Thursday, October 28, 2010


Heading out to the World Fantasy Convention, I come prepared, with a small stack of business cards that I did myself. Why not pay and have it done right? Mostly because I am not convinced people still use business cards. They don't fit anywhere, and in an age where everything is easily digitized, I think perhaps their time is at an end. Which means the most important information on a card is your email and blog address, as well as your web page.

Business cards---They're disposable. Hard to handle, easily lost, and quickly forgettable.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Is It Scary?

A group of people in a former writers' group, a bad writers' group---er, a group of people who actually didn't write well---spent hours in meaningless discussion about what was frightening, or how to write 'scary' stuff. Often such a conversation would begin: "What's scares you?"

Of course the answer should have been an easy one. Since everyone is different, everyone is often afraid of different things. Although there may be some universal tropes.  What we should have been discussing was how to make character development in fiction more compelling. Why? Because unless we believe in and care for a character, we don't care what happens to that character. Stories are about people.

Some people writing horror make the mistake by starting off a tale by thinking in terms of the payoff, or the scare. They focus on the mood, throwing several stereotypical images at us, pausing after each one to ask "Scared now?.....what about now?  Now?"

Not that there's anything wrong with establishing tone and setting immediately, but when tone and setting are the major focus of your writing, you end up with something a modern reader is going to abhor. It's akin to sitting around a campfire while your Uncle Edgar says, "There was this guy, see? And he was on a date and they heard a sound, see? And the guy went to investigate and a hook killed him. See? And the hook is still out there!!! Scared yet?"

Of course, a young child hearing such a description will nod yes. Probably because Uncle Edgar is scary as hell. So is the night. And so are the other kids around the campfire who live to give wedgies after lights out. In this case the fear is driven by immediate survival concerns.

When I want to write a horror story, in my mind I begin with something like : "There's a guy. He's the first mate on a slave ship and he's had a terrible experience in the war. He is trying to live up  to his father's expectations and is having difficulty dealing with the cruelty and inhumanity of the slave ship."

That person became Avery Tressler and the story became "The Others," published in the anthology High Seas Cthulhu.

In writing The Ravening I began with by creating this character, and fleshing him out in just a few strokes to get me going.

"Ken Tucker is in the woods, hunting for his family. He is a city dweller, feeling lost in his current environment. He is protective of his family, and devoted, but he knows in the new reality of a society beset by the Zagreus virus, that his current skills as urban dweller and teacher are probably insufficient for survival."

So, what's scary? It's scary that poor Tressler is being locked below decks with the slaves and thing stalking them. It's scary Ken Tucker, insecure family man, is beset by creatures that stalk his family. It's scary because we care and believe.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Time To Stop

I've noticed a sharp divide between horror and something else in film. I'm not sure what to call the something else---it certainly has horrific elements in it, but the sub-genre isn't entirely horror. In my opinion.

Back in 1931, when Todd Browning exposed the theater-going public to Freaks, the content of the motion-picture was considered so offensive and tasteless that it was banned in many venues. It wouldn't be truly re-discovered by the horror community until its re-issue in the sixties. And after thirty years it had lost something---it was still strange and depressing, but perhaps it had lost its ability to shock.

In the late sixties, with the Vietnam war coming into the living rooms of America, film makers would have to work harder to disturb jaded tastes. Shock is easy to affect, after all, compared to building suspense, character, and developing plot and theme. Shock is simply a matter of looking around the market place, seeing where the current lines are drawn, and then going a step further.

Hence, Texas Chain-Saw Massacre, Nightmare On Elmstreet, Friday the 13th, Last House on The Left, Halloween, etc. Now, I know some reading this list will shake their heads and say: "Those are classics!" However, I assure you at the time of their release, that across the film-going community they were often considered lacking of merit. They were evidence of the rot in society and the corruption of the teen audience they were often aimed at. Today many youthful audiences consider the above titles quaint.

In the last few years I've had the opportunity of watching films the current teen generation considers their own. Hostel, the Saw series, Cabin Fever, etc. Little more than snuff film. they are freed of the obligation their predecessors felt to pretend to be something other than a succession of violent images for a video game gobbling consumer. No longer do we have to worry about pacing or plot. Characterization is no longer an obstruction. This sub-genre of shock horror, this hearkening back to the sideshow is freed from any obligation or concern over consequence.

Which brings us to The Human Centipede. 

The plot is simple. Two women traveling through Germany break down and seek a phone in the middle of a rainy night. They are drugged by a demented scientist who is intent on creating a human centipede--surgically joining three people by joining mouth to anus and cutting certain ligaments so the co-joined victims must crawl. What is his motivation? None is really given? What do we know about the characters? Next to nothing. Suspense? None.


And to be honest, The Human Centipede, as disturbing as it was, doesn't disturb me. No. What disturbs me is what comes next. With the door being kicked open a little more, with the bar being dropped a little further, with an audiences' collective sensibility being further numbed by an appalling succession of images---what's next? That's what scares me.
And considering this, you should be scared too. In fact, it's possible Human Centipede has already been surpassed as the most tasteless and morally bankrupt film of all time. There is currently a film available entitled  A Serbian Film , wherein one of the characters is described as watching a film in which a man helps deliver an infant and then proceeds to rape the newborn. I haven't seen A Serbian Film, and I won't. 

It's time to take account of who we are and what we want for ourselves and our children in society.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Last Man Standing

Miranda from Battle Creek Michigan and Chuck Zaglanis were the winners in Conclave 35's LAST MAN STANDING trivia contest, and so they walk away with the prize---two death scenes in the upcoming sequel to THE RAVENING, a post-apocalyptic novel by Stewart Sternberg. And Miranda, I promise gore.
At the event, I read the passage from the upcoming novel where last year's winner, Jason Lindsey, bought the farm at the hands of the book's villain, Cameron Lowry.

The contest allowed a person to receive a question of a decade of his choice and, after hearing said question, either decide to answer or pass to someone else. Strategy, strategy, strategy. Since most of you couldn't be there, here are some of the trivia questions the winners had to fight over.

  1. One recurring character on Get Smart was an android, played by Henry Gutier. What was the name of the android?   
  2. What was the name of the atomic submarine in the television show based on the film “Voyage Beneath To The Bottom of the Sea”?  
  3. While the original Night Stalker was set in Las Vegas, and its sequel in Seattle , what town did the series take place in?
  4. This Quinn Martin, 1968 sci-fi series saw actor  Roy Thinnes portraying architect David Vincent, trying to warn the world about an alien presence?
  5. Dr. Sam Beckett is a time traveler in what series?     
  6. A dead cop is assigned by the devil to return 113 escaped souls to hell. Name the Fox show
  7.  The demon with yellow eyes is a recurring character in which CW television show?
  8. The Clone Wars television series has been extremely successful in ensuring a continued presence for Star Wars in popular culture. A new character was added to the canon, a padawan for Annakin Skywalker. What is her name?
  9. In what 1983 show would we see Dr. Jonathan Chase, crime fighter, transforming into different animals to bring criminals to justice?   
  10. Eternia is home to what sword wielding hero?

the answers are  below

1) Hymie 2)Seaview 3)Chicago 4)The Invaders 5)Quantum Leap 6)Brimstone 7) Supernatural 8)Ahsoka Tano 9) Manimal 10) He-Man

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Find A Mentor

At Conclave this weekend, I had the pleasure of working with a writers' workshop, offering critiques and suggestions for unpublished writers. One of the discussion topics which emerged (a topic raised by author Lois Gresh) was the importance of finding a mentor.

Stewart Sternberg and friend at his author's reading
Lois explained that she had reached a plateau and invested money in work-shopping her work with an experienced author. She explained it was a critical point in her career. Rick Moore discussed being part of the mentoring program through HWA and receiving guidance from Gene O'Neill. William Jones, publisher and editor, has mentored authors both through the SFWA and HWA. There is also a mentoring program through the National Writers' Union, a member of the UAW.

How one finds a mentor is sometimes a matter of earnest work and sometimes a matter of luck. Some mentors can be life-changing, and some can be a detriment. There are no guarantees. And a mentor doesn't necessarily have to be a published author, but perhaps a teacher, or a peer with more experience with whom you can through teamwork grow and mature as a writer. It's important to network and to learn from others, formally or informally.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Author-Publisher Relationship

I've always told authors that for the most part, they shouldn't worry when sending their work out to different publishers. My belief is that publishers and editors are basically honest and ethical people, and if they aren't they don't stay in business long. I've also maintained that the genre community is fairly close-knit, so if someone were to do something stupid to an author, like try and steal his writing, the community would rally around and stand together in protest.

Rick Ferrel Moore sent me a story some years back for critiquing. The story: "Electrocuting the Clowns." It was a good story. I made my comments and he accepted them with grace, and then wisely ignored most of my feedback. Imagine our surprise when his tale started appearing around the web with another author's name stuck on it. I won't go into detail about this here, if you want, read Rick's own account. I am sure based on Rick's efforts and others who have allegedly been wronged by this individual that he will eventually find it difficult to continue his scam. For instance, I am positive that a bookstore where he is scheduled to do a book signing, with this information coming to light, will cancel his appearance.

All this being said, let me return to my original premise...I don't think authors should fear for their work, especially in the age of the internet. While the net might make it easier to suck people in, it also makes it harder to hide. Search engines are a wonderful floodlight. My students have found that out. When they have attempted to plagiarize text in the past, all I've had to do was cut and paste a sentence or two of their writing into a search engine and voila,  I would be able to find out if they were cheating.

A friend of mine who taught English at the college level is fond of telling how his students, when given an assignment on Poe, would "google" the topic and sometimes copy information from an essay on a blog, rather than come up with their own thoughts and research. Unfortunately for them, the blog they would plagiarize belonged to their instructor.

I still maintain that as a whole, editors and publishers are a trustworthy lot. As authors we must submit. Bottom line. However, we can lower the chance of becoming prey for the unscrupulous by first checking where we are sending our material and by making sure we keep copies of email and cover letters. However, even the most careful author will get burned. It's part of the price of doing business. It won't make it any less painful. That being said, the writing community will continue to police itself and those who continue to lie and cheat will find themselves boxed into a corner until they are toothless and without credibility.