Caution: Tentacles May Deploy Without Warning (or, How Your Age Informs Your Fiction Writing Success)


When I was a teenager, I loved horses. I rode competitively briefly, showing other peoples’ hunters… and I desperately wanted one of my own.

Standing next to a fellow rider once, I was asked if I had my own horse. I replied, no…but I hoped to have one someday. The girl snorted, looking down her nose at me. “If you really wanted one,” she said, “You would have one by now.”

Little did I know, this was how the world would be looking at my writing forty years later.

If you were any good, you would be published by now…

To my Horror, I actually believed that for an ungodly long time.

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The Truth About Age in Fiction Writing

I have often wondered why no one ever discusses age (like race) as a contributor to Horror fiction.

I have often wondered why once we are ensconced (read trapped or buried) in other careers, relegated to merely dreaming about our writing, we stop believing publication is possible. Or viable. That we come to believe success in writing is only for the young among us.

Some of this is the fault of the marketing machinery of Big Publishers, who like to advertise new writers as “the next Stephen King”… implying that such a writer is a youthful puppy, a keeper, a long termer, a veritable gold mine of future works to be immortalized in film. And sometimes this is because Big Publishers NEED another Stephen King… because some day they will have to navigate our genre WITHOUT him…

But many times it is also because those of us who are right now the Old Writers struggling in the genre grew up with a totally different concept of success – actual examples of lives lived writing… even writing even mediocre Horror fiction. We grew up with the 1970’s Boom, and so to us, success means writing a novel or two in our twenties and transcending into being a Professional Writer. To us, success has been painted as being able to not only make a living off our work, but living well…

Yet if that scenario failed to play out, we start doing the math. After years of listening to the many criticisms and following the life-plans dictated by other people, we wonder: is there still time? Will we live long enough to woo Big Publishers into paying us Big Money contracts (the kind that don’t exist anymore), and didn’t we miss the boat already if we can’t be young and flaunt it? To do all of the things we wanted to do as rich, successful authors?

Old writers are often their own worst enemy…

But then we have had a lot of help in twisting our own self-images.

Because I have also wondered when it became okay to associate older, unpublished writers with failure…to make it an inside joke.

And why is it “proof” of talent or vision to not only get published, but to be young and rich and published? Only some of us are old enough to remember when that was even possible…

It’s not like editors know the ages of submitting authors either… So it must be coming from ourselves.

We have bought into the mythology that unless we are published when we are young, and are thereby a “Professional” (and rich) Writer well before we are thirty, we are simply not good enough…We didn’t want it badly enough. So now we don’t deserve to associate with Real Writers…

Suddenly there is an accompaniment of snorts and sideways, condescending glances… Suddenly we are out of the loop, out of style, and unable to gauge exactly when that moment of stellar success was supposed to have happened.

To make things worse, we keep moving that secret Age of Success, the one that marks the moment we should resign ourselves to other jobs and other careers… Whose idea is that?

Writers of our genre come in all genders, ages and colors, all geographic locations and climates, all political and religious bents. Yet time and again we are given a prepared profile of the Professional Writer… in our genre, typically still a Caucasian male, young enough to remember his youth and still writing about it and his own young adulthood.

Women writers of Horror, it seems, are more readily painted as Young Adult writers, or writers of fantasy. We are to be seen and not heard, demure… nurturers of young readers. We have, apparently, even lost our genre identities as the mistresses of the ghost story. We are not to be taken too seriously.

It gets worse the older we are…

Collectively, we have lost our voices as men and women unafraid to write as older men and women. It is kind of like being in Hollywood… as though we are being (in not-so-subtle ways) coached to disguise our ages (when not our genders) by writing about youth, as though the only ones interested in reading Horror are the very young people the Establishment tends to claim don’t read anymore…

These are all lies, I tell you…lies!

Not only is Stephen King the proof, but so are writers like Ramsay Campbell, Anne Rice, Richard Matheson, Dean Koontz, Neil Gaiman, Tanith Lee, Dan Simmons, Clive Barker, Bentley Little, and Robert R. McCammon… all of them “vintage” and still carrying our genre…even in backlist titles.

As a reader of many of them, I have watched a good many protagonists creep up in age… leaving behind that New Adult thing that has tried to insert itself between Young Adult and Real Adult fiction. Our own writers have tried to drag Horror back into the Adult arena, dancing with Literary values by writing stories which are in themselves proof that some of the best Horror gets written after we grow up. Everywhere there are signs being downplayed and ignored… Horror is growing up.

So why does the myth of youth persist when defining New Writer Success in our genre?

Who has commandeered the profile of writers to suggest that if a writer has not “made it” by the time they are in their twenties and “established” by their thirties, then Fate is telling you they are not worthy?

The truth about age in Horror fiction writing is this: youth is where we learn about what scares us the most; old age is where we learn about confronting that fear… So while we may have great scary ideas as young writers, and we might write boldly about those things, as older writers we know how to throw and receive a punch. We are, in fact, more likely to generate Horror fiction with Literary elements.

Why?

Because it takes some living to write what you know.

And it takes even more living to write what you believe.

The truth about old writers, published or not?

Writers, like fine wine, improve with age…

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Getting Past the Stereotypes

Like most Horror writers, I started writing pretty early – toying with ideas when I was a teenager, heavily influenced by the many writers of our second Golden Age of Horror and Science Fiction in the 1970’s Publishing Boom. This was the time of the paperback – what book peddlers call Mass Market paperbacks, and what was then bursting onto the scene as “Pocket Books” – those small paperbacks for under $5 that were on racks and spinners in every grocery store, hospital, drug store and airport.

This was when fiction was so mass-produced that the impression was left on many a young writing hopeful that there was a living to be made writing fiction and an unending world of story to be savored out there. Who would have thought it was a phase? Who would have thought that pulp stories would be pushed out of our immediate consciousness and that book prices would rise precariously, nearly putting fiction out of reach entirely, and severely limiting our choices both professionally and as readers?

Sadly, the demise of the age of the Mass Market paperback came with another price: the end of the Mid-List Author, the complete and utter destruction of writing careers, of publishing careers, of…writers.

Many of us were left adrift with our dreams. We had nowhere to go… And when former industry standards are being laid off, let go, and dicked over, when top editors are being unceremoniously dismissed… What hope is there for unknown writers?

Most of us were forced to abandon our dreams, to sell them out for “real” jobs, coerced into believing that because “anyone can write, writing is no worthy talent.”

So we spent decades writing stellar letters, correcting CEO’s bad grammar, creating easy to understand Standard Operation Manuals and Employee Handbooks. Later, we did some awesome presentation materials, edited scientific reports for style and grammar, we made the coffee, we cleaned the bathrooms.

And all the while Stephen King kept writing, kept being published, kept proving that it’s the story, dummy… it’s all about the story…

So pardon my generation if we took a little while to find our way back to sanity. It only took being sold out by every generation that went before and half of them coming after, by losing our alternate “careers” and retirement savings and being passed over for real jobs no matter how often we returned to schools and collected degrees, and maintained GPA’s our younger classmates seldom did.

It took realizing that we have been had… that we have been cheated and tricked and bribed out of our real purposes in life…

It took realizing we sold out…

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That means that yes, my generation is in the midst of an epiphany.

And no matter what other well-meaning folks or scheming cads intended by saying what they said to us… We did this to ourselves. We abdicated…

And we are all the more miserable for having done so.

I think if older writers have one message for the younger ones shyly coming up behind us it is this: stop listening to the “experts.” Especially today, the rules are being rewritten, flaunted, disposed of.

Make your own. Take your own life by the horns and don’t look down, don’t look back, don’t let go…

This means that just like this old Horror writing woman, you have to decide what will be important in your life: holding onto what makes you, you… Or pretending that “someday” will come before you die.

It means whether you are male or female, you cannot believe in stereotypes… like old people will only write fiction other old people will want to read (like filling a niche is a bad thing), or that old people can’t write fiction that relates to younger readers.

Pish tush.

It only means we really, really shouldn’t try to write in “modern” slang, to believe our own stereotypes about young people.

We Ancient Ones have had quite enough of the stereotypes, anyway. And if you are a woman, chances are you have been hearing them since you lost that 20-something baby fat and your front end alignment started needing annual adjustment.

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The Eldritch Uprising

You may not have noticed, but there is a movement afoot. A bunch of old folks have gone rogue and started looking for “second” careers… (I am on number 39, thank you, Silicon Valley.)

We have realized that we are NOT our jobs, but our jobs may in fact be US. Who we are at the end of the day comes down to what we believe about ourselves, about happiness.

So many of us who tried to be writers just in time to become other cogs caught in other machinery have begun to come home. Just in time, too… because now we don’t need the Mass Market boom, or the classy sassy editor, or the big New York publishing machinery – it would be nice, but we don’t need it.

Because the same technology that vampirized our savings accounts and fake careers, has also provided us with the ultimate put-up-or-shut-up opportunity: self-publishing.

And ironically, what we hear from traditional publishing is a whole lot of whining about quality.

For sure, the price of self-publishing sometimes comes at the sacrificial altar of quality… But if we apply what we learned working in all of those endless clerical jobs about editing and presentation and layout and marketing…

Come on. You fellow old folks know exactly what I am saying… we already ran companies, offices, projects…

And if we can do them for others we can darn well do them for ourselves.

We just have to keep ourselves from getting giddy – drunk with excitement and anticipation, blinded by the possible rose-colored glasses of delusion.

Sure maybe we are J.K. Rowling’s long lost Literary Twin, the New Stephen King…

But most likely not.

So our rebellion must be tempered with humility. Don’t rush to publication. Don’t assume your writing is “good enough” without having others (who don’t care about your feelings) read it. Pay people to judge it. And learn how to fix the things that are found to be wrong…

As Eldritch Ones, we must realize that we may indeed have missed the boat in the quest to have our work to be well-read and to die famous, to quit the day job and live adequately on Social Security.

But we have not missed anything of Life. We still have the capacity to break barriers, to create something new in the vacuum of modern genre writing, to be… rebels. Old rebels, but rebels nonetheless.

Maybe that’s especially true for older women…Maybe nobody ever suspected you had Horror stories tucked away in your cookie-baking apron, or that you’ve fed every co-worker who ever got you laid off to the most unspeakable of monsters…

The bottom line is this: when writers get old, they write what they think. It’s a miracle. We stop caring what other people think.

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Your writing is what you say it is, not what others say it is. It is also where you say it is… there is NO timeline, no age limit constructed by people with questionable motives and possible psychological issues of their own.

We also come to realize that by doggies we have opinions that do not have to conform, that we are as writers generally not conformists as a rule… that maybe, just maybe we should have been torching our own underwear with protest groups a long time ago instead of letting the Herd think for us.

Maybe that is how we turn it around. We realize maybe to our own perverse shock and joy that all of these years we really were feminists, or conservationists, or advocates for the unlikely and un-preferred.

And then things like Literature begin making sense… becoming even more mysterious, carrying codes and secret language we never before picked up on. And we realize with giddiness that we can write that way too…that it is the unwritten, unspoken challenge of the profession to do so…

Suddenly we realize we have actual opinions about the way things have played out in wars, in society, in the ways we treat each other right here in our own generational decades.

Suddenly our age informs our writing… and we cannot stop it.

And we begin to build monsters, looking for ways to say what we have by evolution come to realize: that we are where we are because we did not speak up when it counted, when it was for ourselves. We believed the mythology. And there is only one way to break out of our self-imposed misery…

We write. We are writers. That is what we do.

Don’t be surprised if there are tentacles.

We warned you.

 

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The Witch: What a Bookless Film Teaches Us About Writing in Our Own Genre


You might not have noticed, but one of the more critically acclaimed Horror movies that you didn’t hear much of not long ago hit DVD/Bluray release. The Witch, a 2016 debut from Robert Eggers, came at us from the Sundance Film Festival. And it came bookless – without fanfare, and without the promise of a sequel.

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Yet in theaters and in DVD stores, the film has failed to ignite, the sales not so stellar.

Why do Critics and some fans give this film the highest of marks, when it does not resemble what we have come to expect from “successful” Horror films? And specifically, if you have watched it and did not feel affected, why not?

The answer would be because this film is not conventional Horror: it is about Horror – it is how Literary Horror looks when filmmakers understand the importance of punctuating their plots with something deeper than splashy effects. This is an important lesson for writers of Horror to understand…Because even if you choose to write in-genre and somewhat pulpy fiction, you need to grasp just how to utilize words, setting, symbols, and psychological effects and then be able to deftly select from a smorgasbord of actual history, folklore, superstition, and disease (social and literal) to better enhance your Horror – to layer it in the intent of getting under the skin like a parasite. It’s why films like Insidious (the first one) worked where the plot and acting was less dimensional – there it is the imagery and the suggestions it makes to our subconscious that delivers the shivers. But it is also why so much 1980’s Horror worked – why Classic Horror still works…

When these ingredients are properly combined, films like The Witch, The Exorcist and The Birds result. The reliance on jump scares may still be present, but they are to a much lesser degree – relying instead on the direct connection to the personal fears of human beings – whether it is the reality of the Devil and his army of demons, or a preternatural and unsettling unification of nature against humanity.

In The Witch, there are pretty strong references to fear, terror and real Horror the way most of us imagine it. Yet a large chunk of our audience – the Horror audience – was unimpressed. Indeed, the reviews aren’t particularly stellar – especially among movie-goers and subsequently – Horror fans: according to film review site Rotten Tomatoes, only 55% of viewers liked it. But 91% of Critics did. Why the point spread? And what does this say about our genre?

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Tricks Are For Kids, Silly Rabbit

One of the first clues is the subtitle “A Folk Tale.” This film unabashedly shows its lineage to the viewer. For a murky, moody tale surrounding the Salem witch trials, it is not about the Salem witch trials – but the atmosphere created by the paranoia and dread such rampant fear invokes. Nested within rests the possibility, the suggestion that witchcraft and its consequences are real…the extension of which is the possibility that for the witch, perhaps not all is as it is promised.

We forget that the time period in question birthed the phrase “witch hunt” – a frenzied, irrational attack on anyone unfortunate enough to warrant a finger-point, whose differences or poor luck or gender was enough to justify their own persecution, torture, and death. But we also forget that tucked neatly away within our own religion are warnings about such fraternization with things unseen, with the dangers of envy, the vulnerability of being faithless.

We also forget that caught in the middle of such historical moments are real people, fearing that their own reactions or behaviors – however innocent –might be misinterpreted, costing whole families everything. We forget how easy it was to acquiesce to the momentum of the moment rather than take a risk, to see that the price of loyalty might well be one’s own life. We forget – especially today and in this country – what it is to fear the accusation of another that leads directly to death.

This is the importance of history, and of this specific time in our history. Because if we don’t see the mistakes that were made, we cannot prevent their cousins from rising as specters in the future.

And yet we have already managed to forget.

We make light of witches, even as our unpalatable history rests intact in Salem, Massachusetts. We amuse ourselves with the idea that our ancestors were simply superstitious, gullible, ignorant – not enlightened like ourselves.

We also make light of witchcraft, chiding ourselves into believing that if we play at it, we might be in charge of pre-selected consequences; we might dabble, be amazed, and then escape. Yet such is warned against in all religions; because in all religions are unwritten rules, forgotten wisdom, hidden Horrors. And the greatest Horror of all is not that one would be detected, persecuted and put to death… but that any such engagements might carry extenuating clauses in their contracts – ones that call for sacrifice of those loved other than the self.

But bad things, if they happen, happen to others. And we are all pretty certain sitting under our electric lights, that it is all superstition anyway.

Is that why we can sit disaffected by such a film as The Witch?

Indeed, much of our own religion today minimizes the possibility of the supernatural, the reality of a witch, or a ghost or a demon – all while handing us biblical verses mentioning those very possibilities. We have separated ourselves from those passages, determined to make them “symbolic” or “parables” or “metaphors.”

This film asks what if they are not? What if they are more – be it in the mind or the making?

Primitive humanity has always allowed for the unseen. And perhaps that is the problem: we seek to disavow our primal fears from our new, glossy, sciencey selves.

It’s why so many viewers might have missed the symbolism of the rabbit. To get it… to let ourselves be made very afraid we have to engage the folklore that might have its origins in very primitive truths.

While modern Horror fans are conditioned like Pavlov’s Dogs to quiver at vampire love and laugh at the startled scream after a scary face leaps from the dark of the theater, real terror – real fear – has more to do with things not-seen and things once seen that cannot be unseen…things that follow you because you saw them.

Tricks are for kids. The thing that wants your soul has something else in its toolbag. And it hides those things in the ordinary.

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The Devil In the Details

If you’ve ever had a bout of the Serious Superstitious, you know that once that roller coaster ride gets started, danger is everywhere. This means that whether you are writing Horror or watching it on the Big Screen, it is important to provide layer after layer of detail. Accurate detail. The imagination cannot be allowed to escape, to dismiss the entity come for you because the scroll saw marks are on the wood of the clapboards.

This is how The Witch ensnares the wary, the skeptical, the Modern Human. The senses are so burdened by detail, by the weight of the period the viewer can almost smell the farm animals, the sweat, the decay of crops, the whiff of goat.

This is not the same dark forest of Hollywood, but the thick tangle of copse and ravine that cradle our folk and fairy lore – the ones that left their echoes outside our safe houses, in the skeletal, wet-black branch that claws at our windows in a storm, that still lives as a microcosm in our National Parks, and spills forth from children’s book illustrations. This is the dark wood our ancestors walked and succumbed to… a wood where death happens, and where a scream goes unheard and unanswered.

If you have never had the privilege of walking in a natural wood, you cannot imagine the depth of the darkness, the ease of disorientation, the uncanny sense of being watched… or stalked. Nor can you appreciate the stories of our folk heritage that came from such a place, the legitimacy that wilderness gives them.

Yet it is why we tore down the woods, killed the wolves and the bears, and planted our tame crops to feed our domesticated animals to ourselves. It’s how we beat The Witch… we tore down her temple.

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We hung our pictures of blond Jesus, and separated ourselves from all but the most sacred of miracles, we philosophized Hell, and electrocuted our ghosts.

Yet. What if? What if even some part of the parable were true?

This is how we build great prose. This is how the Horror classics still terrify. When we read classic Horror, we allow ourselves to identify with and in a sense become the character whose very times and place are darker and more indistinct than our own. We suspend our belief and accept that of the character.

Modern presentation of character and scene are not the same. The character goes into a house…a modern house, just like all the others. There is no depth of description because it has become a stage set upon which the all-important action will occur. Yet it is anticipation of action that equates to dread. Those moments of anticipation are laced with the observations made by the mind – the analysis of shadow, the assessment of danger, the awareness of the rise of adrenaline, the shakiness in the legs and hands. All of that is dependent on detail.

So much detail. Like the tangles of knots in Celtic design meant to entrap the curiousity of fairies, rendering them harmless…the writer or filmmaker must overload the senses for mistakes and miscalculations to be made. We have to be ensnared. For that, we have to be persuaded to believe.

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Bookless, She Came From the Woods to Terrify Us All

I find it wonderful that this film comes without a book or promise of sequel. It is a folktale – a warning, a tale of caution.

There is so much here for the writer to learn from another artist’s medium. This is storytelling. At no moment does the viewer not feel the connection being made to much older stories – actual accounts of such things being used by Eggers to fortify his imagery. In this film, the story is firmly rooted in Horror tradition, in folktale tradition, in fairytale tradition… yet it is no also-ran. It is an outgrowth, another link in the chain of evidence of such storytelling. It is a modern rendition of the folktale told using the harsh and vulnerable times of Colonial America to do so.

This is a lesson in how to build on tradition in the way the British have managed… This is what has been so lacking in contemporary American Horror.

If a writer is willing to really watch this film, there are important lessons here about story-telling and the best delivery method for Horror: the primal one already there, just under the skin, just under the surface – the one that creates surface tension like the skin on water.

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This is not your ordinary night at the campfire, but the slowly unfolding tale of all that goes unforgivably wrong in human interaction and hides somewhere between deceit and coincidence. It is about failure, and desperation, and need for answers. It is about the things that hear you in your darkest moments and most hopeless prayers. It is about choices and faith and the relentless stalk of the predator upon the alleged innocent.

It is also about how we look at misfortune, how we primitively expect good behavior to be rewarded with all manner of blessings: how we seek to lay blame and accusation to rationalize and rebalance…Life. And then it is about how far we will all go to restore the balance – to re-conjure our own illusions about ourselves. How quickly do we turn… Such is the makings of some of the world’s greatest Literature – the rationalizations for so many oppressions and genocides and wars, for exploiting children and locking up women, for labelling people criminals and fanatics and less equal, for silencing whole generations and rewriting history… for hunting, trying, and burning witches.

That which does not or cannot conform is a threat to our theory of how the world works. Therein resides the deepest of human Horrors pressed out of the fabric of our secret fears.

Sometimes you have to sneak up on an audience, dragging them deep into the imagery of their own making… to hold up mirrors. This is why The Witch works for some and not others: some are afraid to see what else is reflected in the glass, to allow it out…

Critics love this film because so many layers offer so many interpretations of what the film symbolizes: the role of the nonexistent apple tree and its connection to original sin, the questions about faith and afterlife and coming of age of our nation, the nod to the dark ages of superstition coiled in the body of a recurring rabbit.

But there is so much more for the Horror fan, should he or she be willing to admit that the contemporary explosion in jump-scare Horror and found footage is a phase. Sure, such films are great for grabbing your significant other or reasonable facsimile in the theater; they are a summertime blast.

But do you really want to be scared? Exorcist-scared?

Then you’ll have to let go of the bar. Because Horror is bigger than flashlights under the chin.

Horror is about the Big Questions that unsettle us all.

You have to be willing to ask yourself just how much of the real world is real, and how much is illusion. You might even have to wonder about life and death and what comes after, that if it is anything at all, there may be players in the game you cannot see and whose motivations you cannot sate or outmaneuver.

You might have to admit that we live at the mercy of others and the luck of fate, that we may have success or long life because we managed to avoid the notice of Others.

They say that most Horror writers do not believe in what they write about. Perhaps this is so. But I tend to think that at our very primal core, none of us is sure. We live according to our theories, and sometimes we think that the supernatural is a fun place in which to scare ourselves silly.

But if you really want to scare your audience or be scared with the audience, you have to be willing to surrender your talismans and amulets. You have to turn out the lights. You have to go naked into the forest, to wonder if you would have the courage to accept a terrifying death and be lost to the world, or whether you would be just curious enough – just innocent enough – to stray into the darkness and expect to outsmart what lies coiled there.

In the film, the protagonist is asked if she would like “to see the world, to live life deliciously”… What is most telling is how the audience wants her to say yes…even having glimpsed the hellish truth of the misery that drives the witch of the wood just to keep young and potent. Is the protagonist Eve, or ourselves?

We are never told what conditions await the signatory of such a contract with the devil. We are too busy imagining what the offer means, too busy justifying the needs and subsequent choices being made. And in the end we are left to wonder about our own roles and choices in the world.

We are left to wonder what this creature is, this Witch.

Is she us – bargaining away the lives and fortunes of others so that we might live the way we believe we are entitled to?

Have we mistaken desire for need for so long that we don’t want to know what happened to the baby, and we don’t see the tears behind the laughter as our protagonist is lifted in flight?

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Do we not care about the coworker we volunteered for lay-off, or the civilians caught in the crossfire of our wars? And isn’t that the Horror?

A lot has been said about The Witch as one of the genre’s best offerings in decades. A lot of Horror fans apparently don’t agree.

What I find unfortunate, is that this could mean we are not-seeing exactly what makes the Horror genre great: its ability to take the mundane, the everyday, the culture of contemporary society, and make it monstrous.

It could mean a percentage of Horror fans don’t want to think about why they might be afraid of something: they just want a good time.

Those are the Horror fans who will probably age out of the genre.

Because what stays with you in Horror is the stuff you can’t get out of your head…. And I’m not talking about old lady butts (of which I have one and it does indeed get scarier every day, but it is not Horror Mr. Shyamalan).

I am talking about the contracts we make every day with the devil… about that darker unknown that lurks in the woods of our minds, that fails us when we should have been better, and that eats our flesh and bargains our souls for a few more seconds of youth.

Horror is about the real world and the many things that crouch within it. It is about the long, patient stalk of a predator, and sometimes, about dying well. It is about what makes itself known when we are at our most vulnerable.

When it combines well with an audience educated in all of its nuances, such a story – whether on film or between two covers – is received like Hitchcock or Poe. But the catch is this: if we lose and continue to lose our connection to real life, then we are losing our Horror vocabularythe most valuable tool in our storytelling arsenal.

As writers we are unable to convey what raises the goosebumps on our own skins, to name the Horror – to conjure it behind the eyes of our audience. Nothing resonates because nothing is there. This is exactly how we have come to this place in Horror where nothing – and I mean nothing – is scary enough.

Without a shared vocabulary that includes an understanding of humanity and a willingness to be led virtually anywhere in our torrid and shameful human history, film goers and book readers will simply not get it… and Horror will continue to descend into less-scary, less meaningful works that currently mirror the two dimensions of what we have come to see as “normal” – and worseto consider as acceptable work in our genre.

If you want to write effective Horror, this means you will have to get your hands dirty. You need to crawl into that cave and summon spirits. You need accuracy and detail and the ability to overwhelm the needs of your audience. That means you need to understand where we come from – that very primal place where so many unlikeable things are possible, and happy endings do not come from stories with witches in them.

You need to story-tell. And that means first, you have to listen.

So pull up a bearskin. Study folklore and fairy tales. Tell ghost stories. Ponder those warnings in the Scriptures and other Holy Books. And watch The Witch… Let your mind slowly take in all in… And then watch it again.

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Where is #26? Mammoth’s Best New Horror Goes Hardback


If you think you hear the gnashing of teeth….It might be me.

As if it wasn’t hard enough waiting almost two years for any given year’s Best New Horror from Britain’s Stephen Jones…

Now most of us will have to wait even longer to own it, because BNH #26– missing for almost two years now from American shelves, has gone hardback and gone exclusive in distribution. And the cost alone will take it out of the hands of many while making the reservation queue at libraries even longer….a whopping $45 American.

Well… if and when it gets here for the rest of us brick-and-mortar diehards…

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This is not the news I was waiting for. But I am pretty sure that is me on the cover when I heard the price.

For those who don’t know, Stephen Jones is probably the apex editor of all Horror fiction. His work is the most recognized, the most lauded, the most respected in the genre. For many fans, he does not just have his fingers on the pulse of Horror – he holds its bloody, pulsating heart.

His editorial picks are the ones we excitedly wait for as fans, and the ones we lust after as writers. He knows his stuff and he knows the genre like few others. His typically lengthy year-in-review introductions are practically annual documentaries of what is happening in the genre on both sides of the pond, in publishing, in editing, and in markets. The historical value of the front matter alone is typically worth the price of the book. And if you are a writer or serious fan, it has probably been an indispensable part of your genre history files.

So what on earth possessed Mammoth to issue it in an unforgivably expensive hardback edition, and then to not just physically release it everywhere here in the U.S.?

It’s bad enough that we seldom get British Horror in the United States – neither as announced availability nor in our brick-and-mortars, and now this elusive (still not available in most bookstores from P.S. Publishing) annual collection from 2015 has gone elite on us.  Although Amazon claims to have access, why isn’t this available anywhere else? I work for one of the largest bookstore chains in the U.S. and I cannot order it. Not for me…not for my customers.

And what is with the price?

The whole pricing issue in adult book publishing is so frustrating. I am always hearing how Young Adult is the big moneymaker…that this is where sales rule. I also hear that this is why they suppress the price of YA fiction. And I am thinking:

Just WHO is the Brainiac who decides that YA is popular and therefore they must keep the prices down and NOT that YA is popular BECAUSE the prices are kept down?

(I know. I am ranting. But I wait for this collection every year…. And now I am bitter. And by its own e-sample introduction, #26 states right off the bat that “67% of books sold in America were in print format” as opposed to 23% in e-book format… so WHY are our choices e-book or a brick of gold to the Amazon gods?)

Really. The sticker shock is absolutely paralyzing as it is…just wander from YA and see what I mean: visit children’s picture books at an average of $17.95 by comparison. Or tour the adult section where a YA hardback is $10.95 and an adult hardback is now typically $27.95.

This is part of the reason Adult Horror fans have defected to YA Horror…and why IF print sales suffer, price has a lot to do with it.

I mean I was “willing” to shell out $27.95 for Best Horror in hardback…but $45 is giving me serious pause. That is one-fourth of my weekly income.

Maybe I’ll just wait for the movie…

Conspiracy Theory, Anyone?

But what really ticks me off, is that because of the pricing the sales will plummet as compared to other anthologies and other years. “They” will say, “lookit…Horror is not selling. Not even Stephen Jones.”

Granted, ALL of fiction sales are down in adult anything. But we aren’t going to reverse that course by making what is a relatively sure guarantee of a good anthology ungodly expensive and limited in availability.  Mammoth….what is wrong with you?!

Does this feel like a conspiracy to you? Somebody is putting a strangle hold on our genre. They are publishing everything in hardback sporting optimum prices and nobody but Stephen King can pull that out…and I’ve even seen King fans put other selections back just so they could afford the one hardback. Then publishers deign to brag how Horror is dead, the proof being in the sales.

Pish tush. Give us back our paperbacks and our section. We’ll show you… the relative and consistent successes of American editors Ellen Datlow and Paula Guran should be proper “evidence”… and seriously….GIT YER MITS OFF THE BRITISH!

Our economy is on life-support and our paychecks with expendable cash are dead-on-arrival. That has nothing whatsoever to do with not wanting to buy Horror; just check out the long reserve lists at libraries. However, it has everything to do with buying expensive books by writers that come with satisfaction guaranteed (like classics, or Rice, Campbell and King), and with shopping the bargain tables.

Nobody disputes the need for hard cash to pay for professional editing and snazzy covers – we want that and are willing to pay for that. But some of us don’t have a first born to give or a second mortgage to take out. Killing variety and choice and then raising the prices on what remains is NOT going to improve profits. People who would otherwise spend their grocery money (like I used to and sometimes still do) are going to just walk out of the store. For too many, $45 might as well be a million. We can’t do it. We won’t do it. Even for British Horror.

And that says nothing about what this does to American Horror writing…Keeping British Horror writers visible is important; they are our inspiration and our competition. If we can’t write like them or in spite of them, we lose our creative momentum, the all-important sense of genre tradition, the gravitational pull of their moon, the directions of genre evolution in the English language, and just some darn good reading.

Our editors continue to complain about our lack of originality and our knowledge of our own Horror lineage. So sure it makes perfect sense to just cut us off from the Brits… the Keepers of our Origin Mythology… (I am being sarcastic.) This feels like censorship, even if one is trying to protect American publishing: we should do that by writing better fiction or getting better editors or better publishers…hey? I am saying our genre on the American side is suffering from this isolationism.

And donning a higher price point also says nothing about repairing our need to just read in our genre – and read broadly. The British are a distinct “flavor” in the genre, and an important historical root.  Whether it is because they are writing better Horror, have more Horror writers, or because they have more respected publishing venues is hard to say. They are a major force we need to include in the shaping of our own American tradition. And if the American publishing scene makes us all feel like there are only about fifteen “real” Horror writers in the professional ranks, we need the International wake-up call that there are indeed many more out there – each successfully defining their own voice, providing other examples of how to do it.

I sincerely hope Mammoth re-thinks their new format and marketing plans. I can see this kind of thing being done for a special edition, or offering a limited run for collectors, or even exclusive release in exchange for special promotions. But most of us just want our British Horror. It shouldn’t be cheaper to fly to Britain personally just to see what is happening in the genre across the sea, or to have to rely on a handful of American editorial tastes to sample good British Horror.

Meanwhile, I am headed back to (mostly) American Horror and whatever I find in the aisles of my store. No Stephen Jones for me. Not this year.

