4.29.2008

The Karate Kid

Man, The Karate Kid is a superb example of a sustained artistic vision. I love the juxtaposition of Bananarama's "Cruel Summer" with Daniel getting into trouble in front of his best girl on the P.E. field.

When we talk about complication, we're talking about that little corner of fate and coincidence. This happens here when Daniel heads down to the office and catches Mr. Kesuke Miyagi trying to snare flies with his chopsticks. It's a sweet film, and one that has held up really well over two+ decades...

By the way,

FEAR DOES NOT EXIST ON THIS BLOG, DOES IT?

NO, SENSEI!

PAIN DOES NOT EXIST ON THIS BLOG, DOES IT?

NO, SENSEI!

DEFEAT DOES NOT EXIST ON THIS BLOG, DOES IT?

NO, SENSEI!

Something Wicked Magazine

When I read the publication notes at the front of Joe Hill's excellent 20th Century Ghosts, I was a little surprised to see a couple of foreign markets credited. It got me thinking about some of these magazines doing good work overseas, which led me to Something Wicked, a speculative quarterly based in Cape Town, South Africa.

They are now making content available for download on the internet. The magazine is attractive and packed with content. Ten stories and a novella made the cut in a recent issue.

They have a fairly short reading period for online submissions and some very specific formatting requests, so read the guidelines carefully and get your work in the queue prior to May 15.

4.28.2008

Oh...my

Take a moment to look at this video. No video games for a whole weekend, indeed!

Oh, Florida...

Favorite Markets...

Spent the morning polishing a short story. I've got material under consideration at most of my favorite markets, so I'm spending some time this afternoon with Duotrope in isolating a fresh market.

Two questions:

  • How do you keep track of your submissions?
  • What are your favorite markets? What sets them apart?

The Locus Award finalists are out. Get a look at those five magazines. Lady Churchill's looks like an intriguing market.

I'd love some input on where you're sending work, and I'd love to hear what you're working on. Sound off in the comments section if you feel compelled...

4.27.2008

The World is Filled with Legless Creatures

Two laps around the Goldenrod Trail here equates to a challenging five-mile run. But man-oh-man is it a harrowing jaunt! I spooked a pair of snakes on the trail today. I saw a raccoon and a praying mantis--I swear--the size of a rat terrier. Had I stepped on it, it would have been ugly. I think it was ten inches long.

Tonight's episode of Nature is awesome. It's about jumbo crocodiles! Take a look at this story. The American Crocodile is enjoying a re-emergence down around the 10,000 Islands. Very exciting news, unless you find a reptile in your kitchen (this one's a gator)...

I fried up a mess of alligator tail two weeks ago. It's pretty good, I'll have to admit.

4.26.2008

The Dude Who Collected Lovecraft

Not much time to report, but I'm reading a pair of great novels (reviews forthcoming) and I looked at a remarkable short story on Thursday. Please read "The Dude Who Collected Lovecraft."

Yes, for those out there questioning my grammar, check Writers' Harbrace: Brief edition for punctuating periods and commas inside of quotes (the underline is not correct, but that's on blogger).

Nick and Tim have written an excellent story. It's accessible to broad audiences and uniquely intriguing for esoteric readers in a way that is very refreshing. Take some time and get a good look at this one, and I promise I'll offer a novel critique soon...

The Jags made a huge move today. I'm mixed on it. But I'm happy to see that J. Stewart did his thing in the draft...


Update:
The underline only shows up in composition, so we're good...

4.24.2008

Unearthed, Fever Pitch and Deception

Woe is me...

I fed all eight of last year's batch of After Dark Horror Fest films into my queue on Blockbuster Online. And, dutifully, I've mowed through them. My last entry was the underwhelming Unearthed. Despite a solid turn by the eye-catching Emmanuelle Vaugier, the film is flawed on so many levels. The writing devolves around what attempts to be a "smart" story about alien life forms and the dangers of radiation. The special effects are decent but the CGI Alien rip-off moves in such a clunky fashion. The characters are paper thin and whimper through the third act in agonizing fashion. The premise--an overturned truck has cut off their escape route--is so far-fetched (they have jeeps; drive around it!) that you lose the ability to empathize from the get-go. I'd give it a 'D' for trying.

There was one good film in the bunch: Tooth and Nail.

And Fever Pitch ('C') delivers just about the same amount of joy. Jimmy Fallon is just not that funny. Drew Barrymore is solid here, but the story doesn't give her much to work with. In fact, the story is the downfall. You see the requisite plot hurdles from two miles away (a failed pregnancy, Fallon's character's passion for sports) and then there's the absurd conclusion. To its credit, it ends with the warm fuzzies (don't all romantic comedies?) and isn't a terrible weeknight diversion. I mean, if it's Deal or No Deal or Fever Pitch your decision is easy, am I right? I took it out because it's baseball season and I wanted a sporting romantic comedy. Oh, well. I also grabbed The Natural, a great movie and much darker than most give it credit for...

By the way, whatever happened to intelligent American game shows? I love Jeopardy and even Millionaire is a huge step up from these bumpkins playing elimination by guessing case numbers in front of bald germophobe Howie Mandel.

It looks like another substandard week at the movies. But Deception looks like a throwback to the thrillers of the '90s. It stars Hugh Jackman (a dude with pretty limited range) and the story looks like a blend between Disclosure and Eyes Wide Shut. Hey, those were some pretty good films. I'm off to update my queue...

4.23.2008

Much Ado About Books

This Friday I'll spend the morning with a manuscript tucked beneath my arm at Much Ado About Books. If you're an editor and you want to stay up until 3:00 a.m. reading a riveting novel of supernatural suspense, look for the tallish dude in the yellow Oregon Ducks hat.

I'm pretty excited for two of the morning sessions. Steve Berry and Tim Dorsey will be discussing their work and the publishing process. They're both kind men and solid writers, and I think they have a lot of good things to say about the writing life.

As an aside, if any of you attended Penguicon, I'd love to get your take on the story reported here and here.

Boundaries, people. Boundaries!

4.21.2008

Writing Theory: Symbolism and Allusion

Before I get to the writing discussion, I wanted to jot a quick note about the jog I just took. It's 82 degrees outside right now in Jacksonville. The humidity is starting to creep up there, so I decided to grab a four mile jog out at the Spanish Pond before the day became too hot to finish it comfortably.

This is really a remarkable run. It begins on the boardwalk in the photo shown in the link above and winds through a bunch of mangroves. On either side of the boardwalk there's a series of cypress swamps filled with tawny, brackish water. The mangroves and cypress trees mingle with scrubby pines and grow over the top of the boardwalk to create a tunnel through the jungle.

After about a half-mile the boardwalk spills out onto a sandy trail that winds up and down some pretty steep dunes. This is where it gets dicey. At the entrance to the trail is a sign warning of venomous snakes. We have rattlers and water moccasins and cottonmouths and coral snakes. When it's 82 degrees outside, they like to scoot around out there. I swear, every dozen steps or so the bushes on either side of me rattled with activity. When I got to the top of the highest dune on the Temecuan Trail, I saw about a six foot indigo snake dart right across the path in front of me.

I'm not ashamed to say I yipped when I saw it.

After you summit that dune you run downhill for a stretch until you descend to sea level in a series of tidal marshlands. The trail is strewn with centuries of accumulated oyster shell and, before long, it terminates in a man-made birding platform. I had the platform to myself and I stopped to catch my breath.

The Round Marsh is really a sight to see. There were two fellows quietly trolling in a flats boat out in the marsh, but other than that it was just the puffy white clouds, the creaking oyster beds and the jumping fish. This is one of my favorite routes, but it's a bit different with so many critters around. I took a five miler out at UNF's nature trail yesterday and spooked a snake out there as well. That's in addition to the two gators Jeanne and I saw (one in a road-side retention pond!) over the weekend...

On to the writing discussion. Literary fiction, science fiction, horror and fantasy all lend themselves very readily toward the inclusion of symbolism and allusion. That's not to say that there's no place for them in the thriller/cozy/mystery/chick lit. genres, because there is. But the audience isn't as apt to require that second level of context that a symbolic reference creates in a thriller as they might in a fantasy novel.

There are two primary types of symbols: contextual and universal. An allusion is a direct reference to a work or character from classic literature, mythology or art.

In the longer work in progress I've been toiling at for the last year, I make heavy use of the universal symbol of wheat. The Greeks idealized wheat as a symbol of life and the whole of humanity. They worshipped a god of the harvest named Cronus. Numerous cultures depict the grim reaper as a hooded character with a scythe, used to collect the harvest of souls.

In my story, the protagonists are a pair of wheat farmers. The rising number of deaths in their isolated ranching community falls in line with the harvest they oversee on the ranch.

Water is a common universal symbol for life. A dove is a symbol for peace.

Contextual symbols glean their meaning from the text in which they appear. In Nick Hornby's fine story "Otherwise Pandemonium," the narrator foretells the end of the world by watching the content he finds on a magic VCR. The machine itself is a symbolic nod to how our technology is, ironically, undermining the progress of the global community.

An allusion is a reference to the classics. I'm reading Alan Lightman's novel Ghost right now. The book makes repeated references to Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." The story's central character, David, seems fated to walk a parallel path to that of the mariner at the center of the story: to live a form of existential repetition for the rest of his days. In effect, he's cursed to a life of mundane sameness, just like the narrator in Coleridge's poem.

As I said, not every narrative calls for the use of symbolism or allusion. But including these abstractions adds a layer of texture to the work. It also can be an economic means of communicating complicated ideas to a perceptive audience. Your work will let you know when you need to season with a symbol or spice with an allusion, but the more you handle them--the more you think in terms of comparisons in your daily observations--the better they'll come to you...

4.18.2008

Some Quick Reactions...


Alan Lightman's novel Ghost is pretty remarkable. I'll put down my thoughts when I finish it up, but here's a mixed notice from the Times...
I didn't enjoy In the Valley of Elah as much as I'd hoped. With Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Paul Haggis (Crash) on board for this one I expected a lot, but ultimately it disappoints. The overlong story feels disjointed and only Theron rises to the occasion in this one. 'C'
Tooth and Nail is the first decent ('B-') film I've seen from last year's batch of the Afterdark Horrorfest. Pretty good first act and a nice turn by Michael Madsen, but not much else to recommend it.

4.17.2008

A Remarkable Video

A colleague of mine here at the college e-mailed the following gut-wrenching video. Take a look as Nick Paumgarten finds himself in what, to me, is surely some form of existential hell. I mean, this thing is really tough to look at...

4.16.2008

Writers' Groups and Onset Vampyrism

I was running on the treadmill at the gym today and I looked over in the mirror and couldn't see my reflection! The last few miles were a little troubling, but I finished up strong.

It turns out they cleaned beneath the machines and moved them about eight inches. My customary tready had been shifted to line up with the seam where the mirrors came together. The mirrors don't reflect an image in that position.

The weird thing is that almost immediately I found myself thirsting for a bottle of O-. My plain old water just didn't seem that great. Alas, don't fret; after I saw my reflection when I finished the workout I was content with plain 'ol H2O again (ah, the powers of suggestion...).

When I lived in Portland I attended an infrequent writers' group. I enjoyed listening to some of the stories. Others I didn't. I enjoyed some of the people I met and valued their opinions. Others I didn't. I know lots of folks believe that these groups are an excellent way to network, and for some they probably are. I never placed any stories through the folks I met there, though. And I rarely found the editorial comments were valuable to my works in progress.

What I did see was jealousy and a tendency for writers to form cliques. It seemed that folks grouped up, formed alliances and then systematically trashed the works of others, regardless of the quality of the writing or the content. I ultimately gave it up because it wasn't a productive way to spend an evening, and evenings are few and far between around these parts.

I think it's important to share your work and to be receptive to criticism. I send work to Bernadette while I'm drafting. My wife reads some of my short stories. I send some to a few friends in Portland and to a pair of colleagues here at the college. I even occasionally post a short story in the private message board of my fantasy basketball league--they're all friends I made at Linfield. And I'm always thankful for a word or two on the improvement.

But in terms of the advice that every beginning writer needs a writing group? I don't agree with it. I think it can be helpful for some, but it's not a requirement. I'd read a lot. I mean...read a lot. That's a great way to spend time with other voices. Submit your work actively and aggressively and listen to the reactions of the editors. Attend conferences for the networking, but let the reading and writing that you do be your critique group.

And in terms of reading the work of others, I get a half-dozen random calls from folks hoping I'll line-edit their 200,000 word novels for free because I teach writing at a local college. My reaction is always a cordial 'no', but I can see exactly what author Jeff Cohen is talking about in his fine post here.

4.15.2008

Not One of Us

Not One of Us is a quarterly hard-copy magazine of speculative fiction. I like the theme; it's a magazine focusing on characters who find themselves on the outside (insert your interpretation of that here)...

A tour of the website shows consistency, longevity and some interesting content. They accept poetry and are looking for character-driven stories in the 2,000-5,000 word range.

4.14.2008

Dealing With Rejection

I enjoy reading Literary Rejections on Display. I check in a few times a week not only for the frequent doses of vitriol concerning literary journals, fee-charging contests and rude editors, but also because the writing is sharp. Writer, Rejected has a great voice and I think this website includes lots of useful publishing information. The blog often provides space for authors to post a short story for criticism, and a couple of them have been pretty good.

It all amounts to, I think, a healthy way to deal with one of the writing industry's necessary evils: rejection. I keep a record of my submissions so as not to anger editors. It's an important aspect of approaching your writing professionally--to catalogue where your work is under submission and to keep track of dates and correspondence. Some (many) editors ask that you wait a period of time (often a month or more) before submitting again after a rejection. You need to give yourself the best chance to place your work, and you don't do yourself any favors by ticking off an editor. These folks read hundreds of submissions, many of them disregarding the published guidelines for the magazine, and they deserve our careful attention to detail.

This leads me to the topic for this blog post. I received a very thoughtful rejection from The Magus Zine last evening. I appreciate the note not only for the specifics on the story but also for the explanation of the delay in response. The editor didn't owe me anything other than a note regarding a decision on the manuscript, but when he or she personalizes the note it makes the rejection much more palatable. Also, I can learn from it. I can think about the editors' tastes and their view of my writing as I'm getting back to the drawing board. And it makes me want to work more closely with that magazine. I thanked them for the note and, after I polish a couple of my current pretties, I'll try them again.

I have a file of my hard copy rejections. I have a couple of my acceptance letters and best rejections set aside for posterity. And I keep track of folks who write a kind word in their responses. I don't agonize over rejection. I admit that it hurts when you get very close, but I don't view it as a personal attack. I can't. Sure, it is personal. They didn't like your story as much as some others. But that doesn't mean that your story isn't good. It doesn't mean that you won't find a home for that story somewhere else.

I deal with rejection by returning to the word processor. I consult my file of story ideas and I head back to work. I don't burn 'em. I don't defile 'em. I don't do anything other than note them and move forward.

So let me ask you folks out there (my metrics don't lie, ya'll): How do you deal with rejection?

4.10.2008

Stop-Loss

Jeanne and I attended Stop-Loss last Friday. We both liked it quite a bit. She gave it an 'A-'; I awarded it a 'B'. We were in agreement on the strength of the acting. Ryan Phillippe's performance should garner him a nomination or two. It's certainly the best performance I've seen in 2008.

Phillippe hinted at this type of potential in films such as Cruel Intentions and Crash. But in this instance, he puts it all together. He delivers both passion and subtlety to great success and his take on the Texas accent and military bravado seem perfect for the characterization.

Jeanne liked the overall execution. I thought the writing fell a little bit short in the third act. I found the narrative floundering as Phillippe's Brandon King met with resistance in his quest to overturn his stop-loss status.

It's the first good film I've seen that deals with this version of the war in Iraq. Three Kings was good (far better than Jarhead) in its depiction of Desert Storm, but the field is still wide open on this conflict. It's got some gripping war footage in the first act, but all of that pales in comparison with the depictions of these soldiers struggling in their adjustment to life back in the United States.

It avoids excessive proselytizing and sticks to the hot-button issue of the stop-loss policy, what King calls a "backdoor draft" in one charged scene.

It's a good movie and, like most war films, fares much better on the big screen than in your living room. Take a look at it and then go to the yahoo forum to get a feel for the politicized views on this movie. Lots of emotion in there.

I watched Mulberry Street last night. I'd give it a C. Lots of good effects. Very little characterization.

This weekend we get some tired themes in Prom Night and Street Kings. I'd like to check out The Visitor...

4.09.2008

So What's it All About?

I love to discuss books with the people I work with. The majority of them almost exclusively read non-fiction, so I'm not able to talk about fiction as much as I'd like, but I still get to chat about books and stories more than I would have in many other vocations. And so far this term, we've read about twenty short stories in my literature section. We'll be moving on to urban legends soon, always an interesting stretch of material.

But that question up there in the title is the one I get the most when I recommend a work of fiction to my colleagues. Let me give them credit. It's a far more complicated question than it would seem.

Sure, I can summarize the story for them, but that's a pretty fruitless exercise for everyone involved. The plot merely serves the theme, which is really what the book is about.

If you can take a work of fiction and run it through the idea sifter, what remains on the screen is what the piece is about. We're talking bigger ideas here, people.

Themes

Many of the stories we've read this term deal with the subject of the apocalypse ("Night Surf," The Masque of the Red Death," "The End of the Whole Mess," "The Things They Carried," "Otherwise Pandemonium," "When Sysadmins Ruled The Earth"). The apocalypse is a result of a theme. In "The End of the Whole Mess" that theme equates to man's destructive hubris. The themes of "Masque" are greed, isolation and hubris.

Chaos is not a theme; it's a circumstance or condition. Chaos may be the plot element that drives the narrative toward the revelation of a greater truth, but the two shouldn't be confused.

That's one of the reasons you have to admire the writers that come up with the jacket copy for all of these books. Here's the synopsis of Duma Key:

The tenacity of love, the perils of creativity, the mysteries of memory and the nature of the supernatural -- Stephen King gives us a novel as fascinating as it is gripping and terrifying.

Like I said above, it really is a more complex question than it seems. Think about your work in progress and pose it to yourself. If you can come up with the answer, you've gone a long way toward drafting your pitch packet.

4.08.2008

May God Bless You, Mr. Thompson...

We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like ‘I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive. . .’ And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: ‘Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?'

City Slab

City Slab seems like a great market. I know they have published the work of Jeremy Robert Johnson and their list of authors is impressive. Decidedly adult (get a load of those covers), City Slab seems to have an affinity for bizarro fiction and tales of the urban grotesque...

4.07.2008

Starting Over

As I wrote last week, I finished the first draft of my second manuscript. It was a joy to write and I think it's filled with some creepy content--should keep some readers up at night, which is one of the ways you know the story worked.

That said, now it's time to plunge into that next project. Because of my work schedule and having the spring free of classes at the college, this has always been my starting point. So now I've got page one staring me in the face, that little cursor up in the corner blinking expectantly.

I've been playing some ideas over in my head, but it's hard to settle on the one I want to roll around with for the next ten or twelve months. Last summer, under the intoxicating influences of a series of post-apocalypse novels I'd been reading, I dashed off sixty pages of my own take on the sub-genre. I'd like to get back into it, but it doesn't feel as urgent as it once did and I think the market has had an awful lot of that type of story in recent months.

I want to write a haunted house story. I'd like to set it in Portland. I think I see the way the early part of the plot will unfold. That's probably where I'll be going this afternoon as I start the word count. Knowing I have a foundation in the other tale will be my insurance, and I'll blunder into the woods on the haunted house piece first.

You'll note that I mentioned my observations on the market in my discussion above. I think the most important advice to any writer getting started on a novel is to write the book he or she wants to read. Regardless of the sales in similar fields over the last year or so.

Writing to market trends is probably not even possible, because of the extended lag time on book production. But for the writer that enjoys keeping abreast of the market trends and publishing news, I think this factors into the discussion of what he or she writes on an almost sub-conscious level. If you know the market is tired of vampires, werewolves and zombies then you'll have to mix it up. This does impact creativity. It shapes the ideas as you conceive them.

Now I know that I'm maybe contradicting myself. How can the market absorb another haunted house story, Dan?

Maybe it can't, but it's the book I want to read. And I'm hoping that my angle on it will be fresh enough, my characters compelling enough, that the rest of you will just have to agree with me...

UPDATE:
  • I spent three hours on a completely different short story. Oh, well. Tomorrow...

4.06.2008

Rest in Peace, Charlton Heston

Take a moment to watch this final scene. Not particularly a happy ending in a Hollywood film, which is a real rarity these days.



Heston was a great actor, and while I didn't agree with a lot of his political views I think he left a huge mark on American culture.

4.05.2008

Joe R. Lansdale

If questioned under extreme duress (to be outlined in a future post), I'd say Joe Lansdale is my favorite writer. Is he the best I've ever read?

Not by a long shot.

Raymond Carver and John Cheever and Willa Cather and ol' Ernest pretty much own that mantle. These folks have written the most beautiful and thorough fiction I've ever read. It's about voice and pacing and content and epiphany and character and narrative. Their writing is just so consistently filled with art, craft and that special quantity of...well, narrative thrust, I suppose...that just about anything they write I can appreciate.

That said, I'll almost always choose a Stephen King novel over one of theirs if pressed. He's a great stylist in his own right and his voice only seems to mature with every passing year. It's his content, and my own attraction to the surreal, that drives a lot of my reading choices. What can I say? I actually plan my day around watching Tales From The Darkside on Chiller.

But Joe? Shoot, man! Give me a Champion Joe story any night of the week. Lansdale's voice is without parallel in the field of speculative fiction. No one writes like him. The collection on the right is so filled with blockbuster tales that I simply can't believe it hasn't made stronger ripples in the field.

Lansdale's novels are amazing. His short fiction is top shelf.

If you can get your hands on Shadows, Kith and Kin, then do it. It's amazing.

4.02.2008

Defining Horror

Just as there are an infinite supply of sub-genres in the field of horror, there are just as many perceptions on what the term itself means. Agent Kristin Nelson tries her hand at it here, and I think she raises a couple of nice points in her post.

To my thinking, horror has never been about the zombie hordes, the masked man with the chainsaw or the ghost in the attic. Sure, those are some of the sub-genres (prominent ones) that I mentioned above. And they're entertaining, to be sure.

But when I think of horror, I think of that pesky cough that doesn't go away. I think of the shuttered house at the end of the street and the man that watches the parade of children walking by after school lets out. I think of the quiet kid that gets picked on at school until he or she explodes in a fury of bullets and misplaced passion.

I had a student write an essay once about attending a family reunion. She had recently begun dating an abusive alcoholic. He got trashed at the reunion and blacked her eye right in front of her whole family.

That's horror.

I'm working my way through the After Dark Horrorfest films from last year, and the majority of them are well made stories of the first type of horror I mentioned above--chock full of monsters and ghosts. They're entertaining. But I don't think they do what a story like Sylvia Ozick's "The Shawl" does.

"The Shawl" is a horror story...

You tell me. How do you define horror?

4.01.2008

There's a Ghost Behind the Homestead Restaurant

"Many years ago, a kid that worked for us was playing basketball in the back. The ball had rolled into the trees and he ran to get it. All of a sudden he started screaming, ran home and never came back to work. We called him and he said saw a woman half in and half out of the ground." --Steve Macri, Owner of the Homestead

Suffer the Little Children

It doesn't get much more depressing than this story. Many years ago (like three or four) it would have been unheard of for kids this young to scheme against their teachers. But this story is but another symptom of diseased thinking in American citizens.

Realms of Fantasy is a heavy hitter in the world of speculative fiction. They pay well, the production quality is superb, the authors are seasoned and varied and the magazine has excellent distribution.

And speaking of heavy hitters, I wish the Baltimore Orioles had one. Man, the Rays wiped the floor with us yesterday and our offense is utterly punchless. I fear a long summer for the birds...

Oh, well. Hope springs eternal.

Uncovering Original Ideas

There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope....