Thursday, March 31, 2022

12 Tips for Picking a Good Story Title

 

A writer-friend was blocked. Three thousand words into writing a new story, he still didn’t know what to call it. All forward progress on writing the actual story had stopped, as he was flummoxed by his lack of a good title for his work-in-progress. In desperation, he turned to social media…

That’s where I found him, floundering, flailing, collecting bad advice, and wasting a lot of energy spinning his wheels and going nowhere. Concerned, I stepped in and offered him my one piece of crucial advice on titles. Now, I now present it to you:

Remember: it’s a working title. You will change it later. Now stop worrying about the damned title and get back to work on the story. The story is what matters. No editor ever bought a lousy story because it had a great title.*

I know; as a writer who is world-famous for one particular story title, that advice seems at least a bit off, if not downright hypocritical. But for me, “Cyberpunk” was that rarest of things: a story that had one title and one title only, from the day I began writing the first page of the first draft to the day it was finally published. For the two years it took me to get that story accepted, as it bounced around the offices of every editor at every major magazine in the field, the rejection letters that came back always commented on the story, and not its in hindsight obviously brilliant title.

As I said, that story was the exception. Most of my stories go through at least four or five working titles between the time I begin sketching out the first draft and the time it’s finally published. Usually these title changes take place during the writing and editing phase, as I develop a clearer sense of what my story is about. In more than a few cases, though, the final title change came to me after I’d begun shopping the story around and collecting rejection slips.

That was one of the advantages of working in the good old/bad old days of actual paper manuscripts and mailed submissions. Every few weeks I got the opportunity to tear open an envelope and look at one of my manuscripts with fresh eyes and what turned out to be my developing editor’s sensibilities, and to ask myself: “If I was an editor, would I read past the first page of this?”

Believe me, it was therapeutic. One of my stories was rejected eighteen times before I finally looked at it and realized that while the core of the story was sound and the first page was perfect, the title was terrible. Whereupon I gave the story a quick tune-up-and-tightening edit, trimmed about 500 words of flab out of the middle, sharpened the point of the ending, christened it with a new title—again, another snappy, fresh, one-word neologism—and then sold it to a pro market on the next submission.

Ergo, after 40 years in the writing racket, here are my guidelines for story titles. Some of this comes from my personal experience as a writer. The rest comes from spending the past ten years wading through the thousands of submissions that have shown up in the Stupefying Stories slush pile. 

  1. Remember, it’s a working title. Expect to change it later. Pick a stub title and move on.

  2. Simple and descriptive titles work best.

  3. Don’t overdo descriptive, though. Avoid titles that telegraph the ending.

  4. Avoid titles that are puns. They’re rarely as funny as you imagine they are.

  5. Utterly original titles are overrated. Don’t steal titles, but don’t sweat its being too much like another story, book, or movie’s title.

  6. Avoid obscurantism. There was a time when titles like “The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World” or “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” were in fashion. That time was more than fifty years ago.

  7. No editor ever bought a lousy story because it had a great title.*

  8. No editor ever rejected a great story solely because it had a lousy title. Except:

    a. Avoid racist, sexist, and homophobic titles.

    b. Avoid overtly disgusting titles. You may think it’s gross-out humor, but slush pile readers are unlikely to agree.

    c. Avoid overtly offensive titles. You may think you’re leading with your best Harlan Ellison tough guy attitude, but again, editors are unlikely to agree.

    d. Remember, your title is just a reference tag. What you want the editor to do is not to be stopped by it, but to get on with reading your first line, your first paragraph, your first page, and then to feel compelled to turn to the next page and keep going until they get to the end.  

  9. If an editor gets to the end and likes your story, but doesn’t like the title, they will quite likely suggest that you change it. If they do, again, this is not the time to emulate Harlan Ellison.

  10. Before you submit a story for publication, remember to make sure that the story title on the first page, the story title in the page headers, the story title in the file name, and the story title you mention in your cover letter all match. Few things confuse an editor more than receiving a submission that cites one title in the email subject line, a different title in the cover letter, and yet more titles in the manuscript. When confused by a submission, most editors’ default reaction is to hit reject

  11. If an editor rejects a story, do them the courtesy of revising the story before slapping on another title and sending it back. Re my anecdote about selling a story that had been rejected eighteen times: yes, I did sell it to a market that previously had rejected it, but that was after I made significant changes to it besides changing the title.

  12. * Finally, the one exception to “No editor ever bought a lousy story because it had a great title” lies in Hollywood, where people routinely buy the film rights to titles and then throw away or completely rewrite the story behind the title. But if you’re not focused on selling the film rights first and the print edition later, this consideration doesn’t matter.

    P.S. Yoo-hoo, Hollywood! The film rights to “Cyberpunk” are still available! Have your people call my people. Let’s do lunch!

 

______________________________________

 

 

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


Edited by award-winning SF writer 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?  


Lastday: Stupefying Stories 22


Stupefying Stories 22 has reached the end of contract life and goes out of print at midnight(ish) tonight.* This is your last chance to get this book for the closeout price of just 99¢ for the Kindle edition or free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

[* Weirdly enough, while Amazon lets me set a “goes live” date, it does not let me set an “unpublish” date. Thus the actual moment when the book becomes unavailable will vary. You may be able to Snowdog in and still grab a copy early tomorrow morning, but I wouldn’t count on it.]

Stupefying Stories 22 features:

THE SHE-DRAGON OF BLY • by Jason D. Wittman

In an alternate timeline in which the Soviet Union won WWII, England is now a Soviet satellite, some magic actually works, and Premier Kruschev is going eyeball-to-eyeball with President Patton, the last surviving member of His Majesty’s Dragonslayer Corps is pulled out of retirement because it seems dragons are not extinct after all, and one has taken up residence in a prominent Politburo member’s country estate. Here there be dragons, indeed!

GROUNDSKEEPER • by Kirstie Olley

A beautiful princess, kidnapped and locked away in a sorcerer’s tower. A deadly labyrinth, filled with traps and monsters. So, Mr. Handsome Prince, before you go charging in there with your sword swinging, did it ever occur to you to wonder who *maintains* the labyrinth?

RAIN CHARMER • by Gef Fox

Gef is one of our original contributors, beginning with “A Wolf Like Leroy” in Stupefying Stories #8. “Rain Charmer” is his latest story for us, and it’s a wonderful little contemporary fantasy about... well, about rain. And about being careful what you wish for.

OHOTSUKU-KAI • by NM Whitley

A terrific next-century science fiction tale set in a world in which the United States is still recovering from the effects of the Second Civil War, the Japanese, Koreans, and Russians are all jostling for position in the Chinese shadow, and someone has discovered a new power source that seems too good to be true...

UPON THE BLOOD-DARK SEA • by Auston Habershaw

Now here be a tale of pirates, dark magic, and darker deeds, spun by master storyteller Auston Habershaw, whose name you may recognize from his appearances in F&SF, Analog, and Galaxy’s Edge, or from his many epic fantasy novels. One of his first published stories, though, was THIEF OF HEARTS in Stupefying Stories #7, and he’s been a frequent contributor ever since.

THE FISHERWOMAN • by C.J. Paget

Pirates, ghosts, kids on a summer adventure: what’s not to like? Loads of fun.

THE YIN YANG CRESCENT • by Ian Whates

A paranormal mystery caper, set in a world in which parallel versions of London exist in overlapping space/time but only those with the gift can cross between them, and a stolen magical artifact might have the power to destroy them all. The chase is on!

WITH POSSUM YOU GET FREE WERE-FI • by Mark Keigley

A terrific hard-SF generation ship story with Keigley’s usual totally out of left field “Whoa, didn’t see that coming!” twist. Clever ideas; great fun—albeit with a dark edge that should stick with you long after you’ve finished the story.

GLAMOUR FOR TWO • by Judith Field

Finally, we end this issue with GLAMOUR FOR TWO, another sweet and clever little contemporary fantasy story from Judith Field. We’ve been in love with Judith’s writing ever since THE PROTOTYPE first showed up in our inbox. If you haven’t yet read her short-story collection, THE BOOK OF JUDITH, this story will be a good introduction. If you have read it, you’ll be happy to know that this is her first new “Court & Anderson” story in years.

From magic to mystery, to science fiction so hard it clanks, here are nine tales to chill, thrill, excite and amuse you. Always fresh and entertaining, never formulaic or predictable, Stupefying Stories is the terrific reading you’ve been looking for! Don’t miss out!



