Ignore The Puppy

“Because that means it’s the city.

That means it’s the landscape: the bricks and the girders, and the faulty wiring and the shot elevator machinery, all conspiring together to make these myths true. And that’s crazy.”

Samuel Delany
Dhalgren

Modern fictional characters live in a world of paranoia. That is to say that what is delusion in the mind of a paranoiac (“the world is a conspiracy and I am the center of Their plans”) is the reality they live in.

Modern thought regarding the structure of fiction, with its emphasis on story beats, hero’s journeys, and  character arcs has given rise to a literary landscape of literal madness.

I am not talking about experimental or absurdist fiction here, but mainstream popular writing. Everything that happens in a work of fiction is because the author makes it happen. When the author is working to fit events into a pre-determined formula the result is unrealistic and contrived.

It kills tension. The reader knows the story in advance. The death of the mentor isn’t a tragedy, it’s inevitable. When the boy meets the girl and a silly misunderstanding puts them at odds, no one is wondering if they will work out their differences before the last page. We know that the scrappy orphan will survive and that the villainous henchman will come to a messy end. When the police chief fires the headstrong detective we know it’s temporary and that everything will be cleared up in the end.

When the story is determined by a formula, the odds are irrelevant.

This is, I believe, partially responsible for the inversion of tropes that is currently in vogue. That doesn’t help, though, it just substitutes one formula for another. The old formulas at least had the advantage of being emotionally satisfying if logically absurd. The new subversive formulas provide neither tension nor satisfaction. So what is the solution?

Ignore The Puppy. 

Throw away the beat sheet and the outline. Lose the hero’s journey. Forget the narrative structure. Look at the situation in your story logically, as if it were happening in the real world instead of a story, and ask, “What would realistically happen next?”

Paradoxically, you will surprise your readers. We have come to a point where a reasonable outcome is seen as original and groundbreaking.

Go off the script. Let the events unfold realistically–not in the nihilistic sense of “realism” where everything predictably turns out for the worst, but with the quotidian uncertainty of real life. Jump the railroad tracks and go freewheeling across the countryside.

You’ll find yourself blazing new trails that will surprise you. And that will surprise–and delight–your readers.

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Meat & Potatoes Fiction

Today I went out with my roommate to a local diner for breakfast, and she made a comment that basic, simple food could be so good. I replied that it was good because it fulfilled a need. Giving your body what it needs to live and be healthy is the basis of good food–everything else is secondary.

I like cooking, and I do use spices when I cook. But the spices are to enhance the experience, and don’t work as a substitute for providing proteins, fats, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins. If the food isn’t nourishing, then there is nothing you can add to it that will transform it into good food.

I tend to make food analogies with fiction a lot, probably because I enjoy both writing and cooking and both were self-taught. I don’t use recipes, and I don’t follow formulas. I just take the stuff I like and throw it all in a pot. Sometimes this works, and sometimes I quietly scrape my experiment into the trash and order a pizza.

Today’s analogy is this: Good fiction should fulfill a need. It is enjoyable because it is good for you, and the spices, garnishes, presentation and so on add something to the experience only if the basic needs are met first.

So what is the basic, core function of fiction? That’s not an easy question to answer. Like food, it has a number of different parts to it, that do different things. A short and imprecise answer might be that it allows the reader to vicariously experience events that–if they were real instead of made up–would result in positive mental and emotional growth.

This, of course, covers a very broad class of experiences, from winning a battle to surviving a cataclysm to meeting and wooing a partner. But I think it’s a good litmus test for fiction–“If I had been in the situation that these characters were in, and I behaved as they did, would I feel good about myself?”

This does not mean that every story must have a happy ending, for arbitrarily defined values of “happy”. Sometimes the guy does not end with the girl, and sometimes the monster eats the hero. Some games don’t have victory conditions. The point is that the reader is able to do the right thing, despite the costs, because at the end of the story the costs aren’t real.

If the story is a good one, though, doing the right thing is real, or real enough.

Some fiction strikes me as all sizzle and no steak. The presentation may be exquisite, the seasoning perfect, but there’s nothing there to feed the soul. The author is so focused on how the story is told that she or he forgets to put the story in.

This is Joe. This is what happened to Joe. This is what Joe did. This is what happened as a result of what Joe did. This is Joe now.

That’s the story. And at the end of the story the reader should want to be like Joe. When bad things happen to the reader a good story can act as a surrogate life experience. Remembering how Mowgli faced down Shere Khan can help a man deal with his own fears–even when he knows perfectly well that The Jungle Book never happened.

