Five Tips for Writing Great Short Fiction: The Case For Classic Adventure

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

Short fiction has entered a strange, new and exciting phase, particularly in the realm of Science Fiction.  While we hear in some quarters that short fiction is dying and no one reads short fiction any more, we’re also seeing a boom in short fiction, in no small part boosted by self-publishing through outlets such as Amazon and independent anthologies.  And though you won’t be able to get rich selling a story here and there to various publications, dedicated journeyman short fiction writers have a wide range of opportunities.  Additionally, there is, I think, a growing hunger for short fiction as people are looking for more quickly consumed reading material that they can fit into their busy lives.

There seem to be at present two branches of short fiction in the SFF field, and while one is ascendant, the other may be in decline.  While they still garners praise and awards in certain circles, the more ‘literary’ and sometimes experimental thought pieces, or those that deal with subjects like ‘an AI helps someone come out as LGBT’, aren’t really the sort of thing that will appeal to most readers and are being left behind by broader readerships. On the other hand, we are beginning to see a renewed interest in thrilling stories of daring-do, capable individuals overcoming trials in awesome ways and, yes, falling in love while doing so. Personally, I’d like to see more writers getting in on the rise of thrilling and exciting short fiction being written in the spirit of SFF’s golden hey-day than being bogged down in the mires that have pushed short fiction out of the mainstream.

So, my advice for writers who want to get in on what readers are looking for:

  1. Tell a story – Now, this should be obvious, but apparently it’s not. One of the biggest complaints I’ve seen about a lot of short fiction is that the authors craft these nebulous and murky mood pieces that simply never go anywhere. Fletcher Vredenburgh, a writer for Black Gate magazine, describes the problem as “a dearth of basic storytelling” where stories “just drift over the page like puffs of smoke with no narrative force, no energy.” Atmosphere is great, and chewing on existential bones is well and good, but there has to be something that makes the reader actually care. If there’s no pay-off, you’ve not only wasted the reader’s time, you may have put them off short fiction in general.
  2. People Want Heroes and Heroics – While there’s a time and a place for grimdark, I think we’re going to start to see the band spring back the other way towards a desire to see good guys. You may hear that people want to see themselves in characters; what they really want are characters who they could aspire to be and will cheer along during their adventures.
  3. Diversity Be Damned, Tell a Good Story – There’s a bizarre myth that the golden age of SFF was full of helpless damsels being saved by white men, which couldn’t have been further from the truth. What you had were stories where clever, capable and competent men and clever, capable and competent women—of all manner of color—worked together, fought together and helped each other through all manner of exciting circumstance. If you try to shoehorn in diversity, that’s all people will notice and focus on.  Ironically, if you tell a great story, a lot of people won’t care or even notice the diversity.  How many folks remember that John Carter and Dejah Thoris were an interracial couple? Or that Eric John Stark was black? People who want to read good and electrifying tales far outnumber those who only care about ‘seeing themselves reflected in the characters’.
  4. Don’t Forget the Kids! – The Young Adult “genre” has been booming for a number of years, and what are the most popular series? Action-packed science fiction and fantasy titles. Kids (and a lot of adults) don’t want to read navel gazing think-pieces on identity that happen to take place in space or elfland; they are reading stories about dashing heroes fighting for their friends, for their loved ones and for justice. A lot of the classics were as popular with kids as they were with adults. Edgar Rice Burroughs is great evidence that boys will not just read but devour ‘romance’ writing, so long as it’s inspirational and aspirational and hits the sweet spot of being tantalizing but not dirty (don’t let the heavy-metal artwork fool you, the Barsoom books are about an honorable gentleman and a noble lady). And let’s not kid ourselves that girls reading the Hunger Games weren’t invested in whether Katniss ended up with Gale or Peter-with-no-r.  So, if you leave out explicit content but leave in the romance, it’s not hard to have young readers on the hook.
  5. Read the Classics – Short fiction from the first half of the 20th century was not only really good, it was very widely read! These were stories that had enormous appeal to men, women and children alike. Adventure has a universal appeal. While certain critics might applaud the kind of introspective claptrap that you see up for awards for their ‘progressive message’ or ‘promoting diversity’, most people won’t care or will simply roll their eyes, and a man who’ll have to bellycrawl across the mud to take out a German machine-gun nest tomorrow sure as hell isn’t gonna trade a pack of Lucky Strikes for a chance to read it. Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, Ross Rocklynne, Robert Howard, C.L. Moore – these are just a few names to get you started, but reading them will make you see short fiction in a whole new light, and familiarity with them will doubtless bring a new spark to your own writing.
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Ways to Not Say “Said”

Let’s face it–it gets boring seeing “said” and “asked” all the time for every line of dialogue.

