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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

BOOK REVIEWS - HORROR EDITION: Harvest Home (Thomas Tryon), Rosemary's Baby (Ira Levin), The Fog (James Herbert)

Harvest Home (1973)
Gripping, powerful, superb! - explosive descriptors like these turn up on book covers all the time. They're so common that their power is diluted. According to blurbs, 99% of all books are gripping, powerful, superb! Harvest Home is no different. My copy proudly claims that Tryon's work is "One of the most terrifying novels in years."

Yeah, yeah, we get it - I'm an idiot if I don't read your book.

Well . . . in this one case, this one beautifully macabre book is all that and a bag of chips. It truly is gripping, powerful, superb! So much so that I can't express how much I enjoyed Harvest Home beyond giving it a perfect 10, which I don't do lightly. In all the books I've read, I might give five or six a 10.

Harvest Home is a slooooow burn. 

Like many horror stories, this one starts with a married couple moving somewhere new. In this case, the Constantines have been lucky enough to land the perfect house in a reserved farming community in New England called Cornwall Coombe. And while the reader knows there's something wrong with the town, or, rather, the people within the town, what exactly isn't clear. The tension climbs in satisfying baby steps as the main character, Ned Constantine, an out-of-his-element city slicker, uncovers the history behind Cornwall Coombe and the odd rituals and practices of the seemingly hospitable locals. I hate to say too much about the plot because this book is part mystery, part horror. Unraveling the mystery is a big part of why Tryon's book is so great.

I'll say this: The story is masterful; the characters are real; the writing is smooth and immersive, dragging the reader into the tense world of Cornwall Coombe; it's Lovecraftian in its pace and tension, and the ending connects in a body-tingling way. And it was scary. I read a good bit of horror, but rarely do I find them scary. I guess I'm jaded. The Shining? Meh. Ghost Story? Meh. Hell House. Meh. 

But this one . . . THIS ONE!

I'm not sure why I don't hear more about this book. Maybe because it's from the 70's. But for every time The Shining is mentioned as one of the best, or scariest, horror novels, this one should be mentioned twice.

Score: 10 out of 10


Rosemary's Baby (1967)
"Go look at His hands," Minnie said [to Rosemary]. "And His feet."

"And His tail," Laura-Louise said.

This tale of a woman who suspects herself impregnated by Satan is well-known. When the book was released, it was the 50 Shades of its time - wildly popular, attractive in its indecency. Then came the movie. And now, nearly fifty years later, NBC has delivered a two-part movie.

Apparently the expression of innocence molested still resonates with people today. While much has changed in fifty years, the plight Rosemary faces - not being able to trust her own friends and family, the pressures of married life, the hopes and dreams and fears that accompany a new child - is something people can relate to today (minus the whole Satan-baby thing, of course). Morality is questioned; God is questioned. But most of all, safety is questioned.


The book is better than the movie. The movie is great, don't get me wrong. But the book is where it's at.

Like Harvest HomeRosemary's Baby opens with a married couple moving into a new home. But instead of a small town, it's the Bramford, a high-class, yet gothic, apartment building in NYC. The way we meet characters and learn the history of this old building makes it feel like a ghost story at first. As we meet the other residents of the Bramford, it becomes clear this isn't so. Rosemary, a stay-at-home wife, sees strange behavior in some of them. The old timers down the hall - the Castavets - are a little too friendly. And that nice girl who was living with them? She committed suicide.

When Rosemary becomes pregnant, her fears and suspicions are amplified. Not only does she suspect her neighbors of some pretty crazy stuff, she's starting to think her own husband is in on it. Ira Levin does a fantastic job of painting Rosemary and her distress. Is she crazy or is everyone else? Is her baby truly in danger? And if so, is the old couple down the hall the threat or is she?

Rosemary doesn't investigate the oddities of the Bramford - she falls into them. As such, she often feels like a passenger in the story. Nor does she seem too keen on taking control for much of the book. Her blank acceptance of some of the grimier details of the book make her frustrating at times. She transitions into a stronger character, but only barely.

What I like about Ira Levin is he doesn't mess around. His prose is sparse and fast, yet vivid. His style reminds me a little of Richard Matheson. Between this book and The Stepford Wives, it's clear that Ira Levine is a master of the page-turner. When I heard about NBC's movie coming out, I decided it was about time to read it. I think I finished it in two days. Something must've gotten in the way, because I normally would've read it in one. Like The Stepford Wives, it compels you to read on, and on, and on, until the final page is turned, and you realize you've been holding your breath an awful long time, then, finally, you breathe in deep and wander off.

