I just finished reading Edward Lee’s The Golem. This is my first encounter with any of Edward Lee’s work. I believe every author should have two chances, so Ed Lee has one left. To me, the book read like a first draft, but I’ll get to that.

We don’t see the golem used much in popular fiction. I can only recall one instance where I’ve seen it used–an old episode of the X-Files called Kaddish. Lee brings the reader a modern version of an old Jewish folk tale based on Judah Loew, a 16th century rabbi who created a golem to defend a Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks. Lee brings the folktale to life with vibrant rituals and an exploration of a dark sect of Kabbalah based on Kischuph. The story revolves around the small town of Lowensport, Maryland. In 1880, a group of Jewish refugees from Prague,  led by the evil rabbi Gavriel Loew, construct two golems to defend themselves from the attack of the Conner clan, a local group of settlers lead by an ex-military deserter. The story is told in parallel with the present-day tale of Seth Kohn and his girlfriend Judy, who move into the old Lowen mansion and find themselves in the middle of a plan by Gavriel’s great-great-great grandson to resurrect Gavriel as a golem and–you guessed it–take over the world, or at least small part of it.

I think the book presents an interesting bit of folklore, but aside from that, I didn’t find much appealing here. I don’t know if this work is representative of Mr. Lee’s style (I’ll have to read another to decide), but I had difficulty in getting into the book because of the language. The book is riddled with adverbs, which isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself but Lee uses them to such an extent that I found myself struggling to visualize much of anything in the book. For instance, twice in the work Lee uses the word ‘paranoically’ to describe two different characters.

“Of course!” But then [Judy] looked paranoically behind her. (pg. 24)

And

Czanek looked paranoically over his shoulder again. (pg. 52)

In both instances, Lee provides the action (the showing)–both characters look over their shoulder. The reader sees what the characters are doing and the context provides the tension. What does the word ‘paranoically’ bring to the reader? The reader is bumped from the story with such an awkward word. These are two instances, but they are representative of the work’s style. I found myself jostled from the story with almost every turn of the page. This is what made the book feel like a first draft. I think the language could have been cleaned up and more appropriate description put in to help draw the reader deep into the story.

In addition to the language, I struggled with some key things Lee chose to focus on in the story. The reader gets two pages describing the video game Seth wrote and sold to make his millions, but the game itself has very little to do with the storyline. The reader also gets a lot of time spent on Switchgrass, the local cash crop, but again, other than providing a setting for characters to hide in, the Switchgrass and its use as a biofuel has little to do with the story. Whats more, the way the reader finds out many of these details was bothersome. Judy, being an ex-college professor, seems to know a bit about everything. Whenever the reader needs an explanation, or even when the reader doesn’t, Judy pipes up to give details. Yet, when she’s walking through the Switchgrass, the reader gets a strange gap in her knowledge:

Watch for snakes, she recalled the remarks of the man from the state. This new path was barely shoulder width. Did ticks live in switchgrass? No, she didn’t think so. (pg. 194)

We get pages of infodump from this character, but when it comes to something as trivial as ticks, she seems at a loss.

So, style aside, is there a good story here? It’s interesting in terms of the ritual and folklore of the golem, but I found myself struggling to care about what happened to any of these characters.

First, the 1880 story centers around a group of black-magic Jewish refugees (evil guys) locked in a struggle the Conner clan, with a group of local settlers led by an ex-military deserter and his cohorts (evil). I found neither side appealing, so I had no one to root for. Both sides wind up wiping each other out, leaving a single golem. I found nothing redeeming in the people on either side of this conflict. I initially had some sympathy for the Jewish refugees until it became clear that they were ousted by their own people in Prague because of their adherence to Kischuph. So while there’s some satisfaction in having a bunch of bad guys kill each other, there’s no one left at the end that I cared about.

The present-day story centers on Seth Kohn and his girlfriend Judy. Seth is a game designer lost his wife two years earlier and struggled through a bout of alcoholism. His girlfriend is an ex-college professor who struggled with crack addiction. They met in rehab. But when the story opens, both have recovered, Seth has made millions on his video game, and they buy Seth’s dream home near Lowensport, Maryland. These people have everything, so I also had trouble sympathizing with either of them. During the course of the story, Judy falls off the wagon and gets raped several times by local drug dealers as part of the plot to recover Gavriel Lowen’s head from the mansion, but by the time this all happens I, as a reader, have already disconnected from her as a character.

Compare these two with the main characters in Nate Kenyon’s novel Bloodstone. Billy Smith is an ex-convict, guilty of drunk driving and manslaughter. Billy is paired with Gloria Johnson, a heroin addict and hooker. These are sympathetic characters at low points in their lives, victims of circumstance to a degree. The reader cares about Billy, who has done his time but still lives burdened by the guilt of his crime. The reader cares about Gloria, a victim of drug addiction who, at the start of the story, is near the end of her rope. We cheer them on, we want them to get better.

Overall, I think The Golem provides little in the way of a good writing or good story telling. But I have to admit, if this book is ever made into a move, I will watch it. I think there are some visually stunning scenes: the Kischuph ritual of golemancy, the dynamiting of the mill, and of course the murderous mayhem inflicted by the golems. I have a deep love for horror movies, and I’m much more forgiving of story in exchange for the visual appeal.

I look forward to giving Lee’s work another chance. If you have suggestions of what is representative of Lee’s writing, post a comment. I’d love to hear from you!

Part of being a professional writer is ensuring your submissions meet format guidelines. William Shunn developed a set of format guidelines, originally published in December 1998 edition of Writers Write: The Internet Writing Journal. He also provides a set of templates on his site, but unfortunately they are only for WordPerfect. I use OpenOffice.

I decided to create my own templates based on his guidelines and offer them here for all to use. I emailed Mr. Shunn several times over the past year to ask permission to post these, and never received a response. I decided to go ahead and offer them anyhow, and if Mr. Shunn objects, I will remove them.