 


Monday, March 28, 2022

T minus 4: Stupefying Stories 22 goes out of print on Friday

 


Sunday, March 27, 2022

T-5: Stupefying Stories 22 is going out of print

 

Stupefying Stories 22 has reached the end of it’s contract life and goes out of print at the end of this week. To close it out with a bang, we’ve lowered the price of the Kindle edition to just 99¢ and made it free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers. 

(Personally, I think you should get the print edition, as it looks much cooler.)

Stupefying Stories 22 features:

THE SHE-DRAGON OF BLY • by Jason D. Wittman

In an alternate timeline in which the Soviet Union won WWII, England is now a Soviet satellite, some magic actually works, and Premier Kruschev is going eyeball-to-eyeball with President Patton, the last surviving member of His Majesty’s Dragonslayer Corps is pulled out of retirement because it seems dragons are not extinct after all, and one has taken up residence in a prominent Politburo member’s country estate. Here there be dragons, indeed!

GROUNDSKEEPER • by Kirstie Olley

A beautiful princess, kidnapped and locked away in a sorcerer’s tower. A deadly labyrinth, filled with traps and monsters. So, Mr. Handsome Prince, before you go charging in there with your sword swinging, did it ever occur to you to wonder who *maintains* the labyrinth?

RAIN CHARMER • by Gef Fox

Gef is one of our original contributors, beginning with “A Wolf Like Leroy” in Stupefying Stories #8. “Rain Charmer” is his latest story for us, and it’s a wonderful little contemporary fantasy about... well, about rain. And about being careful what you wish for.

OHOTSUKU-KAI • by NM Whitley

A terrific next-century science fiction tale set in a world in which the United States is still recovering from the effects of the Second Civil War, the Japanese, Koreans, and Russians are all jostling for position in the Chinese shadow, and someone has discovered a new power source that seems too good to be true...

UPON THE BLOOD-DARK SEA • by Auston Habershaw

Now here be a tale of pirates, dark magic, and darker deeds, spun by master storyteller Auston Habershaw, whose name you may recognize from his appearances in F&SF, Analog, and Galaxy’s Edge, or from his many epic fantasy novels. One of his first published stories, though, was THIEF OF HEARTS in Stupefying Stories #7, and he’s been a frequent contributor ever since.

THE FISHERWOMAN • by C.J. Paget

Pirates, ghosts, kids on a summer adventure: what’s not to like? Loads of fun.

THE YIN YANG CRESCENT • by Ian Whates

A paranormal mystery caper, set in a world in which parallel versions of London exist in overlapping space/time but only those with the gift can cross between them, and a stolen magical artifact might have the power to destroy them all. The chase is on!

WITH POSSUM YOU GET FREE WERE-FI • by Mark Keigley

A terrific hard-SF generation ship story with Keigley’s usual totally out of left field “Whoa, didn’t see that coming!” twist. Clever ideas; great fun—albeit with a dark edge that should stick with you long after you’ve finished the story.

GLAMOUR FOR TWO • by Judith Field

Finally, we end this issue with GLAMOUR FOR TWO, another sweet and clever little contemporary fantasy story from Judith Field. We’ve been in love with Judith’s writing ever since THE PROTOTYPE first showed up in our inbox. If you haven’t yet read her short-story collection, THE BOOK OF JUDITH, this story will be a good introduction. If you have read it, you’ll be happy to know that this is her first new “Court & Anderson” story in years.

From magic to mystery, to science fiction so hard it clanks, here are nine tales to chill, thrill, excite and amuse you. Always fresh and entertaining, never formulaic or predictable, Stupefying Stories is the terrific reading you’ve been looking for!

Saturday, March 26, 2022

A little something for the weekend?

 

At last, a movie that answers the question: “Is it possible for the original creator of a groundbreaking work to return to it years later and produce a follow-on work that is so lame, derivative, self-indulgent, self-referential, and unimaginative that it could be mistaken for fanfic and leaves you wondering if the original actually was all that brilliant and groundbreaking, or if it was merely a lucky accident?”

Yes, I know, George Lucas answered this question ages ago, but for those of you lucky enough to have forgotten: consider The Matrix Resurrections to be Lana Wachowski’s The Phantom Menace

You have been warned.

Recommendation: Avoid. If you watch this one, it will destroy whatever affection you may still feel for the original movie.

Also worth missing…


Years ago there was a fairly decent movie, Kingsman: The Secret Service. It was a snarky, jokey, spoofy movie of the James Bond parody variety, based on the graphic novel of the same name by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, and it did well enough at the box office to spawn a sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, which was only tangentially related to anything Millar wrote. The second movie was just plain awful in just about every way in which a movie can be awful, but nonetheless it did make money, so after giving it a few years for the stench to air out someone decided that what this series needed was a prequel

Enter The King’s Man.

When it comes to prequels, I have a simple rule: prequels always suck. Always. Without fail. Don’t make them. But if you must, at least try to figure out what was good about the original property, and then attempt to tap into and replicate that. 

The makers of this film seem to have taken the opposite tack. Instead of figuring out what was good about Millar’s original story and attempting to build on that, they apparently decided to take what was bad about The Golden Circle and make it even worse. It’s too long, too loud, too violent, too stupid, and aside from one scene in which a sword fight in Russia turns into a saber dance… No, that was it. That was the only redeeming moment in this film. The rest is garbage.

Plus, it apparently was written by someone who thinks all Scotsmen are homicidal morons. 

Recommendation: Seriously? Well, on the bright side, at least Elton John doesn’t have a part in it.

Friday, March 25, 2022

HEIRS OF THE SHATTERED SPHERES: Emerald of Earth – CHAPTER 12: Vice-Captain...Great Aunt Ruby

Almost-thirteen Emerald Marcillon lives with her parents, who have dug up evidence of aliens in Chicxilub Crater in Yucatan, they have found artifacts that point to a long-ago alien war. An alien artificial intelligence called Inamma has survived that war. It tries to steal the artifacts that when assembled, can destroy all of Humanity. But it can’t find them and kills Emerald’s parents. Emerald escapes and is taken into Earth orbit to the SOLAR EXPLORER. Inamma follows Emerald into space, and the ship’s captain, who is also her great-aunt, tries to hide her from Inamma. Emerald holds the key to the artifacts. Emerald is not the best at making friends, but manages to make a few on SOLAR EXPLORER. When her friends and crew members find what Inamma is, they fight together to protect the artifacts.

(I’m posting Fridays, because if you like what you see and you’re a parent/aunt/uncle/friend of the family, you can forward, text, Instagram, or tiktok the story to your child/niece-nephew/friend-of-the-family – and your significant young adult would have Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday to read it, so it won’t interfere with the Homework Schedule.)



Emerald punched all of the twenty buttons.

Nothing changed until the bolus abruptly stopped. The doors snapped open and the floor suddenly tilted under her feet, throwing her out.

Groaning, she rolled over on her back, staring up at the bright lights on the ceiling. There were a half dozen people staring down at her.

She scrambled to her feet as an Asian girl, with a round face, dark eyes and short hair – around her own age – stepped forward. “Are you OK?” she asked.

“No! I’m not OK!” Emerald shouted. She had no idea where she was or who they were and it looked like they were going to grab her!

The girl stepped forward, grabbing Emerald’s wrist and said, “You look like you’re gonna...”

“Don’t touch me!” Emerald lashed out with a fierce roundhouse kick that might have taken the other girl’s head off if the girl hadn’t expertly blocked it. Startled, Emerald stumbled one way while the girl fell in the other, looking just as surprised as Emerald felt.

“Stun her!” a man in a white lab coat shouted, drawing something small from his pocket. He lunged forward as if he held an epee, there was a sound like metal dragging on metal.

“No! Mommy! Daddy!” Emerald screamed as every muscle in her body convulsed at the same time and she passed out.



She woke to softer lights and quiet voices. An older woman with a faint Brazilian accent, the voice tight with anger said, “Who gave the order to stun her?”

“I don’t know, Vice-Captain. Someone...”

“Security can review the recordings and I’ll get to the...”

Emerald moaned, opened her eyes. Squeezed them shut again and managed to say, “Gatão?”

The woman snorted then said, “Looks like she’ll be fine. Get out of here.” The head of the bed started to rise until Emerald was close to sitting up. By the time the waves of dizziness passed, she was used to the light.

Gatão?”

“That will be Vice-Captain Ruby Marcillon, please, great niece.” Emerald focused on the voice and her eyes eventually lined up well enough so that she could see clearly again. Her great aunt was a squat, powerful woman, formerly-black-now-mostly-gray hair cut close to her head; nose mashed to her face exactly like Daddy, with thinner lips.

Emerald asked, “What happened?”