In genre fiction in particular I think it’s easy to get overcome with the spices and forget the meat and potatoes. One describes a Science Fiction story in terms of the peculiarities of the setting or some new invented technology, because those things are unique to the story.

Those things can be enjoyable, and provide food for thought long after the story is finished. They are what make a story different, but that’s not what makes a story good. What makes a story good is the example it gives us of eternal virtues–courage, compassion, ingenuity, prudence, fortitude–no matter where or when the story is set.

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Adventure Stories For Young Readers

Well, here it is.

In some ways this was a difficult anthology to put together. It has been a very long time since I was young, but I tried to remember the sorts of stories that got me hooked on reading. It’s a mixed bag, since I tried to find stories that would appeal to a wide selection of young people. There’s some Hard SF, Space Opera SF, Urban Fantasy, Mythic Fantasy, stories based on Fairytales and Folk Tales, some Weird Tales with a few genuine shivers.

Is it the best it can be? No, but it’s the best I can make it right now. Looking over the contents I am still second guessing myself–should I have included that one instead of this one? It took a while to get the ball rolling on this one, but once it did it rolled right over me. I think over half of the submissions came after I extended the deadline.

After I selected the stories I sent it off to Cedar Sanderson, who did the cover art and the book design and provided the proofreading. It’s published under her brand new imprint of Sanderley Studios, and I think it’s a fine looking book to set the tone.

The ebook is out now, and the trade paperback should be out shortly.

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Pitching a collection of short fiction to a small press

Since I’ve done this several times and a couple of people have asked me how I managed it, I wanted to set down my thoughts. Be advised that these are my personal experiences and may not be applicable to your situation.

First, what should you pitch? I would advise a collection of between 60,000 and 80,000 words total. Stories that have been previously published will need to revert to you before you can publish them again, check your contract to see how long an exclusionary period was specified.

I prefer a mix of previously published and exclusive material–I want to give readers something that they can’t get anywhere else. If you’re published in wide range of magazines and anthologies, as I am, it’s likely that there is going to be some new content for any reader, though.

The nice thing about previously published stories is that they have already been accepted by somebody, and they’ve been through the editing process once before. I advise using the version that you were sent to proof as the version to include in the collection. (I could be wrong, but I believe that edits are not copyrighted. I’ve never had any editor I’ve worked with tell me that I couldn’t use their proofed version of my story, anyway.)

Collections should have some cohesion to them–all stories of a similar genre or a similar tone. For example, Dark Fantasies is all fantasy stories, while Endless Summer is all science fiction. Bad Dreams & Broken Hearts is all stories about the same character, set in the same world.

If you can’t put together 60,000 words without mixing very different types of stories, you might want to wait until you have more stories written. And if at least half of the stories haven’t been published elsewhere, you might want to wait until you’ve sold more stories.

But let’s assume that you have a collection of stories and the ones that you’ve sold have the rights have reverted to you, and they all hang together. What next?

Well, I don’t know of any small presses that advertise for submissions of short fiction collections, and that includes the three presses I have sold collections to. So you’ll have to do a blue sky pitch.

First, look at what presses publish, and the place to start is the publications that have already accepted your work. Does your collection, as a whole, fit in with what a press tends to accept? As an example, I sold one story to Switchblade Magazine and I am very happy with that sale, but I wouldn’t pitch a collection to them because most of my stories are not Crime Fiction.

Once you have a press in mind, someone with whom you have worked in the past and that you think could do a good job with your collection, then your write your pitch.

This is a business letter. Be clear and straight to the point. You are one professional proposing a business deal with another. The time to talk about artistic vision and overarching themes is after you have found out whether or not they are even interested.

Hello.

My name is Jane Bloggs, and you may remember my story “I’m Sorry I Ate Your Cat” which you published in Issue #11 of Squishy Magazine.

I currently have a collection of short Sci Fi/Horror fiction of 68,000 words. Would be interested in discussing the project for publication?


You’re likely to get one of several responses. They might say, “No, I’m not in a position to publish a long project right now.”

Or they might say, “I’m interested. Tell me more.”

Or they might say, “What kind of deal would you want?”

I try to be flexible on terms. A small press that has been in operation for a while will have a standard contract for buying stories, and will probably want to used a scaled up version. They may offer an advance against royalties, or not. I am not going to try to offer advice on contracts–that’s a whole ‘nother area of specialization. Suffice to say that I am happy with the terms I’ve gotten on my collections.

