Bruce Bethke & Stupefying Stories

Bruce Bethke & Stupefying Stories

by Angelique Fawns


Ever wonder where the term “cyberpunk” comes from? Bruce Bethke is the creator. The term was born when his story story “Cyberpunk” appeared in Amazing Stories in November of 2023. But that’s not all this influential author (and musician!) is known for. He wrote the award-winning novel Headcrash and created Stupefying Stories, an online and print magazine run under his Rampant Loon Press imprint.


I met Bruce Bethke when he purchased my short story “Graveside Dining” which you can read for free here:

I love this market so much, another of my strange stories goes live on Saturday, March 9th:

AF: While researching your background, I see you’ve been involved in some very high-profile projects. Aka. Asimov’s Robot Universe and Rebel Moon. Can you tell us more about your career?

BB: Briefly? I don’t think that can be done. Remember, I’m older than people seem to think I am. How much older? How about this: I saw The Doors play live. Do the math.

I backed into my fiction writing career. It wasn’t my first choice. I actually thought I was still working on developing my music career when I discovered a crucial truth: when you write a story, you don’t have to book studio time and get a bunch of musicians together to rehearse and perform it. It just exists, independently of you, and once it does, you can get on with doing something else!


During my most active period, in the 1980s and early 1990s, I wrote and sold more than fifty short stories to pro markets—I stopped counting after a while—probably an equal number to semi-pro and obscure markets, and more than a dozen novels to traditional publishers. Maverick—the Asimov’s robot novel—was technically my first novel, and the publisher actually approached me and asked me to write it. Rebel Moon? That one was a very different story, and I don’t think we have the time to go into it here. The key point is, how did “more than a dozen novels” turn into the small handful you can find in used bookstores today?


Well, now you have a hint as to why I have such a jaundiced view of traditional publishers.


AF: I had no idea you coined, not one but TWO new words that are vernacular today! Talk to us about the birth of “SPAM”?

BB: Oh no, not this again. The term “spam,” meaning garbage messages that drown out meaningful communication on the Internet—as opposed to Spam®, the delicious tinned-meat product from Hormel Foods Corporation—was in common use on Usenet long before I wrote Headcrash. Its use on Usenet derived from an old Monty Python sketch in which the conversation in a restaurant is drowned-out by a bunch of Vikings singing a song about Spam®:


I’ve tried for years to get Wikipedia to stop “crediting” me for inventing spam. I thought I’d succeeded.


AF: Speaking of new terms, I once read an interview of yours where you talked about “FANG BANG fiction.” This might be my new favorite phrase. Spill, please?

BB: This is another term for which I must disavow credit. “Fangbangers” was the name the devoted fans of the TV series True Blood gave themselves. I don’t know who came up with it.


Understand, my late wife, Karen, was an enormous fan of paranormal romance. Before the cancer hit she had a four-novel-a-week reading habit, and we talked about it a lot—especially about Charlaine Harris’s “Sookie Stackhouse” novels and Faith Hunter’s “Jane Yellowrock” novels. We kept trying to co-write a paranormal romance novel together but never succeeded. The closest we ever got was the non-fiction essay, “From Castle Dracula to Merlotte’s Bar & Grill,” which you’ll find in the BenBella Books SmartPop anthology, A Taste of True Blood.


As part of trying to write Wolf Lake I read a lot of paranormal romance, and we discussed the genre conventions and tropes a lot—my marriage with Karen really was a partnership, in every sense of the word—and I eventually concluded that most of what I was seeing was somewhere on the female-oriented erotica-to-porn continuum, only with “real” cryptids.


Hence, “fang porn” and “fang bang” fiction.


This isn’t new. Bram Stoker’s Dracula didn’t spring out of thin air. Before Stoker there was an established genre of novels about “nice” English girls who took jobs on the continent working for decadent and creepy rich old men, after which many mysterious, frightening, and menacing things happened to the girl, until at the dramatic peak, the villain was unmasked and the plot resolved in a way that would seem perfectly familiar to any fan of Scooby-Doo


Stoker’s innovation was to make the monster “real.” No, seriously, this time the Count really is a vampire. Whereupon the nice girl’s plucky English boyfriend gets to rescue the girl, destroy the monster, and deliver a nice metaphorical tale about decadent European royalty and superstition being overthrown by modern English men of science.


In the French version, La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, 1740), the girl tames the monster, marries him, and becomes his rich and pampered wife.


The North American equivalent is probably the “horse” novel, in which, once the mighty and terrifyingly untamable stallion finally gets between the nice girl’s thighs, he becomes her best friend and devoted servant forevermore. Can we say, “Freudian?”      


AF: You said you got your start as a musician. Has this influenced your writing and publishing career?

BB: Tremendously. For one thing, if I hadn’t been hanging out on the fringes of the 1970s punk rock and new wave scene, I’d never have been inspired to write “Cyberpunk.” For another, my music background was what got me a job with Passport Designs, which is where I made the transition from being a composer and performer to being a software developer, working on the team that developed things like MIDI. (Musical Instrument Digital Interface: the communications protocol that everyone in the music industry still uses to this day.) And while I’m moderately famous for my fiction, it’s been my work in software development that’s paid the bills for the past forty years. 


After that, while my work in music has directly affected some of my fiction—e.g., stories like “Jimi Plays Dead”—


Where it’s really had an impact is in my sense of form and structure. When you read some piece of fiction I wrote, you’re likely seeing a story, a novelette, or a novel, but what I’m seeing is a rondo, a scherzo, a fugue or a divertimento. All those years of working in electronic recording studios also profoundly affected how I write. I don’t just sit down and type out a story, from beginning to end. I compose and perform a story, and capture the performance in the medium of words on paper. (Well, on the computer, now.)


Germane to Stupefying Stories, my musical background strongly affects how I put issues together. When I assemble a table of contents, it isn’t just a list of stories. It’s more like a set list or a concert program. There is a sense of pacing, tone, and dramatic structure in the order in which I present the stories. It may not be obvious. But it’s there.


AF: You’ve dabbled your pen in many genres and forms. What is the most profitable and easiest path for success for writers looking for direction?

BB: Before I can give you useful directions, you first need to tell me: why are you doing this? Why do you want to write?


To make money? Write non-fiction. I have made several orders of magnitude more money from writing non-fiction than I ever made from writing fiction. Not many people know this, because I rarely get a byline for my non-fiction work, but getting nice fat checks that arrive on time and always clear the bank is some consolation. (And now we’re dangerously close to talking about my jaundiced view of traditional fiction publishers again, so let’s not go there.)


To be famous under my real name? Be careful what you wish for. Being famous and findable by any yutz with Internet access is not nearly as much fun as you might imagine it to be.


To be famous under my real name for expressing my unique vision and telling my truly different and original story that only I can tell? Then God love ya, go for it. Write your book and self-publish it. When I first began to write for commercial publication it was very difficult to get published, but easy to get noticed once you were. Now it’s incredibly easy to get published but extremely difficult to get anyone to notice or care. And the more unique and different your vision is, the harder it is to get anyone to pay attention. So don’t quit your day job.


To placate my inner demons who are demanding that I tell their stories? Be very careful with that one. Inner demons are a tricky and unpredictable lot. Read, “They Tire of Waiting,” by Roni Stinger.


To get published, make a decent amount of money from it, and I’m not particularly concerned about which name it happens under, as long as the checks clear the bank. Okay, now we’re getting somewhere.


I’ll share with you now some advice I got 40-some years ago, from the head of West Coast A&R at some major record company whose name I forget now. After listening to my demo reel—politely at first, then impatiently, the longer it ran—he told me that the objective isn’t to be really different. It’s to be just a little different, so that your work stands out, but at the same time to sound enough like someone else who is already a major hit-maker that the first time listeners hear it, it sounds like something they’ve already heard six times, and they love it and can’t wait to hear it again, to hear that little bit of difference you bring to the formula.


At the time I thought that was quite possibly the most cynical advice I’d ever received. With more than forty years of experience acquired since then—well, I still think it’s terribly cynical, but it’s also utterly applicable. People like what they like. It’s really difficult to change their minds and get them to try something truly new. Therefore, if the question is:       

What is the most profitable and easiest path for success?

Here’s the answer.

