Short Fiction, or “What Needs To Happen Next”

I am convinced that there is a direct correlation between short fiction and innovation in fiction, both in the styles of individual authors and in fiction styles as a whole.

In Speculative Fiction, there can be said to be four primary movements within the 20th Century–Pulp, Hard SF, New Wave, and Cyberpunk.  Each of them was largely driven and nurtured by a robust market for short stories.

Pulp, by its very name, belongs to the Pulp magazines of pre-WWII magazines.  Hard SF grew from the pages of post-War dedicated SF Magazines. New Wave flourished during the “socially relevant” phase of adult magazines, when Playboy and Penthouse were paying top dollar for short fiction in order to prove that they weren’t all about the nekked ladies, and slicks like The New Yorker followed suit to prove that they were still relevant. Cyberpunk was born in the renaissance of science fiction magazines in the 1980s spearheaded by Omni.

The internet and the ease of downloading text has drastically changed the magazine market.  I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw a print magazine that wasn’t a specialized technical trade journal.

Novels are great, and I love reading them and writing them.  However, novels require a substantial investment from both the author and the audience. Certainly innovation and experimentation are possible in novels, but the nature of the form encourages caution. You can take risks in a novel, as a writer, but they are, well riskier.  More is at stake.

Short stories, by their nature, allow for more freedom. And some subjects are naturally self-limiting.  Stories that would be bold in 7,500 words become tepid when stretched to 75,000. Short stories can be uniquely satisfying for both the writer and the reader.  Sometimes they are the best way to play with a particular idea or to evoke a particular image.

The question is how to get short fiction to market in the Age of Amazon.

Cirsova is doing it.  And doing it very well, paying authors and artists well and producing a consistently quality product to schedule. The publisher has made a significant commitment to the reviving short fiction market.  Others are stepping up, and it will be interesting to see how the market continues to adapt.

Another model that is emerging is what I call the peer-published anthology. (There are a few examples on my Buy My Books page that I have contributed to.) Generally one author puts out a call for stories to fit a particular theme, and the contributors also act as editors to produce a single volume anthology. It’s a format that is still in its awkward infancy, but I have hopes that it will evolve into a viable publishing model.

It’s a model that I would encourage people to explore.  I started one such project, Fauxpocalypse, (although in the end I left the actual publishing of it to Dave Higgins) and have just started another, 21st Century Thrilling Adventure.

I want to encourage other self-published authors to attempt putting together an anthology. I think they can work, and work well, but I, personally, don’t have the skills needed to promote and market them.  I think that while self-publishing is already well established, what I am calling peer-publishing is just beginning and has a lot of room to grow and expand.  But it needs people who are willing to stand up and try out things, take risks, and be willing to fail.

Somebody has to be the first lemming over the cliff.

Posted in Artists That I Admire, New Wave, On Promotion, On Publishing, On Writing, pulp revival | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Series”


Math with Bad Drawings

Let me be very clear, as clear as the vials of tears that I keep on my desk: This story is a long and sad one. It converges to no happy ending, and perhaps does not converge at all, although as you read, you will find your own joy and sanity both converging swiftly to zero.

If you were to abandon this text and go read about something pleasant, like butterscotch pudding or statistical sampling, I would applaud your good judgment, and humbly beseech you to statistically sample a pudding on my behalf.

As for me, I am compelled to tell this tale to its sour end, because I am an analyst—a word which here means “someone who fusses over agonizing details, bringing grief to many and enjoyment to none.”

But if you insist on reading further, then you ought to meet the three poor students at the heart of…

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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.

Posted in Artists That I Admire, On Writing, pulp revival | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

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.



Posted in Artists That I Admire, On Writing, Poetry, pulp revival | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

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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