raven with branch

Contest Deadline Approaching!

For writers who work to deadlines, rev up your coffee mugs!  Our Raven short story contest closes on midnight Thursday, Oct 15th.   We’re seeking fiction of 500 – 5000 words in length, and we want stories that capture our attention!  We’ve aptly named this the Raven contest as we are hunting for shiny treasures that we can take home to our nest.  There are no specific themes so any topic or genre is welcome.  Our best hint for which story to submit is this:  We are looking for a solid story well told, for fiction that both grabs us with tension and executes the narrative with a unique voice.

Our final judge is Brenda Carre, who has just released Finnrazial, a novel in a boxed set alongside Kristine Kathryn Rusch.  We hope to give Brenda a difficult  time making a choice from the shortlist!

Please note that if you choose the feedback option in your contest submission, you will receive your detailed critique from one of the Pulp Literature editors after the contest winner has been selected.  Enter your story HERE!

Opening Images: The Woman in Black

I love a great opening image.


As with so many aspects of story composition, creating that great opening image is a balancing act – but then, who wants an easy task? We’re in it for the challenge, right? An opening image roots us in time and place, and a clever one will strap us into the scene by all five senses.  More than that, if you can also find a detail that resonates with your particular audience, you’ll have happy readers on your hands.

Susan Hill’s ghost stories are superbly crafted.  “Queen of the traditional ghost story”,  The Times review reads on the cover of her collection, The Woman in Black and other Ghost Stories.  She had me at paragraph one, of course.

“It was nine-thirty on Christmas Eve.  As I crossed the long entrance hall of Monk’s Piece on my way from the dining room, where we had just enjoyed the first of the happy, festive meals, towards the drawing room and the fire around which my family were now assembled, I paused and then, as I often do in the course of an evening, went to the front door, opened it, and stepped outside.”

Here, abetted by her excellent title, we have all the senses engaged in what feels like a Dickensian-level holiday.  But while the narrator has Christmas wrapped around him, inside his heart is cold with fear.

I admire the way she uses the resonance of shared experience and then its opposition to set me up for fear, uplift, and despair.

More of her opening images from the collection:

“An autumn night and the fens stretch for miles, open and still.”  Dolly. 

“It was a little before nine o’clock, the sun was setting into a bank of smoky violet cloud, and I had lost my way.”  The Small Hand.

Dear me, I’m just beginning The Small Hand.  Eyes wide open.  Not too close to bedtime.

The Woman in Black and other Ghost Stories by Susan Hill.


Issue 8 box

Issue 8 available at VCON

Hot off the presses!  Issue 8 will be available at VCON, the Vancouver Science Fiction & Fantasy Convention, this weekend October 2-4.

Come and pick your copy up from Jen or Sue in the Vendor Hall … and get it signed by at least three of the authors.  You’ll also be able to hear dvsduncan read from his steampunk story set in New Westminster, ‘Cropper’s Ball’ on the Friday evening multi-book launch.

While you’re at it track down Issue 1 and 5 cover artist Melissa Mary Duncan in the Artists’ Hall, hear Issue 5 feature author Eileen Kernaghan read from her captivating books, and listen to Issue 1 feature author CC Humphreys talk about writing the past.Autumn harvest

We haven’t heard whether feature author JJ Lee will be able to attend, but keep your eyes out in case you spot him … or perhaps the Man in the Long Black Coat!

See you there!

VCON #40
Friday – Sunday, October 2-4
Sheraton Vancouver Airport Hotel
7551 Westminster Highway, Richmond


Supporting Characters II: Keeping Track of the Cast

It’s easy to remember the protagonist, the love interest, the antagonist, the sidekick. But how to keep track of a multitude of supporting characters? We doncast of characters’t want our readers to start asking themselves, Which one is Zoe anyway? Was she the high school dropout or the nurse on the evening shift?

  1. Naming characters memorably can help readers keep track of your characters, but it can feel a bit Dickensian.  Charity Pecksniff,  Abel Magwich, or Cleopatra Skewton may or may not suit your style and genre.  Nonetheless, characters like JK Rowlings’s Hagrid, Dumbledore, and Severus are certainly easier to track than Tom, Dick or Harry.
  2. Homer tops all in the use of the dynamic character tag.  He uses powerful descriptors and repeats them throughout his tales : “white-armed Andromache” (also Hera, another wifely character), “swift-footed Achilles”, “grey-eyed Athena”.   And my favourite, arguably a character, “the wine-dark sea.”
  3. If ours is an epic tale such as Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, we’ve got appendices of names sorted by family or birthplace that readers may consult.
  4. But it’s worth looking past the cast list, far more closely at Jordan (and at Brandon Sanderson, who brilliantly finished the series when Jordan died).  Jordan is too much of a master to leave it at lists.  He tags his characters cleverly with actions or repeated thoughts that remind us of their conflicts – Nynaeve, short-tempered, gifted in the One Power, and beautiful, is always tugging hard at her long braid, while Mat, the attractive reluctant hero, always has a new way of feeling sorry for himself where women are concerned.

Our readers look to us to keep them firmly centred in the time, place, and cast of the story while they enjoy the ride we’ve invented for them. The stronger the centre, the more fantastic the story can be.



Crafting Supporting Characters: Robert Sawyer and GRR Martin Show How It’s Done

I’m a great admirer of authors who make exceptional use of supporting characters.  A cast of extras is fun to write, of course.  And supporting characters can say with charm, or the complete lack of it, what the character wouldn’t.  But their magic goes deeper than that. Here are three steps farther than snappy dialogue…Sawyer cropped

1. We should hear a supporting character state the theme of the story early on, as in Robert Sawyer’s brilliant “Fallen Angel”, where the father tells his daughter Angela that there was nothing to fear. “We’ll be so high up we’ll catch God’s eye.’’ But she does fear, and the story turns on her fear and what she does because of it.

2.  Supporting characters force the protagonist to show the readers his heroic qualities in contrast with their less heroic aspects. They make sure we don’t miss the hero’s flaws, either. Take a look at the many Brothers who have taken the Black on the Wall in Martin’s Game of Thrones series. Their leader Jon Snow is so remarkably steadfast and true that it takes an army of supporting characters to bring out his weaknesses.

3. Supporting characters at their best force the protagonist – and antagonist – to make choices they would not have faced on their own, no matter how stubborn or brave they might be.  I was just re-reading (for about the fiftieth time since I got it in my stocking at fourteen) Bel Kaufman’s amazing Up the Down Staircase. There’s not a character in there that doesn’t force young teacher Sylvia Barrett to make agonizing choices.  That’s pretty rare craft in a book told through notes, letters, memos, and scribbles on the backboard.

What can your supporting characters do for your protagonist?

 Robert Sawyer. Fallen Angel. Pulp Literature Press, Issue 7. Vancouver, 2014.

GRR Martin. A Game of Thrones. Bantam, 1996.

Bel Kaufman. Up the Down Staircase. Avon Books, New York. 1964.small singer copy



Do No Harm

smallpenandinkWhen physicians swear to uphold the tenets of the Hippocratic Oath, they understand the principle of “Do no harm.”  When a patient sees a doctor, the last thing they need is treatment which worsens their illness or adds a complication.  But in the literary world of editing, there is no Hippocratic Oath.  Many editors and story doctors will hire out their services, happily taking a writer’s money in exchange for a critique that cuts deep into a story’s gut, digs around, and comes back up with a small lump while the patient bleeds out on the table.

Why this word of caution today?  I’ve been researching for my upcoming workshop on editing for the Vancouver School of Writing, and while some of the editing services I’ve seen look legit, many of them are run by people without credentials who are looking for money.  As in the days of old, there is always a charlatan to prey upon the naïve.  Editors without scruples will give you lots of advice, quote a library of how-to books, and place a burden on the writer’s shoulders that Atlas himself couldn’t lift.  Many writers leave in despair, not sure where to begin to revise, not sure if they should try.  It is literary euthanasia, yet no writer intentionally hires a story doctor for the purpose of putting his novel out of its misery.

If you hire an editor, make sure that they can actually help you.  Make sure that they believe your story is worthy of being told, of being born.  Make sure they have references from writers who have survived the operation table.  Look for credentials in the areas that you need help with, whether it be precise proofreading or big-picture structural editing.  Make sure the editor sees something positive in your writing before you proceed.  Bad critiquing is easy;  helpful critiquing is harder. In order for an editor or a doctor to accurately assess where the illness resides, they must also understand what health looks like and help move you towards higher possibilities.  A good editor doesn’t just hate on a story, they also have hope for it and see its strengths.

sue 3Watch out there, fellow writers.  Hire your editor carefully, and don’t give your money to someone so they can just stick a knife in your back.

Sue is Pulp Literature’s Acquisition editor.  To register for her course on hiring editors and self-editing go to the Vancouver School of Writing website.


Issue 7 Spotlight: Oscar Windsor-Smith

There’s a story behind Oscar Windsor-Smith’s Issue 7 story.  In Oscar’s own words:

‘Wings of Nemesis’ is a short story about the rehabilitation of a military drone pilot suffering posttraumatic mental breakdown.  The story began life as an entry for a multi-round international literary competition, where it achieved joint first place in its round.  But there’s a sting in tail, which led me into the most surreal situation of my writing life thus far.

A writer friend, who also happens to be a scientist, suggested he knew of a suitable home for ‘Wings of Nemesis’ in what he described as an anthology. This led to my submitting the story to a scientist friend of his at a well-known UK university.  I duly received an email telling me that ‘Wings of Nemesis’ had “been accepted for development into a full paper submission for…” [A scientific journal concerned with technological forecasting].  The email went on: “…from a very competitive field you have been selected… This is a very commendable achievement and we acknowledge your talents and skills in this newly emerging research area.”  So far, so bizarre, but it got even stranger.

I received detailed instructions as to how, when and in what form my “paper” should be submitted, under the overall title: “Creative science prototyping [truncated title]…” My story was further elevated to the status, variously, of an “extended abstract”, a “creative prototype” and a “vignette”, none of which made the slightest sense to me. What did become clear was:  in order to bring my humble, under 3000 word, story up to these lofty standards, I was expected to write at very least another 7500 words, at most 17,500.

Issue 7 coverResearch into the T&Cs of the scientific journal’s publisher revealed that, if published, I would lose my copyright and I would receive no payment, although the journal and articles it contained would be exorbitantly priced.  I declined this opportunity of unpaid scientific glory.

Which is why ‘Wings of Nemesis’ was available to take up its present happy home in Issue 7 of Pulp Literature, complemented by superb illustrations and surrounded by other excellent stories.

My experience of publication in Pulp Literature was very positive.  They’re a friendly and cooperative team to work with.  Oh, and they do pay – promptly.

Oscar Windsor SmithSounds surreal, eh? Don’t forget to pick up your own copy of Pulp Literature Issue 7, to read ‘Wings of Nemesis’ for yourself!  For more from Oscar see Nighthawks a Fable of New York, in The View from Here, Trumpet Volunteer, in Flash Fiction Online and No Alligators in Virginia, in Everyday Fiction. Or visit his blog at http://oscarwindsor-smith.blogspot.co.uk/ 

book &Pen small

Fun and Games Inside the Belly of the Beast


icarisbitSomebody who would be a brilliant writer if he stuck with it said to me, “I got a good ways in and then the whole story petered out.”  I hear that a lot. The novel gets off to a great start and then….


Sometimes the writer knows how the story is going to end, but can’t bear the tedium of writing the protagonist through the path to that excellent final scene.

That middle bit, as we leave our Act One, with our protagonist set up for and locked into the story goal, is the section Blake Snyder, in his superb Save the Cat, refers to as “Fun and Games” – the section they pay the money to come see at the movies. The part they pay to see again.

How wonderful to see our protagonist and his allies – and the antagonist, as well, whether it’s wind, sea or Sauron – growing and changing and doing, believably, what they’d never do, as master teacher Donald Maass reminds us regarding character growth.

I told that fellow who petered out that he’s just heading into the part of his story that can very well be the most fun to write, after all.  So, lucky it’s the longest section, right?  He didn’t answer.  Anyway, I’d rather read the answer in his book.

Blake Snyder, Save the Cat, Studio City, CA : M. Wiese Productions, 2005.

Christopher Vogler The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers. Sheridan Books Inc,  2007 – Third Ed.

Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. Writer’s Digest Books, 2004.

small writer

Do, Don’t Think

I have “Do, don’t think,” written on a post-it perched by my computer screen.  My note has two applications.  When I’m trying to get through a first draft, it reminds me that I shouldn’t try and overthink while I compose.  It’s meant to encourage my fingers to keep typing my draft rather than pausing to consider what comes next … a long pause that requires me to fill up my tea cup … where was I?

My post-it applies to my second draft and editing process as well. The crux of most MFA programs is, “Show, don’t tell.” This mantra used to confuse me, because all storytelling is, by definition, telling.  It makes more sense to me to say, “Describe, don’t explain.”   When you describe details, you enter the realm of the physical, and we all know that action speaks louder than interior monologue.  My post-it says, “Do, don’t think,” because that’s how I need my characters to behave.  When my novel’s protagonist offers a drink to an alcoholic king, tension ensues.  To have her explain or think during this exchange would be to ruin the moment, and would insult the reader’s intelligence.  It would also mean I didn’t set up the situation properly in the preceding chapters, through physical descriptions and earlier conflicts.

Is there an exception to this writing rule?  As Bob Mayer says, one should always understand the rules before breaking them.  There are writers who command such a forceful voice that they can carry off a reversal, carrying us through a long passage of thoughtful narrative, reflecting on important backstory or analysis of other characters.  These narrators successfully “Think, don’t do,” because their situation calls out — screams out — for them to act.  In The Remains of the Day, when a butler called Stevens describes Darlington Hall in great detail, he is missing the crucial details which prevent his correct action.  When a justice-seeking Hamlet pauses his sword,  and reckons that a delay in his uncle’s execution will ensure his uncle goes to hell, the audience should be drawing in breath waiting for the inevitable result.  When Nick Carraway observes the parties at Gatsby’s, when the second Mrs de Winter thinks through her decision to wear Rebecca’s gown, when Elizabeth Bennett wrestles with her scruples and then holds her tongue about Mr Wickham … You get the idea.  Only think, only hold back on the action, if it creates tension and builds conflict.

And now, fellow scribblers, it’s time for me to stop thinking so I can go do the writing.