The Wind From A Distant Storm

This is a subject that I have touched on in this blog before, but I’d like to specifically discuss it in terms of the 21st Century Thrilling Adventure project.

I consider the Exotic an indispensable element of the kind of stories that I am looking for. In a fine post on the subject, Rampant Coyote uses the phrase “lurid spectacle”, which I believe he got from Lester Dent.

To sum up a surprisingly deep concept in as few words as I can manage, the Exotic is That Which Does Not Belong Here.  (I am using Here in the sense of “in this story”–frequently it is the setting which is Exotic, so actually it’s the characters who do not belong there.)

The critical linchpin of the Exotic in the sense that I mean it, as opposed to simply being strange for the sake of being strange is that there must be a clear sense that the other things do belong. There has to be an established zeitgeist, characters who are suited to the metaphysic of the story universe, objects that fit into this world, an expected course of events.  Without establishing the reader’s understanding of what is right, there is no shock in encountering what is wrong.

The Exotic need not be supernatural or otherwise counterfactual, but it is intrinsically unnatural–that is to say, against the natural order of things. This presupposes a metaphysical authority–which doesn’t mean a theological authority (much less a God), simply a self-evident standard of right and wrong which the protagonist believes and the reader is willing to accept at least for the duration of the story.

Nor is the Exotic necessarily evil in an objective moral sense. It is dangerous, and the intrusion of the unnatural into the character’s world should be the conflict that drives the story, but the Exotic element may be entirely amoral, like a storm or a virus.

This may sound confusing (it’s clearer in my head than the words I’m getting down) so let me try some examples.

The hero is a cab driver.  He picks up a woman who has been injured and is being pursued.  If her pursuers are ordinary criminals that wouldn’t be Exotic in my sense (criminals are an unpleasant but real part of the natural order). An Exotic pursuer would be outside of the driver’s ordinary frame of reference–a cult that believes the escaping woman to be an alien spy, for example, or the woman’s formerly conjoined twin who wishes to kidnap her sister in order to sow them back together.

The hero is a cop in a small seaside town.  During a hurricane he becomes involved in a struggle with criminals.  That in itself wouldn’t be Exotic, what would make it so is if they were the descendants of a group of Japanese soldiers who went into hiding during World War Two and are intending to invade the US mainland for the Emperor.

The hero is a private detective investigating the theft of jewelry for an insurance company. He finds that the policyholder faked the theft–not Exotic in itself, but it would become so if the policyholder was hypnotized to steal her own jewelry and give it to the hypnotist.

These are examples just off the top of my head, and I’m still not sure that I have a handle on what I mean.  I invite discussion on this topic–that would help me to clarify my thoughts.

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I’ve been Jeffroed!

A review of my story “In The Gloaming O My Darling” from Cirsova #5.

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Juicy Bits

As part of the on-going discussion regarding the nature of speculative fiction and how changes in the dominant publishing paradigm are allowing for more latitude and innovation in narrative structures, I engaged in a conversation regarding the nature of “Pulp”–specifically, what is “Pulp” and what is “non-Pulp.”

I mentioned this conversation to my roommate who replied, “Oh, that’s easy–pulp has juicy bits.”  And while her remark was meant flippantly, as a reference to orange juice marketing, I was struck by the singular applicability of the concept to the debate.

And so it is with profound gratitude that I offer the following graphic illustrating what I am calling the Bolhafner Relative Juiciness Index. 

The Bolhafner Relative Juiciness Index (BRJI).

I have divided the scale into four separate indices, somewhat arbitrarily, and so a few notes may be in order.

First, this is designed to apply to specific scenes within a work–the “bits”.  A story may contain a few scenes that rank high on juiciness, but still be dry overall.

Next, the difference between what I am calling Action and what I am calling Horror may be likened to the difference between an acute and a chronic condition.  Action refers to the immediate circumstance–the monster currently attempting to gnaw the hero’s face off.

What I am calling Horror, on the other hand, would refer to the certainty that the monster–or others like it–are known to be lurking about and are sure to jump out sooner or later. Thus combat scenes even in a horror story would fall under the Action category and many mundane threats–a large government conspiracy, for example–would fit under Horror in terms of this index.

I am ranking Wonder in terms of how important the fantastic elements are to the functioning of the story.  It is possible to write “blaster” instead of “gun” and “rocket” instead of “train”, but if the fantastic elements function the same way the mundane ones do there is little impact.

I realize that Romance in fiction and film frequently spikes to J5 without having any significant scenes of levels 1-4. I, personally, feel that’s a narrative flaw, but that is a matter of personal taste.

The intended purpose of this index is as an aid for pacing.  I do not mean to imply that J5 scenes are better than J0 scenes, or to impose a particular template.  Like music, fiction is a matter of finding a particular rhythm of intensity. Some stories (and some authors) work better in high-speed, pedal-to-the-metal mode. Others are better served by a slow and steady building of tension. Knowing when to slow the pace and reduce the tension is a matter of experience and knowing the potential audience.

And finally, as always, I invite discussion and debate.  I do not present any of my ideas as revealed wisdom–I am feeling my way through the subject as best I can, and the continual sharing of insights is what refines a body of thought.



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It’s Obvious Why Students Cheat; We Just Can’t Agree on the Reason

Some very good observations.

Math with Bad Drawings

If you love cringes – and hey, who doesn’t? – then walk into a school and try to start a conversation about cheating.

Depending on the school, I suspect you’ll find a superficial consensus (cheating is terrible! and, thankfully, our students do it very rarely!) masking deep rifts. Is the problem with cheating that it undercuts your own learning? That it steals glory from classmates in the zero-sum competition for grades? That it betrays the teacher’s trust? Are all acts of cheating equally terrible, and if not, what does that mean for “zero tolerance” policies?

We all know cheating is bad. But we seem unable to talk honestly about why.

So, I offer up these dialogue-starting cartoons, a few badly drawn meditations on the most basic question: Why do students cheat?


Is cheating a crime of character, or of opportunity?

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Cirsova Receives Hugo Nomination for Best Semi-Pro Zine!

I can’t think of anyone who deserves this more. A hardworking man with a dream. I am honored to have been on the cover of this magazine twice.


It is incredibly difficult to convey just how hard it’s been to keep this under my hat for the last couple of weeks. I’ve been so excited that I just wanted to scream.

Thank you to everyone who has supported us and made this possible! If I name names, I know I’ll forget folks, so I’ll try to cover everyone as best I can. Thank you to my fellow bloggers at Castalia House, thank you to the Alt-Furry crew for putting us on Sad Pookas, thank you to the folks on Pulp Twitter, thanks to everyone who follows and reads the blog, thanks to the friends and family who’ve supported us, and especially thanks to all of our readers and contributors – without you, we’d be just another WordPress site!

I probably won’t be able to make it up to Finland this year, but if any local Helsinki black metal…

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The Voice Of The Storyteller

The inspector sorted through the piles of printouts on his desk, still looking for a way to put all of the evidence together, to find some way to make sense of the mass of paper.  The data dump from the elevator showed that it reached the 14th floor at 21:43 and the camera inside the cab showed a single figure, someone who knew where the tiny camera was mounted and kept his back to it.  But the other shooter was already on the floor, because gunshots were heard on the recording of the phone call the tenant downstairs had made at 21:33.  The alarm on the fire door from the basement was tripped at 21:52, though–the alarm company logs had confirmed it.  The elevator hadn’t gone back down until 22:17, and none of the stairwell cameras had picked up anyone.  That meant…

The inspector sat back in his chair, looking not at any single piece of evidence but at the confused mass, trying to see the whole picture, all at once.  Of course!  From the beginning he had been assuming that there were two shooters, because the parking structure camera had caught the stolen Ford with two figures in the front seat.  But he’d been looking at it all wrong.  There had been three strangers in the building that night, not two.

The whole case now hinged on one question:  The identity of that mysterious third person…

Who is the Third Person?  It’s not an idle question. In my little example posted above, who is telling the story? It’s someone who is sympathetic to the inspector, maybe another police detective?  That would make sense, right, because it has to be somebody who could guess the thought processes of the inspector, and who was familiar with all the details of the case, someone who was comfortable using a 24 hour clock.

Wait, you say, that’s silly–the third person isn’t a real person, it’s a literary technique. Yeah, well, Mr. Second Person Guy, you’re a literary technique, too–don’t let the fourth wall hit you on the way out.

Seriously, though, a story told in the Third Person has to be told by somebody. In some older stories the narrator actually introduces himself at the beginning (or the end, or sometimes both) of the story.

“I am relating this story to you just as it was told to me, many years ago by an old sea captain…”


“I first became aware of these events when I was researching a subject quite unrelated to the eerie incidents that I will now relate…”

These days that technique isn’t used much, although Michael Crichton, for example, uses a very similar technique in many of his novels, using a prologue that explains that the story was pieced together from these documents or that government report. A while back I listened to the audiobook of The Andromeda Strain read by the  character actor David Morse, who inevitably plays a cop or military man of some kind, and I could see him in my head as he read the book, in a clean but cheap suit, sitting stiffly in a chair in some anonymous office, with neat stacks of files in front of him.  It made the story so real for me. (In fact I am sure that my habit of doing my pleasure reading via audiobooks has a lot to do with my thoughts on this matter.)

The most famous Third Person of American letters is probably Diedrich Knickerbocker, Washington Irvine’s pre-internet viral creation. (Seriously, how many literary techniques have a basketball team named after them? Take that, Anton Chekhov!)  The voice of Knickerbocker is central to the feel of The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow–the story was being told by somebody who was intimately familiar with the old Dutch communities of New York and who claimed to have learned to shoot squirrels, in fact, just down the road from the churchyard that figures so prominently in the story.

Even when the Third Person remains entirely out of the frame of the narrative, though, the voice comes through. You can’t have a story told by nobody. There are a million choices to make when telling a story–how to describe a character, what to explain and what to assume the reader already understands, which scenes to include, when to quote dialogue directly, so on and so forth.  Who is telling the story determines how the story is told.

The reader forms a mental image of the narrator and that conception is all the more powerful for never being explicitly visualized.  When the reader “hears” the story told by  an inconsistent or unpleasant mental narrator, the story starts to feel like being trapped at a party by a drunk who won’t shut up about some guy he knows.  Mentally the reader looks at his watch and says, “This is all very interesting, but I have a bus to catch…”

This problem tends to show up a lot with fiction written to ape a particular period or style.  Writers who sprinkle “hardboiled” slang into their descriptive prose in attempt capture the feel of Dashiell Hammett or Mickey Spillane can end up alienating their readers if the attitudes expressed in the text are at odds with the language. The story doesn’t feel like it’s being told by nobody, it feels like it’s being told by a poser who can’t be trusted, who’s making up some tough talk without really knowing what he’s talking about.

In the same way an intrusive figure of speech in a Fantasy or Science Fiction work can undermine the reader’s confidence in the Storyteller. (“Hang on–you’re telling me the Orc looks like a football linebacker–how do you know about football?”)  These kinds of glitches often pass under the reader’s radar–he may not know why the story feels false to him, it just doesn’t ring true.

All of this is a very subtle business. It’s a matter of images and impressions, attitudes picked up from things like the author’s choice to describe a character’s clothing in detail but not mention the make and model of that character’s car. When the narrator is essentially the author, as in modern, realistic fiction, the author can usually just tell the story as himself.  Particularly when describing a profession that the author knows well (Dick Francis and jockeys, John Grisham and lawyers, Joseph Wambaugh and cops).

When telling a story in Third Person that is outside of the author’s own experiences, however, the question will come up–who is telling this story, and how does that viewpoint change the way in which the story is told?  Does the narrator explain the workings of some high tech gizmo in one scene and then describe another as a “mysterious black box” a few pages later? If the narrator knows how the criminal underworld operates are his attitudes those of a cop or a criminal? Are those attitudes consistent or do they change depending on which character is being followed? What moral viewpoint comes across in the prose–if an attack is described as “vicious” or “beastial” in one scene what differentiates that act of violence from another one lauded as being “brave” or “heroic”?

Things to think about.


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Emergency Backup Post: (Pull and Inflate)

Okay, this is just to say that I believe that I have sent an invitation to the 21st Century Thrilling Adventure Google+ group to everyone who sent me a request.

However, just because I believe a thing does not make it true.  If you sent me a request and I did not respond, please don’t take it personally–I’m just not always as tech savvy as I would like to be. Send me another, or use the above link to join.

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