Make sure there’s a story there

I am currently working on the next anthology I am co-editing with Randee Dawn:  “Across the Universe” (a collection of alternate history Beatles stories). And there’s one thing both of us keep noticing:

We’re getting a lot of stories that aren’t stories.

Coming up with a clever idea for this anthology is fun. What if John had never died? What if the Beatles were dogs?  What if the Beatles had sold their souls to the devil? We’ve seen quite a few really unusual and strange ideas.

Unfortunately, sometimes that’s all we’ve seen.

The clever idea is the start of the story — it’s the background setting for the story. A story needs characters, and a plot, and change, climax, and a resolution.

If everything is exactly the same at the end of the story as it is at the beginning and all we’ve had is a description of the background (no matter how well written), then there’s not really a story there, is there? Make us care about the characters and the problems they have to solve and readers will remember your story long after the charm from the clever idea has faded.

I see this all the time when people come to me with a story idea.  “Do you think this is a good idea?” they ask, and my response is always “It’s a good start, but stories are about characters. Make me care for your characters and you can have a very mundane plot and I’ll still be happy. The most clever idea in the world won’t matter if I don’t care about your characters.” (And, of course, even if you do have good characters and a great plot, you still have to write well to make me want to read it!)

So unless you’re writing a “character study” or an emotional piece whose sole purpose is to establish a setting or person (and good luck selling that to an agent or editor), you need to tell a story.

And (sigh) once again the disclaimer: There are no real rules in writing other than grammatical and spelling ones. There are exceptions to every piece of advice that anyone gives you. I can name “stories” that have been published and are successful that do not follow the advice I have given here — but they are not the norm.


My Balticon 2019 Schedule

Between May 24 – 27, you can find me at the 53rd annual Balticon convention! This year’s guest of honor is Elizabeth Bear!


I’m moderating a bunch pf panels this year, so I’m looking forward to seeing many of you there. Here’s my schedule:

Keeping Your Anti-heroes Likable (Friday 4 pm): They’re gruff, uncouth, and tough to get along with. So how do you make them fun to read?  Michael A. Ventrella (moderator)Paul E. CooleyT. Eric BakutisAda PalmerRobert E. Waters

Sustaining Tension in Your Writing (Friday 6 pm): A narrative work, even a small one, maintains audience interest through the buildup and release of tension. But how do you keep tension going after you’ve resolved a major plot point and there’s story to go? Michael A. Ventrella (moderator)Paul E. CooleyT. Eric BakutisAda PalmerRobert E. Waters

Readings (Friday 8 pm): Authors Jamaila Brinkley, Doc Coleman, and Michael Ventrella read from their works. Doc ColemanJamaila BrinkleyMichael A. Ventrella

Steampunk vs. Gaslight Fantasy (Saturday 10 am): Sorcery & Cecelia or The Difference Engine? Captain James T. West or Thomas, Lord Darcy? What makes a work steampunk and what makes a work gaslamp fantasy? Is there a significant difference or is it merely cosmetic? Doc Coleman (moderator)Scott RocheJamaila BrinkleyPhilippa BallantineMichael A. Ventrella

Pitch Session: “Across the Universe” Anthology (Saturday noon): Co-editor Michael Ventrella is looking for “what-if” stories on The Beatles for an upcoming anthology featuring stories by Spider Robinson, Peter David, Jodie Lynn Nye, and David Gerrold.

Game of Thrones: What Did You Think? (Saturday 1 pm): After eight award-winning seasons, Game of Thrones has finally finished its HBO run. How did it manage to live up to your expectations? How do you feel about the final seasons being written without complete source material? What will you do with your Sunday evenings now?  Michael A. Ventrella (moderator)Sarah AveryCerece Rennie MurphyChad DukesLiz DukesPerrianne Lurie

Ask me Anything: Editors and Publishers (Saturday 3 pm): A panel of professional editors and publishers answer questions from the audience. Michael A. Ventrella (moderator)Joshua BilmesScott H. AndrewsAlex ShvartsmanIan Randal StrockHildy Silverman

Tales from the Slush Pile (Sunday 6 pm): Editors share tales of some of the gems they’ve received, and give advice on how to avoid becoming fodder for future panels like this. Joshua Bilmes (moderator)Scott H. AndrewsAlex ShvartsmanMichael A. Ventrella

Here are some pictures of me from previous Balticons!

Still looking for alternate history Beatles stories

from co-editor Randee Dawn:

We’ve got just 6 weeks until stories are due in on the Across the Universe Beatles alternate universe/”what if” anthology and we are here to tell you we are definitely still looking for your brilliance!

So this post is reaching out to those of you who haven’t yet started a story and those who might have looked at our first call-out for writers and said, “Eh, nothing strikes me.”

Think again!

Having now seen a slew of stories come in, some of which had us saying yay, some saying nay, and some saying meh, we thought it was a good time to bring into greater resolution the sorts of stories we’re still hoping to see in this book.

Beatles cover color

What We Want

In broad picture terms, we want these to be speculative, and because they’re going to be fictional by definition they’ll be alternate history stories. But this does not mean you should simply pick a point in Beatles history and make a tiny tweak. What we want you to do is think about the guys, and their music, and their influences and find a way to mix them up in a creative way that also tells a deeper story. Such as:

Think of obscure (or lesser-known) moments in their lives and riff on that: Their visit to India, their ride on the Magical Mystery Tour bus. What it’s like to be chased down the street by screaming fans.

Go outside actual history. Make up a history from whole cloth.

Consider them as individuals: Each of the Beatles has rich and varied interests. One married a wealthy American whose father had been a lawyer for big band artists. One found his spiritual north in a country far away from Britain. One settled in the United States and married a Japanese artist. One nearly died of peritonitis when he was a child and spent a week in a hospital. All of this is healthy territory to mine; the connection to the band itself can be passing at best.

Make sure you’re writing a story. This means a character arc, change, climax, resolution among other things. You have to get into your characters’ heads and show us what they’re about, not just what they do.

Consider pairing the guys up with people they never met, but who existed in their timeline. Or people they did meet, but we don’t know much about. Or people they met in a public manner, but maybe a side of that we never saw. What if Lennon and Keith Richards had stumbled out of that Crawdaddy Club first meetup and gotten shitfaced in a corner of London?

Get crazy! Maybe the Beatles aren’t even in it! NASA beamed “Across the Universe” actually into space, which may mean if there are aliens they’ll catch those beams first. Could an alien travel light years to find the guys at a gig? What would that fandom be like?

Don’t send us stuff below 2,000 words. Max: 4,000. Also, note the small change in payment: We are paying $.05/word now, not a flat $200. Send to

And if you have a genius work that just needs a little more time (or a little more space than 4,000 words), let us know and we’ll see if we can accommodate.

What We Don’t Want

Having either seen these or blissfully been spared these, what we don’t want are stories that just lay flat on the page. Like someone who decides the Beatles were all pet dogs and spends most of the story describing the funny ways the dogs look like the band members. Here are a few things to avoid:

Unless you’ve got an amazing John Is/Was Never/Has Come Back story and you really will blow our mop tops off, don’t send it. We’ve seen a lot of those, and we’ve got what we need. There’s one other late band member, who was dramatically attacked by a knife-wielding housebreaker and – somehow that’s not interesting?

If you think to yourself, “This is a well-known piece of Beatle trivia history!” then you can also probably skip it. Not just because everyone else has had that idea, but because it’s unoriginal.

Avoid press conferences, stories that are 90% dialogue, “interviews” and other such staged creations. They don’t provide room to tell a story in most cases. You might get away with an epistolary story, but again, watch your arcs.

Along that same line, don’t quote directly from other sources like articles, or actual interviews they did. If you must, keep it very short or paraphrase. There’s a fine line between stealing for verisimilitude and creating your own reality.

Please do send us stories – we definitely want them, and the book can’t be ready until we fill it up with greatness. Can’t wait to read your own!

Here’s the original post with the specifications – be sure to read it to know how to format your finished masterwork.

My 2019 Ravencon schedule

Ravencon is a fun little convention that keeps growing — It used to be in my hometown of Richmond but now it’s in Williamsburg, right next to Busch Gardens where I spent many days riding roller coasters when I was younger… This year, the writer Guest of Honor is Melinda Snodgrass (who I interviewed on this blog 7 years ago — I’ll finally get to meet her in person)!


