladogenesis, with “the genre” fragmenting into dozens [hundreds] of related but distinct daughter-genres and microgenres.

The interesting part of this is that, between print-on-demand publishing, e-publishing, web publishing, and all the other emerging technologies, it's now at least semi-practical to publish fiction that has no hope of ever appealing to a mass audience. If you wanted to, say, launch an e-zine devoted exclusively to publishing stories about promiscuous centaurs living in trailer parks in Alabama, you could do it, and do a very professional-looking job of it. Not only that, but thanks to the Internet, you would actually stand a pretty fair chance of reaching the 500 people in the world who want to read nothing but stories about promiscuous centaurs living in trailer parks in Alabama. So there's more fiction being published than ever before.

The downside for the writer, though, is that there's no money in it. The general interest magazines appear to be following the general interest anthologies into extinction, and extreme specialization and small-niche marketing seem to be the shape of things to come. Readers now have unprecedented power to find only exactly the types of fiction they want to read, without risk of accidental exposure to anything else. I suppose they've always had this power—I can think of entire years when I subscribed to Asimov's and only read two or three stories in each issue—but at least with a general interest magazine, there was always the possibility that after you'd read the Michael Swanwick and Lucius Shepard stories, you might take a chance on Karen Joy Fowler.

But this trend towards extreme narrowcasting—it's both fascinating and disturbing. When readers can exercise such fine control over the input they receive, how does a writer crack through that protective shell?

And more germane to Rampant Loon Press and the future of Stupefying Stories: how does a publisher do it? 

—Bruce Bethke 

___________________________________


In the meantime, while you’re pondering the answer to that question, please take a moment now to make an affordable donation to the Campaign to Save General-Interest Magazines from Extinction, by clicking the following link:

stupefy (ˈstü-pə-ˌfī) to stun, astonish, or astound

Edited by award-winning author Bruce Bethke, STUPEFYING STORIES is a bold attempt to grow a new general-interest science fiction and fantasy magazine from the ground up. For the past ten years we've been a part-time purely-for-the-love-of-it affair publishing on a wildly erratic schedule, but our goal is to grow to become a regular monthly magazine that pays pro rates—

And here's the radical part: we want to do this not by chasing after foundation grants, asking people to contribute to our crowdfunding campaign, or begging passers-by for spare change, but by selling books and magazines that people LIKE TO READ!

Available on Kindle, in paperback, and free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Why not take a minute now to check us out?  

Monday, June 14, 2021

Notes towards a manifesto • 4


In another of my recent web chats, I was asked once again to recount the saga of how “Cyberpunk” went from being a new story, fresh and young and full of hope and promise, to at last becoming a published story, a bit jaded, weary, and battle-worn by the time it got there. 

In somewhat compressed form, the tale goes like this: in the early spring of 1980 I wrote the original version of the story, which ended with the paradigm shift and the words, “Dad, there’s going to be some changes around here.” I immediately sent it off to George Scithers at Asimov’s, who hung onto it for a bit longer than usual, then sent it back with a letter detailing everything that was wrong with my story but inviting me to rewrite it and resubmit. In particular he wanted me to fix the ending, on the grounds that Asimov’s readers would never go for an ending in which the tech-savvy teenage punk was able to win because he understood the emerging new technology far better than his father did.

I thought about that for a bit, then slapped on a coda in which Mikey gets his comeuppance and gets packed off to a military boarding school. I resubmitted the story to Asimov’s, and this time it stayed there for quite a bit longer than usual, then came back with a note from Scithers saying that while the story was improved, he’d run it by a real mainframe computer expert, and the whole idea of punk kids running around causing serious trouble using cheap computers the size of notebooks was just too far-fetched to be credible.

After Scithers at Asimov’s rejected the story a second time, I shrugged, then sent it to the next magazine on my target list: either Analog or OMNI, I can’t remember which and don’t feel like looking it up right now. The point is, between the summer of 1980 and the summer of 1981, every editor at every major magazine then in the science fiction publishing business got the chance to read this story.

And every one of them rejected it, usually with some variation on the “Real close, nice try kid,” brush-off.

In the summer of 1981 I sent the story to Amazing Stories. Founded in 1926 by Hugo Gernsback—the Hugo Gernsback, for whom the Hugo Awards are named—by 1981 Amazing was the Nora Desmond of science fiction publishing; a once-grand old lady lately fallen on hard times, and no longer considered even close to being an “A-list” market. What I didn’t know then was that there was also a lot of turmoil going on behind the scenes, as the magazine was in the process of being acquired by TSR (the makers of Dungeons & Dragons), and the editorial staff was struggling with continuing to put out a magazine while also wondering whether they’d still have jobs once the acquisition was complete. (It turned out the answer was no, they didn’t.) 

My story sat gathering dust at Amazing for about a year. In response to my ever-more-frantic queries I received a series of ever-more-promising replies from a soon to be unemployed assistant editor, until finally my last shit-or-get-off-the-pot query produced a reply from none other than George Scithers, just hired away from Asimov’s. Scithers informed me that the outgoing editorial staff had thrown out every manuscript they’d been holding for further consideration and I should consider my submission lost. However, if I wanted to resubmit the story…

I shrugged, thought ‘why not?’, and sent a fresh printout of the manuscript to Scithers, who loved it, had to have it, and in July of 1982 finally bought it. It was published in the November 1983 issue of Amazing—strictly speaking, AMAZINGTM Science Fiction Stories combined with FANTASTICTM Stories; the magazine by that point was quite a conglomeration of merged trademarks—which was on the newsstands in September of 1983. 

And the rest, as they say, is history.

¤     ¤     ¤

Looking back from the vantage point of now, the lesson here is simple: everything changes. Writers change and grow. (At least, I hope you do.) Readers change. Publishers change. Markets change. Magazines change.

Even editors change.

In 1980, George Scithers was the four-time Hugo Award-winning editor of Asimov’s, the top magazine in the field. (Although Ellen Datlow over at OMNI probably would have argued with that.) In that role George’s job was to keep Asimov’s the best-selling monthly magazine in the industry, and between the magazine’s reputation and Davis Publications’ generous budget he had first pick of the best stories being produced by the best short-story writers then working. The 1980 George Scithers had no trouble filling every issue with first-rate stories by “big name” authors.

In 1982, George Scithers was the new editor at Amazing, and his job was to use TSR’s enormous budget and marketing power to dethrone Asimov’s. The problem was that because of Amazing’s dodgy reputation and faltering circulation, a lot of “his” writers chose to stay with Asimov’s rather than follow him to Amazing. He would have to start over and develop a new talent pool.

In short, the 1980 Scithers didn’t need to take risks, he just needed to keep doing what he’d been doing all along. The 1982 Scithers absolutely had to take risks and be open to finding new talent, because that was the only way he would be able to grow his magazine’s circulation.

That, in a nutshell, is what turned a story that was unacceptable in 1980, and rejected by every major editor then working in the business, into the legend that was born in 1983. Not one word of the story changed.

The only thing that changed was the relative career situation of the editor who had rejected it twice, and then on the third try bought and published it.

Submitted for your consideration,

—Bruce Bethke