There are some great writers who, while solid on most fronts, kind of trip with this one.

So, here’s a cool page of all the different ways you can say “said” without saying “said”.

http://www.spwickstrom.com/said/

Cirsova Stories on Tangent’s Recommended Reading List

Tangent Online has released its big list o’ recommended SFF reading for 2018, and the following Cirsova stories made it to the list!

  • “Party Smashers”, Ken McGrath
  • “Hot Water in Wormtown”, Robert Lang
  • “A Song in Deepest Darkness”, Jason Ray Carney
  • “Amsel the Immortal”, Lauren Goff
  • “Promontory”, Jon Zaremba
  • “Crying in the Salt House” B. Morris Allen

Please keep these and our other stories in mind this awards seasons when filling out those nominating ballots!

The full list of our stories and eligibility by category can be found here.

Submissions are Open!

We’re accepting Submissions now for Cirsova volume 2.

Details are here.

We’re looking to acquire ~100K words in text in total. That’s enough to fill two issues of Cirsova.

Payment is .0125 per word. That’s less on the short end than we used to pay, but more on the long-end. [mostly it keeps our expenses flat, which we need on such a tight budget, as opposed to when we paid a .01 cent bonus on the first 2500 words and costs fluctuated based on the number of stories rather than actual wordcounts.]

 

Cirsova’s Script for Batman #50

There are a lot of important things I probably should’ve been doing today, but in a fit of mania I wrote a 22 page script for a Batman Wedding. I hope you all enjoy this more than you did Batman #50.

Page 1:

Church sanctuary, wedding day. Members of the Bat Family and Justice League are seated in the pews in costume; Batman and Catwoman stand at the altar.

Narration: At long last, the day is finally here! The Wedding of Batman and Catwoman!

 

Page 2:

Panel One: Bat & Cat looking at each other in front of priest. Green discordant notes from the side

Priest: Do you promise to—what’s the organist doing?

Panel two: The organist is Joker.

Joker: I can’t believe you didn’t invite me to the wedding!

Panel three: Batman holds up Joker by the collar.

Batman: How DARE you!

Joker: Easy, Bats, you don’t want this wedding to blow up in everyone’s face.

 

Page 3

Panel 1: An explosion

Panel 2: Everyone in the sanctuary is coughing; there is mist everywhere.

Panel 3: Joker’s head is on the ground, looking up; it’s animatronic, because it had been a Joker doll.

Joker’s head: It would be a shame to spoil such a happy day.

Panel 4: Batman holding what’s left of the Joker automaton in one hand, covering his face with the other.

Batman: Joker gas! Quick, get everyone out of the church! Cat?

Panel 5: Batman looks back to the altar. Catwoman has passed out.

Batman: Cat!

Panel 6: Batman falls down.

 

Page 4

Panel 1: Batman, Catwoman, Robin (doesn’t matter which one), and Batgirl are pinned to a large block of ice.

Batman: Where… Where are we? Cobblepot!

Panel 2: Penguin, Joker and some Joker thugs look on at the captive Bat Family. It is clear that they’re in Iceberg Lounge. One of the Joker thugs has a freeze cannon.

Joker: I rented the place out for a reception! What do you think?

Penguin: If anyone asks, I’ll just say Joker forced me to do it. No one would believe otherwise!

Joker: It’s true!

 

Page 5:

Panel 1: Joker menaces the Bat Family

Joker: Don’t you think I wanted to be a part of this? I could’ve killed you, but I got you a gift!

Robin: You’re sick, Joker.

Panel 2: Joker turns, hand to his mouth, calling.

Joker: Ladies, bring in the wedding cake!

Panel 3: Penguin’s henchgirls, Jay, Raven, and Lark wheel out a large cake with a riddler “?” on top.

Joker: Doesn’t that look good enough to eat?

Panel 4: Mad Hatter pops out of the wedding cake holding a bridal veil.

Joker: I’ll bet you were expecting Harley Quinn! Jervis, come on out, and show ‘em what they’ve won!

 

Page 6:

Panel 1: Joker gestures to Catwoman, Mad Hatter approaches holding the veil out towards her.

Joker: We’ll have Catwoman back to a life of crime in no time! Get that on her and set her loose!

Panel 2: With the veil placed over Catwoman’s head, she looks on with a vacant stare

Joker (off panel): Now go and rob the nearest bank. Get yourself something nice for the honeymoon.

Catwoman: ~meow…

Panel 3: Joker thug shooting Catwoman with the freeze cannon.

Joker: Hit the reverse on that thing Freeze loaned us… and don’t hit Batman, we don’t want him getting out!

 

Page 7:

Panel 1: Catwoman scrambles away.

Joker: And off she goes!

Panel 2:

Batgirl: What are we going to do, Batman?

Batman: Don’t worry, I was expecting something like this. Hold your breath…

Panel 3: Everyone in the iceberg lounge looking around as gas seeps in.

Joker: Hey, what is this? Gas is MY shtick! No, don’t… pass… out… zzzzz….

 

Page 8:

Panel 1: Batman smiling

Batman: It pays to have someone working from the OUTSIDE.

Panel 2: The gas solidifies into Metamorpho

Metamorpho: Heya, Bats! Looks like these guys are down for the count with my sleeping gas!

Panel 3: Metamorpho is melting the ice with his powers

Robin: Thanks, Rex!

Batman: We’ve got to catch up with Catwoman. She’s headed to the 1st Bank of Gotham.

Panel 4: Freed, Batman is rubbing his wrists.

Batman: Can you and the rest of the Outsiders handle these clowns yourselves?

Metamorpho: For four volumes!

Panel 5: Batman has slung Joker over his shoulder.

Batman: I’ve had enough jokes for one day!

 

Page 9:

First Bank of Gotham, a towering edifice. Catwoman is climbing up the side in broad daylight!

Onlookers: Hey, is that the Catwoman?

Onlookers: What’s she doing?!

Onlookers: In her wedding dress, too!

 

Page 10:

Panel 1: The Riddler stands in front of TV camera crews in front of the bank.

Riddler: What’s black and white and robbing 1st Bank of Gotham on her wedding day? The Catwoman of course!

Panel 2: Batman grabs the Riddler; the cameras are still on them.

Batman: What’s your part in this Riddler?!

Riddler: The part I play is the part you say! Isn’t this your wedding day?

Panel 3: Batman has let Riddler go and walks past him.

Batman: I don’t have time for your nonsense. Batgirl, Robin, watch him!

Riddler aside to Batgirl: Even if it’s just an act, can’t you leave my face intact?

 

Page 11:

Panel 1: Catwoman breaks into the bank window.

Panel 2: Catwoman sneaks down halls of the bank.

Panel 3: Catwoman trying to open the Bank vault.

Panel 4: Catwoman still trying to open the Bank Vault, but looking surprised

Batman(from behind her): Stop! It’s over.

Panel 5: Batman lifting the veil off Catwoman; her eyes are clear again.

 

Page 12:

Panel 1: Batman and Catwoman standing in front of the vault.

Catwoman: What happened?

Batman: Mad Hatter put a mind control device in this wedding veil and told you to rob a bank.

Panel 2:

Batman: Joker must have hoped that if everyone thought you returned to a life of crime, it would be impossible for the Batman and the Catwoman to be married.

Panel 3: Catwoman looking downcast, turned away from Batman.

Catwoman: Maybe he’d be right…

Batman: Exactly…

 

Page 13:

Panel 1: An interrogation cell at GCP, Gordon stands next to Bullock and looks on at Joker, who’s in a straight jacket.

Gordon: There’s always more than meets-the-eye with Joker’s plans.

Panel 2: Joker grinning in the room.

Joker: It was all King Tut’s idea, I swear! He’s so funky!

Panel 3: Gordon looks frustrated.

Gordon: Do you think it’s even worth questioning him, or should we just toss him back into Arkham?

 

Page 14:

Panel 1: Gordon still standing there, but instead of Bullock, Clayface is standing next to him.

Gordon: You’re awfully quiet, Bullock…

Panel 2: Gordon looks in horror at Clayface.

Gordon: What are YOU doing here?!

Panel 3: Clayface moves in on Gordon.

Clayface: I got a bit part…

Panel 4: Clayface

Clayface: and I’m ready for my close-up!

 

Page 15:

Panel 1: A blast of a freeze ray from the freeze gun hits Clayface and knocks him away from Gordon.

Panel 2: Bullock holding the freeze gun.

Bullock: Some Asian lady with a sword said this was at the crime scene… good thing I hadn’t checked it into evidence, yet, huh?

Panel 3: Joker furious in the interrogation room

Joker: What? That’s it?! I was hoping for much more in the third act!

 

Page 16:

Panel 1: Batman is standing in front of the camera crews outside 1st Gotham Bank; Catwoman is looking down and is wearing cuffs beside him.

Batman: …and that’s why I’ve decided that the Batman and the Catwoman can NEVER get married.

Panel 2: Two-Face’s cell; Two-Face is watching the live broadcast on his TV.

Batman on the TV: Batman is a crime-fighter, and the Catwoman is a criminal.

Panel 3:

Two-Face: Why that no good double crosser…

 

Page 17:

Batman fires his grapnel with one hand, holding Catwoman in the other, and goes soaring off away from the press conference that’s formed around the outside of the bank.

Batman: It’s time she gets her just deserts.

 

Page 18:

A Gotham Courthouse.

Caption: Later that week…

 

Page 19:

Panel 1: Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle stand in front of the desk of a Justice of the peace wearing normal clothes.

Justice: Your paperwork is all in order, you’ve paid your license fee. Congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Wayne.

 

Panel 2:

Bruce Wayne: It may be awhile before Batman and the Catwoman can be seen together in public.

Selina: I’m hoping that we’ll be in private for a bit. Meow!

 

Page 20:

Panel 1: Bruce and Selina leaving the courthouse.

Selina: This was all brilliant, really…

Bruce: With Batman and Catwoman ‘officially broken up’, there’s no suspicion about the wedding of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle.

Panel 2: Continuing down the steps

Selina: And that’s fine. It’s the man I’m marrying, not the costume.

Bruce: …Of course!

Panel 2 circle inset: Nightwing smiling and waving.

Nightwing: Thank God for that, right?

Panel 3: Selina looks lovingly at Bruce

Selina: You may now kiss the bride!

 

Page 21:

Panel 1: Bruce and Selina embrace and kiss.

Panel 2: The couple ride off in a car together

Selina (from inside the car): Our friends are all waiting for us at the little chapel we booked just outside of town.

 

Page 22:

Panel 1: Arkham Asylum

Joker narrating: What? That’s it?

Panel 2: Joker in his cell

Joker: No big twist ending? Batman and Catwoman aren’t getting married!? Everyone saw that coming!

Panel 3: All of the Bat Family + Catwoman waving.

All: Thanks for reading!

Batman: See you after the Honeymoon!

If you want me to have more time to devote to writing weird stuff like this, please don’t pledge to our Kickstarter for Volume 2! ;D

Disclaimer: DC owns Batman, all the characters, trademarks, etc., yadda yadda yadda.

Cirsova Primarily a PulpRev Publication?!

We got mentioned recently in Steve DuBois’ review of one of our contemporaries, Broadswords & Blasters. It’s a good review, B&B is a pub I’ve really been meaning to check out, I just haven’t had the time.

Still, it’s an interesting take-away that we “work primarily with authors who identify as members of the movement” given that maybe half a dozen out of over 50 contributors are actively involved beyond having used the tag a few times.

Rather than just say that Steve’s wrong (I probably turned down as many stories from members of the #PulpRev community for next year as I acquired, more if we count anyone who used either hashtag), I think it would be more useful to look at how this misconception came to be.

Some of this misunderstanding might spring from Cirsova having been a pre- publication, so there may have been the misconception that all of our writers were part of the movement when the movement was a fan of our publication.

I spoke about this once here, but I’ll reiterate that being published by us does not draft anyone into any movements nor does being part of any movement guarantee you’ll be published by us.

I’ll also note that there are, at this point, two distinct PulpRevs/PulpRevolutions

The first was the Movement, back when it was #PulpRevolution and eventually #PulpRev. It was small, but there was momentum behind it. This was mid-late 2016 through early 2017. Several authors, including Cirsova contributors, latched on because there was buzz and it was an exciting time. It was a “Beyond Sad Puppies”/”Beyond Rabid Puppies”/”Beyond other stuff” thing that folks were looking to get in on.

The second is the Community, which formed from participants in the movement. This is #PulpRev. It’s not really a club, because its doors are pretty open, but it’s not really a movement anymore, either. It’s more introspective, having become something of a writers’ circle. Involvement in the first =/= involvement in the second.

I was an active proponent of the first and remain an involved, but peripheral, figure in the second, but I do consider them very different things.

However that brings me around to how one could have the misconception of Cirsova being a primarily “#pulprev” magazine. What we were looking for in our stories got taken and held up as exemplary; we kept looking for the same things and buying stories from writers who wrote what we were looking for.

Brian Niemeier is Saving Superversive + a Warning to the Pulp Revolution

Every once in a while, someone likes to meme the faux rivalry between the Superversive and PulpRev crowd. The latest has been the images of some white knight guy representing the former with a dread knight guy representing the latter, with implications ranging from the nature of each’s approach to storytelling to just that one is more badass than the other.

Brian Niemeier has written a bit of an analysis and response to the rivalry which can be read here in full. But he outlines a few points that his readers have brought up and some “actionable advice” to the Superversives.

  • The Superversives have more high profile authors.
  • The #PulpRev has a far bigger cultural footprint–due to their greater willingness to interact with the public on social media.
  • The Superversives lag behind in terms of marketing their ideas.
  • On the whole, the #PulpRev has the upper hand–though the two movements aren’t exactly in direct competition. There’s a high degree of overlap.
  1. Your membership is too private and insular. Discuss what’s going on in the movement out in the open more often. Conversations about upcoming projects, new members, superversive philosophy, etc. should be had in public to raise awareness and build interest.
  2. The Superversive Roundtables are too long. Try keeping the ordinary shows to one hour, tops. Your audience will give you a little longer for special events.
  3. Sci-Phi JournalForbidden Thoughts, and Astounding Frontiers are good. But there’s always room for improvement. Superversive magazines and anthologies should have a stronger editorial voice, and the story selections should show greater intentionality.

 

To me, the biggest difference between the two movements is that the Superversive movement is defined by its pursuit of the ideal of “superversive” while the Pulp Rev movement is (or was) defined by a pursuit of a certain approach to storytelling. The former is ideological while the latter is structuralist (if you don’t believe me, just see how often folks bandy about “Lester Dent’s Master Formula”).

I do see the Pulp Rev slipping towards where the Superversives are now, and I’ll explain why after I touch on Brian’s 3 points.

  1. The Superversive website requires users to sign up to comment, and that’s a barrier. Folks see the Superversive movement as more of a clique revolving around that website than a movement. Because the site has the name, the site is the movement. It’s a perception thing.
  2. Yes; shorter shows done more often with fewer people is generally better. Too many folks talking over each other combined with awful mics, tons of background noise, and ominous heavy breathing make the Superversive streams near unlistenable despite otherwise decent content. Despite not having any heavies of literary import, the Whippersnappers Superversive casts are generally better (even if they’re totally wrong about something!) because there are only a few of them instead of nearly a dozen.
  3. I can’t really judge these anthologies as I haven’t read any of them yet, but there’s the sense that they’re all coming from the same small group. Part of this is because not only is Superversive a movement and a website it is also a publisher. On the other hand, take Bryce Beattie’s Storyhack; some folks consider Cirsova one of the first Pulp Revolution publications, but Bryce has launched an impressive pub on his own completely independent from us. There’s no tie between Bryce and I other than that we’re looking for similar types of fiction. (We did ad-swap, but there hasn’t been any sort of collaboration between us as a means to ‘advance the movement’ or whatever.) As another example, I’ve published a couple stories from Misha Burnett, but he’s doing his 21st Century Thrilling Anthology (apologies if that’s not the exact name) completely independent from us or anyone else (though I think they may be approaching Superversive for possibly publishing it). I don’t know how many folks independent of the Superversive website crew are working on their own and saying “this is my contribution to the Superversive movement.”

