An Interview With James Enge

Sunday, April 29th, 2007 | Posted by Web Master

James Enge’s tales of Morlock the Maker have earned praise from an ever-growing list of Black Gate readers and reviewers. A few weeks ago Black Gate’s Howard Jones had the pleasure to “sit down” with James and get some detailed answers about Morlock’s origins, his future, and some insight into Enge’s writing practices.


Technique Thoughts

Tuesday, April 24th, 2007 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

James Van Pelt has posted some great articles on writing the last two days — one on April 23, one on April 24. You owe it to yourselves to check them out here:

A few years back, when I was reviewing for Tangent and reading widely to get a better feel for various markets, I ended up reading a lot of stuff that wasn’t my cup of tea. James can be found in all sorts of magazines, and I quickly discovered that he always delivered a nice story, even it it wasn’t the kind of tale I usually enjoyed. More to the point here — he really seems to know what he’s talking about, technique-wise, so I hope you’ll see what he has to say.

In the spirit of writing techniques, here’s some thoughts I jotted down for Daniel Blackston a few years back on description and ended up putting on the site. I thought it might have some relevance to story beginnings as someone asked about last week.  A lot of tales I reject start with laborious descriptions of the main characters.

Writing Descriptively

I look on description as my camera. If I am analogous to the director of the film my readers watch, then description controls many of the aspects of that story experienced by the reader. That camera is critical for conveying pacing, setting, character, and plot.

Description does not sit statically — it has a purpose. Like makeup, it is applied sparingly to highlight or emphasize what we wish to show, to draw attention away from what we do not. It cues the reader as to what is critical to the story and ensures that a tale maintains momentum.

Either in the opening paragraph or within the first few lines of dialogue, our camera pans over the scene so that the reader sees the environment through which our characters move. Usually the characters are seen as well.

Lin Carter, editor extraoirdinaire and author of many thrilling tales of fantasy and science fiction, wrote Imaginary Worlds, on the history and techniques of writing fantasy, which should be a required read for all fantasy writers. Such writers also should run, not walk, to purchase Poke Runyon’s Drell Master, wherein is printed a letter from Carter about describing fantasy heroes and setting more useful than many semesters worth of writing classes. Here is a brief excerpt from that letter:

Notice how Burroughs describes a hero? Just a few brief sketches:

Tarzan is golden bronze like a Greek god. Fierce eyes under black mane. Moves with regal dignity and pantherine grace. That’s all. That’s enough. Or John Carter: lithe and sinewy, his naked body clasped in the Barsomian warrior’s harness, crusted with badges of rare metal and glittering gems, gem-studded butt of radium pistol, rapier hilt, dagger. Boots.

We do not need to know the color of every ring upon our hero’s finger, nor the subtle shape of his chin. Details in excess overwhelm.

Robert E. Howard was a master of description. Consider the following excerpt, the opening paragraph to “The Slithering Shadow” (also known as “Xuthal of the Dusk”):

The desert shimmered in the heat waves. Conan the Cimmerian stared out over the aching desolation and involuntarily drew the back of his powerful hand over his blackened lips. He stood like a bronze image in the sand, apparently impervious to the murderous sun, though his only garment was a silk loin-cloth, girdled by a wide gold-buckled belt from which hung a saber and a broad-bladed poniard. On his clean-cut limbs were evidences of scarcely healed wounds.

In this short paragraph we see setting, character, and even some hint of the challenges that lie both before and behind the protagonist. Howard fastens our eyes upon the interesting and we do the rest. Take careful note that the description of Conan doesn’t start at the top of his head and work down. Showing someone in that manner may be an efficient way to construct a prose painting, but it is rarely how we view people. We see them in motion, reacting to the environment through which they move.

Lest you think all successful description must read like Howard, consider Lord Dunsany, writing in a very different style as a neglected rocking horse remembers its master in “Blagdaross”:

…we would pass by night through tropic forests, and come upon dark rivers sweeping by, all gleaming with the eyes of crocodiles, where the hippopotamus floated down with the stream, and mysterious craft loomed suddenly out of the dark and furtively passed away.