Score: 8 out of 10



The Fog (1975)
England. An earthquake. A fissure in the street. A dense fog released from the bowels of the Earth. The military bungled something. Mass hysteria. Poison. A poison that perverts the mind, transforms good people, turns them wicked, turns them against one another. 
Murder. Death. Mayhem. Oh my!

James Herbert introduces a wide range of POV characters in The Fog. As the fog spreads and moves, infecting people, turning them feral, leading them down dark corridors of debauchery, we meet these characters, we learn a little about them, and then we watch them die. By their own hands or the hands of others. A gang of children savagely mutilate their teacher. A priest pisses on his congregation. A farmer is crushed by his own cows. There's blood and sex and lots of chaos. Finally, these characters fade away to reveal a central character, a hero - John Holman, Environmental Investigator! (Queue superhero music)

It was exciting at first. But then it wasn't. I found myself not caring about the characters. They came and went before I could care about any of them. Even the main character fell flat for me. The prose is strong. The scenes are exciting. But the excitement comes with diminishing returns since the characters were just too come-and-go. Like a slasher movie. And the come-and-go characters don't stop. Throughout the entire book, new people are introduced and killed five, ten, twenty pages later. Many of them have nothing to do with the main character or further the plot in any way, which is, in my understanding, supposed to be the point of every word written - to further character and/or plot. But what we have here is death for the sake of death, which I find kind of empty.

I really wanted to like this one, but couldn't. A lot of people love The Fog. I may get angry e-mails. It is what it is. Think Andromeda Strain meets The Mist meets The Crazies. That's James Herbert's The Fog. John Holman must solve the riddle of the fog, how to reverse its effects, and ultimately stop it, all while surviving a country full of ravenous lunatics trying to murder him in the worst possible ways. I forced myself to finish, as I'm hardheaded about giving up on a novel, but I barely made it.

Score: 4 out of 10

Sunday, May 11, 2014

ORIGINAL FICTION: The Homecoming by JC Hemphill

I wrote "The Homecoming" a while back and thought I'd share it today. It isn't Mother's Day themed, but it is about a boy finally connecting with his mother.

My own mom was a big part of my life and I'm grateful we were never forced to go through the tribulations Devin and his mother face in this short story.

Thanks for reading and Happy Mother's Day!


------------------------------

The Homecoming
by JC Hemphill


The house was quiet--
No.
It was noisy.
There had been a lull between songs when Devin returned home from school and now Elvis' Blue Suede Shoes was blaring over the stereo. All the shades were drawn and the lights were off except for a single yellow glow at the top of the stairs. His mother's voice filtered down through the music, her lyrics a slurred step behind the King's.
She was drunk.
Dad would've said she was as drunk as a skunk. Or was it a monk? He couldn't remember. He'd have to ask Dad when he saw him.
Devin sighed and went to the kitchen for a glass of milk. It was unusual for her to be drinking this early in the day--she usually waited until after dinner to open the wine--the risk of getting another DUI on the way to McDonald's was too great--but today was an unusual day. To top it off, she wasn't drinking wine. According to the half-empty bottle on the kitchen counter, she was drinking whiskey. Knob Creek, by the label. He recognized the honey-colored bottle from Dad's old stash, except he remembered it being full with the seal intact.
A thought bloomed: the bottle, which had been locked away in the museum that was Dad's study, was out while Mother was upstairs, undoubtedly dancing in front of the mirror with a lowball glass in one hand as she belted "Go cat, go."
Which meant there was a good chance she had left the study door unlocked.
As the track changed from the upbeat Blue Suede Shoes to the crooning Heartbreak Hotel, the atmosphere shifting from motivated to melancholic, Devin made his way toward the study. A buzz of excitement filled him when he saw the door sitting open. Mother hadn't let him enter the study in a long time. Not since she had caught him using the old ham radio to contact the aliens. He'd been twisting the dials as he'd watched Dad do, trying to find the right frequency to communicate with the mothership. All he wanted was to ask them to bring Dad back. He'd trade all his toys and even his bike, a real fast one with good tires, but Mother wasn't having it. She had stormed into the room,  eyes redder than the Devil's buttocks, snatched him by the arm, and dragged him out.
The bruises healed in a couple of days, but Devin would always remember her in this way. It was the moment she had changed from an ally to a speed bump in the road to finding Dad.
Devin stepped into the room. The desk and bookshelves were shadowed outlines. Even in the dark it seemed familiar. Being in there reminded him of the feeling he got on their family trip to Disneyworld. Although Devin had never been to Disney before, he had instantly felt a part of that jubilant place. Not that there was anything jubilant about the study, but he received that same tingling sensation of being connected to a place he knew he was only visiting. It would end, this visit, this feeling, and that made the joy sad in a way.
"Hey," a sharp voice said from behind him. "What're you doin home already?" Devin turned to face his mother. She stood in the hallway with one strap of her halter-top hanging off her shoulder. Her white jeans looked wet at the bottom as if she'd waded through a flood to get there. "And what're you doin in that room? Huh?" She cantered forward, paused, and leaned against the wall to keep the world from pitching her sideways. She looked up at him, her face twisted in something between anger and concern.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

