Monthly Archives: October 2012

Is Creativity Bad for Your Writing?

Disclaimer: This is a rhetorical question. I offer no answer.

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From a marketing standpoint, I understand the need for defined genres. If customers want to read romance novels, your book store has to put romance novels on its shelves. Your police procedural needs to have cops and corpses, not alien spaceships. A literary novel about a woman moving on after her husband leaves her is wise to avoid a subplot about demonic possession.

From an artistic standpoint, I reject everything I just said.

Writers are perfectly normal.

My biggest “failing” as a fiction writer is my lack of regard for categories. I state on my About page here that I write horror, dark sci-fi, and supernatural fiction, but that’s mostly for self-marketing purposes. I just seem to have better luck getting read when I work in those genres. Most of the time, though, I just think up an idea and start typing, and what comes out is often impossible to categorize.

Lately I’ve come to resent being restricted by the word “genre.” I read an interview the other day with a literary agent who advised writers to stick with one area, be it fantasy, mystery, or something else. She said people who try to pitch hybrid works can’t decide what kind of writers they want to be and, therefore, are not ready to be published.

Perhaps she was trying to offer sound, practical advice, but I think it’s a pretty awful thing to say. How many great books would never have been published if the writers had followed her recommendation?

For example, have you read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut? It’s one of my all-time favorite novels and exists outside any genre I can imagine. To wit, it’s an end-of-the-world adventure, a political satire, and a literary love story in one 50,000-word book. Certainly not what you’d call commercial fiction, yet, what do you know, Cat’s Cradle has been in print since 1963!

I’ve been toying around with a novelette for a few months that I intended as a crime drama but became a contemporary urban-noir supernatural romantic comedy as I was writing it. Best of luck pitching that puppy, eh?

If you have ever tried to place your short fiction in print or online, you’ve come across the statement, “Please familiarize yourself with our [magazine, online fiction journal, anthology] before submitting so you know that your story is of interest to our readership.” I’m not sure what that means. As a reader, I’m simply interested in something well written, whether it’s a police procedural with aliens or a literary drama about divorced women and demons. Or all of the above.

Obviously, if the journal is for and about model railroad builders and the editors only want model-railroad fiction, I’m not sending a story about vampire newscasters. But, for rags that do general fiction, wouldn’t stepping out of their comfort zone, for once, be exciting?

I’m keeping my eyes open for editors who say, “Send us your best stuff. We don’t care what it is,” and, so far, I’ve found a few. That doesn’t mean what I wrote is good enough for publication – or that anyone who straddles genres is going to be the next Kurt Vonnegut. But how will we know if we can’t try?

What are your thoughts, Hobson?

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Ridiculously long sentence, anyone?

Like most writers, I strive to get better every day. I work on mechanics, voice, pacing, plotting. I read advice from other writers. I speak my dialog to make sure it’s real. I aim for tight, crisp prose.

So why do I have so much fun with really really bad writing? I enjoy creating outrageous character names, stilted conversations, and absurd events. And who doesn’t love appalling metaphors and cringe-inducing imagery?

Best of all are looooong sentences. The longer the better.

Here’s one I just made up:

Now that Anton Krakamolitov had finally, after 20 years of relentless, single-minded, but soul-consuming searching, found the underwater cave of Eiberhorn the Serpent, that dreadful thing of which women dare not speak and men only whisper and about which children shudder in fear while cowering in the darkest recesses of their medieval cabin-like domains – the very beast whose undulating, quivering surface of resplendent, sequin-esque, purple scales is impervious to even the finest forgings of weapons-grade iron into implements of destruction that shame even the mightiest superarrows of yore – he began to have second thoughts about what he was preparing to undertake, which caused him not inconsiderable anguish (given the aforementioned 20 years of his hard, bitter life he burned away to reach this moment), mostly because now, as he gazed down at the near lifeless body of Pedro Morganthish, whom he had brought as a sacrifice for Eiberhorn the Serpent (for who was Anton Krakamolitov but a pious devotee of the beast, since his all-consuming quest was, if one knows about worldly things, very like that of one who commences a ruinous religious pilgrimage?), he began to feel the pangs of a remorse that are often indistinguishable from food poisoning and are so often associated with making a human sacrifice of one who killed another’s grandfather, in Anton’s case being Braddox Hammer, the greatest warrior on all of Odinhood, because, though Anton loved his grandfather, he knew that Pedro – poor, dying Pedro – was only defending his recipe for mint pie, without which the Morganthish family would be worth less than the dirt between the treads on Anton’s boots (had Anton’s boots not rotted away years ago), making Anton, who was still looking down upon the gaunt, suffering Pedro, realize in his heart turned stony from all these wasted years of questing and not brushing his teeth that he could not, in good conscience, throw Pedro to the heinous devilfish called Eiberhorn the Serpent, the beast that Anton believed was hiding in its hell cave fathoms below the surface of the black, mirror-like, seaweed choked water, but that, in fact, was no longer down there at all, as it was just now breaking said water surface, with its ghastly maw gaping wide and lunging too quickly for Anton to do anything other than scream in horror as the massive, drooling demon chomped down, crushing Anton, Pedro, and the half-bullet shaped sailboat in one, singular, pointless-quest-ending bite.

