Writing Words Fantastical and Otherwise

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Where Ideas Come From

Fairly frequently someone will ask where I get my ideas, and like most authors I am at a bit of a loss for a good answer. However, a couple days ago, an FB writer friend asked for reasons a teenager might be laid up for weeks but not cause long term damage.

Their question question made me think this at first:”Not totally related, but an anecdote about how medical research can be fraught. For story purposes, I wanted to know if a teenager with bone cancer might have to have both legs amputated. I called my doctor, and he immediately went into a diagnostic mode. “What symptoms do you have? When did you start experiencing discomfort? How long have you been ignoring this condition?” It took quite a bit of talking to convince him that I wasn’t sick myself. I’m pretty sure he worried about me for years after.”

Amazon - The Radio Magician and Other Stories: Van Pelt, James:  9780982073025: Books

I added, “I have written three stories with bed-ridden young people: “The Radio Magician,” about a boy with polio in the 30s, also the story about a boy who had his legs amputated because of bone cancer, “Roller Derby Dan'” and the piece I’m working on now with a boy in the 60s who has both legs in external fixators after surgery to correct severe bow leggedness. I think the antecedent to my interest in this trope is Ray Bradbury’s “The Emissary” from THE OCTOBER COUNTRY.”

The FB friend asked why that situation interested me, and I realized I had a partial answer to where I get ideas, at least this idea.”Besides the awesomeness of the Bradbury story, a friend of mine when I was 12 had both legs broken to correct for extreme pigeon toed alignment of his feet. His legs were casted from ankle to hip. He was miserable but suffered gamely. We pushed him in his wheelchair everywhere we went that summer. I’ve often thought since what his experience must have been like. Also, of interest in this situation, H.G. Wells broke his leg when he was eight. He was bedridden while it healed (they were much less into getting patients on their feet at that time). He spent his convalescence reading. He said that’s what made him H.G. Wells. He became devoted to books and writing.”

That’s where the idea came from.

Catching up with Van Pelt News

So here’s what’s happening lately:

  1. The May/June Asimov’s will be out soon with my story, “The Way Lost Cafe.”
  2. Daily Science Fiction published my latest with them, “NPC.”
  3. Analog Science Fiction bought “Party On” from me. It will appear sometime soon.
  4. I will be attending World Fantasy in New Orleans in November.

In the meantime, I continue my 200-word minimum a day writing streak that started in November of 1999. Right now I’m working on a near-future science fiction about a retiring high school English teacher directing her class through Hamlet for the last time.

ASF_MayJun2022_400x570

Practice and Theory of Naming Characters

Most stories start small for me and then accrete, like a pearl in a clam. The story I’m working on now has grown to 8,000 words, and I’m still writing the last scene. My challenge is that it’s a teaching story with a large cast: the teacher, a student teacher, a janitor and twenty-four students. I’m working at portraying a class environment. As the story stands now, I’ve named ten of the twenty-four students (and a couple parents).That’s a lot of balls to keep in the air!

The problem is the impact of those names. At what point would readers toss up their hands and say, “I can’t keep the characters straight,” or would readers realize there are quite a few names, but only the characters who keep popping up rise to importance while the others settle into the background?Either reaction is possible. I believe any writing challenge can be overcome with the right collaboration between a careful writer and competent reader. That’s one of writing’s joys: anything is possible.

As I write the last scene, though, I’m deciding which characters to use. Not all of them will appear, and I realized over the course of the couple weeks I’ve been working on this piece that I’ve lost touch myself of everyone in the story, so I inventoried them. Here’s the list I created with the first page the character appears and then how many times total I mentioned the name:

Ms. Milspaugh pg.1—73 mentions

Andrew Tyndale pg. 1—53 mentions

Jed Rote pg.2—40 mentions

Dove Klein pg. 2—38 mentions

Dennis Cho pg. 12—6 mentions

Cassie-Lasila Arms pg. 13—8 mentions

Paisley Lopez-Sang pg. 14—7 mentions

Len and Amelia Tyndale pg. 14—1 mention

Lisa Fromme pg. 15—1 mention

Toby Gwinn pg. 17—1 mention

Harmony Dlamini pg. 19—5 mentions

Jim John pg. 22—3 mentions

Sharon Hann pg. 23—4 mentions

Ryan Bigelow pg. 24—3 mentions

Hot damn! That’s a big list.

A closer look at number of mentions reveals my cast centers on the top four characters: the teacher who is my protagonist, Ms. Milspaugh, her student teacher, Jed Rote, and two students, Andrew Tyndale and Dove Klein.The rest are supporting cast.

I tried to pick names that reflected different origins to show Ms. Milspaugh’s class, like many real-world classes, comes from diverse backgrounds (my default when I don’t think about it is almost always north-western European). I also didn’t want the names to be visually similar. Different first letters help with this, as do names with different shapes. At first glance, Dennis Cho doesn’t look like Ryan Bigelow, so the eye cues help to differentiate them. I notice I have two names that are hyphenated, which might make them hard to distinguish. I’ll give that more thought.

I did choose a few names from my life. “Milspaugh” was the name of one of my junior high teachers who was memorable. I knew a pair of sisters in high school named “Klein.” One of my sisters is a “Sharon.”“Jed Rote” was chosen because of the meaning of his last name in the same spirit as the naming of Han Solo, Truman Burbank, and Willy Loman.

List of Dickensian characters - Wikipedia

I love how Charles Dickens created characters. Part of his genius was in giving them cool names: Seth Pecksniff, Mrs. Jellyby, Samuel Pickwick, Uriah Heep and many others. I’m not doing cool naming the same way he did in my story, although I do like the names I’ve chosen. A classroom of characters all named the way Dickens named characters would be awesome, though. What I do want to borrow from him, is his really well-done pocket characterizations. He could create a character in just a sentence or two.

Mr. Ayresleigh (Pickwick Papers) “A middle aged man in a very old suit of black, who looked pale and haggard, and paced up and down the room incessantly: stopping now and then to look with great anxiety out of the window as if he expected somebody, and then resuming his walk.”

Miss Barbary (Bleak House) “She was a good, good woman! She went to church three times every Sunday, and to morning prayers on Wednesdays and Fridays, and to lectures whenever there were lectures; and never missed. She was handsome; and if she had ever smiled, would have been (I used to think) like an angel–but she never smiled. She was always grave and strict. She was so very good herself, I thought, that the badness of other people made her frown all her life.”

Ned Beadwood (David Copperfield) “It won’t do to be like long Ned Beadwood, when they took him to church “to marry him to somebody”, as he says, and left the bride behind. Ha! ha! ha! A wicked rascal, Ned, but droll!”

Here’s a quick dive into Dickens’ characterizations and also a revelation in how many characters he created.

At any rate, this longish post came from me pausing to create the list of characters in my current project and got me thinking about names and characters. I’m not looking for advice about this ill-advised story problem I’ve written myself into. Writing into story problems is half the fun of creating fiction.

Training Critique Partners


I belonged to writing groups for many years when I started writing for real. Luckily, the groups contained a few skilled writers who were sensitive, insightful readers, who also wanted my work to succeed (they also contained folks who occasionally were helpful, and one or two who I learned weren’t useful in the least).


But I haven’t been in a group for years. I depend on willing friends who don’t have writing or workshop backgrounds. They want to help, but they might not know where to start or what I need to hear. I can get useful reactions to the story if I suggest these responses:


First, did the story work for you? I want to know if the reader liked the story. What did you like? This is a broad, global type of question. If the story doesn’t work for the reader for whatever reason, that will give me pause as a writer. It could mean I chose the wrong reader for the piece. I need more feedback.


Second, did the story provoke anything for you? Did it leave you thoughtful or change your mood? Did you feel moved by it and what did that?


Third, what did you like most? What caught your eye? Were there specific moments, scenes, lines, and/or wordings that tickled you?


Fourth, did you not understand anything or feel confused by it. Where were those specific moments, scenes, lines, and/or wordings that tripped you up?
Next, did the story drag in places?


Was there any place in the story that felt rushed or you really wanted to know more about?


What did you think about the characters?


Any other thoughts? This might be the place where an analytic reader might say what they thought the story was about, or what they thought they were supposed to get out of it. You never know what might come out of this question, but I listen carefully to those random observations.


Oh, and by the way, did you run across obvious typos or miswordings? I don’t expect my first readers to proofread for me, but if they see something, I appreciate hearing about it.


You might notice that I don’t ask my reader for suggestions on how to improve the story. I don’t know who it was that said, “Anything a reader notices is a flaw probably is right. Anyway, a reader suggests how to change it is probably wrong,” but in general that strikes me as true. A reader might see a problem with a paragraph, and then suggest a way to improve it, but you realize the fault actually was in how the paragraph was set up. You have to rewrite something pages earlier to make the “flawed” section work. Also, I’ve had readers go to town at length about something in a story and then go through gyrations to suggest how to fix it. All I did was delete it. Problem solved.


The point of all this is that a reader who just says, “I thought it was cool. Thanks for sharing,” might be affirming, but they’re not helpful. When I share a draft, I’m hoping for meaningful feedback that will give me an outsider perspective on the story. The longer I can get them to talk about the story, and the more different ways they approach the story, the better.


Here’s an example. My wife is not a writer, but she’s a reader and she’s been living with a writer for a long time. She read my latest piece and asked a basic question: Why did I have two policemen in the opening scene who I identified as the “man officer” and the “woman officer.” Later in the scene, I shortened it to “the man” and “the woman.” My wife said she stumbled when she read that. Why didn’t they have names?


I did the tiniest rewrite of the scene, giving them names, and it was way better.

Alternative Deathiness: Publication Announcement

I have a story in this one entitled “The Thing Underneath.” The first editor to read it said, “It’s slam-dunk Stoker material.”

The publisher says, As the cover to Alternative Deathiness suggests, life is but a dance with death. A topic all of us are familiar with and too often want to avoid. This is not a volume to avoid. Alternative Deathiness is a fantastic selection of short stories and poetry that includes veteran writers such as best selling author Alicia Hilton, James Van Pelt, Larry Hodges and more, as well as up and coming voices such as Jim Wright and K.G. Anderson.

Paperback ($13.13 USD)

Buy Yourself a Birthday Present for an Author!

It’s my birthday tomorrow.

If you want to get yourself a present to celebrate it, order your signed, numbered, limited release, hardbound copy of THE BEST OF JAMES VAN PELT. There aren’t many copies left (remember the “limited release” part?).I really think buying author’s books for yourself or others on the author’s birthday should be a thing.

Hallmark should get involved.

Stuff That’s Happened Lately: Late 2020

It’s been a while since I’ve shared news here (I post more often on my Facebook page!).

I attended the virtual MileHiCon the third week in October. This was my first virtual con. I had a tough time getting into it. I love conventions, but the virtual version lost almost everything I like: meetings in the hallways, crowds, room parties, dealers’ room, art show, bar-con, etc. Still, it was better than no con at all, and I did meet up with friends virtually. Fortunately, they recorded many of the panels. Here are the ones I was on:

Creative Parenting

There’s Kissing in My SF

My Favorite Writing Tools

You can cruise through the complete list of recorded panels here.

I attended World Fantasy a week later, where I also did some panels.

For most of the fall I have been working on supporting the release of The Best of James Van Pelt, my huge short story collection. This has included doing interviews and essays. The first rumination on the collection appeared in “My Favorite Bit: James Van Pelt Talks about The Best of James Van Pelt,” which Mary Robinette Kowal hosted. The second one appeared on John Scalzi’s WHATEVER, The Big Idea: James Van Pelt.

Sadly, Covid wiped out this year’s Rain Forest Writers Retreat, which I’ve attended for the last eleven years (sob!). Hopefully the world will right itself by 2022 and conventions and public events will be a part of our regular schedule again.

On the publishing side of things, my novelette, “The Minerva Girls,” was the cover story for the Sept./Oct. Science Fiction Analog. Also, “Ethnoentomology” appeared in Deep Magic, and “After the War” in On Spec. Analog sent the galleys of “I Have Loved the Stars too Fondly” for approval, and Asimov’s bought “The Bahnhof Drive-in.”

In the meantime, I’m truly enjoying being retired, and I’m working on my next stories.

The Best of James Van Pelt

This is the BIG project I’ve been working on for the last few months. Sixty-two stories chosen from almost three decades of publishing, including some previously uncollected work.  Only 200 copies will be released in a signed, numbered, limited edition hardcover with gorgeous wrap-around art. Available at Fairwood Press right now!

Available for preorder now for a November release

Promoting The Experience Arcade and Other Stories

Promoting a book is an interesting activity, and a separate one from writing the book or selling the book to a publisher. Marketing a book is a third challenge, or a third hobby, depending on how you think about it. It requires skills and a mindset that don’t seem related to the first two activities (and those two aren’t related either).

Image may contain: one or more people, possible text that says 'SUMMER OF THE APOCALYPSE JAMES VAN PELT'

I’ve been playing around with FaceBook ads to see how they impact book sales. Last month my son and I built a campaign for SUMMER OF THE APOCALYPSE. We noticed there was a lot of interest in pandemic related stories, so the timing was right. Other than a couple indignant notes from people who thought we were trying to capitalize of death and suffering (I’ve donated all money that came in from the book to relief organizations), I thought the campaign went well. We definitely moved the needle on book sales while we ran ads, although we spent more than we netted.

A nice feature of FB ads is that you can fine tune what audience will see the ad, and then note what works best. There’s a bunch of control for the author.

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For the next month we are working on marketing my last collection, THE EXPERIENCE ARCADE AND OTHER STORIES. This is a collection instead of a novel, and there are features in the book that point it to different audiences than SUMMER OF THE APOCALYPSE. Also, the book is not tied to current events, so our approach is impacted by that (also, I’m unlikely to get letters from people accusing me of profiting from a catastrophe).

Doing this experiment with FaceBook makes me want to learn more about advertising on other platforms. Amazon and Goodreads seem like possibilities. I’ve done some with Goodreads, like doing a giveaway when the book was released, mostly in the hopes it would generate reviews (not as many as I would hope), but I think there’s more to learn than I have discovered.

Free Van Pelt Stories at Curious Fictions

I have been posting about a story a week at one of the best online resources for short fiction you can find, Curious Fictions.

Authors can hide their stories behind paywalls for their subscribers, or offer it for free with the hope for tips and subscribers who would like to support the work.

If you follow an author there, you’ll receive a notification when your author posts new work.

You can also “like” the work, comment on it, and/or tip the author.

I’d love to see you there. Explore the work from over 600 other authors, and if you’d like, check out the collection of my stuff, stories that have appeared in numerous of the major magazines, been reprinted in several World’s Best anthologies, and also my Nebula Finalist story, “The Last of the O-Forms” (which are offered for free).

James Van Pelt at Curious Fictions.

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