Second-hand advice (4): Breeding contempt

Back in college, when I took an intro-level creative writing class, the professor offered a bit of insight which I think bears repeating: a writer’s goal should be to make the familiar strange, and make the strange familiar.

The back half of this really resonated with me at the time, because I’ve always been deeply embedded in the speculative genre end of things. It seemed to me that this was a useful yardstick for determining the appeal of any given science fiction or fantasy story outside of the most obsessive self-proclaimed devotees. Case in point: the Millennium Falcon. It’s a completely invented piece of futuristic transportation technology, a YT-1300F light freighter armed with laser cannons and capable of faster-than-light movement, all of which is so far outside the sphere of lived human experience that it is, by definition, not relatable. But it is also dirty, and gets made fun of for being ugly, and it has a tendency to break down at the most inopportune times, all of which is highly relatable. The point being, it’s all well and good to be imaginative in filling a story with never-before-seen people, places and things, which is in fact the draw of speculative fiction for most fans. But it also helps to provide some kind of recognizable facet of those fantastic elements.

Later, in another creative writing class, one of my fellow students submitted a story for workshopping which was about a superhero trying to solve a crime committed at a comic book convention. This was circa 1994 or 1995, long before the mainstreaming of those things. And on the one hand I understood where my fellow student was coming from, taking two different things he was interested in and mashing them up for maximum crazy. But to anyone not already well-versed in comic-con culture or superhero tropes, the story was borderline incomprehensible. And I thought back to my previous instructor’s advice and wished my fellow student had adhered to it, either using more familiar police procedural elements to dig into the weirdness of comic-cons, or a more accessible setting for a mutant powered protagonist.

That first writing professor wasn’t even talking about genre fiction when giving the advice, though. Her intention was to address frames of reference in realistic, literary fiction. A writer should be able to describe anything in such a way that the reader can make a connection. Whether writing autobiography from the perspective of an ethnic or religious minority, or writing historical fiction, or writing about the quirks of a highly specialized professional discipline, the ideas should not be so self-contained and self-referential that an outsider is baffled by them. In other words, the self-reflexive question a writer asks should not be “Can I or should I write about this subject? Will anyone else understand it?” but rather “How can I write about this subject so that everyone will understand it?”

The flip side took me a little longer to wrap my head around, but was probably the lesson I needed more. Everyone is at least passingly familiar with the old admonition to “write what you know”, but I’ve often felt as though that advice put me in an impossible situation. I am a cis-het white dude which means that my perspective on life is the default perspective of 95% or literature. I am American, and America has historically dominated pop culture, with a particular fixation on New York City, which was where my dad worked while he and my mom raised kids in nearby middle-class New Jersey. If I wrote exclusively about what I knew, I would be treading the same well-covered territory that countless other writers had gotten to first.

But that’s the trick, of course: write about what you know, but if what you know is overly familiar either due to true universality or popcult oversaturation, then make the familiar strange again. Write about it in a way that’s never been done before. Compare and contrast it to something less common, something not at all obvious.

And it’s important to note that this is good advice at both the micro and macro level. An entire novel about a boy and his dog had better have some fresh perspective to it to validate its own existence. But even a crazy pulpy story crossing over various subgenres can stumble by ignoring the suggestion even for a moment.

I am thinking of a specific novel I once read, which I’m not going to call out by name because (a) that’s not the point and (b) at the end of the day, whatever sins the author committed in writing the book, he still has multiple novels published compared to my zero, so dragging him by name would be highly petty. Still, I will always remember encountering one particular passage in the book where the protagonist fell overboard, sank underwater and had to swim safely to the surface. The author, in order to convey the time it took to reach the air above and also emphasize the physicality of the effort, described … swimming. In purely mechanical terms using very flat prose.

It bothered me for a couple of reasons. On one level I felt like it was an insult to my intelligence. I know how to swim, I know the coordination of limb movements entailed in the word ‘swim’ and I am reasonably sure that even someone who can’t swim understands what it means, so to be told explicitly that a swimming character raised an arm overhead and pulled it back through the water to create forward propulsion seemed condescending at best.

