I read "The Depths" last night and really liked it. Carol Hone's piece is nicely paced and downright scary. That third act will get beneath your skin and just stick with you all day long...
I used to use a bloated text (Steps to Writing Well) that was strong on theory but was filled with what were, for my tastes, antiquated and dull essays. I went to Bedford/St. Martin's and reviewed their essay/story banks for quality content. I was impressed, so I compiled readers for both my composition and literature sections. I teach the course theory from my own notes and PowerPoints, and I'm able to teach stories and essays I'm passionate about and that I know well.
Because I'm listed as the editor on the front of the text, students invariably assume that I'm enriching myself somehow through using these texts (they both cost the students less than $20.00, by the way).
Of course, I don't see one thin dime from their use.
So, is assigning personal texts a bad idea? Not in my view. So much of higher education is steeped in esoteric knowledge, and many of my colleagues are specialists in their fields. A great many of them have also proved to be excellent writers. I don't see it as a conflict of interest if a professor can use a particularly clear text that he or she has written that sheds light on an area of personal expertise.
Of course, it's a case-by-case deal, and the price and utlitity of the text in question should be thoroughly assessed prior to adding it to the adoption sheet...
She titled the post "What About the Readers?"--as though the publishing industry is somehow sacrosanct and that the poor idiot consumers would somehow be overwhelmed by the self-publishing trend.
Thank God that agents, publishers and editors have been funnelling me content all these years! I would have been lost in the woods without them--probably reading rubbish from the small presses.
Hey, wait a minute...that's exactly what I've been doing anyway.
No Koontz, Steele, Patterson or Brown for me. I've never read a word of the story of a chick who kicked a hornet's nest, but I've read loads of work from Subterranean Press, PM Press, Cemetery Dance, and Night Shade Books.
But back to her post. Honestly, how will readers make choices?
How will readers sleep at night knowing that there are writers out there whose stories were written for personal (gasp!) commercial benefit?
How will readers soldier through their days knowing that writers are (gasp!) developing audiences outside of traditional channels?
Writers should have a foot in both worlds, in my view. Literary agents offer access to markets and possibilities that just don't exist in the same quantities for self-published writers. I firmly believe that. Hell, I swapped e-mails with my literary agent just last night. Bernadette and I are going to get some good work out there soon, and I value her input in everything I write. I have a couple of irons in various fires with traditional NYC publishers; if something comes through, she's the person that will maximize our opportunities.
But in the long term (and most rational agents and editors agree with this; they are already adapting their own business models to adjust to the marketplace), the internet is a viable publishing channel that puts the most valuable commodity of a free market--choice--directly into the hands of the consumer.
In our field, we call those consumers readers. And there is no reason for the hand-wringing about them, to be honest, because they know what they want!
Look, I'm not a fan of that silly phony krab meat, but I'm not offended that it's there in the seafood department. I just don't buy it...
But somebody sure as hell does, because it's always there.
I'm not a huge fan of that cheap yellow mustard.
But somebody sure as hell is, because there are gallons of the stuff on the shelves.
Oh, and good for you, Neal Pollack. I'm buying your book...
I was a fortunate child.
In our home, there was odd in abundance. We had a wealth of weird, a plenitude of peculiar and a storeroom of strange.
My parents, bless their hearts, were such great Star Trek fans that we had “WARP 5” on the license plates of our old Dodge minivan for a lot of years. I doubt we ever hit warp factor five in that burly space cruiser, but that’s beside the point.
The point was that our folks were into fantasy and science fiction, and it trickled down to Beth and Emily and me. For that gift (among many others), I’ll always be thankful.
My mom read a lot of Anne McCaffrey back then and, while I didn’t share her enthusiasm for those books, I did read a couple of them. They were pretty neat—interesting and fun, and unlike the other stuff I was into back then. Those books encouraged me to explore the world of speculative fiction. I made quick work of Tolkien’s catalogue before plunging into Madeleine L’Engle and John Bellairs and Roald Dahl and Ray Bradbury and C.S. Lewis.
Then, one year for Christmas, I received a couple of paperback novels from my Aunt Kelley: Stephen King’s The Shining and Salem’s Lot. I was nine or ten years old.
Sheesh, those books left a bruise!
The Shining frightened me far beyond anything I’d read up to that point. King’s influence on my tastes in fiction (and, eventually, my writing) was immediate and intense. I developed an appreciation for mundane horror that informs my narrative leanings to this day.
I have vivid memories of watching Don Siegel’s 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers with my mom on Halloween night. I think I was about eight years old. Shortly after that one, I developed some pretty healthy misgivings about adults.
I remember all of us gathering in the living room to watch the 1980s rendition of The Twilight Zone. They were so good we sought out the original series and I had my first exposure to the great Rod Serling. “To Serve Man” still gets me every time (“It’s…it’s a cookbook!”).
I remember watching Monsters and Tales from the Darkside on Sunday evenings on WGN. Emily and I never missed them. They’re running the old Darkside episodes on Chiller now, and my daughter and I enjoy one almost every morning together while we have our cereal.
Our whole family gathered for the underrated Steven Spielberg series Amazing Stories. It’s a shame that one didn’t have better traction.
E.T.. Gremlins. Jaws. It was a great time to be both a kid and a fan of weird stories. I’ll never forget going to the drive-in back in Pueblo, Colorado, and feeling a sense of deep and pervasive dread when Superman trapped those villains in the glass and sent them whisking off to another dimension.
What happened to them, anyway? Poor bastards.
At any rate, I’m thankful to my folks for making room for speculative storytelling in our home. They encouraged us to read widely. They took us to the movies. They even paid us for our writing.
These early influences are why I wrote these stories. The fourteen tales collected here are culled primarily from my first forays into writing fiction (I began to write with an eye toward publication in the fall of 2006). I understand if the efforts are viewed as uneven.
But I wanted to collect them because they represent the efforts of an important time in my development as a storyteller. A few are melancholy. Some of them are humorous. All of them are dark.
Thank you for taking the time to read them. I hope they provide an entertaining escape.
~ Jacksonville, Florida, April 2011
Jeanne and I took in Francis Lawrence's Water for Elephants on Friday evening and came away entertained. The director of the almost-great I Am Legend (2007), Lawrence has created an actors' showcase here, albeit one in which the male lead is a little out of his element.
It's a vibrant film. The lighting was strong throughout, giving the film the right feel of nostalgia in some places with hints of the surreal in others. I particularly liked the interiors of the boxcars at night--very nice job in establishing the rollicking confinement of a travelling entertainment.
It's a nice embedded narrative, a story told in flashback by the likable Hal Holbrook (who has given a one-man show at FSCJ's South Campus a few times in recent years)--the aged version of Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson), our story's protagonist. Jankowski loses his family and his fortune in a short period of time. He sets out to find his way in life and becomes a veterinarian for the Benzini Brothers Circus.
He quickly ingratiates himself to the circus's owner, August (played wonderfully by Cristolph Waltz), and very shortly thereafter to the owner's lovely wife Marlene (a nice turn by Reece Witherspoon).
August is an interesting character. He teeters back and forth between living a life of extravagance and being able to pay his debts. He is both cruel and generous, a general and a confidante. I loved the scene in which he took Jacob on the roof of the train.
Waltz plays the eccentric villain very well, and his performance here is at least the equal of his Oscar-winning turn in Inglorius Basterds. He leaches what seems a very sincere appreciation for the history of the circus onto the screen, which makes it so much more difficult to watch him menacing his wife and the company's animals.
Witherspoon intrigues me. After watching her here, I can't picture another player in the role. She is sincere and alluring and she plays it with grace. It's so hard for me, as a fan of movies, to reconcile her work here with some of the silly choices in her past.
Pattinson is borderline creepy in his portrayal of Jacob. The scenes in which he watches August and Marlena dancing and being affectionate were uncomfortable, and he makes a strange face--a look of drug-addled constipation--time and time again. But when he's not making the face, he is believable and engaging as Jacob. It's a mixed bag for our vampish lead, but not an altogether poor outing.
The story is heart warming and nicely shot. I like the pacing, and Witherspoon and Waltz, in particular, really did a nice job with the piece. I like it at a 'B' grade and would recommend fans of the circus, of strong visual narratives, and of romance to see it in the theaters...
U.S. Representative Ander Crenshaw recently estimated that there are 250,000 military personnel stationed on Florida's First Coast. When I moved here in 2005, I expected to read essays about military service, and I did. Most of those essays came from wives and parents--people whose transient military lives and financial health were impacted by frequent deployments and relocations.
The essays were sad, but they don't hold a candle to the stuff I've been reading in the last eighteen months. I've read essays by marines who have killed in close quarters, and have been debilitated by the guilt. I've read essays about the loss of limbs, diminished cognitive ability, problems with social acclimation and the loss of basic human dignity. I've worked with students from the Wounded Warrior project who have suffered immensely--both physically and mentally. The Director of Deerwood Center, Dr. Patty Adeeb, has been instrumental in helping many of these young men and women find a home at our college.
I've read essays filled with the most heinous of acronyms: IEDs and PTSD and the like. I've read about students having breakdowns in parking lots at the sound of car backfires, and of former soldiers menacing their neighbors because they struggle with the transition back to civilian life.
And the more of these essays I read, and the greater the number of these students I encounter, the more it makes me a firm believer in the idea that our military must change its focus. We should keep troop levels at their current states, but we need to bring home our overseas military (our combat troops, at least) and begin training these soldiers in skilled labor positions so that they can assist on the homefront.
Soldiers should still be given the necessary skills to succeed in their military commitments, but augmenting their skills in the trades would be a boon to our country. These soldiers could work in industry when not deployed. The military could develop training facilities, partnering with the civilian community to educate soldiers in skilled labor.
Imagine the benefits to New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Katrina had the military been able to dispatch welders, builders, medical personnel and first responders in greater numbers.
Mike Rowe recently testified in Washington about the need for additional skilled labor in this country. While not every American is interested in higher education (nor are there enough jobs to support such a lofty aspiration), we could make our military an even stronger proving ground for equipping our citizens with life skills.
Some soldiers enjoy these benefits already, but that group is in the minority. By mandating an ancillary approach to skills development for all soldiers, we can improve our response in times of trouble. Think about what we've seen with the flooding in Louisiana and the tornadoes in the Midwest and you get my point.
We're just two weeks away from hurricane season.
Some have predicted that this will be a century of destruction. Whether it is or not, it just makes sense to repurpose our military to not only defend our nation's security, but also improve our labor foundation in the interim.
I'm adamantly against the idea of erecting a wall between our country and one of our greatest allies, Mexico (didn't we recently ask a certain country in Europe to tear down theirs?). How about using American troops to patrol the border in greater numbers? Give them the training in law enforcement to succeed, and they can begin to make a positive impact on the negative aspects of illegal immigration.
Things are bad in Afghanistan. According to recent U.S. military reports, morale is at an all-time low. And the number of soldiers that have been injured, seen a colleague killed, or been in the direct vicinity of an explosion is staggering. I probably wouldn't believe it if I didn't read so many essays confirming those findings, or see so many students making their way around the college with prosthetic limbs.
Defend the country. Earn a living wage. But also build the individual soldier as a whole, so we can respond with experience and agility in times of crisis on our own soil...
But I stubbornly held onto my landline for years. I liked that I had a number and a voicemail inbox; if someone needed me, they could call it. But when I was away from the house, my time was my own. Sure, it occassionally became annoying when pay phones went the way of the Chinook Salmon (maybe those phones will make a comeback too--that would be neat) and began to disappear, but my life was no more inconvenienced, on the whole.
Unless you count the various cell-phone morons whose moronic behavior tends to encroach upon my life and, in some cases, my personal space.
Last week I went to the dentist. It was unpleasant, not as much for the service (which was appalling; I left forty-five minutes after my scheduled appointment without seeing the dentist when they told me I'd be seen in an additional thirty minutes) as for the rude woman in the waiting room talking boisterously about her weekend plans. Her daughter sat on her lap (the room was full, compounding the communal misery) and looked so embarrassed by her mom's actions. Loud phone lady almost seemed to relish the sideways glances she was attracting. I eventually went to the hallway so I could read my book in peace.
Then there's the person whose identity is tied to his or her phone. These folks spend wads of cash on new phones and accessories, and I have no problem with that, but I honestly don't care about any of it, so stop talking to me about it. Get what you can get with your money. Spend it on whatever you want to spend it on. But unless I ask, I don't want a product demo.
I don't care.
Great, it's a freaking remote control that runs the space shuttle. I don't care. Casual acquaintances talk to me about their phones. People I don't know from Adam want to tell me about them (seriously, someone at The Players had to tell me about his i-phone while we waited in line for concessions). Some of my friends can launch into long soliloquies about how great the danged phone is.
It's still just a phone, for heaven's sake!
I used to listen to the Jim Rome Show to hear sports personalities interviewed. Now I can't, because all he does is play radio grab-ass with his "crew" and talk for twenty minutes about his Blackberry. It's a shame, too, because he used to be one of the best interviewers in the sports media.
When I managed Videoland you almost couldn't hear yourself think while the witless dolts read the cover copy to the decision makers on the other end of their lines. What a sweet relationship that must be (I've sent my witless dolt of a boyfriend to bird-dog a video for me; pass me another bon bon while I cut a deeper ass groove in this couch)...
And so it eventually comes to a story like this one, about an Oregon woman booted from the Amtrak for gabbing on her cell phone for sixteen hours on an Amtrak train. Seriously. Sixteen hours, and she said she was the victim.
This type of thing, as you can see, tends to burn my bacon.
On another note, Theodora Goss has a really nice blog post on the difference between accepting rejection and embracing failure. I liked the sentiment here, and it just so happens that plans are in the works for a fall symposia on creative narratives at the college. We're going to work with local artists, scholars and fans to conduct a series of discussions and readings covering graphic novels and comics, films (Spaghetti westerns!), short fiction (I'll be giving a talk on identity and horror), poetry (okay, okay--probably not narrative poetry, but the name for the series is still in the works) and a few other delightful fields of creativity.
Watch this space for details as we move through the summer.
And finally, I'd like to thank Dean John Wall for shooting me a great article on grammar and punctuation. You know, old habits die hard and all that (and I like the period/comma inside quotation marks), but punctuation and usage are kind of fluid as is. Just look at the current rules for spelling numbers if you need evidence of that. I don't think it would be the end of the world if some of these rules became a little more standard (and, in some cases, logical).
But for the time being (and if you are taking my composition courses at the college this summer!), placing periods and commas inside of quotations marks is the way to go...
P.S. If you work with me in writing workshops or read this blog, you'll also notice that I'm not a fan of the Oxford comma (it feels like a redundancy to me). So there you have it--contradictions all over the place.
The collection runs from the atmospheric to the darkly visceral, with some nice injections of humor in the prose along the way (there is a Robocop reference I couldn't help but chuckle at). The influences and subjects were diverse: some supernatural, others of the creature-feature variety; some Lovecraftian, others of the shambling undead category. In short, there is a little something for all tastes.
What really made the collection go for me is the afore-mentioned voice/pacing combination. Hallam uses fragments really well--I like the fluidity of the prose as he underscores action with simple, succinct phrases. I also liked the dialogue. It wasn't tag-heavy and it felt very authentic. I like the use of italics for emphasis, and the descriptions. Consider this snippet from "Laughter on the Landing":
Then a sound from inside my own apartment. If it hadn't been for the silence, I would
never have heard it.
I leant to see around my feet which were up on the coffee table.
A drip. A splotch of dark crimson on the oak surface. For a second, I watched it as if
waiting for something to happen. It did. Another droplet fell in the same spot.
Drawn upward, my eyes widened.
On the ceiling, a line of the same fluid had trickled before dripping. It was leaking
through the floorboards in Jenny's apartment...
The tension in most of these stories is a creepy, slow build, and they deliver the goods in the third act.
There were a few minor typos and some of the font types and sizes were inconsistent (I read the Smashwords edition), but there was nothing that detracted from what is an otherwise strong collection. "Laughter on the Landing" and "Sarah and the Monster" were two of my favorites; they also best communicate the notion espoused in the collection's title.
Still (and if you're like me), you'll want to give these tales a look just before bed. Read them when the lights are down, when the sounds of the house settling add that wonderful little kick that makes good dark fiction so fun to read.
*Craig and I correspond from time to time on writing fiction. Please don't confuse our friendship for a lack of objectivity in looking at these stories...
We had a good chance to practice that one this morning.
I try to give Lyla some ownership in her decisions by giving her choices. Today, I asked her if she wanted to wear shorts, pants or a dress. As is usual, she opted for a dress. Which color did she want? She chose purple. That's fine--we have a nice purple dress. I opened the closet and tried to get it out for her, but she saw a purple raincoat in the corner.
Dang that coat!
She had to have it, and nothing else would do. She wanted to rock a purple raincoat to school and that was it. Her face turned six shades of red and she kicked her feet and crossed her arms across her chest.
It was raincoat or bust.
I put her back in bed a few times. I tried to reason with her. I tried to give her some different options.
She's two, though. It was raincoat or bust.
Eventually I got her dressed and we made a late go of it. We had a talk about that struggle just before going into her school, and I think we have a better understanding. I hope we have a better understanding.
We're learning to be patient with each other, and that's a good thing.
But I'm getting home first this afternoon, and I can tell you one thing for sure: that raincoat is going in a cardboard box somewhere in the back of the closet until fall...
It was great to meet some new students (I'm teaching three face-to-face sessions this term) and get back into the swing of things at school. And it was also very nice to go out and break bread and spend some time in the sunshine with some of our support group from Oregon.