“My question exactly. What appears to have happened is that you were wandering someplace you weren’t supposed to be – near the hospital sector to be exact – and when someone your own age tried to help you, you tried to take her head off. Do you have an alternative explanation?”

Emerald said, “I had to get away from Rashida. She was busy watching that stupid jump game, so I ran.”

“You had no idea where you were going, did you?”

“I just got here! And where were you? I thought you wanted me here?”

There was a long pause, then a deep sigh. “I’m a busy woman, Emerald. You’re my responsibility now, but my brother…” she paused again. Great aunt Ruby cleared her throat, coughing into her fist and continued, “I don’t have time for a child. I have important work to do.” Pause. “But you’re here. How old are you?”

“Almost thirteen.”

The vice-captain grunted as she straightened up to her full height then said, “Plenty old enough.”

“For what?”

“To be on an Intensive Training Team for Young Adult Career Tracks. We don’t have Earth-style schools on SOLAREX – everyone can link directly to the master computer through their ipik if they need to know facts. But over the next twelve years, there will be more than enough work to do. Some of it will be physical, so everyone in the crew – which now includes you – has to take some vocational training. Foundational information – math, science, literature, writing, history and social studies – those can be added into time the crew isn’t doing their physical job. Assuming you know how to read and write and do simple math,” she paused, raising an eyebrow at her. Emerald nodded slowly. “Good, then assignment to one of the ITTs will be perfect for you.”

“What about studying art and music?”

Vice-captain Marcillon snorted. “You can do that as ancillary studies. Find yourself a mentor – or ask one of the psychologists, psychiatrists, or counselors in the hospital.” She snorted. “You seem to have made some friends there. I’m sure one of the professionals will steer you to a mentor who will help you pursue your ancillary studies. But learning a skill to help run SOLAREX is the first priority of every crewmember. I’ll make sure you get assigned to an ITT after Rashida finishes with your orientation.”

“Great aunt Ruby, can someone else do the orientation? Rashida and I didn’t...”

Vice-Captain Marcillon snapped, “You may have been able to manipulate your parents, little girl, but I’m not them! Aboard my ship, you’ll do as I – or any other officer – directs.” She spun and marched out of the hospital room. Emerald stared after her for a long, long time before finally sinking back into the bed and pillow.

From where she lay, it looked like she was still very much...alone.

While she was still on her back in the hospital, the SOLAR EXPLORER broke out of Earth’s orbit to head deeper into the Solar System.

On the computer screen that floated over her bed, an announcer was saying, “Celebrations all over Earth have broken out spontaneously as the massive, asteroid spacecraft formerly known as 4179 Toutatis broke out of Earth’s orbit today at 7:00 am, Greenwich Mean Time. These celebrations took place despite the refusal of non-participating governments such as China, Argentina, Liberia, Vietnam and Greenland, to acknowledge the SOLAR EXPLORER’s mission or crew. It is two a.m., March 13, 2057 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and we take you to our on-the-spot reporter there, Noc Ngyuen. Ngyuen, can you describe what’s going on there...”

Emerald turned off the 3V and sighed. She’d already watched a few minutes of the celebration going on in the Core – bigger than the one for the Jump tournament the day she arrived. March 13 would be forever after, Departure Day on the SOLAREX ship calendar.

It was going to be a very, long twelve years. She’d also started it by nearly kicking the head of someone her own age.

A very long twelve years.

Image: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-shCROTG0xHA/Vf23FAhb2QI/AAAAAAAAX80/aEG8ZyFwyhA/s320/Heirs%2Bof%2Bthe%2BShattered%2BSpheres%2BEmerald%2Bof%2BEarth%2B%2B%2B%2B300dpi.jpg

Guy Stewart is a retired teacher and counselor, with science fiction for young people and adults published in ANALOG Science Fiction and Fact; podcast at CAST OF WONDERS; and in CRICKET the Magazine for Children. For links to his other works, go to https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/. For an interview about EMERALD OF EARTH, try this: http://www.writersandauthors.info/2015/09/interview-with-guy-stewart.html

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Creating Alien Aliens, Part 16 A: Communicating With Sapient Aliens? How?

Five decades ago, I started my college career with the intent of becoming a marine biologist. I found out I had to get a BS in biology before I could even begin work on MARINE biology; especially because there WEREN'T any marine biology programs in Minnesota.

Along the way, the science fiction stories I'd been writing since I was 13 began to grow more believable. With my BS in biology and a fascination with genetics, I started to use more science in my fiction.

After reading hard SF for the past 50 years, and writing hard SF successfully for the past 20, I've started to dig deeper into what it takes to create realistic alien life forms. In the following series, I'll be sharing some of what I've learned. I've had some of those stories published, some not...I teach a class to GT young people every summer called ALIEN WORLDS. I've learned a lot preparing for that class for the past 25 years...so...I have the opportunity to share with you what I've learned thus far. Take what you can use, leave the rest. Let me know what YOU'VE learned. Without further ado...


Perhaps my favorite science-based alien movie of all time is “Arrival”.

The concepts in it, that the Heptapods don’t experience time as we do, that their spoken and written language appears unrelated, and that they are borderline incomprehensible to Humans; make the whole situation and resolution so gripping that it’s difficult to get out of my head.

Of COURSE they thought through the ramifications of learning to communicate with total aliens – in particular aliens who are working to help us understand them, as some of the characters in the movie are working to understand them.

The article below also raises interesting issues and is thought-provoking. What provoked me was the monumental hubris of the author – obviously from Harvard – when they write “…humans…are instead likely ‘somewhere in the middle of the distribution of intelligences in the Milky Way galaxy’” – WHEW! Placing ourselves firmly in the middle. We’ve been to our closest satellite a few times during a contest between two nation states that each believe they are the pinnacle of political evolution; and a science community must be absolutely NOTHING less than middlin’; and we have a consistently crewed space station that is unlikely to be noticeable to aliens able to travel multiple dozens of light-years (whether at or near the speed of light, or using a technology that might as well be magic because our physics has no clue that it might exist because we’ve got all the science of physics is settled – to get here faster.

Fortunately, the author of the article is confident that we “might need our own AI systems to assist us in interpreting their AI systems.” (Doesn’t seem to be a clear answer yet whether we even HAVE a true AI that would be able to travel through space on its own…)

Another point, “One potential challenge to communicating with extraterrestrials is the possibility that such beings may not possess a conceptual system similar to our own…” As they would be the ones parked in orbit over Earth; and they’re the ones who traveled light years and found us, shouldn’t the sentence read, “One potential challenge to communicating with extraterrestrials is the possibility that we may not possess a conceptual system similar to these star travelers.”

Once again, we make assumptions from a “Terra-centric” POV. In fact, we’re even taking an “Amero-centric” POV. The Harvard professor assumes that Americans will have a place in the First Contact. Even in “Arrival”, we were neither the ONLY contact, nor were we the most successful…The Chinese in fact, did better than we did…

I DO agree with one thing they wrote, “…I think it’s actually non-intelligent on behalf of the scientific community not to engage with a search (for ET).”

Of course, this article doesn’t really discuss HOW we would attempt to communicate with an alien being/AI in orbit around Earth.

We MIGHT assume that they have had far more experience with contacting non-Them civilizations. There may be protocol that they worked out long ago before leaving their home system and have successfully employed in the vastness of the universe. So, if WE go or if THEY arrive, what might that protocol look like? Here are some of my thoughts:

1) Do NOT assume that we know what we’re doing. Acting like we know what we’re doing could have two effects, both disastrous. The first is that they assume we know what we’re doing – and then act as if we’re the “wise ones” and have some kind of leg up on the whole communicating with intelligences we have nothing in common with except for being some sort of “alive”. I can see that easily blowing up in our faces! The second would be that they catch us in a lie and just leave; OTOH (or flipper or tentacle…) lying may be a virtue for them and they will be massively impressed by our skill at creating believable falsehoods. Reference the movie “Galaxy Quest” to see the near-disaster that that situation might devolve to.

2) Do something, but be clear that we don’t know what we’re doing. It may all come to naught, but it MIGHT inspire the two intelligences to face the music…together; both working hard to create some framework of communication out of nothing. I have a short story in which sapients descended from armadillo/pill bug-like animals; “system non-integrated colonial arthropod’. A monstrous pill bug holding the leashes of smaller pill bugs of various sizes. Some of them have leashes on each other, but not all of them.” How could we possibly find anything that would provide a foundation for cooperation?

3) Of course, they might communicate musically, the way they did in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. Then we hire musicians, but them together, and see what they can come up with. I still have NO idea why the aliens in that movie even bothered with Humanity. They were technologically so far beyond us that…well, I probably have a better chance of talking to my CAT than we would have communicating with them.