Keep in mind, though, that you are dealing with a small press, and that they will be absorbing the upfront production costs and assuming the risks, so don’t expect them to also cut you a fat check.

So, if you can come to terms that you are both happy with, you’re in business. If not, thank them for their time and attention and pitch it to someone else.

Any questions? Ask them, and if I can I’ll answer them.

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Submissions are Closed!

Cirsova

We didn’t plug our submissions window as much as we had in the past because we knew just how much fiction we’d end up with if we did. The best [worst] we did one year with a full month was somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 stories.

This year, we opted for just one week, and we ended up with over 100 stories and roughly 800k words of fiction to choose from.

We’re aiming for 4 issues of content, of course much of that is locked down already, since we plan on serializing Michael Tierney’s Wild Stars 6 next year and we’ve got our 4 Mongoose and Meerkat adventures from Jim Breyfogle locked in.

We received a LOT of novelettes and novellas this year, and may be struggling to figure out what to do with some of them. They’re fantastic but always hard to place. We may end up with…

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The Paths of Cormanor Reminder, Robert E. Howard Art Chronology, More Julian Hawthorne, and Open Submissions!

Cirsova

The Paths of Cormanor

Cirsova Publishing has just 8 days to go on the Kickstarter for Jim Breyfogle’s The Paths of Cormanor!

This new spin on the story of the Swan Princess is sure to delight fans of fairytale romance and fans of sword & sorcery alike! Following a confrontation with a monster from the elder days, Prince Kellen loses a piece of soul which becomes trapped within Amara, the Cormorant woman who saves him. While Prince Kellen goes on his own quest for the magic that will make his soul whole again, Amara must face her own challenges as another monster terrorizes the countryside and the march lord who should be dealing with the monster is terrorizing her family!

Robert E. Howard Art Chronology

Michael Tierney hasa new project live through Chenault & Gray publishing. Four fully-illustrated volumes covering the history of the art and illustration…

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Married… with Adventure!

I am looking to put together an anthology of Action/Adventure stories that feature a hero and a heroine who are either a married couple at the start of the story or become engaged to be married during the course of the story, with preference given to the former.

Stories can be of any genre and any setting, however I want to see marriage treated as a solemn sacrament, entered into with the intention of lifelong fidelity. It may be a world in which this is the minority viewpoint (such as our own) but I want the main characters to treat their vows as such–even if no one else does.

Wordcount should be between 5,000 and 10,000 words. That’s a guideline, I won’t automatically reject a story that runs to 11,500 words. Still, being in the 5k to 10k range will give you a better chance at acceptance.

The focus of the story should be on the Action and Adventure–I’m not looking for love stories with explosions, I am looking for stories in which the protagonists face danger and thwart enemies by working together as man and woman, complementing each other’s strengths and overcoming each other’s weaknesses.

I believe that the human race is divided into male and female for a reason, and I believe that men and women are intended to work together like two blades of a pair of scissors. That’s what I want to see, the strength of a man backed up by the cunning of a woman, the intuition of woman guided by the practicality of a man.

Or, whatever. I’m not going to argue about what virtues are masculine or feminine and I want realistic believable characters most of all–and that means not stereotypical. Show me personalities that mesh, couples who lean on each other and are together stronger than either could be alone.

I am looking at a submission window from August 15th to October 15th. Submissions should be sent to me as an email attachment. (You can use my Reach Out And Touch Me tab for that.)

Please put your contact information (name and email) on the first page of the manuscript. Manuscripts can be in any document format–Open Office or .rtf is preferred. PDFs will not be opened. Please use “Submission-Married-[title of work]” as the subject line of your email.

I do not as yet have a publisher for this anthology. Once I have submissions I will begin the process of negotiating for publication. Therefore, I can’t promise any payment up front at this time. To be honest, I can’t guarantee that the stories will be published at all.

On the other hand, you’ve got nothing to lose. At worst you end up with an exciting story that you can sell elsewhere.

Any questions can also be directed to the link above.

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Blacktop Wasteland

https://www.audible.com/pd/Blacktop-Wasteland-Audiobook/1250751934

As an interesting aside, I was revisiting Donald Westlake’s Parker novels (published under the pen name of Robert Stark) when I ran across this review and decided to give it a try. Five minutes into the audiobook (read by Adam Lazarre-White, who does a marvelous job) I knew two things–that Parker would trust the protagonist Beauregard “Bug” Montage to drive for him on any job whatsoever, and that sleep be damned, I had to finish this book.

