Friday, May 28, 2010

Begin Again and In Beginning We See The End..What?

As summer approaches, I can't help but think about the magical beginning of Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. Of course, my official summer is still a few weeks off, but these words haunt me....

"It was a quiet morning, the town covered over with darkness and at ease in bed. Summer gathered in the weather, the wind had the proper touch, the breathing of the world was long and warm and slow. You had only to rise, lean from your window, and know that this indeed was the first real time of freedom and living, this was the first morning of summer."

What a beautiful bit of prose and how efficiently it sets the stage for this slice of Americana set in the Midwest during the twenties of the last century. As I start to work on the beginning of The Ravening's sequel, I've been giving beginnings some consideration, not that I would ever compare my writing to Bradbury's.  

I can't help but thinking about how many times I've groaned at an opening page, rolling my eyes and steeling myself to be patient with the author. I also think about how many great beginnings set the stage and invite the reader in.

"In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. "Whenever you feel like criticising anyone," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantage that you've had."

This simple opening from Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, sets the stage for the major themes regarding privilege and substance. It could be a throwaway, but given what will follow in the novel, it is a subtle beginning, a gentle nudge.

Here's another artful opening: 

To the red country and part of the gray countryof Oaklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

The above is the first paragraph of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath.  Here, the land is a major character, and it weighs heavily on the other characters and the driving themes of the book. Steinbeck's poetic description   of the earth in transition as the land is corrupted and the people of Oklahoma are forced into transition, is careful, measured to be a rumble of the coming darkness.


So, given these magnificent starts, how shall I approach The Horde? Ah, from the sublime to the ridiculous. That being said...

"The Horde", the working title for the new novel begins...

The first time Martin Hamilton heard the word Zagreus, he was sitting in an easy chair thinking how much he hated his grandmother and how it might be time to do something about it. Although Gran gave him money and bought him things, his patience frayed. Her health sucked, she wheezed constantly, and her ancient heart teetered on the verge of surrender. She couldn’t last more than another year or two. Maybe. But a year or two could be a long time. Looking at Gran, thinking about the three people he had killed, he knew this would be different. He wasn’t sure how, but different.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Ghosts? Really?

Is the ghost story dead?

I watch "Ghost Hunters", in awe of the adventurers creeping around some deserted asylum, calling out to spirits and chasing after sounds that would send me flying in the opposite direction, and I ask myself, is there something more here? Something that is a reflection of our sensibilities regarding the supernatural?

If you think back to some rather creepy ghost stories, tales that might have been written thirty, twenty, maybe even ten years ago, you have to ask yourself if it is possible that advances in science and rampant pragmatism have killed this subgenre? Maybe. But to be honest, if I thought something supernatural was going on in my house, I wouldn't be walking around with a tape recorder, trying to engage whatever it was in discussion for the sake of an EVP.

So if you were going to write a short story about a ghost, and wanted it to be frightening, what would you do? Giving the ghost a history and a personality is always chancy. The more you know about the unknown, the less terrifying it is. Do you set the story in an old house or location, or try setting it in a new apartment or office building?

Traditionally, ghosts don't actually hurt anyone. Malign spirits are instead demonically influenced. The danger of the haunting spirit is the fear factor and little else. In film, it's perhaps easier to pull off a fright in this area. Consider some of the more successful films you've seen in the last decade:"Ring", "The Others", "The Sixth Sense", "Paranormal Activity". Each of these films pushes the genre, shifting our expectations and delivering a novel experience, but an experience which doesn't do well with a second viewing.

Me? I've never written a ghost story. I've written about returning gods from other dimensions, vampires, zombies, serial killers of all shapes and sizes, magic gone wrong, and malign entities, but never about a returning presences that goes "boo!"

Maybe I'll try if I have some time this summer.

Maybe I'll try ghost hunting.

However, if I actually do try my hand at this and hear or see something, I make no promises. I'm probably running and doing my best not to look too much like Curly from the Three Stooges.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

IT'S ALIVE!!!!!!!!

"It's alive. It's alive!!! It's Alive!!!!"

Ah, Dr. Frankenstein. I love when science takes us into the realm of dark fiction. According to a story being reported through various news services , scientists have developed the first bacteria cell controlled by a synthetic genome. Obviously, it's a far cry from pumping electricity into a body cobbled together from corpses stolen from graveyards, but it's still pretty exciting.

Sure, there are practical applications. Perhaps an algae to solve global warming by devouring carbon dioxide (of course one would wonder when it would know to stop), or the speeding up of vaccine production. But practicality be damned, as a writer of fantasy and horror, I want to think about how this plays out as a mcguffin in future works of fiction. And what's even more frightening, what is the down side of this? How long before such a development is used for military purposes?

Seems like the creation of life is something that we should applaud, and then stop and think about. It opens a door that can't be closed again. Perhaps before we walk blithely through, or more likely, before we allow something on the other side to make its escape, we should pause and think hard about implications.

I knew someone who would talk about cautious thinking. That person was fond of saying, "Before I do something, I always try and ask myself what the downside might be. I even try and think about what downside I'm not seeing."

Ultimately, this is cause for celebration. While Igor is out getting the bubbly, let's bump fists and chant: "It's Alive!!!" Then, let's stop and glance a few times over our shoulders.

Friday, May 14, 2010


Within the next week I shall begin my own website, the focus on Stewart Sternberg, the writer. I plan on keeping this blog going, but the website, I've decided will have fictional content, regular cartoons (my dad always wanted me to be a cartoonist, so I thought I would give it a go), and various entertaining items to keep people engaged. I'll also be starting a monthly newsletter, which will include reviews, news about my projects and activities, as well as promotions of other writers and their works. My goal is to try and keep this all interconnected, creating a facebook-twitter-emailnewslettery-webery-kind-of-thing. I'll let people know when the first newsletter is heading out.

On a non-related subject, I love Simon Clark.

I have found some of his work to be chilling. He knows how to engage readers and is able to take the mundane and make it horrifying. His book "Blood Crazy" had me ripping through pages, jaw slack with horror, eyes green with envy over his skill. His book "The Tower" wasn't as creative, but still it was a worthwhile read. I also applaud "Night of the Triffids", "Vampyrrhic", and "Nailed By The Heart"

Yes, he can write. Yes, he can scare the poop out of you. However, Mr. Clark has been churning out work these last several years, and I am sure he is doing well in sales. What concerns me though, with the quantity of output, is the effect it might have on quality.

Currently, reading "The Ghost Monster", a potentially outstanding ghost story, I am stumbling over some clunky writing. It almost feels rushed and mailed in. I've felt that way with some of Stephen King's work and other authors who produce a tidal wave of titles.

Is it possible for an author to produce too much too quickly? Can a market be saturated? Can someone lose his touch? As much as I loved both Robert B. Parker and Donald E. Westlake, I am sure no one will argue that there were books later in the careers of these authors where it seemed that the writing was shallow and uninspired.

Not that I'll ever write such quantity or quality as the above names, but it makes me stop and think about when a writer should take stock of what he or she is churning out, taking into account what is owed to the reader. It also makes me appreciate the work of Jim Butcher. He continues to write his Dresden novels and they continue to deliver. Maybe they're a little predictable at times, but dammit, when you're a fan of Dresden, you know what you want and Butcher makes sure you're satisfied.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

It's Just A Click Away

With a click The Ravening is on Amazon, along with an  author's page . Another click and I have an author's page on Goodreads. I am twittering like a fool and even creating a page for a fictional church, both on Google and on Facebook. I'm going to conventions, planning on signings, and doing all manner of writerly things.

However, in writing the sequel to this book (I'm hoping to have it done by fall...and who knows, maybe out next year some time?) I am struck by what I enjoyed so much about writing THE RAVENING--- the characters. Well, the characters and the "cool" scenes (I will be posting one of those scenes here in a few days).

God help me, I actually feel for this family that I've torn apart and submitted to all manner of horrors. Eighteen-year-old Erik, who realizes how a plague has cheated him of his future. His eleven-year-old brother Sam, emotionally scarred and attempting to cope with childhood redefined. Karen, their mother,  whose humanity is tested when her family is torn apart. And Ken, the father whose former coping skills and knowledge are insufficient in helping him deal with a cruel and unfamiliar environment.

And then...the villains.

I don't mean to brag, but I do write a powerful baddie. Cameron Lowry is a vile and frightening individual. You won't like him, but you won't be able to turn away from him, either.

It's funny how, in starting work on a sequel, that I suddenly realize what it is that has made "The Ravening" special for me.

Thursday, May 06, 2010


In the end days people will come together and find comfort in the knowledge that their lives are meaningful and that their misery has not been in vain. As the dead rise, call them not zombies, but know instead that they are proof of the glory of God. The walking dead are The Exalted.

Come and worship at Church of the Exalted! Hear Sister Mercy sing and know the color of darkness.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

My Andy Rooney Minute

Allow me to do my Andy Rooney impersonation as I offer some quick tech thoughts

  • Why can't they create a super slender flexible I-Pad that can be folded up and shoved into one's pocket? 
  • As cell phones get smaller and smaller, I think they become more difficult to use. Either we say this is limit, or else let's just implant the damn things and get it over with.
  • Don't you hate phone apps you can download for free, or for a friendly minimum price, and then find out they're only useful with an unacceptable monthly subscription fee?
  • Video-game instructions. Really? I can't remember the last time I read them. I usually just pop the machine into the console and either work the tutorial or figure it out as I go along.
  • Some genius out there has developed an inexpensive device that lets you text while you drive by using a voice activated system. Do we really need this? How many times have you struggled with some idiot driver only to realize that they are being distracted by a cell-phone.

 By the way, allow me to introduce you to a fun guy. Brian Briggs, who runs a tech humor site and who served with me on a panel at Penguicon. It was great to meet him and great to click so fast with someone. I certainly hope he and I can swing doing another presentation somewhere together again.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Panels of Plenty

At different conventions I've been to over the last few years, I've developed some ideas regarding what presenters should and shouldn't do. I speak from my perspective as a teacher and as a former outreach person who would often do speaking engagements before large and diverse groups of people.

First, I think presenters should remember that attendees have smacked down some cash  to be entertained and informed, and to become part of a convention culture.Therefore, I think anyone on a panel who comes unprepared is doing a disservice to those present. I think there is a danger of an author being put on a panel where he or she is ill prepared. The result? The panelist bluffs through content, tugging focus away from what was originally supposed to be discussed, and instead turning what could have been an intriguing fanfest into some sort of irrelevant ego stroke.

Second, I believe authors can be too self-serving. I understand we are there to promote our work, but sometimes displaying too much ego is a turnoff for fans. The best presenters seem to be the ones who engage the audience, asking questions of them, soliciting dialogue, developing a sense of immediacy and intimacy. In this situations, self-promotion is often made more palatable with a dose of self-deprecation.

Third, and this is painful, there are some who shouldn't do panels. Being a writer doesn't mean you have a natural ability to put yourself over. Public speaking may come naturally to a few, but good public speakers become so through experience and an understanding of the dynamic that is the speaker/audience relationship. When I go to a convention, I try and bring to a panel the committment that when a person leaves a panel discussion that they have a sense that they've been part of an unique experience. I also try and use techniques I've developed as teacher to keep people interested and to keep them surprised and guessing what might be coming next. It's more difficult to do this when you are one on a panel of four or five and different personalities are tugging at one another for the spotlight, rather than working together.