BOOK REVIEWS: American Gods (Neil Gaiman), Norwegian Wood (Haruki Murakami), & Blood Work (Michael Connelly)

American Gods (2001)
An ex-con named Shadow finds himself enmeshed in a secret struggle between the gods of old and the gods of new. 

Odin & Loki, Thoth & Anubis, Native American spirits & Hindu gods, the trickster spider Anansi, Johnny Appleseed, and a slew of others have settled in to a normal life among mortals, a life removed from shrines and fables, a life forgotten. Abandoned by the people who created them, these gods have lost much of their power. It's the new gods--Media, Technology, Money--who thrive under the constant worship of mankind. And for whatever reason, these upstart gods don't like the old gods--they want them dead. They want war.


But Odin, with the help of our anti-hero Shadow, plans to recruit the old gods for a final showdown with the new.


Neil Gaiman's American Gods blew my mind. It's that rare balance of literary fiction and genre fiction that I look for in a book. The story itself is exciting and well-plotted. The characters are rich, especially Shadow, the go-along-to-get-along ex-con who recently lost his wife. Much of the story is a journey of conversations. Shadow moves across the U.S. in search of the various gods hiding out, doing his best to help ol' one-eyed Odin build an army. He meets a wide range of characters--drunken leprechauns, withdrawn keepers of the underworld, common people going about their lives--and in doing so, he delves into the idea of existence, why humanity needs something to worship, and many other themes that are found throughout the fables and teachings of world mythology. But this is well hidden behind a colorful story. I was a third of the way into the book before I realized there was something bigger, deeper happening on every page.


American Gods passes the most important test in fiction: is it worth reading twice?


Lots of books are good. But few leave me wanting to read it again. Gaiman's American Gods is one of them. I could read it again just to search out all the hidden references to world religions. And another time for the story. And another for the themes. Excellent book.


Score: 9 out of 10


Norwegian Wood (1987)
Toru Watanabe is a college student in Japan. He is searching for self. He is searching for love and meaning. He is searching and he isn't even aware of it.

As an older man, Toru is looking back on his college days, remembering the events that shaped the person he has become. It began when an old friend died tragically, a pain that Toru carries with him throughout college. Always unsure of himself, commonly the third wheel, Toru is a follower, and without his best friend to take direction from, he doesn't seem quite sure of how to live. So he searches for someone to take his friend's place. This leads him to act in ways he normally wouldn't--like sleeping with random girls.


Things get complicated when Toru runs into his dead friend's girlfriend. She too has been crippled by the loss. And together, she and Toru embark on a strange, often bipolar-like relationship. All the while, Toru Watanabe is searching. The answers, it seems, are always just out of reach . . .


I like Haruki Murakami because he has a surreal edge to his writing. There's often an odd quirkiness hiding beneath the surface. You might categorize his style as 'Weird Literary Fiction--Heavy on the Literary'. His prose is always beautiful, his characters are some of the most interesting, and deeply reflective, that I've ever read, and he has a way of transforming mundane scenes into heavy insights.


Yeah, so, with that said, I wasn't blown away by Haruki Murakami's most popular book. Norwegian Wood is more of a straight forward story than his typical stuff. A to B to C to D kind of fiction. Which is fine, but I think it shows an effort to do something more accessible and mainstream. It is also, as far as I know, the only one of his books to be made into a movie. (The book, of course, is better. The movie was meh.)

It's sad. I'll say that. A deep vein of melancholy runs through the book. Life is hard, even when it appears easy, and Murakami makes you see that. For theme and depth of character, I'd give this book a 10. But it just wasn't as interesting as most of his work and a little slow. I'm also not big on the love story. If checking Murakami out for the first time (which I suggest, he's a modern great), I wouldn't start with Norwegian Wood. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles is pretty amazing, though.

Score: 6 out of 10


Blood Work (1998)
Former F.B.I. agent Terrell McCaleb is living on a houseboat, soaking up the sun and enjoying retirement. It's important that he take it easy--he is, after all, the recent recipient of a brand new heart. Too much stress and the transplant will give him complications. Relax--doctor's orders.

Yeah, right.


A woman shows up at his boathouse in classic P.I. fashion. Her sister, see, was murdered. And could McCaleb help her find the killer? Oh, uh, by the way, that new heart of yours? Yeah, it belonged to my sister. So . . . you kinda have to help, since she died so you could live and all.


This leads to an investigation (and a whole lot of heart trouble). But Michael Connelly doesn't write about random murders; he writes about serial killers. In Blood Work, it's the Code Killer.


Nothin better than a good mystery. Nothin. But I read very little of the genre because I happen to be really good at figuring out plots, which is fine, unless the ending hinges on solving a mystery, like who the killer is. Then it sucks. I get halfway into a book, realize I know the answer, read anyway in case I'm wrong, only to throw the book across the room when I'm right. 450 pages worth of my time wasted! Connelly is hit or miss for me. But when he hits, he hits in a big way. The Poet is one of my favorite mysteries, and, now, so is Blood Work.

I had this one figured out. I knew who the killer was. I knew it. But I didn't. Connelly only had me thinking I did. To me, that is the best thing in a mystery: genuine shock.

The story is closely tied to McCaleb's transplant and is plotted in a satisfying way. The prose is quick and clean. He does an excellent job of explaining investigative procedure without getting boring. This one is worth reading.

My only complaint comes from the cliches. Retired (or soon to retire) law officer? Check. Tough as nails? Check. Houseboat? Check. Damsel in distress who shows up in search of the best detective in town? Check. Tough-as-nails detective falls into forbidden love with said damsel? Check.

There's also a movie staring Clint Eastwood. It was disappointing. Because Hollywood thinks they know better or I-don't-know-what, they changed who the killer was. They changed it to who I thought it was in the book. If I had seen the movie first, I would've known the ending, and I never would've bothered with the book. But the book is good. It's actually well-written, unlike the movie. And, most importantly, it wasn't predictable. Way to go Hollywood.

Score: 8 out of 10

Monday, April 28, 2014

EDITOR INTERVIEW: George Cotronis of Kraken Press Talks New Publication, "Aghast", and Upcoming Novels



Better late than never, this month's editor interview is with George Cotronis, editor-in-chief and artists for Kraken Press. Though still a youth in the publishing world, Kraken Press has been making some big moves lately with a new magazine. Aghast, a dark fiction magazine, is paying semi-pro rates and features an artistic aesthetic that screams of quality. Using the Clarkesworld model, the magazine will be free to read online, or print copies will be available for purchase. With fiction lined up from Tim Waggoner, Jonathan Maberry, and Gemma Files, it's a magazine worth submitting to.

They will be open to submissions May 1st.

At the time of this writing, Aghast is at the end of its Kickstarter campaign. It's 145% funded. Check it out. Even if the campaign has ended. There's some great artwork, done by George, and further information on the publisher and what they plan to do.

Kraken also has experience publishing novels. In fact, Max Booth III's second novel, The Mind is a Razorblade, is being released through them later this year.

George was kind enough to give us some insights into the publication, what he looks for in fiction, and why Aghast is the magazine you should be reading (or submitting to).
--------------------------------------------


What do you look for in a manuscript? Is the criteria for novels and short fiction the same?

That’s a big question. I look for different things at different times. Right now for Kraken Press, I’m interested in seeing some good urban fantasy, post-apoc, possibly a series. I’m always interested in genre-aware horror novels.

For short fiction, it gets even more fragmented. I like stories with a discernible plot, good characterization and a strong thematic axis.


Why will people want to read Aghast over other publishers of short fiction?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

FLASH FICTION: First Line Challenge and an Original Short-Short Story

As a writing exercise, Chuck Wendig challenged writers to come up with a great first line. Entries were posted on his blog and according to his count, there were nearly 500. Now he's challenging writers to read through that pile of entries for someone else's first line, write a flash fiction story (1,000 words or less) using it, and post it on our own blogs.

Challenge accepted.

Okay, in truth, I didn't read all 500. Sorry. I read a bunch, though. I read until I found a line that sparked a full-fledged idear and I went with it. 

I'm what's called a "pantser" in the writing community. I don't outline what I'm going to write in advance, I just sit down and put those crazy ramblings in my brain down on digital paper. In other words, I write by the seat of my pants. Sometimes, if the ramblings aren't too incoherent, a story can be carved out of that. Which is why I like this exercise so much--it challenges me to write a complete story in a single sitting, edit it, and immediately put it out for the public to shame and tear to pieces.

Anywho, I chose a line written by George Kaltsios. I need to thank George for writing an intriguing sentence--"Try as he might, the Postman could not stop looking through the keyhole." It certainly captured my imagination.

And, as always, thanks for reading!


----------------------------------------

Postman
by JC Hemphill


Try as he might, the Postman could not stop looking through the keyhole.
The house, a two-story Tudor set back unusually far from the road and hidden behind an overgrown jungle of fragrant weeds and unkempt bushes, carried many legends that were known to him. Home to the deranged, the grotesque, the unwanted, 2211 South Bend represented the debauched fringes of human imagination, the details of which were as multifaceted as the locals professing its history. The house was haunted, people whispered, citing the dozens of murders and rumors of murders that had occurred beneath its thatched roof. Some claimed it was home to succubi. Or vampires. Or constructed with the bones of missing children.
But one thing was clear to all who viewed the house--this entity belonged to a darker age. Modern man had no claim here.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

EDITOR INTERVIEW: Brian Lewis of "Spark: A Creative Anthology" Speaks About a New Contest, New Publication, & Writing


This marks the second installment where I look at quality publishers who support writers and the writing industry. Last month we had Grey Matter Press, who supports their writers through some serious marketing efforts (UPDATE: Grey Matter's books currently occupy 4 of the top 6 selling horror anthologies on Amazon). This month, we take a look at the Empire & Great Jones Creative Arts Foundation, a registered non-profit and publisher of fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry, and art.

I've had the pleasure of working with them on their series Spark: A Creative Anthology and a newly founded YA line entitled Ember: A Journal of Luminous Things. My novella Dead Dog was featured in Spark Volume IV and will also be reprinted in the inaugural issue of Ember, something I'm very pleased about. I had written Dead Dog with the intention of creating a story people of all ages would enjoy. I kept the timeless voice of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes in the back of my mind while writing, and while my story fails miserably in meeting Bradbury's standard, I am happy to find that people of all ages are responding to it.

Anyway, I've witnessed first hand how Empire & Great Jones supports writers. Three things in particular have blown me away.

1: The editors of Spark personally respond to submissions - for a paying market (Spark is semi-pro), this is rare, especially for rejections. According to Duotrope.com, Spark is ranked among the most personable fiction and poetry markets available. From a writer's POV, this is amazing. Most paying markets spew form rejections with the regularity and intensity of Old Faithful. And there's nothing worse than waiting six months or more for a response to a submitted manuscript only to receive a faceless rejection. Spark, on the other hand, tries to offer a constructive reason as to why something was rejected. With the right attitude, a personalized rejection can help a writer learn and grow immensely.

Consider the inverse: I recently waited 816 days for a response from Mixer Publishing, another semi-pro publisher. Every time I queried the status, the editor promised he would read it ASAP and respond. After months of being strung along in this manner, I gave up, ultimately receiving no response to my submission whatsoever. None, zero, zilch. That equates to a lot of wasted time on my part.

2: Recently, when receiving payment for Dead Dog, I was paid double--yes, that's right, double--the agreed upon sum. At first I thought it a mistake. But in the note attached to the payment, it was explained that fundraising efforts had allowed them to pay authors more for Spark: A Creative Anthology Volume IV. WHAT?!? Maybe this is the cynic in me, but I believe most publishers wouldn't do a thing like that. Not when I had already signed a contract agreeing to less. While this shouldn't be expected for all of their publications, it's certainly a good sign of intentions.