Shunn has three format guidelines: Short Story, Novel, and Poem. While I write poetry for my own amusement, I don’t try to market it, so my templates only include Short Story and Novel. If there’s enough interest in a Poem template, I’ll add it.

Instructions

  1. Download the zip: Shunn OpenOffice Templates
  2. Extract to any directory. You should see two files: “Shunn Novel Format.ott” and “Shunn Short Story Format.ott”
  3. In OpenOffice Writer, select File >> Templates >> Organize from the menu.
  4. In the left-hand pane, double-click “My Templates” from the list.
  5. On the right-hand side, select Commands >> Import Templates….
  6. Browse to the extracted files and select one. It should now appear in the left-hand pane under “My Templates”.
  7. Repeat steps 5 and 6, selecting the other file.

That’s it! You should now be able create a new document by selecting File >> New >> Templates and Documents. You should now have two new templates listed!

I am also working on a set of templates for Microsoft Word since I sometimes use it as well.

Leave comments if you have questions or suggestions for improvement!

I just finished reading Tom Piccirilli’s A Choir of Ill Children–for the second time.  I read it back in February and decided that to do it any justice, I needed to set it aside and reread it.  It’s not an overly complex book, but I’m not used to the Southern style.  The last book I read that felt stylistically similar was Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying–over fifteen years ago.

The first thing that I noticed is the uniqueness of every character.  I was familiar with the book prior to reading it, and had an admittedly biased expectation that at least some of the characters would be backwater rednecks.  Piccirilli, however, invests each character with a distinct personality that I don’t believe fit any stereotypes.  Further, I expected at least some of the dialog to have poor diction.  Again, I was totally wrong.  Most of the dialog uses good diction–Piccirilli makes very prudent use of “ain’t”s throughout, for which I’m grateful.

But–why did I have those expectations?  As a reader, I’m not sure I would have ever noticed the very subtle use of regional dialect.  As a writer, however, I noticed it because I often fail at capturing dialect or using it properly.  Reading Piccirilli’s book has made me aware that my failure comes in large part from personal bias.  I’m born and bred mid-west; I’ve lived in Ohio my whole live, though I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to many states and abroad.  But still, part of me connects southern dialect with uneducated, not through any conscious decision, but simply from my experiences (or lack thereof).

But the characters presented in A Choir of Ill Children are anything but uneducated.  They lack formal education, but are full of the knowledge and experience life offers in such a setting.  We’re told as much in one section where Thomas, the main character, reflects the fallacy of his father who built schools for the county:

The schools sat empty until the storm and wind damage wore them away inch by inch.  You couldn’t blame the people of Potts County just because the board of education hadn’t offered any kind of a useful curriculum.  Chemistry in a tube wasn’t pertinent. The wheel of the universe didn’t turn when the cream went bad. Logarithms, geometry, and algebra did not apply to the height of the river during flood season. (p. 24)

So throughout the story we find characters who speak with very little regional dialect, which I believe helps the reader see them as honest people and not just a collection of rednecks.

So if these aren’t rednecks, who are they?  Piccirilli presents a truly unique and memorable collection:  a biker obsessed with fencing, a pair of drug-addled film students, a monastery dedicated to The Flying Walendas, backwater granny witches who fight to stave off storms, a child molester and the ghost of one of his victims, and a mute girl who appears from nowhere.  There is also Thomas, heir to a huge house, a sizable family fortune, and The Mill–the town’s only sustainable business.  The story is told from Thomas’s point of view, in present tense, with calm clarity and deep inquiry into the events that surround him.

Thomas also has three brothers, which I hesitate to count as more than a single character,  conjoined at the frontal lobe, sharing a pineal gland, and at times speaking as one although each has a distinct voice as well.  Ah, this must be the backwater, uneducated redneck of the book.  Well, no:

Sebastian is full of malice, Jonah with regret, and Cole speaks of love and nothing but love, no matter how hideous his words. (p. 1)

Interesting.  Or how about:

My brothers speak as one, each mouth working like a pipe organ, playing a different portion of their communal speech.  It’s the way that the brain works.  The “ch” goes to Sebastian, along with the glottal noises, “uh” and “ooh,” “ing,” names of foreign countries and pronouns, anything that brings the teeth together.

Jonah gets the hisses, the “ph” and drawn-out orgasmic “eeeeeee,” titles of symphonies and sit-coms, all the poetry.

Cole is left with the growls and hard consonants, the adverbs, numbers following ten, dirty words, colors, sweet nothing, and every predicate. (p. 5)

Now that’s one (or is it three) intriguing character.  So what’s this guy sound like when he speaks?  Just a sample:

Jonah’s up there already beginning to squawk and croon, the poetry pouring into the air.  “For where she lies, my swept drifted spirit follows, the course unmatched and not known, nor cared for, whether it dies or is kept…” (p. 22)

And again, later, Thomas describes Jonah’s poetry as he tries to woo Sarah (one of the drug-addled film students):

His sonnets have poorly stressed syllables but the meaning is worthy.  He has talents that would have meant something a century ago. (p. 90)

So very clearly this, the most deformed character in the book, is not a redneck but a complex character who is more than capable of the full range of human emotion.  This is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting and challenging characters I have ever encountered in horror.  I think Piccirilli plays against the reader’s bias, particularly in this case, to develop interesting characters that the reader can relate to.

Later in the story, Velma Coots (a granny witch) tries to convince Thomas to give some of his sperm for a brew to stave of a storm of souls.  Their brief dialog is follows, with Thomas speaking first:

“What the hell do you want from me?” I ask.

“Jest a little blood and vinegar, there, in the pot.”

“Vinegar?”

“Some of yer seed.”

“My seed?”

“Sperm.”

“You’ve got to be shittin’ me.” (p. 51)

I call this out to because Velma Coots’s diction, a backwater witch, has minimal dialect–just two words of improper English: jest, and yer.  Even this woman’s dialog is kept relatively clean, letting the reader focus more on what’s being said than how it’s being said.

Another example of fine dialog is found when Thomas speaks with Abbot Earl of The Holy Order of the Flying Walendas, a man who used to drive a bulldozer for Thomas’s father.  Abbot Earl wants to discuss Lucretia Murteen with Thomas, a prominent nun of the order who the Abbot was once intimate with.  Thomas tells the Abbot he has nothing to be ashamed of, and Abbot Earl replies:

“And I’m not, to be sure.  But it’s also true that she’s been acting…reticent lately.  Perhaps a bit taciturn.  She refuses to tell me what’s bothering her.  I’m afraid that these troubles are actually making her consider leaving us.” (p. 86)

Once again, through using words like “reticent” and “taciturn”, Piccirilli shows the reader that this man is not just some dumb redneck who runs a strange cult of acrobat worshipers.  The word choice gives the reader a sense of depth to the character.

The last character I want to touch on is Darr, a biker who has a couple run-ins with Thomas.  On their second encounter, Darr and Thomas come face-to-face, and Darr asks Thomas a question:

“You know what I simply cannot stand?” he asks me.

“I’ll play along since this has the structure of a rhetorical question.  What is it that you cannot stand?”

“Fencing.”

I clear my throat.  ”Fencing?”

“Watching fencers who have no notion of the hardcore reality behind the art form.  They think it’s a sport, the damn fools.  Or worse, some kind of performance they’re putting on for their mamas, like ballet or synchronized swimming.  It was never meant to be a sport.  You’ve got to have convictions to live with the blade.  Belief.  True belief, that’s it, that’s what I’m talking about.  But those players, they might as well be shooting hoops or sliding into third base.  They never embrace the…the tenets, the ideology behind that discipline.”

“I can’t say that I have an opinion one way or the other.”

“Trust what I’m tellin’ you.  No matter how much training they go in for they always got that swashbuckling bullshit fantasy going on in their heads.  No way around that for most of ‘em.  They feel gallant sashaying around with their Musketeer sword, lunging after each other on the mats, shouting in French like it means somthin’ special when they can’t even pronounce the words.  With those silly helmets on over their faces, you shouldn’t be caught dead in one’a them, and the machines buzzing when they tap each other on the chests.” (p. 119-120)

Now clearly this biker has not only been exposed to fencing–something most would consider an upper class sport–but he’s put the time into contemplating the sport and how it relates to him.  This, and the subsequent dialog, give Thomas (and the reader) a unique insight into this biker character:

Not only does Darr expect the world to handle itself but he’s also got high hopes for the logic of his assertions to eventually come to validity all on their own.  Maybe he’s talking in metaphor.  I wonder if this is some vague attempt at intimidation. (p. 121)

Is that a threat?  How does one respond to a man like this?  I think Thomas’s reaction reinforces Darr’s character by matching closely what most people would think.

I have one more section of dialog to call out.  Whether Piccirilli meant this to reinforce the idea that the people of Potts County are anything but uneducated, or whether he simply meant it to be funny I can’t say.  But to me, it works well in both ways.  This is an exchange between some minor characters in Leadbetter’s, the local bar.  One character, Verbal Raynes, was recently left by Gloria, a woman who has decided to return to her husband Harry.  Gloria and Harry left for a second honeymoon, and left their kids with poor Verbal:

“No wonder she and Harry are lookin’ so sprightly these last couple weeks.  I thought it was just ‘cause they were heading to the Caymans, but–”

“The hell’s the Caymans?  That near Gainesville?”

“Western Caribbean, a peaceful British Crown Colony known as the Cayman Islands.”

“What?”

“Consists of three islands just 480 miles south of Miami.  The Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac, and Little Cayman.”

“Goddamn!”

“Me and Deeder went down there once, few years back, after the insurance settlement came through for when we caught the game warden illegally tapping our phones.”

I found the interjection on the Caymans funny and revealing.  These people don’t all just sit around the bar drinking (well, maybe most of the time) but have been exposed to the world at least enough to know that there’s a bigger world out there.

The last thing I would like to touch on is the story itself.  I said I had to read it twice, and I believe this will be a book I pick up every year or so to reread because I have trouble understanding exactly what the story is about.  And I realized why on the second reading.  Piccirilli poses so many story questions, using a setting and characters that feel like a fevered dream, that I struggled to keep track of what all the events meant.  But on this second reading, I realized that not all the events are necessarily important to the story.  Piccirilli admits as much in the last chapter, where Thomas reflects on the events and goes through all the unanswered story questions and dismisses them in one way or another.  Normally, I would say that it’s bad form to leave major story events unanswered, but in this case I can accept it.  I think many of the unanswered events serve to build the characters and setting and need no explanation.  But the risk is overwhelming the reader with questions and not satisfying them at the end.

This is one helluva ghost story.

This is the last of a three-part journal on How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Edited by J. N. Williamson, a collection of How-To articles by some of the best horror writers, circa 1987. Part one covered chapters 1-8; part two covered chapters 9-18.

The advice found in these final chapters still mirrors advice found in the wonderful On Writing Horror, another collection of How-To articles by some of horror’s best writers circa 2007.   But here’s one thing I’ve learned from reading both books (and a slew of other How-To books) that’s not actually in either.  I’m sick of reading How-To books on writing.  In my genre session during last writer’s residency, Dr. Arnzen commented that if all you read are how-to books, then all you’ll be able to write are how-to books.  I’ve grown to appreciate his statement.  With that, let me get through this and hopefully I’ll be done with anything How-To for a while.

Sexist Stereotypes and Archetypes: What to Do with Them/What the Writing Woman Can Hope For, Jeannette M. Hopper

Hopper starts off with the keen observation that women and men are different kinds of creators and then questions where sexism exists in publishing today (circa 1987).  She provides three traditional roles of female characters in SF/F/H and gives a nice breakdown of each.

The stereotypes she discusses didn’t interest me much.  I try to avoid stereotypes, be they gender or otherwise, in my writing once I became aware that I was using them–mostly as a result of picking stock characters.  They’re relevant and still a problem today (think of the helpless victim), but I feel I’m taking all the right steps to avoid promoting them in my work.  The section closes with advice of making your characters unique–advice found time and again in work about characters and characterization.

What did catch my attention, though was her discussion on what struggles a woman writer faces.  She talks about how it’s easy for a new woman writer to “blame her lack of success on others’ prejudices.”  To me, this argument parallels that of getting published requires being “in the club.”  And she uses pretty much the same objections: editors buy good stories.  Hopper also provides some interesting discussion on whether there’s intentionally balancing of male and female protagonists, and pretty much boils it back down to the same idea:  editors buy good stories.

So if you want to get published, write a good story.

“They Laughed When I Howled at the Moon”, Richard Christian Matheson

Matheson’s piece addresses the closeness of humor and horror.  He makes his point with a discussion on Ed Gein, and how jokes popped up pretty much all over Wisconsin within hours of the first news stories.  Except for the town where Ed lived and did his dirty work.  Why?  Matheson says the tension there was too great for anyone to find the humor.

His point is that getting humor into horror requires just the right amount of tension.  Too much or too little and the humor is lost.  I find that the humor surfaces by itself as I write–which in my case is not often, but I’m okay with that.  I find one way is to let the characters break tension with their own form of humor.

The Psychology of Horror and Fantasy Fiction, Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D.

Ramsland’s article was a little difficult for me, as she had a lot of psychoanalytical language in it.  But, I did get some bits from it that I could relate to.  She supports the idea that horror springs from isolation, and gives a unique bent on the idea that it springs from the fact that we can never truly know ourselves because our current moment of experience can never be understood… man, or something like that.  Anyhow, however she choose to put it, the idea still comes through.  Isolation is a fundamental part of the human experience, and it terrifies us.  Horror gives us a place to explore the fear of isolation, and related fears, in relative safety, engaging them vicariously through the characters.  And I think she says this goes for both reader and writer, but that the writer goes beyond.

So, for the storyteller, dark fantasy goes beyond just the function of contacting the primal self; it launches him across the spectrum where human existence shades into nothingness, closer and closer to the vulnerability of total individual isolation in the face of destructive forces.

As my work has grown, I have noticed some patterns that show my own fears of isolation.  And as I’ve noticed those patterns, I see what makes my work stronger–tackling them head on.

Fantasy and Faculty X, Colin Wilson

When a writer says to himself, “I have an interesting problem…,” he induces in himself the same state of mind a child feels when his mother says, “Once upon a time…”  This is the proper starting point of any novel.

Wilson presents an interesting view on the writer’s mindset.  He tells us that we have to get right into the scene, become a part of it, and fully visualize it.  He compares the this technique to something called Faculty X, an ability to put oneself into another time and place, which he coined for one if his books.  The visualization advice is not new to me, but Wilson provided some pretty cool supporting scientific background on the idea.

He tells us how the brain is split into two halves–most of us know this already–each with its own set of abilities.  The left is considered the seat of logic and scientific ability, while the right is considered the seat of artistry and conceptualization.  He cites research by Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga that determined that what we consider ourselves is the left half.  Most of us are out of touch with the right half.  Further, they discovered that the two halves run at different speeds: the right is slow and the left is fast.  And here’s the neat part: the writer (or any productive artist for that matter) works best when the two halves run at the same speed and freely communicate.

I have spent much time trying to figure out why sometimes I can fall into my writing and other times I cannot.  I knew vaguely that it had to do with being relaxed, although I also found that much of the time I can get right into it when I’m all jazzed up on caffeine–clearly not a relaxed state.  Wilson provides an important answer:

There are two basic methods for re-establishing contact between the two selves.  One is to soothe yourself into a deep state of relaxation, so the left slows down.  The other is to stimulate yourself into a state of intense excitement–the younger generation does it with loud music and strobe lights–so the right begins to move faster.  Both these techniques have the same effect; the two halves are like two trains running on parallel tracks at exactly the same speed, so the passengers can lean out of the window and talk…

While what Wilson says may seem simple, it helped me understand that I can use different techniques to achieve the same state of a synchronized mind and get into my writing.  And the more I’ve thought about it, the more convinced I am that the excited state works better for me.  I’m going to get another cup of coffee…

A “Do” List for Getting Your Literary Agent, Mary T. Williamson

Williamson’s article is pretty standard advice for getting an agent, and why you need an agent.  There are a series of recent posts by Jim C. Hines that support the idea using some survey results:  First Novel Survey Results.  Pretty much, the best bet for getting a novel published (assuming you’ve written a good novel) is through an agent.

So the rest of the article gives tips on things like writing a query letter, submitting only what you’re asked for, and being professional in general.  There’s another point to the process that Williamson doesn’t state directly, but I think is very important for writers to recognize.  The process is there to ensure quality, but it is also serves to gauge how easy an author is to work with.  No one wants to work with a jerk (trust me).  Follow the process, listen to instructions, and work with your agent.  Getting through the process takes time, but the process is there for a reason.  The agent will buffer you from the business aspects and let you concentrate on writing.

Putting It on the Editor’s Desk, Alan Rodgers

Rodgers’ article falls in line with the previous one by Williamson.  He provides a list of process considerations the writer should follow when submitting work to an editor.  With respect to format, that’s pretty easy:  use a standard one.  I use William Shunn’s Proper Manuscript Format guide, and have even developed a set of OpenOffice templates from his guides (he provides templates for WordPerfect).

Rodgers is undecided on a cover letter, and I have no opinion yet either.  I haven’t gotten that far in the game yet.  I hope to have an agent handle all that stuff for me, but we’ll see.

I found the next part a little funny.  This article is copyright 1987, and that’s pretty obvious once Rodgers gets into the protocol around copies.  With the advent of home printers, whether or not to send a copy is an unlikely question.  Most people will simply print another copy, or take it to Kinko’s (er… FedEx Office) and have another copy run off on high-quality bond.  For any agent or editor out there still concerned, relax–I won’t be sending you a carbon copy anything soon.  I promise.

The last thing Rodgers covers is simultaneous submissions.  I think that’s pretty simple to address today as well, with the major market guides being available online or at the local library.  Rule of thumb still holds true, though: no simultaneous submissions.  Unfortunately, that’s part of what makes the process of getting either an agent or an editor so long.

The Mechanics and Mystique of Submitting Your Novel, Patrick LoBrutto

Continuing in the vein of the publishing process, LoBrutto brings advice on submitting a novel.  Much of it aligns with the previous two articles–get an agent and follow instructions.  He also makes mention of some outdated items such as don’t send dot-matrix printouts (I still remember the harsh buzz and scrap of my first dot-matrix printer).  Don’t give the editor or agent a reason to toss your manuscript aside unread.  Submit professional quality work.  All of this advice falls under what he calls the “Writer of the Past”, meaning the long, hard road to publication as an unknown.

The second part LoBrutto calls the “Writer of the Future”.  The advice he provides isn’t about some secret shortcut around the publication process; it’s about how to eliminate the element of being an unknown.  And his advice boils down to two words: meet people.  LoBrutto recommends attending conventions and conferences.  Put in some face time with the industry.  Meet the people you might send work to.  Name recognition helps.

On the subject of conferences, LoBrutto says that at least in SF, the people who attend can be cliquey.  Those who attend alone can find themselves feeling left out.  I had such an experience the first time I attended the Context convention.  I don’t blame anyone there–I chose to go alone, and I had a great time at the workshops.  But, I would have felt much more at ease if I had taken a friend with me.  It’s like going to any big party–it’s always more fun when you know someone there.

If LoBrutto were writing this article today, I suspect he would also suggest using social media tools like Twitter and Facebook to make connections.  You don’t have to say a lot or be everyone’s friend, but I’ve found encouragement in seeing how wide a social net I have and how many industry connections I can make through these tools.  A writer needs to build a platform, and that means getting name recognition.  Use whatever ethical and reasonable means you can to get your face out there.

At first, this might seem contradictory to the “club” mentality–that it’s who you know that gets you published.  But I don’t think so.  There’s a fine line between being with the “in-crowd” and name recognition.  You can build name recognition without being everyone’s friend.  I don’t have to be able to call up an agent on their personal line any time I want to have name recognition.  You can have name recognition and not be liked.  I guess to me that’s the difference.  You don’t have to like me, but I want you to recognize my name and the work that’s associated with it.

Darkness Absolute: The Standards of Excellence in Horror Fiction, Douglas E. Winter

Last term I read Winter’s insightful book on King, Stephen King: The Art of Darkness.  I found this article equally insightful because he approaches his topic not as a series of rules, but as a series of principles.  Where rules enforce boundaries, principles offer guidance.  A subtle, yet important, difference.  Winter tells us there is no recipe for success when it comes to quality fiction, but that a developing writer can grow their skill by applying these principles.  He also makes it clear that his advice isn’t about achieving fame and fortune, and that bestsellerdom “is more often the result of extrinsic factors.”  The more I’ve studied the publishing industry and what it takes to be a novelist, the more I’ve come to believe this as well.  I believe King said in On Writing, that his Carrie deal was like winning the lottery.

I’m going to stop here.  Why?  I’ve already done a piece on this article in part five of my series on On Writing Horror.  But, I left that earlier paragraph because it seems I’ve learned a little something since I read this article the first time.  And, I think this article demonstrates what I’ve said many times already: much of the advice you find on writing is timeless.  Markets change, genres blend, but the skills and mindset needed to be a writer have stayed pretty much the same over the years–at least in the 20 years that separate these two books, and most likely for longer.  So, here’s what I originally said of this article:

I like how Winter starts.  He says there is no recipe for success, but there are principles that provide guidance.  Again, he repeats items found elsewhere, but I think that’s okay.  I think it’s more than okay, actually.  The repetition is a demonstration of the truth, and for all of these writers to say the same thing should indicate that it’s advice worth taking.

Winter offers the following principles:

  • Originality is unachievable if all you do is imitate.  Be familiar with the genre, admire other authors, but don’t try to write like them.
  • Originality cannot be taught.  Is is something we each much discover.
  • Horror is an emotion, not a genre.  Study across genres and look for horror in other places.
  • Readers must have an emotional stake in the characters.  Make the reader care.  Give the reader the characters’ perception.
  • Juxtaposition of normal and abnormal is much more effective when the normal, or ordinary, is the more pervasive.
  • Everyday life may be mundane, but it is also the mystery at the core of humanity.  The fundamental questions we all ask have no answer.  Likewise, modern horror is not about the explanation.  It is about the mystery itself.
  • Know the boundaries between good taste, bad taste, and taboo - not to stay in one and out of the other, but to make the boundary crossing a conscious decision.  A good horror writer will cross the boundaries.  (I like this one.  I like crossing boundaries and showing people what’s on the other side.)
  • Concentrate not only on shock, or not on shock at all, but on the emotions.  Being suggestive can have more impact than being explicit.
  • Don’t be afraid to add social commentary or subtext to the story.
  • Be subversive.  Conformity as salvation is a thing of the past, modern horror sees conformity as ‘the ultimate horror’.
  • Great horror is rarely about monsters.  It is about us.
  • The ending must payout as well as payback.  I think that means the ending must survive the cynical sensibilities of the modern reader.  It’s not enough for some neat and tidy solution to wrap things up any more.  Endings can be messy.  I like what he says about the conclusion: “…it is the vehicle by which the reader is awakened from your nightmare and returned to his workaday world.”

Writing horror is a forward-facing activity.  We can build on foundations, but as writer’s we should be aware that horror lies not in the tropes, but in the emotions those old tropes used to evoke.  How do we go about invoking those emotions in the modern-day reader?  That’s a question I’ll probably be asking myself the rest of my life.

I’m still trying to figure that last one out.  Give me time, for chrissakes!  It’s only been six months since I read it the first time!

Overview of Horror, SF and Fantasy: A long-range Market Study, Janet Fox

And here we are at the end of yet another wonderful series of How-To articles.  How better to end than with the most important part of writing popular fiction: the markets.

Fox uses most of the article to give a core listing of markets to help the new writer explore the field.  But she introduces it with some alternative sources and markets.  She suggests networking, regional magazines, children’s magazine, and tells us that speculative fiction could potentially fit into any market–she cites anecdotal evidence of friends selling to biker magazines.  And she’s right.  Good fiction succeeds anywhere it’s relevant, not just in the genre magazines.

Since this was mostly market listings, I decided to do a little study of my own.  How many of the markets listed by Fox are still operating today?  This may not be entirely correct, as I only did my fact checking on Duotrope’s Digest, Wikipedia, and Google.

Still in operation:

  1. Analog (magazine): http://www.analogsf.com/
  2. Isaac Asimov’s SF Magazine (magazine - Asimov’s): http://www.asimovs.com/
  3. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (magazine - F&SF): http://www.sfsite.com/fsf
  4. Sword and Sorceress (anthology): http://www.mzbworks.com/
  5. Baen Books (publisher): http://www.baen.com/
  6. Bantam Books (publisher - Bantam Dell): http://www.randomhouse.com/bantamdell/
  7. DAW Books (publisher - under Penguin Group): http://us.penguingroup.com/static/pages/daw/index.html
  8. Del Ray Books (publisher): http://www.randomhouse.com/delrey/
  9. The Donning Company/Publishers (publisher): http://www.donning.com/
  10. Leisure Books (publisher - imprint of Dorchester Publishing): http://www.dorchesterpub.com/
  11. Tor Books (publisher): http://www.tor.com/
  12. Space and Time (magazine & publisher): http://www.spaceandtimemagazine.com/

Not in operation (or at least not on Duotrope):

  1. Aboriginal SF (magazine):  1986 - 2001
  2. Amazing Stories(magazine): 1926 - 2005
  3. Dragon Magazine (magazine): 1976 - 2007
  4. Night Cry(magazine): 1985 - 1987
  5. Omni(magazine): 1979 - 1995
  6. Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Magazine (magazine): 1981 - 1989
  7. Shadows (anthology): 1978 - 1981
  8. Synergy: The New Review of Science Fiction (anthology): 1987 - 2004 (?)
  9. Fantasy Book (magazine):  ? - ? (couldn’t find them on the web)
  10. Fantasy Macabre (magazine): 1980 - 1996
  11. Grue (magazine): 1953 - 2004 (?)
  12. The Horror Show (magazine): ? - ? (David B. Silva now runs Hellnotes)
  13. Pandora (magazine): ? - ? (couldn’t find them on the web)
  14. Eldritch Tales (magazine): 1978 - 1995
  15. Weirdbook (magazine): 1984 - 1997

A little more than half of the markets Fox listed in 1987 are gone.  But what that tells us is that the markets are ever-changing.  If you search Duotrope for horror markets, it comes back with 265 primary results, so there are still plenty of places publishing horror.

That’s it for this book.  In the next week or so, I’ll be posting a journal on Tom Piccirilli’s A Choir of Ill Children.  I would have done it sooner, but man… I had to read it twice.

This is part two of a three-part journal on How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Edited by J. N. Williamson, a collection of How-To articles by some of the best horror writers, circa 1987.  Part one covered chapters 1-8.

In my first post, I mentioned how strikingly similar the advice is to that found in On Writing Horror, another collection of How-To articles by some of horror’s best writers circa 2007.  I’ve still found this to hold true.  I don’t mean that as a slight against either work, as the essays in both are unique to the authors.  For me, this reinforces that the advice found within each work has a certain timeless quality to it even though markets have changed.

Stepping Into the Shadows, Charles Grant

Grant opens by telling us that the main purpose of horror “is to tell a story that will, somewhere along the line, give the reader a chill, a shiver, a good scare.”  Without that, the story won’t work.  In order to set up a situation that will deliver, Grant prefers “shadows more than daylight.”

What Grant is getting at is that horror is not about the shock value.  While shock can and often does have its place in modern horror, it is not the purpose.  Well-described scenes of violence are, in Grant’s words, “unimaginative and untalented”.  The reaction to such scenes are not fear, but revulsion.  Shock is but one tool in the toolbox of the horror writer.

Grant prescribes three elements for good horror, all of which he feels must be present.

The first element is sympathetic characters.  We must have characters that are likable.  Or if not entirely likable, the characters must be someone the reader cares about.

The second element is tension.  We can’t just throw the reader into the midst of the storm, we must let them see it brewing on the horizon first.

The last element is fantasy.  Grant is talking about avoiding rehashing old monsters.  To keep our horror fresh, we must use fresh monsters.  Monsters are literalizations of our fear.  Grant’s main point here is that we can keep our monsters fresh by working with the unknown.

I think Grant is right about these three elements, and I also agree that while shock is a tool in the horror writer’s toolbox, it is by no means the necessary for good horror.  One of the reasons I love H. P. Lovecraft is that he often keeps the horror out of sight, leaving the most frightening aspects for the work of the reader’s imagination.

Innocence and Terror–The Heart of Horror, Robert R. McCammon

Horror is about the human condition.  McCammon finds an excellent example for this premise in “A Christmas Carol”.  But it seems that even back in 1987 horror carried the stigma of being little more than shock and gore.  Yeah, I know, probably even well before 1987 horror carried this stigma.  But McCammon has a great point, that horror is more than raw emotion.  In order for it to do its job well, horror must also appeal to the intellect.

Humanity is what’s missing from bad horror fiction.  How can a reader feel the delicious anticipation of fear if the book has no humanity, if the characters aren’t real enough to reach out and touch, if the world that book represents is not detailed and colored and lavished with attention?

McCammon also refers to innocence, which one may find a strange topic for horror.  The concept raised my curiosity.  What he’s referring to, though, isn’t necessarily the innocence of the characters, but the sense of wonder the author brings to the work.  I think this ties back to Grant’s notion of reinventing our monsters to keep the work fresh.  Much of this article, I would say, supports the same concepts as Grant addressed.

What it boils down to for me is that horror–any good fiction, actually–must be about the human condition.  I’ve often heard some of the best work in Science Fiction–you know, those that transcend the genre–as being in tune with the human condition, but rarely have I heard the phrase used in praise of horror.  I try to make the work more about the people, because I think that we can best evoke emotions of fear by pulling the reader along through real situation with real people.

Finally, McCammon urges us as writers to have the courage to tackle complex issues.  As I read this, I thought of Stephen King (of course).  His work often touches on or represents complex social issues.  The Stand has as a major element the breakdown of technology and the ways in which it has failed humanity.  I would also say The Dark Tower series has much of the same ideas around technological breakdown at its core.  Carrie, which I just finished rereading, is all about the severe cruelty that adolescents are capable of.

So I think the key here is to keep our work in tune with humanity.  The more we make the work about the human condition, the more likely we are to connect with the issues–simple or complex–that are dear to our readers.

World Building in Horror, Occult, and Fantasy Writing, Marion Zimmer Bradley

Bradley’s article is all about setting the rules for your work.  She tells us that horror isn’t necessarily about the supernatural, and that you accomplish good world building through doing your homework.

She refers to isolation as being a tremendously useful element in horror, but that creating believable isolation is difficult.  With today’s ever-connected society, it seems nearly impossible to create believable isolation.  I blame the cell phone.  Too often we see the old “No Signal” bit pulled in movies and stories.  John August has a nice little write-up on his blog called “No signal” is the new air duct.  So how do we deal with building worlds?

Bradley has some good advice in her piece, which I won’t recap here.  But I will touch on a few items that are important to me.

First, she brings up the idea of superheros, and the difficulties the early Superman comics had in finding stories because he was, well, Superman.  He could do anything.  No one could relate, and there was no way to beat him.  The horror writer has a similar problem in the Devil.  Weak horror often calls upon the Devil as the stock representation of evil.  She goes on to discuss Stoker’s Dracula as an excellent example for setting boundaries for your bad guy.  She recounts a passage where Dr. Van Helsing explains all the limits on the vampire, which serves as a great example for how the horror writer can keep the bad guy from being “the Devil”.  In my thesis novel, I originally set out with a bad guy that was too awesome.  As I’ve worked through it, I whittled away all his awesome superpowers and tried to put constraints in place that could be used against him.

The other piece in Bradley’s article that stuck with me is near the end.  Bradley says,

The major choice, then, for the writer of horror, fiction or nonfiction, is to choose between limited and unlimited views of reality–the horrors of the tabloid writer, the true-crime addict, or the specialist in abnormal psychiatry, whether or not the unknown belongs to a different order of reality–to choose between the worlds, in fact, of the policeman, the priest, or the parapsychologist.

I think she does a nice job of distilling horror worlds down in that last part.  While the work may not contain a policeman, a priest, or a parapsychologist, the world represented in any horror novel could likely be represented by one of them.  I considered my thesis novel from this perspective, and I found that I had blended worlds–probably too much.  I was working in both the world of the police and the world of the priest.  I might be able to make it work, but I think by choosing one I’ll get better focus on the story.

Sword and Sorcery, Dragon and Princess, Darrell Schweitzer

I’ll say up front that I didn’t have much interest in this article, simply because I don’t have much interest in sword-and-sorcery fiction.  I love Conan as much as the next guy, but I don’t have any interest today in working in the genre.  Schweitzer admits as much in the opening of his article, so I don’t feel bad admitting it.

Schweitzer gives a good list of pointers on how to write sword-and-sorcery, which I won’t recount here.  If you’re into writing such a thing, and you’re looking for some pointer, this is a definite read.

But once I finished, I realized that there was something in horror that relates.  If you’re a Bruce Campbell or Sam Raimi fan, you probably already guessed.  Both Army of Darkness and My Name is Bruce do a wonderful job as horror parodies by taking the elements of a horror story and telling them using the elements of sword-and-sorcery.  So while this article wasn’t about genre blending, it gave me a little insight into why those movies work as parodies.

Science Fiction: Hard Science and Hard Conflict, Michael A. Banks

This article is a three-stage guide to help those intimidated by the idea of writing science fiction.  Why would one be intimidated?  Banks tells us, and I think rightly so, that many writers shy away from it because of the science aspect.  What Banks explains is that you don’t need to have a deep scientific background to write science fiction, but only a “technical orientation”.

The first stage he discusses is deciding how much the technical details will play in the story.  If the technology is just part of the setting, then there’s no need go any deeper than you would in discussing airplanes just because your character got on a plane.  But if the technology is part of the conflict, then you’d better be ready to go into deep detail to support the story.

The second stage is to acquire the knowledge.  Banks give plenty of examples on how he collects knowledge, largely by leveraging people around him, or by reading contemporary hard science fiction.

In the third stage, Banks describes how to work the science in without being obvious.  He tells us to think of it like developing a character, and give much of the same advice found in character development.  Avoid information dumps, use only necessary details, and if all else fails, have on character explain something to another.  But not in a contrived way.

While his article addresses using science in fiction, I think his last points are relevant for how a writer in any genre can incorporate uncommon facts into a story.  As writers, we need to be sensitive to what our readers are likely to know so that we can avoid bludgeoning them with common facts and enlighten them discreetly when needed.