  1. Write to market. Really study the market. Find a niche market or subgenre that is hot right now—not five years ago, now—and learn all you can about it. Amazon provides a wealth of information, if you look at the book listings. Study the keywords and subgenre breakdowns. Then pick a category you like to read and think will be fun to work in, and figure out what you can do with it that is slightly different from what everyone else and their cat is already doing.
  2. Learn the Lester Dent formula. Lester Dent was a pulp fiction writer who cranked out hundreds of novels and got filthy rich doing so. His universal plot formula was designed for 6,000-word short stories, but works just as well for short novels, with some adjustments.
  3. Pick a pseudonym. Your name is your brand. Ideally you want to have an entire stable full of names, so that you can switch back and forth between identities as your brands and genre niches heat up and cool down. Remember, this isn’t you. You are in the entertainment business now. Your pseudonym is a character. It’s your stage name, a role you perform for public consumption, a mask you put on before you go out in public in the morning and take off after you go home at night.
  4. Before you start writing, figure out how your story ends. As Mickey Spillane said, it’s the beginning of your book that gets people interested in reading it, but it’s the ending that determines whether they want to read anything else by you. Give your readers an ending that rewards them for the time they spent getting there and makes them glad they read your book.
  5. Write short novels. The day of the BFFB (Big Fat Fantasy Brick) is over. The optimum length in today’s market is 40K to 50K words. If you feel your story requires a 200,000-word epic, split it up into four installments.
  6. Forget traditional publishing. Start with self-publishing directly to Kindle. It’s too hard to get in the door with the traditional publishers now and their support for new authors is next to nonexistent. Remember, if you’re successful at self-publishing, the traditional publishers will come to you, begging you to take their money.   
  7. Consider whether serialization is right for you. I’ve watched several writers launch really successful careers lately by serializing a novel on Kindle Vella or Royal Road first. If you can work that way—I can’t—it’s a great way to build your fan base.
  8. Start an email list. No one else is going to do it for you. As your pseudonym, get a website. Build a mailing list. Start a blog. Interact with your fans, and make them feel that they are sharing in your success. Everyone loves the feeling of being able to say, “I was reading [name] before it was cool.” I’d skip Patreon. I know a few writers who are making enough money on Patreon to justify the work, but a lot more who aren’t. Likewise for crowd-funding. Crowd-funding only works if you have a crowd. Focus on building that email list! Put at least a quarter but no more than half of your working time into marketing your work. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your writing is if no one reads it!
  9. Keep writing those books! If you come up with an idea that really clicks with readers, keep working it! Write a never-ending series! Don’t stop writing it until people stop buying it! Conversely, if you’ve gone three books without having a bestseller, kick that pseudonym to the curb, revise your formula, and start over as someone else.

As you may have noticed, I did not put “Start out writing short stories” on this list. In today’s market it’s easier than ever to get your short stories placed and published, but almost impossible to make significant money doing so. And since the question was:

What is the most profitable and easiest path for success?

            I decided to focus on the “profitable” part of the question. Which brings us to:


        10. There is no easy path to success. Success in this business requires talent, ambition, good craft skills and work habits, and a certain measure of luck. Taking ambition as a given, accepting that enormous gobs of dumb luck can sometimes trump all else, and knowing that there is no way to change your innate talent, focus on improving your craft skills and work habits. After forty years in the writing racket, I have seen that a modest amount of talent and good craft skills and work habits beats enormous amounts of talent and lousy work habits seven days a week and twice on Sunday. Don’t sit on your butt waiting for the Muse to whisper in your ear. If you want success as a writer, work for it! 


AF: Tell us about the inception of Stupefying Stories?

BB: Truthfully, Stupefying Stories began as a joke, cooked up for my short story, “It Came From The Slushpile.”


The gag was that the “original” founder of the magazine had started out with a thesaurus and a list of superlatives—Amazing, Astounding, Colossal, Fantastic, Incredible, etc., etc. —and worked his way down to “Stupefying” before finally finding a pulp magazine name that was not already taken. That joke ended up being cut from the final published version of the story, but to my surprise not only did I sell the story to a pro magazine, it wound up repeatedly being picked up for “best of” and reprint anthologies. It was even optioned to become the pilot episode for a new Twilight Zone-like TV series, but while the story made it as far as a shooting script, the episode was never filmed and the series died in development.


Many years later I was running a writers workshop, and getting tired of listening to the writers complain about how hard it was to go from being an aspiring writer to being a published one. So Karen and I talked it over, and decided, we can do this. We can publish a collection of the best stories from the workshop and help get our writers’ names out there.


Only, every regional writers group does that, and their books all look pathetically amateurish. So let’s spend the time and money to do it right. We know how to do this. Let’s print it on the right paper stock, and use the right interior layout and trim size, and hire a professional cover artist, and just generally go all-out to make this thing look like a vintage issue of some forgotten digest-sized Golden Age pulp sci-fi magazine.

Okay, sounds good so far. But what do we call it?

And thus was born Stupefying Stories, the actual magazine. 

We’d originally planned to do it as a quarterly. We figured it would take us four issues to either prove the concept or decide it was a waste of time.


And then, literally between the day we signed off on the final proof copy and the day the bindery called to arrange delivery of the finished books, Karen was diagnosed with advanced metastatic breast cancer. 


The next years were a blur of surgery, chemo, radiation, more chemo, and more surgery. Remember I’d said Karen had a four-novel-a-week habit? The chemo took a lot out of her. Eventually even her book bag became too heavy for her to carry to the infusion clinic, so I bought her one of the first Kindles. That Kindle became her lifeline! She loved it, and took it with her everywhere she went. Eventually that Kindle was even what got us talking about trying to do Stupefying Stories again, only this time as a direct-to-Kindle e-book-only publication. We relaunched in late 2011, and for the next 11 years Stupefying Stories staggered on, as we tried to put together and release books in the interstices between playing whack-a-mole with Karen’s cancer. She stayed involved right to the very end, as in the end, reading and talking about stories was one of the few things we had left that we could still do together.


To give you some idea of what she was like, here’s a story that she picked out of the slush pile, and absolutely insisted I had to buy and publish.

From the original SHOWCASE site: “Lucky,” by Russell C. Connor

Oh, what the heck, as long as we’re at it, here are two more she championed:

“The Van Helsing Women’s Shelter,” by Aaron DaMommio

“Without a Leg to Stand on,” by Ed Wyrd

That’s the kind of woman Karen was. Defiant to the end.


AF: Do you have any advice for writers hoping to sell you a story?

BB: Yes. Lots. However, after more than a decade of running this magazine and after reading thousands of slush pile submissions—literally, thousands, I stopped counting at 5,000—I’ve scrapped our detailed submissions guidelines and cooked it all down to one crucial piece of advice:



If you want to know what we’d like to see, read what we’ve already published. If you can’t bring yourself to read the magazine, at least take a look at what we’ve published on the web sites: either the current web site—

 Or the original SHOWCASE site:

There are hundreds of stories out there, all free to read for the effort of a click. If you want to know what we’d like to buy, read what we’ve already bought.


AF: What’s up next in the life journey of Bruce Bethke?

BB: That, Ms. Fawns, is an excellent question. It’s been fifteen months since Karen lost her battle with cancer; fifteen months, and I’m still cleaning up the wreckage left behind by the passing of Tropical Storm Karen. We have the content for three more issues of Stupefying Stories already under contract and in production, and about three months’ worth of SHOWCASE stories ready to run on the website. After that…


When we first launched Stupefying Stories, all those years ago, it was with the idea that we would use the attention people wanted to pay to me, because of “Cyberpunk” and Headcrash and all that stuff I did back in the 1980s and 1990s, to encourage them to pay attention to newer and younger writers who are writing great stuff now. We’ve had some notable success in that regard. Karen was always really proud of the number of writers who got their start with us, who then went on to become either regular contributors to the pro magazines or successful novelists, or both. There are even a few major award-winning writers out there now, who got their start by writing for us.


But truthfully, the longer we continue, the harder it becomes to get anyone to pay attention to the short fiction we’re publishing. I’ve been happy to do this interview and to go on at length in some of my answers because it’s become so rare for people to want to ask me questions about Stupefying Stories. Nine times out of ten, no matter how an interview begins, it always ends up coming around to “Cyberpunk,” as if there is some secret waiting there to be revealed, and they too can become famous, if only they can persuade me to disclose it.


So what’s next? I don’t know. Maybe it’s time to admit defeat, and resign myself to becoming that elder windbag spokesman of cyberpunk so many people seem to want me to be. Or maybe it’s time to take my own advice, stuff this identity into a storage unit, and reinvent myself as someone else. Or maybe…


I don’t know. I just don’t know.

At the moment, it’s kind of hard to figure out an encore that’s good enough to follow that.


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