3: Contests. Paying contests. Paying contests that you don't have to pay to enter. Paying contests that are judged by accomplished members of the field that you don't have to pay to enter. This, sadly, is another rarity in the writing world. Too many publishers exploit authors in an effort to monetize their own underfunded business plans, using hopes, dreams, and promises of a big payday to lure writers in. These types use a lottery-like model when holding contests, and I'd like to think writers and publishers have higher standards than the lotto. (What has 6 balls and screws the unfortunate?)

Well, these guys do have higher standards and require no fee to enter. With judges like Ken Liu, Brad Torgersen, and Brittani Sonnenberg reading the entries, you'd be crazy not to enter.


There are many other reasons Empire & Great Jones deserves recognition, and we get into some of those things in the interview with owner/editor-in-chief Brian Lewis.
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I'll start with an easy one: If you could be any anthropomorphic creature, what would you be?

Wait, that's the easy question?

I think I'd like to be something small and fast. Insects are out, just because it's too likely I'd be eaten or squashed before I could demonstrate my ability to think, talk, and feel—you know, to be anthropomorphic. I'm not a cat person, but at the same time, cats have been well-regarded in literature and even worshipped at times throughout history, so that would fit well.

On the other hand, something a little less incongruous with my character would be a big, lumbering animal. A bear. Or, more specifically and to give a nod to my home state, a California Grizzly Bear. Plus, bears have the benefit of already being somewhat anthropomorphic, so it satisfies your question both literally and figuratively.

Not all my choices are land-based; I might also choose whale or dolphins, because not only are they very fast in the water—despite being big, or in the case of whales, very big—but everyone knows that whales and dolphins are way smarter than humans. It's true, because I read it on either Wikipedia or Cracked.com.

If it sounds like I would only choose to be a mammal, that's only because I haven't yet listed iguanas. If I could be any anthropomorphic creature, I could also dig being a talking iguana, because iguanas are just cool, man.


Fables are an ancient form of storytelling that usually focuses on a theme or moral and can even account for historical and cultural events. Would you agree that modern fiction does the same basic thing? What influences do fables have on modern storytelling and can we learn anything from, say, Aesop or Hans Christian Andersen?

Modern storytelling definitely does that—or should, in some form, and therein lies the rub. Much great modern fiction and literary art is great description; is great setup; is beautiful, poetic language ...

But it isn't "storytelling."

Monday, March 10, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Road Through the Wall by Shirley Jackson (1948)


"I delight in what I fear." --Shirley Jackson

This book can be found on Amazon
According to Ruth Franklin's foreword, Shirley Jackson once told her daughter "the first book is the book you have to write to get back at your parents . . . Once you get that out of your way, you can start writing books."


Well . . . Boom! Shirley Jackson's parents, you have been served!!!


Jackson's first novel, The Road Through the Wall, does just that. This slice of weird literary fiction often comes across as an autobiographical stab at the way she was raised, consisting of themes that subtly resound through the rest of her career--social pressures, living as an outcast, the importance of raising children, etc. And boy do those themes stand up and smack you in the face in this book. Some fiction is character-driven, some plot-driven, some even seems driven by atmospheric effect. But The Road Through the Wall is a theme-driven locomotive.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Experiments in Self-Publishing vs. Traditional; AuthorEarnings.com


The traditional vs. self-publishing debate has been going on for as long as I've been writing fiction. And largely, this debate is old geezers telling young whippersnappers that their music is too loud, and young whippersnappers claiming that music is supposed to be loud. Duh!

You see, the old'uns don't think traditional publishing has run its course. And they're right--traditional publishers still sell a ton of books. But does that mean the young whippersnappers are wrong? Absolutely not. Music is good loud.


Imagine this: a flexible market where traditional and self coexist.


Sounds crazy, right? But it isn't. The fact is, authors are finding both paths to publication viable. And readers are finding both paths to writers viable. E-books now represent a large portion of how books are read (estimates I've found range from 20% - 35%) and they're growing. But assuming such a trend will continue until all print sales are squeezed out is swiss cheese logic. Because publishing is a unique industry, and it's flexible--there is plenty of room for people to be who they want to be. Self-publishing is for certain types of people and traditional publishing is for others and debating which is better is a little like debating which group of people is better, when in actuality, they're all equal but different. Which is how I think it should be.

