Not gonna let them catch me, no

A couple years ago, I ran across a writing prompt to construct a pulp story inspired by the lyrics of a popular song. I’d like to say the challenge struck a chord, but that level of punnery is nigh-unforgivable. Still, there are a few songs which have always stayed with me because of a combination of musical badassery and evocative imagery, and pretty high on that playlist is the Allman Brothers Band’s “Midnight Rider.” So I set myself to turning the ideas of running and hiding, silver dollars and endless roads, into a worthy tale.

I made a good amount of headway on the story but felt like it was missing something, a piece which fell into place when I heard about an open call for a dieselpunk anthology. Dieselpunk (in case you’re not up to speed on your genres and subgenres) concerns stylized alternate history in which the aesthetics of early-mid 20th century technology mingles with science fiction. I had, if I said so myself, a decent noirish story about loners, mobsters, and highway-bound cars, but burnishing all of that with retro-futuristic weapons and accessories helped me get “The Dying Desert Moon” across the proverbial finish line.

Of course, as so often happens with me, I finished the story, sent it off to the anthology in question, and received a polite rejection. But I was undeterred and continued sending it around, until it was accepted by the fine folks at Crimson Streets.

And as part of the upside of this arrangement, you’ll be able to read the story online for free starting in one week! Click here to visit this week’s addition to the virtual pulp library of Crimson Streets, and at the end of the tale you’ll see the teaser for “The Dying Desert Moon” under the Next Week section. You can check out lots of other great stories while you’re there, and don’t forget to return to Crimson Streets in one week when my story is released!

UPDATE: It’s up! Click here to read “THE DYING DESERT MOON”!

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Re-animated matter

IT.
HAS.
RETURNED.

They said it couldn’t be done, but they’ve done it again! Following up on last year’s premiere excursion into unholy pulp terror, the PulpWork Press 2017 Halloween Special is now available!

As usual, you can locate this year’s offering at Amazon. If you can restrain yourself, the Kindle edition will be available for FREE download for everyone between October 27th and October 31st. I am dead certain, however, that you will want to get your very own hard copy at your earliest opportunity – which is right now!

Once again I’ve stirred into the cauldron a brand new adventure of Kellan Oakes, this time in a throwback adventure from his pre-P.I. days. I’m stitched together in this exquisite corpse with Tom Deja, Josh Reynolds, and Joel Jenkins! Whether you’re in the mood for tricks or treats, the PulpWork Halloween Special is coming for you!

Creeping up

The most glorious time of the year is here, and that means we are drawing ever nearer to Halloween, and another PulpWork Press Halloween Special! The finishing touches are being put on the 2017 edition of the spooktacular as we speak, so it’s not quite time to reveal the availability details or the full cover … but I can provide a sneak-peek:

And since I’m not fully into hype mode for the anthology yet, allow me to indulge in some Real Talk: as you no doubt are aware, my druid private eye Kellan Oakes made his literary debut in the pages of a PulpWork Press Christmas Special. This will mark his fourth appearance in a holiday special from PulpWork, in addition to stories in CheapJack Pulp and other forthcoming projects to be announced soon. I have been posting recently about one of those on-deck projects recently, and my efforts to craft a Kellan Oakes tale which came in under a specified word limit and followed a classic pulp formula (see this entry and this one for details), all of which I think were worthwhile efforts. But I confess that one of the things I really enjoy about writing for the PulpWork holiday specials is that there are very few constraints in terms of either word count or style or subject matter beyond the obvious themes of pulp and whichever season is being celebrated. As a result, my PulpWork stories about Kellan tend to be a bit looser and shaggier, and this year’s is no exception. Sometimes it’s rewarding to follow the rules, and sometimes it’s gratifying to let it all hang out. Words to live by, I reckon.

… seriously, no idea what I’m talking about (2)

I posted recently about a story I had written in response to a specific open call. That post focused on stylistic editing and working within mandated word counts, partly because I found that angle interesting and partly because I didn’t want to talk too much about the story itself. Label me irrational or superstitious if you must, but since the story was merely under consideration at the time the post was composed, I felt I might cosmically undermine myself if I revealed even the smallest detail regarding the story’s subject matter.

The good news is, the story was accepted! More details to come when the anthology has a cover to promote and a release date and so forth. But for the moment, it’s noteworthy that my tale was accepted in a somewhat roundabout way, which provides an excellent entry point for discussing yet another aspect of Big Three (or Four) Genre Writing. I’ve made all the points I’m capable of making about how understanding genre, intuitively or otherwise, shapes how a reader experiences and interacts with a piece of fiction. Now I’ll tackle it from the writing side.

A good sense for the boundaries of genres, particularly the subgenres within them, is important for any writer trying to place stories in open call anthologies, because by and large those anthologies organize themselves along genre lines. If an anthology is supposed to have a science fiction theme, or more specifically hard sci-fi about human interstellar exploration, then no matter how entertaining your yarn about alien pirates who fly between the stars in leviathan jellyfish may be, you’re unlikely to be deemed “a good match” for the project. Whether you’re going through your personal back catalog of unpublished stories or sitting down to write something brand new, the genre expectation game should be a part of the process.

The call I responded to was for an anthology called “The Pulp Horror Book of Phobias”, which appealed to me with both “pulp” and “horror” right there in the title. Pulp is one of those overly broad categories that can encompass any number of genre-related ideas depending on whom you ask, but I happen to have my own pulp character always at the ready in the form of Kellan Oakes. I’m certainly no stranger to horror, and some of Kellan’s adventures have skewed towards that quadrant. What probably sealed the deal was the fact that the editor was looking for stories addressing very specific phobias, eschewing the more common (and understandable) fears of spiders and snakes and enclosed spaces in favor of strange and unusual phobias. Near the top of the alphabetical list was botanophobia, and if I couldn’t write a compelling story about the son of a druid facing off against someone deathly afraid of plantlife, then I might as well break my keyboard over my knee.

Venus flytrap
Anti-spoiler: the story is not about Venus flytraps. But this picture is pretty creepy.

The open call made direct reference to the Lester Dent Master Plot as a guideline for constructing a proper pulp story. I’d been aware of Dent’s formula for a while but never actually tried following the recipe to a tee, until I started working on the Kellan Oakes story I intended to submit to the Pulp Horror Book of Phobias. I outlined the story to hit the beats Dent suggested, and included the requisite number of twists and turns. The Dent formula recommends no more than 6000 words, as did the guidelines for the Pulp Horror Book of Phobias, which is whence the word count concern in the previous post arose. In the end, I wound up with what I thought was a gem, if I do say so myself. I had expanded Kellan’s supporting cast and fleshed out his background a little bit more. I had written a pulp tale of two-fisted action, no question, and I had incorporated one of the specific phobias being solicited. The only uncertainty I felt as I appraised the finished product was that it might not have enough horror in it. Clearly it had some horror ingredient, including an actual monster, but the overall mood was more thrilling than chilling. In the end, I simply submitted the story to let the editor decide what “pulp horror” was supposed to mean. Maybe the whole anthology was intended to be a broad spectrum of stories, some pulpy adventure stories with horror signifiers around the edges, some terrifying tales with a dash of pulp signifiers, some striking a perfect balance. Either it was a good match or it wasn’t, and if it were rejected, I’d find a home for it somewhere else.

I got the story in just before the deadline so I didn’t have to wait long to hear back. And what I heard back was … sorry, not exactly what we’re looking for. And while I had absolutely acknowledged that potential outcome ahead of time, the reasons the editor gave caught me off guard. It all came down to the botanophobia element, which the editor said didn’t match their vision. In hindsight, I realized that they probably wanted the main viewpoint character to suffer from the phobia in each story, either succumbing to it or overcoming it, to convey some visceral horror permeating everything in the tale. That wasn’t really an option for me once I decided to dive headlong into a new Kellan Oakes story, because I had no desire to make a previously undisclosed phobia a part of his character. So I incorporated it into an antagonist, where it became a plot driver but not really a vehicle for putting the audience directly through the emotional wringer. I respected the editor’s decision.

The emotional roller coaster took an upswing as the editor assured me that they really loved the story all the same, and then threw me for an even bigger loop-de-loop by asking if it would be all right if the story were accepted instead for a different anthology called Death’s Garden. I had been aware of the Death’s Garden open call as well, but hadn’t considered it for this story. From the title alone it sounds like a great fit, right? Botanophobia, Death’s Garden, same difference? Except that Death’s Garden had billed itself as an anthology of extreme horror.

As far as I ever knew, the extreme horror subgenre was the darkest of the dark, where no act was too unspeakable to write down and describe in literally gory detail. I’m not judging anyone who likes their fictional horror messy and in-your-face, but that’s never been my preference. And I never imagined that anything in the Kellan Oakes story I had submitted would come across as extreme. But, I’m not one to turn my nose up at an acceptance, however circuitous, so of course I agreed to have my story take root in Death’s Garden.

Even more so than usual, I will be curious to check out the anthology once it’s formatted, and see just how extreme the rest of the contents are. Maybe my Kellan Oakes tale will be the tamest in the bunch, or maybe the editor thinks extreme horror is anything even slightly more sinister than sparkly vampire romance. We shall see.

The point, once again, is that I would have thought the story I wrote was pulp horror, not extreme horror, and that it was a perfect fit for the Pulp Horror Book of Phobias and ill-suited for Death’s Garden. But apparently I was wrong across the board, so do I really have an unerring sense of genre conventions and distinctions? Probably not, but I still like to talk about it all the same.

… but don’t know what I’m talking about (1)

So, according to my last post, I love all genre writing, separated into pure distillations or combined into various subgenres. You would think this means I love all of the Big Three (or Four) genres equally, and then in turn you would think I write stories in each genre equally, as well. I would certainly think so, or would have before I started engaging in some self-quantifying.

To date I’ve published seventeen short stories, and the numbers break out like so:

Fantasy = 8
Horror = 6
Superhero = 4
Science Fiction = 1

A couple of observations. The numbers above add up to nineteen, not seventeen, because I counted two stories twice, one as both fantasy and horror and one as both sci-fi and horror. Honestly a lot of my stories combine genres, and I haven’t got any realist/psychological horror stories to my credit, so all of the horror tales could have double-counted as fantasy. The method I used for dividing them up was the emotional tenor of the story – was I using monsters to propel action, or create fear and unease? – up through and including whether or not the story had a happy resolution. Fear and downer outcomes went in the horror category, while thrills and action and upbeat endings went for fantasy.

My allegedly favorite genre, superheroes, comes in second to last in the output rankings. I’ve talked before about my specific take on what makes a superhero story; notwithstanding my assertion in the previous post about how comic book worlds are the ultimate genre mashup, I mainly consider a story to be in the superhero category if the protagonist meets my “could do anything but chooses to help others” criteria. As of now, I can claim to have four tales like that out in the world, all of them featuring Kellan Oakes. I have two more unrelated superhero stories accepted by editors and awaiting publication, plus a couple of Kellan’s further adventures in the pipeline, so that number will be growing shortly, and might very well have taken the lead by this time next year.

But that lone sci-fi story really sticks out, doesn’t it? As someone who grew up knowing Star Wars by heart, watching live-action Buck Rogers and cartoon Flash Gordon on tv, reading Asimov, and knowing the expansion of the internet, animal cloning, Mars exploration and more as current events, how can I have so little fiction centered around mad scientists, aliens and robots to show for it? I’m not a technophobe, I love scientific progress, but for some reason I gravitate toward the impossible in my fiction. Maybe I worry that my deep-rooted fandom for sci-fi would make anything I tried on my own too derivative. Maybe the longer I’ve been alive, the more rigorous the factual basis of sci-fi has become, and I’m intimidated by the standards it’s held to. Maybe things just come and go in cycles, and at some point just past the horizon I’ll feel burned out on fantasy and start transposing my ideas from mythic kingdoms to distant planets. Hard to say, for me at any rate.

So, again, take everything I say around here with a grain of salt, especially when I start making sweeping pronouncements about genres and the fundamental ideas underpinning them. Clearly I have blindspots of my own which make me a less than totally reliable source.

Talking about genre …

It’s back-to-school season, and my mind turns (as it often does, including the hinting I did here) to somewhat academic questions. Such as: what is genre? And what does it mean to be a genre writer?

One reason I ask is because I consider myself a genre writer, but in doing so I’m using a very specific and perhaps non-intuitive definition of the word. Genre in and of itself is a reasonably easy concept to understand. It’s a way of categorizing similar kinds of work, in terms of their subject matter. Romance is one genre. Westerns are another. Fairy tales. True crime. Domestic drama. Espionage. And so on and so on.

They’re just labels, yes, but lest anyone think that all labels are arbitrary and thus unimportant, allow me to relate a personal anecdote. From the beginning of 2012 to the end of 2014, I took part in a blogging club (via a different, anonymous blog where I mused about popular culture and joked about how slack my day job at the time was, hence the need for anonymity) where there was a weekly assignment to review one of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. One week the chosen movie was Being John Malkovich. In my review I made a passing reference to it being a science fiction movie. I later read another blogger’s review and she confessed that she really didn’t get the movie, but once she noted that I called it science fiction, she had a slightly better handle on it. The point being that identifying the genre of a story helps set people’s expectations of the story, which in turn can (sometimes, for certain people) make a big difference in the experience of said story.

So, I think about genre quite a bit in terms of how other people would react to my own work. Partly that’s just on the off chance that my writing might come up in conversation with someone, and I’d like to have a ready answer if they ask “What kind of stories do you write?” Largely, it’s because I tend to write for open calls which are organized around genre-specific themes. In the former case, it’s quick and easy to say “mostly genre stuff” as shorthand for the Big Three of science fiction, fantasy and horror, and all of their attendant subgenres. And in the latter, those Big Three all seem to coexist pretty closely in the market listings and Facebook groups and whatnot.

It does seem odd, though, that the Big Three is taken for granted as such. I can’t think of any other triumvirate of genres that seem so logically grouped together. If someone told me they write mainly cowboy stories, spy stories, and caveman stories, I wouldn’t think that was odd per se, but I would also assume they more or less stumbled into that combination, as opposed to following the example of numerous other authors I could name off the top of my head who write in those three genres. Whereas in addition to many authors who are known as sci-fi writers, or fantasy writers, or horror writers, there are almost as many who go back and forth between two of those genres or amongst all three.

Of course arguably the main thing that sets SF/F/H apart from WWII stories or police procedurals or regency novels or whathaveyou is the fact that my beloved Big Three incorporate many elements that do not and never have existed. Free-thinking computers and arcane magicks and immortal monsters are pure flights of fancy, utterly imaginary. However unrealistic or improbable a shootout or a love affair may be, they’re still working with raw material lifted from reality.

And then on the flip side, it’s a bit odd that SF/F/H are considered three distinct genres (my shorthand of being a “genre writer” notwithstanding) when it would be perfectly accurate to lump them all together as fantasy, concerned with things which are not real. Yet the distinctions are pretty universally recognized. Science-fiction’s version of things which never were leans toward what-might-be, as opposed to fantasy’s can’t-be. We can conceive of laser weapons, interstellar spaceships, lifelike robots and mental telepathy, whereas magic spells and dragons and unicorns are essentially impossible by our understanding of the universe. Science-fiction looks to the future, even when set in the present or an alternate past, while fantasy hearkens back to our origins as superstitious folk with more abstract imagination than empirical knowledge.

Horror seems like a strange bedfellow with SF/F, and again seems like something which could be absorbed into either. The Terminator, Night of Living Dead and Frankenstein are science fiction, and Dracula and IT are fantasy. Then again, Psycho is neither, Jaws is only sci-fi if you use the term extremely loosely, and some people might argue that The Exorcist is about extant phenomena and could plausibly happen. Perhaps it will suffice to say that horror gets lumped in with SF/F because a fair amount of it involves imaginary elements, but also for a couple of other reasons. One is that it tends to appeal to a niche audience, and for whatever reason there does happen to be an overlap – again, not perfect, but also again, a fair amount – in people who enjoy stories about robots, or elves, or scary stuff. Clearly you can count me among those kind of people.

And another reason might have something to do with the time continuum I invoked above. If a story contains unreal elements but is also set in the future, our brains can rationalize that, particularly if the unreality feels like something that could develop over time, and thus we get sci-fi. If a story contains unreal elements but is also set in the past, our brains can rationalize that as well, particularly if the unreality feels at the very least like something people used to believe in, hence classic fantasy. But if a story contains unreal elements and is set in the present, that in and of itself is unsettling and disturbing. It’s a depiction of the world outside our window, and yet it’s not, and that uncanny valley between the two gives rise to fear. A dragon, gigantic and fire-breathing and indifferent to human suffering, should be the most terrifying thing in the world, but within the confines of a medieval setting it’s simply part of an adventure. Whereas a tiny gremlin on the wing of an airplane is the stuff of nightmares. So horror along with sci-fi and fantasy helps to triangulate the combination of the imaginary with settings in time, and a trinity by association is born.

I recognize this isn’t a perfect theory, as there are certainly happy non-horror stories which take the present world and incorporate impossible science or fantastical whimsy. My favorite genre is superhero stories, which are pretty much all of the above, sci-fi and fantasy and even horror ideas all swirled together in a colorful, chaotic morality play in a world without limits which is somehow always the status quo here and now. And it’s precisely that no-holds-barred, anything goes spirit which can see a genius inventor and a mythological god team up to take on an alien sorcerer that makes the superhero genre my favorite. I love all the components separately, and love them even more in aggregate.

So calling myself a genre writer – which really means being a writer in at least three or four different genres, interconnected in ways which are sometimes obvious and sometimes less so – has always felt right. And if I really put my mind to it, as here, I can try to map it all out and make sense of it. But do I really know what I’m talking about? Join me here for future posts in which I peer into the mists for the elusive answer to that very question! (Preview spoiler: probably not. Probably I have no idea what I’m talking about.)

Second-hand advice (2): Specificity

I recently wrote a story for a specific open call, and upon completion found that it had exceeded the maximum word count indicated in the guidelines. This was not terribly surprising. I tend to run wordy anyway, and this particular anthology was based around something of a double-theme, which naturally meant I tried to cram twice as much information into the narrative as I might have otherwise. If the preceding context seems overly vague, I beg forgiveness; but since I haven’t heard back from the publisher in question as of yet, I don’t want to jinx myself by naming names. However, the very concept of vagueness makes an excellent springboard into my second-hand advice for today: make your writing specific.

There are two very good reasons to follow this advice. One has to do with establishing your authority. It should be obvious, if nothing else due to the common root of the words, that the author of the story is the authority on everything that happens in it. Yet many a writer, particularly early on in finding his or her voice, declines to embrace this notion. And I include myself in their number, though I try to increase my awareness of this tendency and fight against it. I imagine there’s an element of humility, real or affected, coupled with a fear of failure. To create something and put it out in the world is hard enough without imagining hypothetical critics challenging your claims. Better to hedge your bets, to provide an easy escape hatch in the form of equivocations and approximations.

Except, no, that’s not better. Ambiguity is rarely memorable, and a timid author who doesn’t trust himself or herself won’t earn the trust of readers, either. Moreover, if you are writing genre fiction of any stripe, there’s even less reason to build wiggle-room into your statements. It’s one thing to avoid specifying how many miles a person walked before collapsing in exhaustion, fearing that someone somewhere with an advanced degree in kinesiology would nitpick the details. Guarding against the possibility that someone will challenge an assertion as to how many miles a vampire can fly in a single night misses the point of writing fantastical stories in the first place.

The second reason to commit to specificity is because it will make your writing cleaner, tighter, and ultimately better. Backing away from precise descriptions usually involves including qualifiers, which in turn are almost always filler words. Stating something definitively can be done in fewer words. Lowering a story’s word count is sometimes helpful when writing within editorial constraints, but even if you find yourself with a 4200 word tale in response to a call for stories between 1000 and 10,000, the 3900 word version of your story would probably be the more dynamic one.

Below are some of my suggestions for revising a draft to increase specificity and lower overall word counts, all of which begin by typing a keyword into your search function and considering every instance found in your story.

Almost – There are a couple of ways “almost” (or synonyms like “nearly”, “not quite”, etc.) works its way into narratives: physical descriptions and actions. Often a thug is “nearly seven feet tall” or a femme fatale’s hair and makeup are “almost flawless”. And there is just as often some logic underpinning the word choice. To be exactly seven feet tall must be rare, not to mention hard to gauge unless the person in question is standing next to a measuring tape. And nothing is ever perfectly without flaw, so in order to sound like we know how the world works we must make allowances. But this logic isn’t worth much. If word count is your main concern, you have two choices: let the thug be “seven feet tall”, or describe him as “towering”, which is evocative without quantifying. “Nearly seven feet tall” wasn’t precisely quantifying, either, even quadrupling the words. If you don’t care about adding more words, then insert a metaphorical yardstick to measure against. Similarly, let the femme fatale’s look be “flawless”, in the name of poetic license. Or let it be “meticulous”, which implies human effort, and assume your audience is smart enough to understand the inherently imperfect nature of humans.

Actions are also allowed to take advantage of poetic license. Consider the following three sentences:

She ran so fast she almost flew across the room to answer the phone.
She almost flew across the room to answer the phone.
She flew across the room to answer the phone.

The first example vastly underestimates the audience, heading off potential confusion about literal flying by relegating it to a modifier of the action already named as running. The second example is better, except for the superfluous “almost”. Reminding readers how figures of speech work by drawing attention to them is not the writer’s job.

The other justification for an almost-action is the counterfactual: “she lost her balance and almost fell off the roof.” She specifically didn’t fall, but not in the exact same way as someone who was never in danger of falling at all. This comes down to pacing, and it may well be best to acknowledge what almost happened in just those terms and move on, but it’s worth at least considering describing the actions that did occur, rather than those that did not.

Start – Or its synonyms, “begin”, “set to”, “embark” etc. By definition, everything that happens had to at some point start happening, in order to no longer not be happening. Rarely does this need to be specified.

My alarm started to shriek.
My alarm shrieked.
The sun started to rise.
The sun rose. (Or possibly, The sunrise appeared.)
His resolve started to weaken.
His resolve weakened.

There may be reason to refer specifically to the start of something. For instance, to set up the possibility of interruption. Have I seen the Suicide Squad movie? Well, I DVRed it, and started to watch, but got sleepy half an hour in and still haven’t finished it. Alternatively, to tie the beginning of a longer action to a specific point in time. Maybe I shouldn’t have started watching Suicide Squad at 11 PM. Otherwise, focusing on the initiation of an action, rather than the entire action, is arguably too precise, while still resulting in filler words your story could easily do without.

Try – Or “attempt” etc. Effort implies action and vice versa. A body at rest tends to stay at rest, and thus you have to try to get out of bed in order to get out of bed. Unless you recognize the truth in “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Much as specifying a “start” can work if being contrasted with a subsequent failure to finish, a specific “try” may be a setup for a resultant failure, as in the victim who tries to scream but finds his voice stolen by terror. In such cases the gap between what is intended and what is possible is the entire point. But consider:

I tried to turn the doorknob. It was unlocked, and the door swung open.
I turned the doorknob, and the door swung open.

The first example makes all kinds of assumptions and preemptive explanations regarding the character not knowing whether the door is locked and thus not being sure if it will open until making an experimental attempt. The second limits itself to observable actions, gets the same points across, and does so in fewer words.

Seem – Or “as if”, “look like” etc. Not to be confused with visual comparisons, as in “his face looked like a moonscape” (although I would argue that metaphors are stronger and better than similes, and would drop and swap words in favor of “his face was a moonscape”) but more egregiously something such as:

She looked like she was reaching for her sword.
She reached for her sword.

Neither of which is as succinct as “She grasped her sword.” “Reached for” is closely related to “start” and “try” in that it only makes sense to acknowledge if the expected outcome will never come to pass. Otherwise, the prelude to the action is less important than the action itself. Moreover, admitting that appearances can be deceiving and intentions are unknowable does not enhance the story (unless that is in fact the theme of said story). It merely makes the author look apologetic, providing excuses up front for contradictions yet to come. Yes, it is possible that she was not grasping her sword, but rather scratching her side, and context should determine how important that is. If the POV character perceives things correctly, and responds accordingly, then dwelling on the other possibilities is moot. If the POV character is mistaken, then describing actions and reactions accurately, without editorializing, will convey everything the reader needs to determine where the disconnect occurred.

As I mentioned at the outset, I’ve been guilty of all of the above, and I tend to use those crutches multiple times per story, to boot. Stripping them all out hasn’t proven to be a magic bullet that shrinks a draft by twenty percent, but every little bit helps, and taking the time to excise the noncommittal phrasings throughout always leaves me feeling better about my writing.