This novel is pure Noir Crime Fiction done right. It doesn’t “deconstruct” or “reimagine” the crime novel, it just makes it happen. It takes place in the rural south, with mostly Black characters, but it’s not a “Black” story, it’s a human story. Racism is part of what Bug has to deal with, but he’s a Noir Crime hero, being screwed is built in.

Bug has left his life of crime behind him and has a family, a straight business, is part of the community of his town–a fine upstanding young man.

But he has money problems, and wants to pull one last job to get him out of the red. One simple job.

So, naturally, everything goes just fine and he takes his money and pays his bills and everything is just peachy.

Yeah, and if you believe that you ain’t from around here, are you, cuz?

Because this is Noirland, and it doesn’t matter if it’s New York City or Red Hill County, North Carolina, “simple” and “fine” ain’t on the menu.

There’s a wannabe gansta who shouldn’t be in a job with pros, and a crime boss who shows that you don’t have to be Sicilian to be a psycho mofo, and so many double crosses that you need a friggin’ calculator to keep track of them, and in the center of it all a man who shows us that a bad man can be scary, but a good man pushed past his limits is terrifying.

This is Pulp. This is action oriented storytelling at its finest. High octane adrenaline-fueled bad guys and good guys from the opening line to the last word.

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That Summer’s Evening Long Ago

The latest issue of Storyhack Magazine is now available. In it you will find, among other stories, a new Erik Rugar mystery, “That Summer’s Evening Long Ago”.

Savvy readers will recognize the title as a line from Lewis Carroll’s poem “I’ll Tell Thee Everything I Can” which the White Knight recites to Alice in Through The Looking Glass. I’ve always loved that poem, and it seemed to me to capture the mood of the story.

Regular readers of this blog may recall that I talked about the epilogue of Bad Dreams & Broken Hearts and how I felt it was important that Agent Rugar’s story has a definite ending to it.

I still feel that way, and I don’t intend to alter the events that I laid out in that book.

However, I would like to point out that final story in Bad Dreams & Broken Hearts takes place in the spring of the year 373, and Rugar doesn’t retire from the CPS until the summer of 384, which gives me eleven years of his career in which to write new stories.

“That Summer’s Evening Long Ago” is one of those. I have another one completed, and a third in process. I might end up with enough new stories to warrant a second collection. We’ll see.

This story starts with Rugar taking a case as a favor to a girl he knows through Miss Kitten’s Dating Service. He’s asked to investigate a crime that the victim doesn’t remember and leads him into a sordid tale of unrequited love and criminal alchemy. In the Rugar stories I try to play by two sets of rules–Noir Police Procedural and Magical Fantasy, and I think I managed to be true to both of them here.

I hope you like it.

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Adventure Stories For Young Readers Deadline Extended

Since there are several people who have said they want to submit, but didn’t have time before the 15th, I have decided to extend the submission window the 25th of May.

Click Here To Go To Sanderley Studios

I am partnering with Cedar Sanderson’s newly formed Sanderley Studios to produce a collection of short fiction for young readers.

I am looking for exciting adventure stories that showcase (but not preach) virtues, suitable for boys and girls in their teens.

Submissions open on Mar 15th and will run until May 15th.

The ideal story would be between 5,000 and 10,000 words and be action oriented. All genres considered, but exotic settings preferred–Science Fiction and Fantasy, but also Wilderness Survival and Historical Fiction.

In my opinion children get enough Real Life Drama from assigned school books, this collection should be an escape from their ordinary life.

The audience, as I said, is junior high to high school aged children, but the characters need not be of that age group. Stories that do have young characters should show those characters obedient to parents and legitimate authority. The goal is to model healthy adult/child relationships. The fact that so many children today come from broken homes is, in my opinion, a reason for families to be shown as stronger, not weaker.

There is more information at the link above, but questions or submissions should be sent to me at mjb63114@gmail.com.

Please use [Your Name] Young Adventure Submission [Title Of Story] as the subject line of the email. Include in the body of the email a brief description of the story that includes word count, genre, and publication history if any. I am looking for unpublished stories, but may consider stories previously published on-line.

Stories should be attached to the email. Open Office files are preferred, but I can convert word documents or .rtf files. PDFs will not be opened.

Posted in Artists That I Admire, On Publishing, On Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment