Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Luncheon Date with Jon Lasser

If you could arrange a lunch date with any famous author, alive or dead, who would you choose and why?

I’ll admit it: mostly I’m shy and not good around people I don’t know. But back when I lived in Baltimore, I got together once or twice a month for drinks with friends who fed on each others’ cleverness and joy. I still miss those dinners and that group: in the context of food and beer and good cheer, I came out of my shell and felt an equal part of the conversation.

When thinking of what writer I’d most like to have a lunch date with, someone who I admire and would like to learn from, I ask myself if sharing a meal with him or her would be like getting together with my old friends. I imagine that Samuel R. Delany succeeds on both counts.

I admire him for so many reasons. His classic novel Dhalgren overwhelms me every time I open it, both the beauty of the language and the richly-layered imagery built on a rigorous foundation that nevertheless appears to have all the rigidity of a fading dream. It’s a book I can lose myself in time and again, and never seems to be the same book twice.

I also gravitate toward his Nevèrÿon series--maybe it’s my philosophy degree that makes the books’ semiotics-heavy re-imagining of sword and sorcery feel like an exhilarating, liberating game. Which isn’t to say that the games don’t turn serious; the treatment of AIDS in “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals” hasn’t diminished in emotional impact since I first read it.

Beyond the cleverness, the games, the dream-like imagery, and the pyrotechnics of Delany’s language, his 2001 interview with Nerve made him a personal hero of mine. In a world where describing sex and desire without resorting to euphemism is a revolutionary act, Delany is a firebrand. His accounts, in that interview and elsewhere, have enriched me.

But the point of a lunch together shouldn’t be to fawn over a celebrity, even an intellectual celebrity. A good meal focuses on people finding delight in food and togetherness, and from what I’ve seen, I think Delany would shine on that front as well.

No matter what we talked about at lunch, I have little doubt that he would be a thoughtful, erudite, and charming lunch companion. I had the pleasure of seeing him read and speak at the Seattle Public Library last summer, and can confirm that besides being a courageous and preternaturally talented writer with a prodigious intellect, Delany is a hell of a storyteller. (He was both gracious and flirtatious when he autographed my stack of books.)

I imagine that a man of his appetites enjoys a good meal, and that he could engage and entertain--pushing me to consider new perspectives and think new thoughts. I only hope I’d be able to keep up my side of the conversation!

Jon Lasser lives and writes in Seattle, Washington. His literary fiction has appeared in Spartan, Ampersand Review, Fourteen Hills, and elsewhere. Jon's story "Saviors" appears in the May issue of Penumbra.

Learn more about Jon on his website Two Ideas. Stay connected on Twitter.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Big News for Penumbra's May Issue!

We're really excited to announce today that our May Superheroes themed issue will be headlined by “Alien on the Runway", a story from DAW author Gini Koch, set in the world of her popular Alien series. This type of arrangement with a novelist is a new direction for the young magazine, one our EIC CA Summers hopes will lead to a new trend. She said, “We want to offer our readers rare insights and new stories set in the worlds created by authors they love. Short fiction has traditionally been a way for a novelist to expand their world and  By bringing in Gini’s rich world and two of the beloved characters in this story, we’re not only fulfilling the theme of the issue, but giving fans of Touched by an Alien and the other books in the series a glimpse into the lives of characters other than the protagonist On top of that, this issue received the highest amount of submissions in both quality and quantity. Overall, the issue will be outstanding."

The May issue will also feature stories from Eric James Stone, Lindsey Morgan Lockhart, Jon Lasser, and Rachael K. Jones.

The tenth book in Gini Koch's Alien series, Alien Collective, will be released on May 6, 2014. “Fans of the Alien/Katherine “Kitty” Katt series have been asking me for the story of how Reader met Gower since, well, Touched by an Alien released in 2010," Koch commented. "So when Penumbra approached me about submitting for their alien-heavy 2014 series, I saw a great way to stun two Peregrines with one Poof. Or something like that. However you want to say it, I'm excited to share this story with all of you in an ezine I love.”

The “Superheroes" issue of Penumbra will go on sale on May 1 at its home site, Amazon, Smashwords, and other e-tailers for $3.99. But there's more great news for fans of both Penumbra and Gini Koch.

Penumbra is kicking off its 2014-15 subscription drive with a special offer, one that you can find on Gini's blog at http://ginikoch.blogspot.com/ . Check out the April 2 post entitled "Covering the Runway", and you'll find the absolute best subscription deal possible for Penumbra!

“We’re looking forward to our readers’ reaction to Gini’s story,” Summers concluded. “Her fans will be glad to know that Gini’s world is still thriving, killing off one fugly at a time.”

Thursday, March 20, 2014

All’s Well That Ends Well?

by Peter Wood

This is by no means an exhaustive or scientific study of endings. A botched finish can ruin a story. Some of my stories have sat for years while I struggled for the right ending. Here are some thoughts.

Unexpected and Logical Endings Work Best

A pedestrian story where a character moves in a straight line from point A to point B isn’t enough. A good story will surprise the reader by building on the realistic actions of the characters and the rules of the premise. Good writers neither change the rules nor the characters without a really good reason.

Isaac Asimov’s The Ugly Little Boy concluding paragraphs will knock your socks off. Scientists transport a Neanderthal child into the present. Believable characters and a great premise lead to a conclusion that logically flows as the story progresses. You probably didn’t see it coming and you won’t forget it.

Check out A Clean Escape by John Kessel. A psychiatrist interviews a man with a memory disorder, but things are not what they seem. The story unfolds in a straightforward way until the last couple of pages. Interesting characters and gripping world building on a small scale make for a rewarding read.

Walter Miller’s A Canticle For Lebowitz is a classic. Monasteries spring up across what was once the United States after a nuclear war. The premise is compelling, the characters sympathetic and there is an underlying question that keeps you reading. Will this new world survive?

Why do these stories work? Great characters help, but the stories explore journeys that are not obvious. The endings are satisfying and do not cheat the reader by switching horses at the last minute. Characters move the narrative forward. The plot doesn’t manipulate the characters.

Twist Endings

I hate most of them. Pulling the rug out from the reader and changing everything at the last moment- often to get an unhappy ending- is flat out unfair. A good twist ending makes the reader look back and examine the story again. The clues and foreshadowing should be there.

Second Variety, Phillip Dick’s novella of war in a nuclear wasteland, is an exercise in paranoia. Then, the ending, which makes perfect sense, will make you rethink the entire story.

A twist ending doesn’t have to change everything. Frederick Pohl’s Man Plus tells of the first manned expedition to Mars. The book could have ended with the penultimate chapter and been a pretty good adventure story. The last chapter re-frames everything and makes the novel great.

One of my favorite twists is the last scene of the original Planet of the Apes movie. The Earth astronaut, Taylor, SPOILER ALERT stumbles across the Statue of Liberty and realizes he crash-landed on a nightmarish future Earth. Rod Serling, the father of modern twist endings, wrote the script. The motivations and actions of the characters take on a different dimension after the ending.

The final twist in Tim Burton’s remake is just insulting to the viewer. The Earth astronaut escapes from the primitive simian-ruled planet. He returns to modern Earth and discovers it ruled by apes and apparently the evil general from the Ape planet has taken over. There is no reason for this ending. We last saw the evil general disgraced and cowering in fear. He lived in a world without electricity, much less space travel. The ending undermined everything.

When endings don’t Matter

Sometimes stories don’t have great endings. They just end. That’s okay, if the setting and characters save the day.

I love Anne Tyler. Her characters are so richly textured that I don’t care if there isn’t an amazing ending. Breathing Lessons, which won her the Pulitzer, shows a day in the life of a middle-aged couple. Period. But, those characters are so compelling that I didn’t mind the small-scale resolution.

Similarly the world building of Margaret Atwood is so complete and the characters so deep that her sometimes less than overwhelming finishes are beside the point. Cats eye and The Handmaid’s Tale don’t exactly have big Hollywood finishes, but you won’t forget the characters.

Back to Planet of the Apes. The original had great characters. Taylor evolves from a man of words- complaining about everything- to a man of action. The apes are multi-faceted too, not just foils. Each has distinct motivates. Even Dr. Zaius, the closest thing to a villain, has believable reasons for what he does.

I couldn’t tell you anything about the characters in the Burton remake except that the megalomaniacal general had all the depth and motivations of a Scooby Doo villain. Don’t even get me started on the astronaut who sleepwalks through the film and has zero growth.

Phillip Dick’s The Man in the High Castle won him a well-deserved Hugo. This novel of an alternative world where the U.S. lost W.W.II doesn’t exactly have a edge-of-your-seat plot. It just stops. But, the premise is so intriguing and the characters so rich, that I don’t care. Contrast this with Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee where the South has won the Civil War. Lackluster writing and cardboard characters sink this work.

My favorite novel ever may be Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Not much happens, I suppose, but the characters are so real in this story of disillusioned Americans wandering around post WWI Europe, that I didn’t mind.

This is not to say that I want to read a novelization of My Dinner with Andre. There needs to be some plot, some progression of characters.

Lastly, let me point out that one of the most disappointing endings for me ever was the last episode of Lost. After six years of the greatest television story-telling ever, the show ended with a whimper. But, that’s fine. Lost’s science was complete bull, but the characters sucked me in every week as well as the labyrinthine narrative. I would recommend the series to anyone as one of the finest television has ever produced.

A wonderful story doesn’t necessarily need a great ending. That would be like judging an around-the-world trip by the cab ride home from the airport. Sometimes it’s not about the finish line. It’s about the journey.

Peter Wood is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina where he lives with his forgiving wife and surly cat. His stories have appeared in Asimov's, Stupefying Stories, Daily Science Fiction and the Grantville Gazette. The first ending that really resonated with him was to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when he was eight.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Moment in Heaven with William R.A.D. Funk

If Heaven was designed specifically for writers, what would it be like?

If Heaven were designed with writers in mind it would be a magical place for sure. In many religions, Heaven is often considered a place filled with reward for a life well spent, ethically speaking. What then would sufficiently reward a writer beyond all measure?

Some would argue wealth, fame, or a wide base of eager fans. But those are merely byproducts of successful writing in our mortal society, not the purpose of it.

It is often said that writing is a form of telepathy mixed with a pinch of time travel. Where a writer distills his thoughts and ideas into the written word, a reader then receives the ideas by absorbing those words; the writer's thoughts and ideas are effectively transferred to the reader without direct communication--telepathy. Better than an oral exchange of ideas, writing can transmit those thoughts into the future for readers not yet born.

Why does this relate to writer heaven? Because this time traveling telepathy is at the heart of why a writer writes, and is only fitting that their heaven would reflect this.

In Heaven, a writer would no longer need to distill his thoughts into words, whether written or voiced. Each writer would be gifted with a malleable space of infinite size, from which they could shape at will to the form of their thoughts.

No more would hundreds of readers walk away with hundreds of different interpretations of a single written work. Those of an open mind, invited by the writer, could experience all the sights, sounds, tastes, textures, and smells of the story created. As if a viewer could rise from his seat at a movie theater and walk through the silver screen into the depicted world itself.

Imagine if the reader's mind was no longer limited by their own life experiences. They would be served by Asimov's robots, their mechanical grace and unerring logic plain to see; Tolkien's dwarves would stand by the reader in the heat of battle, their unwashed stench potent and their guttural curses deafening; Turtledove's alien bombs would drop on the alternative history of World War II era Europe, blast waves trembling the ground beneath the reader's feet. A character's feelings would be felt, not simply described.

A writer's dream is to communicate their thoughts and ideas flawlessly to an audience. It only stands to reason that a writer's heaven would be the paradigm for this endeavor.

William R.A.D. Funk is a native Floridian living abroad in Canada with his wife Andrea. William, a former civil engineer and police officer, has turned in his badge to write under the umbrella of science fiction, horror, and fantasy. He is currently working on a series of short stories.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Beyond Heaven with Daniel Ausema

If there was a heaven specially designed for writers, what would it look like?
I have to admit this isn't a question I'd really put much thought in before it being posed. My first thought is a flippant, “Coffee!” Unlimited, no bad side-effects, and endless options for source of beans, how it's brewed, and with or without any additions, as you wish at any given time. In Spain they sell a coffee called café bombón, which is espresso with sweetened condensed milk. I wouldn't want that every time I drink coffee, but I'd want that as an option, you know?

More seriously, I begin to think of my surroundings. I'm very affected by the natural setting around me and love to be out in the mountains or the forests and taking in everything I can see, touch, smell. So definitely a forested mountainside full of hiking trails, a place where many types of wildlife come together, where every curve of the path reveals some new spark for my imagination. Old, abandoned pioneer cabins. Rocky streams cutting down the mountainside, the sound of water much greater than any distant traffic. Yeah, that sounds about right.

Wait a moment. Coffee, mountains, and streams...I'm afraid I feel a song coming on. So with all due apologies, I present to you:

The Writers' Story Mountain
One evening as the sun went down
And a brand new file was loading,
Down the stairs came my muse a-floating,
And she said, “Listen, I'm done goading
I'm headed for a land that's far away
Besides the fresh ink fountains
So come with me, we'll go and see
The Writers' Story Mountain

In the Writers' Story Mountain,
There's a land that's fair and bright,
Where the plot twists grow on bushes
And you dream-write every night.
Where the editors all need stories
And the prose shines every day
On the nouns and the verbs
And the sketchy adverbs
The rhythmic swings
Where the narrative sings
In the Writers' Story Mountain.

In the Writers' Story Mountain
The publishers give you a raise
And the gatekeepers all have rubber stamps
And the critics lay on the praise
The Amazon reviews are full of stars
And the stories spark a craze
Oh I'm bound to walk
Where the chores don't squawk
Where the prose don't trip
And inner critics don't talk
In the Writers' Story Mountain.

In the Writers' Story Mountain
You never have writer's block
And the little streams of local beers
Come trickling down the rock
The reviewers have to tip their hats
And the bookstores stock your books
There's a lake of Dew
And of coffee too
You can paddle all around it
In a big canoe
In the Writers' Story Mountain.”

I'll see you all this coming fall
In the Writers' Story Mountain.

I've deliberately left off one verse from the original (the one about the jails made of tin), to see if anyone wants to make their own parody of that one...or any completely original verses for that matter. Come up with something, and share it in the comments!

PS I see in Brynn MacNab's post from Feb. 25 on this same subject that she mentions waterfalls of iced tea. We can totally make room for that on the mountain as well.

Daniel Ausema is the creator of the Spire City serial fiction project. His short stories and poems have appeared in Penumbra, Daily Science Fiction, The Journal of Unlikely Stories, and many other places. He has worked as a journalist and educator and is currently a stay-at-home dad. He lives in Colorado, where May blizzards, September floods, and summer wildfires engage in a never-ending war.

Learn more about Dan on his website Twigs and Brambles.

To read excerpts from any of Daniel Ausema's Musa Publishing work, please click HERE.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Moment in Heaven with Dianna L. Gunn

by Dianna L. Gunn

As an intern working primarily on Penumbra's blog, I often get to choose interesting questions to ask our writers. The most recent question posed was what heaven might look like if designed specifically for writers. There were interesting answers, and I soon began pondering what my ideal writer's heaven would be.

It begins with several waterfalls and rivers. About half are made of chocolate. All are magnificent. From the outside, houses appear to be small log cabins. Inside they are luxurious modern mansions. Work is instantly backed up in eighteen places, and when a writer is tired of typing, small fairies take over as the writer dictates their work.

Writers suffer few distractions, excepting occasional gushing calls from fans and chats with other writers. Maybe even the occasional relative or old friend. Every book is printed and bound magically the moment it is ready for consumption, and reproduced for every interested reader with no effort or cost. Good editors are in endless supply, possibly semi-divine beings, to make the writing process as smooth as possible.

Every book is fascinating. Every writer has fans. Most importantly, everyone has enormous amounts of time to read. There are no starving writers. No struggling writers. Instead, storytellers of all kinds are held in the highest esteem, and the land's bounty flows endlessly. Magic gathers in certain spots, and every writer has a safe haven in which to call upon one of many muses, defeating writer's block with ease.

Best of all, writers have all the time in the world, and never feel pressured to complete tasks quickly—except, of course, for the pressure that builds in every writer's head when a story really needs to get out.

Or maybe just the first part. You know, the bit about the chocolate waterfalls. I wouldn't object to that.

Dianna L. Gunn is a young Canadian fiction writer who specializes in dark fantasy. She also writes poetry, generally dark, which is her way of dealing with life. This insightful author hosts a website covering every aspect of fiction writing and interviews with noted guest authors.

Learn more about Dianna L. Gunn on her website and follow her on Twitter.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

DISASTER - Proceed with Caution

Sci-Fi Deak Style
by John Deakins

Science fiction writers love disasters. We’re thrilled by earthquakes, asteroid impacts, volcanoes, alien invasions, rampaging monsters, plagues, and nuclear wars. The danger is details. Every fictional disaster balances on a knife edge: either it’s too large, and everybody dies, or it’s not large enough, and the deux ex machina ending is obviously contrived.

Using Ignore It for details can work: Just don’t get caught. There are enough Science purists to discover you with your literary pantalones around your knees. They sneered at the coincidence when our computer systems meshed with the alien ships on Independence Day. They laughed their way through 2012 and The Core.

Don’t go there.

Live With It works, but you have to watch where you set the limits. Earthquakes are safe, because they’re localized. Volcanoes are also as well, but too big a volcano could alter worldwide weather. (A Harry Turtledove series has the Yellowstone caldera erupting.) You, the author, control asteroid impacts by the rocks’ mass and velocity.

It’s up to you to set up the aliens to lose (or not). You give each monster its Achilles’ heel. Nuclear wars have to be limited nuclear wars, or there’s no story. On the Beach has already been written.

Plagues have their own Achilles’ heel. There are a lot of humans, and each human has his or her own immunities. No matter the germ, somebody, somewhere, is immune. One disease could get 99% of humanity, but the immune 1% would survive. Humans are greatly adaptable. We might devolve into tiny, Stone Age enclaves, but we’d almost certainly end up alive. If you don’t want near extinction, you, the writer, have to limit the disease’s fatality rate or make that Achilles’ heel easier to hit.

Unexplained Science comes with the same dangers as Ignore It. The most recent War of the Worlds used fairly decent Science, but had an illogical, sappy ending. Dante’s Peak required a misunderstood scientist, bearing new discoveries, and it still had holes in its Science. I Am Legend, remake of an old Charlton Heston flick, needed Unexplained Science for a happy ending not in the original book: the movie’s weakest part.

Don’t dig a pit so deep that you lose suspension of belief when you characters climb out of it. Your protagonists can’t conveniently not be crushed by falling buildings or roasted in a pyroclastic flow. They can’t watch the meteor come in or California split off from America, and live to build the new world. Godzilla fails to stomp a few, certainly. Fall-out will bypass certain areas. They might be the only ones immune to the plague or the only ones the aliens missed, but you’ve been following them for the whole book. What a coincidence that your characters are the chosen ones!

Thoroughly develop characters whom you plan to kill. Your audience’s love for disasters will be fulfilled; dark-horse protagonists can come from behind and inherit the Earth. Your readers won’t be closing the book saying, “Give me break!”

John Deakins, B.A., M.S.T. is a four-decade veteran of the science classroom and lives in Arkansas. As an author, John has fantasy novels in print from the Barrow series. His first novel was a B. Dalton SF bestseller when it was first released.

To read an excerpt from Barrow book one, please click HERE.