405 words. Let’s see what you’ve got!

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Interview with Megan Cashman, author of The Dark Proposal

Author Megan Cashman’s new novel, The Dark Proposal, tells the story of recent college grad Claire McCormick and the stark choice she faces when she discovers her boyfriend is a vampire. Daniel offers Claire eternal life… as a bloodthirsty killer. And there’s a steep price to pay for saying no.

Megan has kindly agreed to discuss her novel and her writing with us today. Read on…

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EJB: Tell us a little bit about The Dark Proposal.

Megan Cashman: I think it started during the summer of 2010. I was watching True Blood and found myself daydreaming about a sexy vampire coming into my life. But then I realized that wouldn’t be amazing, because vampires kill people! So that was how The Dark Proposal began to take shape.

I also wondered what life would be like for vampires these days with modern technology and so much surveillance. Wouldn’t it be easier to track them down? Would vampires be in fear of not being able to hide themselves from detectives? I decided to explore those issues as well as bringing back the villainous vampire.

EJB:
What inspired you to tell this story?

Megan Cashman: I know some may see my book as a metaphor for abusive relationships, but I honestly did not set out to write a book exploring that issue while using the vampire to illustrate it. Also, towards the end of the story, the main character, Claire McCormick, realizes her boyfriend-turned-vampire-tormentor, Daniel Bertrand, never really had feelings for her and had other motives in making her vampire.

Even so, while writing this, I did look back on times when I could’ve gotten entangled in an unhealthy relationship. I wondered what would’ve happened if I didn’t back out as soon as I could and how I would feel being terrified of the guy I was with. If readers do see my book as a metaphor, I’m OK with that.

EJB:
Talk about your writing process.

Megan Cashman: Because I was unemployed while I wrote this book, I was able to write whenever I pleased. I usually went to Starbucks or Panera Bread to spend an hour or two – or more on a great day – typing away. I didn’t outline; I was a pantser during this process [note: The term “pantser” refers to someone who writes fiction without necessarily knowing where the story is headed] . I also wrote chronologically rather than a scene here, a scene there. I took notes on what I wanted to clarify, add or fix after the first draft was done. Also, I completely endorse Scrivener! All writers should have it, it’s awesome!

EJB:  
Any new vampire novel will inevitably draw comparisons to Twilight. What sets your story apart from other recent vampire-themed books?

Megan Cashman: The vampires in my book are not the empathetic kind at all. They’ve been around for centuries, or even millennia, so you wouldn’t see them having remorse over drinking from a human, or even having compassion for humans. The way I see it, if a vampire has spent ages living separately from humans and needs them for nourishment, they’d lose their empathy as time goes on. Daniel Bertrand is 700 years old, so his memory over being human is miniscule compared to his vampire existence.

I know this point of view may turn off vampire fans, who are probably used to reading about vampires wishing they weren’t such creatures and feeling cursed. But I also think what I’ve written is realistic and could be expected from a very old vampire.


EJB:
What’s next for Megan Cashman?

Megan Cashman: I am writing the follow-up to The Dark Proposal right now. I’m excited about what I have in mind for it.

I also am looking to interview indie/self-published authors for my blog, preferably those who write for New Adult, which is a category that is gaining momentum in the publishing world. New Adult, or NA, is for books that have the characters between the ages of 18 – 26 years old and are adjusting to life in either college or the real world. I am open to other categories, except for YA, because that has enough attention on it.

6. Where can people get The Dark Proposal?

Megan Cashman: For now, it is on Kindle. But around mid-December, I’ll be putting it on Smashwords and Nook.

Kindle users can find The Dark Proposal here. For more about the book and about Megan, be sure to check out her blog.


Self-Editing Your Prose

Hola, amigos. This is a writing blog, so I suppose I gotta throw a writing-themed post in here and there. Today’s is about self-editing your prose to make it pop (in case the title wasn’t clear). Read on…

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Practical writing advice is often targeted at beginners: Don’t start your story with, “It was a dark and stormy night.”  All stories need conflict, so make sure yours has one. Don’t end it with, “And then I woke up.” Those are pretty straightforward and easy suggestions to follow.

As we develop, expert suggestions become less tangible: Try not to rely on exposition. Find a consistent voice. Get rid of unnecessary words.

