Read These: THE NEXT TIME YOU SEE ME & THE PROPHET

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I’ve had the pleasure of reading two excellent books recently, THE NEXT TIME YOU SEE ME by Holly Goddard Jones and THE PROPHET by Michael Koryta.  Both are thriller/suspense novels, but each author offers a decidedly different, but equally rewarding take on the genre.  Each novel is well-worth reading.

Jones’ novel centers on the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Ronnie Eastman, a somewhat wild and hard-drinking resident of a small town.  What stands out in this story is not so much the mystery itself, but the way in which Jones illuminates the lives and foibles of the cast of characters surrounding the disappearance: Ronnie’s sister Susanna and her husband Dale; Tony, the detective charged with finding Ronnie, who shares a past with Susanna; Emily, Susanna’s thirteen-year-old student who struggles to fit in; and Wyatt, a lonely factory worker searching for human connection.  What makes THE NEXT TIME YOU SEE ME so enjoyable is the way Jones interweaves these characters’ actions and personalities (all of which are flawed and all-too-human) into a narrative that almost transcends the disappearance at its heart.  The best thing I can say about the book is that I would have enjoyed it as a character study even if the underlying plot was removed, which is saying quite a bit.

Koryta’s THE PROPHET is equally fascinating, even as it hones in on really only two characters: brothers Adam and Kent Austin, who have been damaged in different ways by the abduction and murder of their sister when they were teenagers.  While Kent copes by moving forward, coaching the local football team and ministering to inmates, Adam is trapped by his own guilt, eking out a living as a bail bondsman while refusing to let go of the past.  When another teenaged girl is lured to her murder, Adam swears to avenge her, only to find out that Kent is the killer’s real target.  Set during high school football playoff season, THE PROPHET succeeds not only as a suspense novel, but as a study in guilt and family.  The dynamic between the brothers is believable and tragic, and Kortya does not flinch from the necessary implications of his characters’ actions.  I originally discovered Michael Koryta through his recent forays into supernatural horror, and I’m glad I followed him back to his roots in the non-supernatural thriller.

Neither THE NEXT TIME YOU SEE ME nor THE PROPHET will lift your spirits, but both will keep you reading until the end, no matter how bitter the end may be.  Both writers show keen insight into human nature, elevating their work above the run-of-the-mill suspense novel.  Both are highly recommended.

Sale to DarkFuse!

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Received word today that my short story “The Betting Man” has been accepted for publication by DarkFuse.  “The Betting Man” is a tale of obsession and circus carnies, if anyone is interested…

DarkFuse is a great publisher of dark fiction, and has published some of my favorite authors, so I am particularly pleased.

Can’t wait to see “The Betting Man” in print!

Factual Accuracy in Fiction

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I blogged recently about research, admitting my (somewhat overblown) tendency to “write what I know” and thereby avoid voluminous amounts of research as a prerequisite to my fiction-writing.  In an effort to undermine the entire premise, allow me to pose a related question:

How accurate does fiction have to be?  When is poetic license appropriate?

This question can arise in any number of circumstances: The use of fictionalized towns/cities as settings, the reliance on historical facts/chronology, the scientific underpinnings of science fiction.  I myself have a relatively high tolerance for authorial discretion.  I don’t mind fictionalized towns or counties (but do prefer legitimate cities, for some reason: no Metropolis for me).  I don’t check historical weather reports or require absolute fidelity to every street. Yet, the unifying thread in one of my novels is the 1978 Boston Red Sox baseball season, and I made sure my dates and scores correspond to the actual season. So yeah, even I appreciate factual accuracy.

Which brings me to my present dilemma.  In my current WIP, one of the underlying plot twists relies upon the existence of a private adoption that occurred about 14 years ago.  The catch?  Private adoptions aren’t legal in the state where my story is set.  What to do?  I could move to a neighboring state, but much of the plot of the novel rests on my knowledge of the current state’s legal system.  I’d need to do new research in order to confirm my story can withstand the move to a new state.  I could ignore it, figuring almost none of my readers will know anyway, and what-the-heck, it’s my story.  Or I can fudge it, leaving the adoption method unclear, but creating at least a little doubt for readers who are paying attention.

I’m tempted to fudge it, but not sure.  Any thoughts on what I should do? What would you do?

All Aboard the Amtrak Writer’s Residency

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All Aboard the Amtrak Writer's Residency!

All Aboard the Amtrak Writer’s Residency!

The internet (and particularly the Twitterverse) is all abuzz about the new, developing-as-we-speak Amtrak writer’s residency program, a program started in large part by a simple tweet.  You can read the story on THE WIRE here, but in a nutshell New York writer Jessica Gross, after reading an interview with Alexander Chee, in which he said “I still like a train best for [writing]. I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers,” tweeted out to @amtrak, who set her up with one — a New York to Chicago round-trip.  Now, Amtrak is moving forward with offering train residencies to writers, for free (or at least cheap).  How cool is that?

And how obvious, once you think about it.  I love train rides, and I love writing on the train.  There’s something about it that stimulates creativity, harkening back to a simple, more romantic time, to a time when writing was a calling, when locomotion was king.  And it triggers thoughts of fun fiction: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, the train ride to Hogwarts, 3:10 TO YUMA, heck even THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE.  Trains, unlike planes, don’t conceal the fact you are traveling long distances.  The world rushes by in a train, and you are part of it.  In a plane, the world is distant, conceptual, and you hover above it.  Trains are an adrenaline rush, planes are somnolent.

I’m sure somewhere there are naysayers already pointing out that free rides cost money, and that Amtrak is not known as a successful business model.  They would be missing the point, however.  Amtrak’s quick response to Gross’s tweet, while showing business and social media savvy, also illustrates, I’d like to believe, Amtrak’s innate understanding of the place of the train in American society, an almost mythical role stretching from the legend of John Henry’s heroic construction of railway tunnels to THE POLAR EXPRESS to (shout-out to my genre fans) Stephen King’s monorail in THE DARK TOWER series.  Amtrak’s offer isn’t about profit, it’s about passion and art and yes, Romance with a big “R.”  Bean counters need not apply.

So speaking of applications: I’m a writer, I like trains.  I like to write on trains.

Where do I sign up?

My Imaginary Bookstore

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I’m sitting in a Barnes & Noble, sipping a coffee and browsing through Paula Guran’s BEST DARK FANTASY AND HORROR 2013 while I wait for my son’s baseball practice to finish.  Yes, even in the midst of The Winter That Never Ends you can play baseball, if you’re dedicated enough.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Inevitably I become distracted.  By the tantalizing danish in the display cabinet next to my table?  By the college kids at the table next to me babbling about some mathematical formula I don’t remember and probably never learned?

No, I become distracted by my fantasy of owning a bookstore.

Given the state of bookstores these days, you might equate this fantasy to a death wish.  And you probably wouldn’t be wrong.  But it’s my fantasy anyway. A boy can dream, can’t he?

My imaginary bookstore is somewhere warm.  Somewhere where life is slower, where people have time for a cup of coffee and a good book.  Not a tourist area, exactly, but a place where there are summer people and winter people.  A place to lay down roots.

My imaginary bookstore is an old shop, with nooks and crannies and character, with dark hidey-holes to hide your favorite book and bright windows with window seats in which to read it.  There’s no restaurant in my imaginary bookstore, but there’s a coffee pot and hot water for tea and free muffins if my wife was in the mood to bake that morning.  No movie section, just a shelf with a sign that says “If you liked the movie, you’ll love the book!” so that fans of Peter Jackson might actually read THE HOBBIT!

In my imaginary bookstore we have used books and new books, best sellers and oddities.  We have a local legends section, and literary fiction, and yes, genre fiction, unabashedly on display.  We have local authors and genre authors doing readings and selling books, and we sponsor book clubs for women and men and kids.  We open at 9 and close when we want and sometimes after closing you can find me still there, maybe writing, maybe browsing through my own inventory, like a farmer admiring his livestock.

My imaginary bookstore has a big porch, with a glider and overstuffed pillows, where you can while away the afternoon reading books you just bought or maybe just watch life go by, little by little, second by second.  And a picnic table on the front lawn, where you can eat your lunch.  In my imaginary bookstore we never tell kids to be quiet, as long as they’re enjoying and talking about books, because children are future book buyers.  My imaginary bookstore has a great chidren’s section, stuffed with classics and great new finds, Patricia Polacco and E.B. White and Rick Riordan, and every tenth purchase entitles you to a free book.  ‘Cause that’s how we roll.

Does my imaginary bookstore make money?  Is it viable?  Damned if I know. Because that would be too close to being my real bookstore, one that would have to feed me and put my kids through college and somehow fund healthcare and housing.  All the things that have killed bookstores throughout the country, even big chains like Borders.  In my imaginary bookstore people love books and reading and talking about reading and that’s enough for me.

It doesn’t hurt to dream, does it?

Research? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Research!

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William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats

An article on Amazing Stories today addresses a perennial bane of many fiction writers’ existence: research.  It’s a nice basic article about the need for research when writing fiction, even speculative fiction, and the increasing reliance upon the Internet.  Feel free to go read if you’d like.  I can wait.

Reading the article led to a bit of self-reflection, followed by the sudden self-realization that when it comes to writing fiction, I don’t do that much research.  And I’m not sure I need to, if you want to know the truth.

I know there are many writers for whom research is as time-consuming as writing the novel itself, and I’m certainly not criticizing anyone’s methodology.  If you write historical fiction or high fantasy, you’d better know your horses and armor and weapons and what-not.  And if you write science-fiction, particularly hard sci-fi, it helps to get the science correct (although there’s some leniency there, isn’t that right STAR WARS).  So I understand the need for research.

Me?  I mostly write contemporary dark fantasy/horror.  So I fact-check (for example I’ve needed to know the scores of every 1978 Red Sox game), but I don’t exactly research.  I check things on maps, Google a tidbit here and a factoid there, but never have I spent hours reading and researching before I launch into a project.

Except, I’ve been doing some back-end research in connection with my still-in-progress urban fantasy that combines aspects of a political thriller with the Irish myth of the changeling.  I generally don’t like to be constrained by too much “given” folklore or myth when writing, but like to build off of the basics to create my own mythology.  In this case, I’ve determined I’m a bit weak on the fantasy aspect of my urban fantasy, and need more detail.  Hence, my research.  William Butler Yeats, anyone?

Am I an outlier?  Anyone else like to write from the seat of their pants, facts be damned?

 

Two Birthdays: Charles Dickens and Karen Joy Fowler

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Today is the birthday of two authors I enjoy: one, the literary giant Charles Dickens, and two, contemporary author Karen Joy Fowler, whose work spans the gamut of genre and whose novel WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES was one of my favorite novels of 2013.

Dickens is undoubtedly familiar to most readers.  Some of his novels — DAVID COPPERFIELD, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, A TALE OF TWO CITIES, for example — are embedded in the canon of English literature.  Prolific, and a celebrity in his day, Dickens, although subject to legitimate criticism in his treatment of women and the outlandishness of his plots, justifiably remains one of the required elements of a study in Western literature.   I remember my undergrad class on Dickens, in which we read most, if not all, of his novels.  Daunted by the sheer volume of pages the course entailed, I remember how much I enjoyed slogging through them, how wonderful, if stereotyped, his character could be, and how amusing were his sometimes outlandish plots.

I sometimes call Stephen King the Charles Dickens of the 20th/21st century, but perhaps we could call Dickens the 19th century King.

I have not read as much of Karen Joy Fowler, who in some ways may be best known for the furor surrounding the Nebula Award she won in 2003 for her short story “What I Didn’t See.”  The furor arose mostly from myopic defenders of the purity of genre fiction, folks who don’t think it’s fantasy without swords and sorcery nor science fiction without spaceships.  The story rocks and the award was well-deserved.  My definition of speculative fiction undoubtedly includes stories like “What I Didn’t See.”

But what I want to mention is Fowler’s 2013 novel WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES, a fantastic work that explores — through the surrogate of our simian relatives — what it means to be human.  It’s hard to explain without reading it, and I don’t want to ruin it for you.  Suffice to say, if you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it.

Two literary birthdays, Dickens and Fowler.  Separated by time, but linked by their excellent fiction.

Edit, Edit, Edit . . . Hey, Where’s My Story?

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So as I mentioned before, I’ve been working on a zombie story.  My first one. I’m pretty happy with the concept behind it, and I received good feedback, primarily from the Online Writers Workshop, but also from a couple of beta readers.  So I should be all set, right?

Wrong.

The first issue is that I started with too much backstory.  Too much info-dumping. This started to become obvious to me, and was confirmed by some of the comments.  I basically needed to start in the second section, which begins with the protagonist turning zombie, so-to-speak.  Right in the heart of the action, like everyone says.  So I cut out the first section and began to intersperse background throughout the story in what I hope to be a more skilled, subtle manner.  Like a real author.  Mission accomplished.

Except, then I realized the third section of the story is also info-dumpy.  And I made it worse by moving some of the material from the first info-dump into this section.  In fact, the whole third section is background.  Now what?

Cut that section too, what else?

Which I did.  And in some ways, the story seems no worse for wear.  Except I’m not sure if I’ve lost anything.  Is the deleted background implicit in the story? Or is it just because I’ve worked on it so long that I can’t see the forest for the trees?  Have I polished it to a nice shine, or  am I wearing off all fine detail?  I have the sneaky suspicion that I’ve let some of my stories loose into the world before they were fully baked.  Good, but not super good.  Not great.  Maybe now I’m gun shy.

And the ending.  My original ending was a bit vague, a bit unclear, and perhaps not totally plausible under the scenario I’d set up.  One of my readers thought it didn’t work.  So I rewrote it, making it more clear, and in some ways more visceral.  Except now another reader liked the first ending better.

Me?  I kind of like them both.

So now I’m in tinkering mode, afraid to make any more changes (and afraid I’ve already hacked too much), but afraid to let go.  Which makes for some frustrating, unproductive writing sessions.

Any writers out there?  How do you tell when your story is done?  How do you tell when it’s overdone?

Happy Birthday James Joyce!

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James Joyce

James Joyce

Today is James Joyce’s birthday.  As a predominantly “genre” writer, you might think I have little interest in one of the parents of modernism, that Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness prose and focus on the mundane aspects of everyday life might leave me cold.

You would be wrong.  And right.

You would be wrong in that I have actually spent quite a bit of time with Mr. Joyce.  In pursuit of my Master’s in English, I spent an entire semester studying just Joyce, reading everything from DUBLINERS to FINNEGANS WAKE, including some Joycean poetry and even a play!  Despite my love of genre and popular fiction, my Master’s thesis focused on modernism and the short-story cycle, which included a study of DUBLINERS.  And if you read here, I’ve even made the case that Joyce’s short story “Eveline” can be classified as horror.  So I understand and appreciate James Joyce’s contribution to modern literature.

At the same time, I do often find Joyce’s writing cold.  Not sterile so much as detached.  Maybe it’s because the bleakness he portrays is almost too real, too grounded in the everyday.  I need a little glimmer of the unreal in my reading, I guess, even if that glimmer is fool’s gold.

Except for FINNEGANS WAKE.  While perhaps unclassifiable, this stream-of-consciousness prose/poem always strikes me as owing a debt to the fantastical.  Maybe it’s because Joyce grounds this tale in a mythological context.  Maybe it’s because there’s almost no way to impose “reality” on this incredibly complex literary experiment.

If DUBLINERS strikes me as horror, FINNEGANS WAKE perhaps owes a debt to Lewis Carroll.  There’s got to be a “Jabberwocky” in there somewhere.

In any event, happy birthday James Joyce, a man whose work continues to cast a large shadow over English literature.

Women in Horror Month: Part 1

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mary-shelley1

Mary Shelley

February is Women in Horror Month, aka Damn Good Reading Month.  It’s a good idea, not simply because women writers are often overlooked in general (see here), but because it is sometimes particularly noticeable in horror.  There’s something about horror (with its attendant death, violence, and dread) that strikes against the traditional notions of femininity.  So as difficult as I may think it is breaking into the field, I suspect it is even more difficult for those of the female persuasion.

I plan on a few posts on the topic this month, but I thought I’d start by just highlighting a few women horror authors whose work I like.  Ya know, in case you want to read something good.

1. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.  Perhaps obvious, but somehow overlooked.  FRANKENSTEIN: OR, THE MODERN PROMETHEUS (its full name) is one of the archetypical works of horror, creating its own subcategory of the genre, combining what today we’d call science fiction with the trappings of the Gothic.  If all you know of Frankenstein’s monster is what you’ve seen in the movies, you’re missing out.  The book remains a classic of Gothic horror, and the humans are as frightening as the so-called monster.

2. Shirley JacksonIf you haven’t read Jackson, stop reading this and remedy your failure immediately.  Start with “The Lottery,” her famous short story that has infiltrated the subconscious of mainstream society.  Then read THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, the archetypical contemporary haunted house story.  Follow that up with WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE.  Then move back to her short stories.  Got it?  Good.  You won’t regret it.

3. Caitlin R. KiernanTime to move to some well-deserving, if lesser know authors.  Caitlin Kiernan’s book THE DROWNING GIRL still creeps me out.  If you like subtle, eerie horror, this one’s for you.  THE DROWNING GIRL won the 2012 Bram Stoker Award, and it deserved it.

4. Sarah PinboroughA British author who deserves more attention stateside, Pinborough has grown prolific of late, publishing by my count 5 books in 2013.  Running the gauntlet from horror to dark fantasy to young adult, Pinborough never fails to thrill.  She’s also great fun to follow on Twitter.  If you’re looking for a place to start, try MAYHEM.

5. Joyce Carol OatesBack to the masters.  Oates is one of the most acclaimed of all contemporary authors, female or male, horror or literary.  Her recent book, THE ACCURSED, is a mixture of history and horror that will echo in your subconscious for months.  You could fill up a year of reading with Oates and still not read it all.  But you’d love it.

6. Ellen Datlow. Okay, okay, I cheated.  Datlow is not an author, but is instead perhaps the editor most responsible for carrying the torch of modern horror forward.  From THE YEAR’S BEST FANTASY AND HORROR to the numerous anthologies she has edited with Terri Windling, Datlow has been responsible for broadening the tastes of countless horror readers, including myself.  And I’m not just saying that because I received an Honorable Mention in THE YEAR’S BEST FANTASY AND HORROR 2008.

I’ll stop there, a half-dozen of the fantastic women working in the field of horror today.  Go read them, or find your own favorites.

 

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