The entire program is here but here’s where you can find me (when I’m not sitting at my publisher’s booth in the dealers room):

Geek Debates (Friday 5 pm): RavenCon’s geek debates explore the issues that plague the conversations of geeks worldwide. Could Boba Fett defeat a Borg drone? Is James Bond a Time Lord? These and other questions could be explored this year at the debates. With Elizabeth Gribble, Rich Sigfrit, and Michael J. Winslow

Meet and Greet for Guests (Friday 6 pm): A semi-informal party where you can rub elbows with the guests

Opening Ceremony (Friday 7 pm): In which special guests are introduced and announcements made and awards presented

Whose Line Is It Anyway? (Friday 8 pm): Based on the TV show, our talented writer guests take improv to a new level, with a science fiction theme. Host Peter Prellwitz does not let them know beforehand what they’ll be doing. Audience participation is expected! With Billy Flynn, Gail Z. Martin, and Peter Prellwitz

Beta Readers (Saturday 11 am): Do authors still use beta readers? Who should an author’s beta reader be? Panelists discuss the use, or lack thereof, of beta readers in the writing process. With Patrick Dugan, Jason Gilbert, G.B. MacRae, and Christopher Metcalf

Steampunk 101 (Saturday 12 noon): Steampunk crosses the worlds of literature, costuming, crafting, movies, and more. But what is steampunk? Where did it start and why is it called that? A look at the history of the genre and its rising popularity over the past decade. With Sandra Baldari, Doc Coleman, Gail Z. Martin, and Margaret S. McGraw 

Reading (Saturday 3:25 pm): I’ll be reading from my latest novel BIG STICK.

Legal Fictions (Saturday 4 pm):  Is it weird that so many lawyers become authors? Our lawyer/authors share amusing anecdotes from their unique intersection of careers. With Melinda Snodgrass and Steve White

Masquerade Pre-Judging (Saturday 7 pm): My wife Heidi Hooper is one of the judges for the Masquerade, and I’ve been appointed to give all the participants a prep talk and instructions on how to present your costumes to best show the audience and judges.

Late Night Geek Debates (Saturday 11 pm): This year RavenCon is trying debates with more mature topics. What topics? You’ll have to come and see. (18+ only, IDs checked.) With Cailen Cutrell, Wade Cutrell, and Lilith Lore

This schedule is subject to change!

Here are some pictures from previous Ravencons!


“Across the Universe” submission guidelines

The anthology I am co-editing, Across the Universe, is now open for submissions!

Through a Kickstarter campaign, we were able to raise enough to go ahead with this project, and we have confirmations from authors Spider Robinson, David Gerrold, Jonathan Maberry, Peter David, Alan Goldsher, Cat Rambo, Keith DeCandido, Jody Lynn Nye, Lawrence Watt-Evans and Gail Z. Martin with notes by Janis Ian and Nancy Holder.Beatles cover color

We should have room for a few extra stories as well. But only a few.

Book Theme

The theme of the anthology is “The Beatles – What if?”  What if Brian Epstein hadn’t managed the band? What if George Harrison hated sitar music? What if Ringo had been the true star of the band all along? What if the Beatles had been aliens? Or magic users? Or zombies? Or American?

Story Concepts: What to Avoid

The confirmed authors have already begun their stories, so please avoid the following ideas:

  • Beatles as zombies
  • Beatles as super heroes
  • Beatles as time travelers
  • Beatles as “the Scooby Doo gang”
  • Beatles as medieval fantasy adventurers
  • Beatles as Tetrad wizards representing the elements
  • Beatles as animatronic robots
  • Beatles as paranormal investigators

This is not to say that you cannot do a variation on these, but keep in mind that if we get more than one story with the same theme, your chance of having your story accepted is reduced. That said, do not contact us with your idea first. After all, two authors can take the same basic idea and produce completely different stories.

Story Length

The story should be around 4,000 words. This should be sufficient for what should most likely be a somewhat humorous tale. A ‘short story’ should be defined as not less than 1,000 words for the purpose of this book; we want you to write the story at the length it most makes sense, but we are not publishing drabbles or flash fiction, and prefer stories in the 2,000 – 4,000 range.  This is not a strict cut-off, though.

Payment is 5 cents a word. Take as many words as you need to make a great story, but if it is too long, it had better be so great that we can’t refuse it. A good but padded story may get rejected over a concise, fast-moving one, because we want to fit in as many stories as possible.

No reprints. And only one submission. If you have two stories, send your best.

I’m Unpublished. Can I submit?

Yes! We encourage that. But you will still face the same standards for submissions as the published authors. (Pro tip: Check your spelling and grammar.)


Submit your story in 12-point, Times New Roman/Times Roman font, double-spaced.

If you have questions about other formatting (like setting up the story’s first page, and page numbering), refer to Shunn’s manuscript formatting guide.

The file should be RTF, not Word or DocX or anything else. The first page should be your cover letter – keep it brief – which will include your contact information and a 50-75 word bio. List previous publications or relevant experience in the bio.


Send your complete story/cover letter to – do not send to Michael or Randee personally. Your bio and story should be in the same document. We will accept submissions until June 14. Please continue to check this space for any updates. We will do our best to contact everyone who submits, but if you have not heard from us by August 1, you can safely assume that your story was not accepted.

Advice on Copyright Issues

Cory Doctorow was unable to contribute to the anthology, but did offer us these suggestions concerning copyright issues when dealing with real people and real songs. Keep his comments in mind:

Characters are copyrightable, but a mere mention of names is not enough to violate a copyright in Eleanor Rigby (the character), or Eleanor Rigby (the song).

However, if I actually wrote a short SF story featuring Eleanor Rigby and Father Mackenzie and if he were darning the socks and she were picking up rice at a church after a wedding and wearing a face (that she keeps in the jar at the door) then you could legitimately say I am taking so much of the song’s structure and plot, that I am effectively creating an infringing derivative work—just as Cats! expanded Eliot’s silly poems into a rock opera, (Which, given that the poems were written in the 30’s, are still under copyright.)  And that would need permission and or fee.

Of course, if this were a true parody in which it turns out that all the lonely people are actually smoking weed and having great sex at sock-darning parties, then that might be a fair use.  But if it is just that she keeps her face in a jar by the door because she is an actual alien, and the rice is to feed her growing insectoid child whose mind control will take over the earth… Well, I dunno.  Lots of courts would frown at that as just being an unauthorized sequel / unlicensed derivative work.

And others are not ok.  Saying that character names may never be used is silly.  If I said that  Cory Doctorow was “the Father Mackenzie of Sci Fi writers,” darning your antique 1950’s pajamas rather than hitting the hot spots, copyright law wouldn’t even be involved.  (Titles and short phrases are not copyrightable and that’s just an analogy).  But the fan fic extrapolation from an existing delineated plot, even if a plot developed in a song, might not be.

I don’t think there is a trademark angle. The courts have dealt relatively harshly with claims like that unless there is some way to claim sponsorship and affiliation.

Bottom line: Avoid retelling stories in the songs, avoid using the song lyrics (titles are okay), and avoid using copyrighted characters (such as the ones in the Beatles movies — no Blue Meanies, please).

EDIT ADDITION:  Be sure to check out this follow-up post which goes into a bit more detail about what we’re looking for

My turn to be interviewed

I’m interviewed on the “Masters of Horror” website today. Why they wanted to talk to me, I’ll never know, but hey, it’s nice to be noticed. Take a look and drop a comment (or share)!


A new anthology of alternative Beatles stories!

What if the Beatles had never met? Would we enjoy Dave Clark Five-mania?

What if Brian Epstein hadn’t managed the band? What if George Harrison hated sitar music? What if Ringo had been the true star of the band all along?

What if the Beatles had been aliens? Or magic users? Or zombies? Or American?

Announcing my latest project (with co-editor Randee Dawn): a collection of alternative Beatles stories!

Beatles cover color

We’ve gathered some great writers to create Across the Universe: an anthology of speculative Beatles fiction, including Spider Robinson, David Gerrold, Jonathan Maberry,  Alan Goldsher, Cat Rambo, Keith DeCandido, Jody Lynn Nye, Lawrence Watt-Evans and Gail Z. Martin with notes by Janis Ian and Nancy Holder!

This is a kickstarter campaign, so we need you to order your copy now so we can raise the money to have it printed. Click here for more details!

We’ve left space for other authors to submit their stories, and the guidelines and deadlines for stories will be announced once we have met our goal and know the book will be published.

I look forward to hearing from you!

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