In the interest of finding what type of writer I am (old geezer or young whippersnapper), I decided to give self-publishing the ol' college try. "Why not?" I asked myself. Hard-headedness was the only reason I could think of. Self-publishing is supposed to be easy (if not frustrating). So I went to Amazon to find out how easy, and if self-publishing is for me.




As it turns out, self-publishing is very easy. I mean, scary easy. I mean, prom queen easy.


Kindle Direct Publishing streamlines the experience so that posting a book takes little effort or knowledge. A trained monkey, given enough tries, might accidentally publish a book simply by clicking random buttons on the website. In fact, making the cover image was the hardest part. (I'll get to how I did that, along with proper use of Creative Commons art, in my next post.) The only problem I ran into was a small formatting issue, which was easy to fix.


When I signed up for KDP, I did so with the intention of publishing one short story--I went with "Erasure", which was originally published through the pro-zine Buzzy Mag. It's an older story, but one of my favorites. But I ended up publishing 2 shorties. I decided that since this was a test, I wanted to publish 2 stories of mine that are written in totally different styles. "Erasure" is a straight-genre piece. It's fast-paced. The second story I published, "Five Years Gone", is a new literary piece (meaning non-genre) that focuses on emotion and has a slower pace.

Problem is: I had deceived myself. 


When I stepped back, I realized I hadn't published that second story to better serve my test. It does do that, but it wasn't at the heart of my motivation. No, in actuality, I had published that second story because I was felling the rush, the excitement, the hunger for publishing. Posting "Erasure" was easy, it came with that good vibe that accompanies all new publications, and I didn't have the black cloud of possible rejection hanging over me.



The instant gratification aspect became shockingly apparent. And that scared me. Because it came with the texture of addiction.


The real question is: would that self-publishing itch be a negative addiction or a positive one?


Sunday, February 9, 2014

EDITOR INTERVIEW: Grey Matter Press is Giving Away 400 Books this Week and Anthony Rivera Gives Us Tips on the Submission Process


Grey Matter Press is going buck wild in celebration of Valentine's Day by giving away 400 books! Well, that's not true. The Chicago-based book publisher is celebrating the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. What's that? It's Capone. It's the gritty streets of prohibition-era Chicago. It's a brutal slice of Americana. Check it out.

Oh, but the part about the giveaway is true. Between February 9th and the 15th, they're showing readers the love by giving away books (print & digital) in contests, sweepstakes, and online giveaways. Not only that, but they're allowing winners to select their prize from one of four anthologies published in the last year. (Including Dark Visions 2 which features my story 'Last Call')


With 400 books to hand out, I'd say everyone's odds are pretty good. Get the details here: St. Valentine's Week Massacre


I decided to mention this event for a couple of reasons:


Grey Matter Press is a new publisher--first opened to submissions in 2012--and already they're proving a great resource for promoting new and established authors in dark fiction. Their first release, Dark Visions 1, has made the Stoker preliminary ballot. With dozens of horror-themed anthologies being released every year (month?), that's no small accomplishment for an opening publication. If you follow them on Facebook or Twitter, you know they spend day-in and day-out promoting their authors. Not just the books, but the names. With national distribution through Barnes and Noble bookstores coming soon and a growing following of readers, Grey Matter Press makes good on their promise to ". . . help each and every one of our authors succeed by delivering your groundbreaking work to an all-new audience that is, right now, clamoring for exceptional independent dark fiction."


I also thought this would be a good time to feature an interview with the acquisitions editor of Grey Matter, Anthony Rivera. Anthony was kind enough to answer some questions about the press, their submission process, and what they look for in a manuscript.


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What sets Grey Matter Press apart from other emerging publishers?


That’s a very good question, and one that can perhaps be better answered by our readers and authors that we’ve had the pleasure to work with.

Obviously, there are a whole host of very good publishers out there; we’re just the new kids on the block. But I like to think that we’re focused on producing products that are, without question, worth the horror readers’ money.

We aim to create an imprint whose attention to detail and exceptional manuscript selection translates into the expectation that the purchase of any Grey Matter Press title is something that will be a captivating read containing well-crafted fiction and, ultimately, is considered money well spent.

Having done so myself, there’s nothing worse than purchasing a book that doesn’t meet one’s expectations for what’s considered a professional piece of work that you’ve plunked down your hard-earned dollars to buy. We are focusing on the areas of quality storytelling, well-crafted tales, expert characterization and plot development, accurate editing and exemplary production values. It’s our job to respect the work of both our authors and our readers, and you can’t accomplish that without those things.