But on another level it struck me as a wasted opportunity, the blandest possible way to progress (or pad out) the narrative. Even if I had no idea how swimming worked, the rote description of it was still boring. It provided no character insight to the protagonist. It added nothing to the mood of the scene. It was the familiar remaining doggedly familiar. Different language, a strange yet well-deployed metaphor, a triggered ironic memory or an unexpected development, any of those could have elevated the material. It was just one paragraph out of an entire novel, but it’s the part that sticks out in my memory most prominently all the same.

Advertisements

Old stories never die

You might recall that when I ran down how the year 2017 treated me, writing-wise, I mentioned that I was pleased to have notched my first story reprint, and that I intended to continue the effort to get more of my work published anew.

Not even a month of 2018 has gone by, and I’ve succeeded in wildly outdoing my previous accomplishment, with three stories accepted as reprints! The Breaking Dawn, my take on Merlin in a setting far removed from Camelot, is going to make its next appearance in Re-Quest from Pole to Pole Publishing. The original anthology for which I pitched and wrote the story, King of Ages, was all about reincarnations of King Arthur’s court through human history, which gave my Merlin foray a bit of meta-context. Re-Quest will be a collection of quest narratives which are all reprints, and it will be interesting to see how my contribution holds up in that very different milieu.

Rendered By Her Deeds, a wicked and subversive fairy tale, was initially published in the Under a Dark Sign anthology and will be unleashed once again in Outposts of Beyond magazine from Alban Lake Publishing.

The Lengths That He Would Go To was first published a couple of years ago in Eldritch Embraces, the tagline for which was “Putting the Love Back in Lovecraft”, and my on-theme romance was a classic boy-meets-boy-possibly-interested-in-other-boy-who-summons-unholy-abomination-from-beyond yarn. It’s being reproduced in Iridium Magazine, a showcase for intersectional genre fiction.

The issue of Iridium for which I’m slated is due out in the next month or so, while Outposts of Beyond won’t be released until October, and the Re-Quest release is TBD, so check back regularly for more info on all of those!

All fun and games

Carnival of Fear is a horror anthology from Limitless Publishing, due out in April. It will contain 13 stories, each involving a carnival or circus (or sideshow) setting. And one of those stories is by me, a little ditty I’ve entitled “The Tangler”.

More info to come when the release date gets a little closer, but right now the anthology authors are all working on creating promo images for their individual stories. Here’s mine:

Click to enlarge to TERRIFYING proportions

I have never made any claim to being a brilliant graphic artist, and I’m not about to start now, but I like the way this turned out.

Second-hand advice (3): You can’t please everyone

It may or may not always be nice to be noticed. Perhaps there truly is no such thing as bad publicity. There is at least a grain of truth in the idea that the opposite of love is not hate, but apathy. All of which may help to explain why, when the editor of Weirdbook announced that the most recent issue (in other words, the one to which I was a contributor) had been reviewed by Tangent Online but also warned everyone that it was an unpleasantly unfavorable critique, I nonetheless clicked on the link to see what was being said:

Tangent Online Reviews Weirdbook #37

In the Weirdbook editor’s defense, he was unstinting in his assurances that he disagreed with the reviewer, that he was proud of every story he had selected and truly believed that together they comprised one of if not the finest issue of the magazine since its revival. But I am both reasonably thick-skinned and morbidly curious, so I felt the need to see for myself.

It is, without question, a review written by someone who was not wildly enamored with the issue in question. But it’s also an evenhanded review in the sense that the reviewer tends to say one good thing and one bad thing about each story. Granted, in more cases than not the praise is faint and the fault-finding is harsh, but the whole thing doesn’t read as vindictive axe-grinding. (It also should be noted that my last name is spelled wrong throughout the review, which was an error I noticed in the proofs of the issue and asked the editor to correct. The reviewer also makes reference to proofreading errors throughout, which makes me wonder if the editor sent an advance copy out for review before final edits were done. I’m completely familiar with the phenomenon of typographical errors becoming so annoying that they color the perception of the artistic merits, so add that grain of salt into the mix, as well.)

At any rate, here is the portion of the review dedicated to my tale, The Maiden Voyage of the Ariona:

In a sort of 19th century, the narrator is a worker on a pilot project for an undersea rail which is ultimately intended to cross the width of the Pacific. But as above is not so below and there are some things Man Was Not Meant to Meet.

Suspension of disbelief is essentially impossible with this thoroughly retro story, which is conceptually a bit like Verne meets Lovecraft with a dash of Burroughs and told in a style where nacreous pearlescent rails fade into a brumous caliginosity. That said, it’s quite imaginative and the late action sequence of the story is quite a lot of chilling, thrilling fun.

All in all that’s not too shabby! If I were in need of a positive pull-quote, “quite imaginative and the late action sequence of the story is quite a lot of chilling, thrilling fun” would certainly do in a pinch. Furthermore, I wholeheartedly agree that I gave in to my worst vocabulary show-off urges in the story, though the reviewer does seem hip to the idea that I did so at least in part to evoke the material I was paying homage to. I regret nothing.

But to be honest, it’s the following bit that really gives me pause: “Suspension of disbelief is essentially impossible with this thoroughly retro story.” I’m not sure if the reviewer is saying that the concepts in the story are far-fetched in a retro way, meaning that he would also find it impossible to suspend disbelief while reading Frankenstein or War of the Worlds or any other canonical classic based on ideas which we all later learned were Not The Way It Works. Or, conversely, if he has no problem with those implausible stories of reanimating the dead and alien invaders from Mars, but finds my fantastical creations so much more outre that they overwhelm any illusion. Either one would be hard for me to wrap my head around.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter. This is a Second-hand Advice post, and while I’m at it I can throw in a bonus nugget of wisdom gleaned from my college writing courses: you don’t argue with criticism. You can wrestle with it in your head, you can ultimately choose to dismiss or ignore it for any reason or no reason, or you can accept it and adjust your current and future work accordingly. At most, and at best, the proper response to a critic is your current and future work itself. The urge to fire back should be channeled into your writing; if you feel you were right all along, then double down on your ideas and let the results speak for themselves.

The main piece of advice I wanted to repeat, however, was this classic: you can’t please all the people all the time. One criticism I have received is that my stories are slow burns where the wonder or terror only bursts through the mundane world at or near the end. This is a totally fair observation! And while I construct stories that way on purpose, because those are a kind of story I really like to tell, I am aware of the merits of stretching myself now and then, which leads to stories like The Maiden Voyage of the Ariona: set in an impossible past, premised on fantastical pseudo-technology and piling on the supernatural threats as well. And thusly insulated against charges of telling a story which is too sedate or insufficiently speculative, I leave myself wide open to being called out for rendering suspension of disbelief impossible. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. Nonetheless, I’ll keep writing my slow burning, late twisting tales, and the occasional all-out weirdness, too. Not everyone will like all of them, but hopefully they’ll each find a few admirers here and there.

Year-end superlatives

As 2017 draws to a close I thought I would take a moment to look back at my writing efforts and highlight some notable happenings over the past year. Self-indulgent, sure, but ’tis the season for retrospectives and such.

This past year did not see me break any records in terms of the number of stories I managed to get published. So far the high-water mark for my personal output remains 9 stories, the number I unleashed upon the world in 2016. The total for 2017 was 5, which all things considered is not bad. And I did manage to set a personal record for the sheer number of submissions I sent out over the course of the year, a whopping 45. Of course this led to more rejections than ever before, too, but I think that’s also because I’ve been aiming higher at more competitive markets.

In amongst all those rejections, though, there were a few acceptances which were not published in 2017 but should be coming out in 2018. And there are a handful of personal firsts to call out there as well. My story “Food and Other Pleasures” represents a tripartite set of top rankings: it’s the shortest story I’ve ever sold, clocking in at just 2,000 words; it’s the first vampire story I’ve ever sold, which is a surprisingly late achievement for someone who works in horror more often than not; and it’s also the first piece of erotica I’ve ever sold (don’t tell my mother).

Another story with three distinctions is “Green Growing Things”, which I’ve actually written about pretty extensively. As I noted in the earlier post, this story was the first time I deliberately adhered to the legendary Lester Dent pulp formula, which resulted in the shortest-ever Kellan Oakes story (less than 6,000 words for my usually shaggy and meandering PI), and ultimately wound up finding a home with Lycan Valley Press, marking the first time I’ve ever sold two different pieces to the same publisher (as LVP published Final Masquerade including my story “Another Night in Paradise” back in 2016).

And speaking of LVP and Final Masquerade, in May of 2017 LVP re-released the anthology with brand new cover art. This was the first time a book my work appeared in received such refurbishment, and I was pretty stoked about it.