We walked miles and miles and saw some amazing golf at The Players Championship. I was sad to see David Toms lose the championship, but I was happy that K.J. Choi took home the hardware. It sounds like a contradiction, but both are such good guys that it works for me. Toms was humble and sincere in losing the playoff, and Choi was kind and supportive in victory.
I followed Paul Goydos, Alvaro Quiros and Sean O'Hair for eighteen holes yesterday and saw some of the most amazing ball striking I've ever seen. Goydos is a great golfer and a really interesting guy. He interacted with the gallery and was very personable. A former substitute teacher, he won a Nationwide event in 1992 and never looked back. It's gratifying to see good people get to the places they want in life, and his story is a good example of that.
We cooked out almost every night. We hit the beach, played some golf and had a lot of laughs. The computer stayed off, for the most part, and now I feel pretty excited to get back to the writing. I think these are the weeks that keep things fresh.
I love books and I love writing and I enjoy all of the hard work that goes with writing fiction. But sometimes it adds up and it's good to periodically remind myself that life is the stuff that happens in the physical world.
In other good news, I've got a story coming out soon in an anthology of Lovecraftian fiction called Dead But Dreaming 2. I'm excited for the book, because of the talent of the writers in the TOC and the passion and energy that the publisher and editor have put into things behind the scenes.
And I'd like to conclude by congratulating Jennifer P. on placing her poem. She's a student and a talented poet, and this is just the start of really good things to come...
Both have intricate, engaging plots and strong prose styling.
But now that I've got them both working simultaneously, it's a pretty interesting case study in personal taste. I have to admit that I prefer John Connolly's stories to Micheal Connelly's, which is certainly no slam on the latter.
Micheal Connelly's writing is concise. He builds short chapters with short, active sentences. He alternates perspective, switching back and forth between first and third as he sets up an admittedly telegraphed plot. There are few similies and metaphors, and it reads very much like the work of an accomplished former crime reporter (which Connelly, and the story's protagonist, both were/are).
John Connolly's writing is far more complex in terms of sentence structure. His paragraphs are much longer, and he uses loads of compound sentences. There is a lilt to the phrasing--partly, I would suppose, due to the type of English spoken in his native Dublin, Ireland. His chapters are much longer, and he spends much more time with exposition. While most of his novels star P.I. Charlie Parker, a couple focus on hardened badasses Angel and Louis, and The Reapers is one of those. He writes some startlingly creative comparisons--similes and metaphors that are perfectly apt (and some fall flat, too--none of us is immune, it would appear). He uses italics for flashback, a stylistic hallmark of Stephen King's work, and one I enjoy very much (matter of preference, of course; my agent really doesn't like it)...
Both of the stories are strong, and I'm enjoying them. If anything, this exercise in reading just emphasizes two effective approaches to narrative.
But, if pressed, I suppose I prefer Connolly. I'm a sucker for thorough exposition, and his use of flashback really makes the characters come to life. I also like that he laces his stories with supernatural plot devices. This one is pretty straight forward, but much of his fiction is flavored with fantastic influences.
Style and tone and structure and voice and plotting and organization and character and setting and, above all, story--that's what it takes...
Jeanne and I go to work and Lyla goes to school. Then, at the end of the night I clean up again, and the danged dustpan is filled with glitter and crayon nubbins again.
I wouldn't have it any other way...
In unrelated news, I received the most bizarre rejection letter today. I'll have to write a post on it when I have a little more time (finals week, then back to the fulltime grind next week)...
An evil, hateful figure in history is gone and I only hope that the families of his victims, both here and overseas, have felt a measure of relief that he is no longer breathing.
I also hope that he is suffering someplace. I hope he showed up to the afterlife and his notions of 130 submissive women were replaced by...well, nothing. I'd like to think that he's stuck in a perfect void--a place of absolute solitude and isolation and boredom.
Fuck Osama Bin Laden. What a backward, hateful policy shifter. His influence was staggering, and I'm just glad he's gone. Despite what some would have you believe, his was never a war of class and/or privilege. It's called extremism and terrorism, and he was the worst of the worst.
I pray for peace for the hearts and minds of those who lost loved ones in the attacks of 9/11.
I watched 60 Minutes tonight, and I'm just stunned by how courageous Lara Logan was in discussing the terrible sexual assault she suffered. I'm seriously impressed with her candor, and I'm just blown away by her depiction of how things are in Egypt in terms of tolerating sexual assault. It's a pretty horrifying video--be warned, you need to understand it's graphic--but it's remarkably honest.