4) Some say that “sapience” is what defines our ability to communicate. Sapience is the ability to think and comprehend the world in an bigger way – like “I’m here and there are people in Ukraine no different than I am.” A sapient would also possess a bigger sense of self-awareness than being able to say, “Well, here I am.” It’s the ability to say, “I am in this place. What’s my relationship to the other stuff here?” gives it a sense that it is larger than its physical self. Sapient would also make things as complicated as it could! It would also be able to figure stuff in the abstract – something like, “I’m alive. That tree is alive.” How do you get from a Human being alive to a tree being alive? They’re nothing alive, yet every child can tell the difference between a living plant and a plastic plant. Categorizing and making inferences sets intelligent beings apart from most machines, vegetation and wildlife.

5) The possibility of making a conscious self-sacrifice would also, it seems to me, to be something that sets us apart from the stuff on Earth that isn’t sapient…

This has proven so interesting, I think I’ll be back with another set of thoughts in two or three weeks!

Resource: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2022/03/how-to-talk-to-extraterrestrials/?fbclid=IwAR1BRUSDbuk3ZNvlJ-n6uibY_nMP3HAzGIFuuXlWt8Hsg-pzDzWpUk0NCmM, https://www.dataversity.net/artificial-intelligence-and-machine-learning-trends-in-2022/, https://web.media.mit.edu/~minsky/papers/AlienIntelligence.html
Image: https://image.shutterstock.com/image-illustration/alien-human-600w-136457129.jpg

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. He thinks out loud in print at: https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Reminder: Last Chance to get Stupefying Stories 22

Stupefying Stories #22 has reached the end of it’s contract life and goes out of print at the end of this month. To close it out with a bang, we’ve lowered the price of the Kindle edition to just 99¢ and made it free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers. 

(Personally, I think you should get the print edition, as it looks much cooler.)

Stupefying Stories #22 features:

THE SHE-DRAGON OF BLY • by Jason D. Wittman

In an alternate timeline in which the Soviet Union won WWII, England is now a Soviet satellite, some magic actually works, and Premier Kruschev is going eyeball-to-eyeball with President Patton, the last surviving member of His Majesty’s Dragonslayer Corps is pulled out of retirement because it seems dragons are not extinct after all, and one has taken up residence in a prominent Politburo member’s country estate. Here there be dragons, indeed!

GROUNDSKEEPER • by Kirstie Olley

A beautiful princess, kidnapped and locked away in a sorcerer’s tower. A deadly labyrinth, filled with traps and monsters. So, Mr. Handsome Prince, before you go charging in there with your sword swinging, did it ever occur to you to wonder who *maintains* the labyrinth?

RAIN CHARMER • by Gef Fox

Gef is one of our original contributors, beginning with “A Wolf Like Leroy” in Stupefying Stories #8. “Rain Charmer” is his latest story for us, and it’s a wonderful little contemporary fantasy about... well, about rain. And about being careful what you wish for.

OHOTSUKU-KAI • by NM Whitley

A terrific next-century science fiction tale set in a world in which the United States is still recovering from the effects of the Second Civil War, the Japanese, Koreans, and Russians are all jostling for position in the Chinese shadow, and someone has discovered a new power source that seems too good to be true...

UPON THE BLOOD-DARK SEA • by Auston Habershaw

Now here be a tale of pirates, dark magic, and darker deeds, spun by master storyteller Auston Habershaw, whose name you may recognize from his appearances in F&SF, Analog, and Galaxy’s Edge, or from his many epic fantasy novels. One of his first published stories, though, was THIEF OF HEARTS in Stupefying Stories #7, and he’s been a frequent contributor ever since.

THE FISHERWOMAN • by C.J. Paget

Pirates, ghosts, kids on a summer adventure: what’s not to like? Loads of fun.

THE YIN YANG CRESCENT • by Ian Whates

A paranormal mystery caper, set in a world in which parallel versions of London exist in overlapping space/time but only those with the gift can cross between them, and a stolen magical artifact might have the power to destroy them all. The chase is on!

WITH POSSUM YOU GET FREE WERE-FI • by Mark Keigley

A terrific hard-SF generation ship story with Keigley’s usual totally out of left field “Whoa, didn’t see that coming!” twist. Clever ideas; great fun—albeit with a dark edge that should stick with you long after you’ve finished the story.

GLAMOUR FOR TWO • by Judith Field

Finally, we end this issue with GLAMOUR FOR TWO, another sweet and clever little contemporary fantasy story from Judith Field. We’ve been in love with Judith’s writing ever since THE PROTOTYPE first showed up in our inbox. If you haven’t yet read her short-story collection, THE BOOK OF JUDITH, this story will be a good introduction. If you have read it, you’ll be happy to know that this is her first new “Court & Anderson” story in years.

From magic to mystery, to science fiction so hard it clanks, here are nine tales to chill, thrill, excite and amuse you. Always fresh and entertaining, never formulaic or predictable, Stupefying Stories is the terrific reading you’ve been looking for!

Saturday, March 19, 2022

A little something for the weekend?

Sorry, no long post today. I had every intention of writing a brilliant column this morning but then got the chance to spend time with my grandchildren instead. Among other things, we went into the collection and picked out a few books for them to take home. The grandson left with Robert Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky while the granddaughter took Patricia Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons.

Days don’t get much better than this.

Friday, March 18, 2022

HEIRS OF THE SHATTERED SPHERES: Emerald of Earth – CHAPTER 11: DEEPER INTO SOLAREX

Almost-thirteen Emerald Marcillon lives with her parents, who have dug up evidence of aliens in Chicxilub Crater in Yucatan, they have found artifacts that point to a long-ago alien war. An alien artificial intelligence called Inamma has survived that war. It tries to steal the artifacts that when assembled, can destroy all of Humanity. But it can’t find them and kills Emerald’s parents. Emerald escapes and is taken into Earth orbit to the SOLAR EXPLORER. Inamma follows Emerald into space, and the ship’s captain, who is also her great-aunt, tries to hide her from Inamma. Emerald holds the key to the artifacts. Emerald is not the best at making friends, but manages to make a few on SOLAR EXPLORER. When her friends and crew members find what Inamma is, they fight together to protect the artifacts.

(I’m posting Fridays, because if you like what you see and you’re a parent/aunt/uncle/friend of the family, you can forward, text, Instagram, or tiktok the story to your child/niece-nephew/friend-of-the-family – and your significant young adult would have Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday to read it, so it won’t interfere with the Homework Schedule.)


By chance, she got to the intestine elevator just as a group of noisy fans dressed in neon green tumbled out and sprinted down the hall. Emerald got in, studied the “buttons”, then jabbed the one at the bottom marked C. Rashida wasn’t sprinting down the hall screaming for people to “Grab her! She’s not supposed to be here!”

The doors squelched shut and the bolus started to move.

By the time she reached the Core of the ship, she was calm again. She knew Rashida couldn’t be directly behind her – the bolus was still stood open for Emerald, jammed with a stick that had been laying nearby. Straight ahead was stupid Jump mob, staring into the air where a life-sized holographic projection of the game was going on. To her right, the mob crowded a real playing field – football, she supposed, though it looked like it could be used both for regular football – Americans called it “soccer” for some reason – and normal world football.

To her left, there was nothing but forest and several gravel covered paths that ran off into it. She ran, crossing the grass, then joining the trail. Running had never been a problem for her. She liked to run when people let her. She and Dad spent hours running beaches along the Gulf when she was eleven. Her and Mom would literally run together into Telchac Puerto -- Mom would take it easy! -- before the military infiltrated their research station. Then they banned anyone from her family from going into any town. They’d become prisoners in their own home.

She scowled and veered from thoughts of Mom and Dad and focused on the soldiers.

She still had no idea why they showed up when they did. It wasn’t like Mom and Dad hadn’t been preaching their “Shattered Spheres” theory. And the knife-footed robot had followed the soldiers. She didn’t remember soldiers at the dig site. Then again, she didn’t notice a lot of things. Had they been there all along and she just hadn’t noticed until recently – when her own age had gotten closer to the age of the newest soldiers? Or were the making Mom and Dad argue more? Were the soldiers somehow the cause of the arguments?

It finally penetrated her intense focus on her parent’s arguments that she could hear voices. She slowed down, then stopped, noticing her surroundings for the first time. The forest was gone, the ground was drier and the trees more stunted and farther apart. She wasn’t sure, but it felt warmer, too.

In the distance were a group of young people – most of them older than her. One kid came out of a stand of tall savannah grasses and ran up to the others who appeared to be picking something off of the trees, skidding to a halt. Chubby, huffing and puffing, he wasn’t dressed like them. Most of them flicked the bugs, banking them off a funneled collection bottle which made a hollow popping sound. One of the boys flicked a bug at the kid, who batted it away irritably.

She stared in surprise. An elderly man squatted apart from them, ignoring the confrontation, examining a different tree using a magnifying glass. She recognized him as well. He’d been to the Chicxulub station a year or so ago. Dr. Antoine Clerck. She also remembered he’d been condescending to Mom and outright rude to Dad – whom he thought was a servant.

Emerald squatted down and waddled closer to the group, stopping beside what was supposed to be an African termite mound. It wasn’t. She’d seen arboreal termite mounds in trees in the Yucatan jungle. There were bugs all over it. This one only looked like it was alive.

The chubby kid who’d just run up stopped and the box he was carrying, with some kind of drooping wires and antennae taped together with gray tape swung around from his back.

He caught it deftly then ran up shouting, “Doctor Clerck, I can count your ants by registering them on this energy scanner I invented last night!”

The group stood up straight as one. The oldest boy cried, “No, Zech!” He tried to wave the younger boy off. When the boy named Zech ignored him, the oldest guy took off running, dragging two of the girls after him. Another boy retreated with them.

Zech pressed a button.

Every ant on the tree exploded at the same time, sending a miasma of vaporized formic acid into the still, hot air. The rest of the group scrambled to get away, screaming and choking.

Emerald thought the tree looked like it had been engulfed in a thunderhead.

Zech made weak thunder sounds and said, “Oops.” He flashed a fake smile, tears from the slowly dissipating formic acid cloud streaming down his face.

The group stared at him incredulously. After the coughing fit, a boy who’d been standing near Dr. Clerck called from a safe place, “Nice job, Yuck-ariah. You just fried Dr. Clerck’s favorite bug bush!”

Dr. Clerck’s face had turned an unusual shade of red beneath a thin halo of gray hair. He stepped forward, absently patted the other boy on the shoulder and said, “You have a magnificent ability of understating the obvious, Hood.” Crossing to the boy named Zech, he held out his hand. The boy backed up, hugging the scanner. Dr. Clerck actually growled as he said, “Give me your machine, Mr. Brewbub.” He stepped back.

Zechariah Brewbub? She felt sorry for him for an instant. It wasn’t a name she’d forget any time soon.

“I will not wait another instant to call Security on the emergency band if you do not hand that thing over to me. There are ten thousand hectares of cultivated land on this ship. The work we do here is the single most important thing anyone does on this ship. Your...toy can destroy us all!”

Zech gave it to him. Dr. Clerck took the box, examined it intently then dropped it on the ground and jumped on it six times, grunting, muttering and cursing out loud once. The rest of the kids looked startled. The older man picked up the pile of debris before the small robot scurrying out of a tree trunk arrived to clean up the mess, handed them to Zechariah, saying, “You’re fired, Mr. Pubtub. Don’t come back or I will have you court martialed, confined to quarters, and executed before a firing squad!” The boy looked at him, stunned. Dr. Clerck pointed down ship and shouted, “Go!”

Emerald looked up as an immense Zeppelin thrummed as it flew low over them, stirring the air. The cloud of formic acid from the exploded ants blew over the group of kids and Dr. Clerck, driving them into the forest, screaming and cursing.

Hanging his head, Zech walked away into the savannah, off the gravel path and stopped at a different fake termite mound. He patted the side of it and a door opened up. He stepped in and was gone.

Emerald felt sorry for him – but she also didn’t want to cross paths with him. He was obviously someone to avoid. She waited a bit, wiping her wrist across her forehead. It was hot in this part of SOLAREX. It hadn’t been this hot in the Core by the 3V screen.

She scurried across the grassland and did the same thing Zech had done, patting the termite mound. The bolus inside was still disgusting, but she’d watched carefully when Rashida was choosing a floor. She had no doubt Rashida or SOLAREX security could find her wherever she went but she was tired of Rashida. She punched a random button and the doors squelched shut.

This one was larger than the one she’d been in the first time. It slid faster, too. She could just feel the acceleration this time. After a few minutes, she jammed the button again.

When it didn’t slow, she started to be afraid…

Image: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-shCROTG0xHA/Vf23FAhb2QI/AAAAAAAAX80/aEG8ZyFwyhA/s320/Heirs%2Bof%2Bthe%2BShattered%2BSpheres%2BEmerald%2Bof%2BEarth%2B%2B%2B%2B300dpi.jpg

Guy Stewart is a retired teacher and counselor, with science fiction for young people and adults published in ANALOG Science Fiction and Fact; podcast at CAST OF WONDERS; and in CRICKET the Magazine for Children. For links to his other works, go to https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/. For an interview about EMERALD OF EARTH, try this: http://www.writersandauthors.info/2015/09/interview-with-guy-stewart.html

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Sci-Fi vs Western: Clash of the Genres

 

Ever since the subject of Wild Wild West came up again, I’ve been thinking critically about the dichotomy between science fiction and the Western pulp genre. I’ve developed a theory that I think I will write more about later, but right now, I’m wondering why Western motifs and thematic elements work so well for horror and with such difficulty in hard science fiction. 

My memory is colored by the fact that I spent a lot of money on our spinoff anthology series, Tales From The Wild Weird West, only to have it fail in development and never reach release. Looking back at the facts of the matter, though, we’ve actually published quite a bit of fiction that veers into Western territory. Some examples:

“The Dead Barn,” by Amy Caylor - A Western post-zombie-Apocalypse story currently out in Stupefying Stories #23

“Rain Charmer,” by Gef Fox - A clever little tale of being careful what you wish for, currently out in Stupefying Stories #22. I’d call this a story with a Native American motif, except that Gef is Canadian, so the proper term is First Nations.

“The New Herd,” by Lilliana Rose - Snarky, fun; better yet, it’s free, as it snuck in during one of the periods when we were trying to reboot SHOWCASE as a webzine. Read it now!

“Princess Nicotine,” by John Skylar - A cyberpunk Western, if you will. Published in SS#18, which is now out of print. Too bad you missed it.

“I Live the Warrior’s Life,” by Robert Lowell Russell - Plenty of people write stories in which the veil between worlds is pierced and monsters from the Other Side cross over into our world. Robert had the imagination to realize that in North America we’d get things from the Eastern Woodlands folklore, and they had some real nightmares. This story was so good we made it the cover for SS#16.

“Long Cold Wish,” by Laura DeHaan - Also in SS#16, a really creepy and first-rate paranormal mystery that I’ll probably tap for our Best of anthology, if we ever do one.

“Red Dust and Dancing Horses,” by Beth Cato - Just because a girl is growing up under a dome on Mars, that doesn’t mean she can’t be obsessed with horses, does it? This one first appeared in SS#5 and has been anthologized so many times since then that it almost seems unnecessary to reprint it, but I am really proud that we were the first to publish this one.

This is just a short list of the stories that spring immediately to mind. I’m sure there have been more. 

Last Chance: Stupefying Stories 22 is going out of print

One of the fundamental mistakes I made when I created Stupefying Stories was stipulating that the e-books would have a limited shelf-life. As a result, STUPEFYING STORIES #22 has reached the end of its contract life and goes out of print on April 1st.

To (so to speak) close the books on SS#22, therefore, we’re running a 99-cent sale. For the next two weeks, STUPEFYING STORIES #22 can be yours for the lordly price of 99¢ USD, or free if you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber. But act soon, because as of April 1st, it’s gone forever. 

And now, the advertising copy.

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.   


 

 

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Wild Wild West Revisited: A Few Last Words

 

Previously: Part One | Part Two

Whenever we talk about the Wild Wild West fiasco, I usually let it slip that one of the reasons why I found the project appealing was that someone over at Warner Books suggested that if the book was a commercial success, it could lead to a series of WWWest-branded steampunk westerns, to be authored by yours truly. 

Whether this idea was mere speculation or bait to get me to sign the contract doesn’t matter now. The movie flopped. The book flopped. Even if the movie and book had been wildly successful, though, the people who owned the Wild Wild West intellectual property had sold all other book rights to another publisher, thus there would never be another Warner Books Wild Wild West novel. End of story.

Still, whenever we wander through the back roads of this particular bit of my personal history, someone invariably asks, “Well, why not write your own non-WWWest steampunk western novels?” After all, there are tons of successful SF/F series out there that are basically Not Exactly Star Trek, or Not Quite Star Wars, or Not Entirely Starship Troopers. The sheer volume of Not Precisely Tolkien novels that are out there—and selling very well, thank you—boggles the mind. So why not write Not Close Enough to Wild Wild West to be Actionable?

Even my own interior monologue, which I hope you can’t hear, chimes in to amplify and add to the question.

You’ve loved the Desert Southwest ever since you first visited Arizona in 1964. Your heroes have always been cowboys. [No, they weren’t. Shut up, Willie.] You’ve always been fascinated by the historical period from the end of the American Civil War to the beginning of World War I. It was a time of incredibly fast technological innovation and scientific advancement, coupled with dramatic social and political ferment. Why not write your own series of western steampunk adventures?

Off the top of my head, I can think of at least five compelling reasons.

1. The time to have done this was twenty years ago. 

At that time we would have been talking about developing a series that was already pre-sold to a major publisher, that had at least some promotional and advertising muscle behind it, and for which there would have been a decent on-signing advance. If I was to attempt to do these novels now, I’d have to do them on spec, and either hope to find a publisher or more likely self-publish them. That’s something I don’t have the time or patience to do now.

2. Western fiction ain’t quite dead yet, but it’s coughing blood and lookin’ a mite peaked. 

Louis L’Amour Western Magazine is dead and buried. Western Story is but a dim memory. A very small handful of fiction magazines devoted to publishing new Western content still exist—e.g., Frontier Tales—but they pay in contributor’s copies and/or chump change. If you look for a Western section in your local bookstore, you’ll find it’s full of Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey reprints, and maybe a few Larry McMurtry or Tony Hillerman novels. If you look for Western fiction online, you’ll find far more cowboy and cowgirl porn than you ever thought possible. Yippee-ti-yay, ride ‘im, Reverse Cowgirl!

There is a subgenre of Weird Westerns, but it’s quite small, has a limited readership, and is mostly full of horror stories.

3. Steampunk isn’t dead, but it sure does smell funny.

When steampunk began, with Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine, it did so with a genuinely interesting sci-fi premise: “What if Charles Babbage’s mechanical computers had actually worked, and brought serious computational power to Victorian-era society?”

Sadly, while steampunk began with great promise, it quickly became apparent that after a very short list of seminal works (e.g., Paul Di Filippo’s Steampunk Trilogy), it really did not have much to say. Even faster than cyberpunk decayed into LitRPG, steampunk became a style: all set-dressing, no substance. Instead of interesting excursions into possible alternate histories we got clockwork and corsets, which ultimately morphed into steampunk-flavored paranormal romance.

Admittedly that subgenre sells well, but it bores the living crap out of me.

4. You can’t fight the legacy of Bat Durston, Space Marshal.

Science fiction fans do not like Western in their science fiction. Do not, do not, do not. To some extent this is because of John W. Campbell Jr. and how he actively worked to deform the science fiction genre and make it a thing apart from all other pulp genres, but even more so it’s the fault of Horace Gold, founding editor of Galaxy magazine. I could go on and on at great length about this, and perhaps another time I will, but I want to get this column finished today. Therefore, suffice to say that I want you to imagine this scene:

[EXTERIOR, DAYLIGHT: A busy city street corner. A science fiction fan, head-down in a pulp magazine as he walks, rounds the corner and accidentally collides head-on with an equally distracted Western fan coming from the other direction.]

WESTERN FAN: “Hey! You got science fiction in my Western! What is this weird shit?”

SCI-FI FAN: “Hey! You got Western in my science fiction! It smells funny!”

BOTH, IN UNISON: “I HATE IT!”

5. Finally…

To put it simply: you cannot write a period Western—even an alternate-history period Western—without including Native American characters. And while I’ve lived my entire life around Native Americans, gone to school with, worked alongside, and even been related by marriage to Native Americans, I know that just as soon as I write a Native American character, some idiot White Savior is going to take it upon herself to school me on what a horrible person I am for doing so, given that I myself am not a Native American.

Seems far-fetched? In the world of 1999, it might have been. But we live in the world of now, where the NCAA can force the University of North Dakota “Fighting Sioux” to change their name and mascot, even though a significant percentage of the student population is Sioux, and at least two tribal councils passed resolutions supporting the old name and objecting to changing it.

Like I need to deal with that aggravation…

_______________

For every example, someone can always cite a counter-example. Most science fiction fans reading this likely will jump straight to Firefly and say, “See! We can accept Western themes in science fiction!”—in the process completely disregarding the fact that Firefly was a dismal flop in its initial run and only became a fan favorite and cult classic years later, when it was re-released on DVD. A few others might cite Cowboys & Aliens, which I’ll admit I have watched, and classify as stupid fun. (Aliens have come here to steal our gold? Seriously, were they inspired by watching Battlefield Earth?)

Personally, I would rather direct your attention to the TV series from which I lifted the above photo, of beloved science fiction and horror movie star Bruce Campbell, in The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr

To which you’re most likely to respond, “Huh? Never heard of it.”

Wherein lies the problem. For me to write my own series of steampunk westerns would not just require me to write the books, and would not just require me to create yet another new subgenre: I would have to create an entirely new audience.

Believe me, that’s a lot harder than it looks.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Talking Shop: Embracing the Anti-Hero • By Eric Dontigney

There is a terribly thin line between an anti-hero and a straight-up villain. It’s a line that Craig Schaefer admirably straddles in his Daniel Faust series. Faust is our protagonist in the books, and he reads a bit like a knock-around hero at first. As time goes by, though, you realize that this guy is no kind of hero. He’s a magic-fueled criminal. And he’s not some soft-shoe criminal who only commits crimes that don’t hurt anyone.

He’s a sometimes grifter, sometimes street hustler, sometimes thief, and occasionally a thug for hire. He’s routinely violent, up to and including murder. In other words, this is the guy you expect your hero to fight. So, how do you take a guy with his moral compass pointing due west and make him a protagonist? Just as importantly, why would you want to?

Making a guy like this sympathetic takes a bit of dancing in terms of plotting and character development. The antagonist or antagonists in the story must be demonstrably worse than him. Their demonstrable worse-ness must generally happen on the page. Their goals must either be sufficiently evil in themselves or require a level of evil that makes your protagonist’s misdeeds pale in comparison. In essence, you need to set up the conflict in such a way that readers look at the protagonist and think, “Yeah, I wouldn’t want to invite that guy to a barbecue, but I would gladly dump high-proof liquor on the people he’s squaring off against if I saw them on fire.”

The trickier question for a lot of writers is why you would want a central character like that in the first place. Why not pick a more traditional hero? It comes down to latitude. Book and film storytelling has progressed enough over the decades that we’re generally willing to accept a certain level of violence from heroes. Heroes can beat people up. If necessary, heroes can even kill. On the whole, though, we expect a certain degree of restraint from heroes.

With a small handful of exceptions, Superman could kill most of his antagonists out of hand. Giving him that extraordinary level of power means balancing it out with an extraordinary level of restraint. If he just offed every bad guy he ran across, he’d look abusive and tyrannical. We wouldn’t see him as a hero. That dramatically circumscribes the range of actions available to him. It also limits the ways a writer can resolve the central problem in the story.

When your protagonist would be the bad guy in literally any other story, those limitations largely vanish. Your character can be charming and even kind in some ways, but you can also have them shoot out someone’s kneecaps to get information without violating the reader’s expectations. You can have them throw someone off a building as an object lesson. They can commit crimes for personal enrichment as part of the plot and readers will just nod along with it because, hey, he is a criminal.

It also frees up the protagonist to say things that you just cannot have a legitimate hero say. If someone is rude to a hero, we expect them to just take it or try to defuse the situation. An anti-hero, on the other hand, can shoot off at the mouth with something like, “If you speak to me that way again, I’m going to gut you with a nine iron.” It’s kind of amusing, kind of horrifying, and upends the expected social conventions. Plus, it’s sort of entertaining for writers to dream up these kinds of lines. In short, using an anti-hero as your protagonist creates opportunities that you don’t get with more traditional good guys.

__________________________________________________

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.


SHAMELESS ADVERT: If you like Harry Dresden or John Constantine, you’ll love THE MIDNIGHT GROUND. READ IT NOW!

 

Saturday, March 12, 2022

A little something for the weekend?

 

“King Kong doesn’t stand a chance,” the Kid said. “Godzilla is a gigantic, primordial, atomic fire-breathing monster. King Kong is just a big gorilla. Realistically, Godzilla—”

Wait. Stop right there. “Realistically” and “Godzilla” don’t belong in the same sentence. They barely belong in the same universe. If you’re going to think realistically about anything involving Godzilla, you’re wasting your time. On the descending scale of scientific stupidity there’s science, junk science, redneck science, Star Trek science, Doctor Who science, Forteanism, and somewhere way down at the bottom of the stack, just a slim step above a consensus of leading public policy experts, there’s Godzilla science.

So let’s have no more attempts at thinking realistically about this movie, okay? Let’s just accept it for what it is: a giant monster slug-fest in which a major modern world-class city—in this case, Hong Kong, not Tokyo—gets stomped into rubble. This is the movie you’ve been waiting for ever since the second Pacific Rim movie turned out to be such a disappointment. This is the movie that Legendary Pictures has been building up to ever since they released their 2014 Godzilla reboot, followed by Kong: Skull Island (2017) and Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019). This is the next chapter in a continuing story and a direct sequel to King of Monsters, and yet you need not to have watched any of the previous movies for this one to make as much sense as it’s ever going to make.

The plot is—aw hell, who cares, it’s a Godzilla movie. It has all the intellectual depth and drama of a WWF tag-team match. Anything the human characters do or say is just there to move the point-of-view along from one titanic set-piece battle to the next.

Legendary has done one fairly clever thing with this series in general and this movie in particular. In his past incarnations, King Kong has always had just one story, and it’s a recapitulation of the plot of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel, The Lost World. To wit:

  1. Expedition to uncharted place find fantastic land where giant ancient animals still survive

  2. Expedition captures one such giant animal and takes it back to civilization to show it off

  3. Said giant animal breaks loose and goes on rampage through city only to be killed in the end

  4. Oh yeah, and there’s a romantic subplot between two of the human characters, but who cares?


I mean seriously, how many times have you seen that story?

For this iteration of Kong, though, Legendary has done one thing that is decently creative. Instead of a giant gorilla and yet another regurgitation of the Lost World plot, they’ve made Kong a gigantic primitive hominid. He’s an intelligent, tool-using creature, the last known descendant of a race of such beings, and he is quite capable of communicating with humans when he wants to, thanks to [SPOILER ALERT!] an adorable little deaf girl who has taught Kong sign language.

That is the nicest touch in this movie. The major problem with this movie, and I hesitate to say it, is Millie Bobby Brown. In Godzilla: King of the Monsters, her character, Madison Russell, was absolutely central to the story and to the development and resolution of the plot. In this movie, though—

Honestly, she’s given nothing important to do. So instead she spends a lot of time running around, pursuing a sub-plot involving a paranoid podcaster that eventually produces one meaningful reveal, but her part could just as easily have been cut completely from the film and replaced with about thirty seconds of exposition.

RECOMMENDATION: Gorgeous CGI, titanic giant creature battles, lots of rubble and destruction; inside this ponderous two-hour behemoth there’s a really good 90-minute action movie roaring with rage and demanding to be let loose. Don’t stream this one. Go to your local Redbox and rent the disc—or better yet, buy it, as you can probably get the used Blu-Ray for about three bucks now—and then you can watch it at your leisure and fast-forward through all of Millie Bobby Brown’s frenetic but meaningless scenes. 



Friday, March 11, 2022

Wild Wild West Revisited, Part 2

A few years after the interview in Part One appeared, an earnest young writer by the name of Kimberly interviewed me for an article about the business of writing movie novelizations. Apparently she was under the impression that this was the sort of writing career one could aspire to have. While I tried to let her down gently, I later learned that there actually is an organization called the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers, and that people actually do actively want to get this sort of work. With that in mind, then, and using Kimberly’s interview as my point of departure, here’s Part Two.
 

(Unused original cover art)


Q: What is your process for writing a novelization, and how does it differ or compare to the movie?

A: Writing a novelization is a lot like selling your soul to Satan, except that in the case of the novelization your literary soul gets remaindered within three months and pulped inside of a year.

Understand, very few writers do screenplay novelizations or media tie-in novels because they want to. Rather, they do them because some publisher comes up to them and dangles a contract and a wad of cash before their eyes, and it looks like easy money. It's also worth noting at the outset that novelization and media tie-in work never goes to aspiring writers just starting out or devoted fans of some movie or TV series. The contracts go to what we call mid-list or mid-career writers, which is to say, writers like me: writers who have an established publication history, and who have proven that they can write competent fiction and deliver it on schedule, but who are not currently experiencing what you might call commercial success.

So the Deal with the Devil works like this: in exchange for your writer's soul, you get offered the chance to do a book that is almost guaranteed to be a huge, best-selling, commercial success. Confronted with this, most writers think "Okay, I'll do just one. Then, once I've got a best-seller on my resumé and the fans know who I am, I'll go back to doing "real" books."

Of course, as in all deals with the devil, there is at least one hidden catch, and the most important one is this: if the book is a huge, commercial, best-selling success, it gets credited to the media franchise that spawned it, whereas if the book tanks, it gets blamed on the writer. The other major catch is that there turns out to be little or no crossover in readership. People who buy media tie-in books very rarely pay attention to books set outside of their favorite movie, TV, or gaming universe. For example, Mike Stackpole tells me people send him fan mail all the time gushing, "I've read ALL your books!" when what they really mean is they've read all his BattleTech books and have absolutely no clue that he's ever written anything else and no interest in reading anything else anyway.

Oops. I don't seem to have answered the original question. Okay, the process for writing a novelization from a screenplay goes something like this:

  1. The publisher pitches you on the deal, being careful to give you little or no actual information about the project because "you haven't signed the non-disclosure yet."

  2. With greed in your heart and dollar signs in your eyes, you sign the book contract, and the studio responds by sending you a non-disclosure agreement that would choke your attorney's horse.

  3. You sign that behemoth, and then they send you the script. You read it, grab your forehead as if in pain, gasp out, "Omigod, what have I gotten myself into?", and call your editor to point out the six most salient things that make the novel utterly unworkable and hopelessly asinine. Your editor relays your concerns to the studio, and a week or two later some under-assistant studio liaison calls back to say, "What idiot sent you that script? I'll Fedex the real script out to you first thing tomorrow."

  4. Two weeks later the so-called "real" script finally arrives, and it's even worse than the first one.

  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 five or six times, until you finally realize the grim truth: that a script is just the starting point from which a collective of producers, directors, actors, editors, and other personnel work towards the finished product. Movie productions typically keep a staff of screenwriters on or near the set, and the script is re-written constantly as the film goes through the stages of pre-production, primary filming, and post-production. The director and actors will try things and decide something reads great in the script but doesn't work on-camera; somebody will improvise something and the director will decide that's better than what was scripted and branch off in that direction; scenes will get cut because a stunt goes awry or a special effect isn't working; in many cases unbelievably mundane things will force changes, such as an actor being unable to pronounce a certain word or say a certain line with a straight face or a key prop or bit of set dressing turning out to look laughably bad on-camera.

  6. This, of course, works a certain hardship on the novelization writer, as you come to realize that not only are you trying to document the precise surface topography of a moving river, but that because of the long lead times involved in print production and distribution you also have to have this thing finished six months before the movie hits the cineplex, which means the book is generally declared done while the movie is still in post-production. This accounts for a lot of the differences between a movie and its attendant novelization. Movies are typically edited one last time in response to the audience reactions at test screenings, and this final edit can sometimes be quite late and drastic. (Hence the popularity of "Director's Cuts" on DVDs.) In the case of WILD WILD WEST, they were still rewriting key bits of dialog and overdubbing scenes 30 days before the movie was released.

  7. Finally, you have to realize that a full-length film script contains about one-third of the actual content of a full-length novel. If this seems odd to you, think of the last book you liked that got adapted into a film and remember how much of the book was left out. This means that the writer of a novelization has to come up with a LOT of fluffy filler to expand the story out to book length, without including anything that might possibly contradict the direction the film might take as it evolves in post-production.

  8. Oh yeah. Then, at the end of the process, the producer or director typically has the right to read the novelization and demand changes, although they're also typically far too busy snorting coke and banging starlets to do so, so the job typically gets dumped on some junior under-assistant co-producer who's still struggling to finish reading that Batman comic book he bought back in 1996, when he thought he had a shot at working for Tim Burton.

Does this sound like fun yet?

Q: Is there a specific target audience novelizations seem to attract, or do you intend to attract a specific audience?

A: Novelizations are, for lack of an adequate English word, tchotchkes. For the movie studio, they're a little -- and I mean little -- extra spot of cash on the side and little extra promotional oomph for the film. For the publisher, they're a chance to piggyback off of and get a little taste of the (hoped for) success of the movie and to sell a lot of cheaply printed and readily disposable copies. For the reader: ah, that's the mystery. As far as I can tell, novelizations sell to people who just can't get enough of a specific movie or TV series and want to spend more time in that universe, in the company of their imaginary friends.

Q: How do you receive royalties or contract rights to the work?

A: It depends on the contract. In all cases, the book is a work-for-hire and the writer has no intellectual property rights. The publisher ultimately owns both the underlying intellectual property and the actual work, and can do whatever they like to it up to and including hiring another writer to completely rewrite the whole wretched thing. In the best of cases, the writer gets a decent advance payment and royalty rate that's typically about half the rate for an original book. In the worst cases, of which there are many, the writer gets a flat fee for writing the book and no royalties ever.

If the contract does include royalties, royalty accounting is typically done on an annual basis and a check is sent to the author at that time. This means that the first royalty check typically arrives 12- to 18-months after the book is released, if ever.

Q: Do you feel that novelizers are not as well-accepted in the literary world as writers of original work? Or do you consider the novelization your original work?

A: Well, why should we be? It's embarrassing to write a novelization. Writers do them for the same reasons actresses do nude scenes or sleep with producers; because they think it will help their career or because they really, really, desperately need the money. Unfortunately, all it does is establish that you are the sort of writer who will do anything for money. So you do get a lot of offers afterwards, but they're not the sort of offers you want.

Q: Is this a hobby or a pastime? What is your full-time job? Is novelizing not a stable-enough career?

A: For me, writing a novelization was more like the last gasp of a dying fiction career. For other writers I know, it's become a full-time job and most of them resent that it takes them away from their "real" writing.

It can be a stable career, but it's not one I'd recommend. If someone wants to make money writing, they're far better off writing non-fiction, as non-fiction pays better and generally involves dealing with sane and ethical people, not Hollywood studio execs.

After my ghastly experience with WILD WILD WEST, I decided to demote writing fiction to "hobby" status and go back to my previous career, which is working in software R&D.

Q: We have been told that there are some celebrity novelizers out there. Can you name a few, besides yourself of course, who are famous for writing these works?

A: The only one I can think of off the top of my head is Alan Dean Foster. Ron Goulart is said to have written a bunch, though generally under pseudonyms. Tim Zahn, Mike Stackpole, Kevin Anderson, and Daffyd ab Hugh are all pretty well-known for their Star Trek and Star Wars spinoffs, as are a few others.

I think everybody who has tried to make a career of writing fiction has dipped their toes in these fell waters once or twice, or if not this, then written a romance novel or maybe some biker porn. As I said earlier, it looks like easy money and a good way to draw attention to your other books.

I think the saddest and craziest case I know of is Terry Bisson, who got tapped to write the novelization of JOHNNY MNEMONIC. I mean, imagine that: Bisson -- who is a brilliant but under-rated writer -- winds up writing the novelization based on the screenplay based on the short story by William Gibson. How much weirder can it get?

There is a writer's joke about landing the contract to write the novelization of the screenplay of the remake of GONE WITH THE WIND. It's one of those jokes born of pain.

[Afterthought #1: Er, everyone here does know that GWTW was adapted from a novel by Margaret Mitchell, right? I mean, I hate to explain punch lines, but I have actually met people who thought Dune was a novelization of the David Lynch movie.]

Q: Do you happen to know who wrote the first novelization, what it was, and what year it was published?

A: Sorry, not a clue. The first ones I can remember seeing were a series of STAR TREK script novelizations that James Blish did back in the mid-1960s, but that's probably just when I became aware of the novelization as a distinct form.

Given the incestuous relationship between books and movies, it's sometimes hard to sort out what's a novelization and what's an original book. For example, I've seen Alduos Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD repackaged as if it were a novelization, to piggyback off some made-for-TV movie that was adapted from the book in the late 1960s.

I'd say the novelization is probably as old as electrical mass media, or maybe even older. I mean, I know that there were Dick Tracy novels published back in the 1930s, but I can't say for sure if they were piggybacking off the success of the comic strip, the radio serial, or the movie serials. Which came first? I don't know.

But the more I think about it, the more I believe you could make a convincing case that even the dime novels of the 19th century were "novelizations" piggybacking off the success of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and even Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair wrote a few of those. (They needed the money.) The "novelization" is probably as old as mass literacy.

Q: So with all that said and done: why did you write WILD WILD WEST, and what effect did it have on your career?

A: I wrote the novelization of the WILD WILD WEST script for one very simple reason. I was trying to pitch a completely different book -- an original and still-unpublished book -- to my U.S. publisher, Time Warner. My editor there came back with the bad news that she really liked the book, but owing to the mediocre sales of Headcrash, she could only make an "insultingly low" offer for it.

But -- (Can't you just hear Old Nick warming up his sales pitch?) -- if I would only write a bestseller, then everything would be peachy and she could make me the offer my next book deserved. And speaking of bestsellers, it just so happened that she had this movie tie-in deal sitting there on her desk, for the next big Will Smith summer action/adventure comedy, and the folks down in Warner Bros. accounting were predicting that this one was going to be even bigger than MEN IN BLACK. Original script by Steve Wilson and Brent Maddock (who I knew and respected); promotional budget bigger than the gross domestic products of most Third World countries; it was sure to sell a quarter-million copies no matter who wrote it, and a half-mil easy if the book was at all readable and entertaining.

[Afterthought #2: Now that I think about it, I seem to recall that there was also some talk at the time of this being just the first book in a franchise, and I recall being really excited at the prospect of developing this story into a series of 19th century western "steampunk" novels. Then, after I signed on and was committed to the project, we learned that Time Warner only owned the film rights to Wild Wild West, and by extension the rights to develop one novel based on their film, and that Viacom had sold all other book rights to Fawcett, who put out their own series of remarkably crappy WWWest novels. There would never be any more Time Warner WWWest novels, unless the film was successful enough to warrant a sequel.

In the end, it seems the only people who came out of this smelling like a rose were Viacom, as all they had to do was sit back and collect licensing fees from everyone else.]

So I signed on to do the book, and you can pretty much guess what happened after that. Wilson and Maddock promptly got fired; the guys who were hired to replace them rewrote the entire script a few times, with each draft stinking worse than the previous one, before they got fired; two more guys whose previous screenwriting experience was a couple episodes of St. Elsewhere were hired to finish the thing, and there were rumors of yet one more uncredited screenwriting team getting involved in trying to salvage the mess in post-production.

(Helpful hint: any time you see six writers on the script credits, be afraid. Be very afraid.)

We went through seven complete rewrites of the script, and uncounted minor changes. In the end, some junior assistant producer was faxing me daily changes to the script, and I was expected to rewrite the book to match. Artemus Gordon went from being a master of disguise to being a Dame Edna-like cross-dresser, and a couple of drag song-and-dance numbers were thrown in to underscore the point. Salma Hayek's character kept changing her name, her role in the story, and the side she was on, and in the end they didn't know what to do with her so she simply dropped out of sight for the last third of the film, only to reappear for no purpose at all in the final scene. Huge chunks of Jim West's backstory and character development were chopped out after I'd devoted whole chapters to them, and in their place we got some weak attempts at slapstick humor. Finally, my editor called me up one day and said, "Enough! We can't wait any longer to put this book into production. Whatever you have today is the final draft."

And that accounts for most of the differences between the book and the movie. They were still re-cutting scenes, splicing in new special effects, and re-dubbing dialogue 30 days before the movie opened in theaters.

The result is right up there for all the world to see. Variety predicted that "Warner Bros. should expect reasonably big opening figures based on the appeal of its star, who hasn't had a [box office] misfire yet, but a rapid decline will follow once the odor gets out." Sadly, that assessment was pretty much right on the money. Warner Brothers lost $180 million on that turkey.

The book, needless to say, went straight into the tank, and sales topped out somewhere in the mid-30,000s.

As for the lasting effect this had on my writing career: when I pitched my next book to Time Warner, they responded with a letter -- not a phone call, a letter -- informing me that owing to the failure of WILD WILD WEST, Time Warner could no longer afford to buy new novels from me. So in the final assessment, what writing this book did for me was take me from being a writer whose books were worth only "insultingly low" offers to being a writer who couldn't get any offer at all.

[Afterthought #3: Actually, I continued to get offers after WWWest, but only for projects I wouldn't touch with a 10-foot electric cattle prod. Video game adaptations; role-playing game tie-ins; ghostwriting jobs; and all of them for truly pathetic money. I mean, what the heck, I had to be desperate, right?]

There is a concept in economics called opportunity cost. Simply stated, it's the true cost of something expressed in terms of other opportunities foregone in order to pursue that something. In the case of WILD WILD WEST, I would have to conclude that the opportunity cost of writing this book was devastating beyond my ability to imagine. 

Or as those wonderful folks at despair.com might put it:



____________________________

Don’t touch that dial! There’s more to come tomorrow in Part Three!