 

Things Found on Shelves (More & Other Horror to Soothe the Recently Horrified):

So here is some new Horror I have found by wandering my bookstore and putting things away:

Novels

Curse of the Zombie by Ray Cluley. Great Britain: Hersham Horror Books, c2014. POD pbk: $10.99

Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay. HarperCollins Publishers, c2016, HC $25.99

Hater by David Moody. Thomas Dunne Books, c2006, pbk $14.99

The Hatching by Ezekiel Boone. Atria Books, c 2016, HC $26.00

Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt. Tom Doherty Associates LLC, c2016. HC $25.99

I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas. Night Shade Books, C2016, pbk $15.99

Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney. 60th Anniversary edition.  New York: Touchstone, c 1954, 1955, 1978. Pbk $15.99

Maledicus: The Investigative Paranormal Society Book I by Charles French. Gopublished.com: Charles French, c2016. POD Pbk $15.00 Mirror Image by Michael Scott and Melanie Ruth Rose. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, c2016. HC $25.99

My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix. Quirk Publishing, c2016, HC $19.99

Water for Drowning by Ray Cluley. Reat Britain: Hersham Horror, 2014. POD pbk. $7.99

Anthologies

The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 8 edited by Ellen Datlow. Night Shade Books, c2016 $15.99

Chilling Horror Short Stories: Anthology of New & Classic Tales. Laura Bulbeck, series ed. London: Flame Tree Publishing, c2016, 2015. HC $9.98

Chilling Ghost Short Stories: Anthology of New & Classic Tales. Laura Bulbeck, series ed. London: Flame Tree Publishing, c2016, 2015. HC $9.98

The Color of Evil. David G. Hartwell, ed. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, c1987. Pbk $8.99

The Creepy Pasta Collection: Modern Urban Legends You Can’t Unread edited by Mr.CreepyPasta, Adams Media, c2016, pbk $15.29

Dark Horizons: an Anthology of Dark Science Fiction. Charles P. Zaglanis, ed. Lake Orion, MI: Elder Signs Press, c2016. Pbk $14.95

Fresh Fear: an Anthology of Macabre Horror edited by William Cook, King Billy Publications, c2016, pbk, $16.00

Great Ghost Stories: 101 Terrifying Tales. Stefan Dziemianowicz, ed. New York: Fall River Press, c2016. HC $7.98

The Mammoth Book of Kaiju: 27 Tales of Monster Mayhem. Sean Wallace, ed. (First published in) Great Britain: Prime Books, c2016. Pbk $16.95

Nightmares: a New Decade of Modern Horror. Ellen Datlow, ed. San Francisco, CA: Tachyon Publications LLC, c2016. pbk $16.95

Peel Back the Skin: Anthology of Horror Stories. Anthony Rivera and Sharon Lawson, eds. Chicago, IL: Grey Matter Press, c2016, pbk $16.99

Things From Outer Space. Hank Davis, ed. Riverdale, NY: Baen Books, c2016. Pbk. $7.99

The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2016 edited by Paula Guran, Prime Books, c2016 pbk $19.95

 

About Horror

Franklin, Ruth. Shirley Jackson: a Rather Haunted Life. New YorK: W.W. Norton & Company, c2016 HC $35.00

Frayling, Christopher. Vampyres: Genesis and Resurrection: From Count Dracula to Vampirella. New York:Thames and Hudson, c2016. HC $27.60

Peterson, David J. The Art of Language Invention: From Horse Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building. New York: Penguin Books, c2015.

Schneck, Robert Damon. The Bye Bye Man and Other Strange-But-True Tales. New York: Tarcher Perigree Press, c2005. Pbk $15.00

Vuckovic, Jovanka. Vuckovic’s Horror Miscellany: Stories, Facts, Tales & Trivia. New York: Metro Books, c2015. HC $7.98

 

 

Lovecraft, the APA & Horror: a Manifesto of the Greater Rocky Mountain Horror Writers APA


Writing is one of the most personally punishing of the professions we could choose. We learn in a vacuum, taught by other people who are also feeling their way along because those “in the know” haven’t a clue on how to tell us what they want without belittling our every effort.

So how do we “preserve” what we do if we cannot get published? When you are ready to look back on your Life’s Work, will it be with an eye to the next winter’s fire, hidden in an attic, or bequeathed to a reluctant relative?

Who will know what you wrote? And what if it’s not that it was “bad” – it was simply not in style when written?

Lovecraft3

The Same Thing Happened – to LOVECRAFT

I am not saying that we are the best judges of our work, or that an unsuspecting public deserves to be inundated with substandard creations. I am saying that – contrary to many editors’ professional opinions – we don’t have the magazines and pulp base that writers held up to us today had in their day with which to preserve at least some of their work.  “Trash” magazines, pulp magazines, anything with writing that is less than Stephen King, less than Bram Stoker Awardish simply do not survive. So to find a publication accepting of amateur work – let alone genre-busting work – is virtually impossible, effectively eliminating one source of what has been preached to us as traditional “dues paying.”

I am saying that the constant rise and fall of lesser magazines and so many publishing houses also means that there is nowhere for the average writer to find employment in the industry that teaches writers about writing, about editing, about the industry of writing. And this goes for writers of all levels of education. What used to be an entry-level job is now a “plum position” no matter how you slice it. And in many cases, it is becoming an industry once again famed for “who you know.”

I am saying that virtually every magazine out there today boasts that it is the best, and only accepts the best of the genre, that there is no room for midlist-type writers, for also-rans, no matter how fun or fair the story.

I am saying that if you get published on the internet, because of the nature of technology (and the subsequent ease in which you and everything about you can be libeled and slandered, edited, pirated, censored and/or deleted) your work may be altered without your permission or simply may never be found when the gods of S.E.O. change their linens, or the power goes out, and there is no print magazine to be discovered in a dusty old attic.

Talk about your tentacles… this is the one problem Lovecraft had no trouble with.

I am saying that as writers, we develop a massive catalog of our work –good, bad and in between – which fades in our file cabinets or which we carelessly trust to “live” on virtual reality clouds. I am saying that even if it all deserves to go nowhere, it is who we are and what we did with our lives. And sometimes – just maybe – it matters.

It certainly did with Lovecraft. And that is why I took a much closer look at how we almost lost him…

The Need For APA’s in Our Genre

There’s a reason I really like Lovecraft – besides his monsters, I mean.

I like Lovecraft because he was not a bashful, easily intimidated writer of our genre hopefully waiting to be discovered. He wasn’t exactly stable, either, but then how many of us are after a few years in the trenches?

Lovecraft was a perfectionist, a notorious grammar hound haunted by his own insecurities – once even asking an editor for his stuff back as a second thought… He knew that what he wrote was not the flavor of the day, and admitted that he probably only had a handful of readers who liked what he wrote.

That is important, folks. Because he also believed that those readers deserved a well-crafted story in which the writer was deeply invested – so much so that Lovecraft constantly preached (liked Literary Critics) that a writer should never write for the money…

And while many of us can point out that Lovecraft descended from wealth, he also descended from a degree of madness and landed in poverty like the rest of us. He did not make a living as a writer.

Read that again: H.P. Lovecraft did not make a living as a writer.

He made his living as an editor, and a ghost writer for other writers. Just like some of us work in retail while writing, or write blogs, or work at newspapers, or become contract employees for firms that need copywriters, or tech writers, or web content writers.

H.P., in his flawed way, was one of us.

So I became interested in his “story.” How did a writer of such modern genre importance keep his writing safe in a world that almost completely rejected him?

uapa

The answer: he joined amateur press associations – both the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA) , and the National Amateur Press Association (NAPA). These were associations created for journalists…and yet Lovecraft managed to use them for his own purposes… for fiction writers. Under his tutelage, his participation in APA’s morphed into what had to have been one of the first writer workshop groups.

napa

He and several other writers from around the Northeast pooled together to write and exchange their writings for internal critique and internal publication in a newsletter. The object was to improve each other’s writing and preserve it in limited run publications within the group. The result was Lovecraft’s work being collected by co-member and dedicated fan August Derleth and later to be preserved by Derleth’s publishing company Arkham House – created specifically to preserve and publish Lovecraft’s work.

Read that again: without being in an APA, there might not have been the fandom of Derleth, the creation of Arkham House, and the rest of Lovecraft’s essays, letters, and work not published by Weird Tales.

Without Derleth and the APA, we might have lost Lovecraft…

Few “experts” of his time valued his work. Fewer liked him personally. Yet who do today’s experts thrust eagerly in our faces?

How do we know how many Lovecrafts are actually out there now? Being rejected? Maligned? Self-publishing?

The answer is: we don’t.

Any Lovecraft who might be out there won’t likely find out he or she was a Lovecraft until long after they are dead and their work is “discovered” lying in a heap of e-papers or discolored print. This is a sad reality of a life in the Arts: new developments that actually advance the genres of any of the Arts take time because Critics need time and distance to see the common thread that is advancing said genre. It simply cannot be done with any guarantee during the writer/artist’s lifetime. Derleth was right, but he also got lucky. Lovecraft, however, died poor and unrecognized.

There but for the grace of Cthulhu go we…

With the effect the National Amateur Press Association (NAPA) and the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA) had on his work, I am wondering why APAs fell out of favor… because in reality, they were working writers groups – serious writers groups. They were among the first to utilize writer workshops and peer review through critiques.

And in all other academically-infused professions, peer review is the way things are done.

I am not saying APAs are gone: both the NAPA (http://www.thefossils.org/horvat/aj/napahistory.htm ) and UAPA (http://www.amateurpress.org/ ) still exist, and new ones have cropped up for other genres… But I am saying that from what I can see they are often dysfunctional. One problem I see is that the sheer number of members tend to overturn the lifeboat. This is complicated by the fact that aside from the NAPA and UAPA, other genre APAs tend to be untended gardens where wild growth distorts the tight control needed to help every member writer. It’s almost as those either the ambition was not carefully channeled, or there is so great a need that everyone is rushing for the rescue boat.

Worse, I have been unable to find a standalone Horror APA…instead, our genre succumbs to invitations to join other genres. And I see a problem with this: how can writers from another genre productively critique Horror writing without understanding all of the tropes and conventions therein?

I am thinking it is time to revive APAs for the sake of the history of our genre. I am thinking Horror deserves its very own, dedicated APA.

Why? Because who is being published is not necessarily providing the body of work spawning the future of the genre.

You heard me. I am among the many who believe that The Best are not always the best… only that they are the best of those that made it across a given editor’s desk, that fitted the personal preferences of the moment – i.e, Lovecraft would not have been there.

This thought disturbs me. It keeps me awake at night. And let me make it clear I do not think of myself as a Lovecraft. But it bothers me to think that a Lovecraft may be out there right now – without his or her August Derleth to save THE WORK from oblivion.

Because it really is ALL ABOUT THE WORK – not the author…

The future of the genre has always risen from the muck of amateur writers trying to tell better stories… it is in the sloppy craft that comes with enthused storytelling, and the determination to improve upon that craft, with the ignorance and exuberance of youth. It is in the gritty plasma seas of writers who tell the kind of stories that prove they don’t know better and didn’t know they couldn’t or shouldn’t… It is in the warm primal pools of creativity that come in lives without editors and Critics… incubated in the minds of writers who have whole mythologies and lineages in their heads… tortured in the nightmares of the isolated and oppressed.

It scares me…how many good writers I have met, read, and seen vanish back into the woodwork working in retail, in fast food, in cubicles, cleaning hotel rooms, repairing my car… people who have whole finished manuscripts, screenplays, portfolios of artwork, graphic novels… people who don’t know if it is yet good enough, or how to take the next step…

Published writing – as wonderfully validating as it is – is just a collection of work that a handful of star-making editors are able to present to the public eye. It is not the whole of what is being written.

Those of you who abhor what you see being published…Lovecraft may be out there. He may be you…

And although I – like many – like to see what modern “experts” think is good, solid, capable writing in the genre, I also miss the tales told with campfire enthusiasm. I miss the stories like we used to see in Weird Tales and Amazing Stories.

Now that such magazines are being lauded for finding canon-elect authors of our genre, they no longer accept the same type of unknowns… they also are The Best Looking for The Best, if and when they revive and fold and revive again. We have no new Weird Tales… no magazine that is rich with the pulpy roots of who we are as a genre looking for the raw voices of new tales, no magazine just satisfied to put stories out there for simple digestion. What pulp there may be we cannot find before it fades…It is not that we don’t want it: it cannot survive in the vacuum that happens before its audience can find IT.

Writers cannot hope to make a living with modern magazine markets – who now keep your work for almost a year while they think about it, remind you that they only seek the best of the best, and are proud to pay a whole ten-spot for the privilege. Even if you are published, that paycheck doesn’t even buy a print cartridge.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t see the need to be published traditionally? That we didn’t put a minimum dollar amount sold on our right to write in our own genre?

That – like Lovecraft – we simply saw the importance of writing what we honestly felt and in pursuing the execution of it capably, certain in the knowledge that a handful of our trusted contemporaries might accidentally or on purpose be the source of our work’s preservation?

It is clear to me as an older writer that we cannot continue to depend on the technologically-imposed isolation that the modern world is heaping upon us to create stellar new works. On the contrary; with everyone shoving the whole educate-yourself paradigm in front of us, maybe it’s time we did exactly that.

Nowhere in our genre are we getting guidance, yet criticism abounds as it always did – in personal attacks and elitist organizations too great to assist in the training of our neophytes. So why don’t we help ourselves? Let the Elite be the Elite in their Elite Bliss. The rest of us have to work for a living.

So let’s band together. Let’s help each other. Let’s quit courting those who don’t want to give us the time of day. We don’t need attitude, we need constructive criticism, we need professional support, we need markets that really want our fiction, and we need other pairs of eyes to help us be sure we are worthy of getting there.

We need the attitude of Lovecraft. And maybe we deserve to keep our money in our own pockets by using the skills of each other to get what we each want.

That is what an APA can offer. It’s the choice of the members what will be the goals and what will be accomplished. It is a working writer’s group…not an exclusive rewards club. It is a place for writers to write, to meet and support each other.

lovey1

 Never Fear, Lovecraft Was Here

It’s okay to still love traditional publishing and the myth that goes right along with it. But Happily Every After is pretty much a fairy story for most writers. The pyramid is still a pyramid and the point is just not big enough for all of us to perch upon.

Combine that simple truth with the convoluted messages today’s publishers are sending, and there is a whole lot of fiction being written in the large shadows of What Worked Before…

Part of the problem is that traditional publishing serves two masters: the fickle public, and the Call to Elevate Literature. The two could not be more dissimilar in their wants and needs. On one side, the very powerful lure of Hollywood and bestseller paychecks for all have the allure and power of drug money…with the equally damaging delusions and mixed messages. On the other is the confusion and disillusionment with the Literary establishment, with its lack of communication in not only what is desired, but how to accomplish it.

Writers are famously criticized for improperly overinflating the importance of magic in our writing processes, and yet the examples we are given as Literature are held up to the sun and moon as Divine Creations only True Geniuses could construe.

No wonder so many writers drink, have mental breakdowns, and get the other kind of Weird.

And what if that isn’t you? What if you have muttered in the dim glow of your computer monitor, “I don’t write what I am seeing published”? What if you agree that what you write doesn’t fit the creative climate of the three magazines taking submissions for the Best of the Best? What if you are shocked and/or appalled at what you do see being published – not because you think you are better, but because you expected a helluva lot more out of all that bragging?

What if you write in a subgenre that is suffering through professional and critical doldrums? What if you cannot find a place for what you write but you still want to master your subgenre and want to push the envelope a little?

All of these things contribute to your personal Hall of Rejections. They contribute to the isolation, and the fear you have that when you die, nothing will remain of all of your efforts. Maybe you are not looking for fame (although the fortune sure as heck wouldn’t hurt), but to be the best that you can be, and maybe birth something new and unusual…

Keep reading, if you are he or she.

We also hear how overwhelmed publishers, editors and publishing venues are… that positively everyone thinks they can write and by golly sends their masterpieces to them…that they are drowning in so much substandard matter it is a pure miracle anyone is ever fished out of the muck to be “discovered.”

We also hear that there are a wondrous amount of “good” authors that must be routinely passed over for the “great” simply because publishing is expensive and positively must earn a decent return for the publisher’s investment… that there is simply not enough in the publishing coffers to experiment on as many newer authors as in the “recent” past (i.e., the 1970’s and 1980’s).  Previously fair-performing, decent midlist authors were laid off, after all, as well as so so many good to great editors in all genres.

Where does this leave a writer like you?

Everyone – including those same publishing professionals “explaining” why they are so busy and you are so unpublished – points to the internet, to online magazines they will later condemn publication in, to subsidy and vanity publishing, to self-publishing and rival independent publishers as options. And then they will condemn those choices for all but the few who capture national attention and elusive bestsellerdom.

So do you abandon the traditional route in absolute frustration and total ignorance of where you are on the scale of potential success and pony up the funds to self-publish or co-publish? Do you fade into obscurity? Or bet the rent on one last story contest?

I’m telling you that the state of publishers, editors, and ever-materializing and vanishing venues is not your fault. For one thing, if some of us didn’t provide the stark contrast between good and stellar, between fair and truly incompetent, how would the real geniuses stand out? And more importantly, how would we learn the ropes, since everyone is so busy to otherwise teach us?

But I am also telling you, this is not a new situation. Writers have historically been here time and again. The only difference is that for most of us, our collective “recent memory” of the history of writers in publishing has been all about the rise of publishing… and here we are in the decline of it.

But there is something to understand here.

Tech people like to talk about adapting, when tech people tend to obliterate every choice that does not involve something they are selling. Here’s the fact: publishing is not going away – but it has had to slim down due to the masses “buying into” the mythology that reading is done, and print is dead.

Neither are true. But what is true is that the 1970’s and 1980’s are dead and will likely never return. Gone are the big author advances, the multi-book contracts, the writer who lives big on one great success. So today if you want to be a writer, you have to mean it. You will probably do a lot of it sandwiched between minimum wage jobs, personal challenges, and clinging to dreams of discovery. But many of us – whether we are “good” or classically pulp, or simply not good at finding our way in today’s confusing world – are going to have to make peace with a certain level of anonymity in our chosen profession.

Never fear. Lovecraft too, was here.

The Rejection Merry-Go-Round

We’ve all been there; and sometimes – perhaps more often than we’d prefer – we might even have belonged there – among the rejected. But the problem with rejection is that there is no standardization of the process – except in the cold anonymity of it, the simple “not for us” default. It makes it difficult for a writer to get honest feedback: should he or she find another career, or is it a matter of learning how to tweak an otherwise salable piece?

We’ll never know, because – we are told—editors are busy people. Apparently, writers live lives of leisure and incredible wealth by comparison. And only genius talents – who are of course born rich –  should be allowed to see print. Apparently, we should deduce the psychic sonar that goes along with a rejection – from the “you almost had it” to the snort and sneer – and behave accordingly, so we can stop gumming up the publishing machinery.

So then I have to wonder, how hard is it to create a standardize piece of paper with critical answers to writer’s rejection questions, all lined up next to boxes the rejecting editor could instantaneously check?

Wouldn’t that be of more service than haphazardly plying publications with different stories harboring the same technical problems?

Just sayin’…. I mean if time is really of the essence and you really know why you are rejecting a piece and aren’t afraid to or are longing to say so…

Simple issues like “wrong format” or “sent to wrong editor” or “proofread before resubmitting” or “craft issues” or “genre issues” or “no supportable story arc” or “overdone concept” or “no visible concept” or “editor personally dislikes” versus “not our type of story”…

Adding boxes like “worth revising” “please revise and resubmit” or “salable but not to us upon revision” would be additionally helpful. “Future submissions welcome” versus “More work on technical and craft issues needed before submitting further pieces” would also be helpful…even if not everyone read them or attended to those issues. Many of us would. Especially if we kept seeing the same boxes checked time and again…

Not to worry, Lovecraft may have had it worse… In a world where the publishing community, writers and editors and critics knew each other more intimately, many writers like H.P. lived with stinging criticisms and sometimes very personal attacks.

This was why he valued the APA. He knew that his fellow writers were on his side, knew something of and appreciated what he was professionally exploring. They also were writers. They knew when something wasn’t working and could deign to tell him. He would not feel under any obligation to “do as he was told” but to take all criticisms under professional advisement.

Wouldn’t that be great to find without having to fork over six figures for a master’s degree? Without having to sacrifice virgins in the hope that your next sale would be enough to qualify you for paid membership in the Professional Association of your genre?

Well, if you are a Horror writer you don’t have to.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

I’ve had it. Really. So I decided to do something about it.

As of October 2016, I am founding the Greater Rocky Mountain Horror Writers – an APA. The domain grmhw.org has been purchased, an email account established at grmhw.org@gmail.com , and a preliminary website set up at https://grmhwapa.wordpress.com.

It’s going to start small, most likely. It is not going to be regionally restricted, but it will be regionally located in the Rocky Mountain region. It will be based in my office in my writing room until it no longer fits, if that should ever happen. It will start with a small website on WordPress, and if it grows and is able to sustain a requirement for dues (not to be more than $25) then a larger, maintained website will be designed. Publication will ensue within the group, which will have chapters if locations or subgenres need to be served.

This is a wait and see proposition. I am taking names and email addresses. Please visit the site available October 1. You –no matter who you are, no matter where you write Horror – are invited to join.

Knock Knock. Who’s there? Cthulhu. Cthulhu who?

grmhw

 

 

 

Horror and the MFA in Creative Writing: Vanity Degree or Elevation of Genre?


I’ll be the first to admit my head was turned.

I was about to graduate, drunk with ambition and that sense of promise a newly minted college degree inserts into the psyche. It had been a long and perilous journey – the muse had almost drowned in other peoples’ opinions and swamps of guilt trips. But I had finally realized that writing wasn’t a dream – it was a vital part of who I am. Several professors had suggested I seriously consider pursuing a Masters in Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing. And I found myself seriously considering it.

At the precise moment a person realizes that they are a writer because they are a writer and not because someone else gives them permission, an insatiable hunger forms – the hunger for craft.

I know, I know. Most writing elitists would never believe it: the proof is in the pudding, they would say, most novice writing stinks — genre or otherwise. But amazingly enough, when a person starts to write they inevitably become part of a very old argument:

Can great writing be taught, and if so, should it?

Born This Way (or Not)

Believe it or not, this is actually part of an argument tossed about by Literary Critics – those crazy fiction fanatics whose job it is to dissect prose in the academic pursuit of the secrets of invention. They have ignited a firestorm of passionate discussion about what makes a writer a Writer of Literary standard – are they born with it? Is the birth of a Literary Work a spontaneous act of innate factors valued above the talents of a common writer who needs to be taught?

Critics are indeed Purists…the High Priests of Prose. They love and protect Literature, and see themselves as the most likely to find that answer.

But I wonder sometimes how far they think about what they are really saying.

If one looks at author biographies for Literary works, what one finds consistently is a group of  elite writers who grow up in some kind of informed community – other established Literary Writers, teachers, activists, printers and publishers, poets, religious groups, artists, philosophers…critical thinkers of their time.

In those groups the young writer is nurtured, mentored, emotionally supported. And being raised around the humanities boosts the moral imperative to create and to create powerful vehicles of communication and thought.

A far cry from what we offer young writers today. Or old ones, for that matter.

Today, we expect Literature By Divine Intervention… prodigies only are the real artistes… Everyone else is a hack.

No wonder most of us have fled to the genres. Why bother to try if your pedigree is going to be a factor?

Arts – of which writing is one – flourish in community more than in isolation. We learn from each other — successes and mistakes. We learn and share technique, we withdraw from the world and hang in enclaves that carry us through the creative doldrums and celebrate our victories as part of a community. We mentor each other, experiment with the limits of craft.

Except that today, most writers don’t. We get ‘A’s on papers early on, mystifyingly amazed looks from teachers, vague comments that encourage but tell us nothing, and are left to fantasize about writing…not to learn about it. We wind up eventually believing the myths created by people who either do not understand the tidal pull of the arts on the soul, or who (for our own good) wish to kill it. We work in jobs that eviscerate our imaginations, and use us up until there is nothing left to use to write – not even in our “spare time.”

We spend years trying to understand whether we are writers because we need to write, or whether we are writers only if we sell $20’s worth of fiction… Which sounds easy until you can’t find $20’s worth of magazines to submit to (i.e., that are accepting submissions and/or accepting them from unknowns). Just sayin’…

And that conundrum pushes us further into private hells that have no exit except in writing…so we do. We continue to write and practice writing badly because no one teaches us how to write well. No one teaches us how to properly construct a story, develop character, follow arcs, adjust tension, manage dialogue, or even defines what Literature IS and what it DOES.

We spend hours trying desperately to be in awe of The Classics and Literature Reading Lists, trying to scry from oceans of antiquated prose why everyone thinks this is GOOD…to figure out what teachers are REALLY looking for in term papers and literary analysis assignments….

We don’t know because none of this is taught.

In the Big Rush to not contaminate the “pool” of possible prodigies, we have thrown away generations of writers who just needed sustenance and common instruction in technique.

How sad is that?

But amazingly, we have the CIA to thank for considering education to be the key. In fact, the story is that if it weren’t for the paranoia of government officials about the Soviet Union outperforming the U.S. in the development of national Literature, we would never have gotten the Iowa Writers Workshop and its illustrious and original MFA program (number one in the country, mind you).

Literary-worthy Writers were examined, allegedly three were chosen, and their styles became the models for American Literature to emulate.

And it was exactly that discovery about style that began to un-turn my head about the MFA.

Yet this MFA position has taken the pendulum to the other side of the argument… Given enough money, ANYONE can be a writer by learning to write.

Maybe we just need rescue from these particular academics for a few moments…

Because after all of my research – and I did a lot of research – I was left with the question for MFA programs nationally: why are you teaching style instead of technique?

Writers come in various sizes of style. But we all have to learn technique.

Not so, think Critics… talent is innate. Yep, it is. But if no one ever taught me to hold a pencil and shape letters, how to form noun + verb + adjective, where and when to place a comma… So go ahead. Take away the crayons from your prodigies and let’s see how much Art you get.

Good or bad, I already have a style, thank you, and young writers deserve to find their own within and between the ghosts of the whole and entire scope of Literary choices. I don’t mind learning about a successful Literary Style, but I don’t want to be identifiable as a certain MFA program graduate – like I was a suit rolled out on a rack. I don’t want to write like someone famous….I want to write like me.

Needless to say… doubt began to erode my MFA dreams. I found myself stalling my old professors who kept asking where I had applied for an MFA.

The Assault on Speculative Fiction in MFA Programs (or Why I Remain a Genre Writer)

For me, part of the problem is that I love and write genre…maybe not strict genre, but genre nonetheless, which I discovered begets yet another complication for MFA students: one of the other kind of style. I am fine with being a genre writer. I like genre writing, although I also like Literature and enjoy my genres with the occasional Literary overtones. I am certainly not ashamed of writing Horror – at least, not anymore.

For years I found myself apologizing for what I do and who I am (“I’m sorry…I write Horror”) watching hopeful enthusiasm turn into crestfallen faces that had a serious similarity to the expression of disappointment. But these are people who don’t understand the genre, and worse – who seriously underestimate the Literary contributions of Horror. For centuries, Horror has been a constant driver of Feminist/Gender Literature and what used to be called Freudian but is now called Psychoanalytic Literature. It lurked throughout the Gothic Romances, exquisitely tortured the Victorians, exploded all manner of social issues using monsters and ghost stories.

Horror – even modern Literary Critics finally acknowledge, has the occasional work that exhibits the highest Literary merit. It is a genre with tremendous Literary potential, even as it produces the most generic and luxuriously sloppy pulp. Horror has range. And it has writers that ride that range.

Yet academia – being a product of government-style structure – moves ever so slowly. Educators (like MFA instructors) often spend their entire lives in the system, sometimes self-reinforcing their personal beliefs and rejecting new ideas that challenge their own. So instead of arguing the merits of both, they dismiss and insult…and most of the MFA program graduates who have shared their experiences in recent books reviewing MFA programs have stated repeatedly that instructors and mentor and professors had belittled, trashed, forbidden and condemned genre writing as…crap.

While it is admittedly not always Literature – sometimes joyously so – it is not “crap.” It is genre. It is formula. It is common at worst. It is also storytelling, albeit sometimes bad storytelling. But then, pulp writers are not trying to write Literature. Venom needs to be reserved for those who might roundly deserve it – and that most certainly is not a genre writer sitting in an MFA class hoping to learn better craft and Literary Technique.

So why do we have this abyss between Literature and Genre? What should be a peaceful and tolerant co-existence has been fanned into a Style War. And maybe there is so much genre-writing because writers can figure out genre writing a heckuva lot faster than they can figure out Literature and Literary Criticism.

Imagine if Literature and Literary Criticism were actually taught in high schools? Wouldn’t that education automatically bleed over into the genres? Up everyone’s game?

Is THAT what Literature Purists are afraid of? A little competition?

Well wheel out your prodigies then. It’s Junior Rodeo on…

The current environment of genre-bashing that seems rampant (if not bragged upon) by MFA programs is off-putting to say the least. And while many programs may prefer that it be thus and prefer to communicate that folks like me are not welcome unless I am willing to join in the genre-bashing and convert to Literature… I have to question their motives.

And that made me wonder if I DID set aside genre — just for the duration of the degree, just to learn craft – would it ruin my voice and inject the ghosts of dead American Literary Greats into my prose which I might not be able to exorcise? In other words, would it ruin writing for me?

Ultimately, I chose not to take the chance. Wrongly or rightly, I don’t want Raymond Carver in my head…Or any spark of the alleged other two (again, the rumor being that all MFA programs are modelled after three preselected American Literary giants, and the helpful application hint being that a writer needs to understand which writer which program emulates in order to find the best “match”).

I mean I’m sorry but all of a sudden we are talking about idols and how to mimic them – and not about craft, technique, LITERATURE. THEORY…. All after fielding a cost of some $35-50,000 for the privilege of sitting in a classroom…you know – where open-minded learning is supposed to take place…

How can I possibly be a rebel if you are teaching me to be a conformist? Even if we are talking style?

Again, I chose NOT to take the chance. Even when I found ONE program that proudly announced it supports Speculative fiction writers. Because it proudly denounced LITERATURE.

It’s like watching a tennis game. And all I wanted to do is learn better craft. To infuse my genre writing with Literary elements and improve as a writer. Silly me.

Silly Critics if they think that this academic solution is any kind of solution. We don’t need more polarizing thoughts and behaviors.

We writers – genre and Literary – need to be on the same side as the Literary Critic, who needs to be on the same side as writers who want to learn to be better writers.

We can’t help each other if we set up schools to teach novices how to insult each other in some giant argument from ignorance.

Proof in the Pudding (or, You Get the Monster You Create)

So I had begun to think that the authors of The Portable MFA were right: a writer just might be better off saving the money one would use for an MFA in Creative Writing and buy a better computer, more printer ink, more 20-lb white bond paper.

And such thinking was further reinforced when I tried an experiment of my own – reading the published works of MFA graduates. (Here, working in a retail bookstore became an advantage. And I purposely read “first” books by MFA grads whose programs I neither knew nor researched.)

The result was shocking. Shockingly disappointing. Sometimes even…bad. It was like reading genre fiction without the “spark” of genre…watered down, lackluster yet eerily “perfect” in construct…I couldn’t really argue with structure… But most of the time characters didn’t “pop,” prose didn’t engage, and I had to force myself to finish even ghost stories. Ghost stories for Poe’s sake! I mean didn’t these people read the British canon of Literature?

Like the Critic I am starting to wonder if we are doomed…

And I was left wondering how these writers managed a publishing contract. Perhaps it was one of those “networking” sessions with agents and other publishing professionals so heavily promoted as a benefit to MFA program participation. Maybe it is the high influx of MFA grads who (thereby) get jobs in publishing who “grease the wheels” for fellow MFA grads… Several books I used for research made mention of exactly that sad possibility, and which in turn in my mind further tarnishes just such a degree.

Doesn’t that reduce the lofty intention of the MFA from one of increasing our Literary output to a sad paper mill for a vanity degree?

And shouldn’t it matter to the writer IN an MFA Program that what gets published gets DESERVEDLY published?

I admit that I did not research the published fiction of MFA grads who went back to the genres… But if what I am seeing on the bookstore general fiction shelves is any indication of what MFA programs are churning out, then I am FINALLY glad that so much Horror has been re-disseminated into other genres. Because I don’t want any association with what I am seeing – not as a Horror writer. And no worries about Literature, either…one course in university –level Literary Criticism taught me that most of that MFA-produced stuff isn’t going anywhere but the remainders pile. One INTRODUCTORY COURSE in Literary Criticism, mind you…

No harm, no foul? I think differently. Because that was the final nail in the MFA coffin for me.

Maybe I should have title this essay “How I Decided Against Pursuing an MFA in Fiction…”

I only know I don’t want to be published at any cost. I want to be proud of what I write and be satisfied that it was good enough to pass the muster of traditional editing (from line to content). What I don’t need is an albatross hanging around my neck…an albatross that should have stayed in a drawer somewhere.