On your website, you say that ". . . we are experienced editors, horror writers and dark-minded enthusiasts who know firsthand what it takes to develop a compelling manuscript that is capable of scaring the Hell out of you, the readers." Could you elaborate on Grey Matter's definition of a 'compelling manuscript'?

Friday, February 7, 2014

Snow Globes and Making Your Fiction Memorable

Writing advice: everyone has some. And who am I to give it: nobody. I'm just a guy sharing his experiences with writing. Snow globes make sense to me, and I rarely hear anyone talking about them, so I thought this might be a new concept to some and a refresher for others.

When I say 'snow globe', I don't mean the decorative ball of water and snow. I'm talking about a writing device that represents a story, either through theme or emotional engagement, and acts as a focal point for making a story memorable.


The term 'snow globe' references Orson Welles' 1941 film Citizen Kane. In the opening scene, Kane is clutching a snow globe. He utters the name "Rosebud. . ." and dies. The globe slips from his hand and smashes on the ground. Many critics have disseminated the symbolism of this scene--the divergent plot, the hopes, the fragility, etc, etc--but the context here is that the snow globe is a solid object in the story that the viewer can latch onto when recalling the film later. From there, the story unravels. But that scene continues to come back to us. In our minds, it represents the story for many reasons. Think of The Wizard of Oz. Is there a single item/image that you think of when you hear that title? Dorothy and her red shoes, perhaps? What do those shoes say about the movie and why do they stick with almost everyone so completely? Yes, they're red and bright and therefore noticeable. But they also represent something deeper. Home, innocence, you decide. That's the great thing about symbolism--different people will derive different meanings.


Often, the most obvious snow globes are a singular item or place. Like Dorothy's shoes. Or REDRUM (I bet you know what movie I'm referencing here based on this single piece of imagery). Or the envelopes in the short film Envelope (a really great movie staring Kevin Spacey. It's 17 minutes long and will stick with you better than most full-length Hollywood features. Watch it.)


But snow globes aren't always obvious. Or singular. If you've read Tim O'Brien's novel The Things They Carried, you might know how a snow globe can be represented by a collection of items/images. Each soldier has something personal that he carries with him into battle, and each character is made clear and unique by those items. The innocent youth carry comic books and photos. The tougher ones carry more adult items. But all carry something that strongly represents the person as an individual and, at the same time, represents the theme of the story on a whole.


In the short film Waiting for the End of the World (6 minutes), the snow globe is one item that takes many forms. For the main character and his dismal life, clocks of every kind sum up his existence. The film begins with him waking up, much too early by the looks of it, to an alarm clock. This is followed by the character continually punching in at work. The punch machine, another clock, reminds us that he is on someone else's time, an employee and nothing more. Then there is the clock at his job that he counts the passing hours, minutes, seconds with. He watches this clock, although we know he wishes he didn't, and we feel his life ticking away in the service of a corporation. His countdown at the end of every shift drives this point home. The seconds are simultaneously meaningless and heavy. Each second, the same as the last, brings him one step closer to an empty life.


And then there's The Great Gatsby and the green dock light. This snow globe has conflicting meanings that highlight themes and the character's metamorphosis. Gatsby stands on his dock, staring across the water at this green dock light flashing through the fog. That light represents his hopes, dedication, and a great longing for a lost love. Early in the story, we see Jay Gatsby as this unstoppable juggernaut. He is superior to the common man and anything he puts his mind to is accomplished. There is no way he can fail to win Daisy back. But as the story progresses, we start seeing cracks in the myth. Jay Gatsby--and his hopes--are crumbling; the green dock light takes on new meaning. It no longer represents hope--it represents failure. It represents unrequited love and everything that's wrong with Gatsby's dream and the life he worked so hard to attain. In that dock light, we are reminded of all the emotions that make The Great Gatsby such a memorable story.


For me, inserting snow globes into a story isn't a conscious thing. If I were to plan them ahead, they wouldn't feel natural. I write and then I go back during the editing process and I look for what item or location or character trait can summarize the story and its themes. Then I draw that item out, or maybe I bury it in a way the reader isn't aware of. Obvious works, but so does subtle.



Here's one more short film. Can you identify the snow globe and its role? The Laundromat (6 minutes).