These two enormously gifted writers, seemingly miles apart in subject matter and style, share much in common. They let verbs do the work. They carefully avoid was, were, and other forms of “to be.” Adjectives are used precisely to convey mood. And both writers anthropomorphise.

Let’s look at the first line of Conan’s paragraph. Howard might have written “the desert was shimmering in the heat waves” or “the desert sat shimmering in the heat waves” but he wrote “the desert shimmered in the heat waves. BAM. He wasted no time conveying his image. He avoided was, he used but one verb, and he avoided the “ing” form of the verb, a present participle in this sentence (although “ing” verbs are frequently gerunds).

Careful reading shows that skilled writers use action verbs. They do not zealously strip every gerund and every to be verb from their work (successful writing is never that simple) but rather employ those forms sparingly. We don’t see “Conan the Cimmerian was looking” we see “Conan the Cimmerian stared.” In Dunsany we don’t have the “hippopatumus was floating” we have “hippopatumus floated.” Without the to be verb and the gerund clogging our way the action is conveyed directly.

Particularly egregious would be “was floating” because it wastes time with a to be verb followed by a descriptive verb. You don’t need both. Use only the verb that paints a picture in the mind of the reader. Does your character head up the stairs, or does he race, stroll, pound, drag? To “head” up the stairs provides no picture. If you state merely that “he was a tall man” you waste the potential for emotional reaction, or even simply an interesting camera angle. “He towered over the other warriors,” say. Strive for both precision and economy, but do not employ these tools to such exclusion that your prose reads like parody.

Some excellent writers slather on adjectives to wonderful effect — but overuse of adjectives is more often a sign of bad writing. In the examples above Dunsany and Howard wield adjectives shrewdly to present pictures with just two words: “dark river” and “tropic forest,” or “blackened lips” and “murderous sun.” These words instantly present images.

There are schools of thought today that instruct writers never to use anthropomorphism. This is folly. We cannot help but ascribe motivations to the unliving objects around us; it is how humans instinctively think, and writers should use this inclination to their advantage. Shakespeare certainly did, and he should be studied devotedly by any who wish to succeed at writing. Consider Macbeth, who has tomorrow creeping at its petty pace and yesterdays lighting the way to dusty death. Howard’s murderous sun and aching desolation, and Dunsany’s mysterious craft passing furtively demonstrate how ably a little unscientific attribution dresses a scene.

Pacing and description are vitally linked. Too much description during an action scene and the moment conveys no excitement, too little and the moment is confusing. In dramatic sections the sentences or phrases should be crisp and short — flowery phrasing is fine for describing a melody or a sunset, but when the pace quickens, urge the reader along with fewer words. In a scene from Leigh Brackett’s The Sword of Rhiannon the protagonist, Carse, leads slaves to rebellion:

With belaying pins, with their shackles, and with their fists, the galley slaves charged in and the soldiers met them. Carse with his whip and his knife, Jaxart howling the word Khondor like a battle-cry, naked bodies against mail, desperation against discipline.

Note how the camera pulls back; in painting terms the scene is shown in broad strokes. In other instances the camera needs to focus tightly, providing the illusion that it shows every movement (it doesn’t—the eye should still be pointed only to the crucial aspects so that the reader does the rest). Still there is an economy of words to preserve momentum. Consider this excerpt from Harold Lamb’s “The Winged Rider:”

They swerved into the fire and out again, their blackened boots smoking in the snow. Then Skal grunted. One of his ribs had broken. Ayub, grimly silent, tightened the grip of his steel-like arms.

Skal’s twisted face grew black and he screamed suddenly, choking as the breath was driven from his lungs. His arms went limp and he lay in Ayub’s grasp, his ribs cracked, his back broken.

While it should never be forgotten that all elements of a story are interlinked, when you contemplate description you should most remember precision, action, economy, and pacing.

Red Letter Days

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

Riders of the Steppes

This Friday I turned over the final, revised version of my master’s thesis, which pleased me mightily. And last Friday I received an especially pleasant surprise. What should I find pulling up to my home but a delivery truck with a box full of Harold Lamb’s Cossack stories. Volumes 1 and 2 were released last spring; volumes 3 and 4, the final books, have just been printed.

As a teenager I dreamed of being able to read all of these rare and uncollected stories, and as I slowly tracked them down over the years I dreamed of preserving them all, of finding a way to get them between book covers so that other readers and I myself could have the pleasure of holding them. My dream came true this week. It was years in the making, but it came true, and Bison Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, has presented them in lovely covers by Darrell Stevens, with a lovely interior map, and S. M. Stirling, David Drake, Eric Knight, and Harold Lamb’s cousin Barrie Tait Collins have written the introductions. I was privileged to write the forewords to each volume, for over the course of tracking down and assembling the stories and finding a publisher I’d accidentally become an authority on Harold Lamb and his work.

So who’s Lamb and what’s all the fuss? I spent an entire master’s thesis analyzing why he’s important.

In 1917 Harold Lamb was a young man writing for the pulp magazines. He broke into the prestigious Adventure and started work on a cycle of remarkable historical fiction stories set in locations as fabulous and unfamiliar to most readers as Burroughs’ Mars.

Where many adventure tales are predictable from the first word, Lamb’s plots were full of unexpected twists. He wrote convincingly of faraway lands and dealt fairly with their inhabitants, relating without bias the viewpoints of Mongols, Moslems, and Hindus. His stories are rarely profound psychological drama, but Lamb nonetheless breathed humanity into his characters, endowing them with realistic hopes and fears. Unlike almost all of his predecessors, his pacing still feels modern — he never stopped for slow exposition. His plots thunder forward as though he envisioned each one for cinema the moment he slid paper into the typewriter.

The most enduring and complex of all Lamb’s heroes was his first, Khlit the Cossack. Before Stormbringer keened in Elric’s hand, before the Gray Mouser prowled Lankhmar’s foggy streets –before even Conan trod jeweled thrones under his sandaled feet, Khlit the Cossack rode the steppe. He is the forgotten grandfather of all series sword-and-sorcery characters.

The Cossack is already old when his saga begins, late in the 16th century in the grasslands of central Asia. He is an expert horseman and swordsman, unlettered and only a step removed from barbarism, but wise in the ways of war and men. Gruff and taciturn, Khlit is a firm believer in justice and devout in his faith, though not given to prayer or religious musings. He is the friend and protector of many women, but leaves romance to his sidekicks and allies.

Lamb became one of the most popular writers for Adventure magazine and remained so for almost twenty years (he then turned to writing well-respected histories, biographies, and screenplays for Cecil B. Demille). Robert E. Howard named him as a favorite author, and many modern authors still sing his praises, but until these volumes, all of these stories have been out of print. These four books present every single Khlit the Cossack adventure, in order. Some have been unavailable since the 1930s and some have never been printed between book covers. They include all the stories of Khlit’s allies and fellow Cossacks, as well as more than a half dozen standalone Cossack stories, behind-the-scenes letters, and introductions from the aforementioned authors.

Pardon me if I sound briefly like a marketing guy, but this is great stuff, and anyone who loves heroic fiction ought to look into it. Journey now with the unsung grandfather of sword-and-sorcery in search of ancient tombs, gleaming treasure, and thrilling landscapes; match wits with deadly swordsmen, scheming priests, and evil cults; rescue lovely damsels, ride with bold comrades, and hazard everything on your brains, skill, and a little luck.

Wolf of the Steppes 

Warriors of the Steppes

Riders of the Steppes

Swords of the Steppes

I hope your Fridays will deliver good news to you as well.

Next up — either a look at my favorite adventure fantasy beginnings, or a few thoughts on making description work.



Black Gate Short Fiction Reviews

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007 | Posted by Web Master

This time out, The Virginia Quarterly Review and the new online version of Subterranean Magazine are both caught in the eagle-eyed glare of Black Gate‘s resident short fiction critic, David Soyka.

Find out what’s hot and what’s not among their latest genre offerings — including stories from Jonathan Lethem, Joyce Carol Oates, John Scalzi, R. Andrew Heidel, Poppy Z. Brite, Joe R. Lansdale, and many others.


E-submission Update — Issue 11

Saturday, April 14th, 2007 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

Reading Submissions

Responses to all e-subs sent prior to early August 2006 have now been sent out. There were a few bounces, unfortunately (although none for which I had good news). Of the 130 stories from this batch I forwarded some dozen to John O’Neill for further consideration. Since I started reading I’ve gone through a little over 550 Black Gate submissions, and of those I’ve sent some 50 on to John.

It doesn’t take too much mathematical effort to realize this means I turn over about 1 in 11 tales. Sometimes there’ll be a string of really good ones in a row and sometimes I’ll read dozens and find nothing that catches my eye. It’s not that I’m looking to pass on 1 in 11; that’s just how the numbers average out.

Because John’s currently evaluating the submissions I forwarded from the last two batches I don’t yet have solid numbers on what percentage of forwarded subs get approved, but I do know I’ve sent on more tales than we can possibly accept, and that this, of course, only accounts for half of Black Gate subs, as there are still regular, hard-copy submissions.

I thought it would be interesting to provide you with a rough statistical breakdown of those other 10 subs. After all, if I’m only passing on about 1 in 11, what’s wrong with the other 10?

  1. 1. It’s just wildly inappropriate — it’s a gangster story, moreover, it’s an entire gangster novel, or it’s modern poetry with no fantastic elements.
  2. 2. It begins with a very, very long infodump describing the history of the fantasy world, or the science fiction world, or the demon world.
  3. 3. It’s a fable or a myth that leaves us far removed from the characters.
  4. 4. It is overloaded with familiar elements like elves and quests and dragons and quests and wizards and quests OR monsters (oh no, it was REALLY a vampire!) handled in familiar ways.
  5. 5. It’s a bleak story about the end of the world and the few human survivors scrabbling over what’s left as they all die off. I’ve seen some very, very good versions of this story, but I’ve turned them away. If the point is that we’ll all die with a whimper, we won’t be publishing it, even though on some days I’m inclined to agree.
  6. 6. It opens in generic medieval tavern A and is populated by extras from D and D central casting, or begins in the midst of an adventure that reads like dungeon module B with extras from D and D central casting.
  7. 7. It’s a Twilight Zone style horror story or science fiction story where it’s all about the twist and not the characters.
  8. 8. It is dripping with adjectives but virtually devoid of character, as though whoever wrote it has been locked in a room reading Clark Ashton Smith and H. P. Lovecraft night and day for a month before putting hands to keyboard (and it must be said that it NEVER sounds as lovely as CAS, no matter how hard someone tries).
  9. 9. The writing’s good, but the story doesn’t have any fantasy or fantastic elements, or it’s all about the characters emoting rather than actually DOING something. Sometimes it’s a fine story and it’s just not an adventure.
  10. 10. The writing shows promise, but is rough around the edges. Stories like this sometimes garner a rewrite request, sometimes a “close but not quite” kind of letter, with an invitation to try again. Occassionally the writing’s quite good, but the story’s just not as original in character or world building as the last I sent on to John. These are the hardest stories to turn away, but I have to do so, because, as I mention above, we already have more good stories than we can publish.

I can usually tell in the first paragraph whether I’m going to read very far into the story. Traits like what I call “word echo” (repeated use of the same word in nearby sentences), plodding pacing, infodumps, over abundance of gerunds or adjectives, generic characters or situations, even subject matter, and the names of characters and places can clue me in pretty quickly. If my attention isn’t caught by the first page and I’ve seen weak world building or matters like those I mention above, then you’ve probably lost me and I’m on to the next. I’ve had some people get angry with me once they realize I don’t read every word of every submission, but really, if I’m not interested in the first few pages, then why would a Black Gate reader be? If my attention is caught, I keep reading. Statistically, you can see my attention is caught enough to read all the way through in only 2 or 3 out of every 11.

Oh, and if it’s really a satire on fantasy and sword-and-sorcery conventions, I won’t be interested. Our slots are few, and we want to use most of them to provide adventure, not parodies.

Coming Soon: Issue 11

There are a few hundred more submissions to go before I’ve read everything in stock, but before I can turn to those I need to make final decisions about a number of book reviews for issue 11, not to mention write a few game reviews for issue 11. By the time John’s finished looking over the forwarded e-subs and some paper subs we’ll have all the non-fiction in hand and then 11 will be just about ready for the printer, right on time.

A Tip of the Hat to Pure Fantasy

Thursday, April 12th, 2007 | Posted by Web Master

Though our Dutch is a little rusty, the Black Gate staff wants to give a well-deserved tip of the hat to Pure Fantasy magazine, and particularly co-founder Cornelis Alderlieste, who mailed us a copy of issue 7.

A blend of fiction, reviews, and news (we think), Pure Fantasy is one of the most visually impressive magazines we’ve seen in a long time. At 162 pages, perfect bound on high-quality paper, it’s equal in heft to Black Gate — and in terms of design and layout, it’s a notch or two better. Pure Fantasy is a work of art, with stunning production values and professional art throughout. Issue 7 (pictured at left) has cover art by Camille Kuo.

Pure Fantasy [is] an idea and initiative that was developed with Black Gate in the back of our minds,” writes Cornelis. “Well, at least in my mind… I think you will find that both PF and BG have a lot in common, and I hope you don’t mind we snatched some of BG‘s basics. Keep up the good work, and most importantly keep inspiring people all over the world to create good fiction.”

If you’re looking for something new in European fantasy — or simply want to see just how professional the small press can be in the hands of a small group of talented and dedicated writers and editors — we urge you to support a fine new magazine and try Pure Fantasy. We guarantee you’ll be impressed.

Black Gate 10 in the Mail

Monday, April 9th, 2007 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

Breaking (Stuffing) the Envelopes

I spoke with John O’Neill today from our rooftop headquarters overlooking downtown Chicago. The undead minions finished stuffing the envelopes with copies of Black Gate and shambled over to the post office Saturday. Subscribers should receive their copies of the issue soon. As mentioned previously, preview snippets can be found here:

Having dispelled the eldritch creatures, John is now reading through physical submissions as well as a number of fine stories I’ve forwarded to him from the e-submissions. I, meanwhile, still have about 100 responses to write before I can dive into the next batch of e-subs. Following that I need to wrap-up choices for the book reviews for issue 11 and write up a few game reviews for that volume as well, because it’s going out in short order.


Last year was a busy one for me and I fell behind on all of my fiction writing goals (moving and writing a master’s thesis will suck up your time, believe me). I’ve been doing much better this year. The problem is that markets keep closing, and responses are slow. I thought many of you would appreciate that I too am on the receiving end of long response times. I was pleased to learn a story I’d submitted last year was accepted at BAEN’s Universe, but disappointed to learn that they’d closed to submissions for a few months. As a result, I sent the follow-up I penned for them over to Weird Tales. I bopped back by the WT site today to verify that I’d followed the submission procedure correctly, only to discover that the Weird Tales site seems to have gone missing. Alas. I assume that it is only temporary.


Black Gate 10 Printed

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2007 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

Black Gate 10 is Out!

Black Gate 10 has been printed and is now off to the distributor. It should be appearing in retail outlets like Barnes & Noble, Walden’s Books, Borders, and other book stores within the next week or two. Keep your eyes sharp!

If your local retail outlet doesn’t carry the issue, order it from our home page (

Don’t forget, for a sneak peak at what’s in store, drop by here:

And lest you forget, Black Gate 11 really is around the corner.

Submissions Update

Responses for the e-subs up through middle of August of 2006 started going out this week and will continue to follow just as quickly as I can compose them. I wrote several dozen last night and would have written more but, hey, I needed to sleep.


Exciting New Development

Sunday, April 1st, 2007 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

We received word this weekend that John O’Neill’s musical, ROUNDHEADS! has been optioned by an off-broadway company in New York. Hugh Jackman is reportedly interested in the role of Oliver Cromwell; negotiations are still under way for Walt Disney to play the part of King Charles.

We’ll keep you updated as we learn more!


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