Researching Science Fantasy, Sharon Baker

Baker’s article, like the previous article by Banks, discusses research related to Science Fiction.  Yeah, you probably got that from the title.  But her angle is a little different.  Instead of talking about researching facts, she addresses a few places to draw from to create a plausible background.

The first place she discusses is people.  I found it interesting that part of her research involved shadowing a cop, because slavery played an important part of the world she was building.  She did this because she drew a connection and realized that prostitutes served as a real-world analogy to the slaves in her work.

She provides several detailed examples on other places she drew from, which include:

  • Semetic languages, used as a model to develop a new language
  • The Merck Manual of symptoms and treatments to develop a poison and its cure
  • Oral Tradition and Middle Eastern Myth to develop a new mythology
  • Personal experience with loss
  • Ancient Middle Eastern Architecture to develop unique city structures

I don’t necessarily believe that any one of these items is a catch-all approach for accomplishing world building, but I do believe that what Baker demonstrates is the need to be observant and resourceful.  She found and used as many parallels in reality as possible when developing her work, and drawing on reality adds to a story’s plausibility.

Avoiding What’s Been Done to Death, Ramsey Campbell

Campbell’s article addresses the issue we all face of keeping our writing fresh.  He says that while some people claim there’s nothing new in horror, that the situation isn’t as bad as it may sound.  According to Campbell, “many of the themes we’re dealing with are so large and powerful as to be essentially timeless.”  I can agree with that.  I think that anything that touches on the human condition is timeless.

The first advice he gives on avoiding what’s been done is to be true to yourself.  By that, he means to keep in touch with your genre by being well read, but also to read outside your genre.  See your work as part of a larger art.  He also suggests that you find your own voice.  This is not new advice for me, but it bears repeating because it’s so critical to developing your work.

He goes on to discuss how the idea of evil in horror is often presented “in such a shorthand form as to be essentially meaningless–something vague out there that causes folks to commit terrible acts, something other than ourselves, nothing to do with us.”  I have struggled with this myself.  For evil to work in horror, it must be more than “the Devil” (to borrow from Bradley’s article).  We must put a face on it, make it tangible, and show how it relates to our characters and our readers.  We can accomplish this by making the evil real to us, as the writer, to get us more involved with the work and draw our own emotional charges onto the page.

Another point of advice Campbell gives is that “the best way for a writer to compete is with oneself, to do better than one did last time.”  I think this is often an overlooked bit of advice, but one that can help a writer focus better.  When you compete with someone else, you’re using an external measure to gage your work.  Which can be okay, but how can you be sure that the external work you’re using is right?  I’ve found that once I stopped wanting to write like [insert favorite author here], my work began to develop at a much quicker pace.  I can never be like any other writer, or if I am, then I can never be better.  Too often we see log lines like “the next Stephen King,” or “the next Dean Koontz.”  In the sense of marketing, having such statements on a book is okay.  But the writer should never think like that.  I don’t want to be the next Stephen King–the world already has one.  I want to be the first David L. Day.

Campell provides a few other points of advice, such as over-writing in the first draft, combining unrelated ideas, and leaving yourself a ragged edge at the end of a work session.  All of these are fine advice, but I think the best point of this article is that of competing with yourself.

Why Novels of Fear Must do More than Frighten, Dean R. Koontz

Koontz’s second article in the book covers going beyond the scare in horror.  He tells us that works of horror “often fail to achieve the effect they seek because they are trying to do nothing else but scare the reader.  Fear cannot be generated in a vacuum.”  We must evoke other emotions.  This article reiterates advice found in those by Grant and McCammon.

Koontz tells us that we can get at those other emotions by making our characters both empathetic and sympathetic.  Absolutely.  Our readers must care about and like our characters.  Not new advice, but good reinforcement.  What Koontz delivers here that aren’t in the other articles are five common errors committed by new writers.  I’ll sum them up, but the article is worth the read.

  1. Characters must not act irrationally and must not get into trouble due to stupid decisions
  2. Characters must not be passive
  3. Lead characters must not be superheros who always succeed
  4. Characters must have lives shown outside the central story
  5. Lead characters must be concerned with more than just their own fate

It’s the first time I’ve encountered a list like this, and I think they’re all good things to watch for.  Missing any one of these can lead to two-dimensional characters that the reader either won’t like or won’t care about.  I struggle with number four, and often forget to show that characters have lives that go on outside the main story line.  But without it, can the reader ever really get to know the character?  I don’t think so.  We can learn a lot about a person by the little, daily interactions they have.  We don’t need to weigh down our work with every little detail, but the right details in the right place will help the reader develop a full picture of our characters.

The Supernatural? Naturally!, J. N. Williamson

I don’t think there’s a good way to summarize this article, so I won’t even try.  What I got from it is that we need to approach horror as fantasy, and need to allow ourselves as reader to engage in the fantastic.  Williamson talks about being comfortable with the ideas of the supernatural to write horror.  I can get behind that.  What most intrigued me, though, was the extent to which Williamson talks about his own shifting beliefs as a driver for his work.  His beliefs serve to build story credibility and guide his work because, he says, “most people want to believe what the majority of other persons believed or have believed.”  I think the core of his advice is:

Consequently, if I, as an author, can buttress the otherwise-improbable premises of my work by what was accepted as real or true by a large number of my fellow human beings, it stands to reason that I am more acceptable in my fictive intrigues, prepared to arouse, convince, and hold the attention of readers for the time it takes to read that fictional work.

When I stop to consider my work, I realize there’s a reason for the heavy use of western religious elements.  I had a lot of exposure to many flavors of Christianity as a child, as well as a good sampling of Eastern religions.  I find my strongest work comes out when I use these elements, and it seems that my strong belief–at least at one time in my life–in these elements is one reason for this.  Working with what we believe adds to the realism of our stories.  It’s one aspect to writing honestly, because if we don’t believe in what we’re writing, neither will our readers.

This wraps up part two.  Part three will be a couple weeks out.  Until then, peace.