If that means no fame and fortune for me, at least I won’t live my life in embarrassment. Because there is a LOT to be said for the value of the editorial talents of the old major publishing houses. Especially if we have now simply created yet another Good Old Boy’s –type system that has nothing to do with Literary value.

Ironically, a lot of us unwashed masses laboring in the genres have THAT in common with Literary Critics. Isn’t it time we joined forces? Isn’t it time we got our game back?

I mean… not to be inflammatory, but in the name of healthy competition…The British have…

Just sayin’…

 

References

Affording the MFA [blog} https://affordingthemfa.wordpress.com/

The Gotham Writer’s Workshop. Writing Fiction: the Practical Guide From New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School. New York: Bloomsbury, c2003.

Kealey, Tom. The Creative Writing MFA Handbook: a Guide for Prospective Graduate Students. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., c2008, 2005.

McGurl, Mark. The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, c2009.

MFA vs NYC: the Two Culture of American Fiction. Chad Harbach, ed. New York: n+1 /Faber and Faber, c2014.

The MFA Blog. http://creative-writing-mfa-handbook.blogspot.com/

The New York Writer’s Workshop. The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. Cinncinati, OH: Writers Digest Books, c2006.

Olsen, Eric and Glenn Schaeffer. We Wanted to be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, c2011.

Wiedbrauk, Eileen. Speak Coffee to Me [blog] http://speakcoffeetome.blogspot.com/

Embrace the Horror: Life After the English BA


So I was walking around my bookstore, straightening shelves and adjusting product when a customer suddenly approached me and confessed regretting every English degree she had achieved – right up through the Ph.D.

Nothing had turned out like she planned. People got in the way, had foiled her at every turn, and now she was questioning every move she’d made professionally. Never, she’d said, would she allow her children to major in the Arts and waste their time. Never.

Know what my thought was? (Prepare for irreverence…)

Then you’re not using it right.

What IS an English Degree?

An English BA is a wild, carefree trip through the Humanities. It allows the student to explore their undecided side… perhaps fiction, or philosophy, journalism, or psychology, religion or art, history or politics, law or logic. It allows the student to try on a few hats, test their interests and abilities, see if anything “calls” to them.

The problem is, sometimes something does. And in today’s world, there is nothing like a degree in the Arts that translates into poverty for most of its graduates.

Why is that? Because we no longer value people who critically think in this world. Thinkers are dangerous people. When they see something that is wrong they are wont to try and change things. And there is usually Big Money and wanton Power attached to things done wrong.

If you want to kill an army, you need to cut off the supply train. (See? I was paying attention in history class!)

Arts people are the canaries in the mines. Often times we make bold, scary-to-parents statements. We rattle cages and in some countries we risk our freedom or our lives just to make a statement.

Nothing scares people who love you more. Because they want you to have a nice, cushy life in the suburbs, and hope that you will be (in better ways) a nice little carbon copy of themselves to carry on the magic and fairy glamour of American Life.

And Technology is out there promising you that you too, can be smarter than everyone else and with the right career choices in math and science, can live in the Big House, safe and away from those huddled masses of unemployed, trouble-making Arts people.

But getting a degree in a Tech field as an Arts person really solves nothing. Tech people know their own, and if you are an Arts person in Wolf’s clothing, you will not be embraced even if you get the job.

Today’s world does not want thinkers, it wants drones. Like the bee kind… That work to death and are tossed out of the hive at Christmas (only they will call them lay-offs).

An English Degree then is a degree in Critical Thinking. You will be taught how to and be required to dissect everything you read and everything you think. You may find out you don’t think like you thought you did. You may discover something deeply important about yourself by what you dislike or prefer, in hearing a tone of voice in your own verbal arguments.

It also teaches you how to express those thoughts and opinions – graciously to not offend, or disguised as metaphor for your secret audience, or angry as a polemic. It shows you how to use words or pictures or cultural beliefs to communicate….anything.

And it teaches you that people are complex biological factories of precarious thought and driven by powerful, life-altering emotions; that we are subject to our neurobiology and our psychological quirks, religious views or lack thereof, limits or expanse of geographical and economic horizons…

A degree in English is a degree in seeing, describing, illustrating, comprehending and communicating with…people.

No wonder the tech world dislikes us. No one abhors the vacuum of html space like an English major.

(Why? Because it’s not the troll online you have to worry about. It’s the radical terrorist invading your country and condemning your right to speak freely, to converse, argue, condemn, endorse, explore and experiment… because if your words, your actions, or your ambivalence made him or her feel justified, then to reduce the number of terror candidates you better know it and know how to unmake him or her and whether or not you should…a task that is not on a computer game.)

An English major will teach you that words matter. They have the capacity to incite, to wound, to inform, to heal. It will teach you to see and recreate the difference.

How You Know You’re An English Major

You know you’re an English major when you’re just standing on the street corner and you see things. You see poverty, injustice, inequality, and homelessness in the richest country in the world – when you work forty hours and can still see homelessness from your back porch and bank account. You know you’re an English major when you can’t wait to read something for yourself – whether it is a novel, a political treatise, or the Trial of Socrates. You know you’re an English major when you’d rather read Dickens or Austen or Morrison than the latest Star Trek novel (even though you have an extensive Star Trek novel collection).

You know you’re an English major when you’ve tried not to be and you keep running screaming back to the English department, breathing a sigh of relief when you are finally seated in a rhetoric class because you know the definition of rhetoric.

You know you’re an English major when you love language, the way it works and sounds and looks on the page, when linguistics excites you, when you read dictionaries and thesauri. When you love saying “thesauri.”

You know you’re an English major when you can read and appreciate an opposing viewpoint because it is well stated and well argued. And especially if it changes your mind.

You know you’re an English major when you know you are nothing else. So stop letting other people make you feel ashamed. Own it. Do what you were meant to do and stop looking for wealth (Most of us aren’t going to get it anyway: you might as well be happy.)

How You Know Doing Something Else is Worse Than Everyone Else’s Disappointment in You

One thing the world has taught me is that for every job out there, there is someone who has made it their dream and life’s purpose.

And there is nothing worse than living someone else’s dream… Unless it is applying for the job that you don’t get (no matter how much it means to you) because someone who’d rather be doing something else gets the job instead. Or maybe it is working with that person

But work – when it is done right – takes a lot out of you. What you will have left at the end of the day will determine what kind of life YOU have…family? Kids? Career plans? House? Decent car? Best-selling novel?

The sad truth is that if you are an Arts person, the economic deck is stacked against you. Not only has the American economy morphed into a tech-loving, art-stomping beast, but it has lost its middle class and that necessary plateau of jobs needed to support people who kind of don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. In this economy, you either “have it” or you “don’t”… and there is a good chance that if you are an Arts person with an English degree, you will be not in the right category. Who knows how long this will last? How many shifts flipping burgers have your name on them with or without a degree?

However one thing is for sure: happiness is the only way you’re going to survive whatever lies ahead. Dreams are the pathway to finding that happiness. I’ve gotten a lot of forty-hour mileage out of dreams.

Maybe there aren’t enough jobs in publishing right now, or enough opportunities to support all of the writers already out there. How do the rest of us fellow-writers and English majors know you aren’t The One who will shock it all back into sense? How do we know WE aren’t?

The only thing we DO know, is that when and if the world ever comes back to its senses, if there is any chance at all that you can make a living writing or with your English degree…you will need to be prepared. Do it now.

Really. The Zombie Apocalypse could happen at any moment. Wouldn’t you rather have your English degree when it does?

What You Can Do About It

Number One: Stop listening to other people who want you to be as professionally miserable as they are.

Number Two: Trust that somewhere out there is your ideal job and that your English Degree is required for it.

Number Three: Don’t stop until you FIND it.

Number Four: If you don’t find it, consider creating it.

Why You Should

The Arts are not dead.

And while you are toiling away at that data entry job, or trying convince yourself that you can do I.T. better than a person whose dream it is to be an I.T. person… other people out there have been honing their Art…and making money at it…working their way to some measure of fame. You – on the other hand – are still waiting to write in your spare time, hope that by Divine Intervention instead of practice you will do as good or better with your one offering to the world (if you finish it), and still believe in the myth that even one published book equates to a lifetime of riches.

The hard fact is, any career in the Arts requires years of study (not necessarily academic study, although that can help make you a better student of the Arts). There is no free lunch, and prodigies are indeed a rarity (contrary to the message of social media).

You may have talent, or you may not. You may have more talent than people getting published or not. Success in the Arts is shaped like the very same pyramid you find in the regular workplace, sometimes with plenty of cult priests with butts to kiss perched on the steep slopes, sometimes with rare Oracles you can barely hear dangling off a brick, and sometimes there is that pebble in the sand – the editor who likes your style and talent enough to gamble on you and approach their boss on your behalf. But you must always remember it is a pyramid, because not everyone is going to wind up on top – even if they climb over you to get there.

So you must have faith in your goal and your plan for getting there. Stop waiting for angels to descend and carry you topside. You are going to have to work harder than you’ve ever worked before, and probably do a lot of self-education to grow professionally.

A good start is always a BA in anything. But the BA in English is a nice, round humanities degree. It is the perfect base degree for many Master’s degrees, and thereafter for Ph.D. degrees. Getting a BA in English for a writer is boot camp. It will help you decide how far you want to go with your education (in any field), while teaching you about your passion and your ability to listen to and apply criticism – something you will need even as a novice writer submitting stories to magazines, book editors, or agents.

Keep in mind there are actual jobs out there that require a BA in English – such as those still remaining in publishing, Library, retail bookstores, technical writing, journalism, education, Literary Criticism – and many of which do require higher education thereafter.

But also keep in mind there are a lot of English majors applying for those, and there is the same kind of (let’s call it “competition”) for those positions as there are for other jobs.

So you need to know you. What do you want? Because it should never involve a single other person’s interests. Because you are going to have to live with yourself no matter what you choose.

Choose wisely. Choose what makes you happy, even if you have to struggle against the tide the rest of your life. Trust me, the tide is elsewhere too. Pick your own tidewater. If you’re going to make it up that salmon ladder or get eaten by bears trying, it might as well be for what’s in it for you.

How do I know this? It took me thirty years to get my BA in English. And I don’t regret a minute of it.

What I do regret is all of the time I lost following other people’s suggestions for how to make myself less of an English major and more of a cog in someone else’s money machine.

Would I still be working at the same retail bookstore for lower than stellar wages? Probably. Only now I would be a manager with a retirement plan instead of an economic refugee with a lost retirement and no chance of strolling about my own bookstore with a coffee cup and a wry sense of humor.

I am sorry I did not have the courage when I was young to be what I am – a writer. Of Horror fiction. Who works in a bookstore. I am sorry I didn’t have the courage to seek out teachers of fiction and fellow writers in workshops and conventions. I might still not be big-published, but I bet I’d be writing better fiction, and that would make me happy no matter how many shifts I worked.

No, I would never discourage anyone – especially a young person – from a life in the Arts. That IS life. Gritty, poor, honest. What could be a better inheritance than a life well-lived – the one that leaves YOU loving YOU.

So yep, I told this lady wandering my bookstore I had not a single regret about going back to college for my English BA. I told her why.

She asked if we had any openings…

Monsters in the Nude: Unzipping Better Horror Fiction


Sometimes I think the whole Horror genre has become like Godzilla: no matter how much CG we can muster, no matter how many explosions and special effects decorate the modern stuff, the best version was the absolute first – the one from 1956, starring Haruo Nakajima , AKA the guy in the 200 pound, unventilated Godzilla costume, stomping all of rubber Tokyo…

How is it that a monster with floppy feet and an exposed zipper has more cachet than most modern Horror fiction? What have the monsters of old got over today’s competitors?

Stripping Down

Call me crazy, but I believe it has to do with “originality.”

It’s become that dirty word we all dread… because it seems we are all aiming for it, but like drooling dogs to ringing bells we find ourselves mesmerized, repeating what’s already been done (and we know it’s true because we often read it ourselves, and we read it ourselves because it is successful).

Everyone buys into the mythology…even publishers. So why is the quickest route to rejection so relentlessly tempting?

It’s that darn “pablum” of Louisa May Alcott’s own words… that formula stuff everyone says everyone else wants an endless, brainless supply of… talk about your Horrors…yet we buy into (if not succumb to) these interminable repeat performances.

Some writers “handle” the problem by simply not reading other writers. They think if they don’t read it, it can’t color their imaginations. But this is often a much worse mistake in the end, because not only is writing is a long term investment of time and creative energy, it’s essence and ideas also tend to run in synchronistic packs. How horrible to spend years writing a book only to discover another writer has already cashed the check for it…

The Muse is a fickle, fickle girl. It doesn’t matter that your version is perhaps better…the frisson necessary for successful scaring in Horror has already been spent, the cigarette smoked.

It happened to me… imagine my own Horror to discover a freshly published version of my synchronistical-channeled tale by another, now-successful author… After meat-slapping the plot for years, having purchased and read more books on medieval French history than any Horror writer should ever have to… I can only gloat that it didn’t do particularly well. (Or perhaps there but for the Grace of God…)

Anyway…shaking it off…

A writer who wants to be genre-changing has to know what is being changed… And many an editor would be profoundly grateful for the effort; in fact, (surprisingly perhaps) many a Literary Critic is rooting for that exact scenario.

So it got me wondering: what has happened to us?

The answer appears to be that we are being herded that way…we are being coached – no, tasked – to find the next Big Thing among the rubber rubble.

The realization came just as Godzilla crested the horizon overlooking the city of Tokyo. I was watching one of the newer film versions and I couldn’t see the zipper anymore. And it got me thinking… what’s Godzilla got under that suit? Cuz if it ain’t a short Japanese actor, the thrill is gone.

And that means the zipper was crucial…it means the underlying truth is what propels the fiction…

(Ooooh…a Literary Moment, would you look at that…)

Clearly, to reanimate our fiction we need to unzip the monster. Reveal a truth. Let him run free – naked as the day he was born, innocent as a hippie at Woodstock.

Who drove our monsters from the Garden? Shamed them into wearing flawless CG suits? And WHY oh WHY do we try to write them this new way?

Today’s Horror fiction has this homogenized feel, like it is constructed of recycled, over-processed parts, weary conventions, and predictable plots. It’s like we keep writing the same stories over and over again – a crazed monster trying to claw its way out of a box.

“Welcome to genre writing,” perhaps some would say… But that is not it. That is not it at all.

Because occasionally I see examples of fresh Horror fiction where the monsters run unencumbered (Ray Cluley’s Probably Monsters, Christopher Golden’s Snowblind, Josh Malerman’s Bird Box, Laura Kasischke’s Mind of Winter, Grady Hendrix’s Horrorstör, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s I Remember You)…

Works like these restore the faith. They are fresh air in an enclosed, rubber room. Read them and see what I mean. They suspend reality, take you on a tour of Tokyo, remind you to notice things…

There are so many of these fresh works out there…just sadly not classified in our genre…Nor are they promoted heavily…by anyone it seems. So allow me: Don’t wait for marketing machinery. Try new or unknown authors. Try these authors. Fresh fiction is a wake-up call that will set your own writing on fire. Atomic fire. Spewing-from-Godzilla’s-mouth fire…

The best part is when you read something fresh, it loosens the fetters on your own mind. Each one of these titles I mentioned reminded me that good Horror comes from taking the mundane and commonplace and seeing it differently…Honestly. Naked.

It’s like wearing Top Secret X-ray monster-seeing glasses. Or like looking through a hole in a fairy stone…

Yet today we seem hell-bent on writing for an audience we let others specifically conjure, and not the one that is out there waiting for our stories.

Writing is such an individual sport. It’s easy to forget there are real, thinking people on the other end of our product. It’s easier to take the word of others about that audience. But it’s worth putting everything on pause for a few moments or a few days…reset our thinking. A writer should never be absorbed with projections of what others might think…no matter who those others might be.

We conveniently forget we write first for ourselves. Instead we convince ourselves that we must write what is wanted – like we are filling a donut order – when what is wanted is fresh fiction. We write hoping to catch the eye of traditional Big House editors – and Hollywood, we tempt with open-ended tales designed to create options for sequels…We let ourselves be dazzled by the promised wealth and fairy glamour of what we ourselves despise when we read it.

It’s not our fault, really – not initially. We see a lot of mixed messages down here in the trenches. We read the how-to libraries, the author biographies, the magazine articles and professor’s comments. Everywhere the focus is the same: How to sell your fiction.

Isn’t that why we’re all here? Isn’t that why we write?

The Real Cost of Pimping Out Your Fiction

Funny you should ask.

Because as writers of Horror fiction (even largely unsuccessful Horror fiction), we are also students of the genre. I like to look (Critic-like) at why a classic is a classic, at how it scares and the language a writer chooses to utilize…which is how I came to be a fan of Literature and Literary Critics. Poking prose to see what it does is fascinating.

But it also leads to respecting the writers that have gone before – especially ones that are the founding authors of what will become our genre canon (because for now, it is merely theoretical and no canon list exists, as our genre is currently in the early stages of Literary Criticism – which formulates and finalizes The List comprised of Literary-quality works). (Phew.)

…And respecting the writers that have gone before comes when they haunt the edges of your own prose, making you want to write something equally as innovative and scary.

The mistake seems to happen when we start taking advice from other writers without knowing who the heck they are or realizing that we are in the midst of a writer’s revolution of sorts (and yet another argument FOR the necessity of dead authors in Criticism).

There are passionate arguments afoot:

  • Genres are/aren’t relevant anymore
  • All fiction is/is not Literature
  • Readers want/don’t want watered down prose
  • Action does/doesn’t trump plot or characterization
  • Fat tomes do/don’t sell
  • Horror is not Weird and Weird is not Horror. Or it is.

Unfortunately, who wrote that how-to book and his or her beliefs may be relevant to your developing style and future success. And it’s important that as a writer you understand which side of the divide you write on, because there are sides and these are not editors whispering in our ears; there will be consequences to decisions made. And most importantly, there is no promise of publication because you did what those books said. And maybe that is why (because you did what they said).

(I didn’t say I wasn’t paranoid. It was a LOT of French medieval history…)

The question becomes, who is ultimately in charge of your writing? Who has their hand on the zipper?

Lap Dances Are Extra

This is also why Horror needs an occasional sightseeing trip through pulp: the best in our genre never wrote to spec… They were outside the box, zippers exposed.

Remember pulp? The days of the Penny Dreadful? The days of Sensation Fiction and newspaper installments? The cheap mass market paperback designed to fit in your pocket and be abandoned in airports? The magnificent and often cheesy cover art and comics? The really great stuff that terrorized kids and lasted a lifetime in therapy?

Those monsters seem to reside in another, pulpy world, drifting earthward just long enough for the tentacles to brush our cheeks, like angel’s wings before departing at the ring of a telephone.

As I sit in front of the computer, massaging a high-centered story, or sacrificing chickens over my keyboard, I wonder why there is a kind of automatic reset…a reversion to a false belief that a story should lurch this way instead of that. Why, specifically with an interruption, the unwelcome Editor comes back on in raging default mode, whispering what “should be done in modern fiction” and how Godzilla should look.

Why does a story go from liquid ooze to a coagulated mess once the The Thinking starts… Who exactly controls the zipper?

So the mind begins to wander. Have I read one too many how-to’s? Am I writing for an audience that is nothing less than a prefab manifestation of someone else’s reader? Have I forgotten why I started the story in the first place? Am I worried about being politically correct? About my parents reading what I write?

And I have begun to realize that maybe it is because with all of the upheaval in publishing and the comings and goings of markets, publishing venues, editors, and options… maybe there is too much reliance on everyone else’s theories, too much thinking going on and not enough writing from instinct. There are no short cuts…no REAL formulas…Getting published is an accomplishment, not an entitlement.

Maybe we zip it in fear because we are too afraid of WHAT we are thinking. Maybe we are grateful for the interruption…the derailment of self-sabotage because to keep on going takes courage that might just guarantee a lifetime of rejections.

The moment the phone rings, the kid next door begins pounding on the walls, the potheads light up their skunkweed… well, that THINKING begins. And it’s like wrestling an alligator – he who has the most teeth wins.

(The next thing I know I’m in another room, fuming instead of writing. The spell is broken. The tentacles lift skyward…I start mentally second-guessing, trying to re-write to spec. What I’d give to uncork a monster and let him run his giganto rubber feet all over my neighbors… may they rot in Tokyo.)

But even then the hint is there…that germ of an idea on how to get the mojo back:

PULP IT.

Pulp was meant to be thrown away, a temporary thrill, to not-last. And there is something creatively freeing to think that what one writes is simply for fun, a spontaneous and joyful madcap run through a field of tall grass… a brief moment of thrills…nude monsters running free…

Best of all, no one recommends it today. Pulp is for REBELS.

The very idea of pulp is liberating… No critics to please. Fits in a file drawer. Devours wicked neighbors… The realization that you can write in the privacy of your own imagination – ANYTHING you want, accountable to no one – stirs the cauldron, summons the unseen.

The truth is golden:

If one can slip into the rubber suit one can squash Tokyo.

So why are we pimping out our fiction? Is getting published that important?

Well, I can say having had it happen once, it is validating. But it is also temporary. Validation by publication is fleeting…because even after it hits print all you see are the glaring errors.

Sure money matters. It helps to have a roof over your head while you pound out that novel. But to manufacture a work as pretense… well let’s face it, to do something for the money may or may not make you a professional, but it may also make you a prostitute. Choose wisely.

Myself, I am going for the zipper. It would be great if something good comes of it. Greater if something Literary comes of it. But for now, I’m happy to just let the monsters frolic. Nude. The way they were meant to be…