Now I need to turn things to the Pulp Rev… Some folks worried about the Pulp Rev ossifying because I was gonna maybe go invite only in a year and a half from now. But I see it ossifying now for other reasons, moving towards having the same issues that Superversive has now. Ask yourself this: what growth has there been in the Pulp Rev community in the last three months? It may not have stalled out, but it looks like it’s plateaued.

Okay, now here’s a bit of a disclaimer before I go on; I don’t try to wrangle our authors into being a part of the Pulp Revolution – if they want to join in, they’re welcome to, but being published in Cirsova isn’t being drafted into a movement. Also, being involved in the Pulp Revolution does not improve your chances of being accepted and published by Cirsova.

  1. Because people are naturally ideological in general, there’s going to be a push towards defining a movement in ideological terms. As the Pulp Rev becomes more political and ideological in how it defines itself, it will face many of the same hurdles that the Superversives do – namely that the stories will be approached from an ideological rather than a structural lens.
  2. Having a Pulp Rev website signals cliquishness akin to what the Superversives suffer from. Outsiders will see a website and assume that the Pulp Rev is the website and the website is the Pulp Rev, and people not writing for the website are not part of the movement. It’s a perception thing. Just as a singular Superversive site dominates the Superversive movement and potentially stifles its growth, a PulpRev website could do the same.
  3. Branding the movement is a surefire way to kill it. You can be a movement or you can be a branded commodity, but you can’t be both. What killed the Sad Puppies was that the Mad Genius Club clique wanted to make Sad Puppies be a brand associated with them, and to ensure that, they had to stamp out independent actors who had believed that it was a movement. I don’t see that happening with the Pulp Rev, but so long as people see the Pulp Rev treated as a commodity (specifically tagging books as being “PulpRev”, selling “PulpRev” merch), it will have potential to kill its growth. The new wave in science fiction is about independence; who wants to be part of something that already has a website and is selling T-shirts with the name of the movement? Better to start your own new thing!

Honestly, the Pulp Revolution is far too small at this point for anyone to actually make money off trying to exploit the name, but people participate in movements, not brands – and if they think it’s a brand, they’re not going to participate. How does this tie into the issues Brian brings up? Because Superversive is seen as a brand rather than a movement. Fair or not, it’s seen as the Jason Rennie + John C. Wright & Friends’ brand. While Brian is trying to move the Superversives away from that, the Pulp Rev has been moving towards it. You can nip this in the bud, but it may have to be soon.

This is not meant to impugn anyone’s motives. I don’t think anyone who was caught up in the excitement of the Pulp Rev thought about exploiting or seeking to steer the movement or was even aware of the possible repercussions of putting together unofficial official sites or selling unofficial official merchandise. But at best, I think they will only serve to limit the movement’s growth at a point just before it could reach a critical mass.

One of the nicest things about Castalia House’s blog offering a platform for the Pulp Revolution is that while Castalia House is a brand, it has not imposed itself on movement. In fact, the commercial publishing wing of Castalia is almost wholly independent from the Pulp Revolution. Vox Day has never said “You’re on my site, so you’re going to talk about and promote the kind of science fiction I like and publish.” And Jeffro, the blog’s editor, has not put the clamps down or laid down the law or acted like he was the pope of the Pulp Rev despite having a tremendous amount of clout within the movement.

Remember – for a movement to grow and succeed, it can’t just be a vertical. Just as Superversive needs to branch out to thrive, the Pulp Rev needs to remain diffuse if it’s going to survive.