One of my personal goals for the past year was to work on getting some of my back catalog of stories re-printed. Fairly or not, I’ve always considered it a hallmark of a “real” writer to have stories not just published but published again and again. At the very least it indicates some writing effort that’s been going on for a good length of time, at least long enough to find a good home for a story, see it released, allow the period of exclusivity for that initial publication to elapse, start the process of finding another good home, and ultimately succeed in that endeavor as well. So I was very pleased when my fairy tale re-telling “My Name is Melise”, an oldie but a goodie, was accepted to be re-printed in Distressing Damsels this summer. The quest to see further re-printings will assuredly continue into the new year!

Getting back to those 45 submissions I mentioned above, not all of them are acceptances or rejections; some have yet to have their fate decided one way or the other. One among those is not a short story but a poem, the first poem I’ve submitted to a potential publisher, at least during this phase of my writing life (in other words, not counting one other attempt back in high school to fulfill a class requirement for a writing elective). If I can find a receptive editor, maybe this will lead to a whole new Poetry category on the Works page!

It took me a few years and eighteen or so stories getting published, but I finally got my first custom illustration art. It accompanied The Dying Desert Moon at Crimson Streets and it’s pretty awesomely evocative, if I do say so myself.

And finally, 2017 marked the first year that this humble little corner of the Web that my fictions and I call home received a visitor from Serbia! Whoever you are, I hope our moment of international online connection was enjoyable for you. And to everyone else, all of you from every corner, thanks for stopping by and supporting me!

Weird and watery

Nearly a year ago I wrote a post about selling a story to Weirdbook Magazine, concluding with a necessarily vague indication that the issue in which the tale appeared would probably come out sometime in 2017. I am happy to announce that the long-awaited day has finally arrived!

“The Maiden Voyage of the Ariona” was an attempt on my part to do a pastiche of early science fiction adventure stories in the style of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Nowadays a lot of folks would consider that to fall under the genre heading of steampunk, but nonetheless I choose to draw a line of distinction, however fine, between that category and what I ended up with. If nothing else, you should be advised that while the story is set in the past and features anachronistically advanced imaginary technology, it is not predominated by the most recognizable of steampunk signifiers, the flying dirigible fortress. On the contrary, since going against the grain is often a very large motivator for me, my retro-marvel vehicle of choice is a submersible locomotive.

Issue #37 of Weirdbook can be purchased from Wildside Press and from Amazon!

Investigators of the transmundane

Somewhere around the middle of 2016, an announcement was made of the intention to launch a brand new periodical of short genre fiction: OCCULT DETECTIVE QUARTERLY. This appealed to me on a number of levels, mainly as a fan who enjoys reading stories about square-jawed heroes facing off against the supernatural, and as a writer always happy to see a new potential market for my own work. I’d feel a certain amount of both consumer enthusiasm and professional gratitude for any new venture whether its focus were pure robots-and-aliens sci-fi or throwback sword-and-sorcery fantasy, but Occult Detective Quarterly was particularly welcome because, of course, my recurring character Kellan Oakes is a private eye who regularly tangles with figures from druid lore and other magical, mystical spheres; he is, by very definition, an Occult Detective.

ODQ, as it has since become affectionately known, released its first three issues over the course of 2017 (the cover to #3 pictured above), with more to come in 2018. And I’m exceedingly pleased to say that there will be a brand new Kellan Oakes story appearing in one of those 2018 issues, schedule TBD and further announcements to come when final decisions are rendered. But in the meantime, much as I plugged Weirdbook for its own sake before it was possible to obtain an issue with my work therein, I am eager to signal-boost for ODQ, thusly:

THE MAGAZINE: Here is a link to Doomed Meddler Central, where you can find more information about the publication’s mission statement and also make use of links to the various issues available on Amazon.

THE ANTHOLOGY: ODQ also has a Kickstarter campaign running right now for a 300 page anthology, Occult Detective Quarterly Presents, featuring stories similar in subject matter to the magazine’s regular contents but more expansive in length, if that’s your cup of tea. The campaign is nearly over but to my way of thinking this is the ideal time to throw in: the project is fully funded, so you would basically be pre-ordering the book (and potentially subscribing to the magazine for 2018 as well, which again, will guarantee you a new story of mine in due time), and your backing would help achieve the stretch goal of fully illustrating the anthology.