Monday, October 30, 2017

Razorfist presents: The Shadow: DANGER IN THE DARK

After last year's success in recreating the Alfred Bester-penned episode of The Shadow Radio Show, The Immortal Murderer, Razorfist is back for Halloween with Danger in the Dark, the THIRD EVER, Orson Welles-era episode, until now, lost to the mists of time! This episode sees The Shadow match wits with an emerging supercriminal, whose blindness allows his other senses to function at peak efficiency!

This episode is dedicated to Emer Prevost (1982-2017), who played the Announcer.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Trends: Covers

I page through a lot of Amazon pages to put together the New Release Spotlights and Roundups over at the Castalia House blog. And while I am constantly playing catch-up in keeping track of the sheer volume of titles released every week through Amazon, this allows me to find and follow the ways authors use their Amazon pages to try to drive sales. Currently, I see three trends: covers, customer reviews, and featurettes. I'll look at each in separate posts:


Ebook artwork has matured from its early days, where covers like these two could often be found:

Both are great stories, by the way, and The Dark Wing cover is for a release after Tor gave up the rights. For comparison, here's Tor's cover from the mid-2000s:

Now, let's take a look a sample of recent science fiction and fantasy ebooks:

The arms race of artwork for ebooks has elevated the covers to a level that can compete with those of traditional publishing. To stand out, an author now needs to place as much effort into cover art as the story. There are many sites that will provide technical advice for an author, and there are many debates over whether a portrait or an action scene is preferable. Meanwhile, tradpub is turning to the abstract:

If there is one bit of advice that I would give prospective authors, it would be to spend the time and money to find the art that best sells a story. Before a customer can read the blurb, the reviews, or the new featurettes, they have to have a reason to click on your page. An excellent cover gives them that reason. The challenge these days is to stand apart from the other excellent covers crowding the Amazon page. The bar has been raised.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Fotoboekies: South African Pulp

In addition to providing an introduction to Hindi pulps, Paul Bishop at Bibliorati also shines a light on South African pose-books, also known as poseboekies or fotoboekies, a mix of pulp, comics, and photography:
Recently, I came across an interesting short documentary on YouTube celebrating South African fotoboekies kultuur—which translates as pulp photo story culture. I also came across a trove of covers for a photo-book series named after its gorgeous title character, Tessa, a platinum blonde who battled evil in the jungles of urban South Africa clad only in a bikini and high heels. Clashing with sinister looking individuals wearing bad suit and sunglasses, Tessa always came out on top, with not a strand of her bottled blonde hair out of place. 
To her ardent continent-wide fans, Tessa, the bikini-clad, Karate kicking government agent, was akin to a goddess. Every 30,000 copy issue of Tessa sold out almost instantaneously on the newsstands—creating a lucrative secondhand market. Those 30,000 copies in today’s Internet savvy market would equal numbers to put the Kardashian’s Twitter followers to shame.
The South African publishing company Republican Press was the low-budget force behind the phenomenon of the photo comics Tessa and Kid Colt, as well as the Playboy knockoff Scope. At its zenith, Republican Press was printing 20 different fotoboekies a month. Grafting Western influenced literary myths onto African settings, fotoboekies were most often written by authors based in Johannesburg—many of them black South African students working for minimal pay—then photographed by white professional shutterbugs using a team of black actors in Swaziland. 
 The actors were mostly locals from working-class neighborhoods. While the top poesboekie models were paid 25 to 30 rand a day—which at the time was a lucrative way to pay your rent—most appearance fees were negligible. The recognizable main male actors were generally consideredeccentric, hard-living, womanizers. Working quickly, an entire book could be shot in one to three days depending on the complexity of the simple sets. 
There were also army heroes—Swart Luiperd, Wit Tier, Kaptein Duiwel, Grensvegter (Black Leopard, White Tiger, Captain Devil, Grantsman) and others. They were most often depicted out in the jungle clutching their wooden machine guns, killing cigar smoking Cuban clones. Almost always, the villains held the proverbial disheveled damsel in distress captive after her convoy/aircraft/helicopter/hospital was invaded/crashed/broke down. The real South African soldiers who read these outrageous tales figured they could go back to civilian life if only these heroes existed outside their fervent imaginations.
Make sure to check out that documentary.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Hindi Pulps

Although the pulps in America effectively died out in the fifties, their spirit still lives on in the world. Previously, I've looked at Japanese light novels and Chinese YY novels. The pulp spirit is not contained to just East Asia, as Paul Bishop dives into the world of the Hindi and Tamal pulps over at Bibliorati:
Known as the father of Hindi pulp crime fiction, Surender Mohan Pathak has written close to 300 novels, including 60+ standalone thrillers, 120+ adventures of crime reporter Sunil, 22+ investigations of the Philosopher Detective Sudhir, and 42 of his anti-hero Vimal crime thrillers.

While working a full-time job in Delhi with Indian Telephone Industries, Pathak began his writing career in the early 1960s translating Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and the works of James Hadley Chase into the Hindi language. His first original story, The Man 57 Years Old, was published in 1959, followed by his first full length novel, featuring his crime reporter series character Sunil, in 1963.

The character Sunil is a suave and principled investigative journalist working for the daily newspaper Blast. He lives in the metropolitan city of Rajnagar located on the coastline. Both the newspaper and the city are fictional, much the same as the city of Isola in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels.

Sunil has a weakness for damsels in distress, who seem to drop into his life with the regularity of the rising sun. In his 30s, Sunil is willing to go to any lengths in pursuit of justice. He is aided by his best friend, nightclub owner Ramakant Malhotra. Every strong character requires an equally strong nemesis. In Sunil’s case it is iron-rodded, incorruptible Inspector Prabhudayal, who is in charge of the homicide division of the Rajnagar Police.
Pulp fiction has long been fascinated with the full breadth of the Asian continent as setting and source for its mysteries. It is fascinating to see how Asia reveres and reinterprets the pulps.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Millhaven Press: Amateur Pulpsters Wanted

Reprinted from Books of the Broken (h/t: Misha Burnett):
Today I am foregoing my usual Saturday Spotlight feature for something a little different.  Every Saturday I feature a pulp story from the past to shed a little light on some of the nearly forgotten authors.  Today’s entry is almost the exact opposite.  I am featuring a new idea by Millhaven Press.
Millhaven is seeking short stories from amateur writers in the hopes to put out a quarterly pulp inspired print magazine.  We think there is enough interest in these types of stories to make this idea feasible.  We miss the print pulps of yesteryear and want to bring some of that back.
Amateur writers are encouraged to submit their stories ( for consideration.  We will also need some art (even cover art) for the magazine.  All the relevant details are to be found at the Millhaven Press website.  Just click the link:
Millhaven Press Website 
Here’s to making this idea a reality (and fingers-crossed).

Monday, October 23, 2017

Invincible, by Kit Sun Cheah

In an Empire beset by internal rebellion and ferocious yaomo, the elite Shenwujun stand ready to defend human civilization. Among the Shenwujun there is none finer than Ensign Zhang Tianyou, who earned the nickname Zhang the Invincible. During a mission to quash a nascent rebellion, a Shenwujun detachment discovers evidence that the Grand Union is supporting the rebels. Zhang is tasked to investigate and destroy this new threat.

But will Zhang the Invincible meet his match at the hands of the rebel called Han the Demon Sword?

With this summary, Kit Sun Cheah (an alias of Castalia House author Kai Wai Cheah) introduced Invincible, his serialized novella that won an Honorable Mention at the Q1 2017 Writers of the Future contest. Through its seven chapters, he brings the fantasy genre of xianxia to English-speaking audiences, mixing generous portions of pulp action and military fantasy into the Chinese setting.

Most xianxia fantasies feature magicians who cultivate their internal energy to perform a dazzling array of magical and martial feats as they ascend a near infinite ladder of power levels, most far beyond the reaches of mere mortal cultivators. The primary drive for these characters is to gain more power, through such means as making contracts with magical beings, raiding treasure houses, or clashing with bandits and rivals. This leads to proud and selfish protagonists taking what they want because no one can stop them. Invincible's Zhang uses some of the same techniques, as he draws on the purifying methods of cultivation to remove fatigue, enjoys the blessings of his contract with the celestial phoenix Hong Er, and has earned his reputation as a skilled magical warrior on the battlefield. But Cheah upends the usual wish-fulfillment fantasies of xianxia by placing Zhang under military discipline. Duty, not power, becomes the driving force for Zhang, who must fulfill the duties to his country, his regiment, and his celestial partner as he pursues monsters and men who might as well be monsters. For each duty may grant privileges, but also demand obligations in turn. And, as Zhang finds out, sometimes these obligations conflict with each other.

Friday, October 20, 2017

"War Lord of Many Swordsmen"

The war lords and bandits of Western China thought all visitors were fair game—until they ran into Norcross and his hard-boiled black army from the American Expeditionary Forces.

Starting in 2015, Altus Press has rereleased the stories that filled the first and the greatest of pulps, Argosy Magazine, with its Argosy Library line. With over thirty volumes, stories by well-known pulpsters such Lester Dent, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Adelbert Kline, Max Brand, and Abraham Merritt have returned to print for the first time in years. Alongside these more familiar authors, Altus has introduced new generations of readers to George F. Worts, Loring Brent, Victor Rousseau, and many, many others, drawing from 96 years of pulp adventures and packaging them with the gorgeous covers from the pulp age. And it was the striking painting of a Manchu princess standing in front of her army that drew my attention to War Lord of Many Swordsmen, the first collection of the adventures of John Norcross by chinoiserie enthusiast and former lawman W. Wirt. Within its pages are two short novels detailing the adventures of Norcross, his infantry company of black soldiers, and his adopted sister, Princess Ch'engyuan.

The first adventure, "War Lord of Many Swordsmen", interrupts Norcross's pursuit of a legendary lost Zulu impi regiment into China. A wealthy donor hires his company of black WWI veterans to retrieve a sealed cylinder from a Chinese fortress city. Along the way, they rescue the exiled Princess Ch'engyuan and her betrothed, formerly of the same fortress city where Norcross's treasure lies, ousted by a warlord supported by the same Russian and British spies sent to frustrate Norcross's mission. Ch'engyuan and Norcross forge an alliance. He will help liberate her city and she will help him find the cylinder. But before they can reach Ch'engyuan's city, Norcross's company must first march through the Chinese hinterlands, with Russian Cossacks, Manchu bandits, and the Zulu impis barring his way.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Advice from Orson Scott Card

Star Trek Discovery recent revelry in the dubious honor of being the first Trek to dip into George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can't Say On Television" sent me reaching for an old interview with Orson Scott Card where he addressed the recurring tendency towards shock in science fiction:
"But unfortunately, most of these arts are practiced by people who have not grown out of the adolescent stage of wanting to shock people in order to seem cool -- even though, like adolescents, they can't think of a single new way to shock anybody, so nobody is actually shocked at all, they're just embarrassed or bored ... or, if they're marginal personalities, excited in a sick way."
As I read further, I found a wealth of writing advice:
"In truth, the secret to all characterization for me is expressible in two maxims: Every character is the hero of his own story, and You don't write characters, you write relationships. In practice the first maxim means that you must let characters have their own purposes and agendas, not just do what the plot requires, and the second maxim means that nobody is the same person to everyone -- who they are depends in large part on whom they're with."
including a refutation of the first version of Whedon's Law, where as soon as a character turns evil, the grow in intelligence and thus interest:
To paraphrase Tolstoy: Good people are endlessly fascinating, but wicked people are all weak, cowardly, or evil in the same old ways. I don't find evil fascinating. I find it predictably self-serving. But good people are the ones who struggle to balance their own needs with the needs of loved ones and the communities to which they have given allegiance. The result of this attitude of mine is that, with rare exceptions, I don't create "pure" villains.
He also addresses the common writing vices of our time, the inward focus on the self and the move towards dialogue instead of action to reveal character:
There is only the life of the individual in relation to others. Inner life is a myth, and a harmful one at that. Studying yourself teaches you nothing about yourself, just as trying to build your self-esteem does nothing for your self-esteem. Only turning outward -- and I mean only turning outward -- gives you a life worth living and a reason for self-esteem and an understanding of what and who you are. I say this as a confirmed introvert (grins). So when I see other writers exploring a person's "feelings," I get impatient. Feelings can be chemically induced; they come and go; they're not any kind of guide to who a person is. Only what a person chooses to do can tell an observer or himself who he is. And since we become different people in every relationship we have, the only way to get any kind of understanding of my main character is by showing him in juxtaposition with many other fully-realized characters. In fiction as in life, we are what we do to others.
And finally:
Don't even think about writing sf or fantasy unless you've read every story in: The Hugo Winners, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Dangerous Visions and Again Dangerous Visions.

These stories are the root of the field. If you don't know them, you will try to reinvent the wheel; and since the readers do know them, it will kill your work. Besides, you can't learn the tools of the trade without being familiar with how they've been used and developed. Science fiction is more demanding than literary fiction, and is harder to do well; the reward is that science fiction and fantasy allow you to tell any story that can be told in li-fi, and far more that can't.
A solid recommendation to which I would add Appendix N to the list to round out fantasy.

Catch the entire interview at Writers Write.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

More on Fan Fiction

Earlier this year, L. Jagi Lamplighter tackled the same idea of what distinguishes fanfic from homage that I did yesterday. Now, the idea of playing in another person's sandbox has a long and distinguished history, already old when Shakespeare penned his plays. (Jagi points out that, if all it took to earn the label "fanfiction" was to use someone else's work, "we would have to refer to Mid-Summer’s Night Dream by Shakespeare as “Huor of Bordeux fan fiction.”)

Once again, my intent here is not to take swipes at fans writing stories of their favorite characters. I'd be a hypocrite if I did. Like Jagi, however, I recognize similarities in many of today's published stories to the worst excesses of fan works. But her example better illustrates the faults unique to fan fiction that might not be present in other fan works:
Marvel has replaced all the original heroes we love with new heroes of the same name who are different. This might not too bad, if the characters were noble and heroic, but they are not. The new set of characters emote. They stand around while others admire or adore them, and they do easily tasks that the real heroes found difficult. 
There was something familiar about this kind of writing. I had seen it before. But it took thinking about it for a bit before I sat up and exclaimed, “Oh, I get it! They’re writing Marvel fanfic!”
An excellent writer and editor, Jagi explains further:
[Jason Rennie, publisher of Superversive Press] defines fan fiction as “doing violence to the [fictional] universe.” What does he mean by that? What is the kind of violence that is usually done? 
The first kind of violence is emotional. 
I mentioned the tiny porthole through which a single candle passes as an analogy for the emotions showed by some stalwart characters. They act out of duty or purpose and do not let their emotions come between them and their goal. Only rarely, at moments of high tension, do they occasionally reveal the single crack in their fortress-armor. 
Fan fiction rips open that crack and makes the whole story about emotions—emotions that the character would never ordinarily express. 
After prohibition ended in America, it became popular to have movies that glorified drinking, such as Philadelphia Story, where partway through the story, the dignified main characters would drink too much and suddenly blurt out what they were really thinking. 
Or they would kiss someone that they would never otherwise have kissed. 
Emotional fanfic treats the our characters as if they are perpetually drunk…or worse…so that they act without inhibitions, saying or doing things that the real character—the one that has to live with the consequences of their actions and who, usually, has some modicum of dignity—would never do. 
Fanfic characters blurt out their loves, hates, romantic longings, and fears…personal things most characters would never reveal come pouring out of their mouths. Even worse than never reveal, things they would never feel come gushing out. 
Other types of violence include: 
Talking about nothing real—conversation limited to things like relationships, how awesome they are, and other simplistic conversations 
Overly simplistic relationships: everyone is so buddy buddy, without the real differences of personality that every human relationship faces. 
Super-cool wow wonder—a lot of time is spent on how much other people admire the character. 
The ability to easily beat anything…quickly.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with most fan fiction pieces.
The emphasis is mine, focusing on the signs of the greater problem. This is how the inward focus of narcissism manifests in story. It is not a surprise that as geek culture got normalized and then popular, that more of this style of writing appeared on the shelves. As yesterday's World Class Bullshitters video on toxic fandom mentioned, today's fandoms have an "incessant need to...rewrite entertainment to fit their psychological needs." Jagi's above list shows the scars caused by the ensuing violence to the universe. (As an aside, message fiction often carries the same scars because the story is also distorted to fit a pre-shaped mold. Again: see Marvel.) And as the delineations between fan works and published works continue to blur, we will see more of this writing. (More on that subject in a future post.)

Fortunately, there is a way to avoid this popular trap, as Orson Scott Card said:
There is no inner life of a person in isolation. There is only the life of the individual in relation to others. Inner life is a myth, and a harmful one at that. Studying yourself teaches you nothing about yourself, just as trying to build your self-esteem does nothing for your self-esteem. Only turning outward -- and I mean only turning outward -- gives you a life worth living and a reason for self-esteem and an understanding of what and who you are. I say this as a confirmed introvert (grins). So when I see other writers exploring a person's "feelings," I get impatient. Feelings can be chemically induced; they come and go; they're not any kind of guide to who a person is. Only what a person chooses to do can tell an observer or himself who he is. And since we become different people in every relationship we have, the only way to get any kind of understanding of my main character is by showing him in juxtaposition with many other fully-realized characters. In fiction as in life, we are what we do to others. Jesus was not playing paradoxes when he said that to find your life, you must lose it in the service of others. Nothing is more empty than a person who lives only for himself and seeks to find himself through examination of that empty room.
And it is this approach, of character revealed through action, which is one of the vanishing secrets of pulp writing. Of good writing.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Homage, Pastiche, and Fan Fiction

I've been lately trying to understand where, why and how the grand profaning of imagination, or making the awesome ordinary, came to be that's defining mass-market media right now. It's easy to name call, to say that's just SJWs or fujoshi or convention goers. But I find that it is more beneficial to address the dearth of imagination in terms of vice than identity.

The following musing is only one of these attempts to understand what's going on. Let me first state that I've read fan fiction, edited fan fiction, and even written fan fiction on and off for most of my adult life. There's nothing wrong with fans exploring the world of a beloved story. But recently, many original and franchise books, movies, and games have shown a certain resemblance to fanfiction and other derived works. This is not a description of quality, but of attitude. And it all comes down to what's being celebrated, the work or one's self.


What is the difference between homage, pastiche, and fan fiction? And why does it matter?

Homage: Something created or done in honor, admiration, or celebration of someone or something

Pastiche: A work of visual art, literature, theatre, or music that imitates the style or character of the work of one or more other artists. Unlike parody, pastiche celebrates, rather than mocks, the work it imitates. In literature usage, the term denotes a literary technique employing a generally light-hearted tongue-in-cheek imitation of another's style; although jocular, it is usually respectful.

Fan fiction: Typically used to denote derivative works written by fans, the original definition from the pulp era is "fiction about fans, or sometimes about pros, and occasionally bringing in some famous characters from [science fiction] stories". As this is the particular group of stories which has given rise to the Mary Sue, the self-insert, the author avatar, the original character, shipping stories, and the meme fic, current fan fiction maintains this focus on the fan, with guest appearances by the canon characters. Where pastiche celebrates the original work, fan fiction is narcissistic, fans celebrating themselves and using the trappings of the original to do it.

Not all derivative work is fan fiction, even if written by fans. Some few attempt pastiche and homage. But the great bulk is wish fulfillment and the celebration of fans, fan-inspired in-jokes, fan theories, or more often, a single fan. I personally think fan fiction is an early stage in a writer's development--mapping closely to the "chuunibyou" self-importance of pre-teens. Most writers outgrow this phase, and most fans put aside this type of writing as they mature in favor of other fannish pursuits.

I've noticed that geek culture tends to celebrate itself over the works it "loves" (hence the rise of "toxic fandoms"). And when icons of geek culture get into creative industries, their works, even with the blessings of the original creators and license holders, never rise above fan fiction. J. J. Abrams has done this with Star Wars and Star Trek, with both now more about the winks to the fans than telling a proper story. Characters, setting, and mood are sacrificed for fanservice. It's the nerd bet of the hardcores all over again, with the creators betting on geeks instead of reaching out to the audience. And, rather than being panned, this narcissism is celebrated and passed on to the next generation of creatives. Thus the rise of stories where the only bit of wonder is not from exploring a strange and wonderful world, but the self.

Frankly, our creative classes need to grow up and get over themselves.


It is fortuitous coincidence that the same day I wrote this, that YouTube channel World Class Bullshitters addressed a similar idea in a video about Toxic Fan Culture. A quote relevant to the above musing is; "Interaction is great and it can be a lot of fun, but when the property takes a backseat to Joe Blow's ego, we have a problem." And there's more in the video:

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Gravity of the Game

In Jon Del Arroz's novella, Gravity of the GameCommissioner Hideki Ichiro is growing frustrated as his attempts to bring baseball to the moon are frustrated by its low gravity. About to give up, he visits a sickly child in the hospital, whose love of the game rekindle Ichiro's drive to succeed. But as he is about to pour the time and money needed to develop the technology needed to recreate baseball on the moon, an owners' dispute threatens to remove Ichiro as commissioner of baseball. Can Ichiro hold onto his position long enough to bring baseball to the moon?

Del Arroz's clever title carries more meaning than just the surface reading. Gravity certainly is the technical issue preventing baseball from being played on the moon. At the same time, Gravity of the Game is a love letter to the love of baseball, focusing not on the action on the diamond, but the impact that the game has on so many people worldwide. And it is this passion, from poor Make-a-Wish children in hospitals to fans at the field and at home, that Commissioner Ichiro has sworn to preserve--and makes baseball so attractive to its fans. Del Arroz brings to life the love of the game again and again throughout the novella, never letting it become cloying, saccharine, or nostalgic. Each character is genuine and never played to stereotype, whether in culture or behavior.

This refusal to play to stereotype extends even to the plotting. It has become a refrain from authors published by Baen that if you have two separate problems, that there will be a solution that satisfies both. Usually, this means throwing one problem at the other. And at first glance, the inventions that make baseball possible on the moon could certainly settle the longstanding owners' territorial battle that threatens to end Ichiro's tenure as baseball's commissioner. Instead, Gravity of the Game chooses to illustrate the costs of clinging to the right action--and the potential rewards beyond.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Sci-Fi Radio - The Twonky By Lewis Padgett

"Lewis Padgett" is one of the better-known pseudonyms for the husband and wife team of Henry Kuttner and Catherine "C. L." Moore.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Science Fiction's Future

After reading the newest feature on Neal Stephenson's Hieroglyph endeavor to bring back that Golden Age of science fiction, it is clear that the current course of science fiction is not popular, even among the established writers. What is not clear, however, is how science fiction will be reformed. Will it be to tradition, as many establishment science fiction writers desire? To adventure, as the PulpRev and the short fiction adventure wellspring proclaim? Or to beauty, as Superversives and Noblebright strive for?

Certainly, there's no need for a winner-take-all contest between Tradition, Adventure, and Beauty. There's considerable overlap between the groups. Some Superversives run more traditionalist, some PulpRev run with the Superversive, and Hieroglyph's aims align well with superversion. What I find most interesting is that I can place authors from all parts of the political and tradpub-indie spectra in all three camps. And while different groups emphasize different approaches, the future flavor of science fiction is pretty clear.

Monday, October 9, 2017


Jon Del Arroz and Daddy Warpig talk about the newest whisper campaign by SFWA against a science fiction author. With these attacks, Del Arroz joins the august company of Michael Flynn, Barry Malberg, and Jerry Pournelle, among others, hounded by SFWA members for having wrong opinions. And these are the same people who want to represent the working independent writer. Please remember these witch hunts when SFWA tries to pass the plate.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

"Tales From the Magician's Skull" kickstarter is live!

Tales From the Magician's Skull is a printed fantasy magazine dedicated to presenting all-new sword-and-sorcery fiction by the finest modern crafters in the genre. These stories are the real thing, crammed with sword-swinging action, dark sorceries, dread, and ferocious monsters -- and they hurtle forward at a headlong pace.
Issue #1 is complete and ready for printing. It is brimming with 72 pages and contains 7 stories, each featuring a full page black-and-white illustration. When appropriate to the tale, maps to terrifying tombs and sinister lairs are included as well. Each story has been written, edited, illustrated, and laid out in classic pulp magazine format. A bonus section translates elements from each story - creatures, magic items, and more - into Dungeon Crawl Classics game terms.
Issue #1 features fiction by James Enge, John C. Hocking, Howard Andrew Jones, Aeryn Rudel, Bill Ward, C. L. Werner, and Chris Willrich. The magazine is edited by Howard Andrew Jones and published by Joseph Goodman of Goodman Games, with layout by Lester B. Portly.
Each story is lovingly illustrated by industry stalwarts, and issue #1 features art by Jennell Jaquays, Doug Kovacs, Willam McAusland, Brad McDevitt, Ian Miller, Russ Nicholson, and Stefan Poag.
This Kickstarter funds the print publication of the first and second issues. Depending on pledge level, backers will receive their issues shipped to them in physical form. There is also an option for PDF delivery.

Personally, after looking through the Kickstarter, I am impressed. As soon as the next paycheck hits, I will back this myself.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Brian Niemeier on How to Polish Your Prose

If there is one addition I would make to Brian Niemeier's and Ray Bradbury's advice, it is to take advantage of audio books when you can. English is still a spoken language, after all, and many of the nuances only make themselves apparent when spoken. Rhythm, meter, word order, etc.. And, for those editing their own works, the spoken word reveals mistakes and clunky prose in a more stark manner than non-verbal reading. Try reading your words aloud when editing.

Because the last thing you want is someone echoing Harrison Ford's infamous complaint--"George, you can type this shit, but you can't say it!"

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

REVIEW: The Dai Sword, by Manly Wade Wellman

“…Let the scholar take steel, smelted according to the previous formula, and by his understanding skill beat, grind and sharpen it into a sword. Let it be engraved with the words and symbols ordained, and employed in the performance of mysteries. Let none touch, save those deserving…”
*     *     *      *      *
While visiting a merchant with his friend Everitt, John Thunstone is offered a chance to purchase a rare jeweled Nepalese sword. Known as a Dai sword, after the sect who crafted it, the weapon has a jewel in its pommel that entrances Everitt, who draws the sword from its scabbard. The blade turns in the young man’s hands, drawing blood. Thunstone immediately refuses to purchase the blade. Everitt, however, leaps at the opportunity. Worried by half-remembered legends, Thunstone turns to an old Gurkha friend to learn the secrets of the Dai sect. But most chillingly, Thunstone finds the secret to crafting the Dai sword in the spellbook of his most hated rival, the sorcerer Rowley Thorne. Accompanied by the merchant, he rushes over to Everitt’s, only to find the young man killed by the sword in his hand. Now the Dai sword must be sheathed, but first, it must draw Thunstone’s blood…
Thunstone escapes bloodshed through the silver swordcane at his side. His fencing bests the merchant who crafted the Dai sword, and his blade, crafted by St. Dunstan himself, cuts through the blood-thirsting enchantment in the pommel’s stone.
Those more familiar with Manly Wade Wellman’s John the Balladeer may be surprised to find his complete opposite in John Thunstone. Where John was a humble Army vet roaming the Appalachians with his silver-stringed guitar in search of rare songs and rare sights, Thunstone was described inside the jacket flap of Wellman’s Lonely Vigils as:
“a hulking Manhattanite playboy and dilettante, a serious student of the occult and a two-fisted brawler ready to take on any enemy. Armed with potent charms and a silver swordcane, Thunstone stalks supernatural perils in the posh night clubs and seedy hotels of New York, or in backwater towns lost in the countryside– seeking out deadly sorcery as a hunter pursues a man-killer beast.”
Where John the Balladeer’s stories always had an air of community to them, Thunstone is often alone, with many of his acquaintances falling victim to the occult menaces he faces. Silver John relies on the knowledge of those around him and the knowledge he knows, Thunstone relies on books, letters, and correspondences, following the conventions of Weird Tales as one of the last homes of Gothic-influenced fantasies. (Early Gothic novels often used the exchange of letters as a form of early narration.) The Balladeer had to rely on reasoning under pressure as he braved the otherworldly mysteries around him, while Thunstone could rely on reams of leisurely research. Where courting and unwanted suitors often filled Silver John adventures, Thunstone’s are solitary and academic. But both men named John would not back down from a fight, whether against men or the dangers hidden throughout the world.
“The Dai Sword” is a more direct story, without the twists that characterize Wellman’s Weird Tales stories. It’s a straight line from the sword’s first cut to the final showdown, interrupted only by Thunstone’s investigations into Dai culture and swordmaking. But like many a simple story, the execution is key, and “The Dai Sword” drips with vivid description that begs to be read aloud. It is also a rare Wellman chinoiserie, mixing Hindu, Nepalese, and Cambodian inspirations in this tale of a cursed sword. The sword fight at the end reflects Thunstone’s technical and precise style–with a weapon at least. And, because “The Dai Sword” was written after 1940, it lacks the sensationalism found in such weird menace tales as Norvell Page’s “When the Death-Bat Flies”. The mystery here is academic and gentlemanly, with the menace of the blade always at a distance from Thunstone instead of ever present over his head and without Wellman’s normally vivid bestiary.
Wellman mentions E. Hoffman Price in the story–and not without reason. Thunstone’s description of the old pulpmaster as “an accomplished fencer [who] understands swords thoroughly” and a recognized student of the Orient can be confirmed through Price’s memoirs and recollections in his Book of The Dead. Skilled enough in Arabic to challenge Lovecraft on the origins of the Mad Arab, discerning enough to choose a proper Persian rug for Farnsworth Wright, and a writer of Chinese-inspired fantasy, Price was well versed in the inspirations for chinoiserie, from Byzantium to Beijing.  Price would not be the first of many Weird Tales authors and characters to appear in Thunstone’s adventures. Seabury Quinn’s own occult investigator Jules de Grandin would maintain a correspondence with Thunstone and his teacher, Judge Pursuivant. Rather than creating a shared universe as one might do today, Wellman was content to give the occasional nod to his Weird Tales brotherhood.
Unfortunately, like much of Wellman’s bibliography, John Thunstone’s adventures are out of print, despite some truly amazing–and now expensive–collector’s editions published in the last twenty years. Hopefully, his estate will soon take advantage of the ebook revolution and make these stories more accessible to the general readership. Until then, “The Dai Sword” can be found at many archive sites such as  SFFaudio’s public domain page, along with thousands of other short stories.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Wave Those Tags, by Lester Dent

(This article was first published in 1940's Writer's Yearbook.)

Wave Those Tags
by Lester Dent

This, again, is my personal opinion...

Here is my formula for creating characters to put in fiction yarns.

Now...before launching out on this character blueprint, it might be a good idea to borrow some sale-psychology and build up the thing a little. To show, in other words, that it'll work--that it is being used successfully.

Though there seems to be some wariness about admitting it, most writers apparently work to formula to a great extent. Most pulp writers have devised a sure-fire master plot, and have been writing and selling the same yarn over and over for years. A surprising number of the slick authors seem to do the same thing. And there appears to be an inclination among editors to have their own idea of a formula for a yarn, and not buy anything that doesn't fit. They call this their groove, or the slant.

So probably the first thing to do is to try to show that stuff written to formula will sell.

In order to write a story, it seems best to start with a plot and characters. Yarns can be written without either one, but may be a little difficult to make a living selling them.

Whether the plot comes first, or the characters, seems to be a subject for argument. One method is to build the character, then dope out a plot in which they strut their stuff in their respective manners. The other system is to construct the plot, then manufacture characters to fit it. Possibly and argument can be avoided by saying: start out the way that seems most convenient. Professional writers make both systems work. Most apparently mix the two systems.

Possibly the initial step in creating a character should be:


It is very doubtful if the name is the most important step in creating a character--but it does seem to be the natural first thing to do.

Names are convenient as handles. But it helps if the characterizing doesn't stop with merely finding a name. One of the loudest squawks from editors is that so many characters are just names being dragged through yarns.

Making the name of the character different from that of any other actor in the story is usually a good idea. Should there be Morgans, Mermans, and Murtons in the yarn, somebody may be inclined to become confused.

It may also be nice to have the name sort of express the nature of the character--convey some suggestion as to his manner, appearance, nationality, occupation, or something. This gag appears to be quite widely used.

Examples: Dashell Hammett used a detective character named Spade, a hard digging instrument quite in keeping with the name. Another writer of whodunits, Rex Stout, makes use of predatory animal as a name source--Nero Wolfe and Tecumseh Fox being two instances. A further analytical dissection of these last two names might lead to surmise that, in the case of Nero Wolfe, the name Nero was used because it conveys the idea of a guy is inclined to fiddle while Rome burns, which the fiction character at times apparently, although never actually, does. The name Nero might also have certain inherent leonine qualities.

The Tecumseh Fox name might be analyzed as implying a man who was as sturdy and inscrutable as the old Indian chief, externally, while actually being as sly as a fox. Erle Stanley Gardner had had great success with a character named Perry Mason, although here an analysis might approach conjecture. A mason is a builder, and the word parry means to fend off; which is the way the character works--fending off numerous enemies while building his cases. (Expert Mind Reading, Park Central Hotel. One Flight Up. Ask for Lester. Advt.)

If heroes have manly names, it might help.

Taking a thesaurus and looking up words with strong, manly meanings, then improvising upon them, is a trick worth trying.

In the pulps, this approach to name-making often is obvious. Pulp hacks are guilty of characters with such names as Click Rush and Mace and Lash.

Names of flowers and pretty things are frequently used for the beautiful young heroine in the yarn. The thesaurus could be consulted for these, too.

A reliable old gag for getting names of foreign characters is to open an atlas, look at the map of his native country, and pick out a town, river, mountain or anything that has the flavor, and use that.

Villains may be made to sound like rascals by using harsh, unpleasant names. Example: Didn't Hammett use a villain named Gutman?

A good hissy, snaky sounding name has helped to make a villain.

Telephone books can be a source of names, or of confusion.

The gag of using expressive names, while a much-used one, might possibly be overdone. The comic strips make use of it to an extreme degree, but editors of fiction magazine may prefer it tamed down a little, made more subtle. is the next move in creating a character:


This is probably the most important step.

"Tag" seems to be the term generally used. It means that the character is next equipped with something that the reader can readily recognize each time the actor appears on scene.

A simple example of an external tag, for purposes of illustration, might be the one-legged old rascal in Treasure Island. The wooden leg is the thing that is remembered, hence it can be considered the tag.

External tags are peculiarities of appearance, manner, voice, clothing, hobby, etc. Incidentally, it might be wise to neglect wooden legs, because editors have a horror of cripples in yarns. This taboo against cripples is worth remembering, because it seems to be iron-clad.

Tagging is reliable stuff, apparently, judging by how much it is used in fiction, plays, radio, movies, books. The motion pictures usually apply a very obvious form of external tag to one or more characters. A supporting player in a film who goes around trying to do something--work a magic trick (aw, come on; pick a card) for instance--throughout the picture is an example of such a tag.

If the character is a minor one in the story, it seems possible to hang on a very obvious, even numerous tag.

If the character is in the lead--be careful.

Don't make the tag too goofy, although the manner handling may have a great deal to do with whether the tag makes the character seem silly or not. But make it intriguing enough to be what it is supposed to be--a label.

As a further example of varyingly bizarre tags which are made credible, it might be convenient to return to Rex Stout and his Nero Wolf character. The character is a tremendously fat man--which is a not-so-zany tag. But Wolfe also raises orchids, and will not be disturbed by absolutely anything when tending them. He drink prodigious amounts of beer, which must be exactly right as to temperature. He has a ridiculous horror of any moving vehicles. He is a nut on food...which, incidentally, is not the full list of tags pasted on this character, but the job is done entertainingly. The moment Wolfe comes onto a scene, one of the tags is waved like a flag, so that there is no doubt who has appeared.

The last statement is the idea.

Wave the tag. It is supposed to be an unmistakable label by which the reader can recognize the character instantly.

Frederick Nebel, in a series of good pulp yarns he once did for Black Mask, used a minor character, a cop, who ambled through the yarns devoting his time to snitching things to eat, and it was entertaining. After stepping into the slick magazines--which he did so quite successfully--Nebel refined the tagging devices somewhat. For example, in a recent short, he used a grandmother who devoted herself assiduously to eavesdropping, the eavesdropping being an obvious character tag.

If this tag can be used in the plot of the yarn, so much the better. The best yarns are those in which there is no dead wood, so if the tag pasted on a character should happen to be the fact that he is an amateur camera fan, it might help a great deal id the fact can be made use of in the yarn--possibly the knowledge of photographic chemistry enable him to recognize a poisonous chemical which has been used for the murder method, and thus thwart the villain.

In Doc Savage Magazine, a pulp, this external tagging has been utilized freely. One of the characters is always dressed in the height of sartorial perfection, the fancy clothes being his tag.. Another character has one of his tags following around after him; it's a pet pig. A third uses words of the most ungodly length, jawbreakers nobody can understand, at the slightest excuse. And Doc himself has been labelled freely with typical hero tags--great size, bronzed skin, compelling flake-gold eyes, quiet manner, amazing strength, fabulous knowledge of various subjects.

The variety of available tags seems to be legion. One of the characters can hate something intensely and spend his spare time grumbling about it. Or he may have a pet peeve on at another character in the story and start a squabble at every slight opportunity. to dig up these external tags? This is more difficult than finding a name. Unfortunately, there is no thesaurus of character tags. Some professional writers, in order to simplify the problem, assemble tags as they come across them and file them away on indexed cards. Biographies of famous persons can be used as source material for character tags. Research yields dividends.

Perhaps there is no better way of solving the problem except to sit in front of the typewriter and write down different possibilities until one happens along and clicks.

It may prove wise to give some thought to the character tag before deciding definitely to use it...That is, can it be used conveniently in the story? It's embarrassing to think up a swell, intriguing tag, then to find out that the thing will not fit in at all with the plot or the action of the story.

Acquiring the habit of looking for character labels when reading published yarns may be a help. The name writers, the ones who appear issue after issue in the pulps and the slicks, appear to be the ones who use the most character tags. Why, then, shouldn't you?

Often more than one tag is hung on a character. There seems to be no rule against it.

But for simplicity of handling, it might prove more feasible to devise one main tag, and wave that one like a flag whenever the character moves on the scene. Then the other tags can be subordinated, to be brought out later and used whenever convenient.

In summary: The tag is simply something that identifies the character throughout the story. If, for instance, it should be decided to give Clancy, the cop, some foot trouble for his tag, it might start out by having him getting a new pair of shoes near the opening of the yarn, a special pair of shoes which he knows will relieve his feet. On Clancy's next appearance, he has the shoes on, and they're wonderful. Next appearance, the shoes aren't wonderful, and they hurt like hell. Then he takes them off. Finally he winds up carrying them. And possibly in the climax he uses one of them to bean the villain. God knows how many times that one has been used, with slight variations.

Now the next step in making a character:


This seems to be a tougher one. But it's still important.

The something inside the character isn't solid and readily grasped, as are the external tags. Abstract is probably the word to use. So an attempt to explain what goes inside may do one of three things--fail to explain anything, ball it all up, or sound asinine.

Another approach to the problem can be made by going back and thinking about the character starting at birth and following right through, so as to get the feeling of knowing just how the character happened to be a certain kind of person.

In the pulps, seems this doesn't have to be very subtle. The hero's sister is killed by crooks, and so he turns detective and is ever after the implacable enemy of crooks. Slight variation of this old one are run ragged in the pulps, and in a slightly refined state, again run ragged in the slicks.

The whole idea is to dope out some reason for the character carrying the external tag or tags which had been previously devised. In the pulps, the reason can be simple: Clancy, the cop, has walked a beat so long he's got flat feet, and therefore foot trouble--and because he's walked the beat so long, he has a consuming ambition to get in the detective bureau and show up these young school-trained cops who lack the Clancy experience. This ambition is what drives Clancy to do the things he does in the yarn. Now and then somebody even dresses this one up and sells it to the slicks.

What is inside the character, his raison d'etre, seems to be highly vital. It should tie in with the motivation of the story, help furnish the reasons for things happening.

The higher the quality of the story, the more important what is inside the character, that is, what motivated him.

And the last step:


Wave the tags.

It helps to introduce the hero very early--in the first paragraph, usually--and have him strut his stuff, because first impressions are the strongest. This is just about the No. 1 writing rule in the pulps.

A hero may be built up by having the other characters refer to him in terms of admiration or awe. The pitfall here seems to be that the references can be made over-dramatic to the extent that the device may strike somebody as obvious and silly. Villains may be built as villains in the same fashion, by having other characters mention their dastardly nature, their previous evil deeds.

Have the hero behave like a hero when faced by trouble. Hero should stay human, though. He can get as scared as the next guy, but his courage will carry him through.

Minor characters can also be built by having the other actors refer to them, either to their external tag, or to the kind of stuff inside them.

Often quite a build-up can be given a character before he or she even makes a personal appearance in the story. This device is difficult to employ successfully in shorts, but it is often used in longer pieces.

It is easy to overlook the simplest must of all, that of having the actors keep in character. The hero can hardly go around kicking dogs and making nasty cracks to people weaker than himself. If he makes a nasty remark to a weak and helpless person, he's a cad as far as the reader is concerned. If he stands up to the big, mean boss and makes nasty cracks, that is different.

And it goes without saying that the villain should conduct himself in a thoroughly villainous fashion. There are black villains and half-likable villains. The black villains never do or say anything pleasant. The half-likable cads may be pretty good guys, but just weak. The slicks seem to prefer this type of villain, but the pulps want 'em black.

It does not seem to be a good idea to have the villain become too melodramatic in his villainy. If his badness can be spread out, if he can be kept consistently bad, the same effect many be achieved without the chance of somebody bursting out laughing.

There are many tricks for getting character effects, but probably the best way of securing them is to wade through published material, purloin what seems good, and adapt the idea a little.

Always remembering: WAVE THAT TAG.