Tag Archives: short

Friday Flash: Magic Eyes

Ferrell crouched huddled at at the rear corner of the vehicle’s hold while the carter loaded the last crates of fruit into the cool darkness. The hold was nearly full, and the carter shoved at the crates near the door to make space, jamming Ferrell abruptly between the chill metal wall of the hold and a large box of what smelled like oranges, twisting his ankle sharply. Ferrell stifled a yelp as tears leapt from his eyes, but the sound was covered by the scrape of the crates and the whinnying of the horses picketed out in the Grammar Courtyard.

To judge by his relieved cursing, the carter had finished his work. All was quiet for a moment until the hatch of the vehicle’s hold slammed shut, pitching Ferrell into a darkness shot through with a few pin-thin shafts of dusty light and making his heart clench with fear. It was too late to turn back now … and the price of turning back would be worse than the cost of seeing it through. Ferrell hunkered down and nervously ate a loose orange as he waited for the cityman to return and take him away from Midhurst forever.

After what seemed like hours Ferrell felt the vehicle shift slightly. Suddenly a vast mechanical roar coughed into life beyond the front wall of the hold he was jammed against, and the vehicle tipped and slopped about slightly like a canoe on choppy waters. The roar raised in pitch as if in triumph, its bassy throb reverberating in the hold, and the vehicle became steady before beginning to move. Fingers jammed in his ears, Ferrell felt a wash of elation and fear – he’d done it. He had escaped.

#

Not long afterwards, Ferrell felt the gliding motion of the vehicle slow to a halt. The machine’s roar stopped abruptly, and Ferrell’s ears rang with a high note as the vehicle settled downward with a gassy groaning noise. He’d thought it would take longer to get to the city than this – it was nearly thirty miles by the old roads, the merchants said. He decided the machine must travel far faster than the tractors the Landed used, and prepared to wait for his opportunity to slip away.

The hatch opened, and Ferrell heard the quiet grunts and puffs as someone lifted crates out of the hold. Within a few minutes light was flooding in and falling against the hold wall right next to where his feet were hidden by a crate. The sounds stopped, and Ferrell waited.

“Come on, kid, get out,” said a deep voice. The cityman! Ferrell stayed still.

“I have a schedule to keep, you know, and I think you’ll find the ride a lot more comfortable up front.” The cityman sounded amused. “I know you’re there, kid – the Gasbag has cameras. Magic eyes, y’know, so I can see if the carters try to lift my stuff. Not often I get left with something extra instead of something less.” Laughter.

“You’ll not take me back, sir? You’ll not take me back there?” asked Ferrell, still huddled away in his corner.

“What, and have the Rurals hang me for trying to steal a Saved child?” The cityman chuckled. “If I’d not wanted to carry you, I’d have got you out before I left. Now come on out of there. You’re planning to live in the big city, you better get used to facing shit you’re scared of.”

Ferrell shuffled forward on his behind and peered around the crates; the cityman was sat in the hatchway, smoking a small pipe. Ferrell carefully scrambled toward the hatchway, squeezed past the cityman’s leather-clad shoulders and stepped out onto the cracked blackstone of the old road. He turned to face the cityman, who was grinning around his pipe. The stranger held out a set of goggles much like his own.

“Come on, kid. We’re past the estate borders, but it’s another twenty miles before we get to New Southsea. Now help me get these crates back in the hold, and we’ll consider your ride paid for, OK?”


[ Crikey. A few weeks out of the routine, and my confidence has ebbed considerably. Need to get back into practice; this is a poor showing for about five hours of frustration. But hey – back in the saddle, right? ]

Monetising the short fiction webzine market

There’s been much in the way of writerly foresight from Jason Stoddard in recent months; plenty of people have been willing to suggest the novel will die (and less people are willing to contest the proposition as time goes by), but Jason is the only person that I’m aware of who is doing concrete thinking about future markets for creative writing from the POV of the writer.

Dude, where’s my market?

Additionally, he’s revived his popular metafiction theme. Popular metawhuta? In a nutshell, BoingBoing and io9 are popular metafiction … as well as proof that people are more than willing to read if you just put the right stuff in front of them. As Jason says himself:

“I’d like to see the science fiction magazines succeed. I’d like to see science fiction become more relevant. I’d like to see it come back to genre that is actively leading us forward, instead of telling us “there’s no use, we’re all going to die anyway.” Unfortunately, there’s little I can do to help the publications directly, so maybe this, in some small manner, will help point the way.

After all, BoingBoing grew organically. It didn’t take millions of dollars in advertising or the combined might of a television network to launch. It occupies a space where science fiction could be.”

Right; I know this first-hand. Now that I’m running Futurismic, thoughts like this weigh heavily on me – how the hell am I going to get that site to pay for the fiction and its hosting fees (let alone make anything on top)? There’s masses of traffic out there, after all; you just have to attract it to your content.

As is probably plain from my rather bitter comment on Jason’s post, I kind of resent the fact that io9 can post 90% fluff and 10% substance and still pay the payroll; it says sad things about the state of the market for fiction, and makes me wonder if I’m barking up the wrong tree entirely.

The readers are out there, they just don’t know where the good writing is

But then I look at the OMFG-Zerg-rush!!!1 we had on Leonard Richardson’s story when Cory Doctorow gave at the thumbs-up at BoingBoingover 7000 page views within the space of a week, and a forty-deep comment thread of people raving about how awesome the story is. Some people obviously do want to read good fiction, and really enjoy it when they do so.

Hell, look at this item I included in last week’s Friday Free Fiction round-up at Futurismica busy gaming and media webzine is doing what its paper equivalents say is pointless, and experimenting with publishing fiction. Fiction that they’re paying the writers for. But they can do that – they have traffic, they have budget, they have leeway. They have the opportunity to throw sh*t at the wall and see if it sticks. I really hope it does, too – more paying markets can only be a good thing, I reckon.

Orienteering

So, where do I go from here? Arguably Futurismic is way closer to the contemporary metafiction model than most other genre webzines out there, and it also has the advantage of domain longevity – it’s a brand that has lasted a while. We’ve got a strong RSS subscriber base, too, and I’m doing my best to grow it further by expanding what we offer – a new non-fiction column goes up later today, as it happens.

But how can I turn that traffic into enough dollar to pay the fiction writers, cover the server bills and possibly throw a bit of cash at my non-fiction contributors too*?


There are options, sure, but they’re mostly not pretty.

Text Link Ads

There’s a couple of direct text-link ad companies who would pay pretty decent money for ads on Futurismic, but they have been proven to be a fast route to a Google blacklisting as they’re essentially a way of selling on PageRank to sites who are, shall we say, “not entirely deserving of it”. Ethically, I’m unwilling to cross that particular Rubicon – sure, there’d be enough money to pay pro rates for fiction, a reasonable column fee and chuck my blog team a bone or two, but what if I ended up boosting the online profile of some hate-group or snake-oil pharma company? Not on my watch, Admiral.

Adsense

Google AdSense offers me little control over what sort of ads are displayed (how often do you see vanity press ads on genre blogs with AdSense? – too often), and I know for a fact I’ve not clicked on an AdSense box in years; I’m not going to patronise my readers by assuming that they will do something I wouldn’t. Same applies to similar contextual ad platforms; the amount of actual clicks and/or impressions we’ll get just isn’t enough to make it worthwhile without crowding out the content with a bad signal-to-noise ratio. We’re too damn niche.

Affiliate marketing

Funnelling traffic to Amazon or similar might work if we accrue more organic click through, but isn’t going to pay the bills at current traffic rates; see above, essentially.

Direct sponsorship

I’d be willing to look into this, but I have no idea how I’d go about doing it, short of a hefty barrage of very polite cold emailing to publishers. I’d also insist on a made-public declaration from both parties that there would be no preferential coverage or favouritism. Independence and transparency is crucial for credibility, AFAIC.

Alternative ad networks

The current solution, namely Project Wonderful, has everything a niche scene like genre publishing should want out of an ad brokerage system. Seriously – I really can’t overstate the potential I see in this system, not just for Futurismic but for the whole industry’s online marketing business. Total control for advertisers and publishers; fine grain locational selection; precise budgeting, flexible low-scale payment options … it ticks all my boxes. The only problem – there’s not enough advertisers of the right type using it yet.


That last point is a shame – I think about small press publishers with a tight budget, and I know they must want to be able to target their online ads more effectively than paying for some keywords. They want to know what sort of audience those ads are going to, what those eyeballs are used to seeing and what they think is cool – they need demographic precision.

I can offer them that with Futurismic – 7000 views of one page over a week by people who expressly have an interest in written science fiction has to be worth something, right? – and so could a score of other sf webzines and blogs. But they don’t know it’s there yet – most internet ad platforms are aimed at traffic sources an order of magnitude larger than Futurismic.

So I guess yours truly has to go and be an evangelist on Project Wonderful‘s behalf … which makes you realise just how crafty a business model they actually have!

The thesis

But I’m kind of digressing from my original point, which is that there’s definitely a market for fiction as long as you aren’t charging the reader for it directly. Jason also has things to say about how freeconomics effects you as a writer (in a nutshell: play the long game outside the box and you’ll be fine), but it’s us publishers that are caught in the middle. It’s our business model that’s dying, and hence the onus is on us to find a new one that works.

And this ain’t no violin solo, either – this is me thinking out loud, basically, but doing so in front of an audience I hope might chime in with some thoughts of their own. But to boil down my current thinking to the nugget – there’s enough money in genre publishing ad budgets to support the short fiction market in webzine form. I really believe this, and until I see concrete figures to the contrary I’m not going to abandon that belief – because webzines don’t need a lot of money beyond the fiction fees.

The problem is the book publishers are currently throwing their money at ineffective and imprecise advertising channels, and probably only because they don’t know the alternatives are there. If I can get them to a better channel that sends them actual interested buyers and exploits my currently under-used eyeball share, I’ve killed two birds with one stone and solidified the future of what I believe is a worthwhile short fiction market.

So, I have a strategy. What I don’t have are the tactics; I get the feeling the only way I’m going to find those is by getting muddy in the trenches and seeing what works. But if y’all have some advice (or have noticed the inevitable gaping hole in my tapestry of logic), my ears are wide open.

[ * Just to be perfectly clear, I was resigned to the idea that Futurismic will never pay me a red cent long before I took the plunge to take control of it. I am willing to subsidise it out of my earnings as a freelance for the foreseeable future … which is a lot easier to say now that there actually are some freelance earnings on the horizon. But that’s another post entirely; what I mean to say is “this is not a greed post”. ]

Friday Flash: Karmachanic

Weng-Li worked his worn knuckles along the knotted RJ45 cable stapled to the altar. The stereo played today’s freshest animantras through a sun-shot fog of Nag Champa and cheap Afghani hashish; Weng-Li altered the cadence of his chant slightly, modulating it to incorporate and celebrate the roar and clatter of the train as it passed over the shanty. All must be included in the One.

Weng-Li didn’t need to look behind him to know his client was kneeling patiently on the packed dirt in the corner of his shack as instructed. His reputation spoke for itself, and a client with sincerity would know not to disobey; just like the old gods, the new ones were not to be disrespected.

Weng-Li closed his eyes one last time, slowly lowering the mantra to a looping drone as the shafts of sun drew mandalas through his lids. The last clangorous chord of the tinny temple music faded away, replaced by the muted rattle and chatter of the shanty market in full swing. Weng-Li opened his eyes, looked down at the altar in front of him — at the small pile of grubby used dollar bills resting on a cracked china plate, and at the eviscerated circuit board of the broken DVR. His mind was clear; the paths were plain.

Still holding the holy note in his throat, Weng-Li stretched out his hand and reached into his toolbox.


[ With apologies to Jeff Noon for the blatant theft of the title … but then again, it’s his fault I write sf anyway, so there’s your divine justice, I guess. 🙂

This is a tweaked and polished version of the sketch I produced during our Friday Flash Fiction workshop at Eastercon, in case you were wondering. More of a vignette than a story, I guess, but there you go.]

Friday Flash: Deflowered

Emmeline’s throat was raw, and the acid stench of her own vomit steaming in the gutter made her retch again, without results. Angus stood off to the side smoking a cigarette and trying to look like he wasn’t nervous. A few yards away, the thing’s corpse was decomposing rapidly on the sun-dappled tarmac of the road.

“First time’s always the hardest,” said Angus, grinding out his fag with his boot heel.

Emmeline coughed a weak little laugh. “Oh, that’s reassuring,” she said. “Great news. Maybe after a while I’ll actually start to enjoy killing things.”

“You don’t want that to happen,” said Angus, giving the corpse a wide berth as he walked toward her.

“Oh? Why not?”

Angus passed the rifle back to her. “How d’you think they got like that in the first place?”

Friday Flash: Leaving Mars

The food tastes no different to the flash-frozen irradiated crap I’ve been eating for the last twelve months. I don’t know what I expected; it’s not as if they were going to give me a special treat or anything. That would just have shaved from the bottom line.

I’ve got about half an hour, the mission doctor said. It’s almost funny; he used the exact same dead-pan serious tone the brain specialist back home used when he told me I had two years. Almost two years ago. I thought I’d be more scared the closer I got, but it doesn’t work that way. At least, it hasn’t for me.

I start to suit up for the last time, and at the same time I start counting off seconds. I’m almost ready to put the helmet on when Doctor Morton’s voice comes over the link. Ten minutes forty-three – he spoke as soon as he saw me move for the suit, allowing for the round trip of the laser carrier.

“Er – what are you doing with the suit, Rogers?”

“Thought I’d wear it out on the surface one last time, doc,” I say. “We’ve become pretty close, me and this suit. Can’t think of a better friend to be with at a time like this. Well, none that are near enough. Might be nice to have you here, but I guess that’s out of the question, right?”

I’ve got another ten minutes before he can reply, and the last twelve months have shown they’re too professional to discuss me with the line open, let alone harangue me without waiting for my replies. They can see me on video in sync with my voice, though, so they know what I’m doing. I fix the helmet to my suit and perform the checklists, then I cycle myself through the little pod’s airlock one last time.

It’s coming up for sunset; the sun’s burning faint and red just above the mountains on the horizon, and there’s very little dust. Pretty good weather, all things considered. I make my way in bounding steps to the edge of the cliff, and I sit myself on the roughly square block of umber rock that I have taken to referring to – in the privacy of my own skull, and purely facetiously – as my throne.

Mike Rogers – First King Of Mars.

It’s not much of a kingdom, to be fair. Mars is like a long holiday in a foreign country; everything’s thrilling and new for the first few weeks, but after a few months you become as accustomed to the routine as you would back home.

Still, no regrets. I’ve not lost any time I would have had otherwise – that lump in my brain is due to make an end of me real soon. I’ve made my mark on history; the Neil Armstrong of my generation. And I know Kathy and Emma will be provided for for the rest of their lives, because that was my condition for coming – the one bit of the contract I got to stipulate.

My count reaches ten forty-two for a second time, and here comes Morton’s passionless voice again.

“The contract says twelve months before cessation, Rogers. You gain nothing by going outside. We saw you eat the food; just relax and let the toxin do its work.”

I laugh. “Contract tells me when I have to die, doc, but it doesn’t say anything about where. I should know, I’ve read the damned thing through enough times. Now shut up and let a man die in peace, will you?”

It’s feeling even less scary the nearer I get. Maybe that’s the toxin working, I’m not sure. I am starting to feel a little sleepy, but then it’s near to my scheduled time for lights-out anyway, so that could just be the conditioning. The valley stretches away in front of me, its walls layered with grades and shades and levels of colour, like the terracotta swatch card Kathy got for the kitchen in our first apartment. And it reminds me of Arizona, that time we went when I was little. So many reds, so much dust. Arizona was much hotter than this, though, wasn’t it Mom?

“God bless you, Rogers,” comes Mom’s voice. No, not Mom, the doc. Morton’s voice. Musta dropped the count there. Damned theist doctor.

Sun’s going down. Like the mountains are burning; looks real pretty.

Guess it’s bedtime now.

G’night, Mom.


[ * Apologies to Jason Stoddard for the title. Space-news geeks may well guess that this story was inspired by the Lone Eagle Mars mission idea; and yes, I’m aware that the plan doesn’t call for the guy to die alone, but I thought I could make a story out of a situation where it did. ]