Bently Little’s The Town was published in 2000, and I think even 10 years later it holds up as a good story. I found Bently’s take on small-town horror refreshing in many ways, even though the idea of horror in a small town isn’t so unique by today’s standards. The story involves a family of six who move back to the father’s home town after winning the lottery to simplify their lives and exchange the dangers of LA for the assumed tranquility of McGuane, Arizona.

Once the family moves, a very serious and diverse set of circumstances occur. Several deaths take place, the town is slowly overrun by evil spirits, and some very bizarre possessions happen–one involving a Molokan church growing hair.

I really appreciate how Bently handled the characters. Winning the lottery is supposed to be a good thing–as is anything that brings a person into money–but in this case, Bently provides what feels like a more realistic take on the matter. The father, Gregory, finds himself at odds because he no longer has purpose. He doesn’t have to work for money and is no longer tightly connected with the town. He finds some pet projects, one of which is to help an old high school friend redevelop his café into a small entertainment venue, all of which wind up backfiring. Everything Gregory experiences in the book, the supernatural as well as his well-intentioned actions, drive him slowly insane. I cared about this man, and the rest of the family, because even though they had money their lives were tough. I was reminded of the main characters in Ed Lee’s The Golem–also rich–and the reason I didn’t care much for them was that they had options. I felt they could have walked away at any time and that their hardship was self-inflicted. In the case of The Town, the money won from the lottery was paid annually (I think @ 80K), the family spent most of the first check on the new house, and there was no walking away. They were stuck in their situation for at least a year, until the next check arrived. To make it even worse, the house they bought had a sordid history–unknown by Gregory at the time of purchase–and there was little to no chance of them reselling it.

Bently also tied the events in the story up very well in the end. So many strange things occur, that mid-way through I found myself thinking there was no way everything related. But through an interesting convergence of Molokan and Native American mythologies, Bently came up with a satisfying explanation that unified the deaths, possessions, and general craziness of the town. And to have the solution to the hauntings require the cooperation of the two cultures–through ritual and force–really reinforced the explanation of the hauntings.

I was unfamiliar with the term Molokan before reading this book, and while I didn’t read it for a cultural lesson I found myself reading up a little on the culture. They’re a fascinating sect of Christianity from Russia, and I think Bently’s use of Molokans instead of the more familiar Catholics gave the book an interesting take on christian spirituality and mythology.

If you like  small-town horror and supernatural horror, this book should be on your list. I’ll definitely pick up more of Bently’s work down the road.

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.