Holy crap. How do I know which words are unnecessary? I needed them to tell my story in the first draft, so why don’t I need them now?

A good, typical answer is, “Get rid of words that don’t add meaning.” However, if you truly eliminate words based on functionality, you might lose a little poetry and end up with something that reads choppy. We’re talking about fiction, so let’s pull back from absolutism and say, instead, “Assume your reader is smart enough to make connections on her own.” Then get rid of all the handholding words.

By handholding words I mean text that spells out the obvious for the reader. Like, “I squeezed the trigger on my gun and felt a sense of exhilaration when the bullet exploded from the barrel.” A bullet and a trigger signify a gun. Exhilaration is a sense. Your reader can make those connections herself.

The difference between intermediate writing and professional-quality prose is often the presence of handholding clutter in the former. Here is a before, during, and after-editing micro story I’ve put together as an example.

Before

I was sitting on my chair at the table drinking a cup of Earl Grey tea when the massive explosion went off outside, rattling the windows. I leapt up from my seat and, like a fool who has no regard for his own safety, quickly ran outside to investigate. I headed down the front steps and, just as I reached the bottom stair, a huge, flaming hunk of debris fell from the sky and landed five feet in front of me.

The intense heat of the thing sent me flying backward, and I fell onto the stone steps. I looked up, and my eyes darted rapidly across the sky to see if any more flaming hunks of debris were headed my way. Lo and behold, who do you think I saw floating up there but Zeus, the Greek god.

“Er, apologies old chap,” he said to me from on high. “I seem to have dropped a lightning bolt. Dreadfully sorry. Won’t happen again.”

Even though it turned out that 172 homes were destroyed and property damage from the explosion was in the neighborhood of over a billion dollars, I think a guy who fesses up to his mistakes is a guy who has already paid his debt to society.

No hard feelings, boss daddy.

During

I was sitting on my chair at the table drinking a cup of Earl Grey tea when the massive explosion went off outside, rattling the windows. I leapt up from my seat and, like a fool who has no regard for his own safety, quickly ran outside to investigate. I headed down the front porch steps and, just as I reached the bottom stair step of the front porch, a huge, flaming hunk of debris fell from the sky and landed five feet in front of me.

The intense heat of the thing sent me flying backward, and I fell onto the stone steps. I looked up, and In a panic, my eyes darted rapidly across the sky to see if any more flaming chunks of debris were headed my way. Lo and behold, And who do you think I saw floating up there but Zeus, the Greek god.

“Er, apologies old chap,” he said to me from on high. “I seem to have dropped a lightning bolt. Dreadfully sorry. Won’t happen again.”

Even though it turned out that 172 homes were destroyed and property damage from the explosion was in the neighborhood of over a billion dollars, I think a guy who fesses up to his mistakes is a guy who has already paid his debt to society.

No hard feelings, boss daddy.

Most of the excised passages are handholding text. My reader probably assumes the character is sitting at a table drinking his tea, and she probably knows that Earl Grey is tea. Even if she thinks it’s coffee, it doesn’t hurt the story. She also knows why it’s foolish to run outside when an explosion just occurred. I also got rid of clichés like “lo and behold,” because clichés are simply bad writing. I removed “I looked up” as well, because it becomes clear in the next clause that the character is peering at the sky, which can only be up.

I could have kept “rattling the windows,” because it adds a cementing detail. However, one assumes that explosions rattle windows, and it borders on rote to say it. On the other hand, I kept, “who do you think I saw floating up there,” despite its wordiness, because the rhythm of it accentuates the (allegedly) humorous reveal. Also, I retained “the Greek god,” though my reader almost certainly knows that. Again, with a humor line, timing and rhythm are important too.

Note that I added or moved a couple of words (in bold) for flow.

Here’s the revised version:

I was drinking a cup of Earl Grey when the explosion went off. I leapt from my seat and, like a fool, ran outside to investigate. Just as I reached the bottom step of the front porch, a huge, flaming hunk of debris landed in front of me.

The intense heat sent me flying onto the stone steps. In a panic, my eyes darted across the sky to see if more flaming chunks were headed my way. And who do you think I saw floating up there but Zeus, the Greek god.

“Er, apologies old chap,” he said. “I seem to have dropped a lightning bolt. Dreadfully sorry. Won’t happen again.”

Though 172 homes were destroyed and property damage was over a billion dollars, I think a guy who fesses up to his mistakes has already paid his debt to society.

No hard feelings, boss daddy.

What I did here was tighten up a so-so little vignette. If I really wanted this story to grab people, I’d have started it this way:

The explosion knocked my tea cup from the table…


Zombies and Morality

Warning: This post contains pretentious writing and emotional necrophilia (in other words, zombie lovin’). The Walking Dead is back, and I’m about to go undead on yo’ butt. Read on…

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American zombie movies and TV shows have replaced the Western as the go-to genre for exploring our culture through film. Classic Westerns address issues of American identity, racism, loyalty, friendship, moral obligation and ambiguity, and alienation by placing its characters in lawless environments that require them to make choices without a defined societal structure for guidance.

Hot damn! I should totally write articles for Film Comment, no? I just made that up off the top of my head.

Anyway, remove the phrase “Classic Westerns” from the beginning of that long, indulgent sentence above, and replace it with “American zombie movies” and it still holds true. I believe that explains the continuing popularity of zombie stories, and why people keep writing them. After all, good fiction writers strive to create worlds that explore those topics with subtlety and nuance and that force characters to make moral choices… even ones with potentially tragic downsides.

That’s why The Walking Dead so compels us to watch. Sure, everyone loves to see entrails ripped out and zombie heads cleaved with machetes. But gratuitous violence without characters or a story doesn’t make us tune in week after week, shout at the TV, or discuss, discuss, discuss the next day at work. On TWD, as with other great Zombie stories like Night of the Living Dead, the zombies are there to scare and thrill, but they are mostly there as the impetus for human conflict.

As writer Andi Marquette excellently discussed on her blog today, TWD’s characters can be both heroic and cruel, or brave and selfish, often at the same time. They have no congress to write laws or police to enforce them. Some turn to the Bible for guidance, others pretend the rules of civil society are still in effect, and still more take advantage of the freedom to act with legal impunity. The show asks us to consider which of these choices is best, and it asks us to imagine what “best” means. Does best mean taking whatever action is necessary to ensure the survival of you and your family? Or does it mean remaining loyal to your pre-apocalypse ideals, even if doing so results in your own physical destruction.

Hey, maybe The Walking Dead is a western after all.

Sometimes I feel that TWD has a conservative bent. Shane, who espouses self-reliance and a well-armed (if small) populace, is often the one who saves the day in a crisis, while those who represent egalitarian ideals and gun control, such as Dale, are depicted as ineffectual and even dangerous in their passivity. On the other hand, Hershel’s adherence to biblical principles nearly gets everyone killed. And remember when Rick, the ostensible hero, stood before a statue of Christ in an abandoned church, asking for “a sign.” He was promptly attacked by a zombie.

The overarching question of The Walking Dead is this: Is morality a universal ideal or a human construct?

I prefer to avoid labeling my beliefs, because labels equate to ideology, and ideology has set a bad precedent in human history. That said, if you want to call me a secular humanist, I won’t argue. I believe nature is amoral. Stars explode, lions eat gazelles, babies are born with fatal diseases. Morality is simply necessary for society to function. I also happen to think morality, when wielded without judgment, is the greatest of all human constructs. Imagine the day when our testosterone-fed, caveman brains finally catch up with it.

In The Walking Dead, the characters are asked to evolve a bit faster than they were expecting in that regard.

What do you think?

Something tells me at least one zombie will be a head shorter by the end of tonight’s episode.


Worse, Worser, Worst, Worstest

No, this is not a review of the Police Academy movies.

Ouch! How’s that for topical humor?

I’m actually posting this message with the desire to help mankind. You see, before people (not you guys) decide to leave a yet another inane comment after a Yahoo! news article, I hope they go over to Google, type Worst vs. Worse, and find this post explaining the difference. Because I can’t believe how many of them don’t know.

For the record…

1. When you are comparing two things that are not good (in your estimation), you say one is WORSE than the other.

2. When you are talking about a category of things, the one you despise most of all is the WORST.

Please don’t say, “Plan 9 From Outer Space is the WORSE movie ever made.” First of all, there are much, er, worse movies than Plan 9 From Outer Space. Sure, it’s bad, but it doesn’t come close to The Creeping Terror for putrid. And not even that movie is the worst movie ever made. I don’t know what the worst movie ever made is, but it might be Showgirls. That movie ended careers.

An example of worse, used correctly:

“Each episode of ‘Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’ is worse than the one before.”

In this case, you are comparing the latest episode to the previous episode.

An example of worst, used correctly:

“‘Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’ is the worst show on TV. In this universe and the next.”

In this instance, you are comparing one show to all the other shows, and “shows” is a category of things.

At this point you might be thinking, “Hey, grammar dude, the second sentence in your example above is incomplete. Do you really think that is a good example to set?”

You must have heard your fifth-grade teacher say, “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” That’s what’s happening here. By the way, if you’d paid closer attention to your fifth-grade teacher, you wouldn’t leave comments after Yahoo! news articles in which you say things like, “Neptune is the worse planet in our whole stinkin’ solar system!” Because it’s not. Neptune is freaking cool.

Take a gander. It’s got “Conquer the Humans” written all over it: